Confused I wake up at 4am on day 2. Did that gong sound or was that my imagination? Without any way to check the time I stare at the ceiling of my cubicle for a moment, listening. Then suddenly one of my neighbours turns on his light, casting a long shadow over the wall and across my ceiling. All around me I hear the muffled sounds of tired people waking up and moving around. I’m so much of an evening person that I’m happy there are no mirrors and I can’t see my own face. The gong sounds again. It’s time for the first session in the hall. I take a deep breath, move aside the mosquito net and slide into my hippie pants and slippers.
The night is still pitch black when I enter the hall. The first session of the day takes two hours and is without instructions. In fact the teachers are nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless most seats are taken by people who seem to be in trance already. I sit down on my cushion and close my eyes. Almost immediately a sharp pain in my back starts manifesting, something I feared might happen. I try to ignore it and remember yesterday’s instructions. Close eyes. Keep hands relaxed in my lap. Start focusing on breathing through the nose. Try to become aware of any sensation at all on the tiny area of the nostrils and the upper lip. Keep doing this for the entire session.
It’s very hard to keep focusing on something that isn’t there, I think after ten minutes. Apart from the occasional itching I feel nothing much close to anything I’d call a sensation. Instead my mind wanders. There’ll be breakfast soon, and even though I won’t be able to talk to anyone at least I get to sit in a real chair. Happy days! I wish the food they served was any good. It’s not the vegan thing, no I don’t care about eating vegan for ten days. Should I become vegan? It’s better for the planet. Hmmm where on the planet should I go for the next couple of months? But wait, flying all over the world means I’m accumulating a giant ecological footprint, then it doesn’t make sense to become vegan, I’d better not fly anymore instead. Hmmm eating vegan is not that hard, I did it while I was volunteering in the organic olive grove too, months and months ago in Greece. The food there was delicious. Do I feel something crawling up my leg? Better take a look. I don’t want it to be like yesterday when I saw a big spider scurrying around my neighbour’s cushion. Better check to make sure. What do spiders eat actually? Meat? Yeah they’re not vegan at all. It’s not fair, we get only rice. Steamed rice, watery rice, sticky rice, rice with sugar for desert. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wait I should be focusing on my breath and nostrils. How long has my mind been wandering? Let’s try again. Pompidompidom… would there be bananas for breakfast? I don’t like bananas but here I do like them. They’re not rice. Oh the irony. I have to pee. Do I drink too much water? I thought rice soaks in all the water? Let’s focus on the breath shall we? I’d like to but do you remember yesterday when during lunch that old guy accidentally spilled soup in Mr Miyagi’s slipper? Haha that cracked me up so much. Almost broke my vow of silence there. Oh wait I’m supposed to focus on my breath. Damn you gong, what’s taking you so long?
The course schedule is very strict. At 4am sharp the gong wakes up everyone lucky enough to get some sleep on the prison bed. At 4.30am the meditation hall is full and silent. 120 people sit cross-legged on pillows with their eyes closed. It’s a long session, that lasts until 6.30am. Then the gong announces breakfast and rest until 8am. 8am – 9am is the first session of strong determination, but more on that later. A 5 minute break and another 2 hour session, until 11am. Then lunch is prepared. It’s remarkably similar to breakfast. After lunch there’s a break until 1pm, my favourite moment of the whole day. Exhausted after a short night with little sleep and a draining morning program I manage to fall asleep almost every day. Then the gong announces the next session, from 1pm until 2.30. Five minutes break, another session of strong determination until 3.30, five minutes break and another 1,5 hour session, until dinner is announced at 5pm. According to the official Vipassana rules there is no dinner to be had at 5, which is supposed to be merely a tea break with some fruits. But like with many things Cambodians don’t feel the need to adhere to the rules too much. They serve a dinner, which is basically just leftovers from breakfast and lunch. From 6pm until 7 there is the third session of strong determination, followed by a video discourse until 8.30. Then the final session lasts until 9, which is bed time.
Everyone seems to be using day 2 as a way to experiment with the auxiliary pillows. Next to the entrance of the hall there’s a giant box filled with pillows in different shapes and sizes which we can use to find a more comfortable posture. People put a small pillow under each knee, or under their bum , or just put one in their lap to rest their hands on. I’m also looking for the perfect posture, jealously eyeballing some individuals in the ladies crowd who somehow got their hands on some sort of back support device. Why do these ladies get preferential treatment? Why does that hundred-twenty-year-old get to sit with her back against the wall? All of this is not fair. I hate all these people burping and breathing loudly! Oh well there we have the dying llama again, shut up with the stupid chanting! In my mind I’m giving the guy in front of me a light push as retribution for all the farts he’s been sending my way today. Off balance by the sudden change in equilibrium he falls forwards onto the person in front on him, who then topples over onto the person in front of that. The human domino keeps going until everyone is head first on the floor except me. Satisfied I jump up, tear open my shirt hiding a superman costume and disappear with a devilish laugh in a haze of smoke and thunder.
It’s strange to be completely and utterly alone amidst 120 other people. During the meditation sessions everyone is doing his own thing in silence, but also during the meals, while walking in the garden, during teeth brushing or after the sessions speaking is not allowed, and neither is eye contact, gesturing or any other form of non verbal communication. By the end of day three I have given everyone that I recognise nicknames as a way to pass the time. I also invented a whole background story for each of them, including the reason they are here, their hopes and dreams for the future and their family tree, up until the third generation. The first to receive a nickname was the guy sitting on the pillow in front of me. I always stare at the back of his head and nicknamed him den Trappe, based on his trapezium shaped haircut. Den trappe was more or less my age and was always the last one to appear in the meditation hall after the sounding of the gong. He didn’t really like to be here it seemed, which made me like him immediately. When the gong rang he actively walked away from the entrance to the meditation hall as far as possible before dragging himself as slowly as possible and with hunched shoulders towards his seat as if it was the executioner’s block. His outfits looked expensive and I imagined he was sent here by his wealthy and powerful Cambodian father who hoped he would finally learn some discipline before taking over the family business, much against the will of the former, who’d much more like to join the circus. The guy on the pillow to my right on the other hand seemed to be born with the sole purpose of becoming a Vipassana meditator. During the whole 10 days I never even once caught him moving or opening his eyes during any of the meditation sessions, thus earning him the nickname Rock. Together with Glasses, the guy on my left, they were among the better students of the class. Then there was Dirk, a tall Dutch guy who used so many auxiliary pillows that his seat looked more like a blanket fort than an area for quiet contemplation. He regularly skipped sessions and spent most of the time of the other sessions on a plastic chair in the back of the hall to release the pressure on his painful knees, despite his young age. Eventually he left the course on day 9 for reasons of a wrongly scheduled flight. Stick on the other hand had to be at least a hundred and twelve years old, was so slow he usually struggled to make it to the dining hall in time before the other hungry participants finished all the food and scared everyone time and again with his shrieking bones every time he sat down, but nonetheless made it to day 11 glamorously as if he was the inventor of the elixir of life. I later learned he did a course every year together with his wife, and didn’t have the slightest trouble sitting for so long.
By the morning of day 3, despite a lot of internal cursing, sweating, frustration and painful limbs I could finally see some progress in my idle attempts to shut down my agitated mind. During some of the sessions I noticed how I could focus longer without my mind wandering to every dark corner of my subconscience. The morning sessions were usually easiest. Still half asleep it seemed less difficult to keep my mind at bay. I was less distracted and sometimes managed to get into some kind of sleepy trance where my mind was blank but I could still focus on my bodily sensations. It was the darkest and the quietest time of day as well. As the course progressed I really came to treasure these early morning sessions in the hall, where after some time the chattering of the birds announced a new day full of daylight and opportunities, followed by the gong that meant breakfast. As a general rule the sessions after a longer break usually went relatively well, whereas the sessions after 5 minute breaks were still excruciatingly painful and impossible to focus. It is extremely unsatisfying to sit through a one-hour session going to great lengths to focus, suffering physical pain and mental self abuse pushing yourself further and further to then hear the gong, take a walk in the garden for 5 minutes and sit back down on the pillow to go through the whole experience again, knowing that after that there are even more sessions. And tomorrow the whole cycle repeats itself…
During one of the afternoon sessions of day 3 I’m determined to try and sit still for the entire hour. Tomorrow, on day 4, the actual Vipassana meditation exercises start. So far we have only practised Annapana, a technique to quiet down the mind and learn to focus on the experiencing of physical sensations. The area of the nostrils and upper lip is just an introduction, a pars pro toto. We’re narrowing down the focus area in order to be able to go deeper into the sensations. Starting tomorrow we will expand the focus area to the entire body. Combined with this we’ll also have 3 sessions of strong determination, where we cannot move for the entire time. I’m anxious for both aspects of this change. So far I’ve barely managed to feel any nostril sensations. Every previous session I’ve been making some progress when it comes to sitting still though. Every time I make it a few more minutes before giving up in pain. Currently I can more or less hang in there for 35 minutes, a big difference compared to the initial 5. Sixty whole minutes is still way off though…
I can’t bear the pain in my upper back anymore when I finally give up the internal struggle that has been going on for some time in my mind. We’re not supposed to move for the entire session, but my physical pain has been slowly eating away at my determination to follow that guideline. I open my eyes without a clue of how much time has passed since the start of the hour. One’s perception of time passage when sitting on a cushion with closed eyes doing nothing is very, very different from reality. It wouldn’t be until the afternoon that I would find out about the clock hanging on the wall behind me. Idiot. I’m completely helpless and, despite the presence of 119 other motionless cross-legged figures in the meditation hall, utterly alone. Slowly it starts to sink in what I’ve gotten myself into here.
‘Here’ is in the Dhamma Lattika meditation centre in the Cambodian countryside, a few kilometres outside of the city of Battambang. I’m here because I signed up for a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation course. Looking back, I still can’t pinpoint when I decided to take this spiritual boot-camp. Before arriving here I had never even meditated. I had heard others talk about the benefits of meditation in their lives and the spiritual intensity of 10-day courses like these, so I was curious but not well-versed. Maybe I took this course exactly because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up.
Created by and taught using recordings of the late S.N. Goenka, the course is a rigorous 10-day mental training intended to turn students into “masters of their minds”. Although the technique of Vipassana originates 2500 years ago when the Buddha became enlightened under a bodhi tree, and Buddhist philosophy certainly guides the course, Goenka insists that it is entirely nonsectarian, universal, and scientific in nature, as its aim is to create mental peace and stop the vicious circle of creating misery for oneself, rather than worship any higher being.
How hard can it be to spend 10 days in absolute silence, thinking about “stuff”, I had thought. To abstain from my busy, connected life for once. To lock all my ‘devices’ (what a terrible word) into a locker for the next ten days. To surrender not only my phone, but also my speech. Not just my books, notebook and pen, but also my entire right to communicate. When I filled out the registration form after my arrival here yesterday I answered the question “Why did you decide to participate in this course and what do you hope to accomplish during your time here?” truthfully saying that I was looking for some peace of mind and body after six exhausting months traveling the world. To stop moving around for 10 days to process the experiences and insights of the last few months. Reflection reduced to its bare essence.
It was a strange first day, yesterday. Straight after hopping out of the tuktuk that delivered me to the centre’s doorstep I walked into what was apparently the ladies’ entrance of the registration building. Wildly gesturing and shouting incomprehensible things in Kmer I was chased back out of the door and into the right entrance. There I was presented with a questionnaire and a contract to sign by a guy that looked a bit like Mr. Miyagi from the Karate kid. ‘That I’d adhere to the rules and schedule of the course and that I’d stay until the official end in ten days.’ After registration I was shown my residential quarters in a dormitory building that looked like it could have been used as horse stables just the same. Every room had its own front door, a bed with mosquito net, a light and a fan, but the walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. The door had a square area with hinges that could open separately from the door itself. Like how the horses can put their heads outside to smell the fresh air without taking flight. Do they want to prevent us from running? The rest of the meditation centre consisted of two Asian style sanitary buildings (toilet and shower in one, do I still want to be here?), a dining hall with tables and chairs facing the same wall to avoid students sitting face to face, and the dhamma or meditation hall. Male and female accommodations were strictly separated by a fence cutting straight through the garden, and the only time we would get to see people of the opposite sex was during the meditation sessions in the hall.
After dropping my stuff in room number nine I had handed over all my forbidden items. Camera, phone, iPad, notebook and pens, e-reader, and the hard copy of some book I’d been dragging around since Iran three months ago. I met Douglas and Michael, a Scot and an Austrian guy and we introduced ourselves and talked for a bit about our fears and expectations for the upcoming ten days over coffee. It was reassuring that they were complete newbies to meditation too. After that and with an hour to spare before the official kickoff of the course and start of the Noble silence I went for a walk in the garden, where small groups of Cambodians were already pacing around. A Buddhist monk engaged in conversation with me, eager to practice his English. We kept talking for about an hour, walking circles around the garden while the sun started to set over the surrounding rice paddies. He told me this was the seventh time he came for a course and that he was looking forward to the moment it would finally begin. I asked him how the other times had been but he responded with a peculiar, almost invisible smile on his lips that everyone’s journey is different and personal, and therefore incomparable to anyone else’s. Our conversation was interrupted by a loud gong in the middle of the garden and my new companion left me behind with a twinkle in his eyes. All the participants had by now settled in their respective stable and everyone gathered at the entrance of the meditation hall, where we were assigned our cushions. Noble silence had begun, and the very first meditation session was about to begin…
To be honest I had no idea what it meant exactly to meditate before I started this adventure. My fairytale version of it involved a lot of sitting and thinking and processing and growing and not so much physical pain and boredom. As a result that first time on the cushion in the meditation hall yesterday was very startling. A tape recording was played and I almost fell off my pillow when the sound of a dying llama reverberated around the room. After a while I realised it was the voice of ‘guru’ Goenka chanting in an ancient Indian language, something he would do at the start and the end of most sessions from then on. Eventually the chanting died away and the instructions for that specific session were given. This first session the only instruction was to focus all our attention to physical sensations on the area between the nostrils and the upper lip. To try and focus on purely that and block out all other thoughts or sensations. And when our mind started wandering, to realise it wandering, and emotionless bring it back to the sensations on the upper lip.
I’ve agreed to be locked up inside my own head, I realised while sitting cross-legged on that pillow. I tried to remember the daily schedule that we have to follow scrupulously. Did it really say that there are 10,5 hours worth of meditation sessions like this every day? This is the first hour of day 0, people can’t possibly sign up for this out of their own free will? This is worse then sitting in front of the microwave and putting the timer at 10,5 hours, waiting for a dish to be ready. Everyone knows that microwave minutes are the longest minutes on the speed scale of time passage. But here, there’s no amazing yesterday’s lasagna when that timer actually goes off. All it means is going back to your windowless cubicle, turn on the fan and try to shut your eyes again for 6 hours. Is that even healthy, to have your eyes closed for 18 hours a day?
All these thoughts race through my head while I’m sitting there on my pillow, waiting for a gong that seems an eternity away. Day 0 of 10, try not to go crazy yet, ok? Just try to make it to the end of the hour. That gong will come at some point. That’s the law of nature. Everything is impermanent, and also this shall pass.
The following day I’m on the same pillow again. This will be my cushion for the rest of the course, I’ve come to understand. This seat, on the last of 6 neat rows of pillows, will be my home for the next ten days. At least I can look at the clock behind me without anyone that might have his eyes open seeing it. I’ve got that going for me, I guess. Not that anyone, except me, would ever open his eyes or change his position before the gongs sounds. We’re supposed to sit still for one hour but it seems I’m the only one struggling with this. Every five or ten minutes I have to change my posture, and every time I do I have to look at the clock on the wall to make sure I see how much longer this tragedy has to go on. Everyone else though, seems to sit still like the Buddha himself. Are they becoming enlightened already, while I’m here struggling to even keep my eyes closed and my back straight? Why am I so bad at this? Maybe all these Cambodians are just way more used to sitting on the ground? Yeah that must be it. I’ve seen them do it, the Asian people. I can’t even squat for five minutes to relieve myself of number two, holding myself steady in the toilet stall using both arms in grotesque positions just to hover over that hole long enough to release my previous meal back into the wild, but Asians they squat when they’re waiting for the bus. Or fishing in the rivers and ponds. Or talking on the phone. Even these old guys on the pillow frontline aren’t moving, and I’m pretty sure they might have fought in the second world war. Ninety years old at least. I’ve even seen that guy there walking with a stick, imagine! I open my eyes and look at the clock. Twenty five minutes gone. Not even halfway yet. I arrived here yesterday afternoon already you know, they call it day 0. There’s also a day 11, for that matter. I’m not getting any happier.
The hours creep by so slowly it’s like the earth has stopped turning. Two hour meditation session. Breakfast. Three hour meditation session. Lunch. Four hour meditation session. Dinner. The two of them are quite a pair, I think while observing the male and female assistant teachers tediously during one of the lesser successful sitting sessions of that first day. The male teacher is a small man with a face like he has to do Vipassana meditation every day. Probably because he does. He looks a bit like Count Odilon, a side character from a Belgian comic book that rides his dog Tobias together with his wife the countess, who rides a dog like a polar bear. He sits on an elevated platform next to the female assistant teacher, who looks like the most devoted housewife ever, the kind of woman who spends her time knitting scarfs and socks for her grandchildren years before they are born. The count and countess were obviously very good at sitting still with their eyes closed. They made it their life’s purpose. I think I’ll choose a different path, with all due respect.
The end of day 1 draws nearer. After dinner there’re two more sessions, separated by a Dhamma talk. In these talks, that we’ll get to see every night, a video is displayed in which Goenka gives some theoretical and philosophical background on the technique we’re learning and the daily struggles on the path towards wisdom. Since the videos are in English we follow them in a smaller, separate room while the Cambodians take their place on our by now well known pillows in the hall.
We’re only six foreign guys, and when the girls enter I count nine of them. Fifteen foreigners out of 120 participants! I’d expected different numbers. After 10 hours of meditation sessions I’d hoped to find a comfortable couch waiting for us. Maybe they even have some popcorn, we’re watching tv after all. To my disappointment there are fifteen pillows waiting for us in rows that are just as neat as in the big hall. My back protests heavily, which lands me in the doghouse with the teacher. When I can’t take it any longer and lay down on my side, curled in a little ball like a beaten dog he shakes his head disapprovingly and gestures me to sit up again with the swish of a stern finger. No words needed. I groan.
At 9pm the gong finally calls it a day and before the teacher’s done explaining that there is half an hour of Q&A for those who have doubts I’m already out the door, in my slippers and halfway the garden to my own room. I close the door, turn on the fan and crawl onto my cardboard mattress. I’m happy to have brushed my teeth straight after dinner. This is getting familiar, I think when I close my eyes.