A couple of months back I shipped off to a leafy retreat to spend ten days in silence doing pretty much nothing but meditate. It sucked. It was magical. Here’s how it all went down.
Day 0: First impressions
The girls and boys stood in separate lines. This is as close as the genders would get for the duration of the retreat, a helpful policy for the easily distracted heteros in our midst; tough luck for everyone else. The guy at the registration desk looked up from my application form. His baseball cap read ‘Grateful Dad’. “Ooh, you do genetics? Just make sure you don’t go turning girls into boys and boys into girls, ok?” he joked. I laughed awkwardly.
Rumbling out of town in a run-down bus, heading for the retreat, a friendly young Nepalese guy in a tracksuit struck up conversation with me. He was about to start working for the government as a lawyer, he told me, and attending the retreat was part of a compulsory training programme. Vipassana would teach them morality.
We arrived at the meditation centre, located high an a mountainside overlooking the city. It was leafy with flowery gardens and meandering paths that connected the various dorms and meditation halls. A golden stupa perched higher up the mountain glowed in the sunlight. Signs dotted around the retreat, baring instructions such as “Please do not pass this point”, “Noble silence!” and “Place shoes on the rack” inevitably ended with the cheery postscript “Be happy!”. This struck me as weirdly passive aggressive, but in days to come I found them surprisingly reassuring during periods of frustration.
After surrendering wallets, phones, books, passports, pens – everything potentially interesting – we were directed to our dorms and… that was it. No further instructions were given. My room mate hadn’t yet arrived, so after I unpacked I decided to head outside and explore. I soon felt like I was in a video game. There was no way to measure time, no normal life tasks or objectives in the back of my mind, no reason to talk to anyone (we would all soon be under vows of silence, so I figured I might as well start now).
The sense of exploratory freedom soon mutated however into a more rat-in-a-cage vibe. The domain to roam was actually tiny. I had to spend the next ten days in a three-minute walking radius?
As night fell we were finally admitted to the main teaching hall, taking our vows of silence as we did so. This meant not just mouth silence, but silence of body, speech and mind. We weren’t to communicate by any means, not by gesture or word or even eye contact.
Plot twist: Buddhism! All up in this meditation technique! A booming recording of the voice of S. N. Goenka, the deceased Burmese businessman-cum-meditation-teacher who spread Vipassana to the rest of the world, explained a bunch of things:
- We were obliged to chant our agreement with the “three jewels” of Buddhism: the Buddha, the teachings and the community. Quite a few Sanskrit words started being bandied about around this point, but I’ll stick to the English equivalents to avoid obfuscation.
- To my relief, this agreement actually meant agreement with the essence of those things – insightfulness and compassion and such – and not anything worship-like or supernatural.
- We also had to chant-agree to live by the five Buddhist precepts for the duration of the retreat. The precepts are incidentally perfectly Christiany and Jewy and Muslimy too: no stealing, killing, lying, sex or drugs. Living in this way would ostensibly help build a base of morality. Or something. It wasn’t entirely clear at this point.
Back in my room that night I finally got to meet my room mate. Well, sort of. He was a large balding man, probably in his 30s. I didn’t know his name. The instructions hadn’t been entirely clear, but it sounded like we weren’t supposed to look at each other. I became mildly obsessed with him over the coming days. He had huge gothic writing tattooed across his forearms in a language I didn’t know. What did it mean? Who was he?
But that first night, lying in the dark sensing a stranger across the room, the nagging sensation I got was of sharing my room with a ghost, some spirit from a parallel dimension slightly out of sync with mine. We couldn’t speak or even look directly at each other, but if we peeked out of the corners of our eyes, we knew there was some other being there. If we entered the same physical space, would we pass right through each other?
Day 1: Badlands
Technique: Nose breathing
I was awakened in the clutching darkness of 4am by a distant gong. I sleepily dressed and struggled down to the meditation hall along with my ghost to join the ~200 others in spending the next two hours focusing on nothing but the breath flowing in and out of my nostrils. Bluuuurgh. I was exhausted, soon super hungry, and sitting on a cushion wasn’t working. I could only hold a position for about five minutes before my aching hips necessitated a shift. My ghost was on the cushion in front of me and sat there cross-legged, peaceful and completely motionless.
Dark thoughts enveloped me, thoughts I don’t normally have. Crippling pessimism, anxiety that circled round and round on itself, fear. I entirely forgot that I was meant to be monitoring my breathing. After about five hours had passed (surely it had been five hours), the situation worsened: a recording started playing of Goenka doing this weird chant-singing in Hindi. It meandered, briefly hitting a strong resonant note, waivering unpredictably to some other random pitch, then plummeting to an obnoxious gravelly flapping of his epiglottis. It sounded awful. Worse yet: I soon learnt it would play every day for a full half hour at the end of each session (I calculated the duration by counting how many times I breathed throughout the singing  then counting my breaths per minute  on an outside wall clock. Little experiments like this kept me sane.)
I began wondering what the hell I was doing there. Had I stumbled into some kind of cult?
Once the gong rang though and we filed out to the dawning day and got some food ingested, my mood changed immensely. I guess to some extent I was just hangry. Ok, maybe it wasn’t a cult after all.
The meditation sessions dragged on into the afternoon, one hour, two hours, small breaks in between, mind constantly wandering, one thought triggering another triggering another – crap! supposed to be monitoring breathing – a breath, a breath, a breath, back into thoughts again without noticing, ow ow knees, shift position.
In between sessions guys sat around blandly, doing nothing. The most nothing-y sitting I’ve seen. Because there was truly nothing to do. I was reminded of stray dogs lying around gormlessly, minds completely empty. During those first few breaks I strolled restlessly around the small grounds, desperate for movement. Or I stretched desperately, trying to prepare my joints for the next session. Or if the break was long enough, I napped desperately. Our schedule only allowed 6½ hours of sleep per night and I was pooped.
During one such afternoon nap, a strangely vivid notion arose in my half-waking mind: what if I was dead? And this was actually purgatory? There seemed plenty of clues. The way we all drifted past each other, ghost-like. The lack of traffic sounds from anywhere. The confined grounds and the misty white emptiness where the view of the city should’ve been, as though this were a simulated mini-world. Why had I signed up for this again? Did I actually remember the bus ride here, or had my mind just invented it? What if the purpose of all the meditation was to come to terms with how we’d died and what we’d done in life, a kind of cleansing of the soul before moving on?
Pull yourself together, I thought. If you continue down weird thought paths like this you could be very unhinged indeed by the end of the course.
That afternoon, seven hours of meditation in, the point of the breathing was finally explained. We were using it, apparently, to hone our focus. We would be honing this focus sharper and sharper each day. After seven clueless hours of thinking about my nostrils and feeling like nothing useful was happening, this was tremendously exciting: a sense of purpose!
That evening we got our first theory lecture, via an amusingly badly produced video from the ’90s, and our first look at Goenka.
Despite the laughably crappy production values, in our stimulus-starved existence I was riveted to every word he said. He mostly waxed Buddhist philosophy, peppering the discourse with miscellaneous parables and tales from his experiences in India. He eventually explained that the next day we would be observing which of our nostrils the breath was coming out of more strongly – progression!
And so Vipassana became an unfolding mystery. I didn’t know what the final truth was or where we were heading or really what I was hoping to discover, but each day a little bit more of the puzzle would be revealed, bringing us closer and closer to our true goal.
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