The Wisdom of the Nostril
In October, I went to a Vipassana meditation retreat, where I sat in silence in a dim room. This is the story of what that did to my brain.
Warning: Everyone’s meditation experience is different, and mine was unusually positive (and weird!). If you’re considering going on a retreat yourself, reading this might distort your expectations or spoil the experience. Proceed at your own risk.
During breaks between meditations, we walk around the grounds — a parking lot, a border of grass, half a dozen trees. What a miserable place!
Another student is circling the lot in the opposite direction. I’m supposed to ignore the other people, behave as if I were the only one in the course, but every time I pass her, I feel my calm turn to panic. How do I look? What does she think of me?
After five loops, I notice something. None of my thoughts are about her. (“What does she think of me?” doesn’t count.)
After six loops: What if she’s thinking “What is she thinking about me?”
In my 29 years, I have never had this thought. I have never passed another human being and entertained the hypothesis that they are as uninterested in me as I am in them.
In the evenings, we watch “discourses” — videos of S.N. Goenka, the founder of Vipassana centers across the globe, pontificating about his Buddhism-inspired doctrines. As the “assistant teacher,” the flesh-and-blood woman seated at the front of the meditation hall, explains, Goenka is the “real” teacher of the course. “Through these videos, he is here with us in a real way.”
That may be. Nonetheless, S.N. Goenka has been dead for six years.
The wind is enormous; the leaves swoosh in pirouetting columns. They dance together, but fall to the ground individually, the silence of touchdown always starker than I expect.
I stand in the wind, bask in the power. If we were allowed to, I’d twirl too. I’d run like I did that day, many years ago, when everything outside sang “spring!” and everything inside joined in the song — until the child I was became a sprint of joy around my home.
What a miserable place…
Until I start to notice. A glint of spiderweb in the setting sun. The coarseness of tree trunks. Each blade of grass nodding in the wind.
A glint of spiderweb in the setting sun… Then another, another, another… The whole lawn is a glistening tapestry, a portal into a new dimension.
By day 2, I suspect that this miserable parking lot contains more beauties than I could ever count.
I was a child with a backyard once. Of course a few square yards reveal a new treasure each day.
So this is happiness? Just a return to childhood? Wasn’t there something more, some promise my parents saw in me that I have yet to fulfill?
The toughest thing about not being allowed to speak is roommates. One of mine sets her alarm to snooze, then goes to the 4:30 AM meditation. When the damned thing goes off, I don’t know how to silence it without taking out the batteries. A few minutes later, she’s back, putting the batteries in and starting another round of earsplitting beeping. As if that weren’t enough, she decides that this is the perfect moment to take out her can of nauseating “air freshener” and spray it vigorously throughout the room.
There’s no way I’ll fall asleep now, so there’s nothing left to do but mutter “are you kidding me?!” under my breath and storm out to the meditation hall.
“Let go of anger; it only hurts you,” Goenka had said. I hate this advice so much. It punishes me twice: first I have to suffer the air freshener, then I have to deprive myself of the satisfaction of anger. It’s not fair!
Fair or not, following Goenka’s instructions is what I came here for. I try to make myself comfortable on the cushion, coax my mind towards the breath. Behind me, someone repeatedly shifts their position. They must be so angry at me for sitting so damned straight!
Breathe in. Breathe out. Someone coughs. I hate them with every inch of my being.
As soon as I catch myself, the anger evaporates. People were coughing all day yesterday, and I hardly noticed. So this hatred, this suffering — this came from me?
I think of every argument I’ve ever had, every argument that I didn’t start. Now, there is no one else to blame.
Towards my roommate, I feel only gratitude.¹
The visions start with trees. I close my eyes to meditate and see a pine swaying in rainy wind, the color sapped by soft mist. It’s like something from Planet Earth, only realer. There is so much space it takes my breath away. Except… the breath is what I’m supposed to be focusing on.
Goenka had said to meditate and ignore thoughts. That I can do — but what about visions? Didn’t he also said never to meditate with our eyes open, because it’s too distracting? What if my eyes remain open to sights no matter how tightly I shut them?
“Can we follow the breath?” I had asked my brain. “Boring!” it had answered. “I’ll turn on the TV.”
I am happy here, and peaceful, but I’m starting to get impatient. Why am I looking at spiderwebs and grasses? Wasn’t I supposed to be figuring out my life? Taking this time to think about how to be a better person? Learning about my values, what I want to accomplish in this life? Finding my fatal flaw, the hidden part of me I keep tripping over?
When I close my eyes to meditate, I see a dozen signs, broken into pieces.
They all say “THINK.”
95% of the words I hear here are hypnotically repeated by a dead person.
“PA-tient-ly and per-SIS-tent-ly,” Goenka reminds us in a singsong voice at the start of each meditation.
During the evening discourse, he insists that what he is teaching isn’t a religion. “This is not sectarian! This is universal!” he articulates.
As if that settled it — as if any sect thought its beliefs something other than universal.
“What are my values?” I wonder again. Goenka is stuck in my head: “This is not sectarian; this is universal.”
Suddenly, I understand. I thought I was free to pick and choose my values; I had wanted to stamp my name on everything, even on morality: to be not just good, but good in my own special way. But there is only one morality, and it is universal, captured in the phrase: May all beings be happy.
But how to follow that phrase? I hardly give a thought to morality in my life. I’m not altruistically motivated. I fear I’m not a very good person.
Another thought comes. Don’t be good. Just be. Do good.
We focus on our breath. I have visions of tunnels: long, profound, and with light at the end. If they didn’t always come in pairs, I’d think they were the path to enlightenment.
As it stands, they are probably nostrils.
What do I want from this life?
In my heart of hearts, I know: I want to be special. To accomplish something utterly unique, be unquestionably best.
There are 7.5 billion people alive on this planet. Billions more came before, there are trillions to come. Me — special? Best at anything?
I realize I have been hiding this fact, the fact of the world’s populousness, from myself. Now, face-to-face with this terrifying reality, I am flooded with a wave of… relief, happiness, love.
7.5 billion people, billions before, trillions to come. Not one of them any less important than me. Is anything more beautiful than this?
In the breeze, each leaf is a hand: waving, flicking, twitching. How have I never noticed? Had my brain been editing out all this, fabricating a static, stabler world for me, for fear I couldn’t handle this much change? Had I said, thought something that made it believe I wanted that? “I’m a painter, edit out the motion?”
What had that static world been like? I search through memory and come up empty handed. The breeze, the sum of the leaves’ flapping — but not the flapping… What was it that I saw, before I could see?
We focus on our breath. I feel every one of of my nose hairs. I see a statue of a Buddha, an index finger stuck up each nostril.
I expected to be bored here: sitting motionless and with closed eyes for ten hours a day, talking to no one, circling a tiny parking lot. In fact, I am overwhelmed, overstimulated. When my eyes are open, every square inch of my visual field is crowded with beauty. Closing them is even worse; that’s when the visions happen.
I am sick of beauty; I only want a scrap of rest for my eyes. I sit under a tree and direct my eyes to the most boring thing I can find: a patch of dried grass.
The grass, strewn with warm-colored, richly corrugated leaves, twists all in one direction — as if someone had carefully combed through a head of stiff, golden curls. It takes my breath away.
You don’t always get what you want — but maybe you do get what you need.
We focus on our breath.
In the left half of my visual field, there is an otter. Slowly and perfectly peacefully, it’s turning its face from left to right. Its nose, majestically lifted to the heavens, twitches like a rabbit’s, encircled by a halo of the most spectacular whiskers I have ever seen.
The vision is so insanely beautiful, so beautifully insane, that meditating feels futile. Instead, I uncross my legs and bask in the glow of those whiskers.
Touché, brain, touché.
 While you can’t talk to the fellow students, you can speak to the retreat manager about any problems. So eventually I asked her to confront my roommate about the air freshener.