The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.
From 5 to 16 July 2017, I completed a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation in Johor, Malaysia (with Xin Min! ❤ – but we couldn’t communicate with each other). The course is taught by S. N. Goenka (1924-2013) through evening discourse video tutorials and by one of his assistant teachers in person, in the tradition of Burmese meditation master Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Courses (of various lengths, going up to 60 days) are run solely on a donation basis, with over 177 centers worldwide. The meditation technique is open to practice by all religions. More information on course dates, locations, timetable and the code of conduct (Noble Silence, no meal after midday, no writing/reading materials etc.) can be found here: https://www.dhamma.org/.
FOUR Small Stories
- My Complicated Relationship with the 4.30am Gong
- The Art of Doing Nothing
- I Find Some Modicum of Equanimity
- Everyone Has A Story
I don’t give up easily, most of the time.
But, by the end of Day 2, I was tired, lost, and incredibly lonely with my agitated mind as the sole company for the impending eight days.
On Day 3, in the concealing darkness of the morning, when I heard the gong sound again and again at 4AM and then at 4.30AM, some chord within me broke with a forlorn twang and I stayed still. Corpse-like on the mattress, I stared at a stained part of the ceiling and numbly listened to the shuffling noises of everyone around me as they ambled off for morning meditation until… The returning shroud of silence washed away the guilt at my escapist tendencies and lulled me back into uneasy sleep (I still woke up at 6.30AM for breakfast).
Not waking up was essentially admitting defeat.
I made slight headway on Day 4 when we finally switched from Anapana (observing the breath) to Vipassana (scanning the body from head to feet for sensations). I was so bored and distracted with keeping my attention confined to the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip that I had a new surge of optimism when the area for surveying expanded. Yet, a plateau inevitably followed every short burst of progress — invariably around evening time when hunger pangs hit (because no eating after midday!).
Battling with the 4.30AM gong became a daily affair.
On Day 6, I became mindful of how my complicated relationship with the early morning gong was strangely akin to the suffering that the Buddhist doctrine outlined; my anxiety was a fear of disappointment, all rooted in my desire for some sort of shining nirvana moment and my appetite for comfort.
During a noon interview slot with the teacher, I haplessly confessed that I simply couldn’t feel anything. My legs were numb and the pain obliterated all other sensations.
The teacher smiled and slowly said, “Do you not realize that pain and numbness are sensations too? There is nothing you ought to experience. All you have to do is observe the numbness as it is, in the moment.”
Once upon a time, I could never identify with certain parts of Seneca’s writings. The Stoic philosopher argued, by quoting Hecato of Rhodes, that limiting one’s desires helps to cure one of fear — ‘Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.’ However, on Day 6, I suddenly grasped some truth in those abstract words.
Maybe everything was less about what I should do, but simply about what I can. Maybe the point was to be compassionate to myself — to disengage from expectation and observe the reality of what I experience without judgment.
I will never be a morning person. But, on Day 7, at last, I rose at 4.30AM.
When you clear the clutter from your life, there is room. It’s unfamiliarly empty, but by some law of physics, something new has got to enter eventually.
When I surrendered myself to the monastic way of living for ten days, I started experiencing pockets of time when I literally had NOTHING to do for the first time in my life. No books, no wi-fi, no conversation, no contact with the outside world. Since I was sick and tired of meditating outside of the 11 hours, it also meant no meditation. So break times were just a huge blank. It got really weird.
I set a record for a bunch of things:
- Stretching for the gazillionth time
- Brushing my teeth four times a day
- Savoring a slice of pineapple for over 30 minutes (I was so hungry and completely reluctant to part with the last edible thing I had for the day)
I also did mildly crazy things because I was just bored out of my mind:
- Counting my steps to 1500 as I strolled around the walking area (no jogging allowed)
- Lovingly washing my clothes in a different colored pail (o what a sparkly burst of variety)
- Experimenting with various combinations of milo powder, Lipton tea bag, milk powder, condensed milk and water during meal times (THANK GOD FOR MILO! THANK GOD FOR CONDENSED MILK!)
- Memorizing the Chinese words on my herbal medicine pack and scrutinizing the English instructions on Xin Min’s skincare products for intellectual stimulation
- Rearranging my pillows in the meditation hall in new creative configurations at the end of each session
In the end? I came slightly closer to doing nothing than ever before, but obviously, I was not very good at it.
In a place where doing nothing was the norm instead of the anomaly, I learned to embrace it. In the past, minutes of idleness would totally disturb my peace of mind — I was obsessed with the external reality; my productivity barometer; and what I ought to be doing. Yet, in a secluded environment devoid of worldly responsibilities and contact, I began shifting my attention toward my inner reality. I stopped wondering about what the heck was going on outside, stopped thinking about the social media action that I was missing out on, and stopped worrying about the future. I started living in the moment and unpacking the present: What sensations am I experiencing right now? What troubles me? What makes me happy? What thoughts keep emerging? What am I attracted to? It was no longer unnerving to be alone with my mind that used to constantly stray ahead toward some fear or another. I was beginning to be my own friend.
16 July 2017, 8.31AM, On the Johor-Singapore Causeway.
I stared intently at the bar on my phone screen. It flickered and then…
Yes! My 4G was back, and I was back in the arms of modern civilization.
16 July 2017, 2.45PM, On the LRT.
In the morning, I had rushed home to shower and then headed straight to Korean class. After a lunch catch-up with a friend and a long-awaited bubble tea fix, I finally had all the time in the world to delve back into my social media accounts.
Enter: some unpleasant comment about me on a stranger’s Facebook post.
Even fresh out of all the equanimity training (we should neither desire pleasant sensations nor grow averse to unpleasant sensations), I was hit by an overpowering wave of anger and icky feeling.
In just one moment, I lost the equanimous mind that I had strived so hard to cultivate over ten grueling days. One comment was enough to make me almost physically recoil.
I’m not sure how long I sat on the LRT upset — maybe for a few minutes — but anyway I missed my stop.
It was only when I glanced at the date of the comment, 6 July 2017, that I saw the humor in this entire episode. Here I was, nine days late to the party, fuming by myself when the rest of the world had moved on with its short attention span. Can there be a better demonstration of what the course had sought to repeatedly drum into our minds, the lesson of anicca (impermanence)?
Had I been present to witness how the social media reactions unfolded toward my previous post, unpleasant comments like the one I came across would have ruined my day or even my week. In the whirlwind of action, I have often easily been caught up in extremities of feelings and in a self-pitying game of wallowing. It’s hard to snap out of it.
But this episode was powerfully incisive and illustrative of the wisdom of impermanence. Because by the time I had processed the responses on social media to my previous post and was instinctively propelled to react, life had gone on for everyone else. What was the point? In fact, even if others had not moved on, why should I stew in negativity when I had so many other things to enjoy?
I stood there on the LRT platform and did the strangest thing — I observed my breathing and then scanned my body from head to feet for sensations.
A throbbing at my jaw. Obviously heavy breathing. An itch on my hip…
The anger subsided. My urge to respond and to disprove petered out. And I was suddenly okay. I went to buy a froyo and trotted back home to watch a Chinese reality TV show.
I am unbelievably grateful for the incredible timing of this whole chapter. The world works in magical ways to show us the laws that it is governed by — everything is impermanent, life always goes on, and so we might as well learn to how to quietly and nimbly let go.
Throw a bunch of strangers together, prohibit them from ‘any form of communication, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc.’, and you get a lot of judging, wandering and overreacting minds.
It’s 2oz of natural curiosity, coupled with 1 jug of the human propensity to distort and magnify the reality around us.
In ten days, I subconsciously gave everyone a label in my mind (boho European backpacker! housewife seeking peace! person who shifts 167543 times in 30 minutes!), spun stories about their background, and sometimes, even unnecessarily imagined their perception of me (e.g. oops I just cracked my knuckles for the third time in an hour; the person beside me just coughed; she must hate me). My mind was out of control with making assumptions based on my subjective perceptions.
On Day 10, when Noble Silence was lifted and we could finally find out just what exactly we thought of each other, the version of reality I had built in my mind crumbled into dust.
The downfall of one reality that I had constructed brick by brick with hypercritical eyes stands out in particular.
She was allocated to the mattress next to me in the living quarters, the seat beside me in the canteen, and the cushion diagonally in front of me in the meditation hall. In fact, we seem to like doing our laps in the walking area at the same time. I started observing her. She liked smiling into space, occasionally hummed, and excitedly fiddled with her smuggled goods (a journal and a pen) when she thought no one was looking.
I wasn’t quite sure what to think of her, but she was 10000x more optimistic than I was. I was having quite a hard time throughout.
On Day 10, we finally spoke to each other. About three sentences into the conversation, she said, You know, I had depression when I was 17.
My jaw dropped.
She shared her story. Parts of it were raw and painful (her family’s overreaction, how her medication led to the ballooning of her weight, and her spiral into anxiety), but her candidness with a near-stranger was an incredible display of strength. She was only three years older than me, but a thousand times wiser. Her parting words to me were to dwell on the happiness in life — not to crave and grow needlessly attached to some version of it, but to find it from whatever reality throws at us.
Thank you, P. 🙂