Silence

8 12 2010

I leave this afternoon for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat. Conducted in silence, the course forbids eye contact between participants, and involves long hours of quiet introspection without reading material, writing material, mobile phones or internet access. We rise at 4:00 and retire at 9:00. Men and women are separated, and the days are filled with sitting still. Does it sound wonderful or devastating? My declaration to friends, family, colleagues, and even random strangers has produced polarised reactions, which were not too dissimilar to the response that I received nine years ago when I announced my intention to go to Yeshiva.

There are those who, either having done Vipassana before or having known somebody who has done it, gush enthusiasm. How they would love to do it, or do it again! How firmly they recommend that I overcome the natural desire to leave, and stay there for the full course! How jealous they are of me! What bliss to devote so long to doing so little… And yet, how other people see the same things in a different light. Eyebrows arched, they express everything from mild disapproval to a rather emphatic disgust that somebody could possibly waste such precious time. Ten days could be spent writing my thesis, reading scholarly literature, learning a language, or even going to the beach. Even ten days doing absolutely “nothing” (drinking beer, eating BBQ, seeing films, etc) would be something! Allow me then to explain precisely why it is that I have decided to do something so strange this summer (and so uncharacteristic of me!) as meditate.

I am all for filling my brain with information. Indeed, what turned me off Zen Buddhism so many moons ago was its emphasis on mindlessness. Why rid the mind of thoughts when you can fill it up instead? Life is all about learning, and the more obscure, the more arcane, the more utterly esoteric those things are, then the better they seem to fit inside my head, and the more eagerly do I seek to embrace them. Indeed, my return to Sydney will see me starting three Summer School courses at Macquarie Uni and the University of Sydney: Intermediate Classical Greek, Intermediate Latin, and Beginners Sanskrit. Bliss! And yet, despite all this, there is virtue in detachment. Despite all this, as Chuck Palahniuk once said, I am not the things I know. I am not my job, I am not the contents of my bank account, and as beautiful as are the books with which I have surrounded myself, I am not them either. I am not my friends and I am not my family. Indeed, so closely do these various externalities impinge upon my being that it is impossible for me to know exactly where I end and all of them begin.

Who would I be, if everybody I knew were dead? Who would I be, if every edition of the Bible were to burn? What if all of Mozart’s sheet music – what if all sheet music in the world were to be destroyed? Along with every recorded piece of music, on CD, DVD, cassette and vinyl? If every gallery were to burn to the ground, if every museum were to be blown up, and if every monument melted into pools of lead? Who would I be, with no literature, no art, and no music to identify with? Who would I be without Sydney, or Australia, or the English language? If I were not doing a PhD? If I were not an educator? If I were not a Jew? In all honesty, I must admit that I do not know. The attempt to dwell upon this thought produces confusion and a sense of uncertainty about myself, which is countered most easily by a dismissal of it and a return to my books. For I have no prior experience in detaching myself from the world around me, and with so much of my identity bound up with those things that are not me, I have no confidence in my ability to identify that part of myself that is. Does meditation provide the means?

I do not think myself a “spiritual” person, but I have had success with meditation in the past and I would like to learn a proper technique. Learning how to successfully detach myself from all outside distractions is difficult, and even if I had two hours a day to devote to the task, the process might take months. With ten days that I am able to take off work, and during which I could have chosen to avoid my studies in a thousand different ways, the opportunity to learn full-time and to walk away with a genuine skill is too good to pass up.

What is more, Vipassana is a practise and not a theory. That was the chief “selling point” for me: the fact that there is no explanation given as to why practitioners do things the way they do, nor as to the mechanism that underscores the success of the process. That is fantastic, as I can think of nothing more nauseating than the need to listen to pseudo-scientific claptrap in an environment that does not allow me the opportunity to refute such nonsense verbally, nor to simply walk away. I want the method, not the methodology. The results, and not the religion that goes with it. And above all, I want the time and the patience to try something new with sincerity, and to see if the several million people who testify to the benefits of meditation are indeed correct.

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One response

10 12 2010
Nooj

I might see you there next year…Sanskrit intro, Latin 2 and Classical Greek 2 as well. Enjoy yourself :)

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