On the second last day, the gong sent shockwaves bouncing around my entire body. Finally, I thought, I get it. Or had nine days deprived of food, sleep, human contact and pain relief just made me delirious?
Thirty six hours later I was thrown back into the real world; from the peace of silent meditation to the chaos of Downtown Yangon in one short taxi ride. It struck me that I’d have to start making decisions for myself again. Until then, the only question I’d faced was whether I could make it to the end of the course. And even then, after I’d made the decision to stick it out on Day Zero there really was no question.
It was a simple matter of determination.
If you want to dig deeper into any of the whats, hows and whys ofVipassana, I’ve pulled together a collection of resources about the Dhamma teachings at the end of this story. Most of it’s already been covered, so instead I’ve written a messy collection of (sometimes concerning) anecdotes I uncovered in the corners of my mind — the struggles, the epiphanies, that time I went totally mad on Day Seven… Consider it a tour of my brain.
SPOILER ALERT; bear in mind that everything you read / hear about other peoples’ experiences with the course will put a bias on your own.
Just quickly, for those who’ve never heard of Vipassana, it’s an insight meditation technique taught for free at centres all over the world. Goenka, the teacher of this particular course, connects the practice to science though it’s worth noting that — despite being non-secular — it is based on the philosophies and teachings of the Buddha. That doesn’t make it Buddhist, but it sometimes feels like it is.
For new students, who stem from a diverse range of nationalities, genders and religions, the main point of entry is a ten day course.The aim is to understand that, by nature, everything is changing and therefore to crave or hold an aversion to anything is to create suffering.Suffering and misery, in the comforting words of the teacher. Students are to develop this wisdom by first observing the sensations in the nasal area and later by scanning the entire body, from 4:30am to 9pm, every day.
What it comes down to is ten long days of pain, discovery and intense mental labour that the teacher describes as deep brain surgery for the mind. Anyone who thinks this is a ‘retreat’, take note. I’d taken a good two years to consider surrendering myself to the process of learning Vipassana, and still my resolve was put to the test on Day One.
Did you know that ten days is nearly 3% of a year?
It’s not exactly rocket science, I confess, but I’d never bothered to work it out before I fell down the rabbit hole and watched the calculations fly by me. Never seems enough when you’re on holiday or a deadline, does it? But let me tell you, when you’re already in physical pain after sitting for fifteen minutes and you realise that this is your self-selected fate for the next 3% of your year, it starts to feel like a hell of a long time.
Perhaps I thought it’d be comforting to know exactly how far I was from the finish line. I can now thoroughly recommend squashing any urge you might feel to map the experience onto datapoints. Or to try and break 100 hours of meditation down into ‘manageable’ chunks. The amount of pain I experienced in one hour of total stillness was not worth it just to knock another 1% off my sentence. It had to be about more than numbers.
The minutes moved so slowly without distraction, filled instead with concentration, or sensation, or boredom. Yet somehow when the 9pm gong rang and allowed me to crawl back to bed, it seemed almost an echo of the sound that had woken me 17 hours earlier. The pain never managed to stretch out a second so violently in retrospect as it did in the moment. Similarly, nor did the joy of success.
Each morning when I got out of bed, I had already decided I would not leave, whatever the day threw at me. And so — on an abstract level — the days were pre-determined, I knew how they would end and once the time had passed it no longer mattered. Moment by moment, however, I was forced to face the painful reality of my decision. The reality of the present.
3. Crazy Eyes
I spent the early days distracting myself (unintentionally) with thoughts of what I could share, and how I’d tell the story. As a testament to my addiction to social media, these thoughts were often structured like my newsfeed, with a clunky UI. Like when you try to use Facebook in the less-connected parts of Asia and it fails to load the CSS so you just get a jumbled bunch of Times New Roman.
I called it MindSpace because I think I’m funny.
One of the first updates was about the middle-aged Burmese woman who broke the rules to speak to me. She grabbed hold of my arm, asking where I was from and how long I would stay in Myanmar.
Conflicted and — frankly — annoyed at being forced to break my silence, I answered, smiled uncomfortably and walked off in the opposite direction. At lunch the next day and then at every meal afterwards I noticed her watching me from across the room.
The dining hall was furnished with five long tables, where rows of women were seated from oldest to youngest. It echoed with the clanging of metal spoons on metal plates, and then the grinding of chairs along tiles as one by one we finished and left the room.
I desperately wanted to make a joke of it and draw a parallel to the prison set of Orange is the New Black. I wanted to tell everyone I’d found a real life Crazy Eyes.
Over time I made characters out of many of my fellow inmates.
When chains of thought moved beyond their central point (me, naturally) I was bombarded by MindSpace updates from others, based on my memories of them. It left me with a similar sense of overwhelm and FOMO that I’d experience in scrolling through Facebook, forcing me to accept something I’d been denying for some time.
I spend far too much time thinking about other people.
And not in a kind, thoughtful, altruistic sense. It’s no more than a guise for thinking about myself through the lens of what other people think of me or what they’re expecting of me or how we compare.
For a while, I felt that we’d been thrown into a race to enlightenment. I looked at the women swathed in elegant shawls and robes and flowy cotton trousers. I watched them practise walking meditation in breaks, and imagined them judging anyone who rushed past. I observed the way they ate, taking a piece of food in their hands, admiring it, tasting it, feeling the texture as they chewed.
They frustrated me.
Yet most times I myself was one of them; feeling the detail of every bare footstep on the concrete, the fabric of my scarf brushing against my skin and the juice of papaya dripping down my chin as I bit into it.
I was witnessing no more than my judgment of myself. I guess I wasn’t sure if I was genuinely exploring my spiritual side or just playing a part.
In a similar vein, when I was struggling with the pain or the concentration as I meditated I’d open my eyes and see everyone around me, perfectly still. And I resented them. Yet in a good session, I simply forgot they were there.
Only when I felt I was failing did I notice what others were doing.
Epiphanies are great, aren’t they? But why, you might ask, was I doing so much thinking, when I was meant to be observing the sensations on the skin beneath my nostrils… Focus is hard, guys.
It’s one thing to observe a trivial thought and allow it to fade into oblivion. It’s another to notice a painful thought and remind yourself to come back to your breathing. But letting go of a line of thinking that you’re convinced is constructive is a totally different ballgame.
Keeping a critical eye on what we were studying was one of those challenges for me. ‘For best results’, we’re asked to accept what we learn without question for the duration of our stay. For ten days we are to follow the precepts detailed by the centre. I was happy to adopt vegetarianism, abstinence and sobriety for a time. Likewise, it posed no problem to be honest, maintain silence and disconnect from technology.
Harder for me to accept though were the more spiritual teachings that diverged from my understanding of the world. Being encouraged to believe, for example, that the gruelling pains in my knees and in my back in every sitting were the result of the aversions and attachments I’d been nurturing in my past lives. Like little demons I would have to expel from my body in order to purify my mind.
I know I can amplify the pain of physical ailments by adding layers of negative thinking. I know I can ease the extent of my suffering by reminding myself that it will change. And I know the brain can be rewired over time so that one feels less of a psychological impact from pain.
But I could not comprehend how reincarnation came into play.
Cynicism had well and truly settled in by the second night. Many of my fellow foreign students have since spoken of feeling similar internal conflict, so I’d guess this is what makes Day Two a common exit point for newbies.
Someone even walked straight out of the discourse as Goenka, in his token (manipulative) creaky voice, preached at us about past lives. It was hard to break through the layers of resistance to him and listen without judgment.
There was something ironic in watching him on a screen three years after his death, when the very premise of this method of meditation is to free oneself from ego by accepting the law of nature — everything changes. Mortality, typically, is the prime example of that fact.
But in defence of the teacher, though we were asked not to question their methods, we were instructed to set aside anything from these theoretical explanations that didn’t support our personal experience of the practice. And so I decided to tune out all the ritualistic elements of the course that seemed to border on religion, blind faith, or even a cult (eg bowing, chanting, words like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘past lives’.)
Happily, I discovered on Day Three that the more I focused on my own experience, the less relevant all that preaching and theory became. And I think that might be the point. We can try to learn whatever we want intellectually, with books and theories and lectures, but none of it hits quite as hard as an apple falling on your head.
I wonder if it’s coincidence that the Buddha’s discovery of the path to enlightenment and Newton’s discovery of gravity both took place beneath a tree…
So that afternoon I started forcing myself to sit through the pain to explore my practice more deeply. Against constant reminders that I should meditate on sensation not a mantra, I ended up mentally screaming one, over and over. I was begging for help from Al — a dear friend, who’d passed away 18 months earlier and had become some sort of guardian angel of my mind.
Now, and I say this with an awareness that pain throws all sorts of chemicals around the body… just when I thought I would give up, some corner of my mind that carried all the cheeky characteristics of Al ‘tapped’ me on the nose and a glowing blue light that I occasionally ‘see’ while meditating engulfed the area around it, reminding me that I was supposed to be focusing on that and nothing else.
Immediately the pain became no more than neutral feelings of hot, cold, sharp or throbbing, and a calm mind settled on my breathing. Whatever voodoo caused this, it’s what got me through my first full sitting.
Soon (though I’m talking hours, not minutes) after finding my focus, pain began to transition into pleasure, sowing the seeds of a curious thought. Do I actually like pain?! Allowing that belief made Day Four easier. Until a digitised Goenka — eerily well-aware of the psychological stages of the student journey — told us that reacting to pleasure was no better than to pain. I’d simply managed to connect the feeling of sitting in pain with success.
Illusions shattered, I began a mindful walk to the hall. While most sped past without thinking (much to their detriment, I judged), I was joined by this ethereal girl who’d intrigued me since the start. We couldn’t communicate, but there was such harmony in the rhythm of our footsteps that I felt connected with another human for the first time in days. I fell asleep absorbed in the question, ‘Who is she?’
That night I dreamed of my daughter.
And for the record, I definitely do not have a daughter. But in my dream, that’s who she was. About five years old with curly gold hair and freckles and brilliant eyes. Her name was Lily.
This was just the first of the vivid dreams. The following nights featured friends and family, beautiful backdrops, familiar soundtracks and fulfilled desires. But none of the other scenes have stuck with me as clearly as the image of her smiling face.
When I woke up I felt an intense need to chronicle my thoughts. I spent the morning meditation contemplating asking the teaching assistants to lend me a pen and paper for just two minutes so that I could note down a few keywords.
Then, with a self-deprecating tone, mocked myself for believing that my thoughts were so uniquely important that I’d consider demanding an exception.
Embarrassed to confess to holding such an ego, I set to brainstorming other options over breakfast. My first thought was red lipstick on the bathroom mirror, but I worried that might concern my roommate.
A roll of toilet paper sat on the table in front of me. And then I remembered my eyeshadow set. I chose the burgundy, since I’d never wear it. Hoping to avoid having the roomie walk in and freak out, thinking I was scribbling in blood, I rushed the list and hid it away in my bag.
Free from the strokes of genius I’d been clinging to, my mind was clear to focus on scanning my bodily sensations. For a lot of the next 48 hours, all I experienced was pain.
In one of the discourses the teacher spoke of a desire that we were inevitably having to share the peace of Dhamma with our friends and family.I was unable to imagine anyone I knew in such a setting. Or perhaps it was more that I couldn’t bare for anyone to endure such pain on my account. It’s something you have to have chosen for yourself.
In a dream, where my mind was less guarded, I remembered that I do have a few friends who’ve taken similar courses, though I couldn’t picture any of them sitting still for longer than 2 minutes. Nonetheless I came to realise that I have a deep admiration for the determination that one of them in particular demonstrates in his life, and pulled on his influence throughout Day Six to find that part of myself.
Then, very occasionally, I felt what I perceived as energy. Tingling sensations all over my body, often accompanied by that blue light that acted as my scanner. In a good session, when it reached the pain points it would seep through the obstacle, exploring every layer of the sensation. And sometimes that would dissolve the pain and I’d feel fine for the rest of the hour. I couldn’t tell you why.
Afterwards I’d sneak off and draw patterns in the sand to picture the shape the energy was making as it flowed around my body.
It’s rare that I imagine things visually, let alone feel compelled to draw them, but after a week it was all coming out. Maybe that was the demons, too.
You know how they say if you walk in half way through surgery it looks like murder? That was the state of my mind on Day Seven, when the operation went deeper and we were assigned to cells. It was meant to be a privilege, rather than a sentence.
The pagoda cells were small, windowless rooms with tall ceilings and rattly doors that we weren’t allowed to close. There was just enough residual light from the entrance that anything in the corridor would cast a shadow. The rooms encircled a pagoda, which was under maintenance so the entire building’s peaceful intention was shattered by the crashing of tools.
I was sent to Cell #32.
When I closed my eyes, the spiders started. They scurried around, blackening a mental canvas. Gradually the layers of arachnids thinned out and I noticed them disappearing off down a tunnel beneath a root. I felt I was meant to follow them but couldn’t bring myself to go down there.
The scene faded to reveal a sketchy silhouette. Sweat dripped down my back and my face, and probably everywhere else besides but I couldn’t feel the rest. The figure held a gun.
It moved slowly. Effortlessly. Through the corridor in the pagoda cells. I couldn’t tell if that character was meant to be me, or be looking for me. It didn’t matter.
Paranoia took over and allowed me to think about how easily we could be attacked here. I tried to remember if they even took emergency contact details.
I heard gentle footsteps in the corridor and when a shadow passed over my eyes for a fraction of a second I couldn’t stop myself from opening them. It was just the assistant teacher, patrolling the corridor as usual.
Returning to my inner world, the figure appeared at the door of Cell #32, gun pointed directly at me. My eyes flickered open again.
I tried once more, focusing on my (now shallow) breathing before closing my eyes. This time I was the one holding the gun. No longer motionless, I, the ‘figure’, was frantic. Terrified, shaky, panicked. Convinced that the person sat meditating in front of me was out to get me.
That was my limit. I opened my eyes, wrapped my arms around my knees and rocked myself back and forth until we were called for lunch.
There was something increasingly wild about the way we ate. Messily, inquisitively. With complete awareness of the experience. That day it felt animalistic.
Over the break I debated going back to the cell. It was like deciding whether to let myself slip into psychosis. Morbid curiosity won out and I concluded that this was just another of those little demons I had to defeat.
The second I stepped inside everything went black and I had to lean on the wall to steady myself. I probably should have taken that as a sign to leave. When I sat, I scanned my body in rapid circuits but it didn’t keep out the anxious thoughts. Honestly I’m not sure I wanted it to.
By the time the gong shocked me out of my trance an hour later I had pictured myself hanging in a past life for committing murder.
I wondered if I was obliged to tell the teacher I was going insane.
After that I didn’t go back to the pagoda, instead continuing my meditation in the hall in the security of companionship. This seemed to keep me more grounded in reality and for the rest of the afternoon I managed to hold focus on my breathing, even when frames from my paranoid daydreams snuck into my consciousness.
My attention was so strongly focused, in fact, that I became fixated on the point (real or imagined, I’m not sure) inside my nose where it connects to the windpipe. It felt uneven, as though only one side of my body was receiving oxygen, and I was convinced that I had forgotten how to breathe.I’m not sure what was covered in the discourse that night, because all I could think about was how to adjust my breathing so that I could save the left side of my body from suffocation.
Just in case you hadn’t guessed, this was rather a stressful experience. And of course a problem that existed only in my mind.
It was, however, exacerbated by external stimuli when the electricity shut down mid-DVD, leaving us in a pitch black room.The perfect setting for a horror film, I thought. Until a monk stood up with a torch and walked off without saying a word, and a wave of giggles washed over the room.
I broke my resolve that evening and spoke to the teacher (the one who was actually there with us in body, not just in spirit), asking her how I was supposed to address anxiety.Hallucinations, she told me, are not unheard of. Seemingly on autopilot, she smiled and reminded me to turn my focus to the sensations in my body.
For the first time, I struggled to go to sleep that night and woke the next day feeling unrested. But thankfully my breathing had normalised and my heart rate had slowed and so I was feeling less agitated than the day before. I cruised through Day Eight without paranoia, relieved to realise I hadn’t gone completely mad.
Crazy Eyes spoke to me again, and asked if she could take a photo when the course was over. By this time I was breaking out horrendously — presumably from a combination of sweat, duress and purging — so I couldn’t understand the appeal and assumed she was just intrigued by blonde hair. But I smiled regardless, realising I didn’t feel annoyed this time, and said yes.
Later, as I left the dorms, I saw one of the girls leaving without her shawl, which I knew she would need to cover her shoulders in the meditation hall. After I walked past, and without making any specific gesture towards her, I adjusted my scarf slightly on my arm. When I glanced back I saw that she was re-emerging from her room with a beautiful purple silk. I walked along laughing at how finely tuned our awareness had become.
Near the meditation hall, another of the girls was foraging for berries with childish glee. I accidentally caught her gaze as she looked up and broke into a cheeky grin. It was contagious.
Even when nothing in particular happened I couldn’t help but smile at the sheer madness of the situation I found myself in. How on earth did I get here? And then other times I smiled simply because I was not in pain nor in mental anguish and I realised that I felt fine, peaceful even.
On the last few days of the course the teachers often spoke of people getting to the end of the ten days and not being able to wipe the smiles off their faces, such is the lightness and peace and contentment they feel. On several occasions my inner critic wanted to suggest that it was perhaps more reflective of relief that the ordeal was over. But most times I could feel it too, even in moments of cynicism I was calm.
And then on Day Nine the manic thoughts returned. I suspected they’d swapped the tea for coffee again that morning, though it was hard to tell because it was so full of cream and sugar that the original flavour of the drug was unrecognisable.
Fuelled by caffeine, it occurred to me how susceptible we were to manipulation and I was reminded of a film I once watched, Sound of My Voice. That, and the previous day’s encounter with Crazy Eyes, rolled into my story of paranoia.
The lines of a screenplay began to write themselves in my mind, a psychological thriller. I convinced myself these dangerous thoughts had become constructive — creative obsession — and so I was allowed to be absorbed by them.
For the first half of the day I was living in a fictional world, trying to iron out the flaws in a plot-line. My physical body continued the routine as usual, meditation, break, meditation, break, lunch, walk, rest. But I went on uninterrupted by reality. It wasn’t until I noticed myself obsessively applying Tiger Balm to all my bites and bruises that I realised I was clammy and shaky and agitated and probably needed to snap out of it.
Only I didn’t really know how to get myself out of the madness. I washed my face and then showered and found one of those lemon sweets someone had been leaving out. But that only served to add fuel to the dwindling fire because I realised I could work them into the plot.
And so I decided I’d rescue myself later and I jumped voluntarily back down the rabbit hole. At the sounding of the gong that signalled the end of break time, I had mentally storyboarded an entire film. I’ll write about that separately.
With some kind of conclusion reached and exhaustion taking over, I returned my attention to actually meditating for a change. Though it was a struggle to set aside my new obsession and from time to time my thoughts still wandered there, I did eventually manage to find the quiet in my mind and that was a crucial discovery for me.
I’ve always been scared to let creative obsession take over, because I didn’t know if I could get out of it. Now I do. And that leaves me free to throw myself into my writing projects, which is exactly why I flew over here in the first place.
14. I’m A Believer
And so at last we return to the opening line of this tome, the final session of Day Nine, which — despite it being a ten day program — was effectively the end of the Vipassana course because on the last day, much to my chagrin, we started talking again and the spell was broken.
That session began much like any other, with me folding my limbs into configuration supported by an assortment of cushions and my sidekick scarf that was with me in every session of the course.
Again, like usual, I scanned my body from head to toe and toe to head and then in circuits following the path of least resistance. And then intentionally returning to the points of resistance, and focusing on them for some time until they dissolved.
I followed my breath, as I normally did, and allowed it to lengthen out my spine so that my weight settled in the most natural way and I felt light. All the while, the blue light coursed through my body. And I felt, even ‘saw’, that tingling vibration of energy that was meant to be the sensation of all the atoms flying around my body.
For a moment my thinking brain took over and I looked forward to being able to Google the science behind that feeling. And then, in a true moment of epiphany, I realised I didn’t need to, because I could simply search inside myself. That’s a pun within a pun, you’re welcome.
15. Gimme More
Still want to read more?! This is it from me but if you’ve got questions, comment or tweet me. Otherwise, it’s over to the interwebs.
Beyond that, there are looooads of personal accounts out there, both written and video. I’ll leave you to explore.