Saturday, January 24, 2009

Adventures in Meditation

On Monday I begin my second 10-day Vipassana meditation course here in Taiwan. So before I take the plunge again I wanted to review my first experience with Vipassana.

The official Vipassana website ( explains, "Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation". Meditation has interested me for a while and really wanted to give it a try. I wanted more peace in my life and to feel calm and comfortable with myself. I was also curious to know what it was like to not talk for 10-days--no talking, no reading, no writing, no nothing. I think that's what sealed the deal for me in deciding to give Vipassana a try. I'm an extremist and believe that new experiences add spice to life.

The 10-day Vipassana course was probably the hardest thing I've ever done--which is significant coming from someone who has served a 2-year mission. I love how the website says "Vipassana is not a holiday, rest cure, or escape from everyday life"...haha, they weren't kidding. Ironically, it wasn't even the no-talking part that was difficult (and believe me, I am a TALKER). The silence was actually quite soothing and relaxing. It's hard to succinctly express why it was such an arduous and significant experience for me. Maybe you'll understand a little better if I share a few of the more impressionable memories of the 10-days.

Rocky Beginnings

I arrived at the Vipassana center located high up in the remote mountains of central Taiwan on a blistering June afternoon. I unloaded my baggage at the foot of my hard-wood plank bed in the male "dormitory" which looked a lot more like a low-budget scout camp barrack to me. The bedroom, with no air-conditioning or fans, was even more sweltering than outside. I stood there sweating watching a spider weave his web next to my "bed", reminding me that in addition to silence we had vowed not to kill any being for the 10-day duration--including mosquitoes and spiders. Luckily I didn't know then the variety of spiders I would co-exist with for the next 10-days (the likes of which I swear could rival any spider you saw in the movie "Arachnophobia") or the number of mosquitoes that would swarm around me taking jabs at their helpless prey as I tried to blow them off my skin.

The mountain landscape in full bloom also decided to test my determination, and upon arrival I started to sneeze incessantly with hay fever. Combined with the cold I had already started developing, my nose and mouth started to compete for my attention as I spent the next 2 or so days splitting my time between blowing my nose and sneezing.

I felt like the walking dead the entire first day beginning when I woke up at the scheduled 4 a.m. with the rest of the meditaters and stumbled into the meditation hall. Everyday we started meditating at 4:30 a.m. and pretty much meditated all day with breaks for breakfast and lunch (no dinner) and 10 minute breaks to stretch and walk every hour or two. The schedule is challenging enough under normal conditions, but with my hay fever and cold those first two to three days, I was sure it would do me in.

To make matters worse, the first three days of meditation are aimed at focusing all of your attention on the breath coming in and out of your nose--um, kind of difficult when there is nothing coming out of my nose besides...well you get the picture. I'm sure I was a vision of absolute misery sitting there eyes closed, cross-legged in the meditation hall, wads of Kleenex in my pockets and hands trying to manage my nose as I attempting to meditate.

That first day was a debacle in more ways than one. The meditation hall also has rules. You are to sit in meditation position on your mat and remain as still as possible. However, you are permitted to move your legs if they become too painful. But out of respect to the teacher, you are never allowed to have your legs outstretched towards the front of the room where the teacher sits--even if the teacher is not present. Keep in mind that prior to those 10-days I had never even attempted to meditate for any length of time longer than 10 or 15 minutes, so that first 2-hour sitting at 4:30 a.m. felt like the longest experience of my life and not just because I had to wipe my nose every 15 seconds. Within the first 10 minutes my legs started cramping; that's when I knew I was really in for it. And so I commenced a not-so-graceful dance of trying to move my legs around one at a time every few minutes in different creative ways to lessen the pain but also being careful not to have them fully-outstretched in the direction of the teacher's seat. Moving my legs one at a time started becoming less effective after the first hour as the pain intensified, so I relinquished and unfolding both of my legs placing each to one side in front of me. In my mind I thought I was being very careful to follow the rules since neither of my legs was facing directly forward, not realizing that this coincidently left me sitting spread eagle in the meditation hall.

Not much time passed before I received a tap on the shoulder, and my eyes flew open to see the male supervise standing over me. He motioned for me to adjust my position to something more appropriate for meditation and whispered that he wanted to see me in his office during breakfast. "Oh man, that's just great!" my mind shouted--probably at my legs, it was their fault after all. Our first meditation session, and I've already been called into the principals office. I can't even meditate correctly without getting in trouble.

The supervisor didn't really rebuke me as much as express the teacher's concern for me and my ability to complete the 10-day course after observing my extreme difficulty at sitting still and the obvious hay fever problems I was having. I'm sure part of the concern stemmed from my being the only non-Taiwanese participant in the course and one of only 3 people under 30 (almost everyone was in their 40's, 50's, or 60's.) I'm sure they were thinking "What is this young little punk American kid doing here? Thinking he can lounge around, spread eagle in meditation!" If only they knew how hard I was trying. But I was there because I wanted to be there and I knew that I would make it through the 10-days.

To be continued... : )

Ok, it's late here in Taiwan and I need to go to bed so I can play piano in Church tomorrow, so I'll continue the story tomorrow.
Until then....

Lots of love,

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