This is the second installation of Monika’s experiences in a Vipassana meditation retreat in California.
I celebrated the 4 a.m. morning gong each dawn.
It meant that another day had come (and hence, another passed), and I was closer to the 11th day in which my electronics, keys, valuables and speaking privileges would be returned to me.
Vipassana, this style of meditation, is the purest form taught by Buddha, and involves only focus on the breath and awareness of sensation; no visualization, no beads, no praying, no mantras allowed. With such a simple process, I had thousands of minutes to devote to calculating how close I was to the end. The number of gongs was also calculated.
One down, I whispered to myself, one less gong.
This musical chime instigated an eerie morning ritual. Electric lanterns were snatched, loose clothing pulled on and tens of women emerged from every corner of the hovering darkness into a restricted corner of Yosemite National Park to begin their saunter towards the meditation hall.
Stumbling with sleep, their march was akin to phantoms in a Halloween flick. With no natural light in such thick morning darkness, bobbing lanterns appeared to levitate along the dirt paths.
Reaching the hall presented another challenge. Stuffy, dim and just warm enough to nurse a morning mediator back to sleep, it was a struggle to sit on my garden mat, completely still for two straight hours. Walking home after each sitting, my legs ached and lower back groaned of fatigued. How could sitting still hurt so much?
The next pain came during meals. Our dietary regimen consisted of two small, vegetarian courses a day. No food was allowed to be taken after noon except for one or two pieces of fruit at 5 p.m. for new students. Veteran students were permitted only lemons in warm water.
As a result, on day five I entered the 4 a.m. two-hour sitting with writhing stomach pains. My stomach was sounding the war chant. “Hunger!” It said “Hunger has arrived!”
I found my mind completely fixed for the entire duration, though, and when the finished bell rang, the stomach ache, back pains and sore knees were no more. In their place, I felt refreshment!
The ability to observe and separate oneself from painful sensations is just one of the skills that come from adopting the philosophy of Vipassana. While I cannot believe I lived without it for my 18 years of existence, the mentally, physically and emotionally scrupulous process that one must endure to acquire such skills taught me the difference between understanding something and actually experiencing it.
The Vipassana teacher, S.N. Goenka, made a wonderful illustration of this lesson in a parable:
A very scholarly young man and an uneducated old man were on a boat sailing towards America. The first day, the old man approached the scholar.
Old man: Young professor, please teach me something.
Young man: Old man, have you learned meteorology, the study of the weather?
Old Man: No, professor. I have no education. I know nothing of meteorology.
Young Man: No knowledge of meteorology?! You have wasted a third of your life!
The old man went away very sad. The next day, the old man returned to the young man again.
Old Man: Professor, please teach me something.
Young Man: Well, have you learned of geology, the study of the Earth?
Old Man: No, Sir. I have no formal education.
Young Man: No knowledge of geology!? You have wasted 2/3 of your life!
On the third day, the Old Man returned again to the learned professor, this time with passion in his voice.
Old Man: Young professor! Have you experienced Swimology, the art of swimming?
Young Man: Swimology? Well, yes, I am very familiar with the concept. But I have never swum a day in my life.
Old Man: You have wasted your entire life! The boat is sinking!
I believe this allegory emphasizes the importance of doing as opposed to studying. This is a major philosophy behind my gap year. I am doing internships in my professional fields of choice as opposed to studying them in school. The desired result is to be able to “swim” on my own when the boat starts to sink in the real world (and I have to find a career), as opposed to understanding the concept when it comes time to “hold my head above water.”
Fairview High graduate Monika Lutz’s My Gap Year runs every other Thursday in the Colorado Daily.