Ten days in a silent meditation retreat.
Here’s a short description of what a Vipassana retreat is like: Hell.
It was complicated. It was a clusterflap of contradictory adjectives: soothing and excruciating, mind-blowing and boring, profound and monotonous, frustrating and liberating…
Given these contradictions, how do I summarise my Vipassana experience into a pithy blog post? How can I begin to explain what has happened in my life since then? How can I tell you, dear blog readers, why meditating for one hundred hours over ten straight days was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself? Where do I even begin?
Here, I guess:
The experience first got peculiar at home when I packed my small suitcase for the retreat. The course rules stated that all distractions and sources of entertainment were forbidden, including computers, books, paints, writing materials, or anything else that one might feel inclined to pack in a weekend getaway bag—practical or kinky.
Normally when I go away for ten days I pack three kinds of Apple devices and their tangle of chords, a year’s worth of ambitious literature, painting equipment, sketchbooks, a Wacom tablet, a scanner… God forbid I should get the urge to make art and not have the right tools on me, or suddenly decide it’s time to read Ulysses.
I once woke up in a sweat from a nightmare about being stranded on an island without reading material, and after a crazed search I found only a pathetic pile of dusty romance novels with pages missing. I’m not making this up. Being without brain food is the stuff of my nightmares.
With only clothing and toiletries left to pack, my bag was alarmingly light:
As the course rules stated, we were to bring only non-distracting, non-revealing, loose-fitting clothing, which I interpreted to mean: Dress like a person who has given up on life. I took special care to weed my suitcase of anything that was remotely stylish, until I’d pared my wardrobe down to an artfully designed costume of bland.
Makeup-less and hair frizzed out to the heavens, I beamed all the way to the meditation centre, thinking I’d nailed the wardrobe requirements. But—but!—upon arriving, I saw women floating around in orange harem pants and cashmere saris the colour of a tropical dream. These women looked amazing! And then there was me, layered up in twelve kinds of Don’t You Fucking Touch Me.
I knew then that it was going to be a long ten days.
About sixty of us sit in the dark meditation hall. A carpeted walkway up the centre of the room divides the men from the women, and all is silent apart from distant birds and rustling gumtrees. The distractions of real life—friends, jobs, TV, music—are already a hazy memory. Our new norm is sitting upright for hours on end in a room full of strangers doing the same.
We’ve all pledged to ten days of ‘nobel silence’. No talking, no gesturing, no eye contact. Men and women are segregated too. In order to fully benefit from the teachings, we are to consider ourselves alone here. But hungry for stimulation, I let my eyes explore the backs of the meditators ahead of me, hoping to solve the mystery of who they are by analysing every detail of their clothes and postures. I know I’m breaking the rules, so I return my gaze to my watch.
We’re only five minutes into an hour-long meditation session.
Fifty-five minutes until lunch time.
I hear a belly growl to my right and a muffled fart to my left, on the men’s side. Until this retreat, I had no idea that so many people are perfectly comfortable with letting one rip in a silent hall. There it is, my first nugget of wisdom from this course: humans fart a lot. Correction: Men fart a lot. Oh wait, I already knew that.
I suppress the urge to giggle. The teacher’s eyes dart my way. She sits at the front of the room with a posture so straight that she appears to have had surgery to replace her spine with a flag pole. Her stillness is nothing short of creepy. She reminds me of the preserved bodies of meditating monks that are often on display in Buddhist temples, long dead and dried up like beef jerky. Buddhist Jerky. The only moving part of Buddhist Jerky is her eyeballs, which roam the room and penetrate each of us in turn with the intensity of a mind reader.
If she is reading mine, she’s seeing a circus of bouncing ideas and somersaulting worries. It’s nothing but monkey chatter, but it all seems urgent and important. My racing ideas and worries are occasionally interrupted by a ringmaster’s feeble attempts to assert discipline.
Wouldn’t it make a great short story to write about—
Not now. It’s meditation time.
When I get out of this place, the first thing I’m going to do is sign up for a—
Hey! SHHHH! It’s meditation time.
What am I getting out of this stupid retreat anyway?
Torre! SHHHHHH! SHUT UP NOW!
I wonder if they’re going to serve that delicious date cake at lunchtime again?
I said shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP! SHHHHHHHH!
And so on.
I shake my head and turn my focus to the one simple task I’ve been given: to feel the sensations in my nostrils. Cold air rushes in, hot air rushes out, a microscopic fibre tickles my left nostril.
Dammit. The itch is overwhelming. My right index finger twitches, ready to scratch.
I resist. Do not move your mouth, hands or feet for an hour, we’ve been told. Work through any discomfort. Everything is impermanent. Everything is constantly arising and passing away. Arising and passing away. Do not give in to cravings or aversions. Giving in only creates deep, deep misery. Resist. Observe.
I observe the tingle in my nose, which is now intense and violating. I’m 100% sure that a spider is trying to burrow into my face and lay eggs!
I’m desperate for the relief that a scratch will bring!
Can’t I just give it a cheeky jab with my pinky finger? Buddhist Jerky isn’t looking my way, now is a good time to—
No you cannot!
I hold my mediation pose without moving.
The itch disappears.
It seems I’ve won the battle.
Yes! I won! I am the meditation king. I am an enlightened God. I’m a pretzel-shaped superhuman. You know what would go really well with this new enlightened person I’m becoming? An ankle bracelet with little bells on it. Maybe some incense and tealight candles for my room. And a sari the colour of a tropical dream, of course.
Okay, sorry. But just one more thing: how long until lunch?
SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT THE BLOODY HELL UP!!!
I give in and check my watch. Seven minutes have ticked over, seven of the six thousand minutes required to get through this course.
It’s going to be a long ten days.
* * *
In between meditation sessions, we have free time. Most of us circle the property because it’s the only activity on offer. Roam-o-clock. The gardens are full aimless women, like someone has released a busload of Alzheimer’s patients at the park.
The grass. What the hell is going on with the grass? I notice that it’s not one shade of green, but a full spectrum of vibrant greens! In between the blades I spot tiny, beautiful flowers. Where before I saw a solid mass of green I am now seeing a complex artwork. What is this?
The gum trees are paintings dabbed with varied colours and textures. Has it always been this way? I stop and stare into the bush, marvelling. These commonplace plants are so extraordinary, so rich with complexity. The breeze touches my skin, and I feel alive in a way I never have before. I giggle out loud.
Only when I look up do I notice three other meditators standing still, staring into the bush, giggling.
This simple beauty has been here all along. But we’ve all been too busy to notice it, too preoccupied with something that we call ‘life’.
* * *
‘Anicca, anicca. This is not permanent, this is not permanent,’ the teacher repeats. As if to demonstrate these teachings, the temperature is constantly jumping between warm breezes and snap freezes, then back again.
While walking to the meditation hall, a bone-chilling wind gains momentum on the hills and smacks me head-on.
My impulse is to gasp, to cover up, to run for shelter, to complain to anyone within earshot.
Oh my god how cold is it?
(This is the anthem of Melbourne.)
I know, it’s so bloody cold.
(It’s a tired old script.)
But I don’t complain or cover up or run. Instead, I resist the urge to react and I observe, observe, observe the sensations…
I’ve been deprived of distractions for eight days and my body is becoming hyperaware. I can feel the sensations of the cold wind acutely, and it’s not what I’ve come to expect. It’s a thousand tiny taps all over my body, a rolling tingle that travels from nose to toes. What surprises me most is that the sensation is not painful. It’s not even uncomfortable.
It’s sensual. Erotic, almost. The cold prickles my skin and brings it alive.
I’m so used to reacting before I truly experience a moment for what it is. Most of us are. Our habits of reacting are automatic, carried over from moments in our past, from stale old memories. It’s not acting before you think; it’s reacting before you feel.
We reach to scratch our noses, run to escape the cold, or open our mouths to spew disapproval before we stop and observe without judgement, and ask: What am I really feeling right now? And what about now? And now? And now? Nothing is permanent; our life is made up of a series of passing sensations. So perhaps there is no need to react, then. No need to get anxious or worried. No need to become consumed by anger or fear or pain. It’s all passing.
This time I don’t run from the cold. Instead, I slow my steps to enjoy the prickly, sensual chill a little longer before going into the meditation hall.
When I walked out of the retreat and into the car park (or heel-clicked to be specific), I was perplexed about what, exactly, I’d learned from doing a whole lot of nothing. I’d eaten twice-daily meals of delicious vegetarian food, I had slept soundly in a comfortable bed, I had discovered an incredible new ability to sleep upright against my will, and I had meditated. Oh boy, did I meditate.
But nothing much had happened. I feared that I’d gained nothing.
Months later, I’m I able to see the impact. Anxiety used to be a huge part of my life, and I dealt with it in the way that someone who lives by a freeway deals with the constant racket of traffic. It was in the background, loud and obnoxious and invasive, but always there and unable to be silenced.
It’s gone now. Maybe it will come back, I don’t know. But whenever a worry comes into my head or a fear threatens to take over, I can pause the moment before the adrenalin kicks in, before I become lost in an automated reaction. I stop and ask myself, ‘Is this really worth worrying about? Is this really something to be afraid of?’
The answer is always no.
My dad is in hospice. I’m living with my mum. Our lives are full of uncertainty.
The answer is still no.
I don’t really know what happened to me in the meditation retreat, or why sitting for days on end has led to this new mindset. All I can tell you is this:
Life is an ongoing series of painful moments and happy ones. No one feeling ever lasts, no happy moment ever stays. Anicca, anicca. Cold comes, cold goes, pain comes, pain goes. Good and bad ebbs and flows like the tides, and trying to hold onto pleasure is as silly as trying to grasp the waves to stop them flowing back out to sea.
If you know this, you can detach and float freely. The constant grumble of worry fades away. There is no longer anything to run away from, to be afraid of, to avoid, to worry about. You can let go.
Detach. Because this is not permanent, this is not permanent.
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A HUGE thanks to Sarah Steenland for illustrating my words. I suggest that all of you befriend her on Twitter and Facebook, then head over to her blog. Sarah and I will be collaborating on more posts in the future. Stay tuned…