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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

On the Road to Dhamma

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

Dhamma is the Pali word for truth. Dhara means land. Dhamma Dhara is the name of a Vipassana meditation center in Shelburne Falls which I first attended in 2010. I hiked 11.5 miles from the motel where my ex-wife had dropped me off to the center. I shouldered a backpack that weighed about 50 pounds. I hiked along the Mohawk Trail that day, following the Deerfield River to Dhamma Dhara in search of truth. For 10 days I would observe silence; for 10 days I would sit still and meditate: no books, no diversions, no exercise, no entertainment. There was a strict code of discipline. Outside communication was prohibited. Men and women were segregated. No alcohol, smoking, or drugs of any kind were permitted. The dress code stressed modesty. We ate a simple vegetarian meal for breakfast and lunch and a piece of fruit for dinner. The day began at 4 am and ended at 9:30 pm. We meditated 10 hours a day. The experience was transformative. I've attended 7 retreats since and plan to continue on this path.

Last week, I cycled 150 miles from my home in New Bedford to the center. I wasn't going to meditate this time, but to serve.

The strict regimen at the center reminded me of Boot Camp. I couldn’t resist comparing and contrasting the two experiences.

I served in the military and appreciated the strict military protocols: the pre-dawn wake ups, the observance of order and cleanliness, the challenges, and the physical training. Both required stamina, mettle, and determination. One regimen trained men for peace; the other trained men for war. During Basic, I felt camaraderie with the men of my unit; during meditation, I felt a kinship with all humanity. I graduated Basic with an inflated sense of my own strength; I left the meditation retreat with a deflated ego. In Basic, we trained to defend the country against all threats and attack all enemies; in meditation, we engaged the mind to defeat the enemy within and transform the hatred, fear, ill will, and anger that warred within us. In Basic, we trained with weapons. On retreat, we battled afflictive mental states, illusions and misperceptions with awareness. Duty, honor, and courage were cultivated in Basic. Equanimity, peace, and love were cultivated on retreat.

Both regimens prepared me to face adversity. During Basic, we trained to meet adversity with brute force. With meditation,we trained to meet suffering with soul force. Both regimens required discipline. In Basic, consequences were meted out by drill sergeants. The meditator, by contrast, would observe the consequences of his own thoughts, words, and deeds unfolding first within the mind. The mind would become agitated, the emotions would be stirred, the body would become tense. We learned to observe this unfolding without reacting to it. Meditation stressed a different kind of discipline- self regulation at the root level of mind. The discipline imposed on us during Basic was superficial. As soon as the drill instructors were out of site, some would self medicate with drugs, alcohol, porn, or food. Such diversions were prohibited on retreat where a strict ethical code was enforced. During Basic, we were trained to kill. During meditation, we took vows not to kill or cause to kill any living being. Compassion was deadened in Basic, but extended to all sentient beings during retreat. Both regimens put men face to face with their own mortality. Both regimens brought death to the forefront of consciousness. One stressed camaraderie with the unit, the team, the platoon; the other stressed commonality with all people.

When I graduated Basic, I was greeted with the approval of everyday civilians who would thank me for my service. There were no medals, no accolades, no parades, no glory for the warrior who battled the enemies within. A man’s own mind could be a far greater enemy than any foe. Hatred, anger, and ignorance robbed us of peace and kept us bound to darkness.

This mental training would prepare me for the battles, suffering and losses that lay ahead.

Last week, I was responsible for the men's dining facility. I kept it as clean and orderly as any mess hall. A drill sergeant could inspect the counters and tabletops with a white glove and not find a speck of dust or anything out of place. I was intentional. Everything was in order. I wanted them to feel like soldiers training for a great battle. In a sense, the men and women who enlisted for 10 days were warriors in training.

Order, discipline, and structure are stressed at Dhamma Dhara. A controlled and structured environment promotes inner order and harmony. Most come to the center with untrained minds. Many were educated and "successful" as the world defines these things- engineers, doctors, programmers, CEOs, etc. They had the discipline to pursue degrees, titles, and positions of power, but few could sit still for more than a few minutes without squirming or adjusting their position. This was a whole new level of learning they were not taught in school. After a little more than a week of intense training however, most could sit hour after hour with strong determination (adhitthana). In neuroscience-speak, they were deconditioning their conditioned minds, training in interoceptive awareness (Holzel, 2008), attentional regulation (Kuzbiel, 2018), emotional balance (Wu et al, 2019), response inhibition/non-reactivity (Andreu, 2019; Kral et al, 2018) and restoring the pleasure/pain dopamine balance (Knytl, 2020). In metaphor, they were learning to face their demons. They were working their way out of their self-imposed prisons.

A documentary about men at a maximum security prison in Alabama convinced me to try this technique of Vipassana for the first time over a decade ago. If this meditation technique could work for these men in such a hostile environment, I reasoned, certainly it would work for me.

Last week, I came across a book in the server's library (reading is only prohibited to those sitting for 10 days, but not for workers)- Letters from the Dhamma Brothers. I read it. Before leaving, I met one of the men who organizes prison retreats. It was beyond coincidence or serendipity and felt ordained. It is my goal to help with this work.

"A life of bondage is full of sorrow," the teacher SN Goenka said in a discourse to the prisoners. "There is no greater suffering than bondage and no greater happiness than freedom... Deep inside, everyone is a prisoner of his unwholesome behavior patterns at the depth of the mind. Without knowing what one is doing, one continues generating some negativity or the other- anger, hatred, aversion. Out of ignorance, you make yourself miserable... but there is a way out of this prison."

Satya Narayana Goenka was an influential Vipassana meditation teacher. He was born in Burma to a wealthy Brahmin family from India. Leveraging his business savvy, he helped establish over 230 Vipassana centers worldwide. The centers are entirely donation based. People who try Vipassana and benefit from the technique donate their money, time, or resources to help. The model rests entirely on the goodwill and compassion of others and confidence in the power of the technique to transform lives. People are lodged, well fed, and attended to on retreat. In gratitude, people respond according to their means and ability. This model impressed me greatly as most other meditation centers are fee-based and expensive.


I practice this technique daily. I could not have learned it on my own. Attending a retreat was essential and positively transformative.

I do not like the recordings of Goenkaji chanting which opens and closes each sit ( I would prefer a simple bell) and would prefer discourses on neuroscience instead of the Buddha's teachings, but my criticisms are subjective. Some love the chanting and appreciate the discourses that are played at the end of each day. I appreciate the rules and codes, some chafe at them. So, I would invite curious others to investigate for themselves.

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