Lotus and Rose

Finding North

Finding North

By April Thompson

I'd already flirted with most every spiritual tradition. Martial Zen versus mystical Sufism, Native American sweat lodges versus intricate Tibetan altars -- who could choose a path?

I didn't believe in anything enough to discipline myself; a token hour of meditation here and there was all I could endure. I thought of enlightenment like world peace: sounds great in the abstract, but really, wouldn't it be dull without the drama? And in spite of my qualms with God, I fear that He or She doesn't contact Buddhists because they do fine on their own. Now, I thrive on action. I've written my way around the world, traveling in over twenty countries. Samba dancing, kick boxing, making art, volunteering, playing saxophone, I flit from thing to thing like a dazed bee. So when a friend told me about a Vipassana retreat, I was intrigued. Ten days spent in silence, ten hours of each day spent in meditation -- no reading, writing or even -- gasp -- dinner. What if I paused my hyperactive life? Would I go insane without my morning jogs, midday snacks, late-nite books and umpteen other routines I had come to depend on? Spurred on by the challenge, I signed up for a course at the California Vipassana Center.

We spend the first three days with our eyes closed, feeling our breath quiver over the upper lip. Our virtual guru, S.N. Goenka, teaches us the technique of Annapanna meditation via audiotape. "Sometimes passing through the left nostril, sometimes passing through the right nostril, sometimes passing through both nostrils simultaneously," the Burmese instructor says. "It makes no difference. Just observe, observe!" Goenka's in-house T.A. calls us to the front of the meditation hall to monitor our progress. "Any sensations here?" he asks, pointing to his upper lip. Breathing through one nostril seems to have cut off somebody's brain circulation.

I strain my weak will-muscles to get up at 4 am for the two-hour meditation before breakfast. After having no dinner and scarce sleep, each moment becomes an hour, and fidgeting prolongs it into eternity.

Goenka throws me a rope. "Start again, with a calm and quiet mind." I inhale deep and let my thoughts scatter -- how to persuade my spastic mom to take up meditation, what to do about that broad cracking her knuckles, whether to have Tension Tamer or Bengal Spice tea today. The brain despises unfinished business.

My eyes burst open; everyone is sitting still as Buddha statues. "Dontcha wanna scratch that itch under your nose?" I think in the direction of an elderly Filipino nun. Her steely mind wards off my suggestion. The only person who seems to be struggling more than me is a button-nosed girl who groans loudly during meditation, when she doesn't skip it altogether.

Finally the bell calls us to breakfast. Miss Button Nose shows up looking well rested. The hall monitor in me feels like announcing, "She didn't work! Don't feed her!" Instead I join the ranks of heavy-hearted women hunched over bowls of stewed fruit and oatmeal, cradle my cup and gaze at sparrows clustered in the oaks.

On day four, we move on to the practice of "Veepahshana," as Goenka pronounces it. We are simply to observe our sensations with an equanimous mind; not to shirk pain, nor cling to pleasure.

"Anicca, anicca, anicca. Everything is constantly changing," Goenka's disembodied voice says. "Let me not react with clinging, craving or aversion; let me just see how long this sensation lasts."

The technique helps me to objectify hunger, a sensation I usually give omnipotence. At lunchtime, I vow to break all of my food commandments, such as: Thou shalt eat absolutely everything on the buffet. Thou shalt covet thy neighbor's bowl. Thou shalt not put down your fork. The time I trekked to Everest with a nasty stomach bug was far easier than turning down a piece of cake.

On day five, Goenka ups the stakes again. Three hours a day will be sittings of strong determination, when we will not make the slightest move. Rumi, Jesus and my mom cheer me on in these hard hours. My personal DJ dedicates "Try a Little Harder," "Let It Be," and "Amazing Grace" to my efforts.

I begin to seriously observe the shady characters that live in April's Mind. In one corner I meet a devious thug who falsifies good intentions and a nervous old lady who worries about calcium. There's an obsessive mathematician, always calculating dollars, minutes, and calories. A young child cries when things go wrong; a cranky teenager doesn't see the point of it all.

At last a thought rises above the trivia, like a seedling finally breaking ground: "The constant activity is a cover-up for anxiety and uncertainty."

I breathe out both relief and alarm. I was a lighthouse for my friends and family alike. How could I shatter the false idol I had created? God spoke with hands on Her hips. "Honey, drop the act. It's time to get real. You got too much goin' on to hold back now."

At last the mind settles into stillness; the body surrenders to its wooden bench. For once I am just here, breathing.

The rest of the week I work hard, detaching from my knotty, tightly-wound ego. Its dam finally broken, my mind floods with self-awareness. It's like being on a metaphysical conference call. "You crave purpose and passion, but feel you have none," spirit says. "You're afraid to feel the fullness of the moment, of your emotions," the body chimes in. "You're afraid to explore your own depths," God adds. "And you project these fears onto the world," says the mind, in a rare moment of wisdom.

"Anicca, anicca, anicca," Goenka keeps repeating. "Change, change, change."

Once I stop fighting myself, I find joy in this simple life. Having no books, I read light glimmering on a knife and rain dangling from pine needles. Freed from chatter, I hear constant music -- plates clinking, crickets chanting, a plane blaring overhead. Barred from taking notes, I etch new insights on my heart.

Each day I watch daffodils in the garden slowly open their eyes to spring's light, after months of believing in darkness. I tune into the rise and fall of life -- sun and rain, crickets and bullfrogs, hunger and fullness, rest and exhaustion. The silence, too, will soon ebb into laughter.

When I return home to San Francisco, my life runs like a Vipassana commercial. I can winnow soulful thoughts from the ego's tricks. I radiate love and strength. I give up coffee. I listen more deeply and eat more mindfully. I even discard my absurdly detailed to-do list, which includes restaurants to try, books to read, countries to visit and groups to join. I feel like a glowing mother-to-be. Inner peace is ecstasy, after all!

That lasts a few weeks, anyway. Then I'm back to normal. But now I catch my crazy thoughts a little quicker, and let them go a little easier. I still haven't picked a path, but I've found the north star inside that's been guiding me through the wilderness all along.

© April Thompson
Reproduced on Lotus and Rose by permission from:
April Thompson, the author, and PanGaia, the original publisher (Spring 2002 issue).

April Thompson is a freelance writer, with articles published in several periodicals, as well as an on-line literary magazine.
PanGaia is a quarterly magazine containing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and photography with special emphasis on earth and nature centered spirituality.