I think it was during my time in Japan, cross-legged on my futon in my little room in Kagoshima, that I idly Googled “meditation retreats in Asia”. I’d been trying to practise mindful meditation for just under a year, though the regularity of my sittings had dropped dramatically since embarking upon a life of travel. I envisaged a wellness centre in Bali perhaps, or maybe somewhere on a Thai beach, where I would attend meditation classes to the tinkling of windchimes or the gentle crashing of the waves, and drink fresh juices and fruit teas, and have a generally nice time. What caught my eye in the search results, however, was something very different; a Vipassana meditation retreat in the hills of Gambang, Malaysia.
Vipassana is an ancient technique which was taught by the historical Buddha, although it is emphatically a non-religious practice, and has survived to the present day. It is learnt through attending a ten-day silent meditation course, during which students are not permitted to talk to each other or to have any contact with the outside world, eat only twice per day (although first-timers are permitted to consume some fruit in the evening), and spend around 10 and a half hours per day meditating. The list of rules and the schedule seemed punishing; 4am wake-up, segregation of men and women, shoulders and knees to be covered at all times, no reading or writing, and absolutely no contact, even a smile or catch of the eye, with anyone other than the teacher or course manager. However, it presented itself to me as a challenge, and, I thought, when would I next get the chance to give something like this a go? So I filled out the lengthy application form (medical history, details of any addictions, and somewhat bizarrely, a “personal biography” are required) and before I knew it, it was April and time to begin the course.
In the days leading up to it I was doubting the wisdom of my decision. Friends and people I met told me I was crazy and I was beginning to believe them, but I was curious to give it a go, and once I commit to something I don’t back out. So I dragged myself away from my beloved Indonesia onto a flight to Kuala Lumpur, and the next day, a chartered bus up into the hills, joining a mixture of other students from all over the world. Many, like me, were new and wondering what we were letting ourselves in for, but there were also several who had attended these courses in the past, which semi-reassured us that it wouldn’t be too awful (otherwise they wouldn’t come back for more, right?!).
A long and bumpy road into the dense green of a palm plantation seals our fate, as we arrive at Dhamma Malaya, one of two Vipassana centres in Malaysia. It feels a little like being deposited in an old-fashioned holiday camp; our rooms sit in short rows of tiny chalets, surrounded by trees and bits of garden, the Dhamma – meditation – Hall taking the centre spot of the compound. After registering and handing in our electronic devices to the reception desk (to avoid temptation!), there isn’t a great deal to do that afternoon. As people mill around the grounds, taking advantage of the last chance to chat with each other for a while, I sit in my room, minus any books, writing materials, laptop or phone, all of my usual things to fill my spare time with, and wonder why I thought this had been a good idea. It is a relief when the bell eventually rings for the pre-course dinner, and then, finally, the opening of the course. Closing into ourselves in silence, we file into the Meditation Hall, and then, cross-legged on my mat, as the opening chanting begins to play, I feel OK; like I am where I want to be. I go to bed looking forward to the challenge ahead, determined to somehow enjoy it.
My positivity is short-lived. When the wake-up bell begins to chime at 4 o’clock on the morning of Day 1, I feel impossibly tired. I hope I will perk up as the day goes on, but no luck. With my usual solution of sugar-y food and multiple cups of coffee being an unavailable option, I feel like there is just nothing in my body to keep me going, no energy source to draw from at all. Throughout the whole day I am falling asleep in the meditation sessions, random scenes passing through my mind as if I am watching a strange movie. I don’t think I can do this, I think, as I fall into bed after the final session ends at 9pm, then fail to shut my mind off adequately to sleep straightaway.
Day 2 turns out to be a little easier in terms of handling the tiredness, but the aching in my legs, acquired from the sudden shock of sitting in a meditative position for 10 and a half hours the previous day, quickly turns into searing pain every time I try to sit still for longer than about 15 or 20 minutes. Despite this setback, I seem to be getting on well with the work that we are doing; some of the Bad Stuff is already beginning to rise to the surface, but I am able to look at it all objectively, as the technique requires.
I am constantly hungry by now though, so I decide I need to employ some survival tactics; loading up on the carbs at mealtimes, going for a second helping of rice, noodles or toast, and eating my afternoon fruit with a spoon, for, hopefully, the psychological effect of feeling like I am eating a proper dinner.
During the evening lecture, the teacher tells us that we were learning to tame our mind, a wild animal, and that it won’t be easy. On Day 3, my brain indeed seems to have decided to test me. First it tries to make me plan my post-travelling life during the 8am meditation session, and then, for no reason whatsoever, the Christian hymn Shine, Jesus, Shine, a tune I haven’t heard or sung for many years, becomes firmly lodged in my head. We’d been told it was important not to partake in any religious practices whilst learning Vipassana, and so I spend most of the morning focusing on trying to make it go away.
The fun isn’t over yet. Shortly before lunch, feelings of guilt from things which I thought I had already dealt with suddenly surface, and completely take hold of me. After eating quickly, I go back to my room and spend the rest of the lunch break crying hopelessly. When the bell rings for the first of the afternoon sessions, I splash some water on my face and go dutifully to my meditation mat, sitting listlessly and without focus for the remainder of the day.
Day 4 is better. The idea occurs to me that learning Vipassana is like playing a musical instrument successfully; I need to practise. Just as a 13-year-old learning to play the trombone who would rather have been chatting to her friends on MSN Messenger or watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer than repeating major and minor scales, I need to sit patiently and keeping going over and over the technique. And I realise how badly I want this to work; I see the old students and the servers and the course staff and I see what good, kind, warm people they are, and I want to be one of them. I want to become one of those people who makes others feel good and loved. And that is my motivation today to keep going.
Something I’ve noticed over the past couple of days is that I look terrible; my face is covered in spots and blotches, my eczema has flared up without the usual food triggers, and my hair is disgustingly greasy within hours of washing it. The logical part of me says that’s it’s just the water here, but I can’t help wondering whether this is the Bad Stuff coming up and making its way out.
On Day 5 we are told that we are expected to sit for the entire hour without shifting position during the three big group sessions every day from now on. I think I can’t make it without moving my legs, but somehow I manage to work through the pain, and when the chanting signalling that the sitting is coming to an end kicks in, it feels like the teacher is singing specifically to me and that he has faith that I can do this. I shed a few grateful tears, and my determination to keep practising continues.
I remember only two things about Day 6; firstly, that I keep seeing visions of little black cats as I’m trying to meditate, and secondly, how it strikes me during lunch how perverse it is that I am worrying about going hungry during these ten days, when there are so many people in the world surviving on much less. I realise that I consume too much. I don’t go back up for my usual second helping of rice.
Day 7 is a tough day, when I consider giving up and just coasting through the remainder of the course. I feel like I’m failing – failing to focus, failing to keep a hold on the technique. The negative feelings bombard me and there’s nothing I can do. I look in the mirror and my face is ash grey.
On Day 8, however, I am able to remember that the negative feelings are all part of the learning and the practice, and that I’m supposed to be working with them, as the teacher has explained. I go into the day’s sessions feeling happier and more able to focus. During the evening group session, I feel something rise up and out of the top of my head and fly away, something bad, and I feel immediately lighter. This is the start of a process that continues all the way through Day 9; the “impurities” as they are called batter me all day, in the form of unpleasant sensations as I meditate, but I keep tackling them as instructed. Vipassana is working; it is actually working.
Day 10 comes around and it’s a strange one. As a “shock absorber”, before we are dropped back into the real world tomorrow, silence outside of the Dhamma Hall ends after the morning sessions. The noise of the dining hall is unbearable to me; everyone else seems to have been dying to talk and now they can’t get enough of it, but I don’t feel ready to talk about my experience yet. We haven’t finished. I retreat to my room but the spell has been broken, the atmosphere has gone, and suddenly, for the first time since Day 1, I just want to get out of here. It’s like the last day of term at school; no one is doing any proper work and we’re all just counting the hours. I want my phone and my friends and family and a ton of Chinese food and the buzz of the city and a hot shower.
On the morning of Day 11, we are finally released. The mood is light and beautiful; we all help to clean the compound, eat a merry breakfast together, and bid each other goodbye, hugging and wishing good things to even those we haven’t gotten to know. I leave feeing as if someone has unscrewed my head, tipped me up, emptied out the Bad Stuff, and put me back together, full of space ready to receive new, good stuff. Except that I did this myself, and that’s amazing. I am excited to return to my life armed with my new knowledge and wisdom and experience; to move forward with all of this supporting me.
It’s now several weeks later that I am writing this, and I have adjusted to life as a Vipassana practitioner. It’s not always easy – trying to meditate in hostel dorms and when you’re moving around can be tricky, and it’s a different situation entirely once you’re trying to practise outside of the confines of the course – but I can feel that it is still working. People ask me how it was and I am hesitant to answer “life-changing” because it sounds like such a cliche, but that really is the word to describe it. I struggle to explain how it has altered everything. The aim of learning Vipassana is to become enlightened, and that is exactly how I feel; but again, I worry that people mentally roll their eyes if I say that word. I know how I need to be living in order to find my path in life. I have some idea of what that path should be. I don’t know whether I’m the good, warm person I wanted to become yet, but I do know that I have a lot of love in my heart for my family, friends, and just people I meet on the road, and very few negative feelings towards anyone or anything, so I think I’ve made a start.
Would I recommend that you enrol on a Vipassana course? That’s not a straight yes. I would love for everyone to learn what I have – indeed, the world would be a much more peaceful place – but you have to be willing and able to put the work in, and you have to want to succeed; you will be taught the technique, but no one can put it into practice except you. Don’t underestimate how tough the course can be; it’s the most gruelling thing, both physically and mentally, that I’ve ever undertaken. All of that said, if you’re curious about Vipassana, if you’re open to the idea that meditation can be the key to living a happy life, and if you want to explore that possibility for yourself, then perhaps it’s time to consider giving it a try.