In March I drove to the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts for a week of silent meditation. This is the second Vipassana workshop I’ve attended but the first in this swank, three meals-a-day-with-live-Dharma-talks place. The other place played funky videos of a Burmese meditation master and served meager meals. Skeptical, critical, I hold myself protectively, not sure why I have come. I want to be here but also don’t. Sure, I love finding where an unencumbered mind leads, I love the idea of magnified introspection, hope I’ll unearth a hidden vein of compassion, but its a vacation too and I wish I were on an artist’s retreat or eating mango and pineapples on a beach.
I unpack in minutes—lining the windowsill of my cell with mandarins and chocolates. I know I am supposed to but I cannot bring myself to turn off my phone, instead, silenced, I slip it and my notebook between bed linens. I’m not supposed to but I plan to write everyday. Already, I am bending rules.
5:30 am: Morning bell
6:00am: Sitting meditation. I cannot grab the jumbled thoughts swirling in my head. My eyelids droop, I’m lost to sleep.
9:15am: We alternate between sitting and walking meditation at 45 minute intervals marked by bells. So busy.
10:45 am: Walking meditation is hateful. The others in the room take slow deliberate steps, their concentration irks me. I place one foot before the other, ten paces in each direction. In the common room stained glass Jesus’ greet me at both turns. In one window he breaks bread. He prays in the other. I count the paces between them as if it is news, or catch myself repeating the last word of a phrase that must have crossed my mind. The word shatters into phonemes. I find my fingers spelling the fragments in ASL. Try as I might I cannot still to silence
1:00 pm: For an hour each day we practice by doing. I cut vegetables as per the Chefs directions, whispering with head nods and half words to preserve a semblance of noble silence. The striking of the knife on the board hushes stray thoughts and calls me to attention.
5:00pm: At mealtime we bow to the Chef who rings the supper bell. We fill our bowls and eat in silence, furtively watching, or at least I am. The carrots I cut earlier float in the soup.
7:30pm: Yawning, yawning through the Dharma talk, cannot focus, cannot fight the sleepiness. Will Roshi’s words become my dreams?
9:00pm: Pacing a skewed figure eight I wear a pattern in the rug. I am fretful and angry, unwilling to give into the moment, fearful of the vulnerability of my body. So much easier to tango with illusory thoughts. Less boring too.
10pm: exhausted, I cannot wait to sleep.
5:30am: morning bell
6:30 am: The women here seem quirky and needy and I do not like the way they chew—some with eyes closed and such deliberation I want to slap them.
10:45 am walking: Instead, I go to my room to write. I long for eloquence but have little to say. I write about my mother’s Parkinson’s, hoping this week of contemplation will lead to greater patience. I’ve been curt with her lately—she cannot express herself coherently. Her mind is held prisoner inside her body. Sometimes she hallucinates but sometimes she’s still here. I forget to wait for her opinion, some days I cannot wait long enough for it to come.
1:00pm: Rectangular blocks of tofu teeter precariously. One block at a time my knife glides slicing five slices one way, quartering the other, then cutting in half. The towering stack transforms to a mound of bite-sized pieces.
3:45pm walking: I bundle myself and walk outside. In the sun snowmelt streams alongside the road, a glinting rushing squiggle next to a faded painted line.
6:15pm sitting: I have the pillows just right, tucked under and between and sit with relative ease. Before I know it, the bell rings.
7:00pm walking: Evaporating puddles dot the road like memories, or are they disconnected thoughts? Lingering mineral deposits leave faint trails.
9:15 am walking: Refrozen ice melt forms a crystal skin above pockets of air. I walk gingerly shattering thin ice.
10:00 am sitting: Still fighting. Sleep is winning. I wake angry and disappointed.
1:00pm: A bucket of onions. Cut off root and stem ends. Nick the skin with the tip of the knife and peel. Cut in half lengthwise and lay the cut sides down. Slice evenly across the onions’ rings. Change angles. Cradle the onion and cut 5 or 6 slices with the rings, perpendicular to the first cuts so that the onion falls into a ½” dice. Repeat.
2:15pm sitting: I imagine myself hidden inside a circular brick tower only big enough to hold my chair. I am a New Yorker cartoon. A word bubble emerges from the top of the wall. “Ha ha” it says, “I deal with loss better than you.”
3:00pm: Bundled, I glide along the thawing stream. Water seeps from the edges.
4:30pm: Daily Yoga with a funny teacher who fills the hall with laughter. A woman in front of me cradles a gimpy arm. The woman at my right has good balance. What is she, 70, 75? The woman across, sitting in a chair, has some kind of eating issue. I’ve watched her in the dining hall as she mashes forkfuls of food then takes tiny bites. Throat cancer I imagine. There is a woman with the limp who dresses in pseudo Eastern clothing and has a haughty pinch to her lips. She raises my hackles. A cough is going round.
7:00pm: Hoar frost at dusk. I turn right after the fire hydrant onto a dirt road. Someone else must have walked here when the road was wet. Now, I walk upon frozen footprints. My footsteps leave no trace. I find myself narrating my present. Below this, I am counting steps.
5:30am: I wake before the bell. Its 12 degrees. I answer emails from my phone. If I walk outside at all it will be in another direction. Bad enough I write instead of walking, that I fall asleep while meditating; now I’ve become attached to the stream, anticipating its constant change. The opposite of be here now. Instead, I go with the flow.
11:30am sitting: Bring awareness to each sensation, thought, observation. Listen to the undercurrents, the background noise. Note them. Observe judgments and doubt. Note them. Come back into the present. Do not fall asleep.
2:15pm sitting: Am thinking through all the illnesses and deaths. Their scars mark the landscape of my body. My father’s heart disease beats in my heart, my sister’s cancer lurks in the darkness of my bowels. One day, any day, I too will succumb, or worse, lose strength and mind, yet linger.
What if I lured these demons to light, hosed them down, hung them refreshed like laundry on a line? Unfolding my bodies map I mark off a DMZ hoping to contain and isolate my fear. I am thinking through the metaphors; housework or war.
3:45pm: I’ve concocted the most delightful tea—hibiscus mixed with ginger. Steep a bag of each in a steaming cup of water. Add honey to balance the floral peppery tartness.
9:15am: A new stream flows from the same old snow. I walk with my eyes on the ground, searching for a source and see no beginning, only accumulation. I notice here, right here the stream moves forward. What is this called, its head? My steps match the rate of flow, slowing to a near standstill while cracks in the road fill to the brim and then forcefully, seemingly suddenly, raising first just above the surface, spills over and spreads. Air bubbles caught in the stream congregate round twigs and pebbles. They merge and burst. The whole a world of is own set dancing by the vibrations of a passing car. A leaf blows across our path.
1:00pm: Today we cut celery and leeks for tonight’s Vichyssoise, the leeks in half lengthwise, and then into ½” moons. Today’s chef is compulsive and exacting. Her voice is grating, but what’s it to me? The celery is fresh and crisp. The knife is sharp. She has us trim the jointed leafy tips and coarsest bottoms then flip the stalks concave to slice, cutting against the hollow rather than into it as I’ve always done.
7:00pm: Damp grey dusk. Dirty puddles dot the pitted road.
10:00pm: Note to self: Am I more involved with my stream then in practicing meditation? What began as a chance encounter has become a search for a narrative arc.
7:15am: Tire treads have etched patterns into fresh snow that melts before my eyes. The distance is blue grey mist. Trees cloaked in frost weep icy droplets onto the ground. People suffer needlessly, injustice abounds. We are poisoning the earth. I thrill anticipating the rush of run-off along the side of a road.
10:45am: A river, its snaking body shimmers in a moiré pattern of light. Suddenly, it branches and crosses the road. Why did the river cross the road? Why to get to the other side.
3:00pm: Returns to the Sangha on all these walks has been swift, dutifully mindful of steps and breath, tinged with worry least I miss the bell. Today instead I meander, splashing against the flow. In the hush between the steps, reflected clouds race across the stream. My next step obscures reflection.
7:15am: Bundled, I slip my phone in my pocket hoping to photograph the stream but wouldn’t you know: nothing save a few muddied puddles that do not catch the light.
Noon: I am driving already, dialing into a weekly business meeting, looking for a place I might pull over to snap a picturesque puddle before I hit the highway home.