Meditation Blues in Nepal

Trip Start Nov 28, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2005

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Sunday, June 5, 2005

IT is 4am...DONGGGG...the eerie sound of the Tibetan brass bell rings loud from the terrace above the meditation hall, 100 metres from where I'm dreaming of faraway places. I hear the bell in my dreams and anxiety tightens my stomach. That horrible churning feeling starts to well up inside me as the bell gets louder. Dongggg...dongggg...dongggg. Please take me away to that faraway place I ask, as I start to come to terms with the reality of where I am and where I have chosen to be. My room mate, Jason, stirs in his sleep, groans, rolls over on his hard cell bed on the other side of our harsh cell room and flicks the light on. It's Day Four...and no escape.

Now everyone has skeletons in their closets - things in the past that they have done, experienced, witnessed or been through that invites these so called skeletons to our closets, where they stay uninvited, party hard, and generally make a mess of the place. Sometimes, just sometimes, they hold us back from doing the things that we really want to do, from just letting go and saying 'fuck it, life's too short'. These are our life experiences, some fantastic, some not so good. Like everyone, I too have a few skeletons that insist on staying and not paying the rent. I thought it was time to fumigate my closet, so I enrolled in a free Vipassana Meditation course - 10 full days of intense meditation, in complete silence, 10 hours of meditation a day sitting cross legged on a pillow no more comfortable than riding a camel. The venue - a meditation retreat nestled in amongst a beautiful and peaceful state forest clinging to the northern edge of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. I had met a couple of travelers in India that had done the course and raved about it, saying that they had got so much out of it in so many ways. I wasn't looking for an answer to life's questions, I guess I just wanted a hand in reaching my own peace of mind.

As the two buses churned out of meditation HQ in Kathmandu and headed for the hills to the meditation retreat 15km's away, looks of uncertainty of what may be install for us showed on the faces of all of the new students on the bus around me. I felt the same, and nervous at the thought of what these 10 days ahead would bring. I had made quick friends with Jason, a cool and confident American guy from Santa Monica who had been traveling for over a year now. As the bus drove further north, we talked about motorbiking through India as he had done the same, and our experiences with the tsunami as he had also been directly involved in the disaster in Thailand. We bonded quickly. Most of the other nervous faces on the bus were made up of Nepalese, and a dozen or so other westerners including an young English guy who I had met in Goa a few months ago.

We arrived at the retreat, were made to hand all of our belongings into the office and were only allowed to keep clothes and other essentials we would need for the next 10 days. Any books, cameras and writing materials were not allowed to be taken with us. Jason and I ended up sharing the same room, a modest cell like box with hard beds and a mostly cold shower. The retreat was run like a well oiled machine, a rolex watch, not the dodgy Thailand imitation type either, with everything having a precise order and rhythm about it. Later on that evening on day zero (the next day counted as day one where we would start the mediation), we were briefed about the course via a badly filmed DVD. Goenka was the star, the now elderly Burmese head teacher of Vipassana courses that run the world over. He sat comfortably in front of the shaky camera wrapped in a blanket with his side kick blank faced wife to his side wearing thick bullet proof glasses. The cameraman had the shakes badly, maybe he had drunk too much coffee before filming these daily discourses. Kind faced Goenka gleamed with self confidence and a quality of inner peace as we watched the DVD in a second smaller meditation hall. There are many centres now throughout the western world, and all courses in these centres run exactly the same as each other. Vipassana is an ancient method of living, an 'art of living' taught by Buddha himself 2500 years ago. Goenka and the two assistant teachers who are physically with us throughout the course, make clear that in no way is it a religion, rather it is simply a way of realising ones fears and cravings within oneself and through meditation, ironing out and not reacting to these sensations that affect our daily lives in order to achieve complete happiness and eventual enlightenment. Little did I realise at this early stage that this way of living through meditation was a way of numbing our sensations and reaching a stage of total bliss through very hard solitary mind work. That evening on the TV, Goenka talked convincingly about the benefits of Vipassana, what we would expect for the next day and how we would use this in our daily routines. When the DVD ended, I still had no idea what we would do for 10 days of sitting cross legged on a pillow with our eyes closed, but in many ways his soothing voice and passion in his beliefs gave me motivation and I walked out of the hall with a calm smile on my face. After the briefing, or discourse, 'noble silence' started. No speaking, eye contact, touching, or any gestures to any of the other students were allowed for the whole duration of the course, and only if extremely necessary were we allowed to speak quietly to the assistant teachers and only at certain times of the day. Helpers, or Dhamma Workers as they were called, were old students who had previously completed a 10 day course and had given up their time to help out with choirs around the retreat during the course. We were only allowed to speak to these people if absolutely necessary, such as needing an extra blanket or extra toilet paper. It was also made clear that under no circumstances were we allowed to leave the course early. The tall gates and high fences surrounding the complex made that clear when we first arrived.

So, at 4am on the first day, the waking dong of the brass bell sounded throughout the retreat...the wake up call that I would grow to hate. We all made our wearily way out into the freezing pre-dawn chill and walked down the steps like zombies into the main meditation hall.

Instructions came through the speakers in the hall, Goenka's voice giving us directions on sitting still, breathing normally and simply observing our breathing. The hall sat about 80 students in rows, all facing the front and the blissed out assistant teacher perched cross legged on his cushy chair getting high on his own meditation bliss. He looked so happy. 'Just observe the respiration through the nostrils' Goenka would say over and over through a recording. At 630am, after sitting there fidgeting for two hours and trying to sit still on a pillow not fit for a homeless person, with my ass growing more numb by the minute, I started getting very fed up. I couldn't concentrate, so changed positions as quietly as I could without disturbing the other students around me. Then the chanting started - Goenka's voice again came through the speakers, this time in the form of Buddhist chanting in an ancient language long forgotten. As he sang and held on to notes in a raspy tone which resembled a mix between a didgeridoo and a coffee peculator, I couldn't stop myself and let out a suppressed laugh, the kind of laugh you try to restrain when you're in an exam at school and someone farts. Some of the other students around me joined in and as hard as we tried we couldn't stop laughing. Eventually everyone settled down as we got used to the strange chanting. Goenka wanted in all his heart to give me salvation. All I wanted to do was hand him a Strepsel.

Now I have trouble sitting still for half an hour, let alone 10 hours a day. My mind didn't like this new authority over it at all, and I found my thoughts drifting into weird visions and flashes as I tried with all my mental strength to keep my mind centered on observing the breathing through my nostrils. All it wanted to do was get out and be free again, free to roam wherever it wanted, and it did many times during the first two days. The assistant teacher in front of us eventually turned into a small dark ball of fur as I occasionally looked up and opened my eyes. It's amazing what tricks the mind will play in order to get it's own way. The meditation room was cold, it rained constantly and it seemed that a twilight hung in the air throughout the whole day outside the hall. Occasionally the bell would sound and we would all file out with heads down to stretch in the fresh air and take a 5 minute break. I started craving dinner times, where we would be given an hour or hour and a half break to eat the simple but tasty vegetarian food and take rest. A rest announcement would come from the second assistant teacher as he fumbled with the speaker system and knobs and dithered around before attempting to speak. How many bloody times had this guy done this and he still managed to fuck the announcements up every time? I started picking on him in my mind, and nicknamed him Mr Bean. I ate too much for lunch on the first day and sat through the whole afternoon meditation session with a sore stomach and farting in silence. I felt sorry for the other students around me for the smell but in the end I couldn't give a fuck. This was hell. I was miserable. What had I gotten myself into? I should have thought about it more before committing myself. I had a feeling that I wasn't the only one going through my own mental struggle.

Goenka's discourse at the end of day one gave me renewed motivation and a sense of strength again as his wise and passionate words put strength back into my cold bones. I walked out again on that day with a smile on my face. He truly was a very convincing man.

Day two and a cuckoo bird started singing outside the window where I sat in the meditation hall...cuckoo...cuckoo. At first I thought it was my mind playing tricks on me again, but then it came again and again, a real cuckoo bird, singing his little heart out at 5 in the morning. The only cookoo bird I had ever heard was from the wooden one we had had in the living room coming from our Swiss cookoo clock mum had bought in a trip we did years ago around Europe when I was 10. A few years later the clock broke, with the little wooden bird sticking his red tongue out for one last time as he cookooed and fell off his perch. It was a sad moment.

So, the morning's meditation on day two went a bit like mind is a TV and my family are there in front of it, my mum, my older sister, and mums boyfriend Paul are all there. Helen, my sister, picks up the remote control and turns my TV-mind on. In my mind, I stand in front of the TV like I used to do when I was a kid and Helen wanted to watch something I didn't. I tell her that she has to switch my TV mind off as it's not allowed to be on. She doesn't do what I ask her. Mum asks Helen to do as she's told. She eventually hands the remote to mum and mum turns my mind off. In some small corner of my head, I come back to reality and realise that I must concentrate on my breathing as Goenka's raspy voice cuts through my conscious like a hot knife through butter. I have direction again. Please keep talking Goenka, I ask silently. It happens again a few minutes later. My TV-mind is turned back on and the same thought starts again. Over and over, then I again realise what trick my mind is playing and bring my focus back to the breathing through my nostrils. A constant tug-of-war. I know this game, I've played it before. I fell asleep in mid morning meditation after again eating too much for breakfast and rolled off my pillow into the isle next to me. Food was my only comfort in this living nightmare. A Dhamma Worker crept over and quietly nudged me back to my place on my pillow. I gave him a cranky look. All I wanted to do was to be left alone and sleep. I was also physically hurting from hours of sitting in the same position. All the muscles in my legs and back ached like someone had inserted swords through my skin and kept them there. I had a chalice I had to wear and wasn't allowed to take off.

The third and last day of solely observing breathing ended, and by now I had all but cleared my mind of it's dirty tricks. It started doing what it was told - it quietened and remained calm. I was finally getting somewhere and felt an inner strength carrying me. I smiled that afternoon as we took a 15 minute break outside in the pouring rain. I watched an ant carrying a dead spider 10 times it's size across the footpath for a good 10 minutes under shelter. It made me feel good that he too had his own struggles, but he had beaten the spider and won. He gave me renewed hope, where I was in a world where I couldn't talk to anyone and couldn't lean on anyone but myself to get me through this. That ant understood. The discourse that evening again gave me hope, and tomorrow Goenka said we would start the true meditation - Vipassana.

On day four, despite making progress with my meditation, the pain and aches in my back were getting unbearable. I went to see the teacher as I wanted to leave but knew I couldn't. Maybe if I complained enough and cried he would let me go. All he said was that the pain in my back was my impurities coming out, and that this was a good thing and that everyone went through the same pain. Bugger enlightenment, I just wanted a good nights sleep and freedom again. I stayed on, and that afternoon had a good talk (to myself of course, who else?) I gave myself a kick up the arse like mum would have done if she was there, and told myself to just grin and bear it. After all, fate had brought me here and everything happens for a reason right.

After day four, the whole experience started getting a tiny bit easier. My back still ached, but concentrating on these pains and ignoring them through mediation as we had now been taught brought relief and a small but firm peace of mind for me. I think that the other students felt this as well as I watched peoples body language on the breaks.

On the sixth day, I got in trouble for being late to meditation by a young American Dhamma Worker with a very serious attitude. Still dealing with my inner struggles and being in complete solitude for the past few days, I told him to lighten up, that I was capable enough of finding my own way to the meditation hall and that I felt like I was back at school. I wanted to punch him, or at least give him a big wedgee. I felt bad after my outburst and apologised to him later on.

Later that day, in mid afternoon meditation, an old Nepalese lady on the far side of the room let out a huge loud fart. The room erupted in hysterical laughter, and I couldn't help but join in. A couple of young Nepalese guys carried on laughing well after the shenanigans died down and had to leave the hall to cool off. It was such a fantastic feeling to have laughed so hard after being so suppressed with a stack of emotions for the past week. One of the old students who I nicknamed Moby after the solo artist due to his bald white head and to-be-seen-in Indian style hippy clothing, turned his nose up at the fiasco and left the room to go and meditate in his own room. Some people took this meditation way too seriously I thought. Maybe I'm just too amused even at the age of 30 by toilet humour! I'll never grow up in that department.

After the old lady's fart, a few of the young Nepalese guys started letting rip a few farts themselves, gaining force at every turn. Of course most of the western students around our side of the room laughed and the tension eased in all of us. On the second last day, after feeling a bit left out of the farting posse, I finally felt a rumble deep in my stomach I could count on. Could this be my opportunity to prove myself also as a class clown? I think it was. I checked for wind speed, waited until the coughing had stopped from across the room, lifted my arse to a position to produce a beauty at an angle that would give the best pitch against the hard carpet, and let one rip. It came out as a double crescendo, echoing off the wall next to me and speeding at beak neck speed around the room to fill even the furthest students ears with a thundering clap. The guy behind me burst out laughing and then the rest of the class followed suite. If there had been judges at the front of the room holding up score cards, I think that I might have been given an 8. The assistant teacher, sitting there blissed out and high as a kite as usual in meditation, ignored the roar of laughter. The American helper frowned at me from his pillow next to the teacher. It felt good to be finally accepted into the fart gang, even just to get away from the seriousness of the meditation for a few minutes. Childish I know, but a great feeling all the same.

On day 8, Jason and I broke noble silence and started talking in quietly in our room. We were both going through a hard time and when we started talking we both appreciated the support we gave each other. Maybe it affected our efforts in meditation, but at this stage we didn't care. I have always been brought up in a way that if somethings bothering me, to let it out and talk to someone and not to dwell on it and suppress it. This way of teaching went against everything that had been instilled into me from an early age.

Finally, on the last day, we were allowed to break noble silence after the morning's meditation. Everyone walked out shell shocked, and I think I can speak for most people that it took a great effort to string two words together after what we had been through. It's hard to put into writing just exactly what I really went through on this course, but in a big way I was so grateful to have been given the opportunity to go through it and come out the other end. Did I gain enlightenment? It's a hard question to answer, but when we caught the bus back to Kathmandu, I felt a peace inside me that I haven't felt for a very long time. I'm not sure just yet whether I will continue to practice Vipassana Mediation and make it a part of my everyday life. Maybe, at a later stage, I will reflect back on my experience with this course as I did with my experiences in India and further pursue Vipassana. One thing I can say from the experience is that I did learn a lot about myself that I maybe never would have realised if I hadn't done the course. I truly believe that Vipassana can be so beneficial for many people out there, whether it's for me or not I'll just have to wait and see!

After the meditation course, I felt like I needed to get out of the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu and reflect on my experience. I was so excited about getting away from everything and spending some time in the mountains. Annapurna Base Camp was a trek so many people had recommended, so I caught a bus to Pokhara where I would start the trek from and stayed for a few days before starting 10 days of trekking in the Himalayas.

More than the meditation course, the trek to the stunning Annapurna Sanctuary, a huge cathedral of towering white peaks, was truly meditation in itself. I spent the first two days carrying my own pack, 15 bloody kilos of stuff I really didn't need. After the second day, my right foot started to become infected from a blister I had developed and the whole side of my foot swelled up like a ball. I decided to get a porter from a small village I passed through on the second day to carry my bag and to try and take some of the weight off my foot. This wasn't the only reason, the pack was too heavy and I was feeling lazy. Bhim, my new found Nepalese friend and porter was a small and friendly guy who enjoyed (a bit too much as I later found out) giving massages to me and a few people I eventually met up with on the trek. He had a sweet family and owned a teahouse on the Annapurna Circuit in Hille, a small village near the start of the trek.

So off we went, Bhim and I, climbing over rock strewn paths, up the sides of mountains, through rhododendron forests and past Nepalese porters carrying loads heavier than me, and ever closer to the snow peaks looming in the distance. Annapurna Base Camp, or ABC, sits in a vast arena of dazzling peaks 4130 metres above sea level. With a shoe on one foot and a flip flop, or thong as we call them in Oz, on the other foot, I with Bhim and my backpack, pushed on into the incredible beauty of the real Nepal - the Himalayas.

Now, as I have said before, the power of a woman is unbelievable. A few days into the trek I met Ayala, a cute Israeli girl who struck me down with her beauty. Ayala means 'deer' in Hebrew. The chemistry stirred immediately between us, and we ended up doing most of the trek together with her Canadian friend Josee and Adam, another Israeli guy with a wicked sense of humour. We had so much fun, and on the second last day I left Ayala to find my own way back to Pokhora. Now fate has a funny way of working it's ways. In Pokhara, I again met up with Ayala and Josee and the three of us ended up renting motorbikes and driving down to Chitwan National Park for a few days. The girls shared the driving on the second bike after I gave them a crash (pardon the pun) course on riding and changing gears. We had a fantastic few days. Unfortunately we didn't spot a rhino in Chitwan, but all the same it was great to be on a bike again and a very scary but crazy feeling of falling in love with this girl who has taken my heart away. Ayala has a way of persuading me to do things that maybe I shouldn't be doing - like getting on a plane with her and flying to China. Oh deer.

So here I am now. We arrived in Shanghai a few days ago, an incredible metropolis of skyscrapers with a futuristic face. I feel like we have not only jumped on a plane and landed in China, but we have time traveled far into the future to this city with a Jetson's like look about it. Neon lights flash everywhere around us, swirls of colours, sights and sounds consume us, and I feel like I have been taken by fate and have no control over anything that is happening to my heart. Being in a country where no one speaks English is a crazy feeling, I have no control and I don't care. Falling in love is an amazing feeling. Maybe it will last, maybe it won't, but right now I'll make the most of every moment we have. Only the future will tell. And you know what, I can't help saying to myself over and over with a smile - 'fuck it, life's too short'!

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dmcnaught on

Great Story
Thanks for the great story!
I appreciated the detail on the Vipassana course. I couldn't remember mine that well, just a few things that hit me hard - like the white mouse jumping up and down with it's back to me on a log - in my mind.
Enjoy China and Ayala!

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