The first few days, as I've said, we focused on breathing and I nearly lost my mind. Not actually, but a lot of effort went into keeping myself seated, not running off to go to the bathroom or looking for some other escape.
We woke up at 4 each morning, so one method of escape was to fall asleep. When I found out we could meditate in our own rooms for some of the sessions, I started going there to get away from the gurgling stomachs, heavy, phlegmy breathing, and everyone's shifting legs and arms. There was no other place to sit in our room than the bed, and I quickly found myself crawling into my sleeping bag to catch up on the sleep I thought I needed.
Another avenue of escape were the meals. I was happy to find on the first full day that we had one spectacular escape for breakfast: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! This was completely unexpected and I reveled in at least one sandwich each morning with a tall glass of rice milk. The breakfasts were the most relaxing part of the day somehow: though we were expected to use our time while eating to meditate as well, I threw that pretty much out the window. For me it was the time to do something and to think. It was a relief when the rest of the retreat was entirely devoted to doing your best to turn off thought; here I could slip back into that ol' habit, indulging my ego and its many prejudices.
There was one other activity in the "downtime" between meditation sessions. There was a beautiful desert out there in Twentynine Palms, and the grounds included a pleasant walking course complete with landscaped native cacti and stone. I think I discovered this on the second day, and I bundled up and did a few turns on the track. It was the only place other than the dark meditation hall that we men could see the women taking the course. Though they were very far away, their pink jackets and long hair encouraged a dip into uncomfortable memories of longing and rejection. Just as in everyday life these reveries weren't completely unwelcome, but it stirred up unhealthy energy. During these walks I also enjoyed the snow-tipped heights of the San Bernadino Mountains to the west, but with more melancholy appreciation than dark reaction.
But of course the real work of the retreat was done in the meditation hall, and there I faced one of the most important experiences of my life, though the memory is faint now: the dissolution of pain.
The first few days, we focused on the breath during meditation, then moved to experiencing the feelings caused by the breath in our nose, then to feeling the sensations of breath on the upper lip. At last Goenka introduced vipassana and the real fun began. We were prepared that evening for the next day, and Goenka warned us that from the next day on we would be asked to sit without moving for the whole hour during certain scheduled sessions.
Up to this point I was doing my best to keep in position, without moving, but I didn't push my limits. In fact, I found myself in a lot of pain even for the short periods I did manage to sit still. My spine was out of whack near the bottom, and I spent a good deal of my time focused not on my breath but on the pain and pressure this caused as I tried to sit up straight. I did push through, though, and my spine began to adjust. By the time Goenka introduced this latest requirement, I had popped and twisted the thing into a fair semblance of straightness. This may have helped my pivotal realization later, but it was not the only thing. Still, even though I was doing better, my experience with pain to that point made me feel that maybe I just wouldn't be able to meditate for long; maybe I was broken somehow.
I decided to go ahead and give the one hour meditation a try that first night. I was determined; at this point I was beginning to really get deep into meditation, and I was amazed and inspired by the old students who sat for hours with their eyes closed, unperturbed, without moving. Ha, thinking of it now, I wasn't so much interested in being better able to meditate—though I was certainly frustrated that I couldn't get very deep before my legs itched to move—it was more a competitive desire to be as good as the old students. Kind of sad.
I sat. I sat. It certainly wasn't my first sit, in that retreat alone I'd already sat about 30 hours, I think. I sat. I focused my attention on sensations. I sat. My back started to hurt. I sat. It crept up, the pain, and I could ignore it at first. I just moved somewhere else. And I sat. But after a while it became my world. I didn't move. I wasn't Jesse, I wasn't a body, I wasn't my breath, I wasn't anything but a collection of painful sensations in my legs and back. It became excruciating, and turned into that thing the Buddha used in his first discourse to lay down the truth of the world: suffering. It became more than pain: it was the hurt I felt when I failed, was rejected, when I felt lonely. For some reason, sitting there on a cushion became entirely a metaphor for everything else, instead of what it was: me sitting on a cushion. Time didn't pass. But I sat. I didn't move. I thought many times over I would lose my mind. I was tantalized by the thought of moving slightly to make the pain calm, but I didn't. I wanted to try to make it the whole hour. Obviously, others could do it. Surely I could too? So I sat and I sat and I sat and I sat and I sat.
Then the croaking began. Goenka's song never sounded so beautiful. I had won! Not only was it something others could do, it was something I could do, did do! The last time I felt so powerful was after I quit smoking many years ago.
Of course, that was just the beginning, but it marked a complete change in my meditation, and I knew I could meditate indefinitely. The insights about pain, though, came in one of the next few meditations.
During this session, I was working on vipassana, not following the breath, and so I was going over my body as I sat there. About thirty minutes in the familiar pain began in my lower back. I was moving around my body feeling sensations, but the pain began to take precedence. I put it aside, and focused on where I was in my scan. Finally I came to my lower back and something incredible happened.
As I felt the pain, I also felt that it wasn't real.
This realization is kind of hard to explain if you haven't spent hours meditating using the vipassana method. A central idea of vipassana, and Buddhism in general, is called in Pali anicca, or impermanence. Everything is constantly changing, and you can see after a while that nothing is real in the sense that it is permanent, will always be there separate from all other things. I had seen this before in other sensations: an itch catches my attention, but I keep moving; when I come back it is no longer there. So what was it? Was it a "thing"? Did it have a reality? Did it not?
Sorry, I won't get too heavy here. This is something you have to experience, but I'll just describe it in the hopes that someone will understand me now or in the future. In any case, I began to see that the pain was just like all these other sensations that had come and gone. It wasn't a "thing", it was just a feeling, and I could react to it or not. I could get up and shake my legs out. I could shift slightly, that would do something, too. Or I could accept it and continue to live and see where that took me.
Where it took me is a little down the rabbit hole. As I accepted it, the pain disappeared. When I brought my attention to the location of the pain, the pain disappeared. Over the course of a few minutes I roved around the painful areas and was able to use my attention like an eraser: wherever it went, the pain dissolved. Completely gone. I sat out the rest of the session without pain.
This didn't happen every time, but from then on pain was much less a concern than it once was. I don't think I moved for the rest of the sessions for the rest of the retreat, seven more days. It was incredible.
There are a lot of implications that I still haven't gotten a handle on. For one, could I control pain from, say, a paper cut or a burn? Was the pain in my legs and back purely "made up", unlike some other kind of pain? I don't know, and it makes me wonder some times.
But I have no doubt that the pain was largely a way of drawing my attention away from meditation. If you've meditated for any length of time, you know that your mind throws a billion things at you to try to get you to react. In a retreat, these stimuli become less and less powerful and some of the deeper and stronger things, like pain, come up. Also powerful is sexual desire and itching. These two came up for me very strongly later. This battle with pain was a step in understanding my own reactions that are always pushing me but that need not control me.
I have to edit this to add the obvious point: I wasn't broken, and neither are you. It has taken me my entire life to realize it, but if you're still standing, or sitting, or doing something to keep life in you, you are still capable of living, loving, being, and you can experience happiness in this lifetime, not some other that you imagine will come.