Author’s note: This is part 1 of a series. It is based on my experiences and observations of Vipassana and does not encompass every aspect of the practice. It is not religious. It is solely reflective of me and my mind. That being said, it contains foul language and is slightly offensive.
And by buddha I mean body. soul. mind. back. chest. ass. ankle. ear. nose. I just finished a 10-day Vipassana (sounds like the pass as in passion) meditation retreat in Phitsanulok, Thailand. I knew the retreat would be hard, but I didn’t know it would be painful. And by painful, I mean blood searing torture.
Actually, it was kind of like prison. Except that prisoners can talk, write, listen to music, exercise, swat a mosquito, read a book and eat past noon. (Well at least from what I’ve seen on Orange is the New Black.)
Here, there were rules posted on every wall. There were Dhamma servers (volunteers) watching my every move to ensure I didn’t break one of the five precepts. The entire 10 days was spent in Noble Silence. No distractions to be had from the outside world.
We could meditate in the meditation hall, our room or our cell. (Yes, there were cells.) We could hand wash our clothes and mindfully walk (not run) along a small, circular path. We could eat, sleep and bathe. We could brush our teeth as often as we wanted, which worked out to be about 5 times a day.
And we could observe. Observe the body, the mind. the laws of nature. the intense pain in my right knee and the subtle tickle behind my left ear. And observe I did.
On Day 1 – I observed my dreams as I slept through the 4:30-6:30 a.m. meditation. Well, I actually overslept until 5 a.m. but felt guilty enough that I figured I would just meditate in my room until breakfast and if anybody asked I would say I chose to do so in my room as the schedule board said I could. Then I remembered no one could talk so meditating in my room quickly became a snooze-fest while sitting upright – facing the wall.
Then came breakfast, some sort of vegan vegetable rice/noodle dish, followed by 8 a.m. group meditation for an hour. During this hour, I was to observe the sensation of breathing in and out of my nose, naturally. What I actually felt was the circulation being cut off from my legs as my entire lower body went numb. ‘Oh shit,” I thought to myself, “this is going to be a long 10 days.”
But after an hour or so of adjusting positions and trying to stay aware of my breath – there were only two more hours of meditation left before dinner. At 11 a.m. (I’m not joking.) At dinner, my Dhamma server informed me that I was to see my teacher at 12 p.m.
The word “fuck” repeatedly raced through my head. They had caught me. I was going to get kicked out. Luckily, I had an hour to generate as much anxiety as possible before I met with him. This was not quite the positive start I had envisioned in my head.
When my sitting cover was placed in front of the teacher’s assistant, he calmly looked at me and warmly and genuinely smiled. Without any hesitation, he blurted out -“So how severe was your depression?”
Oh god. I was completely caught off guard. My voice was calm as I managed to say, “no medicine, just talking. It was OK.” But my eyes said it all. He warned me that this kind of meditation goes deep and brings a lot to the surface. He explained it was best to just accept the thoughts that arose and any sensations. Just acknowledge the and let them pass. After two minutes, he nodded. We were done. I left the meditation hall and went back to my room. I cried – I had no idea what to expect after that conversation but I had a feeling shit was about to get real.
On Day 2 – I observed nature, the people around me, and my own mind. For some reason a lot of Thai people had resting bitch face. Here, you also weren’t allowed to make eye contact with anyone, but every time I looked up someone was staring at me like I was a fat girl running for prom queen. Wow. And here I thought meditators and Buddhists were suppose to be accepting and non-judging. Even the lady monks (also known as nuns but I prefer lady monks) had bitchy looks on their shaved heads!
I was probably the most stared at person in the room. Well, I take that back. The most stared at person in the room was a 6-foot-tall girl from Switzerland with dreadlocks and noticeably visible tattoos. Conveniently, her assigned cushion was directly behind me. So by default, I was the most stared at person in the room (and the only blonde). Outside of the hall, her two friends were probably next, but only because they only looked like they were up to no good.
After the 5 p.m. tea time – which was tea and fruit for new students – two of the five lady monks did not return to their cushions. I tried to convince myself that they also overslept, after all we’re all human. But I knew deep down it had to be something else – maybe Buddha had come to them in the last meditation and they needed to plan a birthday party for someone? Or they forgot to turn of the rice cooker and he told them it was going to catch on fire? I’m not sure, but it was definitely one of their duties, whatever the reason.
At the evening discourse, we were told we would start practicing Vipassana tomorrow. Ummmm… say what? I thought we had been! Apparently the foot numbing and observing small sensations was just an exercise to sharpen the mind, the real shit we would be taught the following evening. Cool, Buddha. Real fucking cool.
After the news broke, I was tired and had some time to kill (well, actually i couldn’t kill anything according to the precepts but you get the gist) so as I waited outside for the final meditation I invented a game called “Spot the geckos.” Let me explain, it’s super complicated.
On almost every wall or ceiling or pole or random place in this campground you could see one or more geckos at any given time. Not to mention a million ants, birds, snakes, frogs, bees. But the little geckos were invading the place. So the object of the game was to see how many geckos I could spot without seeing an uninhabited space. It blew my mind more than the meditation had. So far.
Tomorrow, I was going to learn Vipassana. Whatever the fuck that meant.