A Whole Lotta Vipassana
Sweltering Explorers —
Closing out the summer with far too many words about my Vipassana experience below. But first, some news:
Jan Chipchase and I are assembling a little creative / entrepreneurial / disconnection / retreat called “Focus” in the Japanese Alps this October.
October 25-28. Three nights, fourteen people, sharing informing and inspiring talks. (Buoyed by time for an onsen dip and mountain walking.) The gathering should be ideal for someone looking to get a creative project off the ground, interested in dissecting creative processes, or just looking to connect with a good-hearted, accomplished group of doers and makers.
We’ve pre-sold most of the tickets (at $3,000 USD/ticket) but set aside one ticket for Roden Explorers and one for Jan’s Borderlands list. (These tickets still cost $3k/each — which includes lodging, food, a mountain guide, and subsidizes two fellowship spots.)
If you’re interested in joining: please reply to this mail with a one-paragraph bio and a link that helps us understand who you are and why you’re a good fit.
Vipassana Part Two
(This is about 3,000 words. As the Twain-age goes: I would have made it shorter had I more time. If you missed part one, you can catch it here.)
Ten days. We’re allowed no phone — of course — but also no books, no papers, no pens or pencils. Everything is collected the night before the course begins, placed in a sack, hidden away. Furthermore: No speaking, no direct communication, no eye contact. And so we’re left with only our mind, and for good reason.
The first three days we watch breath, just breath, entering and leaving the nostrils. In and out, left nostril, perhaps, or right nostril, perhaps, or both nostrils, perhaps — as the tape explaining the technique slowly intoned, again and again, English inflected with an indistinct accent from the subcontinent.
Intellectually, this sounds tough — three days, focusing the conscious mind on breath entering and leaving the nostrils, ten hours a day. Experientially — my god, you have no idea.
But this is the point of the whole course — to collapse that gap between the intellectual and the experiential. To make clear how inherently flawed our estimates of experience are, and how empathy can be so hard to accurately modulate. Until you feel the pain, until you try, hour after hour, day after day, to repeat and focus and experience, there’s no way for you to ever truly understand an experience.
Again: Ten days. Ten hours a day. The first three days just the nostrils, consciousness focused on air entering and leaving. A cupellation of consciousness, scrubbing of consciousness, distillation of consciousness. Bereft of media there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run but to the weird corners of your skull. And so you become preternaturally aware of how discombobulated your mind is, and the images that float up grow increasingly unhinged and spontaneous. Like Harrison Ford — as Indy Jones — who, for no good reason, began to narrate my breathing, standing in the middle of a boxing ring, old timey microphone dangling down from the ceiling.
Many friends have asked if a three or four day retreat would be worthwhile. Do we really have to do ten days? they plead. I don’t think three days would be useless, but in the ten day course those first three days are just a warmup. All the psychological burdens I overcame were overcome in days six and seven and eight. Ten days is just enough to break down the hardened-goo coating the average mind, just enough to be a true challenge, to force you to commit.
(And honestly, by the end of ten days the first thought I had was: I wonder how a month feels.)
Since you’re allowed no paper, no pens, no pencils, no way to record what you’re feeling or what’s happening, I decided to cheat. I’d never before used a so-called memory palace to any great effect, and so I thought, hell, this is a mighty good training ground.
Each day, for ten days, I slowly populated the rooms of the house I grew up in — one in which I was just able to squeeze out ten distinct spaces. And so I came to be the owner of a house with a skanking planters peanut man,0 a computer that shoots spaghetti from its floppy disc drive, Aziz Ansari making a pizza, a human-sized game of Operation next to a roaring fireplace, two beautiful little blue birds flitting about a bedroom, a grandfather gently placing a blade into his stomach, the Vitruvian Man with glowing hands and head, the Insane Clown Posse high-fiving Pico Iyer.
In hindsight, I’m grateful I decided to make a memory palace. Without it, I doubt I would have been able to remember the precise order of pain and pleasure.
At the end of ten days I emerged triumphant, and upon sitting in that cafe in Kyoto and luxuriating in the texture of the Outside World, I was able to walk back through my house, the entire experience, transposing my memory palace, filling three pages of a notebook with details, a day-by-day blow of what it felt like to overcome my latent aversions, to come to love sitting.
In the front of the meditation hall sat two “teachers.” They were perched upon a platform, dressed in all-white garb, sometimes slacks, sometimes toga-like linens. One looked like an accountant. The other a retired surfer.
Now, you must understand these teachers didn’t really do anything. They’d silently walk into the hall, dim the lights, press play on a tape recorder that would barely explain the next step in our training, press stop, raise the lights, walk out. They didn’t elaborate, expand, provide any insight.
I don’t mean any of this pejoratively (although I initially despised them for their passivity). In fact, I don’t think they were allowed to do anything in the spirit of cultivating a standardized, consistent course experience around the world. They were just there to make sure we didn’t lose our minds, and if we did, maybe to give us a hug. But that doesn’t mean in the moment — certainly those first few moments — I harbored any generosity or love towards them.
By the third day I was in a really bad place. Looking back, I recognize the signs of what was probably connectivity / media withdrawal. Like a nicotine addict going cold turkey, you can imagine how cranky I was: Cranky to the max. I really didn’t want to be there anymore. I was a amassing a litany of complaints to unleash on the course — a whole slew of logistics criticisms. I spent a good three or four hours of those first few days of meditation composing essays in my mind, fully formed paragraphs coalescing into scathing denunciations of how the course was run. Left nostril, perhaps? Right nostril, perhaps? I got something for your nostril, buddy.
On the third day — the third room of my memory palace — there’s a triangle of flesh floating in the air: the space between the upper lip and nostrils. Upon that floating flesh are a family of bunnies, frolicking, giving each other bunny kisses.
During afternoon meditation sessions those two silent, white, birds of people would call us up to the front of the meditation hall in groups of five. This was the only time anyone spoke words aloud.
Mr. Student, do you feel breath coming into the left nostril? They would ask. Yes, I feel breath, Mr. Student would respond. Good, the teacher would nod, turning to the next student, asking the exact same question. Seventy times. Do you feel air? Yes we feel air. Good.
If you’re already frustrated, listening to sixty-nine people be asked if they can feel their breath entering their nostrils may push you over the edge. I was getting bored. Scared. Grasping for anything to anchor my mind to. I was so desperate for stimulation that I tried to look as closely as possible at that breath — What was I really feeling? I asked myself. Yes, breath, but maybe something a little more?
And so when asked — Mr. Student, do you feel breath entering your left nostril? — I responded in Japanese, Yes, teacher, I feel breath, and as it enters, I feel a benevolent family of bunnies, joyful, playing, rolling around on my upper lip as the air passes over it. They are happy and giggling and grateful for my breathing and the passing of breath over that space.
Without missing a beat the teacher said, Good, and turned to the next student as if I had said nothing at all.
The bunny incident marked a turning point for me. By now I was having extensive conversations with myself in the third person, and outside during the following break, I sat myself down on a log and turned to myself and said, Craig, look, this is a gift, all of this disconnectivity, time to reflect, an opportunity to hone a skill. You need to be more present, less anxious about getting out.
I sat and watched two blue birds fly around our small walking field. They were so happy, you could tell by the way they flew — it was all play for them, chasing one another, diving in between thin ropes marking of the edges of the property, circling again and again. They had no reason to be flying the way they flew, and their flying said simply: We are joyful, alive, the sun is out, the oxygen plentiful, the worms multitudinous! They came out every day in the afternoon during our break to say hello. I was convinced of their bliss, believed in it. These birds became my religion. And yet I couldn’t imagine what they thought of us — a collection of ponderous creatures, silent, walking hopelessly in a small circle or lying on the grass, making hardly a noise, stretching, moaning a little, sometimes crying, but never speaking.
Maybe it was the birds that inspired in me a brief moment of pseudo-spiritual maturity. I continued talking to Craig in monastic tones: Time will pass as it passes regardless of what we do here. (Who was speaking now? I didn’t know.) You can be a grumpy fuck and write angry letters to a non-profit organization skewering them for having a bad on-boarding experience, for having no affordances as to why we were looking at our nostrils, left or right, perhaps, or both, perhaps, but it won’t change anything. Anyway, they harbor no ill will. This entire thing is constructed for us, flawed as it may be. So stop being a dick and be present. There are seven more days and that’s a lot of time, and if we leave without having gained something, the fault is ours and ours alone.
And that’s when everything changed, and everything became a meditation.
I realized there were about a hundred discreet actions we performed each day. A sampling: Opening the screen door, closing the screen door, pulling back the curtain of the dorm room, folding the futon, walking up the stairs to the meditation hall, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush, brushing your incisors, your molars, rinsing your brush, applying soap to your hands, then your face, swirling your hands around your face, pulling toilet paper from the toilet paper roll, taking a plate from a stack of plates, opening the rice maker, sprinkling sesame seeds on your rice.
I decided to master them all. Every action. Everything a tea ceremony. I pulled toilet paper from the toilet paper roll with total deliberation, total focus, complete reverence, love, presence. Pulled and folded and pulled a little more, folded once again, ripped perfectly on a perforation. We couldn’t speak to one another but I realized I could speak to the others with toilet paper: I would fold the end into a little triangle, a perfect equilateral triangle, that poked out from the top of the holder, making it ever so easier for the next person to take hold. They would feel my love — what was turning more and more into a true love, a full bodied love — through the folded toilet paper, I was certain of this.
My steps were light, lighter than ever, I made no noise as I tread across the floor or up the stairs. A perfect articulation of leg and abdominal muscles absorbing all impact, creating no sound. I quickly mastered the screen door — silent and then silenter still. As for picking up a plate, I was the best, totally aware, totally present, an economy of motion, the lightest of touch. No motherfucker could pick up a plate like I could. (The more meditative I became, the more gently profane — Kendrick Lamar inflected — became the running inner monologue.)
I realized quickly that in having nothing to do, nowhere to be, nothing to consume or take us away from the meditation center, that to rush or feel rushed or feel any sense of frustration was pointless. (You then hope to carry this understanding back into the Real World.) When the gong rang for food I rose slowly as others bolted. Took metered steps, present for each one as others ran past, hurried to get food. Why? To what end? To do nothing once they were done? It became sadder and sadder as the days wore on, the rushing of some of the students.
By my estimates I’d say about a third of us figured out what I figured out — to turn the whole experience into a tea ceremony. And, in fact, on the train ride back to Kyoto I found another student who also folded the toilet paper in an attempt to communicate.
A third of the students seemed to enter the center with equilibrium and maintain it throughout. And about a third never settled, never stopped writing their angry letters. They were the first to rise for food. The first in line. And the first to be doing nothing after a meal. They showered two or three times a day just to pass the time. They stuck out the entire course but were they ever really there? I don’t think they were. And as I sat out in the field laughing the greatest laugh of my life on that tenth day (as it turns out, with a fellow toilet paper folder!), they were gathered in a circle, criticizing the course.
By then I couldn’t remember the source of my initial frustration. I felt equanimous with pretty much everything and now, with perspective, understood and believed in the value of extensively watching your breath enter your left nostril, perhaps, or right nostril, perhaps. In fact, I learned I could control the small muscle up above the nostrils and choose which side I wanted air to enter or leave. But more than that, I understood experientially why we had to suffer through three days of breath watching, to hone the conscious mind and make it more and more sensitive.
In my seventh room sits that Vitruvian Man with glowing limbs and also that image of the Insane Clown Posse high-fiving Pico Iyer. It’s because on that day, sometime during my sixty-fifth hour, my limbs and body all dissolved into particles and waves, and for a good twenty minutes I had complete control over the flow of those particles, the movement of them through the physical lumps of my torso and skull and arms and legs. It was one of the weirdest, strangest, most — yes — insane experiences I’ve ever had in my life. But I don’t think it would have ever happened had those little birdies not taught me how to chill out and be present.
We were allowed no phone — of course — but also no books, no papers, no pens or pencils. I cheated a little with my memory palace, but I’m glad I did. The course was far from perfect but it more than served its purpose: To create an environment in which you have no excuses, Maslow’s fundamentals covered, where you wholeheartedly devote yourself to being present, ignore the larger world (such a gift!), and spend a hundred hours facing your own failings of consciousness, sensitivity, and patience.
Walking back through my memory palace I realized that I never logged any of the frustrations — that they were as superficial in the moment as they felt in hindsight. Rising and falling like all the other surface emotions.
On the tenth day we were allowed to speak. I learned many of the students had done this before. One — Japanese, top-knot, wispy beard, late twenties, carpenter — had quit his job at the end of last year and had been to the course five times in the past six months. He loved it that much, realized how much he had to gain from focusing the mind. Was trying to squeeze in two more ten day sessions before he started work again in September. During the frequent breaks we had throughout our days he never rose. I told him how he was an inspiration, his stone-like pose, a proper Bodhisattva in the front row, an archetype against which I continually shored up my own weaknesses.
At the end of the course, waiting in line for a car to take us back to the station, a couple of the female students came over to me. You’re the bunny guy, aren’t you? Yes, I said. Thank you, they said … that kept us smiling for days.
Am I glad I did the ten day course? You bet. It continues to pay clear dividends — the feeling of focus and sensitivity to my own physiology have become a touchstone I return to a dozen times a day. The goal is to attend at least once a year. And I really would like to give a whole month a try.
I’m a meditation dilettante, a poser, a phony, but I’ll do my best to answer any questions about the experience you might have.
Big hike starts tomorrow — trails in Yamagata. More on that later. Will be posting to Instagram. For now, packing calls.
As always, truly, thanks,
p.s.,  The skanking peanut of my memory palace was put there to help me remember my first observation of what I thought might be actual madness. We had been given peanuts as part of lunch on the second day. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the man sitting next to me begin to gently tap his on the edge of the table, trying to crack them open like he had hallucinated them into eggs. Then, as if the illusion broke, he jerked back, took stock of them as peanuts, and began to peel them open. Maybe I was bearing witness to evolution in real time — a reversion to monkey state, moving up the chain, finally realizing how handy his opposable thumbs were. Maybe he was just enjoying their subtle percussivity. Maybe, like Harrison Ford, it was just in my mind.