So last night, I got back from meditating for 10 days at the Tushita Dharma Center, just above Dharamkot in North India.
It seemed like the right thing to do.
I’d moved to India exactly two months earlier, from the United States. I’d also just finished the draft of my fourth book in the urban fantasy series I’ve been working on, and while I was feeling pretty good in the afterglow of having completed that initial word vomit, the manuscript was a bit of a monster, coming in at around 195K words (which, for those non-writers out there, is really damned long).
I knew I’d be a lot better off, and that the book definitely would be, too, if I set the manuscript aside for a little bit and did something else with my brain before I tried to tackle anything resembling an edit.
So, essentially on a whim, I signed up for a Tibetan Buddhism for Beginners intensive, a 10-day “silent” meditation retreat. This was jokingly referred to as the “Club Med” retreat, as compared to the Vipassana Center next door, which threw you out on your ear is you didn’t maintain silence and had you sitting for about 10 hours out of 15 hour days, starting at four am when they woke you with loud gongs over your bed.
Meditation isn’t wholly new to me. I’ve been doing it for over ten years now, and at times practiced it pretty obsessively. I still meditate every morning, although sometimes I do a lot better at this than others. Sometimes, in fact, I’m just sitting there, doing the equivalent of humming a pithy little tune in my head, mainly to avoid going there.
But mostly…mostly…I do better than this.
The Buddhist version is new to me however, apart from a few silent Zen retreats I did in Oregon when I lived there (retreats that actually were silent). The Tibetan Buddhist version, I’d never done at all, unless you count the short meditations we did with the Dalai Lama when I’ve been lucky enough to hear him teach.
I don’t. Count those, I mean.
This would be different. I would actually be learning a whole new style of meditation, and I assumed there would be discussions of theory and philosophy so forth.
To the latter point, this was a vast, vast underestimation on my part.
During those ten days, in fact, I felt like I’d been transported back to college.
Our teacher, a rather stoic but likeable Australian who’d spent seven years studying Buddhism full time (and a lot longer than that practicing), crammed so much into those lectures that everyone was wiped out by the end of them. I ended up having to spend time frantically writing my thoughts about what he’d said during the breaks, as there was no time for anything but taking straight notes while he spoke, even though he wrote the main concepts on the whiteboard and provided us with reading.
The class erupted a few times, too.
For those who aren’t familiar with Buddhist philosophy, it can be challenging for a Western mind. Especially a Western mind that hasn’t ever really ventured outside the basic doctrines of materialism, meaning where the whole concept of the lack of an independent self and/or the lack of a non-dependent world is going to just blow your mind.
Intellectually I struggled at times, too. I got a fair bit of it from having meditated in the past and experienced some of the states they were describing, but a large number of the people in the room hadn’t ever meditated before, so they were basically coming straight from the theoretical side, and it got pretty heated.
To the teacher’s credit, I never once saw him react. Not once. And there were people practically shouting at him. I was totally impressed with his compassion, his willingness to listen to (at times) patently absurd arguments and answer them straight, as well as his overall calm.
Funnily enough, I found out later that others in the class found him “cold.”
That cracked me up…especially considering the guy in front of me, who had no qualms about lying down and reading a book during some of the lectures, came late to meditations, and/or took a little beauty nap sprawled out in the middle of the gompa (temple). I kept thinking how he would have been hauled out the door by his ear by most of the meditation teachers I’ve had…and frankly, by me, too, if I’d been teaching him.
For the most part, it was a very smart, engaged group though. They threw Kant into the mix, discussed the difference between Buddhism and various other philosophies, Buddhism and Hinduism, and for the most part were open to a real debate, not just a wank…meaning, most were really trying to understand, not just looking for an excuse to exert their previous point of view. Even so, there were casualties. The class started off with over 90 people in it. A number of them left after the first few days, and I think the final tally was closer to 65-69 people.
And the silence thing? Hmm. Let’s just say that the majority of people tried. Mostly.
As for me, it’s almost too soon to be able to say much about how it affected me, in terms of the overall. I had some intense experiences, for sure. The land where the meditation center lives is beautiful, and even the monsoon was a character in the intensive in many ways, as well as the monkeys, who were pretty funny at times. A fair number of long-term meditators live there in huts, and also in an adjacent part of the mountain we visited owned by the same center. Some of those people have been meditating full time on emptiness and the nature of existence for over 20 years, and the silence in that forest was one of the most profound things I’ve ever experienced.
So in terms of how all of that affected me, I may not know for a little while.
I did realize the value of stepping away from a book after writing it however, and really looking at what you’re doing, from more of an outsider’s perspective.
During the intensive, I found myself getting really excited about coming back to writing, in fact, if only because somewhere in all that sitting and watching my breath, and/or watching my thoughts and grappling with the concepts of compassion and emptiness and dependent arising, I remembered what I liked about the story and the characters in the first place.
More than that, I remembered who I was, under all of the craziness of moving to the other side of the world to write full time, why I wanted to leave corporate work in the first place and what drew me to see more of the world in general and Asia in particular.
Next time I finish a book, I might even go full-bore masochist and hop next door to the Vipassana folks, see if I can blow my mind even further before I move on to the next project.
At the very least, it should be quieter.
~ JC Andrijeski writes novels, short stories, nonfiction essays and articles, as well as the occasional graphic novel or screenplay. She currently lives and works in McLeod Ganj, India, where she writes full time. She can be found at www.syrimne.com
Bookingly yours book review of Rook: Allie's War Book One, click HERE