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The Fork In The Lake

S.N. Goenka’s assigned Teacher wore muted-colored and loose-fitting garments. On day one, in the early afternoon, while attendees were arriving and settling in, I happened to see her skirting across the hallway, from one of the ground-floor offices to another. A few days later, I asked for and was granted a one-on-one meeting with her, to ask a critical question. As it is necessary to describe the events that led me to that point, I will first continue describing the preceding days, before what I refer to as “the fork in the lake.”  

After our registration was complete and our rooms and beds were assigned, all female and male attendees were to exchange their streetwear for something similar to the teacher’s. Dressing in vivid colors and wearing things that glimmered or revealed skin needlessly would impede our ability to see things as they truly are and pollute the realization of that which we came to discover—our unadulterated nature.

The house’s entry led to a long and uninteresting hallway. Even as the incomers traversed the corridor’s worn oak floor, I don’t recall ever hearing an aching creak come from it. Straight ahead from the entry and before reaching the window-lined terrace, a wide, zig-zagging staircase to the right led to three upper levels; each included well-kempt shared bathrooms and sparse dormitories. Mine was located at the end of the second floor and provided five single beds for five males. Women and men were strictly separated and only permitted to share space in the sitting room as well as during breakfast, lunch, four o’clock tea, and supper in the terrace room. Otherwise, all areas of the facility were designed to be unisex and minimize potential mental, emotional, and physical diversions; it worked, for the most part. Thanks to the aged but sound structure and its natural setting, there was a warm and reassuring ambiance amidst the well-maintained but bare and simple handrails, rugs, ceilings, and walls. Nothing and nobody appeared menacing or manipulative. Still, my guard and suspicion remained alert; just in case. 

Opposite the banisters on the ground floor was the beige-colored door that opened to the sitting room. One might say it was the epicenter of the course. As the space had probably been part of a lavish home years before, used for entertaining, I feel more comfortable and will go on referring to it only as a room, not a hall. Then again, it accommodated over 50 people easily and adjoined the large terrace, which offered the soul-soothing view of healthy towering trees, tall grass, and copious wildflowers. I relished the idea of having the sight to behold, for the entire stay. However, that dream would remain but a dream. During the entire course, the collective was only given ten and fifteen-minute windows to take walks outside. Surprisingly, my bones and muscles held up, almost. At first, the conditions seemed austere, limiting, and unreasonable—the pain of learning.

The ground, on which the century-old house rested, was inclined but not so steeply. From the terrace window, I had noticed two dirt, seemingly spherical paths that traversed the greenery; one to the rear and the other in front of the dwelling. The space, filled with simple wooden chairs that accompanied a dozen or so simple wooden tables, later became the eating area where all meals, free of charge, would be served to us. Aside from the inherent travel costs to arrive at the center, every aspect of the experience was and to date is offered at no cost. Donations are accepted, however, they are by no means a requirement. I am sure that I was not the only person, New Student, who wondered about why and how this place and its service could exist. Its business model seemed to be irrational and unsustainable. This thing I just signed on to is “too good to be true” and “too strange, not right, and likely illegitimate,” I thought.

With their small bags and backpacks stuffed with merely the requisites, namely muted-colored sweatpants, slippers, shower towels, socks, and long-sleeved t-shirts, the terrace began to fill with attendees. Since I happened to be the first to arrive at the property, I had already completed the sign-in procedure forty minutes earlier. It was touching to see and hear the people enter so quietly and respectfully, though the course hadn’t even started. People were sensitive to distracting or troubling others, those who were already turning their mind’s focus inward, preparing to immerse into a ten-hour per day, ten-day straight inner journey. I kept asking myself, “How could something so extreme draw so many to this and other Vipassana centers around the globe, when did I ever sit so still, how did life take me here, and when I leave, what will I have to look forward to?” 

These capricious mind spurts were mostly overrun by the Assistant Teachers’ friendliness, organization, and clear direction. Still, my thoughts and those around me seemed to buzz around like bees, on the hunt, shifting from one bloom to another in search of nectar. Minutes before the course officially began, I heard exchanges that teetered on the emotional spectrum. In a sentence or two some attendees boomeranged from eagerness to helplessness and back, about what the next days would bring. A prisoner’s request for one last puff before hearing the death lever pulled, sprung to mind. After all, the silence and segregation, from not just the women, or men, but the stifling of our voices, would be continuous for 240 hours. I wondered, “Why should being by oneself and with oneself frighten us, especially me?” And, “Why was the prospect of simply sitting still be off-putting, such a scary notion?” 

Though there was still a chance to jump ship, I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t blind to how people around me were bridging and bonding. I sensed something extraordinary on the glorious mountaintop of Switzerland, “in the haystack”, waiting to be found. Our common will to search for universal truth, in discovering and demystifying something so basic, intrepidly, kept me calm and seated with the others; from grabbing my bag and bolting out the door, as I had done so many times before. 

Conversely, some just sat by themselves, already detached, seemingly attenuating their faculties of perception for the upcoming plunge into the purer sense of presence. That said, they offered an uneasy glimpse into the future. Though I conversed with Yvan, a young man from France, and Rolf, a younger one from Switzerland, both of whom I would later befriend, my thoughts seemed pointless and wobbly—uneasy. Once again, vocabulary became unavailable and increasingly unimportant to me. Generally speaking, the decline of my confidence in mankind’s ability to consistently communicate compassionately with ardent curiosity, courage, and commitment to the evolution of mankind, was what pulled my plug, so to speak. My verve to go on wilted but it didn’t leave me feeling mad or vengeful, just limp, useless, lost on Earth.

During the previous four years, nobody saw the rise of my gradual downfall coming; at least, no one warned me of it. Admittedly, as objective as I still try to be about that period, the memories sometimes warp and wiggle; nevertheless, what’s done is done. However, contrary to the advice I received from my prior four psychological clinicians, I know there are rewards in retrospection now. With unblinking right-seeing and intention, an eye to the past or the future cannot threaten the present moment. A vehicle’s rear-view mirror and windshield inform and inspire. Only when the ideas of destruction, danger, and death are programmed and heeded, deep into the flesh and marrow, can one advocate for the unsustainable armor of blind eyes.

My general doctor, long-standing realtor, competent accountants, lawyers, brotherly buddies from university, longtime comrades and cohorts from the film biz, as well as come-and-go lovers, didn’t point to even one bleep on my psychological radar back then. A brand new silver-colored Porsche, BOSS suits, and frequent five-star trips to Asia and Europe gave the impression everything was going great. Americans are groomed to go all out, to win something, anything, and even “bet the house” to do so. Unexpectedly, I found myself carrying the torch of Americana. The awe and admiration of my peeps taught me to turn oxygen into helium and pump up my chest with it. They cheered whenever I let them know I rolled the dice once more.

Such attention was sorely absent in grade and high school. Instead, I was scolded and bullied for being different. As an excelling student, actor, singer, aspiring impressionist, and comedian, I felt innocently impelled to celebrate, something; although, I wasn’t exactly sure of why. It never crossed my mind that I could have been taken as a threat to some. What hurt me most, out of all the social isolation and physical abuse I endured and never reported, was the befuddling notion of difference, soulful difference, between my classmates and anyone else. Perhaps, as I was an only child, this point of view could be expected. Later the stark realization of my childhood cocoon prompted me to understand myself as having been deprived of critical know-how about the whys and hows to integrate with societies’ packs of two-legged animals. In 2000, when the opportunity arose, that deep feeling of oneness was uprooted. Finally, I had the chance to prove I could fit into society and be whole.

Considering, in one way or another, my entourage was getting paid, it would have been foolhardy for them to cause waves and interrupt the flow, their flow. Nobody suggested that I should pace myself slower and be more prudent with my disposition towards calculated yet overly optimistic risk-taking; nobody felt obliged to or, at minimum, speak up. Until my first meeting with a 200-dollar-per-hour Beverly Hills psychiatrist, no one questioned my way of thinking or behaving, especially myself. 

Phyllis, a longtime film editor friend of mine eventually referred me to her upscale, as she put it, "Shrink." She warned and encouraged me: “Bob’s expensive but he’s worth it.”

My finances were dwindling fast and the process of my mental disability insurance claim had only just begun. Therefore, I decided to merely gamble two appointments with him. During the first one, I intertwined a matter-of-fact tone with infallible bravado when speaking about my uncanny business wherewithal. I said, “I knew how to play the game.” In a floral-patterned, antique-looking chair, Bob was seated six feet from the plush and creamy sofa in which I sank. He was a 50-something professional who had perfectly combed and nearly white hair. An empty notepad rested on his perfectly pleated and crossed dress slacks, while his spectacles aimed downward, at an authentic Persian rug. I was able to discern the real ones from the fakes since my mother used to repair them—one of three side jobs. He had barely uttered a question or comment during the first 30 minutes. I was ripe to talk, to expose my weakness, and he knew it. While inviting me to repeat myself, he swiftly raised his gaze and looked straight into the black of my eyes. I said, “I knew how to play the game.” Bob took a pause and straightforwardly followed with, “Really?” That cannonball of a word, his one punch, sent me reeling backward into the ropes, stunned, ashamed, and silent.

My life had become a game of Craps. I felt like I would forever roll 7s and 11s until I began to roll 12s, 3s, and 2s. Twenty years earlier, after struggling with Pulmonary Interstitial Fibrosis throughout my college career, I held my mother’s hand as I watched her take her last breath. Somehow, I buried that lesson of the past and turned my eyes from the truth, the nature of impermanence. 

Photo: The Fork in The Lake

Eric Baronsky

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1 Comment

Mar 20

Such a moving story Eric. I felt like I was there experiencing it all. It took me away from my own all consuming sad life to another dimension where I could lose myself. Once I finished reading I felt cleansed or renewed as I felt comforted to know I am human.

Thank you.



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