Deena and I have just finished the Vipassana, ten-day, silent meditation course. One is completely off the communications grid, without phones and computers. All participants are silent, including even gestures to each other or making eye contact. One practises the meditation technique almost the entire day, from the wake-up gong at 4:00am until lights out at 10:00pm.
The dining hall reminded me of that scene in the movie The Frisco Kid in which Gene Wilder, playing a bungling rabbi, is recovering in a monastery that practices silence. Eating at their table, he says pretty loudly “Pass the salt please.” All the monks give him admonishing looks. “Oh, I know, ” he says, “No talking.” Then he whispers it, “Pass the salt.” I was so tempted to repeat this hilarious scene in the dining hall at the meditation camp.
Kaufman, Texas was really cold the whole time with just a few warm days. I couldn’t fall asleep the first night because it was off my normal schedule. I had maybe three or four hours of sleep and consequently caught a cold the first day. I suffered all week.
Exhausted that first day with a cold and no sleep, I tried to skip a meditation and the dorm manager came to get me. The oxymoron “Nazi meditation camp” came to mind. (Okay, that’s a joke. You’re supposed to laugh here.) Seriously, I discovered that new parts of the technique were either taught or reinforced at the mandatory group meditations. I would have missed what I came to learn.
The men and women were separated. Deena and I slept in separate dormitories and were prohibited from speaking to each other. In the meditation hall the women and men sat on different sides of the room. It reminded me of an orthodox, Jewish synagogue where the women and men sit on different sides and are separated by a curtain.
The meditation technique that is taught, however, is authentic. It has a pedigree that goes back to the time of Buddha himself. Meditation, practiced regularly, has incredible benefits. MRI studies have shown that meditation brings about changes in the structure of the brain.
This Goenka Vipassana technique is only taught in a ten-day retreat. There are schools all over the world and the course is absolutely free. It is supported entirely by donations from graduated students. First-time students are allowed to make a donation only after they have completed the course.
Interestingly, I was having dreams and waking dreams of death and dying in weird situations. I dreamt of myself dying, of Deena dying and of other people dying.
The strangest vision was a dream that some mass killer came into the retreat and mowed everyone down with a machine gun. This dream recurred at least once. I figured that maybe it was caused by being in the middle of fundamentalist Christian territory. Maybe the retreat looks like a cult to them. Or perhaps, it resulted from being only 100 miles from Waco, Texas where David Koresh and 75 other Branch Davidians died in a raid by the FBI.
Oddly, after the course when Deena and I talked, it turned out that she had the same experience with the death and dying dreams. She even had a similar dream of a mass murderer attacking our retreat. What a weird coincidence!
Of course, death and dying in dreams is not about actual death. It is symbolic of great transition, significant transformation and change. It’s perfectly logical. Vipassana meditation releases karma and sankhara, resulting in great personal transformation.
Sankhara (or saṅkhāra in Pali) is the deep conditioning of the mind to classify events as being negative or positive, or to view the world with a personal filter. If one person looks at a white wall with rose-colored glasses, he sees a rose wall. His companion, who is wearing green glasses, sees a green wall. Vipassana meditation removes these filters so that one can see the wall as white. The enlightened mind sees reality as it really is, not as one wants it to be.
During the process of meditating regularly, these sankharas manifest themselves and are released. Depending on how deep is the conditioning, the process may continue for a long time. Each release frees the meditator of a little suffering (in the Buddhist way) and allows him to be just a little happier.