I am laying on a wooden bench using the course pamphlet to block the sun from blinding me. Habitually, I begin reading it.
“Progress toward the ultimate goal of liberation from all suffering”
“May the glow of Dharma on your faces attract more and more suffering people to this path of real happiness”
“Release yourself from the bondages of all your miseries”
I glower at the pretentious phrases. I can hear everyone chattering a hundred metres away, an effort to smoothly transition back into society after 10 days of silence. Though I consider myself an extrovert, I have no interest in people today. I just want to get out of here.
What is “real happiness”? Is the rest of the world’s happiness flimsy because they don’t follow the oh so righteous path of Dharma? I shouldn’t be so disrespectful–after all, Vipassana courses are free and all these people are donating their time to help free me of my “mental shackles.” But I can’t shrug off the reality that for the last week I have been racking my brain and have arrived at no final destination, no profound moments of clarity or wisdom; nothing. It takes a lot to make me angry as I’m usually the one biting down a smile when I get yelled at but now I just feel like a static angry thundercloud, a harrowing blank slate, a striking contrast from the upbeat teenager who was ready to tackle the world when she entered this seductive red dot of isolation two weeks ago.
The 10 Days
At 18, I’m the youngest participant in the course and I’m relieved to find my roommate isn’t much older, judging from the buttons decorating her Led Zeppelin bag and indie patterned trousers. We barely have a chance to exchange names before noble silence-silence of the body, speech, and mind- is enacted. Along with no communication of any sort, the code of discipline includes segregation of men and women, no physical contact, no exercising, no electronics, and no music, reading or writing.
That doesn’t leave us with much to do besides meditate. We get up at 4:30AM, meditate 10 hours a day with breaks and are back in bed by 10:30PM. Contact with the outside world is forbidden; for 10 days we are off the map. The objective is to make you feel like you are in total isolation. I’m over the thrill of being in a new environment by the second day and I leave the night meditation only to come back to an empty room. The bed opposite of mine has been neatly made and there is no trace that someone was ever there.
For the first three days, we are instructed to focus simply on our breathing and to search for sensations surrounding the nostril area. The complete technique would be long and tedious to explain and frankly, one has to experience it for themselves to fully understand it. Not to mention, meditation is a personal spiritual journey, therefore everyone experiences it differently so don’t just take my word for it.
The main theory of Vipassana meditation revolves around annihilating cravings and aversions, the so called roots of mental defilements. Certain sensations are desirable, like slight tingles and others you’d want to avert, like an aching back. Cravings and aversions are a bottomless pit so we can either learn to control them, by letting the sensations pass over us without moving, or continue to allow them to control us. If you do this long enough, you slowly erase habit patterns of blind reactions. So there I was, trying not to pay attention to the fact that I was willingly sitting in a dark closet chiseling away at layers of my conscious mind in an effort to “cleanse myself”.
I can’t get my mind to shut up. I’m thinking of home during meditation hours, of my friends, of food, of sex. I get increasingly agitated that I cannot do such an easy task and that something that is so inherently mine, my own mind, is out of control. I take walks around the tiny enclosure to calm down but the forest is a pitiful sight; a bunch of dead trees and fallen branches, remnants of an ice storm, are scattered everywhere.
At home, I’ve always been somewhat of an insomniac, sleeping three hours a night and catching the occasional shuteye on public transit. I usually waste away the hours reading or watching videos but here, there’s nothing to do but stare at the stippled ceiling and try to keep a firm grip on my sanity. I have a hard time tuning my sensation radar off-when I put my ear to the pillow, my heartbeat sounds like a loud beating drum and it keeps me up. The days go by pretty quickly but the nights are so freaking long.
But there’s always a silver lining. Aches and pains dull over the hour once you move beyond the alarm system of your mind, the whole “oh my god I can’t take this anymore” and breakdown the pain from throbbing to vibrating. It eventually loses its power to cause you to react and you no longer have to coax yourself into not moving by saying “this shits impermanent so chin up sweetheart!” On Day 6, it’s my 19th birthday and I’m thankful nobody knows because I’ve always disliked birthday attention. I enter the kitchen and am overjoyed they have my favorite food, sweet potato fries, for lunch that day. I chow down silently on the corner table beside the window.
By Day 7, I’m convinced I’ve joined a cult. The messages get increasingly dogmatic as they imply that continuously practicing Vipassana is the only way to get rid of all suffering. I purposely zone out during most of the lectures on how to be a pious being and live a life free of suffering because I’m not sure I want that. The teacher stresses how universal and scientific the technique is and proclaims that it’s not religious. Yet he spends a lot of time putting down other faiths in order to build up his own.
Once the flaws become apparent, I begin to question everything. Is every conclusion I come to while meditating even valid considering it’s induced by manipulating the mind? Is the technique not working because my chakras are blocked? Am I participating in this course to feed my ego? Is my ego making me want to run away? Am I confusing lack of discipline for a distaste of authority? I deal with a train wreck of thoughts during each meditation and most days, I’m left feeling worse than when I began.
Soon enough, I find the only thing keeping me here is a decision I made because I thought “well, why not?” If it wasn’t for my stubbornness and me not wanting to hear my parents to say “I told you so” after spending hours convincing them I’m not susceptible to brainwashing, I would’ve packed my bags and left long ago. But my gut tells me that something will be wrong with me for quite a while if I leave like that. I feel like an oozing, dripping wound and I can’t enter my house like this. It would make the floor all messy.
I’m on the wooden bench and the questions that have been knocking on the door have finally managed to break it down. Is anyone even happy living a balanced life? The way I’ve always seen it, you got to have those rock bottoms to have the sky highs. And please don’t try to sell me that someone’s vibrations can emit “good will for all beings”. Your actions do that. I keep reading through the pamphlet and clutch onto my disbelief and anger tightly –they have failed into turning me into a cyborg and I figure it’s time to get the hell out of here.
The supervisor isn’t letting me leave. She hands me extra strength Tylenols and a hot water pack for my supposed period cramps. The waterworks don’t rattle her-she has seen this all before. I know it’s just a few more hours and I’ll be home tomorrow morning but I was over this whole fiasco by Day 3 and I no longer have anything to prove to myself. She continues to speak and manages to twist me staying into some sort of grand obstacle I have to face in order to show myself that I don’t always have to allow my emotions to prevail in my decision making. I go back into my room collapse on the bed face first causing a nosebleed and there I sit, crying while holding my nose closed and it’s a cringe-worthy scene. I hate that I wasted my time here and learnt nothing besides to trust my instincts. I shouldn’t make rash decisions just to get away from suburbia. And most importantly, god knows how I’m going to spend one more night staring at that goddamn ceiling.
After that pitiful cry and realizing that whether I like it or not I’m going to have to stay, I leave my room in an effort to distract myself with small talk. People have this uncanny knack of pulling you up even when you’ve made yourself comfortable in self-pity. I slowly begin to realize that everyone had a difficult time, that they are still processing the experience and nobody seems like an overwhelmingly “good person”, whatever the fuck that means.
I’m in the lunch line and a lady who’s about 50, wearing a checkered vest and sporting a pixie cut, asks me what I thought of the course. I voice my complaints about them trying to turn people into timid cyborgs who don’t chase life’s pleasures and her reply resonates. “I think you are still allowed to have and fully savor the highs of life but know that you shouldn’t get attached to them because they are impermanent” she says.
And then it hits me. Because once you start making decisions based on cravings and aversions for certain feelings, you automatically give them control over you. They are almost like instant gratifications and they just lead you further astray from what you desire in the long run. Vipassana is simply a tool that helps you live a life of action, not reaction.
But boy, does it also fuck with your head. Since it’s a practice two hours a day or not at all kind of deal, I decide to go with the latter. Nonetheless, lessons have still been etched into me. I thought I always had a strong grasp on impermanence. Bad breakups entailed swallowing 10 cupcakes and then I’m over it. As someone who has hidden under a tough exterior for most of her life, it took me a while to learn that crying is okay. Lashing out in realistic wavelengths is okay because that’s how we heal and grow. I imagined a “truly liberated person” to resemble a boring ol’ plain Jane, never feeling extremes and always reacting in a well thought out manner. But you will always feel immensely, you have no choice when it comes to that. All you can hope to do is react without causing damage to yourself. Condition your reactions and soon enough, volatile and fickle feelings will dissipate. Jane can still make stupid decisions but she’s more aware they are stupid decisions (which just adds to the novelty of it, if you ask me).
Realizing that everything comes down to a choice, even our feelings, is liberating. Not the type of freedom marketed by democratic governments or capitalism but an inner freedom of not being controlled by fears, cravings and aversions. Vipassana uses the context of your body to tap into universal truths and slowly, you begin to realize that within you is everything you need.
And now it’s 11:55 PM at the end of Day 10 and I’ve just about finished scribbling this onto scrap paper I found in the kitchen. I wanted to get it all down tonight while I’m still here because I know a couple days from now when I’m back in the comforts of home and have built some distance from this experience, I’ll glorify it. I’ll forget how miserable and angry I was here and implant some meaning into these lengthy 10 days to justify the hell I went through, to convince myself that my time wasn’t wasted. Maybe I’m just bitter but I don’t want to forget how much this sucked. Now excuse me while I glare at this stupid ceiling one last time.