Many journeys have begun from atop a barstool; not many turned into a 10-day silent meditation retreat.
This one did.
We decided to grab a beer after one of our monthly work meetings. A couple of colleagues and I sat at the counter in a dingy shot bar which wreaked of sambuca (I think) and probably still does. The conversation was flowing, and somebody mentioned a ‘crazy’ friend of his who was always speaking about how we must face up to death and realise that it’s our destiny – among other philosophical ramblings. This sounded a lot like Stoicism to me, which I had recently been reading about, and so it didn’t sound too crazy to me – I was intrigued.
“What happened to him?”, I asked.
Turns out he ended up in some silent meditation retreat (Vipassana) for 10-days before leaving the country. Now, this did sound crazy – it still does.
The seed was planted, however. I would go home that evening and look up this retreat. I would find out it’s regarded as a life-changing experience. I would also find out dates and times of a course that suited me and all the details needed for the application. I would follow it through and end up standing outside the same Vipassana centre with my suitcase in late December, feeling nervous. I would be meditating through the New Year this time, and all the way into the first week of 2018. I would take a vow of silence for 10 days and wake up at 4 am each morning to the sound of a gong. I would queue for a cup of tea, a kiwi fruit, and half an apple for my dinner at 5pm each evening. I would stick out the full 10 days and ride a rollercoaster of emotions and sensations.
And most of all, I would love it.
Day 0 – December 28th, 2017
I arrived at the Vipassana centre along with a busload of fellow meditators. There was little to no conversation on the way. It seemed everyone had already taken the vow of silence before it officially started. I didn’t mind. We were all here for very personal reasons I guess. Mine? Self-destructive thoughts and emotions. I was eager to get on with this.
Women and men got separated right away and sent to different areas to enrol and hand in personal belongings, such as phones and wallets. Walking out of the registration room towards the men’s dorm with no phone and wallet was odd. It didn’t take long, however, to forget about them, and the outside world (I didn’t miss it at all for the next 10 days).
The dorm was nice to be fair. A row of beds on either side of the room separated by curtains. A relatively new building too, and so I was comfortable there for the duration
The first night was a light meal of vegetable soup and rice followed by an initiation talk covering various rules: keeping the silence, schedule of meditation times and meals etc. And then we watched our first video discourse from S.N. Goenka (the man who spread Vipassana around the globe) who explained the five precepts we must undertake; no killing, lying, sexual misconduct, intoxicants, or stealing.
Fair enough. I certainly didn’t come here to do any of that.
We did an hour’s meditation in the hall before lights out at 9:30. I was thrilled that this had finally started.
I jumped out of bed at 4 am to the sound of a gong and was in the hall early to take my cushion – I was determined to be a good a little meditator. I was fascinated by the sight of several people, cloaked in blankets, already in deep meditation in the dimly lit hall (they looked like Jedi to me). I moved silently to my cushion, where a lot would happen over the next 10 days.
Day one’s instruction was simple: be aware of the breath coming in and out of the nostrils. Not to change it in any way, just be aware of the natural process. This was later explained by Goenka in the nightly discourse as to observe reality for what it is, and not what we would like it to be – I was very impressed.
It was the first step in training our minds to become highly sensitive in observing the natural sensations all over the body. And most importantly, to remain equanimous: to be totally neutral to any sensation, be it unbearable pain or the feeling of pure energy flowing throughout the body (which would happen eventually).
Firstly though, to calm the monkey mind, we would need 3 days of focusing on the flow of breath through our nostrils. It went down with a fight. But, down it went in the end.
Day 1 was made up of a lot of silly mundane thoughts like; ‘I should buy new shoes soon’ or ‘that girl on the train was nice – should have said something.’Just a whole pile of that mostly for day 1. And changing posture a lot, to avoid discomfort, as we were allowed to that for the time being.
I noticed I was easily irritated that day. Any kind of noise from others and I would start to seeth with anger inside. I even thought about complaining at one point. There were several people furiously cracking their knuckles at random intervals. I still think that was a completely stupid thing to be doing in a meditation hall, but I’m glad I didn’t complain in the end. Eventually, my irritation would fade and nothing would bother me.
The day would pass, and all would change soon enough.
I read that a lot of people apparently get purged with traumatic thoughts from their past during the first few days of a Vipassana course. I thought I was in for that. I was ready for it. I wanted to confront all the shitty little thought patterns and face who I was.
Instead, I got nothing but memories of sexual encounters. A whole day of it. They were vivid too. I remember smiling at one stage, thinking this purge thing isn’t so bad. It started to get very distracting. How does one focus through all this? I feel it was a dirty (no pun intended) tactic of the mind to disturb the process; a retaliation of sorts.
Apart from that, we were instructed to focus on sensations around the triangle area from the base of the upper lip to the top of the nose, including the breath going in and out.
I fluctuated between those instructions and the intruding thoughts for the entire day. My mind was consistent in disturbing me, but I kept on bringing my attention back as much as I could.
Bit of a shameful day, but that’s how it happened. The next day would be totally different.
This would be the weirdest day by far. Instead of memories or anything that made sense, my mind resorted to conjuring up completely random images.
Animals, geometric shapes, symbols, medieval looking crests, those stained glass windows you see in churches, space, planets, and a myriad of other images which became more abstract throughout the day.
I was fascinated and a bit freaked out at the same time. Was my mind broken?
And then there were the insects. A lot of images in my mind were superimposed with all kinds of creepy crawlies. Especially spiders. This was an absolute WTF day!? The spider thing would actually continue for a few days but, amazingly, I totally ignored it (or accepted it – not sure which).
Throughout all this madness, we were instructed to focus on a smaller area of the body: the part between the upper lip and the entrance of the nostrils. I was fascinated by Goenka’s talk on this. He mentioned how there are all sorts of sensations happening on the body, but we never take time to observe and notice them. And he was right. When I started to feel all the little tingles and the feeling of the breath in this area, I became a bit overexcited and felt like telling people – I was practically joyous.
I remember looking at the stars that night with great serenity – my mind was definitely calming. I recalled looking at them with friends during my childhood, observing the constellations. An old memory which I hadn’t conjured in years.
Some of this sounds completely nuts, but that’s how it was. And, as with day two, the next day would be totally different once again.
In a very good way.
To be continued…