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FROM THE BUNKER IN ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO

Updated: Mar 11

I made it! 6:45 a.m. has arrived.


This dawn, after a treasured well-baked sleep, I recall countless hostel nights when my thoughts were rattled by the words, sounds, smells, and actions of others, and when grace fell subject to my feebly ignorant and undisciplined mind. This morning, reverence overflows for the miracles that helped protect last night’s slumber, along with those, certainly not all, during the past 15 years. Fortunately, since my initial nomadic step in 2008, unforeseeable and uncontrollable conditions, especially inherent in a wayfaring lifestyle, are handled by me differently now. Hidden pitfalls of my previously tolerant character but tortured soul have given way to an increasing awareness of the nature of life; particularly, the acceptance of who I am, not. At some point, the progressive gradations of this perspective became so saturated and useful that they could not be dismissed any longer. Moreover, they insisted deeper investigation. The question of how this insightful seed came to me or how I uncovered it, is at the epicenter of the stories I am about to tell.


In the summer of 2010, after enduring the destabilizing consequences of a four-year depression, which mandated the costly and questionable counsel of one psychiatrist in Los Angeles, two psychologists in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one unusual psychiatrist in Paris, France, I discovered an ancient practice that would forever unlock my outlook, alter my way of being, and ultimately save my life.


On August 26, a sequence of unplanned, labyrinthine events took me to a picturesque place in Switzerland. Even a blind person would see the order of circumstances as having been anything but coincidental. Inside a large house, on a private compound surrounded by seen and unseen nature, situated atop a serene mountain two hours east of Geneve, where the song of birds, crickets, and cowbells graced the wind from dawn to dusk, I found myself amongst 50 or so others; French, German, and English-speaking women and men—strangers, yet not at all. We had come to partake in a 10-day retreat. Having read the material that was advanced before the acceptance of our applications and arrival, we knew that the process would be intensive. The physical, mental, and emotional challenges would be greater for more than others. In the mix were first-timers, myself, as well as Old Students. Nonetheless, discipline, focus, and commitment would be required of all, 24 hours per day, including 10 hours of sitting—segmented into one and one-and-a-half hour sessions. As the disallowance of any sort of interaction, e.g, looking, speaking, touching, with others was one of the conditions we agreed to, each person was on her and his own. That said, there was one teacher and several assistants present to intervene if exceptionally difficult occurrences arose. Thanks to the efforts of now deceased S.N. Goenka, in the dimly lit large room, we practiced what had almost gone extinct for much of the world: Vipassana Meditation. And so, just as the original Buddha—Siddhartha Gautama—we discovered ourselves, how to see things as they are, as one.


We learned the technique of self-observation, how to scan, from the center of our heads to the tips of our toes, for any sensations; slight, strong, familiar, and unfamiliar. Tickling, prickling, pinching, pulsing, cramping, twitching, moisture, warmth, chilling, burning...all perceivable physical alterations, which typically go undetected or dismissed, were not to be imagined but simply observed. For the benefit of future students, the tradition of Vipassana meditation must stay in its purest form and, not be inadvertently misinterpreted or misrepresented. Therefore, I won’t go into much detail about the techniques of the practice. Very simply, however, a series of S.N. Goenka’s recordings, played by one of his many teachers, guided our minds away from outer-world concerns.


During the first six days of the course, I fully participated and held my commitment to the rules of practice, inside and on the grounds of the expansive property; well, almost. At that juncture, except for my belongings in two oversized blue suitcases, I had lost nearly all of my worldly possessions, not to mention my colleagues, friends, family, country, business, and sense of identity. My predominant view was that other than my physical life, I had nothing else to let go of. Nevertheless, the voice of doubt, fear, and suspicion managed to echo within. During some sit sessions, questions would arise arbitrarily and tempt me to consider withdrawing, leaving, and settling for the cocktail of apathy and distrust I had been guzzling for four years, i.e., Was this some sort of cult? After I wrote about my enlightening experience at the monastery, did Etan lead me astray? Could he have intentionally tricked me into coming here? And, what is a cult anyway? This quivering line of random self-grilling wasn’t incessant but it did pop up enough to keep me in bed with my uneasy and chatty cerebellum, so to speak. Although the meditation practice doesn’t encourage thoughts to surface, it doesn’t discourage it either. Paramount is the allowance for one’s state of being to unfold naturally, in the present. But how can you blame the brain when its modus Operandi is to conserve energy and foreshadow danger—to not die? I had never heard the Sanskrit chanted in Pali before. I had never bowed to resisting physical strains and pain before, which sometimes flared excruciatingly. Could the guidance to only observe and move on be a recipe for disaster or something else? My relinquishing of whatever belongings and trust remained in my well, didn’t seem to be a prudent act either, especially to unknown persons. Consider that I was in an unfamiliar setting, which had everyone eating only vegan meals. For that matter, never before had I emerged from sleep, at four in the morning, to the ghostly sound of a distant gong. I was out of my proverbial box, out on a limb, with my legs knotted and eyes shut. Ultimately, whatever risks I imagined were usurped by my near-impotent state. Sometimes the greatest blessing is to not have a choice.


By adhering to the rules, I never knew how or exactly where the other students were positioned around the spacious, practically square-shaped, and dimly lit room. My knowledge of whether or not they chose to cross their legs, and if their eyes were shut, open, or peeking was non-existent. I was not privy to knowing their races or faces, their voices, or what hairstyles and clothing they donned. Wearing any sort of add-on fragrances, e.g., perfumes, colognes, oils, balms, deodorants, hair gels, moisturizing sprays, creams, make-up, insect repellents, and so on, was strictly and unsurprisingly not allowed. In a physical sense, the room was full and yet empty.


S.N. Goenka’s assigned Teacher, wore muted-colored, loose-fitting clothing, like the rest of us. She spoke with a heavy German accent and sat front and center with an audio playback system to her right. The Assistant Teachers would also participate in the sessions but their number would vary as one or two would sometimes be called to help with meal preparations in the professional kitchen downstairs. Thanks to the smooth flow of the organization and the abundance of respect and grace by the leaders of the course, any flicker of doubts that arose about my being there was quickly extinguished, eventually.


Early on, before the purpose of the practice became clearer, I questioned whether I had willingly and foolishly entered a prison. Like a pawn, a part of me was leery of becoming fodder for some invisible person’s machine. To boot, I wondered if I might have been conned and flipped upside down by, Etan, one of my most trusted friends from California. He wouldn’t have been the first to do so.


The skinny, quirky, erudite Jew, originally from the Bronx, cheered on my transformation from entrepreneur to artist and encouraged my self-exile from Los Angeles to Paris. Ten years my senior, he understood what I was seeking because he had already been down the road I was now trekking. After reading an update on my Facebook page, about my three-day June stay with the Cistercian Monks near Cannes, France—on Ile St. Honorat—he wrote a comment that coaxed me into making more out of my experience. I did consider the possibility of discovering Vipassana Meditation but only because he suggested it. In any case, I had already planned on returning to the monastery in late September, to help with harvesting the monks’ vineyards. However, because Etan continued to water the seed of possibility, gently and sincerely, I did apply to attend the course in late August.


The next day, I learned I was put on Mont de Soleil’s long waitlist. There seemed to be little chance of being summoned as the course was to begin the following week, on my birthday, nonetheless. But a call is exactly what I got. Unfortunately, it was to my Skype number. Meaning, in short, I didn’t hear the ring and I didn’t receive the message until the following day. It was difficult to digest how my amazing luck had gone south, again, this time due to some absent-minded person simply failing to call the primary mobile number I had indicated. Nevertheless, I immediately rang the retreat center back. Admittedly, there was more than an ounce of steaming frustration that wanted to spout out of my mouth. Wouldn’t it have been bizarre and horrendously hypocritical of me to say that I am looking to achieve peace while raising my voice? Well, it wouldn’t have been the first time. There were instances when it was deemed necessary and beneficial to all. Conversely, there were times it was neither.  Fortunately, however, I managed to keep a tone of gratitude and so, the administrative person assured me that he would call me directly on my mobile the next time, if another cancelation occurred.


Somehow, what was at first only a slight consideration became an adventure that I was aching to discover. That little bit of luck, magic, or call it what you want, woke me out of my gloomy dormancy. Still, I had known a bit of luck in the past. The odds of being tapped on the shoulder once more, so quickly, seemed less than nil. But the next morning, on August 25th, I was indeed tapped again. Since I didn’t believe I would get a second call, I didn’t research train schedules, hotel accommodations, etc. I wasn’t prepared to receive the tap, the miracle. Fortunately, I acted swiftly and found there was a train that was leaving from Cannes to Geneve, the only one of that day. Moreover, there would be a connecting train that would take me to Biel/Bienne that evening. Even though I had no idea where I would stay when I arrived at 10 p.m. or how I would get to Saint-Imier and then Mont Soleil the following morning, there was no chance I wouldn’t try to fit the pieces of the puzzle. Two hours later after having received the, “You’ve been accepted” call, I was on my way.


If it wasn’t for Etan, I wouldn’t have gone, deeper. On the surface, it seemed my desire to return to the monastery offered the opportunity to pick grapes, in silence, for nearly three weeks. Food and accommodation would be offered and there would be ample opportunities to enjoy the rustic nature paths with views of Cannes’ Croisette and the beatific expanse of the Mediterranean. However, as I had no religious interest and little knowledge of the Bible, especially the French edition, it didn’t feel like a must-do priority. That said, I did return to Ile St. Honorat a month later, in September, and will share what I discovered. For now, to some, monasteries may seem to be a place of self-imprisonment, just as I initially considered Mont Soleil. However, as the course ticked onward, my frenetic, fear-based thoughts subsided. I began to develop a fresh understanding of “prison” and how, all along, the source of my confinement might have been conjured solely in my mind.


Increasingly, external matters and influences evaporated. Simplicity’s sweetness began to revive my lungs like the scent of a freshly cut bouquet. Though it was just the beginning, the restoration of my equilibrium was underway. On day one, we were given the option to rest atop our bent knees, sit in the lotus position, or sit with our legs crossed. As it was explained, one will find themselves battling the desire to fall asleep if the limbs are extended. Therefore, it is not encouraged to do so. However, it is permitted to use a wall for support if a person has serious back issues. Additionally, since the floor was wooden, muted-colored cushions and floor pads were available. My buttocks and ankles appreciated both.


Once the sit starts and the surface scanning begins, physical adjustments can only interrupt the technique. Hence, it was advised to not alter our posture. However, if movement was needed, we were told to use the utmost care, to act slowly and in harmony with our natural breath; to not disquiet ourselves and our neighbors. From different areas of the room, faint-sounding exhalations, groans, fatigued gasps, and occasionally, not-so-faint sobs, eventually lost their force and could not clutch or scatter my attention.


By the middle of the sixth day, after I observed an inferno explode in my left knee, I discovered the source of all my pains. It was the pushing and pulling of my brain’s frightful imagination that caused friction and ignited debilitating wildfires—fantasy.


Have you ever seen a rabbit stop frozen in the middle of a road as it gazed into oncoming headlights?






Photo: The Bunker

Eric Baronsky

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3 Comments


Guest
Mar 11

Eric, It’s so interesting to read your journey, what you’ve been going through and your self discovery and development. Very well written. Thanks for sharing!

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Guest
Mar 11

Fantastic writing, heartfelt, wanting for more.

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Guest
Mar 10

Danke Eric für deine poetische Nachricht!

Manfred.

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