Surgery of the Mind



Photo by Christopher Steven B.

My pee dripped onto the bathroom floor. I had clearly missed the urinal. About 10 feet away, in front of the sinks, a man continued shaving, looking keenly at the mirror. Perhaps he pretended not to notice me, even though the “drip, drip” of pee was the only detectable sound in the room. The screaming impulse in my head was to say something, but I couldn’t. I quietly gathered paper towel and cleaning solution, accepting that there was nothing else to be done. 

I was several days into a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Referred to sometimes as “Goenka retreats” after their creator, Satya Narayan Goenka, these are Buddhist-inspired sessions held throughout the year at dozens of retreat centres around the world. Participants meditate 10 hours a day, never speaking except during short question and answer periods with an assistant meditation teacher.

I had first heard about these retreats through a friend who suggested that we do one together. The main information that interested me was that they were free. After a look at the daily schedule, I quickly lost all interest. It basically goes like this: wake up at 4am. Meditate for two hours. Eat. Meditate till lunch time. Eat. Meditate till 5pm. Eat some fruit, drink some tea (no dinner). Meditate, listen to a talk about meditation, meditate, and then sleep. The reviews that appeared when I googled the retreat were written by people who had run away part way through.

I was an avid meditator because it seemed to be helping me with depression. But I was at that point meditating for about half an hour a day, and I wasn’t finding that to be an easy half hour. I politely declined my friend’s offer.

The universe seemed to tell me to reconsider. First, while visiting a monastery in California, I was telling a new friend I had just made there about how I found meditation to be such a struggle. Hac had been meditating for ten years, he had once considered becoming a monk, and I noticed that when he closed his eyes, it seemed as though his concentration could break a piece of metal. When he isn’t meditating Hac is pretty much a comedian, constantly cracking jokes. He didn’t seem to deal with the constant restlessness and general desire-for-it-to-be-over that plagued me most times that I sat down on the cushion.

Hac recommended I try one of these retreats because it had transformed his meditation practice. “What about all those interminable sitting periods?” I asked him. “Oh, well you can take breaks,” he said, making it out to sound not nearly as bad as the schedule did.

Then a monk at that same monastery in California with whom I really connected, an 80-year old ex-Catholic priest-turned-stockbroker-turned-monk, with a twinkle in his eye, who often rollerbladed around the monastery’s parking lot in his long brown robes, recommended the retreat to me. Then I found out that a good friend of mine in Regina, a music professor, had done five of these retreats when he was younger. Then I learned that my French teacher had done one and was considering a second. I hadn’t imagined my French teacher to be a meditator. I knew him mainly as an expert on correct language, grammar, and anglicisms. To top it all off, a 60-year old Québécoise woman with red hair, a neon orange t-shirt and a hearty laugh with whom I had great conversations while hiking in Morocco told me she’d done the retreat and that the hardest part was waking up at 4am. I can wake up at 4am for work occasionally. It’s the sitting still that I feared would kill me. Maybe that’s a good description of the difference between being 28 and being 60.

After hearing about it in all these different ways in the space of a few months, I signed up for the retreat at a centre near Ottawa, so the trip would also include a few days with my family in my hometown. But I still hadn’t completely decided to go.

One Friday evening in late October, I was sitting at my desk at work, unhappy. I can’t remember what had gone wrong that day. My job that week was basically to fill holes in the TV newscast by writing 30-second texts that sum up a story in as few words as possible. This assignment rarely took up the eight hours of the day during which I had to be at work, and I would try to take advantage of free time to do research. But my research rarely seemed to get very far.

On that drab Friday afternoon at the office, I received an email telling me that my vacation request for the retreat in November had been approved. I searched for some flights – just to see the prices, I told myself – and, lo and behold, there were some reasonable ones. I heard myself thinking “just do it” and felt a little rush of excitement accompany that thought – a feeling of freedom, of the unknown. And so, as quickly as possible, before I could reconsider, I bought a ticket.

When the time came, I got a rideshare to the retreat centre from my parents’ house in Ottawa with Roderick, a friendly surgeon approaching retirement, in his large white SUV. Roderick had done the retreat before, survived and here he was doing it again! Encouraging. As we drove through the Quebec countryside, he talked about the 10 days of silence as a gift that he was giving to himself. I thought of them more as a bitter pill that might do me some good.

Meeting the other meditators

We arrived at the retreat centre in the mid-afternoon and found it to be a former private boys school surrounded by forest in rural Quebec. The buildings of the centre were like large, long houses, quaint and rustic, made of wood, with diagonal roofs. I checked in at a kiosk staffed by friendly, gentle volunteers and deposited my sleeping bag in my dorm room, which was shared with about seven other guys. Our beds were separated by curtains. The lighting was dim, the floors a cold laminate surface, and it was chilly. I would end up often wearing two pairs of socks along with several layers of clothing. Upon arriving, I chatted with the guy on the bunk next to mine, a tall man in his thirties who worked in telecommunications, whose girlfriend had done the course before and had brought him along this time around. I noted to myself that he would be there for the next 10 days right next to me but that we wouldn’t be speaking to each other.

About 50 men and 70 women were to participate on the retreat, which wouldn’t officially begin till the next morning. All afternoon, we sat in the spacious dining hall at long wooden tables, socializing over tea and then over a kind of bean stew. As of the next day, a curtain would be drawn through the middle of the hall to separate the men and the women, but already, the two sexes had almost completely segregated themselves. I followed suit.

The men I talked to were a diverse bunch. There was a sculptor from New York City, at least six feet tall, shaved head, late 30s or 40s, lean and strong. He’d done the course before and had also done some sort of spiritual training in India. At one point the discussion turned to stereotypes about New Yorkers and the fact that they’re seen as not that friendly. He said this is a misconception, adding, “You know, people come to New York to hit home runs,” as in they come to the city to do great, ambitious things. I imagined him living a creative life, making unusual, grandiose sculptures that sold for thousands of dollars.

I also chatted with a day-trader from rural Alberta with calm, penetrating eyes, who had just moved to Montreal. The retreat marked the beginning of his life in Eastern Canada. He taught himself how to day-trade and does it from home. Before that, he was a Mormon missionary in Russia for two years, and had learned Russian. He wanted to try meditation because he’d read about its benefits in books on psychology.

Another retreat participant used to work in the federal government. One of these retreats led him to quit his job, move to Prince Edward Island and work at an inn. He wasn’t sure what his next move would be. It would be he who would be shaving in the bathroom when I had my little accident at the urinal.

Another guy in his thirties had been working in the oil industry in Alberta. This was his seventeenth Goenka retreat. He told me that if you keep up your meditation practice off-retreat for two years, at a rate of two hours of meditation per day, you can qualify to do a 20-day retreat. He had never been able to keep the practice up for long enough, although he was on his best stretch ever when I met him.

This particular man was short and slightly built, handsome with nice eyes. Actually, several of my retreat buddies were quite handsome. Men are separated from women to avoid distractions during meditation, but I knew that wasn’t going to have the desired effect for me. One man who sat near me in the meditation hall had pants that rode a little low, showing the beginning of his rear. After a few days, I stopped having as many sexual thoughts. But at first, a few retreat participants became, without them knowing it, my imaginary boyfriend in the silence for a few moments.

Early in the evening of that first Wednesday, an organizer explained technicalities, followed by the big rules. They’re called the five precepts. No killing, no stealing, no intoxicants (those three are easy). No sexual activity. No lying. But we wouldn’t be talking.

Furthermore, on retreat, you’re not allowed to do anything but meditate, eat, sleep, and walk. There’s no reading allowed, no writing, no communication with the outside world, no vigorous exercise. I think the idea is to avoid anything that prevents a person from being alone with himself.

As night fell, we trundled off to the meditation hall, located above a gymnasium in a separate building, about 100 feet from the main complex that houses the dorms and cafeteria. There, we were to listen to a recorded introductory speech from our main teacher, Satya Narayan Goenka. At all of his centres around the world, all instructions are delivered by Goenka via audio recording. The teacher himself died in 2013.

The retreat organizers had all of us men wait downstairs below the meditation hall and invited us upstairs one by one after calling out our name. I stared at the floor in the lobby-like area where we had hung up our coats, waiting for my name to be called. Despite myself, I urged them to hurry up. “Why do I have to wait down here? Such inefficiency! Yikes, this isn’t very zen of me.” I vividly remember the feeling of impatience as I stared at those floor tiles. The rage, the feeling of injustice. And at the same time, the illogic of my reaction, how unwarranted it was.

We went up into the meditation hall, a large room about half the size of the gymnasium. If there were windows, they were covered. The lighting in the hall would rarely be more than dim throughout the ten days. The defining colour was blue, the colour of the meditation cushions, while the walls and ceiling were white. We each had a spot on the floor indicated by little slips of paper with our names on them and could pile up different amounts of cushions as we saw fit. Along the left hand wall, two rows of mainly older men would meditate in chairs. Fixed to the front wall were a pair of flat screen TVs. Black speakers were cleverly attached to the walls to broadcast the sound.

Goenka would give audio meditation instructions about four times a day through the speakers at the start of each mandatory group meditation period. In the evening, the flat screen TVs lit up and Goenka gave a talk on Buddhist philosophy by video, a bit more than an hour long. It’s like this all around the world. His successors have obviously decided to stick quite religiously to his lesson plan.

I don’t remember what Goenka’s voice told us that first night, but it wasn’t a short talk. I wasn’t enraptured by him at first either. The meditation practice seemed to be very strict, with a lot of rules – this was particularly the vibe given off by the French translation of the English instructions (everything was always explained in both languages) – a voice with an accent from France, neutral and calm to an extreme, almost cold. This was not the way that I hoped to become through meditation. I’m aiming to become happier, more energetic, more eager to live, kinder, more understanding, more willing to dance and to sing, to talk and make friends – basically, I hope that it’s just a quality of life booster.

In contrast to the translator, Goenka was not unbearably calm. He talked in varied, energetic tones, and his Southeast Asian accent seemed to bounce around the room. Perhaps 60 or 70 years old at the time he made the audio and video recordings for the retreat, Goenka was portly, bald, elderly, deliberate, and crystal clear in his explanations. This was nice because meditation instructions can often be vague (“open to the warmth within yourself”). And in the evening talks, he made jokes when I least expected it (“I have been teaching you that every sensation is temporary, and yet, your back pain feels permanent, doesn’t it!”). Nevertheless, for the first few days, my relationship with our Burmese-Indian teacher – or his ghost – was more one of tolerance than of acceptance, before I finally warmed to him.

On the lookout for sensations

During the first three days of meditation, Goenka instructed us to bring all of our attention to our breath and observe it neutrally, without reacting. If we became distracted or lost in thought, no worries, just bring the attention back to the breath, over and over again. The focus of our attention became narrower as time went on, limited eventually to the area just underneath our nostrils. If there were key words that week, one of them was “sensation.” “Notice what sensations you are feeling.” I can still hear Goenka’s voice, slow, repetitive, with that warm Burmese-Indian accent. “Maybe it is a sensation of heat. Maybe it is a cold sensation. Maybe an itchiness, or a feeling of pressure, or a numbness. It doesn’t matter what kind of sensation you feel. Just notice the sensation, and don’t try to change it.” Something along those lines.

In the evenings, the talks delivered by video contained more general Buddhist teachings. It was these talks, delivered with wit and conviction, that led me to think that our teacher wasn’t so bad after all. A few points stand out in my memory. “The untamed mind is like a destructive wild elephant,” Goenka said. But if you tame that elephant, he explained, all of that destructive power will go towards constructive ends. And the mind is so much more powerful than an elephant. He also called what we were doing during the retreat “surgery of the mind.” The implication was that this was not going to be painless.

On the morning of the fourth day, Goenka’s ghost introduced a new type of meditation to us: “Vipassana,” which means something along the lines of “seeing things as they are” in Pali, an ancient language used in many Buddhist texts. The practice of Vipassana varies, depending on the Buddhist tradition. In Goenka’s method, it basically involves doing a mental scan of your body with your awareness. At every part of your body, you stop and observe the sensations that arise there. You begin at the top of your head and you linger there for a few seconds, noticing the tingling or the pressure, the heat or the itchiness (or as was often the case for me, the lack of any sensation whatsoever), then you move down to the forehead, eyebrows, eyes, nose, cheeks, ears, back of the head, lips, chin, neck… then the arms to the fingertips, the collar bone down through the torso, back, legs, feet. Then you go back up again. We had to scan every square centimetre of our bodies. And the absolute key to the exercise is not reacting, ever, to any sensation. We were not to crave pleasant sensations, or be averse to unpleasant sensations – even the killer back pain that wouldn’t go away as I sat still in an uncomfortable posture for hours. At least, that’s the idea. Just observe.

The theory behind this is that once you stop reacting to your experience, either by craving pleasant experience, or being aversive to unpleasant experience, you develop a kind of equanimity or serenity. A neutrality, a non-reactive-ness. And once that non-reactive-ness is present, it starts to purify all the old habits of craving and aversion that are deep-seated within yourself. Meditation is sometimes said to light a “fire of purification.”

I felt pain now and then from the very first morning. I’m sitting there on my cushion, in one of my two favoured positions – cross-legged or kneeling – and the searing in my back or my legs slowly gets worse, the more I try and ignore it or try to accept it. The pain usually begins in my right shoulder blade, but it’s not at all limited to that spot. I tough it out for maybe half an hour, then shift positions, from cross-legged to kneeling or vice versa. When it gets bad, the intervals between position-changes decrease to five minutes. Sometimes I put my feet flat on the floor in front of me, put my arms on my knees and my head in my arms, and rest, defeated yet grateful for the relief. I stop trying to bring my mind to my breath, or to a part of my body, I let myself think. Whoosh, my mind is set free like a wild animal. Or I get up and walk around on the ground level of the meditation hall where there’s a large open area. I lie down on the hard icy floor and rest my back. Feels wonderful. Or I stretch. Everyone is always stretching outside the meditation hall. Shifting around, pacing, sighing. There is an atmosphere of great effort and perhaps exhaustion. Around day 4 or 5 I drag a chair into the back of the hall and sit there from time to time, next to some other chair-meditators. Sometimes I feel like my back is splitting open even when I’m theoretically comfortably seated in the chair. Strangely, at other times, particularly in the morning, I’m quite fine on the cushion for long periods.

Needless to say, this strange, unbearable, ephemeral pain that goes away when the meditation stops is eloquently called a “gross” sensation by Goenka. We are also to watch out for extremely pleasant “subtle” sensations, which are apparently something else altogether. Eventually, Goenka explained, Vipassana meditators are able to “sweep” their body from head to foot instead of minutely scanning every square centimetre, and as they sweep, they experience these subtle sensations rippling up and down their body. At a later stage still, the entire body is said to feel like it’s dissolving.

I don’t think I experienced these subtle sensations a single time during those ten days. However, when I was back at my parents’ place the day the retreat ended, I was throwing some laundry in the dryer when the subtle sensations may have paid me a visit. They occurred in my right shoulder blade, that little part of my body that buzzed in pain so much throughout the retreat. It felt slightly like it was dissolving, and tingled. It reminded me of all the colours of the rainbow at once, and felt just generally agreeable, like the thought of spending time with loved ones or a nice summer’s day. It was like my shoulder blade was weightless, was joining with the air surrounding it. This subtle, tingling shoulder blade joy-sensation arose now and then in the days following the retreat at completely random times, involuntarily, and has continued to arise every now and then ever since.

During the retreat, however, if I wasn’t in pain, I was experiencing much more banal sensations, sensations that the assistant teacher told me could be classified as “neutral.” I discovered that wherever I shifted my attention, I could make out my heartbeat, whether it be in my toe, my calf, or my abdomen. Especially in my hands. In fact, I believe the teacher mentioned at one point that extremities are particularly sensitive. Hands were like a little melting pot of sensation: the beating of my heart, a kind of gently pulsating electrical feeling, and just an awareness – hands. These are my hands. It wasn’t so easy for every part of my body. Many parts, in fact, I had trouble finding. “Okay, we’re heading down to my hamstring, and yet my mind only seems to want to pick up the front of my leg and thigh. Well, maybe the outside edge of the hamstring, but am I picking up the whole surface area?” (Goenka said that if in one spot you feel no sensation, pause in that spot for a maximum of one minute, then keep going. And do not feel any depression or discouragement if for some reason you still pick up nothing even after one minute. Any feeling of discouragement or depression would just be one more negative energy to overcome, he said.). The most difficult part of my body to feel, by far, was and is still the top of my head. It usually feels like there’s nothing there. Where does my head end? Where does the air surrounding it begin? My forehead and eyes on the other hand were always very prominent in my awareness. In fact there was a tension in my eyes that got stronger as the week went on, that I couldn’t seem to let go of.

Needless to say, when I realized that “Vipassana” actually meant “body scanning,” I was disheartened. Bringing my mind to move around my body required so much effort, so much trying. However, as Goenka “said” several times during the retreat: “You are here to give this practice a fair trial.” He suggested that we evaluate it at the end of the retreat rather than stopping to question it at every second moment. This seemed fair. So I vipassana-ed away, taking quite a while to do my body scan, as I pondered each square centimetre, waiting for some kind of violently obvious “sensation” to arise. During a one hour meditation session, I initially got from the top of my head to my toes and back again once. “That’s a good start,” the assistant teacher told me.

Hell on a cushion

On the evening of the fourth day we had a little surprise. We had just sat down for the evening meditation session. I was feeling particularly uncomfortable. For one, I already had to pee. We had just had evening tea and fruit. Secondly, my kneeling position, generally the position in which I feel the most relaxed, hadn’t been providing me with much pain relief that day. Almost from the moment I sat down for that evening sit, pain started searing through my upper back. Then Goenka flung it on us: we would be from now on starting to do three “periods of strong determination” each day, where for one hour, we would attempt not to shift our position at all. This meant not crossing or uncrossing our legs or arms for the full hour. And the first period of strong determination would begin… then. I decided to try and tough it out. Just to try, to see if I could do it. Within minutes it felt like I had never needed as badly to go to the washroom in my life. How would my bladder survive the next 55 minutes? Was I going to have an accident on the centre’s meditation cushions? Simultaneously, the pain in my back began to feel like a knife, digging in further and further, relentlessly. I quickly abandoned all hope of doing a body scan and decided instead to count the seconds until the end of the meditation period. 60 periods of 60 seconds, I thought. I counted extra slowly, following my breath. Even though each one-breath period felt unbearable, I held on. Somewhere between 100 and 200, I lost count. By then things had become a tiny bit easier. Still extremely unpleasant, but no longer feeling like I simply could not bear it for one second longer. Before I expected it, the session ended.

In order to communicate with the retreat participants, the organizers left written notices on a bulletin board. The morning after the first period of strong determination, there was a little note that explained that while students should try their best not to shift their position during these periods, if they were in a lot of pain, they should go ahead and move. Goenka signed the note, ending it with, “Be happy.” I laughed a little in my head.

There were two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. In the afternoon, new students could have fruit and tea with honey. The first few days, in the evening, I would dream of roast chicken. I could smell it, taste it, and feel the emotion of sitting down for a family dinner. It also seemed a cruel irony that Goenka, in his video speeches, didn’t exactly seem to be wasting away! The hunger dissipated in the second half of the retreat (as did I – I learned afterward that I lost 10 pounds). I was also very tired at the start of the retreat. The first few days, I would stay in bed during at least one sitting period. One day, I slept through four hours of meditation. I felt guilty about this until the assistant teacher told me it was normal.

At other times, I was overcome with anxiety about trivial matters. This happens to me in regular life too but it seemed more intense on retreat. I mulled for hours the fact that I needed to change the voicemail message on my cell phone in case an employer called about a job I had applied for. At another point I had a mini-argument with one of the managers because he insisted that I sit while I waited to ask the teacher questions. I felt so anxiously guilty about the possibility that I might have created a conflict that I went up to him a few minutes after the initial argument and apologized.

On the afternoon of day 5, my back pain returned in full force. And with it, frustration. I was sure I was doing the Vipassana meditation wrong. I rarely felt a sensation. It seemed a headache was coming on because I was trying so hard to concentrate. It was at this point that I dragged a chair into the meditation hall.

Seated in my plastic chair, with cushions padding my butt and my back, draped in a blanket, I gave up. “It’s not a big deal. It’s just a meditation retreat,” I told myself. “Whatever. I’ll do what I can, then I’ll go back home.” I did nothing for some time before starting a body scan again, half-heartedly. Unexpectedly, the meditation got easier. The scans flowed better. The back pain decreased. Things became manageable. I made other, similar declarations to myself from then on. “You’re not actually meditating. You’re just sitting on a cushion while doing some mental exercises.”

The ease that came with this abandonment or giving up was a really important moment for me. I’ve thought about it over and over again since it happened over a year and a half ago. For one, it really proved to me that sometimes relentless effort is not helpful – that I must be relaxed, to progress, and mustn’t force myself. Secondly, I felt almost betrayed by Goenka and the assistant teacher who I was going to see with questions most days because no one told me to stop trying. There was no instruction to just give up and let everything go, when everything gets to be too much. The experience made me feel on a profound level that I had to figure this out on my own, and that made me feel very alone.

It felt also like a betrayal of the method. Who am I, bringing myself into this, I thought. The method said nothing about telling yourself that it’s not a big deal. The method didn’t tell me to forget the method. “Am I allowed to make a decision?” This wasn’t in the instructions. Perhaps from that moment, the meditation became my own, in a way.

What’s going on?

At the end of Day 5 or 6, I had my first realization that there was something deeper going on within me, even if I was just sitting on a cushion. I suddenly felt that this was more than just a painful ordeal that I would get through and, at the end, say to myself, “Oh that was tough but worthwhile.” Like a triathlon, or my master’s degree.

On the evening of the fifth or sixth day, we listened to Goenka’s philosophical video talk. As usual, at the beginning, he mentioned how many days we had left “to work.” But he added, on this night, that we actually had one fewer day left to do “serious work”. Because, said Goenka, serious meditation can only happen in an atmosphere of silence. And on the 10th day, the silence would be lifted and we would get to speak to the other participants. Oh, joy! What a lovely surprise. I began to cry, silently. A day to talk about this experience with others who were going through the same thing. I didn’t realize how important it was for me.

From the very start, I badly wanted to talk. The meditation was painful, exhausting, boring, hard to get through – but if I could just talk about it with someone, go through it with someone else – I thought it would be so much easier. And all the while, I was surrounded by this group of people. About fifty men, next to me day and night. We slept next to each other, ate all our meals together, and spent almost the entirety of every day meditating together in the meditation hall. Perhaps they were having difficult experiences too. And we weren’t even allowed to make eye contact. I kept regretting that I would have barely no time to get to know these guys with whom I had just been through this very intense week.

The plan as I had understood it was that we would leave on the eleventh day and that the noble silence would only be lifted at breakfast of that day, which would mean that we would have had just one meal to interact with others.

When Goenka announced that the silence would be lifted 24 hours earlier, I realized that not talking had been having an effect on me. It was like, “Oh yeah, something has happened here.” It’s hard to describe what that “something” was. The silence isn’t just an absence – it has some incomprehensible substance, some kind of added value that turns ordinary moments into moments of meditation.

Together without words

That said, the other meditators and I came to know each other in an unusual way even though we couldn’t interact. I would steal glances at people when they weren’t looking at me, or I’d notice who a person was when I was far away from him, and as I moved towards him I’d shift my glance away. I came to recognize most people, from the bare feet of the young attractive man who sat at the back of the hall and was always wearing sandals, to the blond, child-like guy who was often ahead of me waiting to see the assistant teacher with questions.

As I approached a table in the dining hall to eat across from the same guy, two days in a row, I said in my head, “So nice to dine with you again today!”

After the retreat, one man told me that he had formed an image of me as being very serious and by the book, based on my appearance. But the fact that I always showed up for meditation sessions at the very last minute made him think that I must be a little more free-spirited than I appeared.  

During breaks, we could walk along a circular path that measured perhaps 800 metres through the forest. The path through groves of old, tall trees rolled up and down the side of a steep hill, and the branches blocked the sky. When we passed each other on the path, we looked at each others’ feet. Often I’d pass someone and not realize who it was. Awkwardly, the path was very narrow, too narrow for two people headed in opposite directions to pass each other. What to do? One man would stand to the side – not always a pleasant prospect as the snow was deeper off the path, and the other man would scurry by. All this without a word. “I better find a place to step to the side where the snow is less deep. Oh he’s already stepped over for me. I’ll dash by quickly so that he understands that I appreciate his gesture.” After said movement: “I hope he understood that I appreciated his kindness. I wish I could say thank you. Where’s the harm in a thank you? No, better not.”

One day we woke up to a light dusting of snow on the ground, while flakes continued to fall. The snow kept up for several days and became quite deep. How weird it was to see such a dramatic change in the weather and not say anything.

The path was suddenly transformed. After lunch I walked as it was still snowing hard. The wet flakes sat on my cheeks, my eyebrows, my neck, and made my coat wet. The droplets on my glasses partially obscured the view of the forest in front of me. I thought, “This is so beautiful,” and then found myself with tears in my eyes.

It was so nice to feel movement during break periods. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have anywhere to go, and for once it didn’t matter that I couldn’t talk. When so few things were allowed, it become like the number one entertainment – to move.

A day or two after I learned that the silence would be lifted early, another important moment occurred during the 4:30 to 6:30 AM meditation period, which was generally the time at which I felt the most awake, relaxed, and anxiety-free. I could be just a guy, sitting on a cushion. There wasn’t much else. In this particular moment, I stood up for a little break after perhaps 45 minutes of meditation. I didn’t leave the room but just opened my eyes and looked at all the blue cushions in the dimly-lit room, and the still backs of the men meditating, Buddha-like, in front of me. I came up for air, unwound my spine, let my mind roam free.

“You know I can abandon all this and just go and talk about it with a friend,” I said to myself that morning. And then, standing there in that hall, at 5 in the morning, I started to cry a little. Then I asked myself, “What is happening to me?” Because I was really starting to feel that something else was going on, besides just me, my view of this room, and endless hours of me versus my mind, of my mind’s immovable refusal to be pleasant. I started to feel ever so slightly that the inside of my head was not a small spherical space, but rather a vast, limitless expanse of sky that encompassed the whole universe.

Around the same time, a few physical phenomena started. For one, I would seize up, randomly and uncontrollably, while meditating. It was as though my shoulders and neck suddenly needed to get tense, to “hold on” to something as if they were making a fist. This clenching happened in the midst of other moments that were notably less profound. My mind would be floating away, I’d be attempting to body scan, I’d be feeling frustrated, self-critical, and at the same time, determined to observe my body without reacting. And then, bam, time to tense up, my body decided. As it rigidified, my mind became a kind of black emptiness for a split second, as if emptiness began at the centre of me and rippled out at the speed of light. This nothingness was perhaps peaceful but the tenseness was unpleasant and also the involuntary aspect.

One of these moments was the strangest of the lot. It occurred maybe 45 minutes into an hour-long meditation, and it followed the typical attempts to deal with restlessness and pain. Over and over I tried to refocus, remain determined, be calm, carry on, not react to my experience. The onset of tenseness, this time, shook me like an earthquake. It jolted me. I squeezed tears out of my eyes as my body clamped down on itself. And internally, this one felt like a ray of light, a piece of knowledge. I could see, understand clearly for a moment: yes, frustrated you, you are frustrated, that is the way of the universe, but… and then a kind of wordlessness, a feeling like a still lake and a still sky, a feeling of “this is why you exist, this is why it didn’t work before, this is how you should work.” Goosebumps pouring up my spine. All this relief, this meaning, these events, in the space of a moment that seemed to last perhaps two seconds, and then vanish. My back pain slowly returned, I started to wonder, how in the world do I make that happen again?

Goosebumps came to be visitors who would pay a visit through several of the meditations that remained that week. Just briefly, toward the end of a sitting. Those goosebumps came from a feeling of resolution, a feeling that the world, for a split-second, was finally making sense after years of incomprehension and suffering. Waves of electricity, of colourful fireworks, of warmth. After, I always went back to my more empty experience and again started wondering when meditation would be over.

It reminds me now of the following passage from the book, The Empty Mirror by Janwillem van de Wetering: “I remembered… that I had heard that looking for God is a twofold movement. The seeker tries to find a way by climbing painfully, but he is, without at first being aware of it, pulled up as well.” Those sentences still thrill me.

After the joy, the fear

After the tiny moments of euphoria, I also found myself experiencing visceral fear for the first time since I was a child. When I was little, I couldn’t watch live action films for years – only cartoons. Later on, I had a terror of aliens. I remember the panic that the trailers to Independence Day and Mars Attacks brought on, and being barely able to step into the shower because I had to keep checking the one corner of the bathroom that was invisible from the stall, to make sure no aliens had arrived while I wasn’t looking. Sometimes, as well, just while thinking, I could become frightened for reasons that I couldn’t understand – the shape of a particular leaf, or cloud, that I had imagined, petrified me. And for some reason I had to keep bringing it to mind over and over again.

The way this fear felt was what meditation had somehow found in me again, after I had seemingly forgotten it perhaps fifteen years earlier.

I was afraid that life was meaningless, and I was also afraid of meditation – afraid of what it was doing to me, and of where it might lead. I got scared that meditation was actually creating the fear itself and making it worse, and that it would continue to make things worse, and worse.

I worked with my newfound fear using a kind of acceptance practice, trying to let it just be there without reacting, as I walked around the meditation centre, as I stood in the shower with water pouring down on me. This was a general theme of the week : try and accept everything that you are experiencing in this moment. “Awareness and acceptance are two wings of the same bird,” Goenka said. It needs both, to fly.

Acceptance could perhaps also be described as equanimity, which must have been the word of the week, as Goenka repeated that the only measure of our progress on the path of Vipassana was the development of equanimity within ourselves. Equanimity means remaining steady, even in the face of difficulty.

I wouldn’t really get over the fear, however, until several months later, when I finally accepted that everything was okay, that there was no danger. My life actually seemed to be getting better. Meditation was not hurting me. And I really got over it several months later still, when a meditation teacher told me that it’s normal to experience fear after moments of joy in meditation. I occasionally still get afraid when I meditate, today, but I tend to take it as a sign that things are going well. The darkness that meditation can unearth, however, is no laughing matter. A centre in Providence, Rhode Island, treats former meditators who are recovering.

As I thought about my fear of meditation in the later days of this retreat, I also reflected on troubling worries that had bothered me for years, that I would somehow harm another person or myself. For instance, when I drove down a two-lane highway, I would worry that a sudden twist of my steering wheel would send me into oncoming traffic. A similar worry sometimes came to mind when I held a sharp object like a knife. Whenever I had such a thought, I would immediately feel guilty and repress it. An incident came to mind when I was six or seven, the only time that I can remember where I might have acted out one of these thoughts. I poked my mom in the eye as she was reading me a bedtime story. I can still remember sitting next to her in bed, and my child-mind thinking, “Oh, what if I do this?” and then just doing it, and then feeling so guilty afterwards when I realized that I had hurt my mother. I asked my mom about the incident after the retreat, and she could barely remember it, which helped me let go of the guilt. As for the irrational violent thoughts, they still trouble me today, but less. I’ve been able to talk about them with a friend and a therapist, and I’m more able to see that they’re just thoughts, that they don’t mean that I will do something violent, that having them doesn’t mean that I’m a terrible person.

One afternoon towards the end of the retreat, as I lay in bed during the break period for a rest, I realized that I felt like I was meditating, even though I hadn’t meant to. I came to start thinking about guilt, about feelings of guilt that had built up over the years. And some strange horror-movie, bad-omen voice spoke inside of me, just a few words – “the guiillllt” or “you feel guillltttyy” – I can’t remember the exact phrase – but it was his tone, and the way it made me feel – like I was in the depths of the earth where all is dark and cruel and void of kindness, and I belonged to that world, and it was all I deserved. That’s what that voice seemed to imply. It was scary, but the voice was so obviously different from my own that I was able to breathe, relax, and let the feeling pass.

Getting into the groove

The days of the retreat meld together now. In some ways, the difficulty and pain decreased as the end approached, although on the other hand, I now had to deal with this bloodhound of fear that had been hidden for years. Overall, it seemed easier to say, “only four” or “only two days left,” as opposed to “only nine” or “only eight.” I could sit for longer, my back hurt less, and I felt like I was getting somewhere, even though I didn’t feel many sensations. I discussed things regularly with the assistant teacher, a kindly older man who reassured me. One of his greatest pieces of advice: “Never give up.” Simple words that I still bring to mind today. I came to have a confidence, figuring that I must be doing something right. I must be at least slightly on the right track.

During the last few days, my hunger decreased and my fatigue went away. I was waking up well before the morning bell, at 4 am, unable to sleep any more.

A major realization for me during the retreat was the degree to which I don’t understand my experience. Each meditation felt at times like I was failing. But out of this failure came these rushes of feeling, sudden tears, and the sense that I was actually achieving something, despite it all.

I also got very intimate with how illogical and nonsensical my mind is. At a certain point, strange images started pouring in when I was trying to concentrate on my body. The images would just become stranger if I tried to control them. At one moment, there was a bird that was somehow on top of a map of Russia and had the same shape as the country. As I scanned the top of my head, I had an image of purple, poofy, Marge Simpson hair. When I scanned my calf and ankle, I imagined it as being the bottom of a horse’s leg, with a hoof at the end.

During break times, my mind was my friend. “This is nice to be walking in the woods,” I would say. One night we walked into the dining hall for evening tea and fruit and a sign was laid out: “Please note that there are very few bananas left.” And someone had cut one in half. I decided to slice off just about two inches of what remained of the banana half. I could be contented with very little. As I was eating my fruit and observing the modest little piece of banana on my plate, I said to myself, “I pretty much deserve to become a Buddha for that.” And I found this to be quite funny, and smiled. This was a light moment. Walking around the halls of the dormitory, the woods, there were many light moments.

After one such evening snack, I sat down for the 6 o’clock group meditation and closed my eyes. I began to have an immediate emotional reaction. Goenka began the hour, as usual, by saying “Staaart agaaaain, staaart agaaain,” drawing out the vowels. My mind went to another place and I felt a recoil, an aversion. Fear, desire to escape. “This again.” The clenching near my eyes that was hard to control began almost immediately. “Let’s not go here,” I thought. It made me feel, perhaps a little, the way I imagine post traumatic stress would feel.

Immediately it seemed like the voice in my head, whose pleasant reflections I had been enjoying, was now against me, had become like a Rottweiler. Like some beast I had to fight, and I didn’t feel able to fight it in a calm, measured way, to say “This is an important fight, a worthy fight, and I must accept it with humility, with the feeling of doing it for a greater good, with patience.” Instead I felt weary, like I was in a fight where all you are is one brute force slamming up against another brute force. Where it doesn’t mean anything. Where you feel a panic.

And for that hour, for all those hours, I would be trying to control, bend, warp, urge, ply, cajole, my mind. I was supposed to accept everything happening in the present moment. I would tell myself to accept, try to accept. But my mind wouldn’t do what I wanted it to. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t feel my body.

And the voice that I was trying to control, this unruly voice, this was my voice, this was the voice that accompanied me through my day. And worse still, this voice was me! But how can this voice be me, if I so obviously can’t control it? And what is going on through these other moments of the day, when my thoughts flow non-stop – and I am under the impression that I am controlling them?

It reminds me of something the rollerblading monk in California had told me, when I said that I had gotten into meditation because I suffered from depression: “You still believe your thoughts.” You are not your thoughts.

Needless to say, I kept sitting down, closing my eyes, and doing the work. I even became more diligent and rigorous, sitting at one point, toward the end of the retreat, for over an hour without moving.

Coming back to the surface

When the silence was lifted, after some tears I began talking, and I noticed that everyone looked different than when I had first met them. It was like I was seeing them in high definition, like I could see more of their personalities coming through. Some men, who I had labelled as simply handsome before, seemed now to have lines of anxiety around their eyes, but also, a gentleness, a softness, and a resiliency. It was as though we had all been humbled by the weight and the pressure of the silence. My own voice sounded slightly different. Gentler, more confident, perhaps.

Being able to speak felt like the most incredible thing in the world. I wanted to talk to everyone, for a long time. I got into a detailed conversation with the ex-missionary day trader. He said that he had music playing in his head through the whole retreat, similar to how I experienced images. He seemed to be having a hard time adjusting to the sounds of a crowded dining hall full of men speaking again for the first time in 10 days. We got up to go sit somewhere quieter.  

The man who had sat in front of me throughout the retreat talked about being hobbled by pain until something clicked and he found himself able to sit for long periods with ease. A kindly older man said he had been hyper-aware of the top of his head throughout the retreat, as if it were a helmet or an umbrella. I contrasted this with my own difficulty in detecting the top of my head.

As for the man who was shaving when I had my accident at the urinal, I didn’t remember the incident until I got home.

I had to restrain myself from talking forever about my own experience, and remember to ask others questions. I talked all throughout that day (except for mandatory meditation periods), the next morning at breakfast, the car ride home with Roderick, my rideshare, and then with my parents when I got home. I was so fascinated by what had happened.

On the morning when we were to leave the centre, I said goodbye to all the new friends I had made. Just as I was about to step out the main door with Roderick, I realized that I hadn’t said goodbye to the assistant teacher. I looked around but couldn’t find him anywhere, so I asked one of the site managers to pass on a message to him. As I headed toward the exit, a feeling of having forgotten to say goodbye to someone persisted. I went through a mental list of all the people I had spoken to in the previous 24 hours, and confirmed that I had said goodbye to every one of them. Still, the feeling remained. Then, I realized – maybe the person who I was leaving behind at the retreat centre, as I stepped back into the world, was myself.



4 thoughts on “Surgery of the Mind

  1. this is beautiful will.
    thank you so much for sharing.

    your thoughts about thanking you dinner company for joining you again, and you deserving to be buddha for banana sharing both brought huge smiles to my face (:

    i’ve learnt so much from what you shared ❤

  2. Dear Sarah (McRaven?? – my best guess 🙂 ) thank you so much for reading! and for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it so much and am so glad that you smiled at those two spots.

  3. Good for you Will. This whole experience is not something I could’ve done. Can I call it brave? Since the person you were up against, was yourself.

    • Hey Rob! Thanks so much for reading! How are you?
      I think you could have done it but thanks for the compliment, and the use of that word, brave. Yes, it was definitely me against me…hard to conceive.
      Hope all is well in Regina. I’m currently engaged in more self-warfare (or compassion, hopefully…) at a Zen temple in Japan.
      I miss all of you guys at Rad-Can. Take care,

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