Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ringing in 2010 in 1970s style

Cambridge, Mass - If you haven't seen the Donkey Show at the American Repertory Theater, you should go see it. If possible, you should see it on New Year's Eve, but you may have missed your chance to do that. But it doesn't matter, just to see it. And be prepared to laugh, to shudder, to gawk, to sing, to dance, to celebrate.

Here is a partial list of elements that get incorporated into the Donkey Show:
  • Roller skating
  • Disco dancing
  • Gender bending
  • Interactive theater (meaning you - the audience - can talk with the actors and dance on stage)
  • Glitter
  • Bestiality
  • Shakespeare (lest anybody think this isn't high-minded stuff)
  • Lots and lots of music that you remember and love, even though you thought you'd rather forget it
It is A Midsummer Night's Dream set in a disco in the 1970s. And yes, you'd be wise to reread (or at least review the plot of) the play before attending the show. Then put on your poyester and your platform shoes, and get ready to par-tay.

Really, the Donkey Show cannot be described, it must be experienced. But here is a little video of a promo that the actors did over the summer in Harvard Square. Put this in a dark theater and turn up the volume... that gives you an idea...

Happy New Year, one and all. Here's to the passing of another decade that - one day - we will look back on with derision and delight. Bring on the twenty-tens.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Next Adventure

Somerville, Mass - Whenever there is a lull in conversation, people tend to ask me things like "So, what's your next adventure?" or "What's your next big trip?"

Recently, this has created a little bit of an awkward situation for me, as there is no "big trip" in my foreseeable future. I will not be celebrating Carnival on the beaches of Brazil this winter, as I originally thought. In fact, I have no travel plans for the entirety of 2010. (I figured out that this will be the longest period of time that I will be in my own country without leaving since 1995.)

Ladies and gents, for 2010 I have a different kind of adventure planned: motherhood. Come May, the pink house will have not one but TWO new residents. Not felines this time, but humans (hopefully). Twins.

Regular readers can look forward to posts about teaching my children to count in Polish and hiking through the rainforest with kids on my back (or maybe just reviews of children's museums), as I attempt to combine my travel writing career with motherhood. Wish me luck.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Somerville, Mass - Has anybody been wondering where I've been? I know it's been awfully quiet for the last few weeks - and not just in the blogosphere. I am just back from a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, where I engaged in "Noble Silence" for the entire period. No talking, no non-vocal communication, no passing of notes. AND no music, reading or writing. That's quiet.

The course was remarkably challenging in ways that I did not predict. I couldn't help but compare it to my 10-day bikeride across Botswana and Namibia that I took earlier this year. For the bikeride, I expected a big physical challenge, but it ended up being just as much of a mental challenge - psyching myself to keep going and finding ways to occupy my mind over hours and hours of pedaling. For the medition, I expected a big mental challenge, but it ended up being just as much of a physical challenge. Who knew it would be so tough to sit still for 10 hours a day? (You read correctly: 10 hours of meditation per day. Ouch.)

In both cases, I had a lot of time to think. Eg, Why can't you take a normal vacation? You could be relaxing on a beach drinking fruity cocktails right now, but no...

And in the end, they were both worthwhile and rewarding experiences.

In this case, I learned a LOT about this particular form of meditation - the same one that the Buddha taught all around India 25 centuries ago. I learned about the philosophy behind the practice, and also experienced how it works.

For me, the goals of meditation are (a) to train my mind so I have more focus and more control over how I'm spending my mental energy; (b) more specifically, to be more present, more aware of what is happening in and around me at this very moment, instead of dwelling on the past or daydreaming about the future.

Vipassana is a specific method of meditation that focuses on the breath and the sensations in the body. The meditator observes the sensations in the body - whether pain or pleasure, discomfort or delight - without reacting. Just observe with the knowledge that each and every sensation has the same essential characteristic: it is temporary; it will soon pass. The idea is that this practice trains the meditator to go through life with the same balance and equanimity, observing without reacting, appreciative of the present moment and comfortable in the knowledge that change is constant.

Of course, the 10-day instruction is only the most basic introduction to Vipassana. In order to see the method in action, one must make this a life practice. But the course gives a pretty good taste: making one realize how wild the mind is, drifting off in every direction whenever given free reign; making apparent the subtle vibrations and sensations in our bodies that we are normally oblivious to; demonstrating that the pains and itches and other discomforts do eventually go away if you just sit still and observe them.

Unfortunately, I did not record these experiences as they were taking place, as we were not permitted to read or write during the course. But I'm hoping to post a sort of retroactive day-by-day account (or maybe two or three days at a time) to share what happens when one sits in a dark room for 10 hours a day times 10 days. Stay tuned...

Day 0
Day 1
Day 4: Vipassana Day
Day 6
Day 8
Day 10: Metta Day

Saturday, December 12, 2009

VMC Day 10: Metta Day

Posted retrospectively.

Shelburne, Mass - There was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air at VMC, as we awoke for our morning meditation session. Although we started at 4:30am and proceeded to breakfast in silence, as per usual, we knew that this was the last day.

During the morning group meditation, we would learn a new form of meditation, Metta. And after that, Noble Silence would be over. "Then noble chatter begins," Goenka had said in the Dhamma Discourse.

Metta, or "loving kindness", is a practice used by Buddhists of all strains. I have been exposed to this practice in various forms at my Unitarian-Universalist church, as well as in other books and teachings.

Traditionally, it starts with directing loving kindness toward one's self, then toward one's family, friends and community. The next step (the hard one) involves sending metta toward one's enemies. In some practices, the meditator is encouraged to consider a specific person, like the gossipy neighbor you can't stand or George W Bush, which is much more difficult than thinking about enemies in general. Then the circle expands even wider, as you send out this positive energy out to the whole world, or all beings.

As we learned about this practice on the final day of our course at VMC, I was surprised that there was no specific procedure for this practice (surprising, since our instructions for Vipassana had been so precise). Even my description above - with four or five specific thought targets - is something that I learned in my previous experiences, not at VMC. Here, we just sat in the glow of our good will while Goenka recited chants in a language we could not understand. He encouraged us to use this practice for a few minutes at the end of every meditation sitting. And he asked that we might include him, our teacher, in our thoughts of loving kindness.

Personally, I have found the practice of metta to be a powerful tool, and I was disappointed that we did not get a little more direction. But this is clearly not the main dish in Vipassana meditation - it's just a little dessert, or a "healing balm," as Goenka described it.

Then the session was over. We exited the meditation hall. Everyone knew that Noble Silence was over but nobody knew what to say. Back in the residence hall, a group stood dumbly, examining the schedule for the rest of the day.

The course manager came over and broke the silence, encouraging us to talk to each other. Day 10 was meant to be a transition day, to prepare to leave this monastical setting and re-enter our real lives. We would still sit through two more Group Sittings and one last Dhamma Discourse, but the other sittings were completely optional.

Once the course manager broke the ice, VMC became a hive of chatter, as the students were anxious to share their experiences. Many people had used their time to confront some pretty serious life issues. It's a brave thing to do - sitting in a dark room, surrounded by silence for 10 hours a day, there is no escape. You can imagine that might result in some emotional upheaval.

Many students were still sort of analyzing what we had just come through. Some people called it a life-changing experience. But most people - like myself - recognized that the life changing comes only with years of practice. And I certainly recognized that it would be difficult to incorporate into real life routines (especially as Goenka recommends a minimum of two hours of meditation a day - one in the morning and one in the evening).

One guy who was a passenger in my car (yes, we were even allowed to talk to the boys on Day 10) shared his experience, as this was his fourth 10-day course at VMC. He said that it was only after returning to
VMC as a volunteer - not as a student - that he was able to incorporate a consistent Vipassana practice into his daily life back at home. Anybody is invited to return to VMC to serve after completing one 10-day course as a student. These volunteers still participate in the three daily Group Sittings, but they also cook meals and clean and keep the place running for the students.

This is the highest form of dana, or generosity - selfless service to share with others the good you have acquired at VMC. It is also an opportunity to refresh the teachings of Vipassana, and at the same time put them into practice while interacting with others and trying to get some work done. It was this merging of action and contemplation, my acquaintance explained, that allowed him to make Vipassana a regular part of his life.

Personally, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about this technique and - even moreso - about the Buddhist philosophy that underscores it. I was a little put off by the emphasis on suffering and misery and Vipassana as the only way to end one's suffering and misery. I am neither suffering nor miserable, so what does Vipassana offer me?

But I do recognize the Noble Truth that my good fortune will not last forever. As we know, everything is always changing. I may not be suffering now, but certainly I will be at some time in the future. And I appreciate the value of approaching these changes with balance and equanimity, trusting that the universe will not throw us anything we cannot handle, and recognizing the impermanence of everything and everybody. Vipassana has provided a tool that I can use to remember all of that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

VMC Day 8

Posted retrospectively

Shelburne, Mass - The wise teacher SN Goenka did not lie. After two days of feeling this overwhelming rush of energy coursing through my body, on Day 8, it stopped. Nothing was left but aches and pains and itches and very cold feet. I went back to the "part by part" scan of my body, analyzing each body part for some sign of life, some sensation, any sensation.

Considering how intense Days 6 and 7 were, I was a little relieved when I woke up on Day 8 to find that my body had quieted down. On the other hand, meditation became a lot less interesting, and I found my mind wandering off to all corners of the universe.

Of course, the last thing you want to do is develop a "craving" for funky electric currents going through your body, as this would defeat the whole purpose. So I tried to observe what was happening in there without judgement or reaction, "without attraction or aversion" as they say.

The previous night, Goenka had commenced the Dhamma Discourse as he did every night, announcing "Day 7 is over. You have 3 more days left to work..."

"But," he went on, "You have only two days to work seriously, since Noble Silence ends in the morning on Day 10."

This was news to me. Two days! I couldn't believe we had only two days left! I was ecstatic. This process which had seemed endless was suddenly nearing its end.

For better or worse, this revelation really changed my frame of mind. I'm sure it is one of the reasons that "the flow" stopped on Day 8. It certainly affected my ability to concentrate. Instead, I was thinking about what was happening at home in the pink house, and how soon I would be there too.

Suddenly, I had no tolerance for the myriad rules at VMC. The place is littered with signs reminding you to remove your shoes, to limit the length of your shower, to refrain from flushing anything besides toilet paper, to stay within the course boundaries, to walk quietly in the halls, etc etc. "Signs, signs, everywhere are signs, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this, don't do that. Can't you read the signs?"

I understand the point of all these signs. Nobody wants to break the silence to tell you what to do or not to do. The course - indeed the entire facility - is designed to ensure a smooth operation of the teaching. But suddenly I couldn't stand it anymore. I also couldn't stand the fact that the entire facility was kept at 60 degrees or the fact that my roommate cleaned the bathroom every other day. (God knows why I had a problem with that - I hadn't cleaned it once.)

I was done. I had sat through 10 hours of meditation each day - diligently - without skipping (except once, when I didn't feel well, but that was a legitimate excuse). I had learned a lot about the philosophy behind Vipassana and appreciated its wisdom. I had no problem sitting with adhitthanna, or strong determination, meaning sitting for one hour without shifting positions. I had experienced "the flow" of energy through the body and observed it without aversion or attraction.

But now I was done. It was time to go home.

Unfortunately, I still had three days left to work.

After observing my wandering mind too many times, I slipped out of the afternoon meditation early and returned to my room. I was in a funk, feeling sorry for myself for being cold and homesick, feeling exasperated for getting myself into such a situation.

I sat on my bed and sniffled. I believe it had been an emotional week for many (it was not unusual to hear crying in the meditation hall). But for me it had been a week of happiness and hopefulness, a little bit of anxiety, a lot of curiosity, and overall equanimity. This was the first time that intense negativity was coming up.

Where's your equanimity now? I wondered.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. I wasn't done yet. I had had a pretty easy time of it so far. But now I finally had the opportunity to put into practice all these teachings that I had been hearing about all week. Here was a real live situation that I knew was temporary. You'll be home in three days, I reminded myself. Chill out and finish what you came here to do. Here was my opportunity to observe without reacting, recognizing the value of what is happening in the present moment and understanding that it will soon pass. Anicca. Anicca.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

VMC Day 6

Posted retrospectively.

Shelburne, Mass - Practicers of Vipassana meditation become so attuned to the sensations in the body, that they begin to feel the constant flow of energy that is coursing through our bodies at every moment. This is what happened to me today at VMC.

On Day 5, we continued to practice the technique, scanning the body from head to toe, head to toe. On Day 6, we changed things up by scanning the body first from head to toe, then backwards from toe to head. Head to toe, toe to head. (Best if recited in a thick Indian accent, this little mantra continues to resonate in my head days after the retreat ended.)

At some point, I started to feel a strong wave of vibrations that was following my focal point. Before I knew it, I couldn't even concentrate on a particular part of my body, as the vibrations seemed to be flowing through me uncontrollably, causing my muscles to contract and relax as the wave passed through. I didn't really feel it in my legs and feet, but the core of my body - from shoulders down to my butt - felt like a towel that was rippling slow-mo in the breeze, as if being gently shaken to remove the sand after a day at the beach. My hands and fingers would get hot and tingly. And my face would buzz with light vibrations moving from the crown of my head down to my chin and back.

It felt sort of like getting an all-over-body rub-down with a vibrating massager (or at least what I imagine that might feel like).

So, yeah, it felt pretty good, although I was slightly freaked out by the way the sensations were so strong and so involuntary. I even continued to experience the after affects when I was lying in bed later that night - at one point being awoken from a sound sleep by this rush of energy going through my body.

It was only after these sensations started that Goenka mentioned that we might start to feel "a flow of subtle uniform sensations." So I wasn't making it up.  This is what was supposed to be happening. My awareness had become so attuned that I was feeling the movement of the "mass of bubbles" that actually makes up my being. I have to admit that this was a very cool experience - especially to think that this movement is taking place all the time, but we are normally oblivious.

Goenka constantly reminded us to refrain from developing any attachment to or expectation for these sensations, because they would not last forever. Just like the pains and strains, itches and twitches, the good vibrations would also pass.

This was a bit of a relief for me. While the sensations were pleasant - and they certainly kept my attention wrapt - it was also overwhelming, especially this feeling that I had no control over it. But I tried to refrain from reacting, and instead observed - with fascination - the party that was going on in my body.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

VMC Day 4: Vipassana Day

Posted retrospectively

Shelburne, Mass - Day 4 is a big day around here. It's Vipassana Day! This is the day we actually learned the method that has the power to eradicate everybody's suffering. As it turns out, those first three days of breathing were just preparation for the main course.

On Vipassana Day, the schedule remained the same, except that everybody had to report to the meditation hall from 2pm until 3:30pm for special instruction in the technique of Vipassana.

Basically, it involves scanning the body from head to toe, focusing on each individual area and feeling any sensations that might be happening at that moment. An itch, a twitch, a pain, a strain, a dryness, a moistness, a pulsing, a vibration, whatever... As soon as we felt something - anything - in one area, we could move on the next, passing slowly but surely from the head, down through the torso and arms, through the butt and into the legs and feet.

There were also a few rules added. Mainly, we were not supposed to react to any of the sensations, just observe them. No scratching that itch. No stretching out the leg to relieve the pain. In fact, starting on Day 4, we were not supposed to shift our position at all during the shorter one-hour Group Sittings. We were supposed to adopt addithana, or "strong posture", for the duration.

The idea is that we can train ourselves to NOT react to every sensation - negative or positive - and eventually it goes away. If this is true in meditation, it is also true in life. Everything is constantly changing, so there is no reason to get all upset about some unpleasant incident, as it will pass.

This new method was a lot more work than just breathing. Personally, I appreciated the extra assignment for the brain and I found it much easier to keep my mind focused on scanning the body and feeling the sensations, which was more interesting than just breathing.

But the addithana was really tough at first, as my feet fell asleep and my knees screamed for relief and my back ached. The first time I completely failed. The next day, I found that as long as I started in a good position with plenty of cushions for support, I only had to shift once during the hour. And by Day 6 I could sit still through the whole hour with only a slight stretching of the back now and then. Oorah.

Meanwhile, I had taken to meditating almost exclusively in the hall (once the outside thing was ruled out). I tried to meditate in my room once a day, but more often than not I just fell asleep, sitting on my cushion against the wall. The gong would sound to summon us back to the hall, and it would rouse me from my unintentional nap. Woops.

We had two hour "rest" periods when there was no meditation required. After breakfast, I usually went back to bed. But after lunch, I always always always went outside to walk around the grounds.

On Day 3, a sky full of snow flakes shimmered in the sunlight. On Day 4, the temperature dropped and I stomped through the snow with my hands thrust deep into my pockets. On Day 5, there was a veritable blizzard. But I insisted on going outside. I needed my Vitamin D; my body craved the revitalizing fresh air. Besides, there was nothing else to do.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

VMC Day 1

Posted retrospectively.

Shelburne, Mass - Here is the normal daily schedule at VMC.

4:00 am                 Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am         Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am         Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am         Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am       Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00-12:00 am     Lunch break
12:00 -1:00 pm     Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm        Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm        Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm        Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 pm        Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm        Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm        Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm        Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm        Question time in the hall
9:30 pm                 Retire to your own room--Lights out

So there I was on the first day, up and at 'em at 4am. Actually, I quite enjoyed the early morning meditation - slipping into the warm, inviting hall while it was still dark outside and tuning into my mind before it became stimulated by the events and activities of the day. We were not required to be in the meditation hall for that early morning session, so many people just stayed in their rooms. Indeed, I suspect that many people just stayed in their beds. But somehow, I did not have too much trouble getting out of my warm cozy bed, knowing that I was just moving my body to the warm cozy comfort of the hall.
If and when I got sleepy, I would take a short break, get a drink of water, walk around in the cool air outside, then return to the meditation hall. At 6am, the assistant teacher would play a recording of chanting, which (I later read) was supposed to fill the room with love and positive vibes to enable our learning. It actually was an uplifting start to the day.
After breakfast I was back in bed for an hour (nothing else to do), then we all made our way in the meditation hall for our first Group Sitting.
Instructions for Day 1: focus your attention on your breath (always through your nose); when your mind wanders - as it does - don't get frustrated, just gently bring it back to the matter at hand - the breath. This is what we would do all day long.
For the record, things would not change too much on the following days. Our instructions became a little more explicit, eg, narrowing the area on the nose and lip where we were to focus our attention and feel the breath. But for the most part, we spent the first three days just breathing. Breathing.

I definitely got antsy. It's interesting to see where the mind wanders off to, though. I rehashed incidents from the past - as far back as high school and college. I fantasized about my next assignment in Belize (and "fantasize" is the right word, as the book is not even scheduled for an update yet). I had fullout arguments with friends, who I imagined would question my intentions for doing this course. Occasionally, I would realize that I was in the midst of a completely nonsensical dream sequence... Each time, I would patiently pull myself back to the present moment. The breath.
We were required to be in the hall for all four Group Sittings (listed above in red) - and somebody would come find you if you didn't show up. We could not leave the hall during these one-hour sessions. We had a little more leighway with the longer meditation sittings (in blue). So, for example, nobody ever gave us permission to use these 90-minute slots to go back to our rooms and go to bed, but there was nothing to stop us from doing so.
Day 1 happened to be sunny and springlike, and it felt wonderful to emerge from the meditation hall into the fresh air and blue sky after the first Group Sitting. I had the brilliant idea to do my meditation sitting on a rock in the sun, a la Henry David Thoreau. Even when the sun retreated behind the clouds, I stayed outside and did a walking meditation. "This isn't going to be so hard if I can keep this routine up," I thought. In fact, after my first half-day (one-twentieth of the way through the course!) I felt great.
That night we had our first Dhamma Discourse. This is when Goenka addressed us by video, explaining the philosophy behind the practice and giving tips to make sure we stay on course. "Danger number one," he said, "Do not meditate outside. The sunlight, the breeze, the noises... there are too many distractions." Dammit! Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought.
I was disappointed that the discourses took place on a TV screen. I had anticipated having some personal interaction with the teacher (not Goenka, but a teacher), and the video seemed pretty impersonal. That said, even by television, Goenka came across as a wise, compassionate and even funny person. It was clear that he understood the challenges of what we were doing, ie, that it's HARD to sit still for 10 hours a day. He was supportive but unwaivering in his insistence on the importance of following the schedule. "Day one is over. You have nine more left to work..."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

VMC Day 0

Posted retrospectively

Shelburne, Mass - I arrived this afternoon in Shelburne - two hours west of Boston - for a 10-day course at the Vipassana Meditation Center. It's a pretty impressive facility, housing and feeding about 80 students, while we sit in silence and meditate for 10 days straight. The students pay nothing; the course is offered for free to ensure that the teaching is available to anybody who is interested. And the entire place is run by volunteers. Most of the individuals that are cooking and serving our meals are meditating in their spare moments, also using this 10-day period as an opportunity for self-reflection and purification.

VMC was founded by SN Goenka, a teacher from Burma. Goenka claims to teach the method that was used and taught by Gotama the Buddha 2500 years ago. Apparently this method was used widely back in the day, but over the years it was changed and adapted, while the "pure" form all but disappeared. Except in Burma. Now Goenka is teaching this method and establishing Vipassana Meditation Centers all over India and around the world.

So who comes to a place like this? I drove out from Boston with two guys. One is a former computer programmer, probably about 30 years old, who is now writing a book about people who give up stable careers to pursue dream jobs and happiness. The other slightly older guy used to be a psychoanalyst, until he quit is practice, rented out his house and set out to see the world. That was six years ago.

Once we arrived, we were segregated by gender (as we would remain for the rest of the week). Amongst the female students I met several freelance writers, a massage therapist, a singer/dancer, an aeiralist (eg, trapeze artist) and at least one itinerant traveler. My roommate was a police officer. Interesting.

Most of the students were white Americans (or Europeans), but there were a handful of Indian and Chinese students as well.

We were allowed to chat until after dinner. Then we were ushered into the dark, warm meditation hall to begin the course. "Noble" silence began. That means no communication whatsoever with other communicators. There was an assistant teacher whom we could address with questions about the meditation technique, and a course manager who attended to any physical needs. But otherwise, students were to act as if we were going through the week in solitude, without interfering with our neighbors.

Everyone had a designated spot in the meditation hall. We made ourselves comfortable with various arrangements of cushions and blankets. Then the lights dimmed and the course began.

We had to take a pledge to follow the Five Precepts, or Sila, during this 10-day course:

- to abstain from killing
- to abstain from stealing
- to abstain from sexual misconduct
- to abstain from speaking lies
- to abstain from intoxicants

It seemed reasonable enough to me.

We also had to pledge that we would honor and respect the teacher SN Goenka, as well as refrain from practicing any other meditation techniques or religious rituals while attending the course. This seemed rather authoritarian, but I guess I can understand how praying the rosary or doing yoga might interfere with getting a true introduction to a new technique. Personally, I don't have any other meditation techniques or religious rituals that I do on a daily basis, so I didn't really have a problem taking the second pledge either.

All of these instructions were coming at us from the teacher Goenka via audio recording. He has this deep gutteral voice, which he uses to chant in Pali, an ancient language of India. When guiding meditiations, he speaks slowly and dramatically with a thick Indian (or Burmese?) accent, repeating phrases to drill them into your consciousness and drawing out the ends of sentences for dramatic effect.

To be honest, I found that part of it pretty weird at first. But anyway, I came here with an open mind. I was willing to go along with it for 10 days, just to hear what Goenka had to say and to experience firsthand how it would work for me.

After that, we retired to our rooms. In silence, police officer roommate and I brushed our teeth and washed our faces and turned off the light and went to bed. We would start the next morning at 4:30am.