Monday, May 25, 2009

Vipassana Reflection

The experience I have just completed cannot be summarized in any short statement or paragraph for that matter. Likewise, it is difficult to reiterate what thoughts went through my mind during those 10 days of noble silence at Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, MA. But for those of you who are looking for a number on how I would rate the experience – it was easily a 10 - one of the most worthwhile and rewarding experiences of my life.

Vipassana is a technique that teaches how to live a pure, harmonious and happy life. You learn about the law of nature; everything is temporary and always changing. "Anicha" is the word he [S.N. Goenka] refers to over and over again. Things always come up in life, both good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, and Vipassana teaches you how to become balanced and equanimous.

The technique aims to help one eliminate cravings and aversions. You concentrate on breathing and bodily sensations, realizing that everything you feel is changing at all times. The good feelings [energy moving up and down your body] you must not get attached to, as it will be gone and you will become disappointed. Likewise, the discomforts [severe back pain from sitting upright for 10 hours each day!] will also fade. Don't react with anger and negativity toward those. Just accept that which is present at this very moment.

Vipassana is universal, not sectarian. Any person with any religious background can partake in the courses without denouncing his or her own beliefs. No matter which religion [if any] a person follows, one can agree the same basic philosophy; morality. All scriptures talk about living a moral life - love thy neighbor, thou shall not steal, do not kill… They all explain the basic rules of living a happy life.

Vipassana was great for me at this time in my life as I am just starting to form a solid base for my religious and/or spiritual beliefs. I do not have a particular organized religion to which I identify with. Instead, I believe in living a life that is good for myself, others, and the planet as a whole. Energy is everywhere and I try to only have positive energy, even when those unpleasant times arise. It will be interesting to see the next time something goes "wrong", how I will react to it.

The main thing I took from the course is to observe rather than react. Humans and animals alike are creatures of behavior. If something happens, we react. We don't think about how we react until after the time has passed. After this 10 day course, I am making a strong effort to observe my mind / body sensations throughout the day – especially when something very pleasant or unpleasant happens. The course has had a dramatic impact on my life and I absolutely see myself continuing to meditate on a daily basis.

The facility I went to was the first one built in North America, is one of two in this entire hemisphere that also has a pagoda, and everything about it is wonderful.

  • The people who work there do not get paid – everything is done by volunteers.
  • The course is free to anyone – one can donate after completing a 10 day course but not beforehand.
Once you sit a 10 day course, one can come back and "serve" or volunteer
  • You can help in the kitchen,
  • Help with cleanup
  • Or even with building, which I might do this summer.

Here are some pictures that I took on the last day.

The outside walking area. Those decks are places you can meditate on, though nobody did as we were mostly "new students" who would get easily distracted from trying to meditate outside.

Some more pictures of the outside.

Inside a very cool walking trail, which was very short, but beautiful nonetheless.

Part of the outside area which we could walk during breaks. It was extremely interesting passing by, eating with and meditating with the same people for 9 days straight. However, none of us knew any of each others names.. even our roommate's! I must have said "thank you" in my head about forty-five times for people holding doors for me and being courteous. But it was great and I wouldn't change anything about the place.

These ferns tripled or quadrupled in size from when the course started to when it finished 10 days later. Everyone's awareness became so much more developed as talking was not allowed.

Leading out of the path - the "enchanted forest" I refer to it as.

And there was so much wildlife. One student named Ray, when we were able to finally speak to one another [day 10], said he felt like Dr. Doolittle when walking around outside. The squirrels would be running up a tree, a chipmunk would cross his path or be watching him and eating a nut, the birds would be chirping, a rabbit was eating dandelions... it seemed like they were all talking to him. I found that quite funny and could definitely relate, as I observed more about nature during those 10 days than possibly in my entire life combined.

I would recommend this course to anyone - giving up talking is just one of the many great aspects of the course. Before this, I can't think of one 24 hour period in which I didn't speak a single word. We were allowed to ask questions to the assistant teacher, which I did quite frequently (one or two a day), talking, gesturing, or looking any other student in the eye was a rule that we all followed. The realizations you come to are quite extraordinary and I will probably post mine in blog entries throughout the summer, as they will be applying to my everyday life. Please stay tuned and I'm very much enjoying the comments. Keep them coming.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Very Beautiful - 3 Willow Lane

It is wonderful after coming home from 10 days of meditation to a yard that is perfectly mowed (roommates, you are great) and to a superb looking garden! This spring has been very busy for us Willow Laners. We did weeding, uprooting, digging, planting (all James), and even set up a fence to prevent animals from getting our vegetables. I did a lot of thinking at Vipassana and have a very ambitious goal for the property; to have it become a model green home and an educational facility for future UMass students. More will be explained about this later, but I am now hoping to receive grant money to improve the energy efficiency (through insulation, air sealing and weatherization - which is what the YouthBuild Holyoke students are learning!).

Here are some pictures of the yard and garden:

This is a nice picture of the house before the gardening took place. Notice the gigantic shrub to the very right of the house, which looks more like a Christmas tree with the top half sliced off. That was the most difficult sucker to get out...took nearly a week of trimming, digging, chopping, and hauling out with a cumalong.


The shrub is no more! We hauled out everything in that "garden" and truly transformed it into a garden. This has been a very rewarding experience.

This is the yard I came home to today. Absolutely beautiful.

Craig and I set up this chicken-wire fence in the hour prior to me leaving for Vipassana. I will have a blog entry about my experience in the next day or two. It was an accomplished feeling to leave on, putting me in great spirits.

A closer view of the fence and some of our growing vegetables!


Goal #2 is to transform the entire front yard into a permaculture garden. That means no more grass...none at all. Some of you may think that sounds crazy. But give it a minute of thinking before reacting to that statement.
Now that you've thought about it (observe, instead of reacting... something I picked up at Vipassana), having a front yard full of grass is the norm, right? And what do we have to do just about every week to that front yard? Mow it. And then it looks nice, right? But it continues to grow, and we continue to mow...and this process of battling nature happens over and over because we don't know anything different. If we want a nice looking yard, we have to win this constant struggle against grass. What else can we do?


Permaculture, which means permanent agriculture, is what I will be learning about during the month of July. I will be spending three weeks at an eco-village in Shutesbury, MA called Sirius Community. I will learn the art of permaculture and what it is all about; working with, as opposed to against, nature. Everyone and everything benefits from this. Plants thrive, the soil stays healthy, CO2 is absorbed and oxygen produced, and food is provided for humans and animals alike. It is one of the most sustainable practices there is; growing your own food.

Permaculture involves planting vegetables, trees and plants intelligently. This means that Plant A is intentionally adjacent to Plant B for multiple reasons. Plant A might take nitrogen out of the soil, meaning that if you have a garden or entire field full of this crop (think monoculture.. one-crop agriculture farms), the soil gets exhausted and no longer can be used for growing any plants needing lots of nitrogen. Polyculture - many different species of plants in a small area - has several advantages over its counterpart. Biodiversity, not exhausting the land, less disease, less insect infestation, and minimal maintenance if done correctly.

If all goes to plan, 3 Willow lane will become a model example of how permaculture and edible forest gardening can be utilized for both human and nature benefit. Working with nature, as opposed to against nature... ponder that.

YouthBuild Holyoke in the news!

ABC News 40 covered the YouthBuild Holyoke / UMass Amherst partnership before I left on May 12. They showed up with a film crew and reporter and shot some footage of the students I taught (I mentioned this in a previous post already). The video is online and here is a link to it.

When you open the window, the article is there and to the right you'll see a place where you can click to watch the video feed.

I'm not interviewed but you can catch me wearing a grey UMass sweatshirt twice in the video. Once after they show the students outside measuring the dimensions of an apartment building (I'm behind one of the YouthBuild instructors), then also after they show the opening of an electrical outlet inside the house. You might not recognize me as I gave myself a slightly different haircut before the meditation course..

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Saying My Goodbyes / Making the News

Good evening everyone. My To-Do list is all but complete and I am preparing myself for what will be a very interesting experience. Tomorrow at 1:30pm I depart for Shelburne Falls, MA to begin a 10-day meditation course. The course website provides the following information:

"Dhamma Dharā means "Land of Dhamma". The Shelburne center, founded in 1982, was the first center in North America. The original facility was merely a roomy, comfortable two-story house and barn on eight acres of meadowland. Local farmers report that the house was once a temperance tavern (i.e. not serving alcohol) for horse drawn coaches. Just eight students completed the first ten-day course and early courses in the house were limited to 25 students. Slowly the center began expanding to meet the demand of students. In 1989, a group of meditators donated an adjoining seventy acres of land which brought the land back to its original parcel. Today the center consists of 108 acres and many new buildings have been added, including a bathhouse, two dining rooms, meditation hall for 200, a 60 cell pagoda, separate residences for men and women and a center manager's house.

Presently the center is able to accommodate 50 women and 44 men for a total of 94 participants year round. During the summer months course our capacity is 146 students, when we can use tents and cabins. New residences were completed in December 2004 with individual rooms and private baths so students can meditate seriously with the very least distractions.

Approximately nineteen 10-day courses are scheduled in Shelburne per year, with nearly every course full with a wait list. Approximately 1,725 students from around the world complete our courses annually."

Most of you know that I will be unreachable during the next 11 days (May 13 - 24). If something were to happen and it was absolutely necessary to reach me, here is the contact information of where I'll be:

Vipassana Meditation Center Dhamma Dharā

386 Colrain-Shelburne Road Shelburne, MA 01370-9672, USA
Phone: +1 413-625-2160 Fax: +1 413-625-2170

The entrance to the meditation center during summertime

The main meditation hall (from the VMC website)

More pictures of the center can be found at:


A short description of my next 10 days:

"The course requires hard, serious work. There are three steps to the training. The first step is, for the period of the course, to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. This simple code of moral conduct serves to calm the mind, which otherwise would be too agitated to perform the task of self-observation.

The next step is to develop some mastery over the mind by learning to fix one's attention on the natural reality of the ever changing flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.

By the fourth day the mind is calmer and more focused, better able to undertake the practice of Vipassana itself: observing sensations throughout the body, understanding their nature, and developing equanimity by learning not to react to them.

Finally, on the last full day participants learn the meditation of loving kindness or goodwill towards all, in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings.

The entire practice is actually a mental training. Just as we use physical exercises to improve our bodily health, Vipassana can be used to develop a healthy mind.

Because it has been found to be genuinely helpful, great emphasis is put on preserving the technique in its original, authentic form. It is not taught commercially, but instead is offered freely. No person involved in its teaching receives any material remuneration.

There are no charges for the courses - not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to give others the opportunity to benefit from it also."


On a completely separate note, the class I taught (which is now being taught by an actual energy auditor) made the news today. ABC News 40 filmed the students during their first day of "field work" which involved going into 3 nearby houses/apartments and doing a walk-through inspection.

No video clip at this time, but I will post it when it becomes available. Here is another story about the program which was written by a UMass administrator:


Wish me luck - I am a little anxious about this whole thing as I have never done anything like this before.


The following timetable for the course has been designed to maintain the continuity of practice. For best results students are advised to follow it as closely as possible.
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out

Friday, May 8, 2009

Year 1 - Green Building Program Halfway Complete!

Good morning. The semester is winding down and there are only a few things left for me to finish up before next Wednesday. I am spending the weekend finishing a paper and crossing off my To Do list...then I start my 10-days of "noble silence". From May 13-24 I will be at Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, MA. I won't be able to read, write, use any technology, or have any contact with the outside world. It will be just me and my thoughts, for 10 straight days, meditating for more than 10 hours each day. Food is provided for me (all vegetarian, but I have recently become a vegetarian, at least for the time being) and the cost of the program is free. Until you complete at least one 10-day "sit in", you cannot donate. And what you donate is not what you feel the program costs, but rather, how much you are financially able and willing to give. It should be a very cool experience and great for my physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I'm curious if I will be any different after I complete the course, specifically my outlook on life.

Recently, there has been a city that repeatedly comes up in conversation for me; Portland, Oregon. I'm feeling very drawn to this place (I couchsurfed with people in Australia originally from Portland, a girl in my class is from Portland, a research liason from UMass lived there for 9 years, many teachers / acquaintances have visited there, and a few friends through friends are currently living there. Depending on how things turn out, I may have to fly over to Portland at some point this summer and check it out for myself.

I feel like this city may be where I end up for a few years after leaving Amherst. Although I love it here, it will be 6 years next May and my plan is to go traveling immediately after graduating. I'm sure I could get a full-time job, but what's the rush? Once you have one, it's much harder to just pick up and leave. I'm embracing my time at this academic institution as it is a place that facilitates learning, and that's what I'm all about these days.

Each day I try to learn at least one new thing. That never seems to be a problem - there is so much information available in books, online, and by talking to people. I've found that you actually have to be selective in what you take in (there's about 10-20 classes I'd love to take next semester, but I can only fit about 6 in my schedule plus being a Teaching Assistant and working. Everything I'm learning now in my classes will be used later in life. Planting my own food, having an energy efficient house, using little to no fossil fuels... basically living a very conservative lifestyle. I can see myself teaching these things to people as I move forward.

In summary, I am loving it here in Amherst and the information I'm learning is extremely valuable. I will always be a student of life, and I hope to teach others the things that I'm learning. After my education at UMass Amherst is complete, I will continue learning by traveling (destination(s) still to be determined). I will settle someplace else for at least a few years and perhaps return to Amherst some day. I have a feeling that these 10 days at Vipassana Meditation Center will do wonders for me...