My Vipassana Meditation Retreat: 10 days of absolute silence, veggies & no technology

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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.

The Code

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/.

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 FOUR Small Stories

  1. My Complicated Relationship with the 4.30am Gong
  2. The Art of Doing Nothing
  3. I Find Some Modicum of Equanimity
  4. Everyone Has A Story

 

meditation 2

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.

 

meditation 3

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.

 

meditation 4

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.

 

meditation 5

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.

Introducing: P.

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. 🙂

Bali: opening to you, the heart of life

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At Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave)

This…unsettles you, from your ordinary, rooted world.

I was in the land of photogenic temples — places of worship perching atop seaside cliffs, nestled in misty mountains, carved within caves, and residing around every bend in rural villages. There was more to Bali than temples, of course — soaked green carpets of rice terraces, beer-bottle thronging beaches, and museums with thatched rooftops. But, in the undertones of its name, one thing overrode all else. A beckoning promise of discovering the truth to the universe and gaining divine transcendence — yes, you hippie, this is where you might find your own Eat Pray Love 2.0. In short: Throw away your worries! Bali tells you shyly but mysteriously. You can get lost and find yourself everywhere, in salt-specked water sports, in hangovers, in villages, in luxury resorts, and in nature’s depths. You want to believe her.

On the last day of the 2016 calendar, I found myself in Ubud, seeking for some truth to Bali that must lie beneath the obvious and the expected, beyond the blonde beaches on postcards and decadent sunset bars at Seminyak. Ubud seemed, at once, to be both the most likely and unlikely place to find it. Essentially, it was a place of contradictions — a sprawling misty village with a bohemian town at its center, where a modern art gallery lazed next to a locked moss-covered traditional architecture, where an open-space palace settled imperiously opposite a dingy ice-cream shop, and where her majesty Starbucks flung its doors wide towards a royal lotus flower pond.

As we rolled into Ubud, white van clad in wet sunlight and bouncing on mist-shrouded rocky roads, my friendly driver-slash-tour guide Uncle Ketut was a man on a mission: to bring me to the strangest restaurant he could find.

“You mean best?” he tentatively proffered again, glancing at me in the rear-view mirror.

“No, I want strange, really. Somewhere different,” I assured him.

We ended up at a hole in the wall — one with a limp menu, merrily buzzing flies, and easily, the most breath-taking view I had seen in my life.

batur-view

The view of Mount Batur from the restaurant. I’m a lousy photographer, so you’ve got to use a bit of your imagination here!

This was how I first found myself on a browning balcony, inhaling repellent oil and facing Mount Batur. The sight of an active volcano and a caldera melting into a lake was soft like honey to the mind, but it still wasn’t quite I was looking for — something that should cut Bali open like a fruit swiftly and bluntly to show me at once what it was at its core.

Tourism billboards always say “the REAL country Z”, but what was real? The photo-shopped portrait of scenic bliss hanging in airports? If the real existed beyond that, how could I find it? These questions stemmed from pure curiosity, and then took shape in the form of a drumming sense of purpose — one which strained against the pull of simple answers, unexamined pictures, and complacent receptivity, and dictated that I should be finding some meaning in my island-hopping and some truth behind Bali at first glance.

In the middle of my contemplative wallowing, someone grabbed my wandering mind at its head.

“Your lunch price includes a three-hour cycling tour of the Ubud countryside,” declared a loud booming voice.

I looked up and was greeted by Ketut and his friend’s beaming faces.

“For good friends, miss,” announced Ketut’s friend, a scrawny lithe man in untucked shirt and sooty slippers, radiating one megawatt smile after another, “a 30-kilometer adventure!”

This was how I later found myself out on the dirt road — muscles stretching, eyes blurring. A realization dawned upon me: philosophy was for idlers on full stomachs. With the wind howling into my ears, and me brushing past roaring motorcycles by a hair’s width once every 30 seconds, I decisively dumped all existential interrogations onto the receding road under the whirring wheels of my bicycle.

As the tarmac lane merged with dusty routes, winding and turning, I soon found myself pedaling furiously with no person ahead in sight.

Near a forked path, my bicycle screeched to a halt.

There and then, I was located under a holy tree (holy trees in Bali have yellow or checkered cloth wrapped around their belly). Next to me: an old man with an unidentifiable ball of fluff on his shoulder and a dangerous-looking brown dog. Both stared at me with inscrutable gazes.

I flashed the man a sheepish smile.

In the next few moments, the planet tilted on its axis and the universe waded through water because the old man uttered not a word but cuddled the fluff in his hands and presented it to me in a move that could only be described as — I grasp for words — inviolable.

I received the ball of fluff, head bowed and eyes blinking, and realized belatedly that it was no normal fluff; it was a sleeping baby owl.

As I followed behind the old man into his house, the story was no longer one of traveling artfully, nor was it about pushing one’s limits in a cycling endeavor that came out of the blue. I remember the rest of the story in a slipstream of feelings.

A scent of frangipani, a rasp of leaves and a click of the stapler.

Two women’s fingers danced as they plaited palm leaves together and secured them in various contortions. Their leaf baskets smelled like the simple magic of relentless faith — to do a religious offering daily by hand, heaping nature into the span of a palm, and placing on earth, a prayer with the timbre of gratitude.

Canang sari. 

Each time one of the women say these two words, they smile. Eyes crinkling, warmth emanating.

The older woman handed me a leaf, and my fingers began to grope and clumsily stumble. I stopped thinking and started feeling — the coarseness of the leaf, the wetness of the stapler, the fragility of the flower petals, the furry coat of the baby owl, and my finally peaceful mind that told me in the resounding quiet: “This is it.”

The rest of the story isn’t as important — the bicycle congregation eventually retraced their steps to retrieve me. The canang sari I finished was placed with affection at the door of the old man’s house. Imprinted in my memory, however, is this strangely moving sight: a company of two women, a brown dog, the old man, and a baby owl fluttering on his shoulder, waving to a foreign girl who came and went like a sudden soft breeze. A farewell at a forked path, against the backdrop of a light drizzle and clouded skies.

But this is what I think. Maybe there is no real Bali.

The green TripAdvisor app on my iPhone and the motley of guidebooks lining Kinokuniya shelves give forceful, authoritative guidelines on where to go to find Bali in its full glorious authenticity — Tanah Lot temple gets 4.5 stars for its value, Luwak Civet Coffee Farm has a paltry 3.5, and Sadha temple gets none. They rank experiences that ought to be subjective and unquantifiable in precise arithmetic — Kuta’s Waterbom places #1, Ubud’s cooking class lands on #5, and the hierarchy goes on. True, it makes traveling more straightforward and purposeful, by telling us where to go so that we can pat ourselves on the back in obedient relief: “We’ve seen the real country Z, as defined by travel experts and majority’s wisdom.”

Really?

This short episode off the beaten track, in its mind-boggling chain of coincidences and random chance, felt the most real — for me. Because maybe the whole point of travel is to see a place as though no one has seen it before. To be uninhibited by ratings of what should interest you and how you should think, and to be driven only by your own imagination and curiosity. If so, even when you see what millions have seen before you, you can grasp intuitively how it can matter to you alone — inimitable in significance, and irreproducible in the individual revelation that occurs.

My most meaningful relationship with Bali happened not on its famed beaches, not in its museum galleries, not at its ticketed gamelan performances, or even in its Michelin-starred restaurants. It occurred in a brief moment when the feeling of belonging washed over me with one innocuous act, and suddenly, my eyes noticed what I did not see before — the pulsing of life that transcended many things and laid bare the common shred of humanity that bound two strangers together when one opened the heart of their ordinary life to another — and the ordinary became extraordinary in its power to, simply, connect.

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The old man and his owl

Bali is full of Ketuts, but the dear Uncle Ketut who was a pocketful of sunshine throughout my trip is truly in a league of his own. He can be contacted at Mekar Tour & Driver (+62 813 3831 3166). 

Macau: Casino Lights Dancing

grandlisboa

It felt like the universe had conspired in magnanimity to lay out before me all the stars it had in its pouch.

There’s a boy seated next to me at the roulette. It’s a round-table congregation of tense, weeping or energetic men (some slightly crazy-eyed); this boy who seems unperturbed by it all; and then there’s me, scribbling devoutly. 

We all stare intensely at the spinning wheel at the center and at the blur of white making its rounds. As the ball swerves intently on the circular track, my mind leaps and stumbles, doubts and hopes. It is a scene of magnificent contrasts and soft ironies: the ball’s mechanical steadiness and the wild rocking of our pendular minds; the slowing wheel and our increasingly hitched breaths.

I feel the boy’s gaze boring into my score-keeping card carelessly lying in the space between us. I cast a cursory glance in my card’s direction–it’s just unkempt rows of crosses and numbers I have been scrawling in red and blue ink, in a clumsy attempt to spot a trend.

Hey, he finally speaks after we’ve both been aware of each other’s presence for the last thirty minutes, you’ve got that number wrong. 

I glance back at my sheet at where his finger points. Oh, you’re right, I say, crossing 32 (red) out and writing 22 (black) in its place.

Thanks.

No problem.

He looks like he’s about to say something else but the ball rolls into place and falls at–

It’s hard to tell by pure sight so we all, in synchronized mesmerization, look up at the screen.

It’s a 0 (zero), in garish green. There’s a chorus of groans, expected not simply because the odds are 37 to 1 but also since 0 is eternally the outlier to any semblance of a pattern. Just when I think that no one has escaped unscathed, the boy taps my card again and grins disarmingly at me when I turn to look at him.

Look at that, he says good-naturedly.

I’m about to say, “Zero is always the hardest to guess; it’s how casinos reap the cash, no?” when I see that the top right of his screen displays in clean-cut font: 

PREVIOUS BET: +3360 credits 

My jaw slacks a little. Subconsciously, it occurs to me then that I only have a woeful 120 credits left (since I just lost). 

Wow, I tell him, you’ve got some crazy luck.

It all seems so unlikely–in my month of wandering nothing has astonished me much, and to now come across, in the twilight of my travels, a moment that is at once abruptly natural and magical in its implausibility–that Littlewood’s Law comes to mind. I think of its theory that one can experience a miracle (odds of one in a million) once a month, and a voice whispers in my head, maybe today’s when something wonderfully absurd happens.

Hmm, it suddenly seems possible.

The 120 credits last me for three more rounds before I realize that I have neither the reason nor the money to stay around. 

I turn my chair to try to spot my father somewhere in this cavernous hall, but he is nowhere to be found amidst the thronging casino masses. 

Are you going to stay? His voice comes up on my right.

I want to say, yes I am because I want to see how much more you can win and what’s your name and hi I am Selina. But I just shake my head and say,

I’ve run out of money. And either ways I feel like trying the slot machines.

I’m here for kicks, he tells me, his eyes shining, I’ve already tripled my credits when I was expecting myself to leave empty-handed.

I’m not quite sure what to reply to that, so I offer him a genuine, buoyant “congrats”.

He lets out a laugh, and continues, Take 500 credits. It seriously doesn’t matter to me.

He sees that I am wavering and passes me a ticket that neatly prints 200 credits, his tone forcefully kind, If you can’t take 500, at least accept the 200 I have as a leftover. Just so.

I feel weird, I tell him truthfully, when I take money from others for free. And I don’t even know you.

Oh, now I can finally ask. What’s your name?

As we march away from the roulette towards the carousel of slot machines, the ticket bunched in my left fist, I am dimly aware of the fact that I have just broken a personal principle this easily under the allure of sustained game of chance–not for algorithmic luck, but maybe, just maybe for Eros & Psyche’s roll of the dice.

I declare boldly, I’m going to at least return you 250 credits.

He snorts. That’s a promise you can’t keep.

Conversation rolls amidst an easy rhythm of button pressing, the animated sound of shuffling reels and unguarded laughs. We don’t ask each other anything that seems too dangerous so we talk about Macau and traveling, pork chop bun and airplane reads, Jay Chou and Joe Hisaishi, winning and losing, and how, for us both, casinos made no sense at all. 

Who’s most like Wes Anderson? 

Hayao Miyazaki. Fitzgerald. Tom Wolfe. I can think of loads.

Why do they all sound like meshed Spotify Discover Weekly playlists?

As my credits dwindle close to nothing yet again, my father appears in a happy halo softly glowing with the delirium of capitalist success. There’re no awkward introductions because he is too pleased with himself to care. I get 250 credits from him and return it to the boy.

And it’s all over in a matter of seconds.

I’ve got to go, I tell him.

My father, who is counting his tickets and ready to leave, looks up, sees me dawdling, and tilts his head to consider whether he should ask about who this person is but wisely decides not to when he sees the expression on my face.

I’ve got to go, I say again.

Somehow, I just can’t get goodbye out of my mouth. It would do no justice as an ending–it’s too weak, too pale, too irrevocable.

Wait, the boy stares at me and says slowly, you know, a lot of life’s promises aren’t kept–

I look at him and in that heartbeat, feel an impossible urge to tell him that the chandelier lights in the casino happen to be dancing in his eyes there and then, like leaping, crackling, shooting stars, but I seem to have lost the ability to do anything else other than nod. So I just nod.

–But I hope I’ll keep this promise. See you again.

I think about this sentence in my luggage-strewn hotel room, on the zipping cab leaving Cotai in the misty morning as the windows fogged with condensation, in the empty bleak landscape of the departure hall as I drink bland porridge, in the three waking hours on TR2903 across the Java Sea surrounded by the lingering imprint of a short-lived encounter, and as I step through the Changi gates finally back home after 1 month and tasted sea salt in the dust.

I think about it sometimes when I’m in colorful train carriages on a collision course towards some known future. Then, on one rainy and slightly warm morning, on a cab that had fogged windows, it comes to mind, that monochromatic morning when I left Macau on a cab that could not, would not, and did not turn back. My fingertips touch the cold glass and feel again this fierce impulse to draw something, anything, to just remember. But, after a drawn-out moment of indecision and broken vignettes flashing by in a tunneling mind, I can only draw a star. It’s the only effervescence that can be put into strokes.

And I never saw him again. But it has only been 25 days, so who knows? 

In our village, folks say God crumbles up the old moon into stars.

And the rest is rust and stardust.

moon-in-the-big-city

月亮忘记了 When the Moon Forgot / 几米 Jimmy Liao

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The quotes, in order of appearance, can be attributed to: me & my brain, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Nabokov’s Lolita.