By Manish Paliwal
A table fan, new slippers, bedding, alarm clock, an umbrella, and unscented toiletries were nicely
packed and stored in the trunk of my car, which I was driving to a place that would be my home
for the next ten days.
During my stay there for a meditation course, I would take a vow of silence, stay away from my
laptop/blackberry and any reading material, not eat after noon, and meditate for ten hours every
Adjectives like “crazy”, and questions like “why” were imposed upon me even before I
embarked on this mission. My girlfriend had already shunned all ties with me as soon as she
heard my intentions about it. My determination and I remained unmoved though!
I was already feeling “free”.
With the corner of my eye I noticed that as per GPS, in about ten minutes, at 3:05 pm, I would be
at my destination. I made a right turn on Teahen Rd, and my car was driving on a rubble road. I
stopped in front of a large ranch style property, and waited for the dust to get settled before I
stepped my foot out of the car. I had finally arrived at my destination – Emrich Retreat Center in
Brighton, MI.
“Are you here for Vipassana?” I asked to a diverse group of people sitting around a picnic table
outside a house in the lush green grass. They smilingly nodded and waived. I joined them, and
settled on a nearby picnic table.
There were three people sitting on my bench, and about eight were on another. I introduced
myself to the other three on my table.
The guy sitting in front of me was David. He was in his late twenties, had a dented nose, and
pimpled unshaven face, with a brick-red handkerchief tightly wrapped around his strangled curly
hair. He used to fix computers, he declared to us with some hint of disappointment. Another
bespectacled fellow, John, was a retired white man in his seventies with a large frame and a
round belly. The way he was soothing his joints told me that he might be suffering from arthritis.
The third was a slim woman in her mid-thirties with “peace” tattooed on her arm, “save the
earth” printed on her t-shirt, carried a green tote-bag, sported a boy-cut hair style, and sipped
water from a “BPA free” water bottle. She told us that she was a “Yogi”, taught Bikram-yoga,
and had been to India in search of enlightenment. She had already done this course once in
Deharadoon, a hill-station in India.
John, the old guy, looked little unsure about himself, was straining with pain, and had plenty of
questions and worries wrinkled on his face. He looked impressed as well as curious with the
yoga lady though. “Is this course hard?”, he asked as if seeking some kind of moral support and
solace from an authority. “Oh yeah! It is VERY hard! Especially the first four days.” she
answered while balancing herself on the wooden bench in one of the yoga-stretch-poses and
adding to the misery of the old guy. He nervously shifted weight, and murmured again, “What
would be the hard part- getting up at 4 am or not eating after noon or meditation itself”. “You
already know too much. You will know when you will know”, she snapped and put a full-stop to
all future questions from the oldie. The computer guy, and I remained mere spectators to the
growing misery of the oldie, and demonstration of the yoga postures.
On the other table, I saw a portly lady who was doing all the talking non-stop. When all her
table-companions started to look around out of boredom, or just saving themselves from the
overdose of decibels, she looked at me and asked, “Where did you come from?”.
“New Jersey”, I responded, as if I had to.
“That far?”
“Did you fly?”
“No, I drove!”
“Wow, that’s a long drive!”
“I know.” I said.
“That guy over there came from New York, he flew though.”, she pointed to a smiling round-
faced man in his mid twenties with short hair, and funny looking black low-hanging pants.
I, suddenly, ducked down to find something in the grass, a feeble attempt to save myself from the
question barrage.
We all lined up for registration at 4:00 pm, and I was allotted a room with two squeaky worn-out
fatigued-out beds. I transferred my entire luggage from the car to the room, and tried to cover the
ugliness of one of the beds with my colorful sheet brought from India.
It was a large property, with four houses, one kitchen/dining hall, and a chapel. One house was
allotted to women, two to men, and one next to the chapel was for the teacher-couple of Burmese
origin. It was hidden from the surrounding with lining of dense trees and bushes. To walk to one
house to another, or to kitchen/dining, one must walk on the grass which was soft and tall.
On my way back to the dining hall, which was at the other corner of the property, I saw an old,
bald, sick looking Indian man taking his luggage out from his cross-over in the parking lot. There
was another Indian man in his forties standing beside him, who I thought to be his son, but then I
rejected that idea. A son would not allow his old father to carry the luggage while him standing
and watching. I tried to make an eye contact with them to say hello, but their eyes darted off as
soon as they met. I quit, and continued my walk to the office.
I saw many more people in the process of carrying their luggage and mats around. I saw one
person in his thirties in blue jeans, light blue shirt with first two buttons were left intentionally
unbuttoned, slippers, and round glasses. He was carrying a mat, and walking with his head down
already in some deep thought. I went to him, and said, “You cannot walk on the grass! It is not
allowed”. He looked around. There was no way one can avoid walking on the grass without
walking on the grass. There were no pathways. He looked stumped. “Just follow me. Walk as I
do”, I said. He started to do so, until he realized I was just kidding. Being an Indian comes as a
plus at a meditation center, where authority comes with the territory. He had no choice but to
believe. We had a big laugh later about it.
AT 5:00 pm dinner – bread, lentil soup, and salad was served in buffet style. The organizers told
men and women to line up separately, and sit in separate quarters for dinner. Everybody
chomped down the food in silence. Tasty!
Later, we were briefed about the schedule and our “territory” was shown which we must not
cross during our stay. We may walk, but not run. We must not do anything which might distract
others. Whatever we may need to know will be posted on the dining-hall notice-board. If we
must, we may whisper our needs to the attending managers, who were all serving voluntarily.
We were also shown how to clean our plates and silver after our meals using three soap filled
plastic baskets and a brush. One was for silver, one for the bowls and glasses, and the third one
was for the plates. Two trash cans labeled with “organic waste”, and “trash” were also sitting by
the wash station.
Our group manager was a slim agile and attentive Caucasian man in his late forties. He had a
trimmed beard featuring more white than black. He wore a red t-shirt, which he would continue
to wear for the rest of the days I would see him during my stay. He wore white tennis shoes, and
his grey pants would stop at least five inches above them, the reason unknown to me at that time,
but would know as soon as next morning at 4:30 AM, when I would walk to go to the chapel for
meditation from my room on five inches tall dew laden grass.
Our group manager will come next morning at 4:00 am and wake us up by banging on the gong
at our doors.
I went to my room at 8 pm, turned-off the lights, and turned-on my newly bought table fan. It
made a sound as if an airplane is about to take off with all its engines at full throttle. There was
very little air-chopping sound and a whole lot of motor sound. In a land of silence-no talk zone, I
had to allow that fan some noise.
I lied down there for a while looking at the roof anticipating for what was about to come, trying
to catch some sleep, and waiting to hear the gong go.
That was Day Zero. Ten more days to go!
Chapter 2
1:55 AM- the time my alarm clock’s neon on the bed side table displayed. I could still enjoy two
more hours of sleep before the gongs go crazy. I turned and in the dark I saw someone on the
nearby bed sleeping on his belly wearing a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt with his head turned
away. “Who he might be?” I wondered, and then slipped back to my sleep before I could put
more thought to it.
GONG!, and then began a mayhem of student occupants scurrying for bathroom. My bed-
neighbor also sprang off his bed and occupied the bathroom attached to our room. In less than a
minute, the four bedroom house with three bathrooms was reverberating with flushing, water
hammering, and wooden floors and stairs creaking. I totally underestimated the enthusiasm of
my fellow meditators. How am I going to reach the meditation hall today at 4:30 washed and
clean? “Tomorrow, I am going to get up 5 minutes to 4 AM, and beat this bathroom rush”, I
pledged to myself.
Already reeling in the pressure of an early loss, I collected myself, and thought of checking the
next bathroom. Voila! It was unoccupied. That morning, I created a record for myself by getting
ready in 15 minutes. Parallel processing of brushing the teeth, shaving, and shower yielded the
desired results for me.
At 4:27 AM, I stepped out of my house wearing a t-shirt, jacket, sweat pants, and flip-flops. It
was dark outside, little chilly and very quiet. When was the last time I was ready for business
when not going to catch an early flight? With a little pride on my accomplishment today, I
admired the full moon in the sky which was painting the entire retreat center milky with the
borrowed light.
Few steps in the grass, and I had to stop to fold my sweat-pants by 5 inches. The grass was heavy
with dew, and touch felt relaxing and cool. I could not resist the urge to feel it more. I tossed my
flip-flop, and placed my right foot on the tip of the grass bed. It tingled. I let my foot gradually
sink into the grass bed. I could feel the cool, wet, and crisp grass leaves on my foot. The grass-
bed was flat now, and my foot was covered with dew and broken grass leaves. I picked my flip-
flops in hand, and continued walking with bare foot. The pleasure far outweighed the risk of
getting injured by a sharp object.
In the darkness, I saw a few more shadows ambling towards the chapel, the meditation hall.
At the chapel door, 5-6 few grass-covered wet foot-wears were parked. I parked mine, cleaned
my foot of all the grass leaves and opened the door of the chapel.
In the dimly depressingly pale-yellow lit chapel, I admired its high ceilings and stained glasses.
The Jesus on the Cross was covered with a white linen, thus eliminating any religious hints. A
box-fan and a portable air-conditioner were trying their best to freshen the stale indoor air, and
they were miserably failing.
Men and women seating was divided in left and right halves respectively separated by a common
aisle. They had separate entrances to the chapel, but would use the same aisle to proceed to either
left or right half of the seating. All seats were facing to the dais in the front where the teachers
would meditate with us. The organizers and volunteers would meditate in the teachers’ proximity
in the front.
In the men’s seating, there were eight rows, with four cushions in each row. I saw my name tag
in front of a cushion near the wall. It was a corner seat! The second seat in my right was still
empty. The third cushion was occupied by that bald old man of Indian origin, and on the fourth
cushion, John (the man in his 70′s with arthritic joints) was sitting firmly with his eyes closed. I
sensed resolve and determination on his face.
The ten day journey had just begun!
Chapter 3
“Fiddled-Yes. Serious-No”. This summarizes my sporadic encounters with meditation. I tried
once when I read a research report about increasing brain’s grey matter with meditation. I
immediately found a corner, closed my eyes, and started to concentrate. “There should be no
thoughts, but calm”, I told to myself. Ten seconds into meditation, and I was already swimming
in the sea of thought waves coming, going, roaring and thrashing in and from every direction. I
gave up!
And here I am again, sitting here early in the morning trying to meditate. But I was not able to.
However, I was still happy to see that at 5 AM this morning, I am feeling so fresh, and good!
I had started feeling hungry too, but I have to endure 90 minutes somehow! “6:30 AM:
Breakfast”- read the program chart. What would they serve? My stomach churned with the
thought of hot breakfast. I should rather think of something else. Or maybe not to think of
anything else. I am here to meditate!
The cushion next to mine was still empty. “Where is this guy”, I thought, and then I started to
observe my surroundings. There were many cushions vacant in the men’s area. Most of the
women meditators were present. “Why are men less serious about anything? What does it tell?”
And then I started to wonder, “This is a ten-day course. Add to it the Day zero, and the day of
departure. Effectively it is 12 days! Who in the world has 12 days to do NOTHING! Who are
these people? They don’t look homeless to me. Most of them look just fine. I was not sure about
one of them though! Well, I am here too, but I have vacations. Do all these guys have vacation
too? Who in the world wastes 12 days of his/her vacation time getting up in the morning at 4 and
sitting on a cushion and doing nothing?
This brought my attention back to the cushion. We were asked to bring cushions, “mediation
cushions”. Now what essentially was it? I had no idea, and I did not bring a cushion. Instead I
was sitting on a thick rug which was provided to everyone.
I checked others. One was sitting on a 10 inch high cushion. He placed that on the rug that was
provided to us. Some had round thick ones, and they were sitting on them such that their knees
only were in contact with the rug, making a triangular support between their hips, and two knees.
The guy sitting in front of me was sitting on a pile of one! I stopped counting after seven of his
cushions. A variety of type and color spectrum. I think he brought whatever he could lay his
hands on, or whatever airlines let him carry without extra fare. I am sure that he left none at his
home. From my angle, he looked as if he was sitting on a mountain top. What difference this
elevation would make, I wondered. He just made himself sit higher. Would sitting at a lower
elevation change his posture? Certainly not!
5:15 AM. I hadn’t been able to concentrate yet. My mind had been wandering everywhere. But I
had other worries growing now. I had started feeling little uncomfortable sitting in that position
for long. My legs and back started hurting a little. I stretched my legs, and liked that. Maybe, I
should change my sitting posture, Padmasana may be. Let me try that. I lifted my left foot and
placed it on my right leg, and then had to stretch very hard to shift my right foot on my left leg.
Finally I was successful. It was not convenient, but I was sitting in that pose. I looked around,
and had a victory lap as no one else but I was sitting in Padmasana. I should be sitting in
Padmasana, after all I am an Indian, and Yoga is in my genes. Irrespective of whether I practice
Yoga or not, at this moment I am sitting in Padmasana. That thought could not go for long, as my
foot started to hurt badly. The ligaments and tendons of my foot never thought that they would
be subjected to this stretch. They were now used to stay mushy in Rockport shoes. To ease some
pain, I slid my foot a little on the ground. It helped, but for a few seconds only. The next thing I
saw was my leg sprang free from the constraints of Padmasana. I did not like this quick and
sudden failure. I didn’t know if someone noticed my walk of shame, so I immediately got up as
if I released this Padmasana pose voluntarily.
I walked to the water cooler, which was in the back of the hall. From the window in the back, I
noticed the day had started to break. I went closer to the window for more, and a cool breeze
splashed on my face. I welcomed that!
There was a stack of disposable water cups on a desk, by the water cooler. One notice said,
“Please put your name on the water cup, so that you can reuse it. Save the planet”. I was all in for
saving this planet if using this single cup for ten days is going to do that. I checked some other
cups, and students had written their full names on it. Why? Why do you need your full name to
identify your own cup? May be then we should put our father’s name, telephone number, street
address, and our pet’s name too! I just made a “sign” on it, filled it with water, and gulped it
down. Then I put it all the way at the back of the desk, and there I saw a spider moving. What if
this spider crawls over my cup, and I drink of it? It may even weave a web! Is that poisonous? I
didn’t know. Spider did good to Spiderman though. Thoughts of Spiderman-1,, 2, and 3 along
with of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst brightened-up my face, and I decided to take my
chances, and let my cup stay where it was.. near the spider.
5:25 AM. I walked back to my seat, and started all over again, but then some noisy movements
made me re-open my eyes. The teachers were joining us. The male teacher, who was a bald, slim
Burmese man in his fifties (but looked much older) sat in front of men’s side, and his wife, a
Burmese lady with small black hair wearing a salwar-kurta took seat in front of the women’s
I noticed that now the seat next to me was taken, and a young man is sitting with his back all
curved like letter “C”, and head popped in front of him. He would have back trouble if he
continues to sit like that, I thought. Should I ask him to correct his posture? But we could not talk
there, even the gestures or eye contact was not allowed. I looked at him again. He was smiling
with his eyes closed. Was he already in bliss? If he is happy, I am happy.
The teacher popped in a cassette in a player, but he could not find the right button to play it. He
struggled for a while, then he turned his table lamp on to get a better picture, and then put on his
reading glasses. Why didn’t he use them before? I heard a “click”, and then one male baritone
voice filled the room-
“Observe your breath. The incoming breath. The outgoing breath. The breath as it is.
If it is shallow, then it is shallow! If it is deep, then it is deep! Breath as it is.
Just concentrate on your breath in the area, the area under your nostrils and above your upper
Just observe your breath. The incoming breath. The outgoing breath. The breath as it is.
Work diligently, work intelligently, work persistently.
Work diligently, work intelligently, work persistently.
You are bound to become successful!
You are bound to become successful!
You are bound to become successful!
The teacher stopped the tape.
I closed my eyes.
(to be continued…)


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