Lightning Over Kaufman
by Ute Carson
Houston Chronicle, Texas Magazine, January 4, 2004

I was not going to speak - or look directly at any person - for 10 days. The countryside quivers in the July heat and the atmosphere is laden with moisture. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Steel-white streaks zigzag across the flat Texas horizon. Some of them traverse the entire length of the night sky, others pierce big-bellied clouds with quick golden stabs. A flash encircles a cluster of smoky billows near me like a fire-ring, followed by a loud clap. Lightning has struck here. I stare in awe, faintly trembling. Suddenly the energy is released into a pelting rain, falling in coin-sized drops at my feet, forming swirling, gurgling pools in the dust. Just then frogs start a joyful concert.

This is my fifth day at the Vipassana meditation center, a 10-minute car ride from the small farming town of Kaufman. Of the six centers in the country, this is the only one in Texas. After days of silent introspection, my eyes magnify the out-side world into dazzling clarity. Time is no longer predictable, and the day of my arrival seems long ago.

My daughter, Claudia, had driven me to the site of the 10-day retreat. It took us just over an hour from downtown Dallas to reach the bucolic setting. Nestled among meadows sparkling with wild- flowers and dotted with grazing black, brown and white cows, the buildings are surrounded by clumps of dark-green live- oaks and flat-topped mesquite trees. A still pond lies at the edge of the property. Sparrows flutter to and from nests under the eves, and cats stalk through the high grass in search of mice or lizards.

Men and women are housed separately at the center, and there is a free-standing meditation hail between them. For the women there are three dormitories, furnished with hard bunk beds and thin mattresses. I brought my sleeping bag. Each bed is enclosed by a canvas curtain for privacy, and ceiling fans whirr softly overhead. We are treated to sumptuous vegetarian meals, cooked and served by volunteers. There are no washing machines or dryers. Towels and underwear and socks galore flutter on a clothesline in the lazy summer breeze. Claudia watched me re and unpack, and then departed. I felt like a kid left at camp. I had a fleeting urge to run after her. What was I doing here at age 62? Right away I knew this would not be a vacation.

I had learned about Vipassana in yoga class. It's an ancient Indian meditation practice whose symbol is the ever-changing wheel. The practice differs from other healing techniques in that it is neither verbal nor visual. Vipassana uses the breath, common to all life, as a tool to observe the sensations of the body as calmly and attentively as possible. Human misery is universal, and Vipassana bases all unhappiness on two principles: craving and aversion. Craving causes clinging, the desire to hold on. Aversion produces frustration, negativity and anger. To reach harmony and enlightenment in life, Vipassana teaches mastery over these two negative reactions. During meditation the breath scans the body, never lingering at pleasant or unpleasant sensations, only observing them. Respiration also builds a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious mind. With the breath, old mental conditions (sankharas), which manifest themselves as various mental or physical if is, rise to the surface and then dissolve, eventually replacing strife with harmony. The approach seemed full of contradictions. Would it work for me?

Day 1:

It is 4 a.m., and a gong wakes me from deep slumber. The gong will become my signal to rise, assemble and go for a meal. I soon come to love the reverberating sound of the gong, linking me to centuries of cloistered, peaceful lives.

I wiggle out of my sleeping bag, yawn and stretch. I slip into my beige jogging suit in total silence. I hear only faint rustlings from my neighbors as they dress. Speech fell away easily last night like shedding a worn-out coat. Even though I do not look at or talk to my fellow students, currents of life sweep through the dorm. Someone snored. Someone called out in her sleep, and female odors reach my nostrils long before the day's breathing drill begins. After the wake-up call, I can go to the meditation hall, but I decide to meditate on the rug next to my bed. At 6:30 a.m., I devour my breakfast of hot oatmeal and fruit and drink green tea. At 8 a.m., we are summoned for an hour of group meditation, followed by private meditation until 11 a.m. Lunch is ready, and the dishes are labeled "Vietnamese Salad," "Vegetarian Texas Chili," "Indian Curry." I am well-nourished. The lunch break lasts until 1 p.m. It gives me time to shower, take a stroll and rest.

Throughout the course, the teachers remain remote, sitting like immobile statues on their thrones, watching their muted flock Teachers serve as guardians of the regulations. Though most people are determined to stay the course, a few don't last. Rule-breakers are asked to leave. Teachers are also available for consultation, but only questions relating to the practice are permitted. I have too many intellectual - whys - and decide to forgo an interview.

We have an hour of group meditation again at 2 p.m., then private meditation until 5. For the last meal of the day newcomers can eat plenty of fruit and have a choice of hot or cold drinks. Those more experienced in the practice are permitted only tea. At 6, it's more group meditation, and then we listen to a video lecture by S.N. Goenka, the rediscoverer of Vipassana We are dismissed around 9, with just enough time to amble briefly outdoors before we retire to our quarters. Lights out at 9:30 p.m.

Lying in bed, I am discouraged. My first day was nothing but discomfort and anguish. I'm not used to sitting in an up-right meditative position for a total of 12 hours. My body aches, my ankles are sore from crossing them and my legs are dead wood by the time I plop onto my bunk As hard as I tried to pay close attention to my respiration, banishing gently any distracting thoughts, my mind didn't just wander, it ran wild. Will I last 10 days?

However, in spite of my misgivings my mind caught some sparks. Knowledge here is not imposed but experienced, and this knowledge is not abstract. I heard my breath as it streamed through the nasal cavity and felt it as it touched the wings of my nostrils. This is about my body, my sensations. It is about Me. Breathing in and breathing out places me right in the present moment no retreats into the past or speculations about the future. In daily life, I often revisit the past or plan for the future. But the present is in the Now, in every precious moment.

I curl up in my sleeping bag and practice the conscious relaxation that I learned in my yoga class at home. My mercurial mind must have dozed off because I did not stir until the gong roused me before dawn.

Day 2:

Much easier! I sink into the daily routine. Yesterday I questioned the strict rule forbidding even my notebook and pencil, but today I see the purpose of the regulations. No longer do I think about household chores or whether my husband fed the cat and took the dog for a walk No phone calls interrupt, no television diverts me from the one activity: observing my respiration.

On entering the course, all participants took five vows: to abstain from killing or harming any being (even the pesky mosquitoes), from stealing, from sexual activity, from telling lies, from all intoxicants, even sleeping pills. We are also not allowed to communicate with each other through speech, direct glances or physical contact. But soon I notice people by their footwear, open-toed sandals, scuffed-up tennis shoes or flowery flip- flops. I distinguish walks, shuffling steps and light, short strides.

Only sometimes do I catch my thoughts scattering to old concerns, everyday preoccupations. I fidget less in my cross-legged position. Drowsiness, as much an enemy as a wandering mind, is held at bay, and I am able to perceive bodily sensations without reacting to them. Respiration is neutral. I do not crave for more breath, nor do I dislike my breath. I try only to observe and to sustain the awareness of the present from moment to moment.

Day 3:

The focus of the breath is narrowed to the place under my nostrils, above my upperlip. I am to concentrate on that tiny notch to sharpen my mind, to purify it. Calmness sets in, and more insights are ablaze as my breath enters my right nostril and goes out the left, then jumps and reverses the order. Sometimes I feel my breath in both nostrils. I also sense cold when I inhale, warmth when I exhale. Then I notice a tingling on my upper lip, and tiny beads collect as if I were sprouting a wet mustache. I try to be patient, and words from the evening lecture drum through my mind: "Start again, start again." My little grandson Nicholas has his first swimming lesson today. I push away the distraction and begin anew. "Everything rises and passes away. Anica-anica-anica-everything is impermanent, everything is changing." In spite of myself, I think of my recent hot flashes before I can return to my task "A bird needs two wings to fly. You need awareness and equanimity." Balance is like a scale, and I try to weigh both sides equally. I am getting to know my breath.

Day 4:

Each time I enter the meditation hall I feel as if l am descending into the darkness of an underground cave. The light is weak, the wails are veiled. Every object is covered with sky-blue cloths the elevated chairs of the teachers, the television set, even the speakers. No candles light up my dim vision, no calming incense is burning. We sit on our assigned velveteen blue mats, and I think of the blue hues of air and water, two fluid elements. The hall is air-conditioned, and I wrap my black woolen shawl around me, sitting mummified as in a shroud. I feel protected, at ease. Group meditations lend solidarity in a supportive atmosphere. No one moves. Only an occasional cough, clearing of a throat, and the air-conditioner turning on and off interrupt the silence. I start to swallow and on reflex have to swallow again and again.

This is a difficult day because we move from the familiar place of concentration around the nostrils to scanning the entire body. It is as if my breath illuminates me. This is the only time during our stay when we are required to sit in a meditating position for two hours. After an hour the yoga position becomes an endurance test and I lose all concentration. Silently I curse to myself, and for the second time since my arrival I harbor thoughts of flight. But as soon as I get over my frustration, the scanning runs smoothly. I let my breath escape through the fontanel of my head, a thrilling sensation, and I realize how much I want to hold onto that pleasant feeling. But I move on and my breath crawls over my face and then from limb to limb, back and front, over bony bumps, through soft crevices. Energy flows easily through some parts of my body. Other parts hurt or burn my knees, and others are numb like my lower back. I try not to linger, but continue my mental walk, just observing, only observing. My mind becomes lucid; it stays dispassionate, no longer flutters about. So simple! So difficult!

Days 5 through 8:

I have been shown the rudimentary steps of the Vipassana practice. Now all is repetition and training. The success, I am told, is not how easily I scan my body, but how calm and objective, yet alert, I can make my mind. My task is to learn how to act instead of blindly re acting. I am bursting with this helpful in- sight. Back in the outside world I will try to cultivate a tranquil, detached attitude in the face of life's vicissitudes, its impermanence. Learning to be calm in all situations should make me more tolerant. And I see how valuable it is to seek answers in myself and not blame others for my troubles.

My body is heavy, my mind is buoyant. More light has been cast and I am fulfilled I sleep without dreams.

Day 9:

After meditation this evening the precious silence is lifted. We swarm toward each other and crowd into the hallway. Talk buzzes as if it's coming from a bee-hive. We are, after all, social beings! We feel gratitude. And we want to share. We have survived a challenge, and now we are full of questions: What did you experience? What was difficult for you? Did you ever consider giving up? Why did you come here in the first place? What will you take back with you to your home, your workplace?

Our conversations spill into the late night hours. I am surprised at the variety of problems people carried with them. They range from eating disorders, concentration impairments and the effect of childhood traumas to recent losses. Many now feel less burdened.

People come from all walks of life. There is the graduate student from India whose colorful sari I admire, who grew up practicing Vipassana and now devotes 10 days each year to a silent meditation retreat I learn that my bunk bed neighbor is a Vietnamese-American computer expert from Houston. There are teachers and housewives and hordes of young people, many college students searching for meaning and truth. There is even a safari teacher from South Africa.

In Buddhism there are no chance encounters, and I wonder about mine. We are squatting on the floor in a large circle telling amazing animal stories. I contribute one about our 18-year-old Cairn terrier who postponed death, surviving on just a few drops of water a day, waiting for our youngest daughter, Cecile, to return home for the holidays to say good-bye. A young woman wearing a flaming-red bandanna and intricate tattoos of butterflies and flowers on her arms and legs bursts into tears, "My dog died just a few weeks ago."

"I'm sorry," I say. I have to get used to talking again and feel a headache coming on. A walk seems just what I need.

The sky is loaded with powerful gray clouds as the daylight sinks slowly over the peaceful countryside. I smell a threatening fragrance of rain and hustle along the dusty rutted lane. I hear long clipping strides catch up with me. "Sorry I cried," a sweet girlish voice says. "Suddenly I had this lump in my throat, and I couldn't stop myself."

She glances at me with fawn-brown eyes, now clouded with more tears. Her lips tremble. "I have not cried the entire stay. Why now? I can't fit it in with a calm mind and all that."

I slow my walk and say, "It is perfectly all right for you to cry. I am glad to be here to listen to your story."

Then Melinda speaks about her feelings of loss. She tells me, "I also lost my mother three months ago."

It is getting dark, and peals of thunder roll in the distance. A full July moon peeks through the indigo sky. I take Melinda's hand. It is warm, and, as if embarrassed, it responds shyly to my gentle squeeze.

"Look" I point to the branch of a live oak. A barn owl is perched there, silhouetted against the creamy yellow disc. "And it's not even Halloween." I chuckle. Then a single bolt of lightning radiates the horizon, and an earsplitting explosion breaks the stillness. We hurry back to the house.

Day 10:

The last morning is fair and clear. The retreat is not over. We are supplicants, thankful for what we have received. Now it is our turn to give. Not just a donation to this nonprofit organization, but also something of ourselves. So we sweep, wash and scrub the center until the place is as clean as we found it.

Then we change back into our worldly attire and stare at each other. I put on makeup, don dangling silver earrings and slip into my suede suit and high-heeled shoes. The transformation complete, the recluse of 10 days turns into a lady of the world again.

What do I take away with me from my journey inward?

Ingrained habits do not die in 10 days. I crave my pen and paper, a glass of red wine and my husband's embrace. But in a world noisy with activities and distractions, calmness and peace have set in. Fresh insights have dawned, and I see things more clearly. Maybe by controlling my mind I can master my actions with equanimity. I pass my first test at the airport by shutting out the intrusive cell-phone conversations that usually annoy me. And when my flight is delayed, I smile at the attendant and sit down without protest. I close my eyes and concentrate on my respiration and the words echo through my mind: Observe, observe, only observe.

"Feeling the entire body I shall breathe in," thus he trains himself

"Feeling the entire body I shall breathe out," thus he trains himself

Pali Passages (Maha-Sattipatt Sutta, Diga Nikaya, 22)

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