Tired. Hungry. Cold. In pain. Agitated. Miserable.
I was here to kick start the process of eradicating my misery and here I was listening to a man that sounded like a sick goat. Let’s be honest, there were more than a few ‘stick your shanti up your proverbial’ thoughts being thrown around.
The course teachers were adamant that we couldn’t leave at any stage. By day three I had schemed up some pretty tiptop exit strategies.
Block B, bed 41. I’ve stayed in some pretty shonky joints in my time, and this was up there with the best of them. Our cubicles were about one metre by two metres, separated by see-through curtains and had mouldy mosquito nets hanging from the roof. I was just getting over the initial shock at the sleeping quarters (there was monkey poo and a pile of black hair on my children’s sized bed), then it was off to bed and all of a sudden the bell was ringing at 4am.
We had twenty minutes, eight women sharing one squat toilet, one shower and one sink, before we had to be in class. Nightmare. Especially when two of the Sinhalese women in my block had a nasty nose and throat clearing technique that took about fifteen minutes, and the Italian woman had a beauty regime that extended well beyond the quick face wash and brush of the teeth. The silence rule was killing me already.
Most of the 54 students were Sri Lankan, ranging from their early 20’s to late 80’s. One of the gentleman in his 80’s collapsed in spectacular fashion during the afternoon of day one. He sounded like a wounded bull as he went down. It took all the teachers and teaching assistants to get him out of the hall. I’m pretty sure he died that day. Great start.
Somewhere around the 37 hour mark, the pain in my legs and back stopped, my imagination ceased, my life analysis (I’d gone over my life from birth to present about eight times) came to a standstill. I was calm. All of a sudden I was ready to give this a crack, to start concentrating on the technique that had been reiterated hour after hour – focus your attention on the small area below your nostrils, above your upper lip. This was painstakingly mundane. I had probably only performed this for 45 minutes of the 37 hours.
Then we were given advice: not to attach ourselves to anyone or anything because everything is impermanent and attachment creates misery (I was attaching myself to the day I would get out, the coffee I would drink and the ice cream I would eat…I was pretty sure this was not going to make me miserable).
The sick goat kept banging on about just observing the sensations in the body, not reacting to them. To ignore the pain (are you kidding me?).
I was fed up with the snoring and snorting from my roommates. I was outraged that my friend actually believed I would benefit from the course. I was a mess. Then there was the woman that pushed in front of me to wash her dishes. That almost broke me. I cried on the way back to Block B, then I realised I was getting my period. Excellent. Let’s intensify this pain. I was in so much pain all I could visualise was curling up into a fetal position.
During one of my one-to-one meetings with my teacher she told me my mind was being tamed, like wild cattle. I didn’t like this. I felt like they were trying to numb me, to dumb me down. I was suspicious of everything that was said from then on in.
Then the thunderstorms started. Following three hours of torrential rain, there was a scream in the meditation hall – a woman had found a scorpion on her mat. We were all asked to check our areas, two other women found blood on their legs: leeches. It was pretty tough not reacting to a painful sensation after that. Monkeys started mating on the roof, lizards running up the walls, gunshots were being fired in the valley below. There were daily power cuts, joints were clicking violently, and then the roof started leaking. Chaos. Not ideal meditation conditions. But I welcomed each and every distraction.
Leaving the meditation hall and walking to the dining room was depressing. Silence, single file, everyone with their heads down, dressed head to toe in white, it felt like we were inmates. The dining hall was another shock. It was caged (to keep the monkeys out) and was filled with children’s tables and chairs. We were told it would be simple vegetarian food. Simple vegetarian food it was. For lunch on the first day, we got two biscuits and a banana (Sri Lankan bananas are a quarter of the size of the bananas back home). A splattering of white rice and a slap of slosh followed for every meal after that.
I developed a lot of affirmations, ‘I can do this, everything passes, you’re here for a reason’. I watched the four monks on the male side of the room, perched on their Dog on the Tuckerbox pedestals, perfect postures. The nun in front of me, sitting on a little chair so still and harmoniously. The two female teachers in their 70’s at the front of the female side of the room, sitting perfectly, looking like goddesses in their free flowing white get up. How? How are they doing this? The entire time I felt like they were staring me down, time and time again we were told not to move position, I had to move position, each time I felt the glare.
One night I snuck back to my room and went to bed 45 minutes early. I’d just got into bed and found some relief and the teaching assistant barged in, shone her torch in my eyes and told me meditation had started, that I needed to go back to the hall. When I politely told her I was in too much pain to go back, she told me off for not discussing this with or obtaining approval from the teacher (I had visions of killing her with her torch, seriously woman, if you’re on the path to enlightenment maybe start showing a little love and compassion). I was adamant I would leave the next morning.
Somehow I dragged myself out of bed and was ‘meditating’ by 4.30am. Finally, a new technique started, we were now allowed to focus on our entire body, scanning it from head to toes, toes to head.
On day eight I found myself randomly smiling, appreciating the white rice and slosh, feeling admiration for my fellow classmates and gratefulness for my life. I’m sure it was because I knew I only had a few days left, but I accredited it to the meditation.
Our master guru was starting to sound like a broken record, “start again, start again, maintain perfect equanimity, work continuously, diligently, ardently, patiently and persistently, patiently and persistently”. During the evening discourse he told us we would “enjoy total liberation and full enlightenment”. Then he tells us we will only enjoy this if we dedicate the rest of our lives to the path of dhamma, if we meditate for an hour every morning and every night, if we blah blah blah.
Day nine. Hallelujah. Sensations were pulsating all over my body (apparently the root of my impurities were being brought to the surface as sensations, and then by focusing on them they were being eradicated). The pain was subsiding, the sessions flying by and my mind was somehow just being still and observing it all. Progress. It only took 102 hours.
When the silence rule was over one of my roommates was straight into trying to convert me to Buddhism – “I can see you are interested in Buddhism, I can show you the path”. I thanked her and told her I wasn’t quite ready to become a Buddhist.
When I packed up and was ready to leave I headed to the office, gave my donation and thanked the teacher. She asked me how I was feeling and apologised for one of my roommates, telling me she had psychiatric problems; that they couldn’t tell from her application, and she was sorry if she caused me any discomfort. Discomfort. She perfectly summed up my entire Vipassana experience.
One hundred and twenty four hours of sitting in pain cross-legged on a dangerous floor. I wasn’t free from my misery but I was happy I had lasted the distance.
I was released. I caught a tuk-tuk into town. I dropped off my backpack and headed for a café. Caffeine and technology back in my life, and a firm awareness that I wasn’t willing to commit to following ‘the path’ for the rest of my life. For now, I’ll happily keep my chaotic, cynical and impure mind.
Guess it is time to email my lovely friend and ask him to remind me again of exactly what he thought I’d gain from those twelve days?!