“One of you went for a cigarette just after arriving,” the man scanned the room for the culprit, his accusatory gaze following his pointing finger.
“What will a person like that ever be able to achieve?” Not a lot, his dismissive hand gesture answered.
“You are not here to enjoy yourselves with nicotine and whatnot!” He declared with incredulity at such a ridiculous notion. “You are not here for holiday camp he-he-ha-ha time! You are here to perform an operation.”
So went the anti-welcome to a 10-day meditation course known as Vipassana. The man shouted at us like we were naughty children. He was speaking in rapid-fire English and Hindi, and switching between the two languages at random junctures.
His tirade was leaving no doubt in our minds as to just how challenging the next 10 days would be:
Meditating for 10 hours a day.
No eye contact.
“Anyone who wants to leave, get out now!” His arms made a motion as if he were hurling someone out of the window.
People started to laugh nervously whilst shooting each other looks that were flickering between haha this is funny and erm this is a bit scary. It was a rapid exchange of eye contact between complete strangers and it was unbelievably reassuring. It was also about to be banned for 10 days.
He regarded us haughtily but there was a twinkle in his eye. He smiled as he admitted that he sometimes gets a little carried away with the welcome talk but it was for our own good. We collectively exhaled and exchanged some raised eyebrows.
Scaremongering complete he moved on to explain the course, which would consist of two phases. Phase one was ‘mental knife sharpening’ and would take three days because our mental knives were apparently really useless and dull. Phase two was ‘operation time’.
That was pretty much it. The point of vipassana, which means ‘to see things as they really are’, is that it is to be experienced not intellectualised so any explanations were kept to the minimum.
He declared that we were now ‘in silence’ and after scanning the room with an accusatory finger one last time he swept out the room, never to be seen again.
The location for my voluntary incarceration was the Kathmandu Vipassana centre. It’s more like a little village, spread out on a hillside on the outskirts of the city. There are pretty walking paths meandering between the modern, purpose-built buildings.
I delighted in all the space when I first arrived but after the welcome talk I found that my movements were suddenly restricted. Now there were ropes across certain paths and closed gates and signs telling me to keep the hell out of boyland, or words to that effect.
Men and women meditated in the same enormous room (all 150 of us) but we were on different sides and there was a wide demarcation zone in the middle. We entered and exited through different doors and at different times, cutting down on the potential for eye contact. We ate and slept in completely different buildings and our roaming areas were separate.
The whole point of separating us was to avoid distraction. For me it had the opposite effect. On the first day my brain couldn’t resist commenting with a Cilla Black style, “Let’s bring out the boys!” whenever they entered the room and a David Attenborough style, “This is rare sighting of the male of species” whenever I spied one through the bushes in boyland.
My mind at this stage was focused on keeping things light, enjoying the setting and turning up the inner comedian.
The meditation – operation preparation
For the first three days we sharpened our mental knives in preparation for the operation itself. Not that we knew what the operation would entail at that stage.
For now we developed the ability to hold our focus on the breath, letting thoughts go. My mind skipped about the place, doing its monkey impression, entertaining itself with thoughts and images and memories and ideas.
Stupid, funny, sad, interesting, new, repetitive, insightful, pointless; a never-ending reel that continually pulled my focus from the small area of skin directly below my nostrils that we had been instructed to focus on.
Continually coming back to the area of focus was the work and naturally this work got easier as we built up our mental muscles. We were focusing on this area because it is small and not particularly sensitive. The idea being, the smaller the area, the more precise the mental focus; the more insensitive the area, the more sensitive the mind.
By day three the torrent of thoughts had slowed and my ability to catch myself strengthened. My mind still tried to give me things to think about, sometimes producing a random event of zero interest from the past that I wouldn’t expect to remember, let alone in such detail.
I remembered a specific instance of crossing a road: how I pressed the button and the cars that were there, and how they slowed and stopped and how I started to walk and how I was feeling at the time.
Nothing of note happened. I wasn’t feeling anything special. I was just crossing a road. It was bizarre to realise that it is all stored in there somewhere, nothing lost or omitted.
The operation begins – cue the dragons
On day four we began the operation. Suffice to say the operation method was a bit of an anticlimax. I was expecting some out-there technique where I would experience the gates of my subconscious creaking open and I’d go off exploring the inner architecture of the mind, finding hidden treasure and slaying dragons as I went.
The truth is meditation is really rather pedestrian – despite popular culture’s (and my own personal) fantasy otherwise. The technique was actually a simple body scan, scanning sensations in the body from top to bottom repeatedly.
Putting aside my disappointment that I didn’t have a shiny new technique to play with, I attempted to train my attention on every sensation, no matter how subtle. I tried to pick up on the barely perceptible vibrations in my upper arms but the throbbing from my right leg kept stealing the show. The experience of pain was something we were encouraged to observe rather than react to.
Of course sometimes your body is telling you something and you need to do something. For example, if your leg is on fire it isn’t very useful to regard it serenely. But in this situation nothing so drastic was going to happen.
My mind tried to declare otherwise with frequent interjections of ‘AhggggH’ ‘Noo’ ‘This is too much’ ‘I can’t do this’ ‘No, no, no’ ‘Oh the pain’ ‘somebody ring that bloody bell’.
It was almost like a switch and each time it switched to ‘reaction’ I felt a whole lot worse. It magnified the sensations. It went from a slight physical pain to an all encompassing physical, mental, emotional pain, each of them jacking up the other.
If I reacted by moving or opening my eyes, it was game over. I just wanted to move even more, and then leave the room, and then the building (which I did a couple of times). I could understand why the dropout rate was so high.
A laboratory for perspective, freedom and the power to act
Thankfully we were given the approach to deal with this problem of reactions and that was ‘equanimity’. The idea being that through the practice of experiencing sensations (good and bad) with a more balanced mind – a mind that does not grab and cling or run and reject – we gain perspective, freedom and the power to act.
This orientation wasn’t new to me. It had already improved my life significantly (understatement). For me, vipassana was the ultimate mindfulness laboratory. The almost clinical nature of vipassana reduces all those outside variables so you are left with little else but your own mind to observe.
From my own small experience of voluntary captivity I viscerally experienced just how much pain is created through trying to avoid the ‘bad’. It was the difference between getting out of bed at the first ring of the bell or cowering under the covers and focusing on how much I didn’t want to get up, how horrible, terrible, evil 4am is and how I should be on a beach holiday like a normal person, what the hell was wrong with me anyway?
The same goes for all those painful sensations during meditation. The more I gave them my attention the more they magnified. Every single negative thought intensified the discomfort. If I could breathe through it, observe it and create space around it, the sensation lessened.
The point wasn’t to get rid of the sensation or ‘mind over matter’. It was to change the relationship to the experience and to realise how the mind is a tool that in all its genius, can actually make things far, far worse.
This kind of resistance is aversion, or ‘reject and run’ as I like to think of it. The flipside of aversion is attachment and it’s equally destructive when running riot.
There wasn’t much pleasure to get hooked on in that place, but for me attachment ruled the food hall. A clear mind made all the clinging blatantly obvious.
As the volunteers ladled food generously onto the plate I noticed myself thinking ‘Is that it! I need more! Give me MORE!’ regardless of whether I was hungry or not. My mind was on ‘give me more pleasure, food=pleasure’ autopilot, bypassing the need to check in with my stomach.
I’d be eating and my mind was already thinking about the after-meal chai. I’d be drinking the after-meal chai and wondering if I could have another. I was barely paying attention to the first one for god’s sake.
Welcome to the crazy world of attachment – a fast pass to diminished joy.
It seems nuts when you really notice it in action, but it’s just the brain’s natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s a clever inbuilt tool to say ‘get me more of this’ (attachment) or ‘get rid of this’ (aversion). It’s necessary and useful but it just gets a little crazy when it’s on overdrive and we are utterly sucked into it, thinking that this reaction system is reality, rather than just our way of navigating it.
As high functioning apes, our cleverness really screws us over sometimes. Thankfully, we can switch off auto-response, and that was exactly what we were trying to practise.
Sitting through a storm
By day nine my mind had settled into a gentler flow. There were thoughts but they were in the background. I was aware of them but not embroiled in them, no longer having my face pressed right up against the screen of my own telenovela.
There were occasional power struggles. A thought of dissent arose but was immediately dropped – sometimes before I’d finished the thought. I felt light and flowing, in easy engagement with all that was presenting itself, rather than grabbing and flinging.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an inner storm arrived, more violent than any that had passed before. A tremor of resistance, my body and mind were suddenly intensely uncomfortable. Resistance, fear and pain were suddenly the main protagonists on the screen of my consciousness.
After getting over the shock of this coming out of nowhere, and declining the first response that my mind provided (get the hell out of here), my curiosity provided the motivation to sit and stay with it.
I felt myself at the centre of the storm, occasionally feeling myself pulled into it. My newly formed mindfulness muscles worked to hold me. I wanted to experience it, and to know what lay beyond and behind it.
Suddenly the hard barrier of resistance dissolved and I was floating and silent. My body relaxed and opened. My mind released, easy and open and clear. My whole body transformed to pure vibrating energy.
I was light and expansive and it was blissful.
It was hard not to grab hold of this experience and to feel like this was the point, that this was the defining moment of my vipassana experience.
I read once that when monks are in meditation, if the teacher knows that they have slipped into a pleasure pocket then they whack them over the head with a book. I did not have a book to hand but this helped me at least try to relate to it as ‘just another experience’ and not get any grand ideas, or fall straight back into the attachment trap. Yeah, that’s a tough one.
Getting off the 10-day rollercoaster
On day 10 we prepared to go back out into the world. We were allowed to talk to each other for the first time since the process began.
We compared notes feverishly. My voice sounded odd. Someone was crying. The relief, the release. Oh my god that was intense. We had just got off the rollercoaster, except the rollercoaster was 10 days not 2 minutes and it was all experienced in our own bodies and minds.
There were smiles everywhere. People delighting in all the eye contact and taking their vocal cords for a spin. It felt like it was the aftershow party except it wasn’t actually over.
We could talk during breaks but we still had to meditate. The teachers shooshed us as we rushed up the steps to the meditation hall, excitedly yapping away on our way to ‘meditate’, which was suddenly a lot harder with all the new stimulation – so much to think about!
In prison, in the outside world
On the last night we watched a documentary of how vipassana mediation is used within the prison system in India. The prisoners go through exactly the same process we had experienced. They are given an opportunity to learn how to relate to their minds and how to deal with difficult and complex emotions and urges. Prison officers take the course too.
“There is little difference between the inmates and ourselves, a very small thread. They lost their balance of mind. We have also lost our tempers, but thankfully we are not held inside this prison. I believe everyone, if given a chance, will try to change, and I want to give them that chance.”
Superintendent Kumar, Bihar Prison ‘Doing Time, Doing Vipassana’ documentary
As the prisoners finished their course they lined up and shook hands with the prison chief. The relief and pride and emotion radiated from them.
One prisoner broke down in tears. The prison chief held him. The moment was raw and real as they embraced – one human to another.
We sat and watched, most of us crying our eyes out. We’d survived vipassana – a truly intense experience (‘worse than prison’ as one young Australian prisoner earnestly commented). We’d navigated some of our inner landscape – or at the very least we’d given it a go.
All that remained was to be reunited with our electronics and other contraband and to get on one of the buses transporting us back to the chaotic centre of Kathmandu.
It was like being a kid on the bus to Disneyland – except this was a whole glorious world of eye contact and talking and connecting and places and pleasures – and of course, the not-so-good stuff too.
This was a re-entering into the evolving stories of our tumultuous lives. And maybe, just maybe, we’d gained a little more perspective, wisdom and grace to live them well.