I sat my first retreat in Bodh Gaya, India, in January 1971. Meditation had not been in my plans when I set out to travel overland from Europe to go trekking in Nepal. Enroute, my girlfriend of several years decided she wanted to separate when we returned home. I plunged into depression and anxiety. We continued our plans of adventure in India and Sri Lanka, and trekking in the Himalayas. My mind was never still. It agonized about the future and toiled about the past. The confusion and suffering were compounded by the readily available “ganja”. This was the early 70’s and marijuana use was ubiquitous.
While trekking I became aware of the torment and tried to occupy my mind by remembering in order all the rides I had had while hitchhiking around the world. At times this would grant a few moments of peace.
I met several people with a particular aliveness and sparkle in their eyes that said they had just come from a retreat with a man named Goenka. At first I thought the idea of “going and sitting on my butt” for ten days when there was the adventure of Asia to experience was rather stupid. Then, in a way that is still mysterious to me, my girlfriend and I applied for a Goenka retreat and were accepted.
The retreat was agonizing. Contained by the walls of the Burmese Vihara and constrained by the many hours a day of meditation, there was little room for distraction, avoidance or entertainment. I came face to face with the tumult and anguish in the mind. I was besieged by what the Buddha called the Five Hindrances. I couldn’t name them at the time, and I became each of them as they arose in torturous procession. They were: sense desire (lust), aversion (hatred), restlessness (agitation/worry), dullness (sloth and torpor) and skeptical doubt. Hour after hour I was immersed in the suffering of these states. The mind became obsessed with Gulab Jammun, an Indian sweet made of balls of milk solids deep-fried and floating in sugar syrup. It got angry and resentful toward the pain in the body due to sitting all day at the “stupid retreat”. It roiled and toiled endlessly about the loss of the relationship, and tried to figure out what the future would bring and how to be in control. Hours would pass as I attempted to sit upright as consciousness disappeared and I awakened to find myself slumped with my head upon my chest. Anger would arise at this perceived failure and the worry that I would never learn to meditate. At times I was consumed by the certainty that the whole process was inane and that I was “wasting my time” while the wonders of India lay just outside the gates.
The encounter with myself became so painful that late one afternoon I asked the Greek woman running the retreat for a refund. She told me that she would refund me the dollar-a-day I had paid in advance for the remaining days, but I might as well wait till the next morning since there was no train until then. Some years later I met her at a Buddhist center in Paris and was able to thank her for her life-giving intervention.
That evening it seemed as if Goenka spoke directly to me. He described the five hindrances and suddenly the mental torture stopped. A quiet, effortless ease descended upon me, with a profound sense of peace and tranquility. Thoughts remained, but they came and went with no distress, and without dragging me along with them. I could direct awareness to any location in my body, or sweep through it with awareness and everywhere there was the tingling, pulsing and vibration of life. My mind was content to be right there in the present moment. I sat for some time watching a tiny fountain in the courtyard as it sent a thin stream of water about ten inches high. At the apogee a tiny droplet of water would form and then, held by surface tension, undulate in its separate existence for a few moments. Then it would plunge back into the stream and disappear. I had never been calm enough before to notice something so simple and beautiful. The vistas of the Himalayas had not been so satisfying.
That night, as I lay awake in my sleeping bag and watched the stars, I remained content and happy. I determined that, “ I had learned to meditate”. I knew that the torture of the mind was finally over. As I drifted into sleep I explored the galaxies of sensations that inhabited my face, feet and legs.
The next morning began early with the wake-up gong. So did the suffering. The peacefulness of the night before had vanished and I was once again in the maelstrom of thoughts, feelings and physical pain. The stark contrast with the prior evening made the suffering seem even worse than before. What had I done wrong? Was I not trying hard enough? Would I ever get that state of ease back?
After breakfast I waited in line for an interview with Goenka-ji. I explained my tale of woe to him. The prior evening I had the most peaceful moments of my lifetime and then I lost them. He asked, “Are you clinging to the experiences of last night?” In the context of his Dharma talks he had spoken of clinging, or attachment, being the cause of suffering. Suddenly the panic and anguish went away as once again there was meaning in the experience. The causes and conditions of tranquility had come and gone. I had not been aware enough to notice that there was great pleasure and attachment arising in the experience of a quiet mind. Until that moment I had failed to notice that the mind had spun a lifetime of plans on the false premise that there would be no more mental torment.