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…