Having ‘sat’ my first Vipassana nine years ago, I knew it was like childbirth – painful as fuck, but ultimately rewarding, whilst giving you some life lessons at the same time that you can never undo and promising nibbanic peace and enlightenment.
Like childbirth, when the memory of the pain recedes, some are stupid enough to go back a second time. This is why I had booked my ten day course for the new year period – I had forgotten the pain, and I had forgotten just how difficult it was. However, I was keen because I needed to de-frag my brain, reset it for the new year. I knew my brain had got stuck in some loops that needed some drastic measures to shift.
Vipassana is one of the fast growing meditation practices in the world, which is why it has new centres springing up everywhere, including tin sheds in Africa, and why most people have heard of it. Even if they are unfamiliar with the word, which means ‘insight’, or the fact that is a type of Buddhist practice, they’ll definitely know what you are talking about when you tell them you won’t be talking for ten days. ‘Are you kidding me?’ they’ll inevitably reply. This becomes more incredulous as you ‘no’ to every question: ‘Can you write in a journal? Bring your phone?’. The course demands you are left alone in ‘noble silence’ which means no eye contact and definitely no phones or journals. It was what was repeated to me as I parked up my van on a slightly slopey piece of ground which might just catch some afternoon shade. ‘Make sure you strip it,’ Charlie, the head teacher, said sternly. ‘No books or reading material or anything. It’s just to sleep in’. I assured him I knew the drill. I was pleased to be staying in my van, as it’s cosy and my own personal space. It would beat sharing a dorm room.
I was also happy to be silent and happy to be alone. I huffed in annoyance when one woman crossed me in the hall and breathed ‘sorry’ in an unrestrained whisper. Did she miss the bit about ‘noble silence’? I was ready to go to the deepest darkest parts of myself and *be* with that tremendous pain, and was ready to shut off all external stimulation. In fact, I was all ready to meet with Charlie at his lunchtime question sessions (you are allowed to speak to the teacher to ask questions about the practice) and ask if I could be given a cell, because I knew that as an ‘old’ student, having completed a ten day course already, that I would be allowed to be in these quiet and sensory deprived cells attached to the main dhamma hall.
I was ready to cry. I was ready to stare at the road leading out and think about leaving. I was ready to get up to the noise of the gong at 4 am and the strict timetable which asked you to work hard at meditating for nearly ten hours a day, plus the evening discourses.
What I was not ready for was the heat.
A vipassana course will bring you extreme discomfort, and like childbirth, most people won’t tell newcomers this. No one is going to sit a course if they *know* it’s going to be as painful as hell. No one tells pregnant mothers that they are going to have the worst pain of their lives and scream for the drugs they never wanted (okay, maybe some woman have a more pleasant experience of childbirth than me). However, I knew it was going to be uncomfortable and I was fine with it. But on this Day One, the second day after Christmas, the temperature was going to soar to 39 degrees – a very dry and apocalyptic heat that has Victorians scurrying indoors to stay very still under the air conditioner and do nothing except to check to see what time the cool change is coming through, often marked by shouts of joy coming from Adelaide, who get it first.
And I had no where to go.
The dhamma hall was relatively cooler, but to be in there I had to sit very still for hours on end and not move, and this is (you guessed it) painful. The pain will go towards the end of the course, guaranteed, because part of the practice is dealing with sensation and observing it as it passes. I was no-where near that point and having not practiced so intensely for nine years, and was barely focussing on anapana (this is single pointed focus on the breath, and only the breath, for three days before the next part is taught, a body scan with lazer sharp focus on sensation, both gross and subtle) because of the heat and muscle spasms at the same time. Muscle spasms I could handle. Heat I could possibly handle.
Both were like being in hell, twice over.
In the first few days of vipassana you take respite where you can get it before you’re willing and able to sit for longer periods of time. A hot shower. Breakfast. Walking the roped boundaries of the compound. Meditating in your room (apart from three group meditation sessions and the discourses, which were compulsory for everyone) was bliss as you could lean your back against the wall or fall asleep.
But my room was a hot tin can on a scorching summer day.
It must have been 50 degrees inside that van by 11 am. I tried to brave it by lying on the floor, my shoulders against the water butt. I wet the sarong I used as a curtain, a makeshift air conditioner. I stripped down to my bra and wet myself with a cold flannel. By midday it was clear I couldn’t meditate in the van, so tried the hall again, walking back up the hot dirt path and trying to concentrate on the triangle space that was the holes of my nostrils, the top of my lip.
Ingoing breath, outgoing breath.
I felt queasy, compounded by a swollen stomach from two meals in a row of lentils. I was so light headed I was worried I was going to topple over.
Ingoing breath, outgoing breath.
My skin itched and prickled. During the 1 to 2.30 pm sit, which I thought was compulsory, I literally cried the whole way through, frustrated because I was doing a terrible job of ignoring unpleasant situations. I was not naive to this practice and I knew that if I was going to be successful at it, I had to push through all of this. I was not weak, not was I making excuses for myself, nor was I blindly listening to my brain without knowing what my brain was doing – going into survival mode by throwing all it could at me to get me out of there.
Ingoing breath, outgoing breath.
By 2.15, I thought I needed a cold shower and a lie down, so went down to the van, grabbed my towel, checked the timetable and realized the compulsory sit was 2.30 to 3.30. By this time I was sure I was suffering heatstroke, but kept telling myself to ignore it, as that was the instructions for any discomfort at this point.
Ingoing breath, outgoing breath.
At 3.30, I tried to cool down, having a freezing shower. Such was the weather that within ten minutes, I was hot again. This might have been different if I had a cool room and a fan, but I couldn’t enter into the van at all – only the dappled shade of gum trees where ants and insects bit my too-hot skin. Back up to the hall I went, and tried another ten minutes before I just buckled, head on knees, and silently sobbed. There can be no buckling with heads on knees in the hall, only straight spines in upright positions, so the female assistant came to touch me on the shoulder, resulting in me leaving the hall, back into the inferno. It’s her job to look after people who need things, from changed bedding to demands to leave, so the lovely Mina came to assist. Charlie allowed me to go to the servers quarters, which was the coolest place in the whole centre. It was such sweet relief to put my feet on the cold concrete floor and sit in a chair and close my eyes and try to re-focus on anapana (I wasn’t going to let this interrupt me) but the room started spinning, resulting in Violetta (my carer for a few blessed hours) asking if I wanted a juice or some fruit. Now, if you’re an old student, you aren’t allowed to eat after midday, so this would be breaking one of the precepts) but I thought this was a small concession and would help get me back on track. I have never had such a beautiful apple and mango juice in my life and it helped restore my sense of humour at least.
To leave a vipassana course, you must speak with the senior teacher, because no one should just leave just in case they’re suffering some severe mental breakdown (which absolutely happens on these courses), and he did try to convince me to say.
‘Why didn’t you say something earlier?’ he asked, smiling at me.
‘Because I didn’t want to react to sensation!’ I shot back, crying. I was doing exactly what was asked of me – ignoring sensation and trying to focus on the breath. I knew it was going to be hard, and was trying to push through. He reminded me I was an old student, and knew that it could be hard. The conversation seemed a paradox to me at this point – I knew it was hard, but he was telling me I should have spoken out and done something about my discomfort, yet it he was saying it was hard, and thus – ah. And so it went on.
‘I just think this has broken me far too early – I just don’t have the mental capacity to start again. But perhaps if the change comes tonight, I’ll push through’, I grimaced.
‘There’s not going to be a cool change, but tomorrow is only going to be 30 degrees. It’ll be warm all week.’ he said gently. ‘Just take it easy. Sit in the shade. Only do the group sittings.’
Whilst I was nodding to his suggestion to sit the last group sit and listen to Goenke’s discourse for the evening that quite likely would cheer me up, and leave in the morning when I was well rested, my heart was sinking. If I couldn’t meditate for the majority of the sittings, I wasn’t going to really get all the benefits I wanted. And Goenke-ji’s voice was already pissing me off.
By 5 pm I still couldn’t enter my van due to the heat and it was going to be a long hot sleepless night, with the prospect of being awoken again by the gong at 4 and the pain beginning all over again.
My mind had already been broken, and it was only Day One.
However, it was not quite that broken. It did a damn good job of convincing me to leave, balancing a week of pain against going home, tending my garden, doing yoga, going surfing and promising myself a more rigid yoga and meditation session and a digital detox. That would be enough for me, I reasoned. I’d come back in the Winter, when the elements weren’t placing every barrier they could on my Dhamma path.
What a blissful drive home it was, with the air conditioning on and an icy pole. Screw nibbana, I thought. I’ll get there the long way round.