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“What you seek is seeking you.” — Rumi
I can’t sit still, I love to talk, and reading and writing are my favourite activities. So when I first heard about Vipassana – a ten-day silent meditation retreat – I thought it sounded torturous.
It was my friend Swati who sold it to me by saying I always kept my physical space streamlined, yet I had never decluttered my mind. After contemplating it for years, I finally applied and got a seat at the Dhammasarita Centre in Maharashtra for July.
Founded by SN Goenka, there are Vipassana centres across India and the world. Using an ancient meditation technique rediscovered by Buddha 2500 years ago, it is non-sectarian and anyone from any background can participate. The format of the course has been smoothly standardised across all the centres: we follow Goenka’s recorded voice instructions in Hindi and English during meditation hours, and watch him speak on video for ninety minutes every evening. The centres are free of cost. We are provided accommodations and meals, and asked to observe all their rules.
These include no speaking, unless to teachers or staff about practical matters, and no eye contact with fellow students. All electronic devices along with any reading or writing materials have to be handed in when we arrive. I’ve heard from friends of Vipassana’s profound benefits, and vow to stay open to everything. But as I hand my phone in, it suddenly becomes real and I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.
Day 1 (and I am definitely counting the days here) is overwhelming. I am disoriented for much of it. I miss the 4am start and sleep through the first two hours of meditation. There are eight more hours of it throughout the day. We are asked to surrender to the experience.
I feel better on Day 2 as the routine becomes familiar. I am soothed by the on-the-minute timing of the schedule, by the bells that ring out to remind us of the start and end of things. This may be the only place besides the military that doesn’t succumb to Indian Stretchable Time.
The actual meditation part is no more tricky than I expected: I try to focus my mind and get distracted within seconds, so spend most of the time gently pulling it back.
What is difficult is how I literally cannot sit still for more than 30 seconds – and to realise how appalling my posture is. I’m not unfit, but I’ve spent decades sitting hunched over my laptop or collapsed on soft seating. My back feels weak. This is the only time in my life I even minorly envy pregnant women, who are given hardboard to lean against as they meditate. At the end of every hour or two, we are asked to “take rest”, an expression favoured in India over “take a break” or “get some rest”. I have the same desperate urge as when sitting on a long haul flight in economy to stretch out on a flat surface.
Not reading is excruciating. In an average week in my normal life (for Vipassana is now appearing deeply abnormal), I read three new books, a dozen blogs, several daily newspapers, and listen to about twenty hours’ worth of cultural podcasts (which is like reading via the ears). I’ve rationalised this volume because I don’t watch TV, play video games or waste time net surfing, though I see it might be excessive. Sitting in Vipassana, however, it sounds heavenly. Just as being on an Ayurvedic retreat some years ago had me dreaming about chocolate, here I fantasise about the books I will soon read.
Not writing is the worst of all. Normally I write a detailed diary and this blog, and am always working on some fiction. There’s one that began as a comedy of errors short story 20 years ago when it was published in a literary journal. I expanded the idea to a novel and began work on it before getting stuck on a murder mystery sub-plot. Over the years I’ve jotted down random ideas for it. I decided a month ago to finally write this book. Yet I kept stalling.
On Day 3, my mind – after spending Day 1 recalling recent events and Day 2 fretting over my to do list – is a little more calm. Then something dramatic happens. In one flash, the book’s story appears fully formed in my brain. It’s as if I’m standing in front of a giant mural and I can see it in its entirety as well as its individual brushstrokes. I see how the mystery story is the main plotline and how it connects together absolutely all the random lines I’d been writing haphazardly for 20 years. It’s like a giant piece of machinery with a thousand moving parts all suddenly slotting into position. I’m so emotional that tears stream down my face.
We’re allowed to ask questions at the end of each day. I go, weeping, to ask if I could write for 10 minutes (as any writer knows, the Fear of Forgetting is terrifying). The assistant teacher reminds me it’s against the rules.
Still crying from the drama of it all (20 years!) I go to my room to prepare to sleep. I rummage in my handbag for lip balm, and find a pen I’d forgotten I’d packed. I have three choices: I could leave the centre and go home to write. I could stay and write furtively. Or I could surrender to what I’d committed. I’m tempted by the first, but settle on the third. I will stay and I will not write. For now. I shove the pen back inside my bag.
There’s one other foreigner, a young Chinese woman. We meet with the one English-speaking assistant teacher together every other day to report on our progress and problems. We also watch the English videos every evening in a separate room. It rains one night and she doesn’t have an umbrella so I share mine with her. All this is done in companionable silence. Given the no-eye-contact rule, I don’t really know what she looks like.
Despite my love of conversing, I find the silence restful. (Not that people can’t be annoying even when silent: cutting queues, blocking doorways, wearing noisy jewellery during meditation). I hadn’t realised how draining social niceties can be; not having to make small talk is the most peaceful of all. I do however accidentally speak twice to fellow students; once when someone sneezes and I say “bless you”; another when I bump into someone and apologise. I could be the sole survivor of an apocalypse and my mother’s well-trained daughter will still be polite to debris.
Over the next several days I meditate in earnest. My book idea continues to expand and solidify in my mind. I eventually go from fidgeting every 30 seconds to every three minutes, though that’s the most I manage. And every day I consider leaving. This is the toughest thing I have ever voluntarily done. The hours feel interminable.
We are not allowed to exercise beyond walking. I resist the urge to do squats and push-ups. Note: I never get the urge to do squats and push-ups but it’s like the time I was told before an MRI scan to not take deep breaths and that became all I wanted to do.
The food – Indian vegetarian – is tasty and plentiful. We help ourselves, eat mindfully in silence, then wash our own plates and cutlery. I like this routine. I eat freely the first two days before being reminded by Goenka in the video to eat less than usual. I see it is more taxing to meditate while the body’s busy digesting a lot of food. Also, I normally walk a lot and burn some 800 extra calories from my daily swim. Here I am literally sitting on my butt all day. So I cut down on the quantity – until the staff realise I don’t consume tea or dairy. They take me in like a tragic orphan and heap second helpings of everything else onto my plate. I’m too touched to refuse.
Though I brought enough clothes for the duration, I wash the previous day’s wear by hand before I shower. This gives me something to do in the resting hours, which pass just as slowly as the meditation sessions. I am grateful for my friend Chai’s advice to arrive early the first day in order to get a single room, which are distributed on a first come, first serve basis. Spending my non-meditation hours studiously ignoring someone in a cramped space would have made it all the more onerous.
I sweep my room and clean my bathroom daily. I pull out my nail clippers and tweezers with regularity; my brows and nails have never looked so tidy. I walk after every meal but my overall lack of movement makes it difficult to sleep at night; I get only about five hours after tossing and turning. When the monsoons begin in full force on Day 5, I get cabin fever.
The purpose of Vipassana is to purify the mind. The process is compared to surgery where festering blockages are removed; we are warned of passing through uncomfortable stages as old thought patterns clear out. I twice had major open abdominal surgery where in the immediate aftermath I felt helpless, trapped and faintly hysterical. This is exactly how I feel now.
Vipassana teaches us to see things as they really are. In that “this too shall pass” way, we release our attachments, especially our cravings and aversions, as we experientially understand how impermanent everything is. I am already painfully aware of this; I was 10 years old when my brother died. I have built my entire life on the premise that nothing is permanent.
I know that all we have is the present. The more I meditate on this, the more I yearn to do what I really love: write. To not waste any more time. If these are my last days on earth I would rather be putting words down, not sitting in the lotus position with my eyes closed. I feel done. On Day 7, with three days left, I ask to leave the centre.
The teachers and staff, all of whom are exceedingly kind, urge me to stay on; an incomplete Vipassana will not give me its total benefits. I relay my appreciation of all I have learnt: the silence, contemplation, clarity, and perspective. I know I wouldn’t have grasped the entire book’s story if my mind were not this still. I don’t regret coming here at all. But I am sure about leaving. I am released on Day 8 and take the train back.
I don’t eat animal products and am an occasional social drinker but as if to draw a line under the experience (and I say that with love), I order a cheese pizza and a bottle of vodka. I don’t call or speak to anyone, though I do record my book’s notes into the Voice Memo app on my iPhone. Then I sit down to write. It’s like coming home.
*For further information and to find a Vipassana centre, go to www.dhamma.org.
A version of this essay was first published in the Saturday Literary Review in The Daily Star on 8 August 2015.
“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” — Khalil Gibran
“When I am practising self-observation I also take time to notice what I call post-rationalisation, which could also be called self-justification. This describes the way we have of mentally ‘tidying up’ what is going on inside and outside of ourselves, often coming up with convenient explanations which may be actually nonsense, to justify our behaviour.” Read about this and other interesting insights in How To Stay Sane by Philippa Perry, from the School of Life series.
“If you’re angry and resentful it’s like being part of a chain reaction; forgiveness puts a stop to anger, ill-will and a desire for revenge.” Follow the Dalai Lama on Twitter to get a regular dose of benevolent truisms about humanity.
I paid for a year’s worth of guided meditation by Headspace via their app and used it for… three days. I now prefer the short technique taught by Prieti at THAC I wrote about here. Nevertheless, I admire the founder of Headspace, Andy Puddicombe, who gave a TED talk, All It Takes Is 10 Mindful Minutes: