Sunday, September 27, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 22

MONDAY, JULY 13, 2009, 10:21 PM

During Shinzen’s goodbye talk on Sunday morning, he thanked us for allowing him to lead the Yaza, something he rarely gets a chance to do. He asked if we understood why he was thanking us. He explained that, on most retreats, he doesn’t have the luxury of staying up all night then being tired and spacey the next couple of days. In this case, he could take that risk because we were so together and chilled out as a group.  Usually, he has to be prepared with putting out various fires, to deal with students having an emotional meltdown. I felt all warm and fuzzy from that complement. I had had several emotional incidents, but dealt with them mindfully.
Several students expressed similar feeling during the talking circle that followed Shinzen’s talk. This had been an unusually profound retreat. Or, like me, they’d had a renewed connection with the practice after several years of drifting away. When it was my turn to “manifest” (I raised my hand and waited for Shinzen to call on me), I shared along similar lines. I had gotten a lot more out of this retreat than the previous one. It was more than my decision to stay on site instead of commuting. I committed to participate fully, to be receptive and open. “Participation is the key to harmony”; this concept can be applied to all areas of my life. I can choose to participate in my primary relationship, in politics, in my neighborhood. The question is, what am I going to participate in, and how much do I commit to each one? Luckily, I don’t have to do it perfectly.
Ray “manifested” that he was trying to come out of his shell, join the human race (my words, not his). He had volunteered to lead the walking meditation and put his facilitation sign-up sheet on the table with that purpose in mind. He’d dropped his sheet off in the morning and checked it later to find that nobody had signed up. Okay, don’t take it personally. He checked it again later, found that his roommate had signed up. “Great, a mercy facilitation”. Okay; it could still work… He was afraid I’d stand him up… (he sounded like he’s as big a basket case as I am) “It turned out to be a good session”, he concluded.
Ray and I sat at the same table during the final lunch; he asked me if I was on the contact list. I thought I probably was, but wasn’t sure. Ray said that there was a box one could check on the registration form that specified if one wanted to be on the contact list. I don’t know if I checked it or not.

On of the issues I discussed with Ray in our facilitation session was my fear that I’d revert to my old non-mindful ways when I returned to my regular life. It’s been a week since the retreat; I’ve managed to meditate everyday, and have remained away of the various components of my F.I.T. space. I’m mindful during dinner, though I’ve backslid on breakfast and lunch. My spouse, John, eats mindfully with me at dinner; we’ve kept the TV turned off and don’t read while we eat. I’ve spent most of my time typing up this blog. Once it’s off my plate, I’ll be fully ready to return to my life.
I feel like I should come up with a grand summation, but in Life, nothing ever really ends.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 21

SUNDAY, JULY 12, 2009, 7:47 AM
            I have regretted not signing up with other facilitators besides Pam. “Participation is the key to harmony” has been my mantra/motto during the retreat, and I dropped the ball on facilitator talks. It would have been a chance to get to know various people, an otherwise difficult endeavor during a silent retreat. Yesterday morning I made one last look on the sign-in sheet table to see if there were any open slots I missed. I spotted a fresh page with 2 slots, both available. I checked the name; Shit, it was my roommate, Ray. He sort of freaks me out; what if we have a session and it’s awkward and weird? I sighed, checked my motives. I would be passing on the opportunity due to cowardice and regret it thereafter. The 2 slots were at 1:30 and 3:00 PM. The latter would conflict with the First Timers session, so I wrote my name down in the earlier slot. And immediately regretted it when I remembered the lunch eating meditation, which usually breaks up around 1:45. Should I cross out my name? No, that would be too weird. I guess I could leave the eating meditation early; others have done that, making the “namaste” bow on their way out.
            As it happened, we ran into each other in the room before lunch. I asked for a slight postponement because of the eating meditation and he said acceded.

        We met in the library nook and moved outside, to the white plastic lawn chairs in under a shady tree near the circular courtyard. I didn’t have an agenda in terms of questions about my practice; I wanted to get to know him a little, as much as anything else.
Ray is about as tall as I, trim but not gaunt, with a shaved bald and a white beard coming in. He said he was 68. His favorite form of meditation is FOCUSING ON INTERNAL TALK. He likes to go on walks, both brisk and super-slow. He was the leader of the walking (super-slow) meditation session on Wednesday afternoon that I attended. He alternates between sitting and walking meditation as a way to deal with the physical discomfort and boredom, doing mostly TALK meditation. I said I like to walk as well, but that I do FOCUS OUT.  He replied that he starts to space out on FOCUS OUT after about 10 minutes; he strongly recommended I try TALK.
In fact, he led me in a TALK session right then, having me sit with my eyes closed, labeling TALK and QUIET as the states arose. I was frustrated; I found a lot of unnecessary TALK arising in response to the noting and labeling process itself. I told Ray this.
By way of answering, Ray shared about his history with the TALK technique. He’d thought of himself as a “cold German”. He’d attend retreats and didn’t interact, doing the extensive walking meditations as almost a “fuck you” to the other attendees. He’d get more and more alienated throughout each retreat.
            Finally, he discussed the matter with Shinzen during an on-line session. Shinzen had Ray focus on the TALK, teasing apart the IMAGE and FEEL aspects. Up until this time, Ray had been meditating in desperation, attempting to quiet the voices in his head. Something shifted during this session; when Shinzen checked in later, he asked how Ray was doing with the voices. Ray said, “Fine’. At least for the moment, those voices no longer had the power to upset him.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 20

SATURDAY, JULY 11, 2009, 7:45 PM


            How does one find the still point of the turning world?
            Each time one notices a vanishing, one becomes adverted (?) to where phenomena arises from. One can’t actually see it, but if you witness enough turnings, one can get a sense of it.  One can turn one’s attention toward “it”, but the source itself is not turning.
            If you persevere the “Do Nothing” technique, nothing will “do you”.
            -DO NOTHING
            Some travelers on this journey encounter power beings, or acquire special powers. One has several options at this point.
            -One can freak out and leave the path.
            -One can get addicted to the special powers, getting sidetracked from the true direction (toward Zero Point) and become a new age spiritual capitalist materialist.
            -One can realize that these experiences are only FEEL/IMAGE/TALK, and not get sidetracked.
            -All mystic paths have one common denominator: the development of HIGH CONCENTRATION.
            -Another common denominator is EQUANIMITY. It manifests as ASCTETICISM (self-denial, self-torture) in Christianity.
            Shinzen ended the talk by reading excerpts from “The Four Quartets”, by T. S. Elliot. He prefaced his readings by explaining that it was a long poem about the path of liberation written during the dark days of WW 11 in England. The poem had many similarities in theme to Shinzen’s dharma talks throughout the retreat.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 19

SATURDAY, JULY 11, 2009, 8:05 AM

I wish I’d taken notes on last night’s dharma talk. I’d been frustrated by the previous ones, bored and sort of alienated, which is weird, because I usually dig listening to Shinzen on the radio. He’d been discussing his concept of God in terms of Zero Point, the source of all being in various aspects and strategies for trying to perceive and approach this… whatever. I hadn’t been able to go there with him. Last night, however, he tied it all together. He spoke of his version of the liberation path as a sort of conceptual triangle: ONE source, TWO (of something else; subjective vs. objective? This is why I wish I’d taken notes…), THREE core skills (concentration, clarity and equanimity), FOUR quadrants of happiness, FIVE traditions necessary to the working of the liberation path (CTART; Concepts, Teachers, Application, Rhythm (of daily practice and periodic retreats, and Technique), and SIX themes (see Five Ways-Six Themes handout).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 18

SATURDAY, JULY 11, 2009, 6:05 AM
Friday’s Conscious Eating Meditation Lunch was especially profound. One of the sitters quipped that Pam should charge money for the sessions, or go into business. Pam said, “Funny you should ask”, and told us that she was going into business, that her business cards were on the table next to her facilitation sign in sheet. (I picked up one of her cards later.  The card says, “Eating Dynamics; An integrative approach to eating, weight management and nutritional health. Pam Tarlow, Pharm. D; Interactive Pharmacist.
Tel: 310-798,5772; Fax: 310-427-6545;; )
            Each lunch, Pam focuses on a different aspect of mindful eating. Yesterday, she instructed us to choose a technique and apply it while we waited for everyone to arrive and for her to deliver her pre-meal talk. She suggested some variation on FOCUS IN, but since I’d been working with FOCUS OUT all morning (which allowed me to keep my eyes open while meditating, thus helping me to stay awake) I decided to continue with it.
            We were instructed to take two mindful sips of water as a group. Then we slowly took our first bite, holding it our mouths a few seconds before we chewed and swallowed. We then noticed whether food tastes the same at the beginning of a mouthful as at the end; to pay as much attention to our last mouthful of the meal as to the first, to pause at any point in the meal so that we can have another “first bite”, and to pay attention to our own internal signaling as to w hen we should come out of that pause; to periodically direct our attention to our stomachs (are the full, do we need to keep eating?); to eat each food item divorced from our history with it, as though we were eating it for the very first time.

        Toward the end of each eating session, Pam would invite us to share our experiences. One eater said she experimented with setting her fork down between each mouthful. When she held on to it, she discovered issues of driven-ness arose. Putting the fork down created a mindful mini-pause between each bite. (I tried it, found she was right.) Don said he was so used to eating unconsciously that, even if he’d eaten an excellent meal, he’s scarcely aware of haven eaten it.
Several eaters shared their issues and negative judgements toward those of us who had meat with our meals. As an omnivore, I feel under a certain amount of pressure. I’m not defensive; I’m like an alcoholic who hasn’t hit bottom. I’d like to be a vegetarian; I’ve tried at least 3 times over the years to stop eating meat. But I can’t seem to make it stick. I’d love it if there were a 12 Step program for carnivores. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 17

FRIDAY, JULY 10, 2009. 3:00 PM


PEACE (the absence of FEEL)
BLANK (the absence of IMAGE)
QUIET (the absence of TALK)
One can meditate in TALK space, noting TALK versus QUIET in the rhythmic way previously established, noting each aspect as it momentarily arises. The same can be done with BLANK vs. IMAGE, and PEACE vs. FEEL, etc.

RELAXATION (the absence of TOUCH)
LIGHT (the absence of SIGHT)          
SILENCE (the absence of SOUND)
One can meditate in SOUND space, noting SOUND vs. SILENCE in the rhythmic was previously established, noting each aspect as it momentarily arises. The same can be done with RELAXATION vs. TOUCH, and LIGHT vs. SIGHT.


“The still point on the turning world”. Absolute Zero (Ain Soph Aur—a kabbalist term referring to the deeper reality behind God);
1)    Point yourself toward “Zero” (noting the vanishings).
2)    Cease pointing at anything (the “Do Nothing”) technique.
The intention is to control one’s attention (to one’s thoughts or anything else).
-Let whatever happens happen, whatever arises arise. Whenever one finds oneself trying to control your attention, stop and return to letting whatever arises arise.
-An INTENTION is something at one can easily chose to do or not do. If one are unable to do it, it is not an intention by our definition.
-One is not expected to monitor, moment by moment, every arising of one’s intention to control one’s attention. One can become aware any time one manages to do so.
-Technique should be practiced in silence with eyes shut for several sessions before one attempts to take it out into the world, like, say, on walks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 16

           The Yaza started at 10:30 pm, and was divided into half hour sits, with different students signing up to lead. There were about 10 of us altogether. Terry had suggested that we move our chairs or cushions closer to the dais to give each other support instead of remaining scattered around the large room sinking into senescent oblivion. Shinzen was slated to lead the first couple hours, but ended up leading the entire Yaza. He didn’t rise or noticeably shift in his seated posture for the entire 6.5 hours, except when every sitter, except me, took snack break, around 3:00 AM. (My time sense of the Yaza is fuzzy, so all times are approximate.)

It was kind of interesting how that went down. Terry led most of the group on the first optional outdoors walking meditation around 1:00 AM. We returned to the main building around 1:30 with the intention of indulging in the general snack display Choshin had laid out earlier. Terry poked his head into the Zendo to alert Shinzen and the remaining sitters about the snack break. He rejoined us a second later, saying the vibe inside the Zendo was incredible and suggested we postpone snacking to join the sit. Somewhat resentfully, I put back my paper plate and returned to the Zendo with the others, silently taking my meditation station.
            Some time later, Shinzen stuck the gong 3 times, indicating the beginning of a sitting session (one strike indicates the end of a session). I seemed to be the only one stirring or opening his eyes. I couldn’t figure out what was happening; my negative talk kicked in. Was this some kind of head game? I assumed we were waiting for some sort of cue from Shinzen. After about 10more minutes, I stood up and exited the Zendo, digging into the snacks on my lonesome. I tried to be mindful as I ate (as opposed to feeling resentful, guilty or worried). Finally, I flashed on Shinzen’s promise of tea and saki, neither of which I could find on the snack table. Maybe Shinzen had pulled out the saki after I’d left and was sharing it with the students who’d had the forbearance or docility to stay seated while I’d been driven from the Zendo by my internal talk.
            I poked my head back into the Zendo, but the lights were off; pitch blackness within. Yeow! I quickly withdrew, sat back in the reading nook/library. After a couple of minutes, I thought better of it, and screwing up my courage, re-entered the Zendo. My eyes quickly adjusted; the room was fairly well lit by ambient outdoor light from the bank of floor-to-ceiling picture windows. The overhead lights suddenly clicked on when I was halfway to my station. I was startled, but recalled that all the lights in the Center were motion controlled, turning off if there was no movement (for a period of time I couldn’t estimate), then turned back on at the wave of one’s hand or the lifting of a cup of green tea 2 one’s mouth. (I’ve no doubt the Sisters conceived this as an energy saving strategy, but it struck me as rather wasteful in practice. But what do I know? Not much, apparently; I’m continually being confronted, at this retreat, with the lesson that I don’t know what the Hell is going on.)
            I made it to my chair without further embarrassment. Eventually, the pattern became clearer to me—Shinzen would strike the gong bowl once every half hour. I don’t know why he struck it thrice that one time, or why he bothered at all. It was an open sit; one could come and go as one pleased (though nobody seemed to take advantage of this).  Eventually, Shinzen struck the gong and stood up, announcing the snack break. I remained seated while everyone else left the room. (Maybe that’s when they had the saki.)
            Terry led two walking meditations during the Yaza,
            On the first walk, we followed him into the back courtyard, and half way down a ramp towards the duck pond/fountain where he bade us stand and wait. He instructed us to note SIGHT and SOUND space in terms of six quadrants: right, left, front, back, up and down. Noting SITE space, he had us fix our gaze on the view in front of us and scan the quadrants (up, down, right, left) without moving our focal point. He directed us to note how our bodies changed as we did this. (I couldn’t sense any change.)

  On the second walk, around 3:30 AM, Terry took us to the front courtyard, lined us up closely to one another around its circular perimeter. He asked for a volunteer to lead the walk. Nobody else stepped forward, so, to expedite things, I did. He had me walk briskly and for everyone behind me to follow me in lock step. After a few minutes of this, he bade us change direction. Now I was in the rear, having to follow in lock step myself. This was more interesting. It took complete mindfulness to follow the woman directly in front of me as closely as possible without colliding with her or stepping on her heels.


            I took 3 naps of about an hour’s duration each during the rest of the day. I woke up in time for my 7:45 AM session with Pam. She had me meditate on FEEL, noting where bodily sensations associated with emotion occurred in my body. As previously, my throat and face centers activated them when I put my attention on them. Oddly, my forearms activated in the same way, becoming rather warm, even though they weren’t in sunlight (we were sitting outdoors, in the shade). I also found my eyes glimmering with teariness. I recalled last Thursday’s appointment with my chiropractor/nutritionist, and how tears streamed down my face as he muscle-tested me to find the proper dosage of food supplements. I told Pam how I go through periods of free-floating anger or sadness, where everything seems to piss me off or make my sad. At the retreat, I seemed to be going through free-floating equanimity. Pam said that often happens to sitters on retreats.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 15

FRIDAY, JULY 10, 2009, 7:37 AM
            I did the Yaza sit last night, staying up until 5:00 AM. I wanted to see if I could bring concentration, clarity and equanimity to falling asleep in my chair. (I had abandoned trying to sit in the half-lotus position on my meditation cushion around midnight). Instead of avoiding doing the “Zen Lurch”, I tried to make it the object of my meditation. My difficulty is, I zone out, going into TALK right before I nod off, only catching myself after I lurch forward and snap back into momentary wakefulness. I was unable to bring concentration and clarity to this process, but was able to have equanimity (one out of three ain’t bad).


         Prior to the start of the Yaza (10:30 PM), I walked the labyrinth in the chapel. Choshin had written an announcement on the dry erase board announcing that the Center had made one available to be walked at any time, 24/7.  I decided I’d rather do this than another hour of sitting. I hoped I wasn’t jumping the gun; the Yaza schedule indicated there would be 2 walking meditation sessions during the night. Terry would lead us. He’s one of the facilitators and he always seems to be in a happy, laughing mood, ready with a smile and a hug. (He reminds me of a male version of the main character from the recent Mike Leigh movie, “Happy Go Lucky”)

To reach the labyrinth, one had to pass through the Garden Room and pass through the doors at the left/front of the room. Upon entering the chapel, I found the labyrinth to be a replica of the one on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. The labyrinth is also duplicated on a hilltop at Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Glendale, California, which I have also walked a few times. That model is constructed from black and white bricks. The one at the Center was the same size, approximately 100 feet in diameter, with the path itself being about 1 foot wide. It was printed in black and white on a large canvas pentagon, stretched out in the center of the chapel floor. There was a sign by the door demanding that it be walked only in stocking feet, or wearing the surgical booties obligingly provided in a nearby box.

            When I entered another student, Angela, a perky, petite, auburn haired young woman, was partially through the labyrinth. She walked it as quickly as possible, holding her arms out at right angles sto keep her balance as she glided around the hairpin turns. I had to step out of her path as she made her return journey.
            In contrast to Angela’s high-speed approach, I was doing walking meditation, taking each step as slowly as possible, but maintaining one’s balance at all times. It reminds me of Tai Chi; one goes through the poses prepared to be able to stop and maintain one’s balance at any point. It takes full concentration to maintain one’s equilibrium walking so slowly and continually.  

I felt I should try to use the labyrinth-walk as a form of prayer. I’m currently reading 2 books, “Bread in the Wilderness”, by Thomas Merton, and “The Coming of the Cosmic Christ”, by Matthew Fox, I’ve found in the Center’s library. These books (and being in the Center itself) have rendered me more receptive than usual to the Christian mindset. I walked the labyrinth route silently reciting the St. Francis of Assisi prayer like a mantra, trying to focus on POSITIVE FEEL.
However, the floor of the chapel was obdurate marble and my feet and ankles were starting to feel pretty sore by the time I reached the center of the labyrinth 45 minutes later. I walked the return route at normal pace, exiting 10 minutes later.v

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 14


1)    Why are my emo centers lighting up just because I focus on them?
(Pam’s Answer): Shinzen’s system is about noting what is, not particularly in explaining things. The phenomenon I describe is interesting, though. It might be interesting to scan what other body areas feelings arise in, such as the arms, ankles, knees, etc. In fact, Shinzen has a technique for this very purpose.
2)    Have you any thoughts about my emo centers mapping so handily onto my chakra system? And about the instances when they don’t map?
(Pam’s Answer): You might want to study the emotional flavor called “INTEREST” (or “DISINTEREST”, which seems much more apropos for me these days). Shinzen has a list of all the flavors of FEEL; the point isn’t to manipulate but to note them.
Also, your ANGER may manifest most of the time in a certain emotional center, but other times somewhere else; in other words, it can shift, move.
3)    I’m considering participating in tonight’s Yaza (an all-night sit). My problem isn’t so much staying awake but tolerating the extreme bodily discomfort that arises in my buttocks, back and right knee when I sit for more than twenty minutes. What do I do?
(Pam’s Answer): It’s okay to do stretches every 20 minutes in the Yaza. Also, entering and leaving the Zendo is permitted during a Yaza. Stretches done in the Zendo should be slow, mindful and silent so as not to disturb the other sitters.

Last night, Ray broke the vow of silence to ask me if I intended to do the Yaza. I told him I feared sitting for so long because of the bodily pain. He recommended that I buy an “inversion table”. This would stretch out my spine, keeping it suppler than it would be otherwise. He’s been using one for about 10 years.
I asked if he intended to do the Yaza; he said he was too old for that shit.


   I entered the Zendo during lunch break and did a sketch from my meditation station. I tried to do it as meditation, to be as silent as possible. I focused on the sound of the pen scratching across the page of my journal, and the popping sound of the ham of my hand or my forearm as I lifted it from the paper. Eventually, students began to return in preparation for the 2:30 sit; I continued sketching surreptitously as the sit leader thrice struck the bell gong, finishing just before 3:00 PM and the beginning of the daily First Timers Session. I debated whether or not to show the drawing to Shinzen after the session. As the meeting broke up, I asked him if drawing could be used as meditation. “Certainly”, he answered. “We’ve had sessions on Photography as meditation, and he listed several other media that have been used over the years. He said that someday he wants to do a retreat that uses nothing but art as meditation. I decided not to show and tell, and turned to leave. He spoke again, saying “however, some of the most fucked-up people I’ve ever met have been artists. At that point, I said to myself , “What the Hell”  and pulled out my journal, showing him the Zendo sketch. He was very impressed, said that it showed “true artistry” and asked if I was a professional artist. The remaining stragglers in the Garden Room were also impressed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 13

THURSDAY, JULY 9, 2009, 5:45 AM

            I didn’t make it to the Zendo until 5:38 AM, too late for the 5:30 AM chanting session. I had thought I might be able to get in; things rarely seem to start on time around here. However the red light (on the molding between the wall and floor next to the Zendo door) was lit. As I looked down at the light, I heard the clacking of the wooden stick against the wooden “bell” as Shinzen beat out the time of the chant on the other side of the closed door. (We chant “Ohm Mani Padme Hum” (“The Jewel in the Lotus”), with a beat on each syllable, very slowly at first so that each syllable takes all of one’s breath, then more and more rapidly so that the entire mantra is said in one breath. It is quite energizing and all consuming.) Yet I couldn’t hear the chanting at all. This is very odd, especially given how thin the walls seem to be around here.   

THURSDAY, JULY 9, 2009, 9:05 AM

At yesterday afternoon’s First Timer session, we were instructed to note our emotional centers as a means to getting in touch with FEEL. I found my emo centers “lighting up”, so to speak, as I focused on them, especially the centers at my throat and face. This was odd, since I was feeling pretty emotionally detached.
A few hours later, I had the insight that my emotional centers seemed to map out pretty directly onto my chakras. I’m missing emo centers in my second and seventh charkas, and have 3 centers in my sixth. Other than that, there seems to be some sort of correspondence. And why do my face and throat centers activate every time I focus on them?v

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 12

WEDNESDAY, JULY 8, 2009, 7:45 PM


            Shinzen handed out a flier detailing his theory of TOTAL HAPPINESS.  The theory has 4 quadrants; 2 quadrants  “For Yourself”, and 2 quadrants “For Others”. These 2 quadrants are divided into “Conditional” and “Unconditional”. “Conditional Happiness For Yourself” is basically when you get what you want, when you want it, avoiding confusion. “Unconditional Happiness For Yourself” is getting fulfillment, avoiding suffering, knowing your spiritual essence, manifesting your best behavior and performance. “Conditional Happiness For Others” is helping them get what they want when they want it, avoiding confusion, etc. “Unconditional Happiness For Others” is teaching the path on the subtle level (people notice your improved behavior and vibe and, hopefully be uplifted by it), at the descriptive level (you can clearly describe your practice when asked), at the explicit level (become an official teacher of the practice), and becoming a World Master (like Buddha or Jesus Christ). One works toward attaining these happiness quadrants by developing the core skills of
1)    Power of Concentration
2)    Sensory Clarity
3)    Sensory Equanimity

Shinzen gets asked the same question all the time, which is: If one achieves SENSORY EQUANIMITY, won’t one become passive, victimized, ineffectual and vulnerable to external events? Shinzen assured us that this was not the case.  He contrasted the bodhisattva, who, after achieving enlightenment, hangs around until all sentient beings have become enlightened, and (the word for it escapes me) the other kind of enlightened being who takes the opportunity to get off the wheel of karma. The idea is to stay engaged with the world.
POWER OF CONCENTRATION is the ability to attend to whatever you want for as long as you want.
These 3 skills impact all the dimensions of human happiness.
Shinzen did a sales pitch for Thursay’s Yaza, (all-night sit). Each retreat has a Yaza; Shinzen recommended it highly, averring that sleep deprivation can lower one’s defenses greatly, helping one break through to greater depths of one’s practice. He continued that there would be a tea break about half way through the night with a really excellent spread, including saki and pure Japanese powdered green tea.
I found the idea of doing the Yaza both attractive and frightening. We’ll see.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 11

WEDNESDAY, JULY 8, 2009, 3:00 PM



            One can simply observe and note the subjective states if one desires
            It doesn’t matter if one does FOCUS IN or FOCUS OUT, but one has to know which one it is that one is doing.
            One can note specific flavors of FEEL or not FEEL generically. For instance if I get pissed off while meditating, I can note the physical sensation of anger in my body and say “feel”.
            All the labeling systems can be subdivided thusly. The problem can arise that this seems too much like thinking (I have experienced this). The process is like learning to drive. At first a lot of thinking is required; after about 6 months, very little conscious thought is required.
            F.I.T. space is reactive, in that it responds to outside stimulus. I.E., events or thoughts can arise that evoke an emotional response.
            F.I.T. space is proactive, in that it can go off on its own, or be consciously manipulated. I.E., one can purposefully recall events that provoke desired emotionalv 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 10

WEDNESDAY, JULY 8, 2009, 1:35 PM
            Pam Tarlow, one of the student/facilitators, leads a daily mindful eating meditation session during lunch. I did it for the first time today. Ironically, lunch was uncharacteristically late being served. We waited in line at the buffet table, about 15 minutes, for the arrival of the last bowl of food (corn chips) to complete the turkey taco salad main course. I was sort of amused; another opportunity to focus on unpleasant emotions (in this case, IMPATIENCE). Finally, Chosin suggested to the kitchen staff that we not wait any longer; the chips would be brought to us at our tables.
            Pam instructed us to wait until everyone was seated around the three large circular tables set up for this purpose at the bend in the “L” of the row of student dorm rooms. Then she launched into a Dharma talk, inviting us to focus on the visual field, referencing Shin Zen’s morning lesson to the Continuing Students on FOCUS OUT. (I knew about FOCUS OUT because I had done that meditation in one of Shin Zen’s Sunday teleconference retreats last year). Pam directed us to do FOCUS OUT, concentrating on the visual appeal of the food on our plate, on the tactile sense of our hands, at the moment inactive but expectantly holding the utensils that would bring the food to our lips, our mouth. We could focus on eating in terms of texture, of hot/cold, spicy or bland…
            Yadda yadda yadda. I got annoyed as she went on and on, wishing she would shut up so I could start eating. I smiled to myself once again. This would make a good joke for “King of the Hill”. The Hills go to a meditation retreat, where they have to wait before eating while the teacher/facilitator gives an endless talk about eating while their food gets cold and they do a slow burn… I can totally see the comic possibilities. Yet it was all grist for the focusing mill.
             As the meal progressed, (when we were finally allowed to eat) I realized, as other people have pointed out to me over the years, that I am a speed eater. Even slowed down as I was, I tied for first place in eating my taco salad.
            Pam invited questions and sharing. I commented on my speed eating habits, and the woman who tied me chimed in, remarking on her “driven-ness around food”.  Another student said she tries to recite at least one line from Tich Nat Han’s 5 Precepts About Eating before each meal, the first being, “The entire Universe has conspired to bring me this repast; may I be worthy of receiving it.”
            I complained that mealtime is usually the only time I have to read. Another student re-joined, “It may be the only time you have to meditate.” “Touché’”, I replied.
            A student related one of Shinzen’s anecdotes about the time he walked in on a Zen Monk who was reading the morning paper while eating breakfast. When Shizen commented on this, the monk objected, “Yes, but I’m ONLY eating and reading and NOTHING ELSE.”  The student continued that reading is fairly all-consuming, making mindfulness in any other activity, including eating, extremely difficult.
            At meal’s end, Pam announced that she was a facilitator, and that she’d love it if we scheduled sessions with her. The way it seems to work is, facilitators put a sheet on the sign in table listing available times; students sign up for the times they want. I hadn’t signed up on any of the facilitator lists, and they’d quickly filled up. I regretted this, but it seemed to be too late until Pam made her announcement. I quickly enrolled for a Thurday morning session.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 9

WEDNESDAY, JULY 8, 2009, 12:20 PM
            I had another educational experience this morning, similar to being “stood up” by Shinzen yesterday. I walked around the neighborhood, treating it as an opportunity to meditate. I did FOCUS OUT, noting SIGHT, SOUND and TOUCH (and TALK when I’d space out). I headed uphill on Lanai, turning on to Aldo, a windy street that climbed rather steeply then descended through the perfectly manicured yards and houses until it dead ended into the main drag, Hayvenhurst. Then I turned and retraced my footsteps, expecting to return to the Center’s front gate. Instead, I found myself at the intersection of Hayvenhurst and (Bilbo?) that the police had cordoned off to keep curiosity seekers away from John Jackson's estate,
            How weird. How could I have missed the Center? Where did I go wrong? I tried to retrace my steps, going back uphill to the corner of Hayvenhurst and Lanai… but I had just BEEN on Lanai, and hadn’t seen the Center. I went back hill to the blocked intersection, wondering if I should ask the Cop stationed there for directions.  I observed myself starting to freak out, just like yesterday morning with the on-line screw up. This time, however, I could bring mindfulness to my predicament. CONCENTRATION, CLARITY, EQUANIMITY!        I focused on F.I.T. space (FEEL/IMAGE/TALK), but had to toggle back and forth between that and FOCUS OUT enough to try and locate the Center. I paced up and down Hayvenhurst between Bilbo and Lanai, getting more and more panicked (while noting the arising bodily sensations and talk). Finally, in desperation, I turned back up Lanai (even though I had just come from there and not seen the center). But, half a block later, there it was! HOORAY! I was flooded with relief (and noted that bodily sensation as well).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 8

WEDNESDAY, JULY 8, 2009. 8:10 AM
            I had my on-line session with Shinzen last night.  I meditated on POSITIVE  IMAGE, visualizing the (Place of Perfect Peace) I had created for myself from elements of dreams/meditations a few years back. I tried to visualize specifically where on my (Inner Mental Screen) the image of the PoPP appeared, but it seemed to arise all over and nowhere simultaneously. I couldn’t perceive it as a concrete image on my INM, except if I relaxed. Then I seemed to be seeing it, or, at least, whichever detail I happened to be “zooming in” on. But I wasn’t observing the PoPP from afar; I was inside it. I dived into the pool, swam under the waterfall, into the grotto and lay on the cool black sands before I dove back in the pool, swam back into the open and lay atop the cement levee, a quarter inch of cool water running over its top as the dappled sunlight through the overhanging branches fell over me. “Does that count as IMAGE?”, I asked Shinzen when he called to check in 45 minutes later. He said that was perfect since it was mostly visual. (If you say so…)
He suggested, just for fun, that I try concentrating on positive TALK, IMAGE, and FEEL simultaneously, making the three aspects congruent, and left me to my own devices for about 10 minutes. All I could come up with was a sexual/romantic fantasy about Ed Asner in his role at the TV character, Lou Grant. (Ed was my first big crush as an adolescent.) When Shinzen checked back in, I told him that all I’d been able to come up with for my meditation was a sexual fantasy. He objected that was all wrong for the kind of program he was teaching, but said the fault was his for not being more specific. Apparently, sex fantasies aren’t appropriate subjects for mindful meditation. (If you say so…)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 7

Notes to Shinzen’s second First Timer’s Session
            ORDINARY SENSORY EXPERIENCE: There are 6 senses (Asian concept): Sights, sounds, touch, smell, taste, thought (mental experience).  Thought is a sensory event. One can intentionally create talk/image of one’s choice.
            BODY EXPERIENCE: It is good, when experiencing strange or painful emotions, to note interplay of FEEL, IMAGE, and TALK (henceforth to be referred to as FIT).
There is no word in the English language (or any other language) for the emotional body sensation that controls an unconscious person, causing them to act out in ways that increase discord, contradicts one’s self-interests, etc. For our purposes, we will assign the noun “FEEL” for this phenomenon (emotional body sensation). “TOUCH” is the noun we assign to all other body sensations. Smell and taste will be considered forms of TOUCH, as will muscle cramps, stomachaches, headaches, etc.


We tend to have the easiest time controlling TALK, less control over IMAGE, and still less control over FEEL, though these latter two categories can be trained as well.

            FEEL SPACE: Where emotions arise in body
            IMAGE SPACE: Where one “sees” images
            TALK SPACE: Where one “hears” talk

            TALK can be purposefully controlled and tended to. One can similarly control and tend to IMAGE and FEEL.
            “FOCUS IN”: Technique of passively noting/observing subjective space.

            “FOCUS ON POSITIVE”: Technique of actively controlling subjective space.
            One can create positive states through a variety of means. “MEHTA” (“May you know happiness and the roots of happiness…”) is a traditional way.

            SENSORY MAKE UP: There are 7 choices, but you can only do one at a time.

            The GOAL of this practice is to have better concentration, clarity and equanimity in one’s subjective world. The POSSIBLE SIDE BENEFITS are to have more pleasant feelings, more rational thinking, and a more positive outlook. There may be improvements in performance and behavior.
            The practice is one of selectively noting and/or creating certain subjective states. It is NOT an attempt to repress the negative. If negativity arises, note it. If negativity arises too strongly, switch to FOCUS IN. We are not engaging in a battle between internal positive and negative mental states. One is not attempting to reject the “bad”: one is attending to the “good”.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 6


            I thought I was slated for a 9:00-10:15 am on-line session with Shinzen… at least that’s what my cursory reading of the posted schedule led me to believe. I thought this was a weird time; breakfast was from 8:30 to 9:30, and I thought Shinzen was leading the Continuing Student’s Session around that time… but oh well. Mine is not to reason why…
Four adjacent retreat rooms had been set aside for On-Lines, Shin Zen’s and 3 others. They were linked to Shinzen’s room via phone cords, so that he could interactively meditate with 3 students simultaneously, checking back in with each in turn. We were directed, during the First Timers orientation, to go to our room (in my case, Room 2), don the headphones connected to the headset, take the head set with us as we sat in our preferred meditative posture, and hit the talk button.
I did this and waited for Shinzen to speak. And waited. And waited. 15 minutes passed; 20 minutes. Should I do something? Knock on Shinzen’s door? Was I manifesting my character defect of giving instructions a cursory, incorrect reading and fucking up? Was Shinzen blowing me off? I was getting angry, aggrieved and self-flagellating all at once. I tried to use the time to mediated on “Relax”/”Blank” so that the hour wouldn’t be a waste. I tried to focus on the negative emotions as body sensations. I finally gave up at 10:00 am and went into the main building.
Upon my arrival, I found another First Timer looking for the First Timer’s processing meeting scheduled for 9:30 in the Fireplace Room, but the Fireplace room was completely empty. We whispered furtively, breaking the noble silence vow, along with an elderly woman.

 I told her I’d been signed up to on-line with Shinzen at 9:00 am, but there he was, leading the Continuing Students Meeting in the Garden Room. She directed me to look again at the posted schedule, pointing out that I was slated for 9:00 PM. OOPS.
The middle aged guy and I saw another sign saying that the First Timers Session was in the Oak Room. We searched and finally found it. The facilitator, a pretty, perky blonde woman, welcomed us inside. Our timing was perfect, she enthused; the other 20 or so students in the circle of chairs had shared about themselves, their meditation history and their meditation goals. Now it was our turn.

The session leader was Stephanie Nash, a long time acolyte and collaborator of Shinzen’s. She led us in a further exploration of “Relax” and Blank”, with digression in to “Talk”, “Image” and “Feel”. She discussed how, when one experiences a traumatic event, one can break the obsessive thought processes into those 3 components, thereby sapping the trauma of much of its strength. She made the analogy to a bundle of sticks, unbreakable when joined but easily broken as separated.
I considered my own recent “trauma”, i.e., thinking I was stood up by Shinzen when I had, in reality, screwed up one more time. I had tried meditating on the event as I was going through it, with limited success. During lunch, I had yet another opportunity to meditate on negative emotions. Feelings of remorse and self-contempt welled within me as I tried to eat. I wanted to cry, feeling like an unworthy idiot.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 5

            My roommate, Ray, leapt out of bed fully clothed when his alarm went off at 4:50 a.m., and left our room. I’m assuming he’s the morning wake-up-call Bell Ringer.
            Yesterday afternoon, I led a sit (3:30-4:45 pm) and rang the bell for the following sit. I sat on the dais in the “front of the circular Zendo, on the front edge of the low platform so that my knees were hanging slightly over. If I dozed off and lurched forward (as I was wont to do throughout the various meditations), I would have possibly pitched forward, falling off the dais. This potential embarrassment helped me stay awake, my spine erect.

            Helicopters have been circling overhead since about 6:30 AM. I assume it has something to do with the viewing of M.J.’s remains at the Staples Center. I am experiencing flashes of anger at the incessant pulsing drone. I fantasize about blowing them out of the sky with a high-powered rifle.


Shinzen spoke of his first day as a monk-in-training at a Japanese Zen Buddhist Monastery. A stick wielding monk paced along the rows of neophyte acolytes, whacking each one 3 times on each side of the backs of their shoulders. Shinzen was terrified, but soon learned the monks were striking the gall bladder acupuncture meridian, which simultaneously floods the body with energy and provides a calming effect. I was totally jealous; I wish he’d whack me when I nod off during meditation.
Above the door Shinzen’s first Zendo was inscribed the adage, “If you want the lion cubs you must enter the lion’s den.” The Zendo was called “The Lion’s Den”. “Our Zendo is more like a pussycat’s lounge,” he quipped. Thrills. I want more of the Lion’s Den experience.
            Dinner was weird last night because of the vow of noble silence. I was sitting with a couple of people I’d lunched with, but now I couldn’t talk to them. I found it socially awkward; I found myself mentally conversing with them as I would have anyway. After a while, I forced myself into mental silence, trying to focus on the excellent vegetarian repast.
We’ll be breakfasting in 10 minutes (8:30 am); hopefully I’ll do better this time.
            The helicopters have stopped. Yea!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 4

Monday, July 6, 2009, 1:30 PM (?)
Philip, one of the head students, led the meeting. He informed us he would be missing out on the rest of the retreat, as he was signed up to participate in a Native  American Sun Dance Ceremony. (Shizen had also mentioned Philip’s upcoming adventure, as an example of how proud he is of many of his student’s spiritual growth).
I had assumed that volunteer tasks would include working in the kitchen, janitorial service, etc. Instead, our tasks were mostly limited to being Sit Leader, Bell Ringer, Zendo Manager, Tea Table Manager, taking care of the flowers in the Zendo, leading the afternoon Yoga/Qui Gong sessions, and helping with Take Down at the end of the retreat.
Sit Leaders sit on the low platform at the “front” of the circular Zendo room. They operate the switch that controls the red and green lights on the floor immediately outside the Zendo double doors. (Green means, “okay to enter”; Red means “Stay out”). They strike the bowl gong next to them 3 times to commence the sit (turning the light switch to red), one time to end it (turning the light switch to green). Sit leaders shouldn’t start the sit until the Bell Ringer returns to the Zendo and shuts the door. There will be Open Zendo periods each morning during the Continuing Students Process Session; the green light will remain on and students can enter and exit as they please.
Bell Ringers announce the next sit. They take the bell and striking stick from its station by the Zendo entrance and walk down the hall to the front door of the main building, ringing the bell as they go. They make a circuit of the retreat rooms, cutting back across the circular courtyard to the main building, back up the hall to the Zendo. They should perform the task as a meditation-in-motion, trying to achieve the perfect sound with each strike.  One should not strike the bell too rapidly; that would feel frenetic.
Zendo managers make sure there are always Sit Leaders and Bell Ringers signed up. They control the thermostat (74 degrees) and tell people talking (or sleeping) in the Zendo to shut up (or stop snoring). The service tenure is one day.
Tea Table Managers clean the kitchenette and run dishwasher after the last sit (10:00 pm), put out the tea and coffee makings, etc. They shouldn’t take on the day long commitment unless they can stay up late.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 3

MONDAY, JULY 6, 2009, 11:20 am

“Originally derived from the Theravada school of Buddhism, vipassana can be practiced by followers of any (or no) religion as a useful mental skill set. Removed from its cultural and doctrinal trappings, vipassana meditation (usually under the name of mindfulness) is finding clinical application in the fields of pain management, stress management, compulsions and as an adjunct to psychotherapy” (taken from the VSI (Vipassan Support Institute) home page at

            Students at the retreat are classified as “First Timers” and “Continuing Students”. I have been placed in the former category, since I haven’t done a retreat within the last 3 years.

  Shinzen Young, the head teacher and main guru, has just finished giving a talk to the entire retreat; now he is addressing the assembly of First Timers, about 25 in all.
Shinzen says:
“As humans, we have 3 basic jobs:
            1) To appreciate our world
            2) To see beyond our world
            3) To improve our world
“There are 2 ways to appreciate the world:
1)    In terms of ordinary experience.
2)    In terms of special “restful states”.
“To “improve” the world, we “focus on positive” (refers to a specific meditation technique)
“Meditation is akin to working out at the gym; Systematic training gives one greater endurance, strength and flexibility as one goes out into the world. Think of a musician practicing scales—the point is to eventually play music, not practice scales. The same is true of meditation; the point isn’t to sit on a cushion, it’s to be better prepared to deal with broader world. The person on the path learns 3 core skills: “Concentration”, “Clarity” and “Equanimity”.

The goal of the retreat is to learn at least ONE good technique that the student can take out into the world.

Pleasant Restful States (Sham Ta)
2 meditation techniques:
1)    “EASY REST”: Say the mental label “relaxed” whenever you find or create relaxation anywhere in the body, then concentrate on it intensely. Refocus, re-label every few seconds. This is a technique of ‘NOTING’. The label stream should be paced fast enough to prevent spacing out, but slow enough not to be frenetic. Labeling promotes sensory clarity, though one doesn’t have to label in order to note. “ACKNOWLEDGE”, then “FOCUS’, alternating back and forth.
2)    “BLANK”: Having closed one’s eyes, conjure one’s internal mental screen, either immediately in front or behind the eyes. Memories, images, abstract color forms may play out on this screen. Initially, in order to develop FOCUS ON REST, one ignores images on mental screen. If one doesn’t focus on form or color, what’s left is a general level of grayish luminosity. One can achieve relaxation by focusing on this blank expanse.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Vipassana Retreat, Installment 2

During my last retreat, I had commuted from home every day; I’d held myself aloof, not really taking part in things or meeting anybody. This time I was going whole hog, and rooming at the center. I want to have a deeper experience, and try to participate in every way possible.  “Participation is the key to Harmony”, as they say in the Al-Anon program.
My roommate is Ray, a trim, and militaristic-looking guy in his late 50’ s/early 60’s.  He introduced me to his wife, Rene, while we were getting coffee in the kitchenette located between the check-in table and the Zendo. I’m curious as to why they’re not rooming together, but didn’t ask. I find him sort of intimidating.
Participants in this retreat undertake a vow of noble silence, which starts after lunch today and ends before lunch on Sunday. This means we can’t talk for the entire 7 days, except during group training session and individual interviews between students and teachers.  Communications could be done through written notes posted on the bulletin board next to the sign-in table, but that should be kept to a minimum. I asked Choshin, the woman who seems to be running things, if I could call out on my cell phone once a day. She said that was up to me; she suggested I go to the parking lot to be out of earshot of the retreat.

Choshin also suggested I set up my meditation station in the Zendo, which is a large, circular room where all the meditation sits are held. I went to my room, got my meditation cushion and yoga mat, and hurried to the Zendo. I found a large, circular room with floor to ceiling windows along one side, looking out onto a bucolic back courtyard. The Sit Leader’s dais was on the opposite side of the room, with the entrance half way between. Students had already filled much of the intervening floor space with their meditation pamphernalia. I set my cushion in remaining empty spots, in front one of the stackable chairs arranged in concentric rows facing the Sit Leader’s Dais in concentric rings, about 2/3rds towards the “rear” of the room. This would be my turf for the rest of the retreat.

The Zendo is almost the same diameter as the large circular courtyard in the center of the complex of buildings. The Zendo has a circular ceiling installation bifurcated by a straight incision, as does the circular courtyard. In fact the straight incision in the Zendo ceiling is about as wide as the courtyard’s path. I wonder if the courtyard and the Zendo have the same diameter, and if it has some symbolic meaning.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Vipassana Retreat; Installment 1

MONDAY, JULY 6, 2009
The Vipassana Retreat is being held at “The Sisters of Social Service Holy Spirit Retreat Center, at 4316 Lanai Road, Encino, CA 91436.

The Center is several blocks south of Ventura Blvd, in the hills of Encino, CA. We had a bit of a hassle getting here for the 8:30 – 9:30 am registration. John Jackson, Michael Jackson’s father, lives 3 blocks from the Retreat Center. The LAPD has cordoned off 5 blocks of Hayvenhurst Blvd, starting at Ventura Blvd, to protect the Jackson home from press and curious onlookers. I had assumed that being at the retreat would immunize me from the craziness surrounding the King of Pop’s recent demise. The opposite has turned out to be true.

I had previously attended a Vipassana retreat at the Center, in 1998. I couldn’t recognize the place upon today’s return. Previously, the vibe was rural, back-woods, with a dormitory for the participants. Today, the Center is like a college campus, with several large buildings, a circular courtyard, and an L shaped line of 24 rooms (single and double) to board sitters. I can’t find the area where I used to do walking meditations.
When checking in to my room, I found a hotel-style binder that had a description of the center and its history within. It has indeed changed since my previous retreat. It underwent major renovations in the early ‘00s, re-opening in its current form in ’06. Apparently, the old building is still being used as housing for unfortunate women.
We are definitely NOT roughing it here. The food has been excellent. We can have maid service if we want it. The only thing not cushy about the place is our beds, which are about 6” too short; my feet hang out over the end. Also, I haven’t been able to figure out how to get hot water from the shower, which means being jolted awake at 5:00am. Maybe that’s not a bad thing…In fact, I think we have things a little bit too cushy here.


The center has a small library nook, three small bookshelves crammed with religious and spiritual texts, around the corner from the sign-in table. A couple of the books have caught my eye; I may take a look at them later.

The Sisters left these post cards all around the retreat center (even on top of the paper towel dispenser in the Men’s Bathroom) about their patron martyr, Sister Sara  Salkahazi:
 Blessed Sara Salkahazi, S.S.S.
Martyred for challenging the Holocaust.
December 27, 1944

“Sara Salkahazi was born in Kosice (at that time part of Hungary) on May 11, 1899. In 1929 she entered the Society of the Sisters of Social Service in Budapest. There she vowed her entire life to the service of God with the motto: “Alleluia! Here I am. Send me!” Her love for Christ was manifested in diverse areas of social service, in Catholic movements and by authoring a variety of literary works.
            In 1943, she consciously offered her life for the Society, particularly for the weak and ill, in case the Sisters and the Church were persecuted. On December 27, 1044, Hungarian Nazis surrounded the Home of Working Women where Sara was in charge. She was arrested along with a co-worker and a group of Jewish refugees she was hiding. That same evening, according to an eyewitness, all of them were stripped naked and shot, their bodies falling into the icy river Danube. Before her execution, sister Sara knelt down, facing her executioners and made a great sign of the cross. God accepted the sacrifice of here life.
            Cardinal Peter Erdo presided at the Eucharistic Celebration of Beautification in Budapest, September 17, 2006. The Feast of Sister Sara is May 11.

Let us pray.
We pray that we may be inflamed by the Holy Spirit, so that we may respond generously and lovingly to the needs o the marginalized, the persecuted and the weak. Amen”

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