After 10 days of silent meditation, I am now a lot more sympathetic to what Neo must have been going through when he discovered the Matrix. That is to say, a shit ton of PAIN.
Seriously folks, we are not hippies. We are not new age, crystal-and-gem-stone healing freaks. We’re not that deep either, we don’t often sit around questioning the meaning of life or debating our conscious existence. But for some reason when a local Malaysian girl told us how calm and focused she felt after her 10-day meditation course, we thought, without much hesitation or research, “Sounds great! Sign us up!” A week later we were in Indonesia taking a vow of silence and sitting cross legged for 11 hours a day.
The first four days
The course was full of normal looking, non-dreadlocked, fairly clean looking individuals – which eased my worries about joining a cult. But on the first night when the gong sounded and the Buddhist chanting began, I was ready to hit the door running. My mind is open to new ideas but it hesitates when asked to zen out to a piped in recording of a man who sounds like Dracula growling in Pali. Chanting, among other things like animal sacrifice and praying with snakes, was just too wacky for me. And after one minute of sitting on the floor, my toes were already numb. I was ready to leave without the course even properly beginning.
And the next day I discovered that our teacher wasn’t even at the retreat center, instead we would be listening to audio recordings that were paused every fifth sentence and translated into Bahasa Indonesia so the entire class could understand. At night we were shown a lecture given by the teacher in 1993 and filmed by a novice who just learned how to pan and zoom. What are we doing here!?
I really felt that we were being filmed for a hidden camera tv show. I was prepared that at any moment someone with a camera would jump out and laugh.
A dip in the Ganges of Damma
But we stayed. Our video guru had a positive message and all he asked us to do was sit still and observe our breathing. The kitchen didn’t appear to serve kool aid.
We woke up at 4:00 am and meditated the entire day, sometimes for 4 hours at a time – always sitting still, just breathing, breathing, breathing.
Your mind has a lot to say when you’re asked to concentrate on your breathing. You drift off into a day dream. You think about the past, you plan the future, you scratch your itches and adjust your back. Try it right now, sit still for just one minute, feel your breath and don’t allow your mind to wander – it’s hard! But our guru continued to tell us, “have a calm and patient mind. You’re bound to be successful.”
So after the first two days, about 20 hours of meditation, my mind began to calm down. Suddenly I could sit still for 3 minutes and breathe. Then 4 minutes. Then, maybe, 4 minutes 20 seconds. But the pain! The sheer and total agony of sitting still is almost overwhelming. Your back aches, your legs go numb, your feet and hands tingle from lack of blood. And this is where Buddhism kicks in.
Vipassana (the short-short version)
Each night our taped guru taught us a tiny bit more about why we were putting our bodies through this torture – namely experiential learning. All religions are meant to act as a moral guide and Buddhists believe that meditation is the best way to learn how to affect positive change in yourself and others. You learn to understand and accept that your body is in pain and that the pain you’re feeling is temporary, you learn not to react. You train your mind not to scratch your itchy nose or adjust your sore back. By not reacting, the physical pain goes away. You begin to understand everything is temporary.
In training your mind not to react to your physical pain, you learn not to react to emotional pain. When someone makes you angry, you are able to step back and understand that the anger (pain) you’re feeling is temporary. You can choose to react or your can choose not to react.
Eventually, there is no anger.
When there is no angry reaction you have the space to feel compassion towards others. You can positively impact a situation by responding with kindness and compassion. When you can do this, you help yourself and you help the other person.
The last few days
If you can agree with the basic tenets of Buddhism, meditating becomes a lot easier. And so does accepting the odd nature of the course.
You master breathing and learn to concentrate on your body – how does your head feel? Is there pain? What about your shoulders? Can you feel your clothes or the wind blowing on your back? Suddenly every part of your body is humming in utter misery. You feel everything. My hip joints ached, blood was pumping vigourously through my fingers, a single hair was brushing against my face. I wanted to move, stretch, itch – react!
But slowly you discover Sabbe sankhara anicca (everything is temporary) and you don’t need to move. Somehow the pain subsides. Somehow you become calm.
On day 10 we were released from our vow of silence and, surprisingly, it was totally unwelcome. This course was deeply introspective and physically intense. After paying such close attention to your body, all of your senses are physically heightened. During meditation when someone coughed, I could feel the sound hit and reverberate on my ears. When silence ended hearing all the voices of fellow mediators was absolutely jarring. After having all this time to understand my own mind, I was not yet ready to share that watershed of emotion with other people, not even Vinnie.
It took a while before the room filled with voices. And then the voices became a little louder as people realized that we all went through the same experience. And then suddenly the room was filled with laughter, “I thought I was the only one in agony!” “Me too!” “On the second day I asked our teacher what kind of cult is this!?” “Me too!’
Now that we’re not meditating 11 hours a day, we can easily say that the course was wonderful. It was certainly deeply impactful.
And we’re happy. Calm. More compassionate. Plus, we have six more months of traveling ahead of us!
So with our new found knowledge of the world, Vinnie and I are setting off in different directions for a while. I am on my way to Vietnam where I will indulge in french baguettes and volunteer at a local orphanage.
And keeping with our Matrix theme, Vinnie is heading back to China to chill with Buddhist monks and learn Kung Fu at a Shaolin monastery .I’ll join him in a few weeks.