Ten days! That’s two whole working weeks without the luxury of a weekend in between! Then add to that a rock hard prison style bed with wafer thin mattress and a brick for a pillow, purposely designed with discomfort in mind. Throw 4am starts every morning into the mix, with the final meditation finishing at 9pm and think through the complexities of only having a bucket and tap for a shower.
Are you there yet? Are you feeling my pain? Double it, multiply it by 100 and you’re still not close.
Due to the lack of showering facilities, I didn’t wash my hair for ten days! I was aiming for seven but when I got there I figured ‘what the hell, I’ve made it this far’. When no one can actually tell you that you stink it makes you less susceptible to giving a damn! I would, however, like to take this opportunity to thank The Lord for giving us dry shampoo.
I couldn’t tell you what I’ve been eating for the past ten days – simple vegetarian food apparently – the same simple vegetarian food regurgitated over and over again, day after day, meal after meal. My stomach is yet to forgive me.
Ten days of eating curry for breakfast and lunch plus a poor digestive system equals severe death breath. I think that the silence may have been a blessing for others as I’m sure a few eyebrows would have been lost had I have spoken to anyone within a two mile radius. The smell of curry still clings to my toothbrush and emanates from my pores.
The last meal of the day was a piece of fruit. For health reasons, I was permitted to have a proper meal but by day two I decided that the risk of hypoglycaemia and starvation was a risk I was willing to take over having to continually bear witness to a reverse tug of war between my stomach and throat, the consequence being that food would be lodged in my oesophagus until my stomach eventually saw sense and backed down. My stomach was literally wishing that my throat had been cut.
It doesn’t make it any easier when you know what it smells like once it has worked its way through someone else’s digestive system – flatulence and belching know no boundaries in the meditation hall! I would just be about to get my zen on when an almighty belch would shatter the tranquillity of an otherwise silent room.
I have noticed over the past year or so that I have developed a serious aversion to phones and computers and with the invention of the iphone, amazing as it is, there really is no way to get away from what, in my stressful state, feels like constant harassment – email, facebook, skype, watsap, text, heytell, viber, the list goes on. I can’t count the number of times that I have wanted to throw my phone through the window and at times of severe stress, myself along with it and so I welcomed the chance to hand over my phone and laptop and cut off contact from the stresses of the outside world. You can rest assured that all suicidal tendencies are now under control.
They say that silence is deafening and while, for the most part, I embraced the silence and the chance to have nothing but time on my hands, time for myself to reflect on what I want and need, something that has been seriously lacking in my day to day life, what I hadn’t banked upon was that the inability to be able to externalise thoughts can result in even the smallest of inadvertent notions growing wings. What starts as a small egg hatches into a bird of prey, pecking away at your insecurities, whilst flapping it’s oversized wings in the cage of your mind. Adding fuel to the fire as you question whether these thoughts are born from insecurities or intuition.
The need to take a match to the fuel and smoke out the bird was intense but I had to accept the fact that this is part of the process – to set your mind free from the negativity of the past and concerns about the future and to simply accept the now for what it is and not what you want it to be.
It’s an interesting experience to live with someone for ten days, to share a room, share your belongings but not be able to speak, gesture or even have eye contact with them. I’ll admit that there was a little cheating when it came to gestures though, like the sigh of exasperation when the electricity went out, taking the fan in our room with it and the jump for joy when it came back on again, only to go off again half an hour later, to leave us baking in our own sweat. Then there was the look of sheer panic on our faces when we read the timetable and realised we had four hours of straight meditation in the afternoon with only a ten minute break and the undisguisable look of pain on our faces after we completed those four hours. I almost broke my vow of silence with a few expletives when a cockroach crawled over my hand.
Thirty men had to share a dorm and toilets with no cleaner – doesn’t it just make ya glad to be a woman!
For ten whole hours a day I was to dedicate my entire self to observing the feel of my breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils in a bid to concentrate the mind and make it more alert. I decided that creating a grocery list for Burning Man IN AUGUST would be a much better use of my time! I can now tell you the exact quantities of everything we need to take, having worked out the fridge size to food ratio. I can also tell you what order the food will need to be consumed in, having devised a mental chart of rough sell by dates of each product. I’m feeling happy with my achievements until I realise that I’m left with a craving for Philadelphia cheese… and bacon, and sausages and peanut butter…. What I get is a slice of papaya that tastes like ten day old feet and some puffed rice.
Ok, so lesson learned, from now on I’m going to use my time more wisely and fully commit to focussing my attention on my respiration..
Day three – Listed all the teachers from my junior and secondary school and put them in alphabetical order..
Day four – I think I may have just invented a new way to… oh no, that’s already been done, wish I’d realised that five hours ago..
Day three did get considerably more interesting though – today we extended the area of our focus to the area above our top lip as well as our nostrils..!
So this alert mind thing’s not going so well but despite the wondering mind of a crazy woman and blatant disregard for anything involving concentration, by day three, I really started to notice a difference. The agony in my back had depleted to a small but still painful knot in my shoulder, which, to be honest, felt like nothing short of a miracle (did I mention the teacher wouldn’t let me have a back support)? And the grimace that had been firmly set on my face for the first three days slowly started to turn upwards into what might have even been considered a smile.
To take the breath to the depths of the diaphragm and to feel it bringing organs back from years of slumber and back to vitality instead of only breathing from the chest as most of us do and to take in air that is pure and clean instead of the polluted air that we are forced to breathe in Hong Kong, allowed my body to feel the life, vibrance and energy that has been missing for so many years. I would go so far as to say that I may have even experienced moments of pure euphoria.
Slowly, slowly catchy my monkey brain…
On the afternoon of day four, Vipassana was taught. Everything up until now had simply been preparation. The theory of Vipassana is that craving causes misery and what we actually crave is the sensation that we feel rather than the physical act itself. Whether it be drinking, gambling, drugs, sex, success at work or even just the need to feel happy, there are sensations attached to all of those things that our subconscious mind craves. In order to weaken these attachments and eventually eradicate them, through Vipassana, we are taught to simply observe the sensations in our body, remaining equanimous at all times so as not to create any new cravings or aversions to the sensations and on many occasions, physical pain that you are feeling.
By not allowing any new emotions to attach to these sensations, years of self imposed negativity rises to the surface and if observed with total equanimity, will simply be let go. It has got to be worth a try as it will certainly alleviate the need to do anything as drastic as setting ones head on fire.
With our minds having been trained to be alert, the sensations we felt could be very intense. For a few days I had what felt like continuous electrical currents running through my whole body from head to foot to the extent that my fingers and toes would physically curl up at the ends from the sheer force of it.
What started off taking ten minutes to observe, within a matter of hours, was taking less than a minute. I was certainly living life on the edge as with this much electricity running through my body and this much grease in my hair, self electrocution was imminent. I guess there’s more than one way to smoke out a bird…
For three one hour sessions every day, we were expected to sit completely still – not a single movement was allowed whilst we observed these sensations. No scratching the many itches that were experienced, no stretching your back as it screams out in agony, no removing hair from your face that the wind has blown, causing even more of a longing to scratch. By the end of these sessions you would have thought that I had just ran a half marathon from the amount of sweat that would cover my entire body – sweat which had to be endured equanimously as it slowly trickled down my face, stomach and back. It was here that I cracked and begged the teacher for a back support.
At the end of these sessions there would be a sigh of relief, in unison, as the teacher finally started to chant, usually followed by a belch, to signify that the hour of torture was over.
By day nine I noticed that my usual long, aggressive strides had been replaced by a much slower pace in which one foot barely passed the other. I guess that I finally cottoned on to the fact that if you don’t need to be anywhere in a hurry, why waste the energy.
I usually have an un-resounding need to get from A to B as quickly as possible, regardless of whether or not I actually need to. I can remember many occasions where I would practically give myself a heart attack driving into London, forcing my way in and out of traffic, flying up bus lanes and hurling abuse at any bus that had the cheek to stop to pick up passengers and block my path. Going bumper to bumper as I would shout and bib my way through Trafalgar square, cutting up anyone who dared to get in my way only to get to my appointment half an hour early and have to sit in my car, twiddling my thumbs, whilst listening to some banging house tunes that would further exaggerate my already thumping heartbeat.
Then there’s the feeling of stress rising up from my stomach as I yell at a taxi driver in Hong Kong for not taking the other route which would have been two minutes quicker or having to fight to resist the urge to take off my shoe and clonk people over the head with it as I barge my way past the snail paced masses on Queens Road Central. I don’t doubt that the shoe will be off the second that I hit Queens Road Central but it’s nice to feel the serenity of that pace, even if only for a few days.
On day ten the silence was broken and the meditation schedule was loosened. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was desperate to see/speak to my boyfriend (and the fact that I would have eventually had to bite the bullet and wash my hair) I could have happily gone on for another ten days, which is something that I would definitely benefit from.
That evening I took advantage of the amended schedule and went to bed at 8pm. When the bell rang I got up as usual for morning meditation, noticing that it was only 3.50am on my clock I cursed them somewhat – at that time in the morning that extra ten minutes sleep is precious but as I was already awake and feeling a lot more energetic these days I got up and took my shower AKA throwing a bucket of water over myself. When I looked at the clock again I noticed that it actually said 10.20pm and not 3.50am – damn cheap Ikea clock must have stopped so I continued to get ready until I noticed that no one else seemed to be moving. When I checked my mobile, that was now back in my possession, I realised that it was, in fact, 10.20pm and the bell had been rung to tell people to shut up and go to bed. It’s a good job that after ten days of meditation I was in a happy and positive place otherwise that bell would have had to have been surgically removed from someone’s backside..
Despite the fact that my boyfriend won’t kiss me for a week, my stomach has waged war on my oesophagus and I’m going to have to wash my hair at least five times to get the smell of dirt, sweat and grease out, I wouldn’t hesitate to do this course again and would encourage others to do so. It has been a total cleanse for mind, body and spirit.
They say that India doesn’t necessarily give you what you want but it will always give you what you need. Whilst I have found a lot of what I need here, I feel that I must point out that it’s also given me some of what I didn’t need – a rather strong aversion to Indian food for example.
Until now, I haven’t written in five years. My creative juices have been blocked and gave up trying to get out a long time ago. When I travelled five years ago, I wrote about everything that I did. Sentences that easily turned into paragraphs would fill my mind during every activity which would inspire me further to try new things so that I could write about them but within months of getting back to work that creativity quickly became buried beneath a barrage of stocks and shares, calls and puts and the unresounding need to make money no matter what the cost to health and spirit.
So, whether you think this is a piece of literary genius or tomorrows’ fish and chip paper, the fact that I have been bursting at the seams to put pen to paper indicates the start of an exciting new chapter in my life. I’m releasing the shackles that have been holding me back and walking into the light of a more creative future.
Doing time, doing Vipassana – a film by Eilona Ariel & Ayelet Menahemi