A little over two weeks ago, I filled my bag with clothes a few sizes too big, said goodbye to my partner, and headed out the door to what I thought would be an intense, but worthwhile eleven-day silent meditation retreat. Without meaning to surrender to hyperbole, the coming days were some of the worst I’ve ever experienced. In the first of a new investigative ‘Trying’ series, here’s what I learnt.
I arrived in a group of three, having shared a ride from the airport. The two other meditators were old hats, on their second and fourth Vipassanā retreats.
‘Can you move if you’re uncomfortable? Can I go to the bathroom? What’s the food like? Is it good?’
I had a lot of questions, and they answered them all with the warmth of the experienced to the uninitiated.
‘Yes, you can. There is an hour of the day where they ask you not to move. But it’s okay at other times.’
‘Yes, but lower your water intake.’
‘It’s good, simple. Not like the food in Nepal. Toast and fruit and so on.’
I was relieved. When we got to the dharma centre, I borrowed a phone and called Grant to tell him I’d got there safely, and that it looked like things were going to better than I thought originally. We rushed an exchange of ‘I love you,’ and I returned the phone. I then handed my own in to be kept locked away in a metal chest. You are not allowed any electronic devices on the retreat.
I asked the women’s manager if I was allowed to keep my medication for a chronic pain condition. I had disclosed my need for them with my application, but I was anxious about it, and was told through subsequent correspondence with a course organiser to bring it up on registration.
‘You’ll have to see the teacher,’ she said. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but okay.
I waited in the small registration area and prepped a speech. I couldn’t stay without my medication, of that I was sure. But I was nervous. After a few minutes a man opened the door of an office and stepped out, the women’s manager gestured to me and the man turned to look.
‘Come in, come in.’ I’m Colin (name changed).’
He was a friendly, brisk man of short stature that looked like he otherwise spent his time selling quality second-hand boats to good people. I made to shake his hand but he pulled away from me.
‘I can’t, sorry, it’s the rules,’ he said while putting up his hands to say ‘I don’t make them.’ Physical contact with anyone is forbidden on dharma property.
Colin was our designated course teacher, although he was technically only the assistant teacher. S.N. Goenka was our primary teacher - a famous guru of Burmese-Indian origin. It would be his theories we’d be practicing over the next ten days, with an hour-long discourse every evening. More on that later.
‘What can I do for you?’
I asked him about my medication. He told that I could ‘of course’ keep taking my medication, in a way that made it sound like he was angry that anyone had lead me to believe otherwise. I asked him about another injury - one that made it necessary for me to keep my left leg straightened if sitting for longer than a few minutes. He waved off my anxiety, ‘We’re not a torture chamber.’
I was welcome to move my leg freely, and he would tell the manager that I needed a seated space on the side of the hall, allowing for more room. I was satiated. Things wouldn’t be so bad, I guessed. I recalled something I’d heard earlier from a veteran attendee, ‘They’re not so strict here. You can take breaks.’
I grabbed my bag heavy with bedding, and crossed the threshold between the registration office and the women’s section, moving through a space that would from 7pm be restricted to me - the men’s section. Gender binaries are fully entrenched in Vipassanā, supposedly to curb temptation.
(This short-sightedness is a fairly tragic part of many religious practices. And believe me, Vipassanā is a meditation deeply steeped in Buddhist theology. After I got back from the course, I began to look-up people who had had similar experiences to mine. They, too, thought Vipassanā anything but secular. Even among apologists, the same sentiment rings true - Vipassanā is an evangelical-type branch of Buddhism.)
I arrived at my room and opened the door. A woman on the bottom half of a bunk bed woke up abruptly, got up to mumble an introduction, and went back to sleep. I thought it would be rude to unpack while she tried to nap, so I went out to explore the grounds. The centre was a rural property, set against mountains of orange rock, overlooking the green pastures of the surrounding farmland. Rain had come, and you could tell. Dams swelled across your eye-line.
I quickly made note of all the signs that read ‘COURSE BOUNDARY’ or ‘FEMALE BOUNDARY’ in relaxed, Terminus-like lettering. They made the expansive property shrink considerably. Suddenly there didn’t seem like many places I could walk freely. I went down a dusty path that opened into a glen, with pastel orange building set to its side. I sat down on a smooth piece of rock, and with horror, realised that I was already bored.
I had come to the retreat with a yearning for stillness. The year had worn on me, and I had began mentally checking-out of all conversations; difficulty keeping enthusiasm for friendships. I was exhausted. Ten days of quiet seemed like bliss.
But here I was, drawing shapes in the sand - I’m serious - wondering if I was violating the rules even then, it dawning on me how tough this was really going to be. Then I saw it; a big tortoise, well over 30cm in diameter. It was pottering a little way away from me, clearly about to cross my path. It held a small green leaf in its mouth, and I cooed at its rough little feet making their way across rock and wood. Slowly and assuredly, the tortoise took its prize home. I took it as a sign that if I too took my time, working persistently, I would get my reward. I should instead have taken it as a sign that the coming days would be filled with much toil for little payoff. For now, I embraced optimism.
A group of women came strolling past, and I jumped up, excited to join the soothing babble. ‘Guys I don’t think I can do this,’ I laughed. Two of the women stopped in their tracks. One turned to me, nervous and delightful, ‘Ek dink ek kan dit ook nie doen nie.’ She reminded me a lot of my mom - something that sparked an instant kinship, although I thought it best to keep this to myself. The other woman launched into a pep, ‘Just look at the trees, look at the leaves blowing. You can’t get bored if you do that.’
I was grateful, but unconvinced. She didn’t look like she, as I, spent her every waking moment entertained by strangers on the internet. Fuck. Just what the fuck was I thinking coming here? I breathed, trying to calm down.
The group were on their way to tea, being led by another veteran to the same orange building that hugged the glen. I went in with them, poured some dark tea and made a note of the layout of the room. The tables were nailed against the wall like shelving, white plastic chairs on the outside, turned to face the wall. It looked like it was designed by Jeremy Bentham. This decidedly institutional décor was to aid the maintenance of the course’s infamous Noble Silence - forbidding all communication between students.
I drank my tea and talked. My roommate walked in and we did proper introductions. I went to our room and unpacked my things. My roomie returned and we did a quick summary of our preferences. Will we keep the window open or closed? Closed if we weren’t in. What would we do if there was a spider? She would remove it. What would we do if there was a cat? I would remove it.
‘I’m grateful that you’re here. I’m actually scared of the dark.’ Instantly, all my spoiled annoyance at sharing a room (this was an unusual case at the center owing to a fuller-than-usual course) dissipated. I was here to help, it felt good.
A gong rang and we knew it was time to assemble in a section of the dining quarter’s that would later belong solely to the men. This was the last time we were together while allowed the ability to communicate. I saw a couple, man and woman, hug each other long and strong. The male manager explained again the five precepts of the course:
You cannot kill anything while at the course. So, the food would be served without meat, but milk and egg were included - clearly there’d been little update in the practice of this precept for a good while. As a vegan, the closest I came to breaking this law would be mosquitos and flies. There were a hell of a lot of both, but this you get over fairly quickly, as surprised as I was.
You can’t take what isn’t freely given. This precept was tested with me when on the first morning I saw one fore-thinking vegan had brought a milk-alternative to have in their coffee. I was sure they wouldn’t mind sharing, and was about to pour some into my coffee when I realised this was a) hella rude and b) breaking the second precept. I made do without.
You can’t practice sexual misconduct. What, exactly, this comprised of was a mystery. I took it to mean any sexual thoughts or actions that took place over the course, but the practical and psychological repercussions of this precept’s vague application are stunning. Did Vipassanā consider sex to be one of the things Goenka would later call ‘defilements’?
We had to refrain from telling lies. This was cool in theory, but as I would later find out, real honesty was discouraged.
We couldn’t drink, smoke, or take drugs. This was easy for me, but unlikely so for all. There was a screening process whereby you had the chance to disclose any addiction, presumably the course organisers judging from that whether it was safe for you to join and get benefit from the meditation. But this was a confused point, as Goenka later directly claimed in discourse on day six that Vipassanā could ‘cure’ many mental illnesses and all addicitons. Um?????? Pardon moi?????? But I get ahead of myself. This precept also seemed to include pain killers and other sedatives.
Apart from these five precepts, you also had to observe Noble Silence, as I’ve said before, and you had to withhold all ritualistic practices, including those of a religious nature. A rather tall ask coming from course that enforced a regimented timetable, and had many of its students bowing before the assistant teacher after group sittings. No rituals there, ey?
You also couldn’t wear tight or revealing clothing, in case you distracted other meditators. The only ‘distracting’ my shoulders would do is to rake in pity from everyone who had the misfortune to realised I’d gone through a depressive phase at the exact time I’d also gone through a tattoo phase. Still, I complied. Then there was reading and writing, neither of which were permitted. More of the rules here.
After this the manager asked us to pledge a promise to stay the full eleven days. To leave earlier would mean we made things ‘very difficult’ for ourselves on the outside. We were dismissed, and after a while were called to the meditation hall for the first time.
We grouped outside the female entrance, giggly. The gong rang out and our manager motioned for stillness. The silence had commenced. Fuck, shit, fuck. Once inside I saw that the hall looked and felt like a church that’s modernisation had come and then swiftly left. It made cold set in below the fat of your arm, and radiated something akin to- but not quite darkness; a strong black that had had its colour drained. Stark, yellowed walls gave a greater impression of fragility than the two TVs mounted to either side of the front of the hall, as if they’d take cement, hooks, and wire along with them if they’d fall.
A raised chair was fixed in the middle of the front wall - this is where Colin would sit. Because we’re all equal - but Colin’s more equal than us. The TVs were used to play pre-recorded lessons from Goenka, complemented with audio recordings for various sessions. We sat on designated seats. I didn’t get a special space in the end, and I never asked why. I just stuck the dodgy leg out ahead of me and hoped the surrounding students didn’t mind my elongated foot within their peripheral vision.
The first tape started playing, and an introduction splashed on the screen. I made note that the video was recorded in the same year I was born. Yikes.
Goenka went over the precepts, as we’d all done quite a lot by now. When he was done, we meditated for a short while, concentrating on our in-breath and out-breath, focusing on the triangular region made up of the nose, and the surface just below it and above the upper lip. That went well enough. When it was over, we shuffled back to our chalets. I hung back near my suitcase to try and indicate to my roommate that she could shower first. After a few mistaken, half-raised gestures, she took the hint, and I showered after. I lay awake in bed for hours, bracing. Below me, I heard a deep sigh.
DAYS ONE & TWO
The wake-up bell was rung at 4am by a volunteer old student, a kind Spanish-speaking woman in her late sixties who had travelled from another country to be here. It wasn’t hard to get up, really. The bell was h-e-l-l-a loud, and I was excited to get going. We brushed our teeth and made our way to the hall once the gong rang out at 4.30am.
There I sat for two hours, my back cramped in pain, clicking in places it hadn’t clicked in before. That was pretty nice, actually, although my physio will no doubt say otherwise. I tried hard to focus on the designated area, but my mind wasn’t having it. It felt like the meditation was too simple to wrangle my brain round to stillness. I got frustrated, so I started another meditation I was more familiar with. I counted to six on my in-breath, and to six on my out-breath. Doing this for a while I fell into quiet calm. It felt good, but I knew it wasn’t Vipassanā. ‘Don’t add anything, don’t take anything away,’ Goenka had instructed. But surely this is the state Goenka wants me in, right?
Wrong. In the discourse that night, a couple of hours after our 5pm dinner (they used this word rather loosely, as it was fruit for new students, black tea for returning students) Goenka explained, more or less (sound engineering is rumoured not to have been invented prior to at least 1992), that ‘the wonderful technique’ was designed to frustrate, that it would necessarily be hard to do. It was here that I realised I knew less than I should about Vipassanā. Bloody typical, Alez.
True, I had always known that going from a 20min meditation a few times a week to eleven hours a day would be difficult, but I never thought the meditation itself would annoy, anger, or frustrate. It’s like purposefully designing a teddy bear with sandpaper for fur. Totally incongruent. And here I had walked in thinking I would leave serene. Laughable, now, really.
Day two started much the same, but I began to really enjoy the meal times; 6.30am-7.15am, 11am-12pm, 5pm-6pm. The food was good. Simple, like the old student had promised, but wholesome, and prepared with love. I don’t say that lightly. There are only a few meals I can truly remember as being so obviously made with the intention of care, and all the meals at the dharma center count among them. Every time I sat down to eat - even on the bad days - I felt a big sense of gratitude for the volunteers and kitchen staff who didn’t need to put in so much effort, but did anyway. Thank you.
Day two also marked something less cheery. I had begun to see the afternoons as big stretches of boredom. With no meals breaking up the hours between 12pm and 5pm, no discourse, and no exercise, the afternoons dragged. I got tired of meditating, unable to concentrate. I longed to read.
Desperation called for odd measures. I took out everything in my toiletry bag; face wash, moisturiser, sunblock, vitamins, toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, conditioner - everything. I started to read the marketing and safety materials, and went over the ingredients. I figured by the time I was done with them I’d read a good couple of hundred words. Nothing to shake a stick at. I read them again, savouring each syllable. I also developed a strong headache, that I thought might later become a migraine because my gaze appeared hazy. I put my torch under my neck and rolled it side to side, mimicking what I would do with a neck massager and a metric shit ton of medication back at home.
I somehow made it past the afternoon and into the evening’s discourse. It’s hard to dislike Goenka, and this says a lot, because the man has a very - er, distinctive - singing voice, which he uses liberally, often breaking out in song during an emphatic retelling of the many stories of Buddha. He’s charismatic, even funny. Sometimes you forget you just spent the afternoon trying to see how many anagrams you could make from the words ‘daily facial scrub.’ But there are some unsettling phrases in Goenka’s ‘teachings.’
We were told that our minds were ‘untamed’ and that this was ‘very dangerous.’ Vipassanā was going to ‘tame’ our minds, so that they became ‘many times’ stronger than a bull elephant. That sounded hard to falsify but everyone else looked enthralled so I kept my raised eyebrow to myself. ‘No one can hurt us more than the wild mind. No one can help us more than the tamed mind.’ Goenka’s message was clear: we were here to fix what was broken, to purify the sullied. We were the broken, we were the sullied. But this would be hard work, mind.
‘You are to work very patiently. Patiently, and persistently. Persistently, continuously. Ultimately…you will win.’ Goenka spoke like this, lyrically, peppered freely with alliteration and synonym. He frequently sounded like someone who had learnt English as an additional language armed solely with a dictionary and a well-thumbed thesaurus.
Goenka went on to say with the profound importance of someone relaying a new and urgent prospect, that negativity in the mind is the cause of all evil. Not what I’d call a revolutionary concept.
I say this critically, but in truth I didn’t really question everything Goenka had said up until this moment. Even when he at some time - either over the last two days or the ones to follow (reality was admittedly a little clouded) - claimed that Buddha had discovered atoms centuries upon centuries before Western science had, and that all experiences were in some sense equal because at the heart they were just changes in our molecular state. Death? A molecular state. Love? A molecular state? Assault? All molecules, all equal.
Um? And there I was just like, ‘Yeah, I mean, Western civilisation just steam-rolled over all other societies, pretending they knew more than the rest, and I guess it is true that all experience can be seen at the sub-atomic level. So..?’ I gave Goenka my full trust - I’d come this far.
One good thing that came out of the second night’s discourse was our new instruction. We were no longer to just follow our breath, we were now to try and observe, but not react to, the sensations we feel below the nostrils and above the upper lip.
If it was heat, we would observe heat. If it was perspiration, we’d observe that. This was more complicated to do, and I thought my mind would be better for it. When, after the discourse, my headache hadn’t gone away, I told my manager to check in on me in the morning. If I was throwing up and unable to talk for long periods of time she needed to call my partner urgently, please. She asked me to tell the teacher, and so I did. He said nothing but nodded, looking at me with suspicion. In the bad books on day two.
While my roommate used the bathroom, I took out a few of my toiletries again and pulled them to the top bunk with me. I read them over and over again as a pseudo-bedtime story, laughing under my breath at how pathetic this was. Things were starting to unravel.
DAYS THREE & FOUR
I started the day in my room instead of the hall. We were given that option for some sittings, but we were expected to use the time to meditate. Obviously, I fell back to sleep pretty quickly, my headache mostly gone but still draining my reserves. I woke up only with the gong for breakfast. I felt ashamed.
Shame was to become a close friend on this course. It came from everywhere. It came from Goenka, who called doubts the experience of a weak mind, it came from people that I knew and knew of who had successfully finished and thrived in Vipassanā, from my fellow students - all of them dutiful, and stoic- and it came from myself. I didn’t want to be giving up. I didn’t want to be hating my time there. Was I going to be one of those people who left early, god forbid? One of them??? Somehow I had passed from ‘if it’s not for me, I’ll leave’ to having my self-worth balanced on my ability to get through what was slowly showing itself as a Spartan hell.
The boredom peaked this day. I felt the hall too stuffy, and the very ‘human’ smells that had started to sink into its pillows too much to bear when I didn’t absolutely have to (during the group sittings we had a few times a day). I stayed in my room, unable to focus. Instead I put my legs up the wall and thought about work. I had recently told a colleague that I was tired of writing. And I was. The optimism mill of the beauty world had done little to heal the bruising of a toxic videogame industry.
I looked back at seven years of writing and saw nothing of value that it had brought to me or others. I was tired. But on day three, suddenly the limits of this intolerance were rendered clear. I wasn’t tired of writing, just of writing certain things, for certain people. For the first time in memory I was dying to write. Ideas dropped in my brain, swathed in theories for perfect execution. But there was nothing to write with. I spent hours trying to memorise my ideas by heart. Bringing them to the forefront of my mind every few minutes, like a prehistoric researcher, or someone memorising a phone number from a voice mail.
Although a happy occurrence, this turned out not to be entirely to my benefit. The need for repetitive thoughts took my mind to a dark place, one I occupied as a twenty-two year old OCD sufferer, lying on my bed, alone, the blinds drawn, hour after hour repeating lists while I pulled, knotted, and broke my hair. I felt manic, fearful. I lay there, listing and listing, unable to break the cycle or trust myself to remember the ideas later. I went for a walk.
These breaks from the meditation routine seemed allowed, more students doing them more frequently as the days passed. I moseyed along the row of chalets. Then I noticed someone cleaning their room and felt bad that I hadn’t done the same. Stretching in anguish, I again asked myself, ‘What the fuck are you doing here, Alez?’
Truth be told, I had wanted to do this since my early twenties, and my frequent failures to do so might have built up a very romanticised view of what this would be like. Had I really thought about this desire critically at all in five years? Am I just doing what an old version of me wanted? Because I wouldn’t even let 2012 me pick out my shoes, never mind take her advice on how I should spend ten precious days of my life.
We had our group sitting before the discourse. I noticed that two pillows had had the stuffing removed, the pillowcase alone staying on the floor. That meant two women had already left. Maybe the girl I saw sweeping? Was she cleaning before she took off? I envied her.
A trying session made my mind up for me; I had to leave. I would be embarrassed, but I didn’t see what other choice I had. I pulled my manager aside.
‘I’m really sorry, but I have to go. I can’t stay.’
‘Why, what’s happening?’
‘I’m just really angry and frustrated and annoyed and this is freaking me out.’
‘I understand. That can happen. It’s your first time, so it’s even harder. Can I ask that you please stay just one more day?’ she closed her hands in prayer, begging.
‘Tomorrow afternoon you will be taught Vipassanā, and that’s when you learn to deal with all these emotions and your aches and pains, too.’
That sounded reasonable, so I consented. But I asked that the manager please check on me again after the afternoon session. She nodded and smiled.
Then came the discourse. Oh boy. ‘The third day is over, you have seven left to go,’ opened Goenka. He quickly launched into a speech on ‘sleeping (hidden) defilements’ that we all have ‘in’ us that can cause us misery at any time. They were ‘impurities’ with ‘deep roots’ that needed to be ‘taken out’ with Vipassanā.
Now if I was going through some heavy shit - like I was when I first learned of Vipassanā - I probably would have fell for this. It’s intentionally vague, applying to all manner of human experiences and can, to the wrong person at the wrong time, seem profound. But I didn’t think I had any ‘defilements’ or ‘impurities’, and I wondered why Goenka would assume I did. Later this would be cleared up; Goenka was speaking from a Buddhist position that held the belief of reincarnation.
According to him, we carried our past sins with us into this life, and if we didn’t have any of them, or any more lessons to learn, we’d no longer be here cause we’d be enlightened and done with all this human bullshit; Goenka believed you had these ‘impurities’ by the simple fact that you were alive. Never had the senselessness of Buddhism seemed so apparent.
Things grew more sinister of a throwaway line Goenka said somewhere, ‘He was a wealthy man, maybe he had done something good in a past life, so he was wealthy.’
By that logic, people in poverty somehow ‘deserved’ to live below their needs because of something they had done in a past life. Being born in a ‘noble’ family wasn’t coincidental good luck, it meant you were a good person. Fucking think about that. Like, WTF?????
Then Goenka also put all human experience into two basic emotions; craving and aversion. Both were bad, it seemed. This went against common sense.
Was all craving really bad? Like, a craving for water? For company? For world peace? Was all aversion bad? What about aversion to rape? To theft? To assault? Is it good - always and every time - to be equanimous? Really???
All good questions, but no one to ask them to. You see, you got what you got from Goenka, then the teacher was there to help with practical aspects of your meditation only. There was no possible way to discuss theory with the teacher. You had to accept it, and if you didn’t like it after day ten, you didn’t have to keep it. For the time while you were on the retreat, you were disallowed dissent.
Well, my respect for Buddhism was finally no longer more important to me than my critical judgement. This marked a departure from a flirty relationship with Buddhism that had lasted over twelve years. I clutched at the disillusionment with dear life, worried I would be tricked into staying again. I told myself I would leave after breakfast.
I walked to breakfast of day four tensely. I decided not to say ‘sorry’ for wanting to leave, but rather to thank the manager for encouraging me to stay, but to firmly assert that I still wanted to go. The manager caught me off guard as I was smearing peanut butter on my toast.
‘How are you doing today?’
‘Uh, I, I’m fine. Thank you for asking me to stay b-’
‘It’s okay. I’m glad you stayed. It will go up and down, expect this.’
I didn’t have the energy to argue. I walked back to my plate despondent and disappointed in myself. I should have put my foot down, dammit. But somewhat like Jessica Jones under Kilgrave’s influence, I had been very subtly pushed to stay when I had every intention of leaving. It felt weird. Yuck.
After breakfast my manager found me in our free time overlooking the mountains in the distance. She asked if I wanted my own room. Presumably, space had become available after some students had run for the hills (clever bastards). I did like the thought of that - privacy was precious and hard to come by, even as I started to crave human interaction. But since I was still convinced I’d be leaving soon, I didn’t think there’d be use in changing rooms now. ‘I’m okay, thank you, though!’
Plus, I recalled, my roomie doesn’t do well in the dark, and it wouldn’t be cool to drop her like that. The manager asked if I was very sure. I explained that I didn’t want to abandon my bunk buddy, and asked if the manager would offer a private room to her instead. Then I would take her lead. The manager came back to say my roomie had said it’s fine for me to take my own room, which is not what the manager had implied she would ask. I left her my torch and some of my candles, trying to make up for any sourness that might have surfaced through our game of broken telephone.
Being in my own room felt good. A change of scenery, however small, made a big difference to my mood. As I unpacked my toiletries, reading them again, I started to think that just maaaaaybe I could stay. Maybe I could do it, you know? Kick this thing in the ass. Even the boredom of the afternoon stretch didn’t get to me as much, but this time thanks to one unlikely source of release.
I was having another super-productive idea session, legs up the wall, fingers twisting and pulling my hair until my scalp was too sore to touch. Then it hit me.
I put on my shoes, went out and found a nice big stick, brought it back to my room and took out my nail clippers. With the clippers I began to carve - CARVE - a shorthand of all my ideas into the stick. I convinced myself of my own genius, which should give you an indication of how much of my psyche had at this point taken an indefinite leave of absence. Worse was still to come.
The promised Vipassanā introduction arrived in the form of a two-hour group sit. As I felt my glutes atrophy beneath me, Goenka taught us how to perform the messianic meditation: Starting from the top of the head, we were meant to observe the sensations of the body. From the top to the scalp, the scalp to the ears, the ears to the face, the face to the neck and so on. We were to observe any sensation at all without judgement. It felt good at times. When I thought about it hard enough, it gave me the impression that my nervous system had been wrapped in cotton. Sounds came to me from a far way off.
This was very similar to some other meditations I had done; body-scanning for one, and Yoga Nidra for the other. Yoga Nidra was especially similar to Vipassanā; the same close observation of the sensations of the body, the same push to refrain from changing this state in any way, for better or worse. It too, like my best times with Vipassanā, brought on a multidimensional calm that felt like it sank to my bones. Except it could be done lying down, and not with your legs pretzelled into a knot and your back feeling like it was bent beyond repair.
We returned after dinner for another group sit and the evening discourse. Goenka had evermore nice things to say about Vipassanā. He kept things pretty practical, going over the finer points of the ‘wonderful technique’, making sure that students knew exactly what ‘sensation’ meant. I didn’t really listen - I thought I had the technique waxed. I had done only a few hours of it, sure, but each time took me to that muffled, sleepy place of comfort and calm.
Even the pain in my leg - at other times an expensive constant - had gone away. I might not have believed in Goenka, but I did start to like the meditation. I listened - barely - through a thick fog of smug. Then Goenka suddenly caught my attention with the story of a young man who had once come to Buddha crying over his father’s death.
Buddha had apparently told the man that there was no use crying as his father had already died, and what was gone was gone. (The other meditators laughed at this point. Oh, the folly of grief!). I wondered if there was anyone else in the hall who just then had thought maybe they didn’t want to be enlightened if it meant also being a nihilistic asshole.
Then Goenka said some more stuff about how our cravings and aversions from this life are carried with us into our next life, so it’s important to get them out now. If we didn’t build any new cravings or aversions during the meditation, the old ones would magically pilfer through and fuck off on their own accord. Never mind therapy, or any advances in psychology, what your mind needed most was Vipassanā - it would help all. I was kind of done with this bs.
DAYS FIVE, SIX & SEVEN
Day five came and I enjoyed my new party trick of deep concentration, while ignoring anything that came out of the teacher’s mouth. I had caught the attention of Colin, who started to glance at me every time I refused to bow. I didn’t mean it out of disrespect - although there was a good bit of that going round - I just hadn’t been asked to do it or told why I should, and I couldn’t think of a good reason to do it myself.
I also leaned into my cravings and aversions. Indulged them thoroughly. Why? Because unlike Goenka, Colin, and my manager, I didn’t believe in the existence of a next life. I think we only have one. And it’s short. I don’t think that pleasure is wrong, and neither do I think aversion to something bad is ill-advised. I wasn’t in prison or war or stranded on fucking Mars, and so I didn’t need something telling me to root these feelings out like weaknesses for the good of the whole.
I would never have described myself as a hedonist going into this course, but I left it as one. I know now to express my wants and listen to body and mind’s signals as they detect what’s bad for me. As long as it’s enthusiastic, consensual and between adults, I also revel in sexual expression. I even came back from that retreat rethinking monogamy, keen to let my partner and I explore the depths of our sexuality while we’re still young and decent-looking. But I get ahead of myself, again.
For now, it was afternoon of day five and the happy feelings of mastering a new trick had deflated. Not before I had an intense and interesting experience, though. In the mid-morning room session, I found myself far in a reverie, possibly the most calm I had ever felt. Suddenly my hearing seemed to go. I was shocked. Then I realised it had only gone in my left ear, and as I honed in on my right ear, the sound inside grew louder. I moved my focus to the left ear, and in disbelief heard the sound shift away from the right to the left, like some audio tunnel-vision. I thought my growing excitement would bring me out of the meditation, but when I was ready to join reality it took me a good fifteen seconds to really ‘wake up.’
Wanting to quit while I was ahead, and feeling groggy, I stopped meditating and instead went back to brainstorming ideas for work. I was starting to run out of space on my little stick, plus I was worried that the more abstract my acronyms got, the less likely I was to know what they stood for.
Then I remembered my lip balm. I could write on my bathroom mirror with my lip balm!!!!! Why hadn’t I thought of it before??? I raced to find it, feeling rising panic when it looked like it wasn’t turning up, but there it was, flush against the inner lining of my toiletry bag. Bless you, little lip balm. I ran the very short distance to my bathroom and went A Beautiful Mind on the small mirror hanging over the sink. I stepped back to look at my handiwork, and decided I had well and truly started to lose it.
I was sent a mental flotation device in the form of an insert I found in my skin pills. A little over two-hundred whole words to enjoy. I read it through three times and read the back twice. It was in Afrikaans so you could loosely say I was learning a new language.
It’s difficult to explain the joy I felt at reading so many sentences in one go. It was like finding a gorgeous pair of shoes in your size at 70% off, but the salesperson threw them in for free. And that salesperson was Chris Evans. (What does it say about me that even in my wildest dreams, Chris Evans only ever wants to give me shoes he’s probably getting for free via an employee discount?)
Nevertheless, the day dragged on. I started to feel again the strong desire to get home. The evening’s discourse spoke about the importance of not generating any new cravings or aversions during meditation. Useful if you still cared about the meditation at all at this point, I can only assume.
Day six was a haze. Four things stood out alone; the need to get the hell away from the farm was growing and would no longer stand to be put on hold; the words of a friend and those of my mother who had assured me upon leaving there was no harm in bailing early; the pain of isolation, that had rendered me puppy-like in my need to be in close range of another person, approximating anything like communication; and the words Goenka said in that night’s discourse.
In between his discussions of the weak-minded who had left, and the task set before us still, he actually, literally, plainly said that Vipassanā could cure many mental illnesses, and all addictions. It could cure addiction. Cure it. All of them.
Heroin? Check. Smoking? Check. Alcohol? Yup! All of them. I turned the shame of leaving early on its head - I wasn’t leaving because I was weak, I was leaving because I was strong enough to spot bullshit when I saw it, and if Vipassanā had something to say about that, then I had something to say about Vipassanā.
I woke up on day seven, nervous. I was going to tell my manager kindly, but without wavering, that I wanted to go, thank you very much. I waited until I saw her leaving the hall at 6.30am.
‘I’m sorry about this, but I want to go. I’m not coping and I need to leave.’
She looked taken aback. ‘I thought you were doing so well.’ When I didn’t say anything else, she said, ‘It would be a shame if you were to leave.’
‘I know, but I don’t want to stay.’
She motioned to walk with her and I did. ‘That’s such a shame. You’ll have to speak to the teacher.’
‘Can I talk to him now?’
‘No, he’s left the hall, you can talk to him at interviews.’
This meant waiting at least until 12pm. My partner and I don’t own a car, and he has a busy schedule, so the earlier I could let him know the better.
‘Okay, that’s cool. I’ll write my name down.’
‘If you leave then you have to come back’ she relaxed.
‘Yeah. I think I just need to go do some more reading on this. I don’t know how much of this was actually what I wanted to do, and how much of this was just what a younger me wanted to do…I don’t know.’
I had over-done the honesty, she grew cold. ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying.’
‘Yeah, I need to go think it through.’
‘I think you need to apply yourself a little bit. Need a little more determination.’
Suddenly I was the star player on her basketball squad who wanted to quit the season and needed a pep talk from coach. Except I wasn’t a confused teen dealing with a lot at home, I was an adult woman she barely knew who had just expressed an urgent desire to leave due to distress.
‘You should think about it.’
I told her I would, but in truth, I’m never more determined to leave a place than when I’m told I can’t. I wrote my name on the interview list, and went to my room to pack my bags and clean my room. I was leaving today.
I barely ate lunch, then walked quickly to the hall to wait for interviews to begin. Finally they did. I went in.
Colin greeted me warmly, ‘Welcome!’
'Hello, teacher. Thank you for seeing me. I’m not sure how much Beth (the manager, name changed) has told you, but I would like to leave. I’m not coping.’
‘When you say you’re “not coping” - what do you mean?’
‘I mean that I’m in a mental space I haven’t been in in years, and it isn’t good. I’ve taken to reading my toiletry bag. Things aren’t good. I need to go.’
‘And if I gave you something related to the course to read? Would that help?’
‘It would, thank you, teacher. But it’s not just that. The isolation is unbearable. I know we made a pledge. But silence isn’t the same as isolation, and I didn’t give consent to isolation.’
‘But after this it’s only two more days before you can talk. The last day everyone is happy and laughing. It’s just two more days. You’ve done all the hard work. Think about it.’
I thought about it the same way I imagine Frodo would if he was asked if he could just nip back to Mordor to throw a few more bits and bobs into the fire. Very, very briefly.
‘I understand, but I still want to go.’
‘Well, we’re not a prison. You can go if you want, but it would be such a shame. You’ve done all the hard work.’
I then had to ask a favour, which as you can imagine, I was so looking forward to.
‘Teacher, when I arrived my phone’s reception wasn’t working. Please may I use the centre’s phone.’
He agreed and I made my exit, exhilarated. Beth told me she’d meet me after the interviews. That meant waiting until 1pm. I waited impatiently, and she finally emerged just after. Another student went up to ask her a question, which also took some time. My heartbeat pulsed visibly in my temple.
Eventually I went up to her and explained that, seeing as I don’t have a car, my boyfriend will need to hire one or otherwise urgently make a plan to get to me, and so time was of the essence. I was panicked, close to tears. I wanted the fuck out.
We got to the office and Colin first had to unlock it. I tried Grant - my boyfriend. His phone was off. This was astronomically unusual for him. He normally answers no matter who calls or at what time. I knew he had to go to Joburg at some time during my stay, I realised he was probably flying. I called my mom. No answer.
It was then that I thought I might have already died. Maybe I had died, and this was hell. Not like the inner-circles or anything, but limbo for sure. On the second attempt my mom answered. I was calm, which probably scared her more than if I was my usual self.
‘Mom, I can’t get hold of Grant and I need to leave. Can you please call Alex (my brother) and ask if we can borrow his car?’
My mom kicked into gear. I called her back a few minutes later. She couldn’t get hold of my brother, but she would keep trying. I told her to call me back when she can. Where was the center exactly, she’d asked.
‘Um, somewhere outside of Worcester. You should be able to look it up.’
‘God, Alez, did they blindfold you on the way in?’ Only my mom could make me laugh just then.
The manager was getting annoyed. ‘Maybe we should leave it until after group-sit.’
This meant until 3.30pm. I know I sound like a whiny baby, but this wasn’t gonna fly. It didn’t feel like I was being stroppy. It felt like I was having a panic attack. My heart was beating crazy-fast, I was 100% convinced that somehow, like on day three, like on day four, I was going to be told I may as well stay, and I would. I was irrationally concerned that I would be tricked into living there indefinitely. Remember, this was coming from someone who had carved writing ideas into a stick with a pair of nail clippers on day FOUR.
‘You can just leave me here if you need to go? I’ll just carry on trying.’
‘Yeah…I can’t really do that.’ They couldn’t risk me leaving the room, slipping into the men’s quarters and exposing myself to all and sundry. Had this happened before? Why wasn’t she treating me with the same assumed respectability we all have to gift to one other on a daily basis for society to function? Fuuuuuck.
I made a sound I hoped came out neutral, and carried on trying Grant. I got through to him. He had been flying but just landed in Cape Town. The timing was theatrical. He said he’d take an Uber to fetch me, I told him we weren’t billionaires. I asked that he get hold of my brother, he said he didn’t want to disturb him. I began to protest but the phone cut out. I tried redialling, but got nothing. I asked if the manager knew of any existing issues with the phone. She didn’t.
I asked if I could use hers. She didn’t have airtime. Internally, a slow, Presbyterian chorus sang for my sanity. She left the room to attend to someone. I took the chance to see if I could fix the phone. Maybe a plug had come out or something? Beth came back, with a phone. In an instant, she was my hero and all was forgiven. (I’d make for a very poor Shakespearean character). I got hold of Grant, he said he was on his way with my brother. We worked out the particulars. I saw light at the end of the tunnel.
I still had to stay for group-sit, but was taken out half-way through because the other students weren’t supposed to - and I quote - ‘see me leave.’ I could have been offended by that, but at this stage I gave exactly 0.000000 fucks, and a pathological tired had begun to pool around the trunk of my soul.
I said my silent goodbyes to all my favourites, and walked out with Beth and the male manager, who both waited with me to ensure I got to the car safely. Once my brother, Grant, and I were in the car, I screamed and laughed and shouted and felt drunk with relief. Never again. Never, ever again. Not on my worst enemy. Not on my worst enemy.
Now, this was my own experience. I encourage people interested in the course to look at many accounts and make their own decisions about whether Vipassanā is good for them. I have no energy left to give this topic, and won’t for a long time, so please don’t attempt to probe, discuss or debate. If you don’t agree with me, let’s leave it there. Save it for another life, as it were.
The course is completely free, with a voluntary donation available to students who have completed the course.
There is value in learning a meditation technique.
Some people have received earnest, life-saving benefit from this form of meditation.
The food is lovingly-prepared and highly-nourishing. 10/10 on Tripadvisor.
The managers and teacher can be very kind people who want you to make the most of your experience.
Sitting for many long hours in the day.
Intense feelings of isolation. Silence is not the same as non-communication, and no matter how much of an introvert you are, you can’t know how you’ll react to this isolation if experiencing it for the first time. This isn’t true consent.
You’re not allowed to exercise. At all.
You’re not welcome to question the course theory.
You may be shamed into staying longer than you want to.
You may be in the company of people who can’t adequately address your mental health needs.
Unlike as-advertised, the course is NOT secular. It’s very much an arm of modern Buddhism and the course theory will reflect this at every opportunity.
The meditation isn’t difficult because there’s a lot of it, it’s difficult because it’s designed to irritate. Know before you go. Research. More than you think you need to.