If someone had told me a few months ago that I would be voluntarily enrolling myself to sit cross-legged on the floor, without moving, 10 hours a day for 7 days in a Buddhist monastery – in complete silence – I would have chuckled in your face and told you that you were mistaking me for someone else. Until a series of events led me to get acquainted with “Insight Meditation” (known as Vipassana), wonder what kind of fool would do this to themselves, try it, fail miserably at it, try it again, see a little beam of light between two dark walls, try it and try it and try it and try it, and progressively incorporate it to my daily life without knowing much more about it than the fact that it made me feel good and at peace – and that it was damn hard. Even after hearing of Vipassana silent meditation retreats, affectionately called “Buddha Bootcamp” by the initiated, I don’t recall how attending one became a top priority on my agenda, yet somehow there I was, at Wat Kow Tahm in Koh Phangan, Thailand, adamantly checking myself in for a 7 day silent meditation retreat I would have expected to be compensated for just six months ago.
Kow Tahm is a stark contrast to Koh Phangan’s famous hedonist side: a peaceful jungle setting high on a mountain where nuns, monks, dogs, monkeys, giant geckos and a handful of hopeful and fidgety Westerners cohabitate in a state of peace, loving kindness and, most importantly, silence. The intensive retreat schedule is as follows for the duration, with the opportunity to exchange a few words on the day before and after the retreat:
4:00 – 4:30 a.m. Wake up bell
4:30 – 5:15 a.m. Sitting meditation
5:15 – 6:15 a.m. Chanting / Yoga
6:15 – 7:00 a.m. Sitting meditation
07:00 – 08:30 a.m. Breakfast / Chores / Bathing
8:30 – 9:30 a.m. Meditation instructions
9:30 – 10:15 a.m. Walking meditation
10:15 – 11:00 a.m. Sitting meditation
11:00 – 1:00 p.m. Lunch / Rest / Open Awareness
1:00 – 1:45 p.m. Sitting meditation
1:45 – 02:30 p.m. Walking meditation
2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Dhamma teaching
3:30 – 4:15 p.m. Walking meditation
4:15 – 5:00 p.m. Sitting meditation
5:00 – 6:30 p.m. Drinks / Interviews / Rest
6:30 – 7:30 p.m. Chanting / Loving kindness meditation
7:30 – 8:15 p.m. Walking meditation
8:15 – 9:00 p.m. Sitting meditation
Yes, that is a 17 hour day. Double shift.
Aversion is a topic that came early on in the daily talks as one of the five major forces in the mind that hinder our ability to see clearly or become concentrated in meditation and is one I especially related to. Other hindrances are sensual desire (wanting shit – I also relate), sloth and torpor (laziness), restlessness and doubt. By day one, I already have an aversion to one of the volunteers who scorned at my roll of toilet paper on arrival day and told me to use the bum gun (which I do, by the way, but I do also like to dry my wet butt afterwards!), to the German girl that looks like Katniss Everdeen for pointing her feet at the Buddha constantly, to the Romanian girl who is not serious about this and keeps staring at everyone (and her hair looks like a toilet brush, so extra aversion points for her), to the girl in front of me who’s a freaking mouth breather and keeps twirling her hair around her finger, to the blond girl who I know nothing of apart from the fact that she blatantly had her lips injected with stuff, came to the retreat with fake fingernails adorned with little diamonds and wears a t-shirt that says “I SURVIVED THE ULTIMATE SOI 6 PARTY 2014”, and to all the people bowing down at Buddha nonstop like a party of Jesus freaks. But the main thing with Vipassana is to perfect the art of “noting, knowing and letting go”, so I apply myself wholeheartedly to it, along with all the other skills we are working on developing, and, before I know it, those bad feelings start to melt away and see me entering a new stage of my meditation practice within the first few days. I come to understand the bowing down as a ritual and become fascinated with the concept of “rituals” as an essential element to establishing mindfulness and something that is inherent to all religions as a way to engage deeper inside oneself. This in turn makes me more at peace with the concept of religion, something I have had a major aversion for. I myself have a little stick of palo santo wood that my friend Miranda gave me before the retreat and I have been burning it a little each day before heading to the meditation hall. Rituals truly are a beautiful thing for evoking concentration and new perspectives.
I do believe some of us quickly start to lose it a little. A few girls are crying, my roommate starts sleep talking and yells “HEEELLLLLLLOOOOOOOO???? IS ANYONE HEREEEEE???” on most nights, the Romanian girl is now wearing her bedsheet as a skirt, another girl is walking backwards in the “field of zombies” (the walking meditation site), Frank is mixing the raisin porridge with the rice congee in the same bowl at breakfast, I start hearing my ex in my head singing “hoo he hoo haha ting tang walla walla bing bang” and can’t seem to push that away for a whole day. My walking meditation is better if I do the moonwalk, I find out. My body starts acting funny in my sitting meditation, the upper part feeling buoyant and swaying out of control on a few occasions at times where I had attained a good concentration and stillness, a time where I should really have had control of my body and not fall off THE DAMN FLOOR.
Within the first few days I see my concentration improve exponentially and start to find so much energy, joy and peacefulness in the 45 minute sitting meditation sessions – which have become shorter and shorter or so it appears – to a point that I feel like I’m on crack and that my cork is gonna pop from being too ecstatic. Then my own tears come one day after breakfast, but they are tears of relief. I realize that the reason I have been resisting (that’s a bit of an euphemism – I have been petrified by) the thought of going back to Canada is because I was scared of reverting back to my old life. It was a great life – in the conformist deluded sense of things – filled with shiny expensive things, a big apartment, a career I had worked hard for, a loving partner I was clinging onto for dear life as an externally derived sense of self, many unhappy people around me and the permanent feeling of running after something. Seeing time as the solution, thinking for the most part that happiness lived in the future. Desiring and acquiring things that never seemed to be able to fill an elusive gaping hole I could never quite pinpoint. But you know what? It’s all a crock of shit. The well has no bottom. We’ve been told a big fat lie. Becoming something and ensuring security for the future is not what life is, it’s a complete delusion. Our teacher Anthony said: “don’t be the person with the spade and the seeds hoping and wondering if the fruit will be sweet and juicy.” Ha. Can’t we all just be happy and content with gardening? It’s the only thing that is real. You may never live to see the tree grow and come to fruition anyway. Happiness can only be found in the now. And what I realized is that I don’t have to conform and become a cog in the machine yet again. I have found joy and contentment here in simply “being” and depending on nothing – not on my social role, possessions, external appearance, successes, relationships and especially not on time to define my sense of self and find happiness. And I am no longer scared.
The breaking down of “me” following the end of my relationship last April was an essential step in my life to rebuild better foundations and I am grateful for the hardship. And likewise, new relationships that have sprouted into my life those past months have taken all of their value through the self-realization that I am equally happy and whole with or without them. Attachment only causes suffering.
Turns out, it was I who had mistaken “myself” for someone else all those years and I found me inside of myself in the stillness, sitting 10 hours a day here on the mountain. I honestly believe that Vipassana meditation found me and that this series of events was absolutely not a coincidence.
If you find yourself faced with the opportunity to do a Vipassana meditation retreat, I urge you to give it a try, with no expectation other than the will to put in the effort. I promise none of this has to do with religion if you do not want it to. It may change the course of your existence. And please make a run from the conventions if you are not happy and getting the sickening feeling that you’ve been conditioned to believe that this is how things should be.
“When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky”
“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.”
“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”
– (Potentially fake) Buddha quotes (the message is still nice)