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.