- Brianna Welsh
My life in 10 days
Day -1 – What the Fuck Was I Thinking! So in the midst of my “Saturn Rising”, I took off to India for a little attempt at peace. My inner demons were bubbling to the surface and clamoring to be released. Clearly didn’t think it through, since India isn’t really famous for its serene cities of several millions, but I made it, and kicked off a two-month tour across the country. Who knew India was such a big space!? 21 hours on a sweaty overnight train surrounded by screaming kids was not really the “reset” I had bargained for.
Needless to say, 8 weeks in, I was ready for a spiritual cleansing. In addition to being unbearably worn out from the heat, the smells, the chaos, and just generally the lack of personal space, I was on the verge of some kind of psychotic breakdown. I was smack in the middle of my quarter life crisis, and my head felt like a traffic jam. I couldn’t work my damn mind if I tried. I had turned into an emotional basket case (evidenced my uncharacteristically dramatic reaction to Brexit), was so tightly wound I could have jumped through my own skin, and completely lost for a solution to cure my overwhelming anxiety. I needed to “defrag my hard drive” as they call it, and start building the pieces again from square one.
So in searching for some inspiration, I registered for what I believed to be a self-indulgent Eat, Pray, Love style retreat, which claimed to support the “path to self-discovery and emotional healing”. Whatever that means…
But in line with my history of questionable decision-making, I committed to this retreat without so much as a simple Google search. Un-phased by the pedagogic application process and the fact that the whole program was free, I was thrilled when I was accepted to the Bodhgaya Vipassana Centre. Committed to my visions of daily yoga, some green juices, massages and lots of outdoors activities, I was smugly beaming as I approached the centre’s gates.
I went in totally blind, and boy, was I in for a rude awakening….
Day 0 – I am Out of My Comfort Zone
I had never considered voluntarily subjecting myself to 10 days of solitary confinement, especially given my single-digit-hour experience with meditation, so you can imagine how surprised I was when I walked up to registration to discover what seemed more like a delinquent correction facility that most closely resembles an internment camp. Not quite what I had in mind…
A classic example of my insufficient planning, my first lesson came before I even started –– it was like a cosmic power was playing me like a marionette, cunningly laughing along the way as they shouted: “this is what you get for not paying attention!”.
The first 24 hours seemed more like enlisted torture than spiritual retreat.
As fate should have it, I selected the single most holy Vipassana centre in the world – only miles away from the tree that Buddha attained enlightenment next to – quite literally, the most spiritual location in history. Go figure.
Aggravating my complete and utter terror of the impending week of silence were my austere physical surroundings. Bodhgaya is amongst the poorest cities in India – and since centres are funded exclusively by donations from alumni, my chosen location was…bleak. Translation: no showers, no electricity, bamboo cots to sleep on with no mosquito nets – all conveniently nestled in a “balmy” 45-degree tropical rainforest. How could anyone ever attain peace in these conditions?!
The next hour of registration moved in slow motion. I was on high alert, surveying the scene with acute attention to detail, taking stock of every inch of the property. As I silently sought to find solace in anything in my vicinity, I critiqued each one of my peers in an attempt to identify some familiarity. I suppose this type of automatic mental gymnastics is an anthropological response to a state of fear – almost like I was calculating the potential danger ahead. I needed to create an army to fend off the threat of the converted as I knew I was stronger in a team. Subconsciously returning to my Paleolithic roots, I lost all sense of socialization and went straight savage. Psychologists label the tendency to gravitate towards the familiar, the “mere-exposure effect”. It usually describes more superficial tendencies, but at that moment, it seriously felt like a life or death situation.
Shortly after my check-in, I had a few minutes to exchange the basics with my roommate (the only other white person of the 80 people on campus) before our orientation. A Norwegian native - and Dolly Parton’s doppelgänger - she gave up nursing to travel the Himalayas with her yoga guru 19 months ago, and hadn’t left India since. She was covered head to toe in tattoos of various Buddhist symbols, came equipped with two yoga mats, and was practicing back-bending all afternoon. Dear God I was out of my league!
After chatting with a few other students, it became clear that I was an imposter there. Conversation during the family-style dinner centered around exchanges of 10 day fasts, month-long spiritual hikes, and prolonged celibacy. Many of the participants were “old students”, meaning they’d attended at least one other 10 day Vipassana, and it seemed like I was the only one who hadn’t dedicated their life to various spiritual endeavours. One girl just returned from Tanzania where she was teaching orphans to do Brazilian martial arts, and another taught rehabilitation mindfulness to incarcerated felons. I got a wave of nausea….WHAT THE HELL WAS I DOING THERE?!
The course hadn’t even begun, and I was already failing.
As I tried to settle my nerves and brush away that resounding chatter in my head telling me that I didn’t belong, I noticed the twenty-foot stone walls capped with barbed wire that demarcated the meditation zone. The entire facility was dilapidated, with rotting doors mostly for decoration at this point, fans barely secured to the ceiling that hummed unevenly, all windows barred, and not a single decorative colour in the entire place. Did the Soviets design this place? It’s like they hated humans. What. The. Fuck.
Once I found my room, I realized quickly that sleep was not the priority. Thankfully the 10x12” cell elicited a similarly horrified response from my back-bending Norwegian roommate – who non-ironically only wore opal blue velour tracksuits all week which was like comedy fodder for my bullying mind. My “bed” was a feeble composite of bamboo poles with an unwelcoming looking straw stuffed mattress. There was no light, AC or even a fan, and the only window had no screen to protect from the infestation of Dengue and Malaria-infected mosquitos. The bathrooms were exclusively Eastern – basically just fancy holes in the ground – and the closest thing we were getting to a shower was a bucket and sponge. If anything is a lesson in stoicism, I think I discovered it!
Moving on to orientation, we were ushered into the kitchen hall and briefed on the schedule for the upcoming program. All our personal effects were stripped away and locked up for the remainder of the retreat. We were permitted our clothing, sans makeup, deodorant and all creature comforts. They seriously enforce the “no distraction” thing there. It was me and my sweatpants for the next 10 days. Good thing I did laundry before coming!
Noble Silence was to begin immediately following this session, which grievously included no speaking, no human contact, no writing, and no physical movement.. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t get tempted into any eye contact, hand gestures, body language, smiling, facial expressions, they threatened. You know, everything that makes our sentient beings…human! Then suddenly the guru stood before the fear-stricken meditators and announced that if anyone wished to leave the course, they must do so now, or remain through the end. Was this some wedding ceremony where we were being challenged to object?! At this point, I was fearing for my life. Sitting in the center of the room, I was calculating how quickly I could escape if I just bolted for the door. But fuck I was sitting in the centre of the hall, and God damnit, they had all my things! This must be their whole plan. Lure the willing participants in here with fantasies of liberation, only to trap them and hold them hostage once they relinquish their possessions! The devil on my shoulder was screaming, “fuck it, get outta there, who needs a cell phone? Ancient man never had a cell phone and he survived just fine. And passport, screw it, there must be an embassy around here somewhere!”
But then the angel chimed in reminding me of my commitment to this journey. She slyly pulled the guilt levers – I could never face my family and friends after self-righteously claiming I’d master India, if I bailed out now. I couldn’t possibly give up – my pride was just too present.
So I swallowed the pit in my throat, staring numbingly to the front in an attempt to silence the voices inside my head. I was knocked back to reality when the guru started rattling off the rules for the week.
No tight clothes.
No eating other than at lunch.
No singing (my singing might have driven my peers to insanity anyway, so fair enough).
No lying (though who would you even be lying to if you couldn’t speak?).
No stealing (not like there was anything to steal in this prison campus anyway).
No drugs (what I would give for something to knock me out!).
Men and women were to be segregated from this moment on, and I think to myself, “I wish I were a lesbian”.
We were forbidden from leaving the meditation zone, any form of communication, and indulging in “luxurious positions”. This was starting to feel more like a Satanic cult than a mindfulness centre. Was this some kind of remedial camp to force repentance of a lifetime of sins?? Or were they going to stealthily consume our brains and force us into experimental organ harvesting or program us as serial assassins? I’d read about the Mosho cult from the ‘80s, was this just the modern equivalent?
The meals were certainly at prison standard - no salt, sugar, chili, or garlic is permitted – and it’s entirely vegan. 1 meal per day. Lunch. It was the same nearly every day. Breakfast was lemon water and tea. Dinner was lemon water and tea. Maybe they were trying to break us – it’s just science that a person of lowered psychological resistance is more susceptible to moral conditioning. Did I volunteer myself to be a victim of systematic mind manipulation? I wondered if there were hidden speakers in our rooms for hypnopaedia.
The only written words posted around the campus outside the schedule were the five fundamental precepts for the 10 days, which basically just read like a moral code for any normal person. Though I have to admit, throughout my week, I fantasized over ways to take the edge off employing at least a couple of these distractions.
Abstain from killing a living being
Abstain from stealing
Abstain from sexual misconduct
Abstain from false speech
Abstain from all intoxicants including: alcohol, drugs and smoking
By this point I was suspicious of my next 10 days in meditation camp, but it became poignantly clear that this was indeed, modern-day torture, when they announced our daily schedule:
4:00 a.m. Morning wake-up bell
4:30 – 6:30 a.m. Meditate in the hall
6:30 – 8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
8:00 – 9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall
11:00 – 12 noon Lunch break
12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher
1:00 – 2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall
2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall
5:00 – 6:00 p.m. Tea break
6:00 – 7:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
7:00 – 8:30 p.m. Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:30 – 9:00 p.m Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 9:30 pm. Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights out
For anyone that can count, that adds up to a grand total of 10 hours and 30 minutes PER DAY meditating.
“THIS IS MY NIGHTMARE”.
Meditation was planned to begin the evening before the course started. Cheeky little sneaksters. It also goes through Day 11, so technically there are 12 days in this hell hole. Being that I’m an extroverted insomniac with a short attention span, I couldn’t imagine a worse form of punishment.
We began the practice of “Anapana” meditation that evening, which is all about the nose. We were instructed to observe the breath on the skin below our noses to control the mind from wandering into endless thoughts. That’s all we did, for four hours straight.
I quickly discovered that my brain is no more sophisticated than feral animal. Maybe a wild animal on acid even. That’s a funny image, I’d like to see that some time, I thought. I become consumed in my thoughts. My mind bounces incoherently from thought to thought. I recalled familiar TV characters from my childhood. I wondered what Larry David would do here. Then I started to laugh. I wished I were sitting Vipassana with Larry. This would all be bearable. Then I started dreaming about the meditation hall – it looked a lot like the gymnasium I used to attempt tumbling in as a kid. I imagined doing backflips like one of those half-developed Chinese gymnasts. And then I thought, jeeze, those kids are skinny. Do they ever eat? Ohh, I could eat. I wonder what I’ll get when I leave here. I noticed I was beginning to drool. I’m a disgusting human. Who could ever love me?
I didn’t meditate for even one minute that night. And being alone in silence for all of 4 hours, I was dying of boredom. My mind is simply not that interesting. I quickly reached a state of utter misery. Mad at myself for being there, then mad at myself for being mad at myself. This is useless.
It was Day 0 as Noble Silence began, and nose camp had already kicked my ass.
Day 1 – Who needs drugs when you can meditate?
There’s a reason solitary confinement is the most severe form of punishment in maximum security prisons. They reserve this shit for pedophiles and serial killers who saw apart their victims and eat them for breakfast. It’s because it’s fucking torture.
I opened my eyes and looked around. I was in Leonardo DaVinci’s workshop. Old musty paintings perched up against all surfaces and covered in dusty white sheets to protect them. I was levitating. Sitting in my familiar cross-legged position, but I was elevated several feet above a table. A table that looked oddly similar to the Last Supper. Except there were no disciples beneath me – they were replaced with….demons. All sorts of different looking evil spirits wearing black cloaks as if they were about to perform some satanic ritual – a scene out of Eyes Wide Shut maybe. They were reaching for me, clawing at me above them, trying to pull me down to them. It wasn’t until I got a glimpse of some of their faces that I recognized them – it was a motley crew of my most troubled friends. As I looked around, I noticed Leonardo’s paint palette nearby, which had blended into a puddle of colours in no particular order. I felt compelled to paint over the ugly facades of the spirits, but they kept fighting me and knocking the palette out of my hand, seeking to draw me into their vortex of darkness.
I was knocked awake abruptly by the sound of the bell reminding us that it was time to return to the pagoda for the official start of Day 1. I was drenched in sweat, and felt heavy like I had just experienced purgatory. I had been lucid dreaming, I think. Maybe I had figured out meditation in my sleep and this is what I was supposed to experience? Maybe I just won the whole challenge? No, that couldn’t be right, I thought this thing was meant to be all light and fluffy. Butterflies and rainbows? This vision was dark. But holy shit I’d only been there for 16 hours and I was already hallucinating. Who needs drugs when you can just do a Vipassana?
Two hours into our first morning meditation, it was clear this was going to be one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. But no one told me it was going to physically hurt too. I had no idea sitting cross legged was so damn painful. How the hell is one supposed to focus on relaxing the body and calming the mind or whatever that nonsense is if all you feel is one screaming pain after another. It was a constant rotation from sitting cross-legged to perching on my knees, to hugging my legs. Every time I rotated through I would last for a shorter period of time. My hips were throbbing, my knees were crying, and at one point, my entire lower body went numb. Would I ever walk again? Maybe they wanted to force paralysis so we were stuck there! My mind played out every permutation possible, every deceptive angle they could be playing to keep us around as subjects of their latest experimental trials. Who is they? I don’t even know, but I was committed to outsmarting them.
I sat for hours contemplating the inner-workings of said evil organization, unweaving their surreptitious motives for establishing these “meditation” camps. I had nearly convinced myself of this farce, until I remembered one thing: this program was voluntary….and free. Not exactly a solid business model for churning out brainwashed informants. Damnit. Now I was back to square one, fighting with my own mind to discern reality.
By lunch time I was officially bored again. My mind had given up on the conspiracy theories for now, and I returned to a state of deep boredom. I kept reflecting on the Power of Now - which I had ironically decided to read just before starting meditation. Why couldn’t I have just been satisfied with the lessons from the book? Why was I insistent upon torturing myself?? The principles had clearly escaped me though, as I just sat in misery fueled by resentment and anger. I was angry with myself for committing to such a miserable “holiday”…. and then I became angry at myself for my inability to surrender and accept what is. The conflicted dichotomy I was experiencing led me down a mind-bending wormhole as I started to question the very nature of sanity, the self, consciousness. Maybe this was the point?
But peaceful introspection only lasted momentarily, and the struggle returned when my back pains reminded me that I was still sitting. Pretty sure I was still meditation-less. I began to reel, experiencing a pendulum of emotions all over again. “Fuck this is bullshit. I hate myself for doing this. I haven’t stopped sweating since I arrived, I’m exhausted, I’m starving, and I’m fucking terrified of getting some mosquito-borne disease as I sit here swarmed in an infestation of bugs. I cannot think of a more uncomfortable place to sit for 10 hours a day.”
This is when the fantasies of escape began. I dedicated my next several hours of stillness to devising a foolproof plan of escape. “Where will I go? And how will I disappear unnoticed? It is decided, I shall slip out after Discourse this evening – the hall is right next to the front gate. I hope I don’t see any snakes. If I scream, the gig will be up!”
By the first discourse that evening, I was so drained and moody I couldn’t fathom making a run for it. I decided to postpone the great escape to the following morning, and sat patiently as the legendary S.N. Goenka proselytized for the next 90 minutes from beyond the grave. Apparently this was to be a nightly occurrence, where we would huddle around a TV that was likely older than me to watch a recording of him reciting discourse on meditation principles. Goenka calmly described the exact experience I had endured thus far, judiciously diagnosing our symptoms and offering tools to alleviate the pain the following day. I figured it must be worth the effort to at least suffer through another few hours the next morning before I pulled chute.
Day 2 – Frantically Searching for Escape Routes. My Mind is a bully...
It all sounds very peaceful when you call it “meditation”. But sitting on your ass for 10 hours a day thinking about your nose is definitely not peaceful. It’s simply infuriating.
When the gong ran the morning of Day 2, a wave of fury passed through me. “This is it, fuck it. Sayonara. I hate meditation. I hate Bodhgaya. I hate my neighbours.” I even started to hate inanimate objects. I got into a fight with my blanket. It seemed to be determined to uncover my toes while I slept. “What a useless piece of cloth this is. It doesn’t even work.” Then I started to think, “why am I so angry? What am I running from? What am I so afraid of here? Why am I so angry that I need to spend the next 9 days sitting and relaxing?” And by the time I got to the pagoda and saw the other 79 people sitting Vipassana, many of them far older and less healthy than myself, I thought, “fuck it, I should be able to tough this shit out!”.
Sitting for two hours before breakfast, and I was already in agony. It was like: “right leg goes totally numb, pins and needles up and down, so I shift slightly to put weight on my tailbone, then I get shooting pains up my spine, then my knee throbs so much that I wonder again if I’ll ever walk again. And if the blood circulation stops and maybe I’ll need an amputation. And then my back aches and I start to get chest pains and headaches from focusing so hard.” There was no relief.
In an effort for some distraction from the pain, I cheated and peered around at my neighbours. One woman had discovered the extra cushion stash and was greedily piling them up. “That bitch!” I hated her. I needed to find this stash. I started to plan my own throne for the next session. My other neighbor, clearly disregarding “noble silence”, was burping with the force of a mild exorcism. “What the hell was she letting out down there? A dragon?!” I judged them, annoyed that they had the audacity to disturb such a holy silence. I hate everything that breathed. I suddenly became aware of how much I resented these people. I’m disturbed by my own reaction. “Is this who I am deep down? Is this why I’m really here? Am I actually that broken?” Noting that this checks the boxes of judgment and aversion.
I think my brain was just screaming for a distraction. It wanted to like something, and dislike something, and read and judge and think compulsively, obsessively thinking and judging, thinking and judging. Which then sent my wandering mind spiraling into awareness of how many addictions and cravings I really have. I wondered if I needed permanent therapy. Then I started to envision every interaction I’d ever had with anyone. I thought of every single person I’d ever met. I analyzed our story, and recreated a better narrative, just about a hundred times. I was the main star in my fantasy movies, and the movies were on replay. Goddamnit if I had just been allowed to write this down, I could have had a Blockbuster hit! Now I was mad that I couldn’t write. Stupid rules.
The owner of the gong – I called her The Warden – had quickly picked up on my distraction. She had this omnipresent authority that reminded me a bit of Big Brother. It was like she was always watching me. She must have known I was the problem child of the group. I’d always had an issue with authority – and apparently it even extended as far as India. “How can she tell?!” It was like she was placed there by some divine intervention, and she was certainly out to get me – scolding me at least once an hour for not sitting up straight, or for moving too much, or looking around. UGH so many rules. I begrudgingly complied, but I hated her. And then the bell rang, and we were released to our chambers.
I had an ill-advised nap after lunch. I couldn’t decide if sleeping was better or worse for my sanity at that point, because the nightmares were almost worse than the pain of meditating. During this brief snooze, I seemed to be trapped inside a movie reel, sitting face to face with my most recent ex-lover. He was in a plush white robe, in a sterile white stone room that resembled a Turkish Hammam. Not unlike Confession, I was repenting for my sins – coming clean about things as insignificant as cheating in grade school, to things as recent as why I had such commitment issues. Everything I know to be flawed in my character, shamelessly recognizing and admitting all my weaknesses. Again, I awoke in a sweaty panic, and thought to myself: “I am really teetering on the edge of sanity. I wonder if I will make it out alive.”
I seemed to carry forward this dream vision to my afternoon of sitting. “I am calling it sitting now, since meditation is clearly not taking place over here. Enlightenment would have to wait.”
I spent the whole afternoon spelling out my greatest fears, problems, insecurities and wrongdoings. I was having a boxing match with my mind that was far more amusing than any peaceful state could possibly be.
When I snapped out of this hypnotic confession, I observed how tense I had become. I was experiencing a wave of emotions from anxiety, to fear, to resentment, to anger, and then to acceptance. Over and over again. It just seemed to be this vicious circle whereby I could never truly accept my reality, and I could never really accept my own emotions and feelings. Every time I went deep in conversation with The Ex, it was like I was forced to divert my mind into distraction, and then back and forth. I could feel that this was toxic, but I was addicted to the narrative. I needed any form of stimulation, no matter how painful.
After dinner, I scoured the property, frantically searching for a pen like a drug addict for a needle. It occurred to me that I don’t handle restriction well. “It’s probably good for me to starve it a little.” I settle for writing in my head. Since I am an insomniac, when everyone crashed for bed, I walked around the field until the stars and fireflies come out. I told myself jokes and stories. “I’m pretty funny. Maybe I have a career in comedy when I leave. If that ever happens.”
My favourite part of the day – the discourse – served not just as a welcoming source of distraction, but as an insightful tool to analyze level of crazy that I was experiencing in my head. He kept returning to familiar concepts of resentment, excess, fear and acceptance. He’s now described the Monkey Mind construct as being the ego-driven mind’s desire to avoid any true feelings and experiencing the pain that may arise when sitting in still presence. It’s incredible how infrequently we actually allow ourselves to do this – how often do you begin to feel discomfort in your life, and immediately seek a binge meal, an aestheticizing substance, the comfort of a companion, exercise or pleasure-driven entertainment. We have been conditioned as a society to unconsciously react to external events with absolutely no awareness or control.
Craving and aversion. Craving and aversion. That’s all he bloody talked about for 90 minutes. But meditation means giving up reactions, it means surrendering to the present moment, and truly accepting what is. As he reiterated almost habitually, “this too shall pass”.
This too shall pass. But not right now. Right now, it was just pain and agony. Today was the hardest day. I will think that every day I’m here.
Day 3 – Doing Vipassana is like running a marathon without ever running…
Today I woke up feeling TERRIBLE! My throat was raw, blood was painfully pumping in my head like a stampede, and my nose and sinuses were totally blocked. So much for “focusing on the nose” today. I had caught a damn cold and had to meditate through it! “Who the hell catches a cold in 45 degree sweltering heat doing nothing but sitting all day!” It’s not like my life was especially strenuous….
As I dragged myself out of bed and rolled into the Dhamma Hall, I had a glimpse of fear that I’d be seen as a contagious infirm and rejected from the group (there must be something deeper in that fear). But instead I noticed that almost everyone was as disgusting as I was. We probably looked like a group of psych ward patients suffering from a bout of contagion in the asylum. “I guess tight quarters really are a breeding ground for infestation.”
The good news though, my Monkey Mind seemed to have chilled out a bit, and I became determined to take advantage of my own weakness of thought and learn the damn technique! The guru kept repeating the phrase:
“focus diligently, diligently, patiently and persistently”
He must have said this a dozen times before breakfast. I tried not to focus on the irritation this caused in me, and just be present.
It was a New Moon, which apparently for anyone spiritual, means eerie things start happening. We found a 6-foot-long snake in our dormitory just after breakfast - also having his morning feast of frogs. The girls were jumping and screaming like the ground was erupting, which was the first public reaction anyone had had at that point. It opened the flood gates for a bit of stifled laughter and fearful looks.
Shuffling into the pagoda for our mid-morning session, we were all a bit flustered and moody, and I don’t think anyone managed to switch off their brains for the next few hours. Mine seemed to be keen on taking me through another hallucination. I kept getting transported to this futuristic game show world where I was the only contestant. I was standing in the centre of a white cylindrical room that climbed miles high, and scattered on the walls surrounding me were dozens of television screens. I could select any of the TVs, and they would replay a memory from my childhood. Or what I was being told was my childhood. I didn’t recognize a lot of the people in the videos, or the visions I was seeing. It wasn’t until I returned home and confirmed with my Mother that those experiences did indeed take place that it dawned on me how twisted my brain is.
Later that evening, Goenka prudently proclaimed that by Day 3 or 4, many of us would begin to feel ill, developing symptoms of a flu or cold. He explained that it was the body’s physical manifestation of the emotional and psychological stress we were enduring. That our body was quite literally shedding the emotional toxins we had been burying, the pain and suffering we had been storing deep within our gut, and, similar to how you tend to feel sick after a massage, we were ridding ourselves of the poison stored deep inside us. I had officially become fascinated by the biochemical machines we lived in. If only I had paid more attention in biology…
Day 4 – Every day is exactly the same…but harder…
The following morning, I woke feeling a bit cocky. I knew what I was doing, and was going to diligently crack on with my attempts at attaining “equanimity”. Settling onto my allocated pillow in the pagoda, I reflected on how mind-numbingly repetitive this process is. Every day was exactly the same. Though now at least, I was prepared for the impending boredom - one minute felt like an hour, an hour felt like three. I learned to avoid counting down the remaining time which seemed to be more discouraging than productive.
And then of course, as in life, they threw us a curveball. Today was a change in schedule so we could begin practicing the Vipassana breath work – the Adhittana, or “strong determination” sitting. I truly hated when things didn’t go according to plan – nothing causes me more anxiety than when things are outside of my control. Probably yet another lesson here, but all I could think about was, “how the fuck am I going to sit totally still for 60 whole minutes!? Your leg hurts? Too bad. You itch like mad on your nose? Can’t scratch it. The sweat rolls down your brow, but can’t wipe it from your eyes. It drops into your eyes and it stings like sunscreen!” For the entire hour, you sit and you scan your body. Along the way if there are points of pain, you ignore them. Apparently.
And then, as if deliberately timed by the elements, the sky came crashing down upon us in the form of a monsoon. The torrential rain pounding on the aluminum roof of the pagoda, at the absolute second the Adhittana began, felt like a little more than coincidence. I began to feel incredibly dizzy, almost as if I was about to faint, as if I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore. I needed an outlet, and this hour of silence seemed to be far more than I could bear. I thought I had worked this place out, but I just got smacked in the face again the minute I started rising to comfort.
Later that afternoon, Blue and I returned to our prison cell after the especially grueling day of silence. As she catapulted herself onto the bed in an effort to wear off some excess energy, the whole thing came crashing magnificently to the ground. With the bed now in pieces on the floor and her awkwardly contorted amongst the bamboo bars, the two of us broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. I don’t think I had ever laughed that hard, my cheeks were aching, my abs pulsing. and I felt momentarily, really really happy.
Apparently Day 4 is meant to be one of the most challenging, but despite the interruption in consistency, I felt for the first time, like I could just be.
Discourse this day went deep into the theory behind Determination. For the better part of two hours, he emphasized the methodology, and described what we were sure to experience (if we hadn’t already) – more instances of craving and aversion. He explains that us humans have this lazy shortcut programming where we use previous memories to inform present circumstances. But these old memories cause a biochemical response, leading to hormone release, maybe cortisol or adrenaline, or conversely, serotonin and oxytocin, and then our feelings follow. We ascribe an emotional judgment to these feelings. And there begins the development of craving or aversion.
I acknowledged that I operate my entire life outside the present moment. Am I ever actually present? Looks like I have a lot of work to do.
Day 5 – Fuck Vipassana. I’m Out
I was shaken awake by The Warden this morning – I was crying in my sleep. I was having a lucid dream about my ex again – but this time it wasn’t quite as peaceful. He had been shot in combat when he was journeying via horseback across the Medieval countryside to propose to me. His long-time manager and confidant, informed me later that he had died before he reached my castle, which had been guarded by cannons and a hostile military armed to keep him out.
Even though rationally I knew that this story was fiction, I couldn’t control my emotions. It was still raining torrentially, and it appeared as if nature was matching my mood. I felt heavy and deeply sad, almost like I’d expect to feel if he actually died. I was terrified that this was a premonition, and angry that I couldn’t check my phone to know for sure. I thought about breaking Noble Silence at least two dozen times that day. And my energy must have been contagious because people seemed to be watching me like I was looking for the sharpest object in the dining hall to slit my throat with or something.
Throughout the day, a haze developed. I got progressively loopier; I felt like I’d swallowed a few of Jordan Belfort’s quaaludes. Steeeeeve Maaaaadennnn. What was real life? I was totally losing my sanity. Even though I had made it halfway already, the remaining time felt like an eternity. They should really caveat the schedule with a warning: “caution, this will feel like death, beware”.
Then sitting down for another hour of determination, that’s when it all hit me. In the strangled silence, my brain had completely lost perspective. I was stuck in a downward spiral of paranoia, anxiety and despair. I snapped. I ran out of the pagoda screaming bloody murder like I was being chased by a serial killer with a machete.
By the time I made it back to my safe haven – my personal cell – my screams morphed into uncontrollable tears. It felt like every single nerve in my brain was being electrocuted, and I could feel the blood pulsating painfully through my veins. My chest was so tight I was gasping for air like I’d just been hit by a bus. Actually, I’d recently fallen out of a ten-foot-tall tree, but I think this hurt more. My whole world felt like it was caving in on me, my tears had developed a mind of their own. Is this what an anxiety attack feels like?
The immediate hysteria eventually passed, and I just sat in a state of utter despair and helplessness for at least an hour. The bleak darkness I was engulfed in slowly lifted. My mental state transitioned from violent emotional turmoil to a visceral state of shame for my very public tantrum. “What a primadonna I am! Did I really have that weak of a mind? Why could everyone else tough it out and I was the only one completely losing my mind. Was I really that fucked up?”
My melodramatic episode was interrupted by The Warden, as she came in to check on me. Evidently this is a fairly common occurrence and the standard procedure insists that students suffering from a psychotic episode must be monitored for the remainder of the week. “Excellent. Now that I have totally lost my mind, I get to be babysat by the one person I hate most in the entire camp. I’m really not winning here.”
The day ended in utter exhaustion. I reflected back on the day’s drama as if it were a vague memory from another life. It was ephemeral, fleeting, but I was sure it was real. It seems this program walked a fine line between being cathartic and just simply, exorcism. But for the first time all week, I slept like a baby.
Day 6 – Doors to Perception?
By Day 6, I felt a bit lighter. The rain still hadn’t stopped, but I didn’t resent it anymore. I found peace in the elements. The Ex crossed my mind, but I didn’t feel the usual visceral reaction and subsequent anxiety. I just felt peace. And this unfamiliar loving warmth. I smiled as he entered my mind, almost out of compassion rather than desire. It was like I just had purged out my attachment to him. Is it possible that I just metaphorically let The Ex go? Did I just witness my own healing of that wound? Maybe this nose camp wasn’t such a charade. I wondered what other magic I could manufacture in this place.
No longer dealing with the pain of The Ex, I was committed to digging deeper into the seriously deranged mind patterns I had suppressed. I had dealt with the surface issue, the easiest layer to un-peel, but now I was challenged to figure out what other subconscious viruses I could dispel. There was definitely much more work to be done.
Unexpectedly when I awoke from my morning nap, I noticed that I was unusually aroused. Like, salaciously horny. All I could think about was fucking. Everything became sensual. I felt like an adulterated predator, completely out of control of my carnal instincts. Timely reaction, I thought. It’s almost like now that my mind was done torturing itself replaying memories of The Ex, it needed something else to keep itself busy. My mind was running entirely untamed, envisioning all the hedonistic pleasures I have recklessly enjoyed for the better part of the last decade. The familiar devil on my shoulder had returned, and he was putting up a strong fight for the leading man in my movie.
The rest of the day I spent just trying not to rape everything in sight. I was a mare in heat and I was sure my thoughts were breaking all the rules. Goenka would have been so disappointed. “I’m a shameful human being I thought. Why can’t I just be like all of the other normal students? They don’t seem to have any issues sitting still all day, practicing ‘diligently, patiently, ardently and persistently’. I must be defective.”
Later that afternoon I dozed off again for a cheeky mid-day snooze. Clearly my mind had something else it wanted me to see. I was suddenly transported to a Doors to Perception-like nightmare state. Paralyzed, I was deep in a dream-world vision where I was perched on a branch of a talking willow tree surrounded by a fluorescently glowing pond. The tree was crying, and as its tears dropped onto the pond, a massive cyclone ensued. The cyclone swallowed me into its vortex, deep down beneath the Earth’s surface into a dark underworld, a very cold and hallow place. The underworld was filled with candles illuminating floating, talking, body-less heads. Each head was incessantly chattering, screaming at me for attention, for a reaction, to engage in their own sitcom. I didn’t immediately recognize any of the heads, but as I glared deeper, I realized they were superimposed faces of several people I had met or been influenced by in my life. They were all unrelated people, from various periods in my life – it appeared to be a collection of people who had taken dark paths in life, people who were escaping their pain with substances, with parties and with sex. Mostly my friends from the international techno circuit. And they all were calling for my attention, they all wanted me to follow them down their dark and windy path of destruction. The crazy part – I could watch the movie of their future. It was a real-life Christmas Carol, and I was seeing all my ghosts.
I snapped out of it when the gong rang again. Upon waking, I had a wave of understanding, I was starting to connect the dots.
Day 7 – A Professional Procrastinator
“Today is still raining. Will it EVER stop? How do the skies have any water left? The rain is relentless. This must be some kind of precipitation record. I thought India was supposed to be sunny? What’s going on here? I guess I better get used to this since I’m moving to London when I leave here. Fuck. Maybe that was a bad decision. I don’t really like the rain. Fear. Panic. What was I thinking?!”
As I sat anxiously scolding myself for my choice to move to London, Goenka’s voice from the previous night’s discourse appeared in the back of my mind. Anxiety needs the future, and depression needs the past, he says. The state of misery you experience is from not accepting the present moment. Well…this explains why I’m pretty much always either anxious or depressed. Fair enough. I hate being out of control over the future, and I ruthlessly replay all my regrets from the past. I guess I have an unhealthy relationship with time. Maybe I’m a masochist. I seem to like torturing myself.
And just like that, the monkey mind had returned. It really is me against him. An endless tug of war.
I knocked myself out of that downward spiral of regret when I sat for “breakfast”. Breakfast is actually just lemon water, and I think to myself, what I would give for my Mom’s Thanksgiving turkey right now. “But I’m not sure tryptophan will help my meditation. Does tryptophan actually make you sleepy? I’m already overtired and cranky so probably not the ideal meal. But my Mom could definitely teach these guys a thing or two about cooking.” I daydreamed about my ideal meal for the rest of breakfast.
Returning to the pagoda for the afternoon session, I was blissfully happy, entranced in my feasting fantasy. It was definitely not “presence”, but at least I wasn’t miserable. It was a start.
Then it dawned on me that I only had 3 days left. I was over halfway, and I still hadn’t meditated for even a moment. The procrastinator in me had been running the show all week, and I began to feel guilty for wasting so much time. I’ve never been especially good at working hard – I’m that person that gets absolutely everything done, except the only thing I need to do in an effort to avoid the real work. Back in college, I even created a notes exchange network so I could skip class and profit off my keen classmates’ perfect attendance records. But in the time it took me to build that infrastructure, I could have attended every single class and learned the stuff myself. Typical. All the shortcuts I try usually end up causing me more of a headache than just following the rules. “Hmmm…maybe this is something I need to fix…”
For the first time all week, I sat in peace for the entire session. I definitely wasn’t meditating the whole time, but I also wasn’t resenting my surroundings. My attention span lasted longer than that of a goldfish. I felt like a rockstar. Take that, Vipassana!
Day 8 – Acceptance and Release
By Day 8, I was expecting to wake up feeling all warm and fuzzy. But as regularly reminded by Goenka, feelings are transient. This day was the most visceral example of Annica, the “impermanence” of nature. Just as I thought I was healed, life came knocking at my door and kept me honest. I was back to pure misery again. I hated everyone.
To add to the pain, the rain was still thundering down like the Gods were crying and the skies had just opened onto us. It was the hottest day on record, at a balmy 48 degrees Celsius. The mosquitoes were the only creatures that seemed to be enjoying this weather. They were out to feast like a billion mini-vampires, and my blood tasted sweet. I started to plot the genocide of all mosquitoes on Earth. “If only I knew how to create a biological weapon to destroy them all. Do they actually serve a purpose in the circle of life anyway? I mean, spiders are cool and they need food, but they can eat the other creepy crawlers.” Then I remember, we’re not supposed to kill anything. “Fuck. I hate the rules. They don’t make sense. Maybe this was a test. I mean, sitting in a non-air conditioned green house filled with 80 sweaty people who haven’t showered in 10 days, being eaten alive by these little blood suckers, it’s almost too preposterous to be real. Maybe I’m living in a video game”, I posited.
Despite winding myself into an irrational state of fury, I managed to reset when I approached the pagoda. This place had unexpectedly become a temple for me. It was a safe space that I began to enjoy, and in some twisted way, almost look forward to. I was committed to navigating this meditation thing, and the pagoda was a mountain that I simply couldn’t walk away from without summiting.
That session was the first time I managed to sit still for the entire hour of determination. I started replaying Goenka’s lessons in my mind, forcing myself to not react to the pain, the itching and the constant sweating. As I stopped fighting the pain, my body seemed to follow. The pain had momentarily subsided, the pins and needles disappeared, and for just a few moments, I felt totally calm.
By the afternoon session, I felt ready to give stillness another shot. Maybe even go beyond nose camp and start feeling my whole body. I knew I couldn’t think my way through this challenge, so I just focused on being totally still. And then it happened, my breathing slowed and deepened, my muscles relaxed, and my mind almost felt completely…empty. I could feel every inch of my body, even the little hairs on my tummy. I started feeling tingles all over, almost like slight tickling, but in a pleasant, euphoric kind of way. For a moment I felt like I was floating. I had never felt such pure comfort before. It was the most remarkable release. A dissolve. An unraveling. Peace.
When I opened my eyes, buckets of emotion washed over my entire body. I sat paralyzed in comfort for a minute. Then came the river of tears. Unassociated tears. Tears releasing years of stored physical and emotional garbage. Tears of bliss. I sat in the meditation hall, sobbing quietly, completely empty. I walked calmly out of the pagoda, and for the first time all week, I truly appreciated everything around me.
I floated through the rest of the night, reflecting on that glimpse of pure joy I had just experienced. I thought, if I could bottle up that feeling and sell it, I’d be richer than the cartels!
Day 9 – Lifetime of therapy in 9 days
I woke up from the most unbelievably tantric sleep – my physical body was numb, but my spirit, or whatever, seemed to be disassociated. I was standing above my sleeping body, observing myself as I drifted through consciousness. Watching my flesh being as it transitioned through galaxies. “Am I in the Matrix? Maybe the red pill was just a metaphor? Because this was definitely Wonderland, and the rabbit hole went very, very deep.”
I was convinced I had figured it out. I got the recipe for this Vipassana thing, and I was ready to wave my flag of victory. I felt like everything was happening in slow motion – I was all warm inside, with a mildly arousing electric current streaming through veins, my hair standing up against my skin. It was like a I managed to sustain that feeling when someone you love touches you or gently kisses your neck. I had felt it before, and even drugs didn’t feel this good.
Everything appeared to be brighter, almost glowing, like I had suddenly applied a high-def filter on the world. I felt magnetically charged, like I could sense other people’s energy, and had a heightened ability to see light and hear sounds. I had a superpower! I was floating through my day – I felt like I could levitate to the sky and would just melt back down on a cloud.
For the rest of the day my mind seemed blank. I didn’t crave sex, or food – in fact, I fasted all day. And then the rain stopped. For the first time since Day 4 it was sunny out. Coincidence? Who knows.
Day 10 – It feels like Christmas!
I woke up on Day 10 like it was Christmas. That giddy, overexcited state when anticipation is simply uncontainable. I don’t think I slept one wink, but I was energized like I’d come off a 100-year slumber. I thought to myself, maybe I should try out for Survivor now. Clearly I am tough enough. I would win. I’m a rock star.
The morning breezed by in a blur, and the time came for “Noble Silence” to be lifted. The next 24 hours were spent on site to help us “re-acclimate to society”. Apparently they’d had some instances of mal-adjustment and people went a little nuts. Part of me wished I got to see that so I could feel a little less embarrassed about my own psychotic behavior. Then I remember that schadenfreude isn’t especially enlightened, and I scold myself for my cheeky instincts.
What really surprised me though (which didn’t make any sense given how damn restless I was), was how forced speaking felt. Almost unnatural, like I had been reprogrammed to be mute. It’s amazing how quickly the mind can normalize a situation.
Eventually (and somewhat reluctantly), I reentered the dialogue, and began to introduce myself to my fellow students. The sexes were integrated again, and I spent the evening mingling with these strangers I had just spent the past 12 days with. We had a lot to say for people who’d never said anything to each other. It’s kind of incredible how close I felt to these people, despite knowing absolutely nothing about their lives. It felt like we had been through a war together, and we were connected for life.
I started to reflect on the stories I told myself about them. All of the narratives were completely wrong. I have always considered myself to be unusually open-minded – I am Canadian after all – but my judgment became glaringly evident as our conversations dispelled my mental narratives. I had created a hierarchy in my mind, a division between the group in an attempt at an “us vs. them” rationalization.
But all of that judgment disappeared the moment we finished the course. I felt instantaneous respect for these people. We all suffered through the program, and I considered us all equally martyrs. I felt for the first time, total compassionate love – in meditation they call this “Metta”. I was proud to be surrounded by such complete and total legends.
Day 11 – We are all equally fucked up…some only hide it better
12 days later and I walked away finding myself reinvigorated. I felt a desire to open my mind and heart to others, and to myself. Throughout the week my initial prejudices subsided and were replaced by curiosity, compassion and empathy as I began to notice how simply human we really were. We all stifled fits of laughter when awkward noises were made, all tried to cheat a few minutes away from the pagoda, and snuck extra fruits during snack time like naughty school children. The drastic physical and emotional adaptation required to operate in completed solitude affected us all independently and together, but undeniably similarly. We were in a constant state of exasperation, each of us terrified by the demons in our mind. The seemingly never-ending days broke us down, shattering our spirit and ego simultaneously. I began to empathize with that climber who sawed his own arm off to escape from a canyon. It was the lesser of two evils, the worse one being the power of the untamed mind.
Then by the final day when Noble Silence ended, the sighs of relief were almost in synchronicity. Bonding was immediate, as we had suddenly shattered the barriers of the "other". We’re biologically wired for connection, and this was the ultimate icebreaker.
So against all odds (and probably many friend's bets) I survived the silent meditation boot camp. Without question the most difficult thing I've ever done, but equally the most rewarding. It affected me in ways I am still struggling to interpret or make sense of, to an ineffable depth that I could never have anticipated. But Vipassana means, “to see things as they really are”. And for the first time in my life, I truly understand what that means.
Day 12 – What did I take away?
Distractions are your mind’s way of avoiding the root issue.
I love to think. Then I think about me thinking. Then think about me thinking about thinking. I analyze my neuroses, my thoughts, my feelings. I pick apart my patterns and theorize about the roots of their development. I question the credibility of the source of the information given to me, then question my questioning. I’m all up in my head. It tends to be a great way of avoiding what I’m feeling, allowing me to maintain a false sense of control, preventing myself from just experiencing and letting go.
Our assumptions and narratives are almost always wrong.
In the quiet of those 10 days, you begin to see how much your mind distorts the reality you perceive. You don’t know the background of the people taking the course with you, but you create lives for them in your mind. You project your fears on to their perception of you. For me, this meant creating inaccurate stories about the other participants, as well as their reactions to me. We take sensory input as objective, though it couldn’t be farther from reality.
Unpleasant experiences arise and fall, come and go. The flip side: the pleasant ones do, too.
Every feeling, emotion, experience – is ephemeral. Nothing is permanent, and things can always get better, or worse, at any time. Learn to accept with love the pain, and the recognize that joy is temporary, and you will find yourself a much happier person.
It’s never too late to start over.
Remember that it’s never too late to return to your path. The pain and turbulence in our lives often comes from holding onto patterns, beliefs, jobs, relationships, lifestyle choice, and environments that no longer serve us. Letting go and releasing your resistance to the unknown will help you glide into the next phase of your life.
Most of the time people's actions have nothing to do with you
Every statement, action and reaction of another person is the sum result of their total life experience to date. Everyone says and does what they do based on their own set of fears, conclusions, defenses and attempts to survive. Most of it, even when aimed directly at us, has nothing to do with us.
Accept the now. Be present.
Most people you meet are only a fraction present: they are regretting something they did yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. Remember that “anxiety needs the future,” and “depression needs the past.”
Love people compassionately, not with conditions
When you have attachment to others, you are exhibiting self-centered love because you set expectations. When you’re able to feel love without expecting anything in return, with no ego, you have liberated yourself and the recipient of your love.
Our strength lies in our vulnerability and our willingness to keep our hearts open in spite of all the painful blows that life throws at us. By allowing your heart to remain open you will not only learn faster and heal faster, but all those delicate and beautiful parts of yourself will begin to flourish.