A Sword In My Side: 1

Everything Unresolved Is Recreated

The following story, in three parts, is told from the perspective
of how I experienced it 25 years ago, in December, 1995.


After the trauma had served its intended purpose, I came to believe that the path I had traveled had to unfold as it did. The hard-earned clarity of hindsight showed me clues that I had missed and discernible traces of long-dried blood on the tracks.

But we don’t see what we’re not yet ready to see; or shouldn’t see. Foresight would have caused me to run from the pain that awaited me, and from the improbable healing and commitment that that pain would bring.

Two Converts

My friend Kent and I are driving up Interstate 81, aiming for western Massachusetts where we’ll take our first Vipassana meditation course. It’s early December, 1995. Although we’ve each been meditating for years, the formal training we’re about to receive at the Vipassana Meditation Center (V.M.C.) will be intense.

The 10-day course is designed to approximate a monastic setting. We will observe Noble Silence throughout the course, having no interactions with our fellow students until the last day. We will also be cut off from all contact with the outside world. We will simply sit on our cushions, day after day, learning a meditation technique that has been handed down for twenty-five hundred years.

I first learned about Vipassana from Terrell, a friend who lives down the road from Light Morning. Terrell took his first course a year ago, in 1994. He had been teetering on the edge of a precipice, and his time in Massachusetts was life-changing, sobriety-restoring, and marriage-saving. Terrell’s dramatic catharsis and passionate zeal for the benefits of Vipassana meditation are compelling.

Then in June of 1995, my wife Joyce went to V.M.C. for her first course. When she returned, she settled into the recommended daily routine of meditating for an hour in the morning and another hour in the evening. Watching her sit for two hours a day — well beyond what either of us had done before — inspired me to find out for myself what was going on at that meditation center in Massachusetts.

As the old saying goes, however, “Be careful what you pray for.”

Kent and I finally put the long drive up Interstate 81 behind us in Scranton, Pennsylvania. As we head east on I-84, I’m thinking about what Terrell and Joyce had experienced at V.M.C. But tucked away in another corner of my mind are three recent memories. One by one, they rise to the surface of my awareness. Only later will I see them as clues to the trauma that will soon be triggered at V.M.C.

Three Clues

The first memory is of celebrating my birthday in May. Having been born in 1945, I’m now 50 years old. I recall thinking that Frodo Baggins, the diminutive hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s enchanting tale The Lord of the Rings, set off on his epic adventure just after he, too, had turned 50. When Frodo left the comforts of the Shire behind, he had no idea how long and perilous his journey would turn out to be. Nor did he and his few companions know that they were already being followed by the dreadful emissaries of the Dark Lord.

Kent and I are driving across New York when a second memory surfaces. Soon after my birthday, I came upon a book by Michael Ventura called Night Time Losing Time. The title is a playful inversion of the phrase Daylight Saving Time. One incongruous passage from this book was so disturbing and relevant that I had memorized it.

The soul is not human. Does not want what a human wants. But needs the human journey for ends of its own. / It honors the human journey, but not by protecting what is human. / That’s why the humans are so afraid of their souls. The record of this fear is called history. / They are scared most of all because every human knows itself part of a race possessed, precisely, by their very souls. / If only a human can become unafraid of the soul’s necessity to journey, then anything is possible. The soul is honored, and shares its beauty.

Over the past year or two I had become aware of a subtle but discernible loss of inner traction. I was living at Light Morning, had a wonderful wife and daughter, and was practicing dream-work and meditation. Yet I felt like I was spinning my wheels.

Ventura’s words revealed the underlying cause: a bone-marrow ambivalence between wanting a closer communion with my soul or essential self, on the one hand, and fearing such intimacy, on the other. This unresolved tension between what the soul wants and what the human wants will be amplified in the traumatic aftermath of my first Vipassana meditation course.

How do we know what we know before we know it? The third memory surfaces as we pass through Hartford, Connecticut and head north on Interstate 91. It’s another unrecognized clue to what’s about to be triggered at V.M.C. In a dream image from early this morning, just before the long drive to Massachusetts, I’m an infant. My mother is holding me up so that I can look through the barred window of a prison and see my father sitting in his cell.

A Pivotal Sit

It’s Day 8 of our 10-day Vipassana course. My legs and hips are a torture chamber of unimaginable pain. It’s our mid-afternoon “sit of strong determination,” however, and I am strongly determined to abide by its constraints. I will not move my hands or legs, and I will not open my eyes — to see how other students are doing or to glance at my wristwatch — until this hellacious hour has ended. But the pain is excruciating.

Until then, everything had been going well. I was happily living out a monastic fantasy: no contact with my fellow students; no cell phones; no reading or writing; no evening meals. Just a recurring series of one-hour meditations from 4:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, with brief breaks after each session and somewhat longer breaks after breakfast and lunch.

So it’s a strict monastery, and challenging at times. Yet I had been thriving in this carefully designed environment. Until Day 8.

The course is taught indirectly by S.N. Goenka, using a set of his audio-taped instructions. Video discourses of Goenka telling stories about the theoretical aspects of Vipassana are shown each evening. One of his assistant teachers conducts the course and is available for any questions the students may have about the technique.

Goenka took his own first course at a small meditation center in Burma (now known as Myanmar). After years of practice, he was appointed as a teacher. He then took the technique back to India, where it had originated in 500 B.C. From there, the Goenka version of Vipassana meditation spread around the world. By the time he died in 2013, S.N. Goenka had established more than 200 centers and trained over 1,000 assistant teachers. More than 100,000 people a year now attend Vipassana courses.

Before I left for Massachusetts, Joyce had warned me that three daily sits of strong determination would begin when the technique of Vipassana in introduced on Day 4. On Days 1 through 3, students are taught a special form of breath meditation to help concentrate the mind. You can’t meditate if you can’t concentrate. During those first three days, I would assume my normal cross-legged meditation posture and try to sit for an hour without moving. I couldn’t always do it.

Then I remembered Joyce telling me about a backup posture she had occasionally used. So I packed my goose down sleeping bag into its stuff sack, took it to the meditation hall, and straddled it like a horse. My knees were facing forward, my feet toward the rear. It worked like a charm, making the hour-long sits of strong determination on Days 4 through 7 tolerable, and sometimes even comfortable.

Now, however, it’s the afternoon sit of Day 8. Maybe I was careless or over-confident when it started, because fierce pain is radiating up from my left hip into my lower left abdomen. It feels like a sword in my side. The agony is endless and I can do nothing about it. I can’t accept it, I can’t fight it, I can’t run away from it. All I can do is try to remember that what can’t be changed has to be endured.

Students can change their posture if they must. But fortunately or unfortunately, I can be mulishly stubborn at times. Having taken on the mood of a warrior, I intend to finish this damn sit of strong determination no matter what.

Finally the hour ends. I collapse off my now unreliable horse, totally exhausted and sweating profusely. I’ve survived the sixty minutes, but the pain was brutal. I have no conscious memory of having ever undergone this kind of torment before.

Slowly the pain recedes. Vipassana teaches the principle of impermanence. Since pleasure and pain are transitory, why waste energy craving or clinging to pleasures and fighting or running away from pain. Instead, the teaching says to cultivate radical acceptance of what is. Easier said than done.

The evening sit of strong determination thankfully comes and goes with little trouble. So does the morning sit of Day 9. I seem to be safely back up on the horse that threw me. But I lose interest in food and stop eating. In the meditation hall, I get alternating chills and hot flashes. Sometimes I can’t stay warm, no matter how many blankets I use. Or I’m roasting hot and have to strip down to a sweat-soaked tee shirt.

Maybe I’m coming down with the flu. But there aren’t any other symptoms.

Decompression Sickness

A 10-day Vipassana course ends just before breakfast on Day 11. Students are then free to leave the center and go home. Yet a too-sudden re-entry into the clamor of everyday life can cause problems, just as a SCUBA diver who returns too quickly to the surface after a deep dive can end up with decompression sickness, also known as the bends.

Day 10 is therefore intended to be a proactive shock absorber. After a week and a half of Noble Silence, meditative stillness, and no evening meals, most students become deeply introverted. Then the prohibitions are lifted on the final day so that decompression can begin.

During the mid-morning group sit on the last full day of the course, a third meditation technique is introduced. Following three days of using the breath to concentrate the mind and six days of incremental instruction in the practice of Vipassana, the capstone practice of Metta is presented. Loving-kindness is sent out to all beings, especially to those who may have harmed us, as well as to ourselves for any harm we may have caused.

After the presentation of Metta, Noble Silence ends. Once the students are away from the meditation hall, they’re allowed to talk freely and share their experiences. But I don’t want to talk with anyone about anything. So I go to my room and lie down. The sound of students chatting in the hallway outside my door is so grating that I curl up in a fetal position and put my fingers in my ears.

I don’t go to lunch or to supper, which is the first evening meal in 10 days. Like the ending of Noble Silence, eating more food buffers the transition back to the conventional world. But my own decompression won’t be gradual. In addition to not talking or eating, I stop drinking anything — definite danger signs that I’m unable to recognize.

Before breakfast on the morning of Day 11, after a final video discourse and group sit, the course ends. Kent and I hear that a major snow storm is tracking up the east coast. I don’t care what the forecast says. I can’t wait to get out of this loathsome place.

So we get into Kent’s pickup truck for what promises to be an adventurous drive home. Our gear is tied down under a tarp behind us. Kent takes the first turn driving. I’m in the passenger’s seat, shivering uncontrollably. I’m wearing my winter jacket and hat, my down sleeping bag is draped over me, and the truck’s heater is going full blast. And I’m still freezing cold.

In order to breathe, Kent has his window cracked open. The snow is falling steadily when we get onto Interstate 91 South.

“How was your course?” Kent asks.

“I hated it! Don’t say one word about Vipassana. And if you mention the name of that fat S.O.B. from India, I’ll puke in your truck.”

Kent glances over at me, startled to hear me call S.N. Goenka “that fat S.O.B. from India.”

“Oh,” he says. “OK.”

So we drive south in silence, right into the teeth of the approaching blizzard. Since the snow is supposed to be heavier to the west, along the I-81 corridor, we decide to go down Interstate 95 instead. Hardly anyone is on the road by the time we go around Boston on the beltway and head for New York. Just a few fools like us. All the truckers are waiting out the storm at rest stops.

We take turns driving. Kent cautiously shares a few stories about his own just-completed course. His ten days were challenging but rewarding. Instead of talking about my course, I tell long stories about my family — what my parents and sibs were like as I was growing up, the different places we lived, the friends I made and left behind. Kent hasn’t heard these stories before and he keeps drawing me out.

Polarized Negotiations

Later, with Kent back in the driver’s seat and fully focused on driving through heavy snow, I begin to engage in a fierce inner dialogue. Most of me wants nothing further to do with Vipassana. But an insubordinate voice also demands to be heard.

“Remember the Day 11 discourse this morning?” that voice says. “About the purpose of taking a 10-day course?”
I grudgingly admit to having heard Goenka say that the only reason to take a ten-day course is to get established in a strong daily practice. He also said that if students will sit for two hours a day for the first year, they will maintain the practice for the rest of their life.

“You already sat your first hour before breakfast,” this quiet but insistent voice says. “Now do your second hour. If you don’t start sitting two hours a day today, on Day 11, you will never pick this practice up again. Do your second sit now.”

“You’re crazy,” says the dominant voice. “There’s no way I’m going to practice Vipassana meditation. I despise that technique.”

Back and forth it goes, two implacable adversaries chained to an inner negotiating table. Finally a compromise is reached. I won’t practice Vipassana — that’s not even on the table — but I will watch my breath for two hours a day until the end of February. That’s the only commitment I’m willing to make. Nothing more, nothing less. So I settle down to watch my breath for the next hour.

* * *

Kent drops me off at Light Morning at 3 AM. We had a few close calls driving through the blizzard, but we never went off the road. I walk down to the cabin that Joyce and I and our our 11-year-old daughter Lauren call home. I enter quietly, knowing they’ll be asleep.

Joyce has been meditating for two hours a day since going to V.M.C. six months ago. And she has impressively maintained that discipline without any support from other meditators. So she’s been looking forward to my return, hoping that we can share a daily practice.

I carefully set my backpack and duffel bag down on the floor, but Joyce awakens.

“How was your course?” she asks in a sleepy voice.

“I hated it! I’m never going back!”

“Oh,” she says.

Without another word I climb into bed and fall asleep.

I’ve been awake for 24 hours, the drive home was treacherous, and I want to put that piercing pain from Day 8 as far behind me as I can. But the sit of strong determination has triggered something in the crawlspaces of my mind. Something that has barely begun to unfold.

* * *

This story is continued here.

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