I could start the Vipassana meditation retreat on Monday, the monk informed me.
He said there would be no distractions. There would be no communication with others, not even in the form of eye contact. There would be two small alms meals per day, at 6 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., with no eating allowed after midday. I could wear only white clothes. I would not be able to leave the grounds.
I was given instructions to buy some white underwear before leaving Bangkok. Apparently, everything else I’d need — customary offerings of white lotus flowers, orange candles and incense sticks for the opening ceremony, for example — could be bought in the temple shop. But there wasn’t a single thing I’d need, let alone allowed: no books, music, phone, pens or writing material … no makeup. Phra Chaibodin, the monk, bid me goodbye whilst I sat there in shock with the phone in one hand, my face propped up by the other.
Ten full days of silent Vipassana meditation loomed ominously in the foreground of my mind. What did I think I was doing? Well, therein lies the problem: I hadn’t thought much at all. Like most others I’d been responsible for in life, this particular decision to imprison myself in a monastery had been made on a total whim, one borne of an impulsive desire to do something instructive with my days left in Thailand before trundling off on the 19-hour minivan pilgrimage (destination: Vang Vieng) to do buckets and belly flops over the Nam Song River.
Testing the Meditation Waters
Impulse aside, I’d heard Vipassana mentioned many times before. Over the past two years, I’d kept hearing whispers of it, references, a story here and there. “The whole idea is to train your mind,” someone explained to me once, a notion that my brain — running on its usual turbo-charged autopilot setting — immediately processed (on its usual setting of automatic-pilot turbo-charge) as nearly foreign. Generally, my mind had one of its own. It was scattered and fickle, prone to impulsions, compulsions and racing thoughts that bounced around with rare discrimination or aim. Sometimes it would flutter happily, light and carefree as a sparrow. But on other, darker occasions, it thundered around like a blind rhino, getting bogged down in places I’d prefer never existed. I could end up stuck there for hours, even days.
“Be a master of your mind, not a slave to your thoughts,” a guru from India had told me once during a visit to an ashram in Perth. His words stayed with me, despite the fear that, in confronting this wild, untamed beast, I would be alone. I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with nothing to latch onto or distract me for 10 days, but I was a 35-year-old woman, for God’s sake, not a toddler with a blanket.
I would at least try.
The Appeal of a Vipassana Meditation Retreat
The Northern Insight Meditation Centre of Wat Ram Poeng is nestled on the secluded edges of Chiang Mai, surrounded by woods, just on the outskirts of the Old City. These days, its reputation as a Vipassana retreat has spread worldwide, resulting in thousands of meditators enrolling in search of enlightenment. If that sounds a little too spiritual for some, they’re not alone. Phra Ajahn Suphan, the Abbot of Wat Ram Poeng, refers to the practice in his introduction booklet simply as mental development.
Vipassana is not a religion; it is a technique. Perhaps that’s what entices meditators from around the globe. On a practical level, it improves focus and concentration. “My teacher never asked me to convert to a religion,” says S.N Goenka, a leading lay teacher in Vipassana. “The only conversion is from misery to happiness.” True, Vipassana is rooted in Buddhism, but there were no frills on the Buddha either. He didn’t speak in riddles. His message was simple and clear.
The Buddha’s message goes something like this: Our mind, and our mind alone, is the root cause of all our suffering. It creates ideas that are not real. It becomes attached to situations, things, people, possessions, projections, expectations. In short, it’s a demanding child. The ego, some call it. It’s this attachment that causes our suffering, because nothing in this world is permanent, including the mind. The mind will create an illusory world for you if you let it. If you do associate yourself too closely with its temporary constructs of thoughts, emotions and feelings, then — and this is in no way quoting the Buddha — you’re simply, quite … well, fucked.
First Impressions of Wat Ram Poeng
Beautiful, imposing, still. The colourful temple, ornate library, peaceful gardens, the bright orange of monks’ robes as they walked slowly along the paths, the sound of nuns chanting from a room nearby, and the hum of crickets.
My new fellow students and I sat silently in the foreign meditators’ office, reading the booklet slowly and carefully as instructed, whilst Phra Chaibodin busied himself with registering us and supplying us each with bedding and white clothing.
Since the intrinsic nature of Vipassana is the contemplation of the self, we all had our own rooms. Mine was spacious, though the bed was as unyielding as a block of wood. I purposely left my rucksack at the hostel, so you can imagine my dismay when I discovered we could bring everything we’d brought to the monastery right into our rooms with us, no questions asked. None of us had been searched. I could have kicked myself when I opened my tiny daypack, fishing out the so-called cheeky tub of lip balm out of the secret side pocket.
It was in the gardens of the monastery where, as Phra Chaibodin gave us the tour on the first day, that I first saw them. Serious, serene beings who looked like they were from another planet, swathed in white and either sitting cross-legged, eyes closed in what looked like blissful concentration, or standing, gazes fixed at a 45-degree angle to the floor, hands clasped gently behind their backs. It wasn’t until a few seconds later that I realized they were moving. Slowly. I watched as their right foot inched off the floor to ankle height, moved purposely half of a foot-length forward, then placed gently on the ground in front of them. After a pause in which nothing happened, the process repeated with the left foot.
Instruction for us newbies followed, which I took to mean that soon, we too would look like patients from a psychiatric unit. Phra Chaibodin taught us to focus on the careful method of placing each foot in front of the other whilst walking (reciting to ourselves, left foot thus, right foot thus), and on the rise and fall of the belly whilst sitting.
Sitting and walking meditations are the only two activities (except for those attributed to mere survival) that, as a Vipassana student, you’re permitted to fill your days with. By the end of the program, you’ll be spending 10 hours a day in self-contemplation. In the beginning, though, you start with six hours in 15-minute increments: Walk for 15, sit for 15, walk, sit, walk, sit.
When you’re not waiting, hoping and praying for the exalted beeping sound of your timer just so you can stop doing one and start doing the other, you’re trying to focus. Not on the past or the future, but on your walking, your breathing. On what’s going on right now. This makes disengaging from your thoughts easier. Of course, they pop in regardless, along with feelings in the body, but if you keep focusing on walking or breathing, you don’t get carried away with them. Instead, you become their impartial witness as they disappear, get replaced, come back, and subside again. You can be this witness of your mind, because, after all, your mind is not you. It’s not reality, either, which is why you watch it, and why you do the practice — so you begin to see things clearly. So you see them how they really are.
I tried. It was hard.
How do you observe your thoughts impartially when there are just so many of them? When I first sat down to meditate, there weren’t just thoughts coming, there were a whole load of completely unrelated plans, memories, worries and sequences from my life repeatedly lobbed at me as though we were all there together in the spin cycle of a washing machine. My thoughts were the impartial ones, so how could I compete? Before this experience of removing all distractions of my exterior world, I had no idea just how much mind junk the white noise of society was effectively filtering out, and how much of it was therefore being allowed to grow inside me, festering, eventually transformed into beliefs, words and actions that shape my life.
“You are here,” Phra Chabodin encouraged us. “Focus. Concentrate. Accept, accept, accept.”
Finding Inner Peace
Sometimes I looked around at the silent white zombies around me and wondered what was going on in their heads. I knew what was going on in one guy’s head though, because we were hiding behind one corner of the temple one day and talking quietly (lest one of the nuns catch us fraternizing). “This place is like a prison,” he was saying, by which I assume he meant a Western one, because he spent most of his day listening to his MP3 player or reading one of the many books he’d so easily smuggled in, not that I was bitter. I also spoke in whispers one day to a girl named Alex, outside of the reporting office. “It’s so good to talk,” she kept repeating.
“It’s really weird,” I told the teacher on day three. “This morning, I really enjoyed the sitting meditation and hated the walking. Since lunch, though, it’s changed. Now I like walking, and hate sitting!” “Impermanence!” Phra Ajahn Suphan said, laughing at me. “Tomorrow, eight hours. And five minutes more.”
Those first few days were OK. Perhaps my mind had still been busy adjusting to the new routine. But after that, things seemed to get worse. Looking back, this did coincide with my beginning to sleep through the 4 a.m. meditation bell and only waking up for breakfast two hours later, as well as setting aside a good chunk of meditation time for daydreaming.
On day five, I thought I was going insane from boredom, frustration, unfulfilled wants. On day six, when the lunch bell chimed at 10:30 a.m., I’ll admit it: I escaped from the grounds to look for a shop. I bought cigarettes and sat down to smoke. A furious ghost, the sabhai worn over my shoulders coming undone and trailing on the grass. When I slipped back into the monastery unnoticed, I meandered past Phra Chaibodin’s empty office, dropped a book on Buddhism in between my meditation mat, and walked slowly and triumphantly back to my room, eyes fixed reverently toward the ground at those all-important 45 degrees. I lie on my bed and opened the book.
Five minutes later I was standing again. Neither the cigarette nor the book calmed me as I thought they would. Half an hour ago I’d been pleased, and now I wasn’t. What now? I was pacing round my room like some caged wild animal when the whopping suggestion hit me.
Well, um. You could always do a bit more meditating.
The Changing Tide
The idea was like a slap into consciousness. What else could I do? What else was I here for? An odd kind of exhausted relief swam between my anger and frustrations. After a while, I don’t know how long, something happened. Or rather, things happened, but nothing happened to me.
I’d always thought that submitting was to let go of freedom, but soon enough, I realized I’d been wrong. Because the more I committed to the practice at hand that day, the freer and lighter I became.
I started to feel more present. As I went deeper into the breath, and deeper into my walking practice, I found myself being able to watch my thoughts, almost as though they were people — neither friends nor enemies — in a waiting room. I was sitting with them, noticing as they came in and noticing when they left again. They were there, for sure, but then so was I, sitting calmly, observing them with a forgiveness, silence and a complete lack of judgment that somehow seemed to be separate, yet still connected.
As I continued, that silence seemed to get bigger and bigger — a vast, empty, completely dimensionless vessel that seemed to contain everything, both negative and positive — without reaction or reserve. A good thought, a bad feeling, the beep of my timer, the bell for our afternoon drink. It could have contained the world. I thought it probably did. These were moments of pure awareness, of pure consciousness, perhaps. They were fleeting, I admit. But the knowledge that it was there, inside me, that that was what I was, really, kept me going.
And I kept going. It might have appeared I had nothing to show for it. But I did. You just couldn’t see it, because it was nothing. That day I saw that all the distractions we tend to keep ourselves busy with are indeed unnecessary because there’s no need to be afraid. You don’t really need anything to sustain you. It’s you that sustains it all. Impermanence held by permanence. That essential you is the silence, the space, the void beyond the mind.
It was then I remembered a biblical phrase: The treasures are within.
It’s funny what happens when you submit. And by submit, I don’t mean let go, I mean… accept.
Aha. I was beginning to understand.
Perhaps it was because it was almost over, or because, despite it being forbidden to even make eye contact, I’d managed to make a couple of good friends, but from here on, it was easy. Possibly because I felt I’d accessed something. From that evening of the breakthrough, I’d found slipping into meditation, and becoming that impartial awareness or observer, easier and easier, though admittedly, it was still something I truly focused on less often than I should have, almost like I was using it as petrol, filling up my tank every now and then.
I suppose the ultimate idea is to always be in meditation. And by that, I don’t mean sitting, or walking (I use the term loosely) but just being mindful: always aware of what you’re thinking, saying, doing. Aware, therefore, of the life you’re creating along the way.
Would I recommend it? Hell yes. I look back at the whole experience with a mixture of fondness and nostalgia. Are the feelings associated with those memories just another of my mind’s illusions? That’s something to be aware of, but nonetheless, I know I’m going to do it again, and properly next time — no shared whispers, no breakouts at lunchtime. But I’ll do it again not just for that. Paradoxically, you see, this impermanence calls for consistency and continuity. Nothing lasts, so you just keep doing it. Maybe that’s why there are rituals in Buddhism — in all religions, actually — so we remember to carry on meditating, or praying, or whatever you want to call it; going within, connecting to source. Because the crux of the matter is, that is all there is. And it’s there, all right. It’s there inside of you. It has to be; it’s all you are, too.
And dare I say it? Accept, accept, accept. This too shall pass.
To find out more about Vipassana Centres across Thailand, see our Yoga & Meditation Guide here.