Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Time to Indulge

Tomorrow morning, I board a plane for Zambia. I'm keep telling myself that I'm not nervous, but truthfully, I am. I should be. It's a healthy nervous. An excitement to discover the unknown. I've spent the last day and a half getting to know some of the amazing people who will be serving with me in Zambia. It's a good group, and I'm fortunate to get the chance to expand my family once again. I can't help but look around the room of 32 new trainees and wonder what path lies ahead for each. Who's path will parallel closest to mine? So many possibilities.

I've also spent the last couple of days indulging in favorites. Here's my first and most extravagant indulgence. I'll give you three guesses as to what's in that glass...

If you guessed a $21 mega shot of aged tequila, you are correct! You know the Paddle! I sipped on that fabulous, fiery golden liquid for an hour. Perfection. Oh, and in that gigantic bowl is goat cheese, sun-dried tomato, pistachio topped guacamole. Does life get better? I ate a gigantic veggie pizza for lunch today and superb sushi for dinner. The management even provided us with complimentary sake! What?!?! Does that actually happen in real life? And, to end the evening, we stopped at a corner grocery to pick up pints of Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry's. Yes, I think I've stuffed in most of my favorite things. I'm ready for the newness of Zambian food and the lack of refrigeration. 

Also, I'd like to publicly thank, Brett, my companion in the above picture. He was kind enough to pick me up at the airport and give me a ride to the hotel. Brett was a fellow volunteer in Morocco. I haven't seen him in 10 years, but I was thrilled to get the chance to catch up with him. I credit Brett with my initial introduction to the blogosphere. I mean, what would I do without the chance to vent all my woes and joys? Thanks, Brett!  

I'll be boarding the bus to JFK international airport in a couple hours. I think perhaps it's time to catch a bit of shut eye. 

Law #7 - Indulge mindfully and with awareness. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Buddhist Boot Camp

A week ago, I emerged from the middle of nowhere Jesup, Georgia after practicing 10 days of the extreme sports version of meditation. A 10-day Vipassana course as taught by S.N. Goenka and his assistant teachers. I've put off writing this post because I'm unsure how much or what I want to share. Even now, I don't know where to start. Mostly, I don't want my experience to color anyone's ideas or notions of meditation and this particular course. Meditation, in my opinion, is a very personal activity, and an intense introduction such as this course is even more personal.

But, perhaps the best place to start is the beginning. I decided to take this course at an interesting time in my life. In that, I packed my car full to the brim with my unstored possessions and left my home in Gainesville permanently to drive to Dhamma Phatapa (the Southeast Vipassana Center). What better time to practice the art of equanimity and detachment? Jesup is about a 2.5 hour drive from Gainesville, all back roads lined with blank faced cattle and horses of every hue. The center is set back off the main road in an isolated pine forest, cell service was nonexistent. We were required to turn our phones in at registration but didn't seem to really matter as I lost service the moment I turned down the dirt drive. No lie, it was a bit nerve-wracking  knowing that I'd be out of touch for 10 days and completely in the hands of the volunteers running the course.

Was I sure this wasn't a mistake? Maybe this really was a cult? And, indeed, I just read a review last night that referred to the Goenka cult. After taking this course, my opinion is that it's all in how one approaches the course. Sure, I could interpret it as a cult-like situation, but at no point did I ever feel like I was being manipulated or handled improperly. I always had the option to leave, even if it was strongly discouraged. The food was fabulous. The dorms were simple but clean and warm. The course was free and my attendance was made possible by the generous donations of students who came before me. In the end, I took what I wanted, left what I didn't and felt like I'd been introduced to a meditation technique that worked well for me, personally.

After arrival, there was very little time to meet fellow students before we received the first teaching and took a vow of noble silence. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., was prohibited. After a time, I came to understand that this was not just for me but to benefit all the students around me. There were times when I left the meditation hall so high on vibrations that any loud noise or conversation would have been too much stimulation for my heightened senses. I imagine this was the sentiment of many students. The silence was less a punishment, more a blessing. Still, it was weird to get to know people by their strange ticks. No hiding behind words or smiles or nervous laughter. Instead, it was clear when those around you were agitated, in pain or freaked out. The woman behind me would pick her nails in the meditation hall when she was bored or annoyed at being there. Every pick of the nail was like someone banging a sledgehammer into the ground behind me. A-NNOY-ING. That's the point though, right? Remain equanimous in all situations. Don't react. Just observe without making judgment.

And, this was our meditation. To observe our bodies, the sensations in our bodies and no matter what physical sensations we were feeling, to sit still and observe. Have you ever sat still, completely still without moving a muscle for one hour? Try it. You'll be surprised at the difficulty. You itch? Can't scratch it. Back hurting? No moving. Leg falling asleep? Tough shit, don't change your posture! Of course, you were free to move or change posture at any time. No one was standing behind us with a whip forcing us to take the pain, but if you did move, the point was lost. To really start to feel the subtle sensations that our subconscious mind is constantly aware of but that our conscious mind is too pre-occupied to notice, you MUST sit perfectly still. And, even then, the mind makes up all kinds of crap to distract us from the moment. The other goal was to retrain the subconscious mind to not react; to stay calm and equal in all situations. Definitely a useful skill and one that my mind took to quickly. I would wake up in the middle of the night, having not moved an inch after falling asleep and vibrating vigorously with amazing sensations. Crazy stuff. My dreams were vivid, real and informative. I learned a lot about myself and my limits. Some meditations were full of pain and lasted as if for days. Some meditations were blissfully still and engulfed my body in a subtly pleasant hum. Nine days of silence were long, yet short at the same time. I left the center smiling, full of compassion and goodwill. I've spent the last week letting the realities of the world temper my glow but keeping the possibilities in mind.

All in all, I'm thankful that I made it to the course and that I have a technique to take with me to Zambia. In Peace Corps, especially after training, there's a lot of free time to fill and a lot of time to think. A lot of time to let loneliness and depression seep into the soul. Meditation is a productive way to train the mind to accept each and every moment as it is...a skill that will come in handy as I wade through culture shock, adjust to a new standard of living and miss those who I've left behind. 1 week before I fly people! I won't post another update until I'm in country.

Law #6 - Meditate to vibrate.