Buddha Boot Camp: 10 days on my knees opened my eyes

Concord grapes at Walden cabin

>“Use the cement of rock bottom and make it musical.”
— Macklemore, ‘Vipassanna

I tend to get caught up in the daily whirl. Balancing fatherhood and a career doesn’t leave much time for contemplation. One Saturday a few months ago, I was tense and rushed, running errands, when something strange caught my attention. Some men on wobbly ladders were adorning an odd little building with bright striped flags and colourful banners. On an impulse, I pulled into the parking lot. A smiling middle-aged man climbed down and greeted me at my car. I had stumbled upon a Sri Lankan Buddhist monastery in the heart of suburban Ottawa. The decorations were to mark the beginning of an annual festival. I was intrigued.

“What do you do here,” I asked.
“We meditate.”
“Do you offer meditation courses?”
“Just come by and meditate.”
“Well, what’s the schedule? What’s the cost?”
“Just drop in and meditate. There is no cost.”

I was given a tour and met the resident monk. The warm welcome and the shock to my preconceptions were jarring. How could there be no schedule, no brochures, no fees and no formal courses – just a haven of peace and repose? I felt the pain in my tense shoulders and decided that this might be worth exploring.

On-line I found a 10-day meditation course called Vipassana, taught in the Eastern Townships of Quebec near the picturesque village of Sutton. The program promised to teach participants how to “see things as they really are.” Again, for free. I registered.

When I arrived, I was relieved to find a converted ski lodge free of religious images or icons. There were no Buddha statues, no incense, and no UFOs in the parking lot. Registration included accepting five “precepts”: I had to refrain from killing, lying, sex, stealing and using intoxicants. Seemed reasonable. They didn’t ask for my watch or phone or for a DNA sample. My mother-in-law had warned me about that.

I was nervous. I’d heard that the course was brutally tough. No talking for ten days, no communicating even by gestures or eye contact. There were 40 participants of all ages, split evenly between the sexes. The woodland setting is beautiful, and the centre is simple and comfortable with shared rooms and a common meditation hall. We ate well – delicious vegetarian food – but there was no meal after noon – just fruit and tea at 5PM.

Each day started with a gong at 4AM. Instruction was provided on audio tape. Between meditation sessions, we were not allowed to scamper freely through the surrounding woods. We had to stick to a marked path in the shape of a large figure 8 in the field. All distractions were denied to us (news, contact with family, reading, writing, snacks), and we faced 10 hours of pain and tedium each day kneeling or sitting on the floor in a chilly, darkened room. From Day 3 we were asked to sit perfectly still for three of the 10 hours of daily meditation. These “sittings of strong determination” were pure torture. I am now an intimate of my sciatic nerve; our relationship is defined by violence and hatred. The guy next to me cracked and left, sobbing.

It’s funny how men in pain, removed from all distraction, start to look alike. It was hooded greasy hair and ruddy beards all around. My heart jumped one afternoon when a plastic cup materialized on the back of the bathroom sink. It had “SAVE ME” written on it. I thought it was a desperate appeal for help, but it was just a home for the sponge.

Yeah, we were miserable. We were there to suffer. The suffering wasn’t a by-product. It was the point. I started to accept this, and quit fighting it. I realized that facing anxiety and pain without any way of escape is the course’s primary teaching tool. After days of struggle, my mind settled. It began to observe my situation objectively. And then the physical torture and mental anguish started to melt away.

By Day 4 my mind was incredibly sharp. We were asked to move our awareness over our bodies, from head to feet, bringing it back to the breath when losing focus. I became aware of the slightest sensations on and in my body: tingling, heat, pressure, and an oddly discomforting sensation that can only be described as ants crawling in my hair. (Try this: Think of your scalp. Can you Feel it?) By this point, my daily routine, my life, had completely left my thoughts. One afternoon during a break I realized that I wasn’t even thinking about not thinking. All the craziness in my mind was quiet for the first time ever.

Then the real battle began. With all the distractions gone from my mind, the soup of neuroses I usually keep a lid on boiled over. Long-forgotten memories of trauma and joy flooded my mind. I began to notice how my body automatically reacts to what I am thinking. One minute a memory of a confrontation with my sister set my back on fire. Evoking the smell of my wife’s hair sent me buzzing on a high of sexual energy.

Kneeling there on the floor, physically tortured by the whims of my mind, I realized that happiness is found in breaking the link between thought and feeling. My misery is all in my head. Suddenly I felt like I was bathed in light. My body surged and vibrated, and the pain vanished. It all seemed so simple.

Then it was over. I returned to Ottawa. My family was a bit wary but welcomed me warmly. A calmness that had eluded me for years descended upon me. There’s time to figure out what it all means. The secret is to just observe.

>> and if you become more mindful, a side benefit may be less desire to
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