Tag Archives: Texas

Stalking the Wild Americana

Before there was the interstate highway system and a steady stream of 18-wheelers, there was a road called the Old Spanish Trail that went from St Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California. One of the benefits of our Jack Kerourac-style traveling, is following an old road that preserves the culture and sights of a past era.

We left the interstate highway to travel a chunk of the Old Spanish Trail west of San Antonio, Texas. The road went right through Main Street in Bandera, Texas. Naturally, there was still a general store on Main Street, and the very charming OST Diner  – “OST”  being the acronym for Old Spanish Trail. This diner was a stopping point for the Chevys, Buicks, and Oldsmobiles of the 1940s and 50s.

We went in for a late breakfast (served all day, of course!). The decor is kitschy Western, with a large section of one wall dedicated to John Wayne. For you cowboys missing the range, the bar stools are saddles. Their specialty, and traditional breakfast, is chicken fried steak, eggs, biscuits and gravy, and perfectly cooked hash browns. All of it was delicious and perfect, served with fantastic coffee (and I’m a mean critic of coffee, so you know it was good!).

The idea for a southern-most transcontinental road was conceived in 1915, and took nearly 15 years to finish. The Old Spanish Trail strung together four different US freeways. By the early 60s, Interstate Highways I-10 and I-8 killed the Old Spanish Trail and many of the businesses on it. One of the truly great losses of America is its heterogeneity – the lack of unique Mom & Pop businesses that still mark so many other places in the world. That is the reason Deena and I travel.

Silently Serving Up Happiness

Ivan and I attended a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation retreat March 12-23 in Kaufman Texas.

pagoda1On the first day, I volunteered to become a Server, sensing somehow that help was needed. This totally altered the dynamic of my experience of the retreat compared to Ivan’s.

Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It’s the process of self-purification by self-observation. We begin by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. We observe the changing nature of body and mind to experience the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. Realization of the “truth” by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path, Dhamma, is a universal remedy for universal problems.

For me, as a Server, rather than observing noble silence and not even gesturing with fellow students, I was fully immersed and warmly embraced by a committed, hard-working, sensitive, diverse and fully focused group of other volunteer servers whose sole resolve was to serve selflessly the teachers and students. In other words, we talked, we discussed  we laughed and cried and were anything but silent.

I will never forget some of the close attachments I developed. Meanwhile, Ivan meditated most of the day, when he wasn’t eating, sleeping, resting, strolling or listening to discourses. He didn’t open his mouth to speak or even laugh(!!! if you can believe that) for 10 days.  I heard his hoarse voice on day 10 when we were allowed to speak but still were not allowed to touch.

7547832_f520Servers meditated during the group sittings. Early morning meditation was also available to some of us some of the days but I was too exhausted to be able to think of rising much earlier than I did. The rest of the time we were cooking, cleaning and serving.

There were a number of precepts everyone agrees to adhere to during the retreat; these rules served to help focus us on the meditation technique and practice. There would have been no point in spending 10 days and not learning the technique sufficiently that you would feel confident in being able to practise it when you left.

The daily evening discourse, the only entertainment of the day, is given by Goenka by videotape. His parables are so poignantly and eloquently delivered. I love Indian humor because it makes fun of our own selves rather than laughing at others. Goenka reinforces the purpose and benefit of why we meditate using this technique developed by the Buddha.

We dine mindfully on vegetarian meals. You notice the feel and taste of everything you eat, which is a contrast from the fast-paced eating that I do where I often don’t remember what I’ve eaten let alone remember savoring the taste of the food. As servers we added a lot of Love, or “Metta” in the preparation of the food (everyone made their contributions to the soup pot).

All distractions, including computers, cell phones, texting and even writing in journals or reading books are removed. We can mindfully notice each passing breeze, singing bird each floating cloud. Your heart opens up and it’s almost enough to make you cry.

Sitting 5-10 hours a day without any distractions allows you to get in touch with what is going on in your mind, body and surroundings and can actually cure you of constantly seeking diversions.

It’s a powerful practice. I found joy welling up from within my heart as I tapped into my true “Buddha nature,” which is love. I felt sweet, pure, free-flowing, and vast love for all beings.

This was my second 10-day Vipassana and it brought me a completely different realization about my life each time. My first one was totally overwhelming. I clearly saw  how I needed to see “things as they are”.  I saw that I couldn’t control everything, and learned to love my life exactly as it was. I rid myself of the scramble of incessant self-admonishing circling around and around in my head. I emerged feeling positively joyful.

This  retreat brought me wisdom to realize that I needed to forgive myself for mistakes I had made. I find that I judge myself much more harshly than I would ever judge others. Likewise, I found that it was much more difficult to send myself loving-kindness than to send it to others.

I’ve been ever so fortunate to have met Ivan, the love of my life. But while meditating in silence, I felt the intensity of my love and devotion to  him.  As a bird knows that it needs to sing,  I knew that love is the truth we all must share with the world.

 “When one experiences truth, the madness of finding fault with others disappears.” ― S.N. Goenka


Waking Dreams of Death and Dying

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.

monksThe 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.

photo by Joe Bennett from Melbourne, Australia
photo by Joe Bennett from Melbourne, Australia

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.happiness