Part Two: Diary Of A Mad Meditator

A 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat with Noble Silence, 4 a.m. starts and 10 hours of meditation daily was never going to be easy, but combining it with communal living and random explosions probably made it even harder.
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a young woman doing yoga on...
a young woman doing yoga on...

My experience of doing a Vipassana course as taught by SN Goenka. The goal of Vipassana is to "purify the mind, to eliminate the tensions and negativities that make us miserable." Read part one of this story here.

A 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat with Noble Silence, 4 a.m. starts and 10 hours of meditation daily was never going to be easy, but combining it with communal living and random explosions probably made it even harder.

The literature referred to my "room," but I shared an airless dormitory with 15 other people -- until two had a hissy fit and left. The course started just after Chinese New Year (CNY), and as I was on Penang, a Malaysian tropical island with a large Chinese population, that meant firecrackers more or less constantly. The center was located on Penang Hill, with superb views of the valley, and incredible acoustics that amplified every car alarm, detonation and drunken party song.

Day One
Unbelievably hot and cranky. Fireworks kept me awake, then at 1:30 a.m. a car alarm woke me and I couldn't sleep again. Lying there sweating, I waited for the bell at 4 a.m., a time better suited to embracing oblivion than searching for enlightenment. The meditation hall at 4:30 a.m. was even more sauna-like than the dorm, although some students huddled in blankets. Maybe they were not people, but cold-blooded monster pods from outer space waiting to hatch.

I had a headache from lack of sleep. During an interview with the teacher, I tried to explain about the heat but he was more concerned about my drinking beer twice in the previous month. "You take alcohol daily?" he rumbled. Er, no. He seemed disappointed that I was not on any medication. I didn't need drugs -- just ventilation.

The first orientation evening Goenka (via DVD) spoke of a special tool we have for learning this technique: desperation. Now I realized I misheard, he meant respiration. As I struggled to stay awake, I thought my tool was a combination of the two. I am good at cross-legged sitting, but not 10 hours of it in one day. The ankle I broke 15 years ago was not happy. My right knee was not happy. The intersections of my legs and torso were wailing, my gut was complaining, and my back and shoulders were definitely upset.

Goenka said the start of the course is difficult. He's not wrong.

Day Two
More CNY crackers, but I slept a bit more. We meditated, concentrating on the breath. I have meditated with mantras and visualizations, but I like this simple method the best. Meditation is a slippery mystery to me most of the time, but I felt like I was getting a grip on it.

Day Three
Cranky again and just about everything was irritating me. The vegetarian food was good, but in spite of (or because of?) the brown rice, my bowels went on strike and my gut pain was clamoring for more attention. It's a good thing I couldn't talk to my fellow students because I'd have been telling them off for making too much noise. Some of them had very unattractive habits for dealing with phlegm. One woman had a nose problem and honked like a car horn.

Despite being told laundry facilities were limited, all they seemed to care about was washing. All you heard at break times was the bathroom/laundry door slamming, bucket action and clothes being tortured with scrubbing brushes.

I got rid of a mat and eased the weight on my ankle by putting more on my fleshy bottom. At last a use for it.

Day Four
Vipassana Day! This meant a special two-hour sitting session for learning the actual technique: experiencing reality by monitoring the changing sensations of the body and not reacting to them. By letting sensations arise and pass we could "eradicate negativities." Not reacting meant breaking habits of aversion and craving, a big source of unhappiness.

Goenka said not to worry if there were no sensations but I had more than I could handle. The pain in my legs throbbed, but at least that stopped me falling asleep. Afterwards I lay on the bed in my "cell" (and it was cell-like, a space of about six feet by eight feet with a curtain around it), my body pulsing with relief as the sounds of laundry washed over me.

Then there was a strange noise. Oh ... It was the sound of a woman screaming abuse. Someone had cracked. We were not supposed to talk, but my neighbor and I got the giggles. She was irritated too. "What is with all the washing?" she asked. I shrugged. "They must be doing shifts in a coal mine or a diesel engine workshop that we don't know about."

Day Five
Hot. Abdomen was a tight, crampy drum. Students were chatting and reading. What did they think this was? A holiday resort for people who love washing clothes in buckets? Fireworks at 1 a.m., fireworks at 5 a.m. I was fed up with CNY.

We do adhitthana, or strong sitting position, for an hour three times a day. It was tough and I kept nodding off. I dreamed I was feeding someone's guide dog, then I was in an episode of Grey's Anatomy.

Princess, who wafted about in a series of white linen ensembles, used most of my ayurvedic soap to wash her clothes. I considered using her Chanel exfoliation creme on my feet.

Day Six
Hot. Back hurt. Kept falling asleep. Did not love the sound of phlegm in the morning. One word for you people: Kleenex.

Day Seven
So hot. I was almost welcoming the pain as I am results-oriented and not reacting to it seemed productive. I managed to sit still for an hour. Hurray. An older woman incapable of flushing the toilet wandered the bathroom topless and rinsed her dentures in the dining room.

That evening I realized I had addictions to craving and aversion. There are things I desired too adamantly, and I enjoyed railing against things that bother me too much. Hmmm.

Day Eight
Sweat dripped off my chin but sitting for an hour was much, much easier. Pain came and went -- with equanimity.

Day Nine
Final day for serious work. I retained my equanimity even when others rummaged about or clipped their toenails in meditation time. If nothing else, this was a triumph. Met big pain with what I think was complete equilibrium and felt very cheerful afterwards.

Day 10
Hell is still other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre would say, but I have shifted to pitying them for their ignorance rather than being enraged.

Back in the real world I found things that normally set me off were not nearly as aggravating. Now I am aware of this habit of reacting I can contain it. Of course I need to keep working on it, and I am far from enlightened, but I can definitely feel the difference.