About this time last Summer I went on a Vipassana meditation retreat in which I spent 10 days in total silence with some 80-odd strangers sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor for hours at a time while paying attention to every last twitch and itch in our bodies without scratching or responding to them. You can, too, if you are at all inclined by the end of this essay. “Why Vipassana?” you might reasonably ask. Because a friend told me about it. Because I had just finished three years at a denominational seminary and wanted to clear my head with a practice that had as little to do with the Daily Office and Plainsong Chant as possible. Because I wanted to honor my 15-year old self who left church when he found out he was gay and told his parents that he was a Buddhist without actually knowing what that meant. But most of all, because I wanted to see what was inside of me at the bottom of 10 days of silence.
Explicating the discoveries related to that last rationale would take a novel rather than an essay and I would only ever make my therapist read it. I will tell you that the journey on the way down changed me temporarily. In the silence shared with 80 strangers I became more attentive. Observation is one of two major skills honed in Vipassana. The time spent observing one’s own body and its sensations inevitably translates into a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. It didn’t hurt that the retreat center was poised atop a crest overlooking a bucolic meadow with meandering dirt paths in the middle-of-nowehere, Washington. Often, we emerged from the low-lit meditation hall squinting against the daylight to see the glaciers of Mt. Rainer glistening wildly in the sun. A family of deer lived in the meadow, and it was not uncommon for a group of us to gather wordlessly at dusk and watch the newborn fawn leap across the tall grasses with his older brother and sister. Once, after rising at something crazy like 4:30 in the morning, I came face-to-face with the mother doe as I walked the gravel path from the dormitory to the meditation hall. The whole landscape was covered in a thick fog which she emerged from with grace fluid enough to be an imitation of the air around her. I could see the muscles of her hind-quarters ripple as she passed by me close enough to reach out and touch. I spent considerable time laying on the ground watching slugs crawl across my path, once I even watched long enough to find an abandoned baby naked mole rat the size of the tip of my pinky finger squirming in the grass (at which point I totally lost it and talked for the first time during the retreat to one of the teachers’ aides about what we should do to save it. He did not offer to help, incidentally.) This from a guy who is much more likely to watch HBO on Demand with some noisy friends and a glass of wine most nights. Maybe I was more myself there, maybe I was less.
I will also tell you that the hardest thing for me to do during the whole retreat was not the keeping silent part (as many of my closest friends assumed it would be) rather, it was to set my Christian practices aside. One enters the Vipassana training with the agreement that all other practices will cease while learning the technique. At stages in this training far beyond the initial 10-day retreat one agrees to practice Vipassana exclusively. The intention behind this requirement is that one not mix Vipassana with other practices, thereby gaining an undiluted experience of the technique. In the particularly apophatic mood that had seized me post-seminary I interpreted this to mean no praying, period. My seemingly liberal Christian sensibilities were tweaked, however, when terms like Buddha and Dhamma were thrown around in a slightly devotional manner. It is clearly explained from the outset that Buddha needn’t mean anything more than anyone who is fully enlightened or Dhamma than the law of nature and way to liberation. It is also explained that Vipassana is a way of living and not a religion or form of worship and needn’t contradict any religious beliefs. Still, without the name of Jesus constantly on my tongue where it had been for the past several years, I began to feel like something of a traitor. Jesus is the name I know how to talk to God with. Even when I’m not saying the actual name itself, I know its there, much in the way that the name of a roommate or other constant companion is simply implied in a statement such as, “Hey [you], could you bring me some milk on your way to the living room?” In the end, I simply could not divest the implicit “you” in a statement such as “Hey [you], please help me observe the sensations in my body with equanimity,” from my guy Jesus Christ. I will probably never be someone who can simply call upon my own individual resources of will and self without the help of a dead man from 2,000 years ago. In the retreat, this came to a head on the fifth or sixth day when I scampered away down one of those meandering dirt paths in the meadow and fell to my knees gushing aloud every scrap of the Daily Office and Plainsong Chant that I could call to mind. I felt better after that.
Equanimity is the second major skill honed in Vipassana. As you sit with yourself, moving your attention systematically from head to toe, observing every major and minor bodily sensation along the way, you are meant to treat each one of them equally. Perhaps that crick in your back is gradually spreading it’s throbbing intensity with each passing tick of a clock that you are not allowed to see while elsewhere, say, on the back of your hand, you notice a light, pleasant, tingling sensation. (As I sidenote, I’ll tell you that I seemed to never have any light or pleasant sensations anywhere in my body to observe at all.) You are supposed to treat them both the same. You are not to give any one sensation more time or attention than any other, and you are not to respond to any of them, you are simply to observe them with a hopefully ever-growing sense of equanimity. This is actually pretty incredible. The idea is that as you refine your prowess for equanimity in your physical body, you will be better equipped to treat all of the thousand various desires and aversions of the chattering ego with greater objectivity. My inner Pelagian squealed with delight at even the smallest victories in this arena. The trouble is, desire and aversion actually seem essential to my Christian life. I long for God the way that mother doe likely longs for a cool drink of the very water her own body seemed to imitate. At the same time, I actively despise all the things that keep me from that living water of God, including and above all my own selfishness. So where was I supposed to draw the line between aversions to deflect and aversions to train?
In the end, when the retreat was over and I was back home with my HBO, I could not decide; or maybe I was just too lazy to. I was also too lazy to maintain the twice-daily hour-long sittings that are supposed to continue developing the technique over time. Instead, I took to heart the idea that Vipassana shouldn’t be blended with other techniques and ditched the whole thing. I also entered a year-long Chaplain Residency on the psych ward of a VA hospital where, occasionally, my lack of equanimity got me in way over my head. That may be why, a year later, I’ve gotten to a point where I am trying to meditate again. Except that now, the practice doesn’t seem to present nearly the same kind of conflict as it did then. Observation and equanimity are two edges of a sword sharpened by Vipassana, something I’ve come to understand as a mental rather than a spiritual discipline. It is a discipline, or a tool, that can help prepare and dispose one towards the multiple sympathies of Christianity: the love of enemies, neighbors, self, and God; relationship in the Spirit of Charity cut free from the bonds of selfish desires and aversions. It is a tool one can put to use in the work of following Jesus, who taught his disciples to model themselves after the perfect equanimity of a creator God who shows love where it is not deserved and makes the sun to shine and rain to fall on the good and bad alike. Christian practice invites and even encourages the development of such tools, yet it does not ultimately require them, that’s what we have forgiveness for. Christianity began with a man who took one look at the people who were following him and ultimately expected them to fail in their pursuit. It has never been so much about practice-makes-perfect as it has been right-relationship-makes-us-whole-again. He still helped them get back up to try again anyway. Trying something new along the way could help, too. It could actually be pretty incredible.