On Vipassana

Meditation hall

I open my eyes at the first clanging of the gong at 4am.

Somehow, even though I’ve had almost no sleep, I am wide-awake. The gong clangs again, a bit louder this time. I turn on the light and begin stretching.

The man in the bed beside mine stirs and pulls the sheet over his head. Although we’ve been staying in the same small room together for four days, we’ve yet to say a single word to each other. We haven’t even made eye contact. This isn’t due to rudeness or unintelligibility, but that we’ve promised to adhere to “Noble Silence” during this 11-day Vipassana meditation retreat, “Noble Silence” here meaning no communication whatsoever – verbal or nonverbal (hence no eye contact).

When I’ve finished my stretches I wrap myself in a woolen shawl and stroll through the darkness barefoot across the cool stone path towards the meditation hall, where the other meditators are slowly beginning to arrive wrapped in white sheets, floating drowsily across the room towards their meditation pillows, half-awake, half still dreaming.

The room is vast and austere, like a giant, empty theatre with meditation pillows spread schematically across the floor.

I find my pillow in the blurry darkness and sit there until the room is full, with over 200 people sitting there in the dark silence, some hacking, some groaning, some farting or sighing. They come from all around the world, but are mostly Nepalis from Kathmandu.

The meditation music begins – a very groggy old man chanting in Pali, telling us over the loudspeakers in Hindi and English that the meditation has begun.

I sit up, tie my legs in half-lotus, ease my eyelids until light but no forms bleed through, petal my fingers atop my lap, and watch as everything fades away for about thirty seconds.

It doesn’t take long before concerns begin rising to mind, distant concerns such as my trek to Everest Base Camp coming up next week. And cravings, cravings for sex or food or other little comforts. But each time my mind drifts, I bring it back to what we’re supposed to be focused on: our noses – more specifically the very tips of our noses, just inside the right nostril, an area the size of a pinprick.

I devote all of my attention to this little area, attempting to block everything else out. I feel my breath pass over the little area on the way out, blowing around my mustache hairs, and then back into my head, over and over and over again. I breathe in, I breathe out, but I do not think about breathing in and out. I just do it, feeling the breath passing over the tip of my right nostril, over my mustache hairs.

This goes remarkably well for awhile, so well that I begin to think, “Look at how well I am meditating. I am totally serene, utterly focused on that area inside my right nostril.”

I imagine myself walking around the retreat later that afternoon, radiantly calm, an accomplished meditator, so accomplished that the other meditators have begun to take notice and look up to me as a sort of role-model. But such admiration does not excite me. I simply walk past them with my head bowed, engrossed in meditation.

I realize suddenly that I’ve become lost in my imagination again and bring my mind back to my right nostril, breathing in, breathing out, in and out, in, out.

And then the cravings begin again, the visions of myself engaging in activities I’ll never realize, fears, sometimes just random distractions that I fixate on, like the sound of the meditator to my left scratching or whether the package I mailed to the US weeks ago will ever arrive.

Since I arrived to this retreat, every morning has begun like this. The gong clang at 4am, the ghoulish arrival of the other meditators, the two-hour meditation session in complete silence from 430am to 630am. And it will go on for many days more…

I bring my mind back to my right nostril. I breathe in. I breathe out. I fall asleep and wake up startled, having no idea where I am, and then I meditate until I become distracted again.

I should note that throughout this struggle there have been moments, sometimes up to a half-hour, during which I vanish completely and am only that one point in my right nostril, just floating there, a millimeter of moist skin just floating there in a vast expanse of tingling space.

I suddenly jolt back into the room when at 6:20 the old man’s croaky voice begins chanting again through the loudspeaker – a soothing, celebratory chant. I congratulate myself on making it through another morning session, then, when the chanting ends, jump up and hurry towards the dining hall for breakfast.

When I arrive there are already people waiting in line.

For some reason I have a slight antagonism towards these people. How did they get there so quickly? I rushed hungrily out of the room as soon as the meditation was over and yet these people still beat me, obviously having left the meditation hall before the meditation was even over.

I grab my plate and think about how silly it is to be upset over such a thing. I’ll get my food, same as everyone else. No reason to be harried. I make my way along the line, holding out my metal trey as various men slop various souplike curries onto it. The man at the end of the line hands me a piece of bread and a steaming metal cup of chai and I take a seat on the hard stone floor with the other male meditators. I eat my meal in silence,  just like everyone else, not even looking up from my plate.

After breakfast I wash my dishes and return to my room to do a bit more stretching.

The moment we entered this facility all of our possessions were confiscated except for our sandals. This included computers, books, phones and any writing materials. The idea is to have us stay utterly focused on the task at hand: penetrating deeply into ourselves through Vipassana meditation, cutting away any external distractions, including any urge to record what we are experiencing on paper.

Nonetheless I make a few marks in my notebook, a few random words to remind me of different thoughts that have occurred to me during the morning meditation.

Afterwards, because there is nothing else to do, I stroll.

As we are not allowed the leave the small, fenced-in premises, I don’t stroll very far. In fact I walk in a figure 8 around the various residential buildings. At first I just walk, barefoot, around and around, looking at the vegetation, looking at monkeys snacking on flowers in the trees, trying not to be afraid of or even acknowledge them when they leap suddenly onto the path and knuckle by me with seemingly malicious intent.

I look at the faces of the silent men as I stroll past them, men from all over the world just sitting there, staring down at the ground or looking at their fingernails, or staring at me, or staring at nothing at all.

Surprisingly, I am the only one strolling. I stroll with a shawl thrown around my shoulders and a keffiyeh wrapped around my head, feeling like some sort of wizened magi.

Released from meditation, my mind wanders everywhere. It wanders into my childhood and adolescence and through dozens of countries and homes, and then into the future, where it rampantly creates illusory scenarios in which I am always protagonist and hero. And then I realize I’m supposed to be doing strolling meditation and bring it back down to the present by staring straight down and focusing entirely on the sensations on the soles of my feet, trying to feel the texture of the stone path and the subtle differences in temperature from one type of stone to another. And then I extend these observations to my entire body, feeling every little centimeter of it, the wind on the surface of my wrists, the sun rays on my neck, the cool stones beneath my feet, the leaves of grass that occasionally brush my ankles.

At 1pm the gong sounds, and we file back into the meditation hall.

For the next four hours we will meditate continuously, with only small five minute breaks every hour and a half. During this time we are encouraged not to move, not even to scratch or to shift our spines, regardless of whatever aches we might be experiencing.

So I sit there, my entire being focused on the tip of my nostril, breathing in and out, in and out, until a fly lands on my nose.

My immediate urge is to annihilate it somehow. We had, however, taken an oath to kill no sentient beings during the entirety of the ten-day retreat, and this specifically included flies. So I sit there absolutely motionless as the fly sits there on my nose. It is so close I can see it rubbing its hairy little legs together, then licking them with its hideous little palpus and reaching down to collect more oil off my nose.

I twitch my nose and it flies away for a second and lands again. I twitch again with the same result. Okay, I think, perhaps I can view this as a test of my meditative powers. I will sit here motionless and outlast the fly. But now it is crawling up to the bridge of my nose and onto my upper lip, its ticklish little feet padding along towards the side of my mouth.

I am trembling inside, but hold still, trying to ignore it, trying to focus my entire being on the tip of my right nostril.

Then another fly lands on my eyelid.

I want to cry. I twitch, and both flies leap up and land again.

The one on my lip begins feeling its way around towards the tip of my nostril, right were I am focusing all my attention. He just sits there for a moment, mocking me. In a way the presence of his little feet right on the spot I am supposed to be focusing on helps a little, as I cannot ignore the patting of his little feelers around the moist interior of my nose, holding fast to my nose hairs to avoid being sucked in or blown out.

But then he crawls inside.

Horrified, I blow two hard tusks of air from my nostrils and shake my head, slapping my face and drawing the attention of the meditation monitor at the front of the room, who looks at me disapprovingly. But the fly is still holding on somewhere near my eyeballs, and when I snort in, I feel him vanish down my throat.

After an hour and a half the first five-minute break comes, and we file out like zombies emerging from a cave. The daylight is blinding at first, but after my eyes adjust the world’s colors seem to have taken on deeper meanings. Having spent nearly the entire morning seated in soundless meditative darkness, the sounds and colors are exotic and brilliant. The greens are more green, the browns more brown. The sky is deeper blue than it’s ever been.

After what seems like mere seconds the gong sounds, and we carry our wandering minds back into the meditation hall to sit and close our eyes and return to our myriad interior worlds.

Given the deeply personal nature of the things I’m struggling with internally, I begin to wonder about the other meditators, about their fears and desires and how different our lives and visions must be, and what they must be struggling with.

As mentioned earlier, most of them are Nepali, at least on the men’s side (the retreat is segregated by sex). These men are no doubt middle-class working men. Most of them look like shopkeepers of some sort, though they very well could be anything – government officials, traders, journalists, criminals. But given that I can only formulate an idea of their character by means of cursory glances, it is interesting to see how my mind makes judgments about them based solely on the sort of energy I believe them to be emitting.

The foreigner meditators are much easier to wrap up in concepts, being more familiar to my experience. There were, for instance, during the first few days, men who I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt were Russian – three brawny, blonde, butter-faced Russians who looked like they’d been condemned to meditation camp after having lost a bet. Their meditation pillows were near mine and I would sometimes ease my eyelids open and watch them struggling to sit still. I guess it made me feel good about myself, superior in some way, to watch other foreigners struggle. I was struggling too, but for me it was an internal battle. External observers on the other side of the room might only see a placid face, a body in semi-perfect meditation posture, and know nothing of the interior Shakespearean dramas taking place each time a fly landed on me.

But the Russians were fun to watch. I watched them silently and motionlessly with my one eased-open eye. I watched how they struggled to cross their legs and sit on the floor, how they moved every few minutes into a new position, or just leaned back on their arms, eyes open, watching the other meditators, seemingly annoyed, and then get up and walk outside for a few minutes before returning to do it all over again. When I observed them outside during the breaks, their entire being seemed to permeate doubt and a desire to be elsewhere.

They had only made it three days. Their cushions now sit unoccupied a few feet away.

Realizing my mind has strayed, I pull it back into the meditation, into the little sliver of skin inside my right nostril, feeling my soft humid breath slide over it on its way out, and slide over it on its way back in.

There are also men I think are no doubt German, and there’s a furry little man whom I’ve convinced myself is from Idaho. These and others have been accumulating imaginary properties in my mind. Some I seem to respect due to the lordliness of their walk, especially the Sikhs, with their regal beards and turbans. Others I feel negativity towards without reason. This includes one of the volunteer helpers. Even though he has sacrificed ten days of his life to serve wretches like myself, I still have developed an inexplicable antagonism towards him. I think it is based on a look he gave me the first day when he saw me stretching in the courtyard. The look seemed to communicate disapproval, condemning me, from then on, to feel self-conscious about stretching in public. As it is impossible to garner any information about him or his life, I have hardened the shell of my judgment around him without reason, and even though I realize how absurd this is, it’s still difficult to look at him without feeling a little angry.

I also find myself, at times, suspicious of the other men’s motives. What are they doing here? Where did they come from? Were they brainwashed into this? Was I brainwashed into this? Is it a religious thing for them, or, like me, are they searching for something that cannot be expressed in words?

At times they disgust me for some reason, but only for mere moments as some ancient resentment oozes its way out of my shadowy interior. Afterwards my thoughts often pendulum to the other extreme, to a selfless love for everyone in the room, and all of mankind, whom I suddenly feel at one with.

Thus my internal monologue chatters on, and I grab hold of it and bring my attention back to the tip of my nose, where it remains for another few minutes before wandering off again.

At 3pm we are formally requested to be taught the Vipassana meditation technique, and the teaching commences forthwith.

Beginning at the crown, we are told to pass a ring of awareness down through the body, traversing each part simultaneously and symmetrically, searching for subtle sensations, attempting to explicitly train the mind to remain detached from the sensations by mentally understanding their transient nature. We are told that as the mind becomes unattached and equanimous towards all sensory experience, we will experience the non-sensory, timeless bliss that leads to liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

I do this until 5pm, at which time we are served tea and biscuits, i.e dinner.

We have two hours of meditation left until lights out, and six days remaining until we are allowed to speak again. When the gong clangs, I return to my meditation pillow and close my eyes.

Read in Bootsnall

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