Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Small Wonder I´m No Buddha

I heard about the Vipassana Meditation Course from another volunteer. It´s great, she said. It´s really hard, you go 10 days without talking, you get up at 4 every morning, they serve only breakfast and lunch, no dinner, and you sit and meditate for 11 hours a day. You should try it. So... I was in. And this is how it went down:

Arrival day- It´s Paraguay, meaning there were poor directions, the cab driver lied about knowing where the place was, we wandered around the campo for an hour following one set of bad directions after another. By the time we arrived, I´d come to the conclusion that this country will never advance if they don´t learn how to make some goddamn signs. We found it pretty much by accident, and got there just in time to watch the bus we´d missed unload. 60 people, everyone from backpacking hippies to campo housewives, 18-70 or so, speaking English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and German, disembark. They separate the men and women and show us to our rooms. The schedule runs about an hour and a half behind and by the time we start with the first meditation, I´d also decided that this country will never advance until they learn to do things on time. I am extra tired and grumpy. Talking stops for the next 10 days (although we are allowed to talk in whispers to the assistant teachers about physical needs). We are called into the Sala de Meditación and assigned a blue nylon square that is to be our spot for the duration of the course. As we enter, there is an older, white-haired lady sitting crosslegged on a low alter and wrapped from the neck down in fringed, white shawls. Somebody thinks she´s a golden calf, I think sarcastically. Then she hits play on the Ipod beside her, which starts this weird-ass chanting in hindi. What the hell did I get myself into? I wonder. Some of the people had been there before, so when the chanting ended, they knew they were supposed to respond with Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu. I refused to agree to something until I knew what it actually meant, but it turns out that he chants the rules of the course (Abstain from killing anything, stealing, sexual activity, lying, and intoxicants) and then says May all beings be happy, to which the response is Well said, we agree. I collapse into bed at 9, but still manage to to oversleep the 4am bell the next day by and hour and a half.

Day 1- The schedule everyday is as follows:
4am – Wake up bell
4:30-6:30 – Meditate in sala or your room
6:30-8 – Breakfast and rest
8-9 – Group meditation in the sala
9-11 – Meditate in sala or your room (based on instructions)
11-1 – Lunch and rest
1-2:30 – Meditation in sala or your room
2:30-3:30 – Group meditation in the sala
3:30-5 – Meditate in sala or your room (based on instructions)
5-6 – Tea break
6-7 – Group meditation in the sala
7-8:15 – CD course
8:15-9 - Group meditation in sala
9-9:30 – Questions or prep for bed
9:30 – Lights out

My legs kill. I can´t concentrate on my breath as instructed (natural breath, not forced, because we must accept things as they are, not how we wish them to be) for more that 30 seconds at a time because I´m busy thinking of all the things I didn´t get done before I left and all the things I need to do when I get back. I´m still overly tired and nap during every break, but can´t get away with napping other times because Vanessa, the women´s helper, goes around and checks our rooms to make sure we don´t cheat. I shift on my cushions and crack every knuckle every 20 minutes or so. I open my eyes and peek occasionally and everyone else seems to be sitting perfectly straight with no problem. Damnit, I suck at this. During the CD course that night, Goenka, the Indian founder of the course, says that the first day is hard for everyone and that it gets better. Whew. 9:00 sharp I´m in bed.

Day 2 – I get up on time and carry all my bedding material to the sala, propping myself on a mountain of pillows, sleeping bag, cushions and jackets, trying to get comfortable. It works a little and I am much less grumpy, but still in pain. Now we are to pay attention to the sensation of the air passing through our noses, and my monkey mind is still swinging from branch to branch, thought to thought. If I had to guess, I think I´m actually keeping my attention for a minute, but who knows as there are no clocks. The day crawls. Goenka understands though, and puts it all in perspective with one anecdotal story after another. It will get better, I tell myself.

Day 3 – By this time, my mind has used up all the normal thoughts, and is reaching DEEP into my subconscious archives to pull out dusty 80s sitcoms. Remember Perfect Strangers? Oh, I do. It´s the one about Balki, the charmingly naive Greek immigrant from the island of Mepos, who comes to live with his ever-so neurotic, all-American cousin Larry. As you may have guessed, laugh-tracked hilarity ensues. Or what about Small Wonder? The one with the normal suburban family whose inventor dad builds them a robot daughter, so life-like in every way that nobody seems to think it´s strange that she talks like a robot or is turned off and put in a broomcloset at night. And just in case you´ve forgotten every word to the theme song, don´t worry! I´ve apparently had it packed in mothballs for 20 years just to bring it out now, running on repeat for 10 straight days. She´s a smaaaallllll wonder, pretty and bright with soft curls. She´s a smaaaallllll wonder, a girl unlike other girls. . . I´ll spare you. Other than that, I´m sitting a little better (not much, but a little), and paying attention to the feel of the air under my nose pretty well, even with the soundtrack. Then they tell us that the next day, we´ll actually start the Vipassana meditation, meaning that all those hours of aching tendons and twisted joints has just been preparation for the real work. Yikes. But at least we´re really getting into something, not sure what.

Day 4 – The Vipassana starts by moving the area of concentration from under the nose to the top of the head and we concentrate on the sensations in a tiny circle, then move it down, inch by inch, over every single part of the body, deeply focusing on whatever we are feeling. It can be anything from numbness, tingling, heat or cold to the sensation of the air or clothes on skins, but whatever is really there, not imagined or desired. We pass down the body in a slow wave and I´m tingling, tingling deeply everywhere, and it´s better than any drug I´ve ever tried (, imagined, since I´ve never tried drugs, Pop). My legs don´t hurt, and I´m thinking that if that´s what this was all leading up to, it was so worth it. We´re turned loose after 2 hours to have our snack and outside, all the greens are brighter, all the details sharper. I´m savoring every sensation of the orange I´m eating, investigating the tiny juice capsules.
But alasit quickly goes from the very best feeling to the very worst when we start the next session and are told that from now on, at least in the group sessions, we are not allowed to move. We can neither seek pleasurable feelings nor avoid pain. Instead, we must face it, realize that our ego is manifesting emotional pain as physical pain, accept it, work through it to detach from it, and release it. Read that last bit again . . . yeah. Easier said than done. Before, we tried to stay still, but could shift or adjust as necessary. Now, a thousand lifetimes of pain passed each seconds. I once got in a motorcycle accident without a helmet where, after hitting a sign, I was thrown forward, hit the ground with my face, flipped and slid 10 feet along the grass. This. Was. Worse. My thought processes went something like this (may not be appropriate for children):
Oh fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. AAAAHHHHH! What the fuck TIME is it?! Ok, concentrate Fink! (I call myself Fink when I´m giving myself a stern talking to) Concentrate! From the top of the head, down, down- fuck! I can´t do this. God, my legs kill. I can´t feel my foot at all. . .maybe if I just move it an inch, they won´t even notice. Ok, here we go. . .Oh GOD! That´s WORSE! Move it back, move it back! Down the face now, sensations. . .She´s a smaaaallllll wonder, pretty and bright – oh, shut the fuck up! Fuckfuckfuck! What TIME is it?!
The next few days are a little rough.

Day 5 - I spend 2 hours in the morning trying to practice not moving. Did you ever see Siriana when they ripped out George Clooney´s fingernails? It was kind of like that. Then I go to breakfast and my special bowl of rice (my celiac alternative to toast and cereal) is not awaiting me. I find Vanessa to see what happened.
V – I guess they forgot to make it.
Me – Ok, well I´ll go shower while they make it then.
V – (apparently doing a Lumburgh from Office Space impression) yeeeaaaahhhh, we have a class now, so they´re not gonna have time for that. You can have fruit though.
Me- (staring incredulously) You mean I´m just supposed to not eat? Are you kidding me?
V- Tell me something, why can´t you have milk? There´s another celiac here and she let me know, but it´s not a big deal to her at all, and she drinks milk.
I´m staring daggers because she´s now blaming me for their forgetting to make the rice, as though I´ve been doing this just to inconvenience them. My whisper is a hiss as I tell her that there are different levels and some people have problems with milk, eggs, soy, and peanuts because the proteins are similar. I haven´t fully finished when I see that she´s tapping her temple with her first two fingers and giving me a condescending look, smile turned down at the corners in a mix of humor and pity. I stop, waiting to see what the fuck that´s supposed to mean and she whispers that Todo está en la mente, still tapping. It´s all in the mind.
Oh. No. She. Di´int. That bitch did not just tell me I was making up this horrible disease that I´ve suffered with for 3 years, that the medical tests all lied, because they forgot to make some fucking rice. I am furious nearly to the point of tears and stomp off. The entire day, I can´t concentrate enough to meditate because I´m too busy fuming with hatred for Vanessa. I´m exhausted, hungry, my legs are screaming, and I cry when I´m alone. 12 hours pass like that, and then in the CD course that night, Goenka drops the little nugget that most diseases are all in the head. He had mysterious migraines for years before starting Vipassana. Shit. This hits me like a Mack truck. My mind whirrs, wondering if it´s really possible that I can get rid of this, then wondering how I made it up when I didn´t even know what gluten was before the diagnosis. By the time I go to bed, I´ve decided I´m going to cure it.
Days 6 and 7 – The next 2 days pass with hours and hours of mental screaming. I´m wrestling with the celiac´s idea, with the pain (although I´ve taken out the sleeping bag and I can now sit for half an hour before it starts). I´m getting up at 4 with no problem now and eating much less than normal, but don´t feel hungry. I´ve gotten a rhythm where I know when to rest more and when to push it, but it is hard every minute. There is the tiniest glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel, but I have no idea where it leads.

Day 8 – The third straight day of excruciating pain, and in the midst of the mid-afternoon session (always the hardest one), things take a surprising turn. I will preface this by saying that I turn out to not be crazy. I´m in the middle of a mental scream, not unlike those of natural childbirth, when I mentally split in two. One of me is the me with the body, my ego, in horrible pain. I call her AngEgo. The other is like a hollogram version of me standing to the left of my body (picture that Simpson´s episode where Bart sells his soul and then sees everyone else with the hollogram souls playing beside them). She is my true self, calm and tranquila like Buddha, and I call her Angelíc. First, both selves just look at each other for a moment and wonder what just happened (I empathize with everyone with multiple personalities). Then Angelíc grabs AngEgo´s face and kisses her all over, saying I love you, I love you, I love you so much! We can do this, we´re gonna work through this, I love you. So that´s a good start. AngEgo´s leg´s hurt, and each time a new pain comes up, Angelíc asks where that pain is coming from. AngEgo knows everytime, and will blurt out the source. That´s my mom! Then Angelíc goes into calm counselor mode and slowly and logically walks her though all the steps to clear out the pain. What bothers you about that? Why do you think that is? What can you do about that? Etc etc, until AngEgo comes to the natural conclusion that whatever was wrong is over now and it´s time to let it go. Then Angelíc tells her to do just that, Ang, let it go...let it go...come on now, you can do it. And then the pain is just gone and they smile at each other for a moment until the next pain comes along and they again deal with it step by step. I know how this sounds, but they say that deep down we really do know the answers to all our problems, but we feed our egos by not admitting it (not only in the course, but I´ve heard that a million different places in different ways), so this really makes sense. I spend the whole day knocking out one problem after another, one pain after another, and in the last session, encounter one that twists my legs in knots and makes my lower back numb. What´s that one? Asks Angelíc. That´s the celiac´s, winces AngEgo. I can´t get through it and end up moving before the hour is up, exhausted, but I know I´ll be facing it the next day.

Day 9 – I can´t walk you through the hours of conversation that it took to clear out that celiac´s issue, but I can tell you that it was deep, DEEP in there, that I never would have even known it was a fixable problem without this course kicking my ass, that it was tied to mom issues and cries for attention and control issues and identity issues, that I learned I had a pretty unhealthy relationship with food in general and that it was all tied together . . . AND that I cured it. Half-way through the day, Angelíc says Let it go! Let it go. . . and it goes, the pain just floats away, and from that point on, I started sitting in a half-lotus pose with only 1 pillow underneath me for 1-2 hours with no pain at all. I can also tell you that since then, I´ve had cake, milk, cheese, beer, and bread and had no stomach pains or symptoms at all. I can tell you that cake is DELICIOUS and that my entire life will be so different from here on out. I can tell you that if you want to dig out major emotional and physical problems by the roots, go to and work for it.

Day 10 – After the morning meditation, we are allowed to talk, and it is like an explosion, with everyone trying to get to know these people they´ve been silently surrounded by for 10 days. Everyone´s experience was totally different, as everyone is on their own path. I tell Vanessa about how I hated her and about how she was right, and she cries and hugs me, tells me it´s such a hard thing to tell a person, but it´s true, so what could she do? They tell us that it´s not about labels and rites and rituals, but that the course stems from a truly enlightened desire for everyone´s happiness, and they teach us a meditation where we eminate love to everyone around us. It´s not easy, it takes work every day, and I´m no Buddha, for sure, but it´s all worth it.


  1. I hope you plan on putting all these blog entries into a book when you're done. I think it would be awesome to publish this! I'd buy it!!

  2. I'm so happy for you. This experience sounds like it was even better for you than Basic and IPI. I hope this experience gives you the centeredness you will need for your new job as Regional Office Coordinator.

    I love you,




Chuchi - this is probably my new most popular word. It means snobby or fancy, but is used in the Peace Corps as anything nicer than dirt roads and shacks, or for a person, anyone who showers with hot water. Living in the city, I am super chuchi for here.

Fuerte - literally means strong, but because the culture is based on talking around everything, it´s when a person says anything they want in a direct way - it means asshole

Puede ser and otro dia - literally means "could be" or "another day", but because noone will directly blow someone off, both of them mean "never" and are the answer to a question of when something will happen

Deseas, en tus sueños, Que Arriba Perra/o and Es lo qué es - these are the terrible translations of American sayings that are not used here and don´t really translate, but we say them anyway. Literally they mean "you wish", "in your dreams", "What´s up bitch/dog?" and "it is what it is"

Qué guapa - this means "what a hard worker" and is used by Paraguayans every time I do ANYTHING manual, including carrying a dish to the sink or sweeping out my room. I don´t think they have high expectations for Americans and work.

Saludos - sending saludos by way of a mutual friend is how people tell each other they have a crush on them. The most serious kinds are given with a pinch on the arm and they mean business.

Thumbs up - this is done everywhere here and is a simple answer to pretty much any question. I will probably have carpal tunel in my thumbs when I leave here because I do this so much.

No se como comer esta - this is how one refuses food in Paraguay. Literally, it´s "I don´t know how to eat this" which creates an internal struggle for me each time it´s said because I want to be a smartass and explain that, just like any other food, you put in in your mouth and chew, but I don´t think that´s acceptable here.

No Más and Un poco - this is said after almost every phrase for no real reason other than to make everything sound like it´s not a big deal, even when it really is. Literally, it´s "No More" and "A Little", so the translations are something like "Sit down no more", "Come here a little", and "Do you want dinner no more?"

Cocido - this is a hot drink mixed by carmellizing sugar with a little yerba, adding just enough water to wet it, and then adding more sugar. It´s served by the thermos-full just before bed.

Mosto - this is to sugar what crack is to cocaine. It´s a "tradional" drink capable of putting even the sweetest tooth into a diabetic coma, and is served continuously at fun gatherings like funerals.

Ch-ch-ch-ch - this is the sound Paraguayans make to get each others´attention - like "Psst" . It´s especially used for catcalling, and they have nothing to follow it with - they just want you to look.