Silhouettes drift silently under the thick jungle canopy, layered shadows blotting out what little light illuminates the cracked cement walkways. I’ve never seen a shadow upon a shadow, or to be accurate I’ve never noticed the difference. It’s the ultimate darkness. A silent apparition of dark faces, lean bodies and focused expressions turning a carpet of grey satin into velvet black. Moving from all corners, striding along paths that wend their way through a maze of lush plants and multi-hued flowers until they merge into a single mass, patiently waiting to remove worn leather sandals and enter the squat meditation hall that stretches the length of the courtyard. My feet carry my forward into the whole, one more cog in a machine cast of iron solitude and steel silence.
Day 4 of meditation. Day 4 without speaking, gesturing and eye contact. Day 4 separated from women. Day 4 without phones, books and writing. Four entire rotations of the earth without smiles or laughter.
I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world.
Yangon, Myanmar – Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center
What the hell am I doing here? The thought runs through my mind for what must be the twentieth time today and it’s not even noon. Hands that are numb of feeling and seem to belong to someone else shovel food into my mouth with metronome precision, metal fork to metal plate to automaton mouth. An act of sustenance instead of satisfaction. I know what I’m doing here. Two of the many reasons are here; Lina somewhere in the building next to me and Jack a few seats beside me, two friends that I had met while in Thailand training in Muay Thai over a month ago. I can’t lie – I doubt I would make it without them. But yet, here we are. Our own islands. Men and women among a sea of faces, stranded and cast away in our own minds.
Last night we had entered this place as friends and left as individuals, wandering the halls of a deafeningly silent world as the loneliest of souls.
What lay ahead was 4 AM wake ups in pre-dawn darkness, each day consisting of 11 hours of meditation interspersed with a handful of breaks and 19 hours of fasting. 10 days of vowing not to kill the super mosquitoes calling this haven of unresisting victims their home.
The rusted metal gate through which I had passed a night before is barred, as are the windows of my packed 20 bed dorm. I could leave at any point of my own accord. All I would have to do is break my silence and give my reasons to one of the two male teachers, wizened aged men with balding heads and bent backs that embody the ideals of Vipassana. It would be so easy. I could check out Yangon, eat all the Oreo ice cream I could find and go for a beer that is dripping with condensation. I could read and write until my eyes are bloodshot, mental satiation from the two activities most central to my identity. I could talk to any I wished, or at least any who would listen.
I could quit.
Metallic clanging of utensils against plates continue their rhythmic song of steel and sustenance. I leave the cafeteria, slowing my gait as I walk towards the rusted gate. I pause for the briefest of moments before tearing my gaze away towards the red brick steps leading up to my dormitory, plants lining both sides as if it were a path to something promised. I take a step forward.
It’s the first time I’ve felt happiness since I’ve been here. It feels more like a month. Thunder bellows overhead, dropping its first pellets of rain onto the dimly lit Dhamma Hall sheltering 100 people in silent meditation. My breathing adjusts to the laconic, rhythmic pattering without my knowing consent. I allow it to continue. A sudden wave of thunder, one strike after another rips through the air, the accompanying rain quickly building into a crescendo in the span of a few quickened heartbeats. A cacophony of sounds seem to envelop me and reverberate in the quiet, the maelstrom outside somehow perfecting the hall’s silence.
My instincts beckon for me to open my eyes and rush to the covered veranda surrounding the building to watch the tempest and confirm we’re in the eye of the storm, it’s power focused on the insignificant light blue cement building. Instead I squeeze my eyes shut.
It would not be the Vipassana way.
In fact, the storm raging mere meters away should be far from my mind, with thoughts of air passing through my body the only concern. I can’t resist. I’m 6 hours into 11 hours of daily meditation and my weak, artistic mind needs but a few moments of entertainment.
I compromise, watching it in my head instead. I picture the rain slamming into the corrugated metal roof, chips of red paint flaking at the onslaught. Relentless beads of moisture hammer the cement walkways, widening the existing cracks still further and doing much the same to the red bricks hemming in the sea of green plants and purple flowers. The greenery itself is even more vulnerable, leaves and stems torn off as watery droplets make contact, the ones that miss unleashing their power into the black soil beneath. Individual sounds can be discerned, each resonating differently as the rain slams into a multitude of surfaces. The dark clouds high overhead light up with incandescent power, briefly illuminating it’s self made darkness. The storm is frightening and beautiful. Destructive and life giving. The definition of change captured in one of nature’s most spectacular moments.
I see it all as clearly as if I were standing in the middle of the maelstrom itself. It is truth as literal as any that has ever been witnessed.
A grin spreads across my face. Likely 1 among 99 pillars of impassive stone, resolute in their concentration. I have no idea how much time has passed. My few moments of entertainment could have stretched into an hour for all I know or care. I have the thought that this is what people should do during a storm: shut up and listen. Let the senses we’re so lucky to possess take us away in a flight of fancy guided by nature, the greatest and most experienced entertainer on earth shaping reality and mind alike.
The long expected gong finally rings, dismissing us from our cross legged positions for a brief break. By this time the storm has subsided into lingering droplets that have missed the main show. I step outside, half expecting a world reshaped. Yet, it’s similiar to the one I had left, cleansed and resplendent in its lasting beauty.
Sweat rolls down my chest, narrowly missing my already soaked shirt that once began life in a shade of white. I feel the individual beads of moisture as if they were the only sensations available, tickling my stomach before being soaked into the waistband of my Adidas track pants.
The AC machines that dot the dim room remain silent, the absence of their constant hum from the previous two days made all the more apparent in the sweltering heat that sits in the air, seemingly thick enough to cut with a knife.
I can’t move. Or to be more accurate I shouldn’t move. We’re in the middle of a technique that was just taught to us today, and from what I can tell it’s working, helped no doubt by the discomfort borne of intense heat. My respiration is heavy, coming in short, sharp breaths. Moisture covers my forehead and drips down into my eyes, threatening to sting my eyes if I dare open them. It’s easy to keep them closed. I’m lost in a world where mind and body are in equilibrium, a place where it’s possible to analyze any thought or emotion objectively if concentration is maintained. I’ve had an insight with an issue that has plagued me for years. It seems so clear and obvious now that I’ve distanced myself from the tangled web of emotions that had distorted it.
The clarity of this single session carries into the rest of my day, and it’s only later in the evening I realize that my detailed vision of yesterday’s storm was possible only because of the environment. Mediation and strict silence had allowed me to focus on what I desired: seeing a tempest rage in my mind’s eye. It’s an empowering observation and one that could be useful in the future. I feel leveled up, like a video game boss. And more importantly I feel like I have a strong motive to stay.
(Some of you might be wondering what kind of meditation technique I’m referring to. I’m not qualified to explain, nor am I inclined to. Vipassana is a way of life for some, a tool for many or simply a waste of time for others. This is an account of my experience, but if you believe Vipassana can benefit you then I highly encourage you to do more research on the subject here.)
My mind is strengthened. Jokes of being able to levitate aside, I feel changes from just a few days ago. Facebook and Instagram have been forgotten. Constant silence, while not always desired, has focused my thoughts on any subject that comes to mind. I’ve started to realize how much noise surrounds us like a blanket as we stroll through our lives. How it takes away from the moment. How we suppress undesirable emotions with distractions.
Vipassana is becoming a tool that I can use.
It feels normal to avoid eye contact and smiling. Silence, while not totally comfortable is also not entirely uncomfortable. It feels odd on the few occasions that I hear people speak, like the construction workers chatting away while they build new dorms. Even if they were speaking English instead of Burmese it would still seem alien and out of place in a world built for solitude. Will I able to function as a sociable member of society after 5 more days of this? The thought is fleeting and unimportant in this moment. Jack and Lina are also still here. Their presence is reassuring, but no longer the most compelling reason for not quitting.
The grounds are seeming less like a prison and more like a garden. The rusted front gate is still there, imposing in its challenge. Yet, it opens as the handful of empty mats in the Dhamma Hall can attest to. The 20 bed dorm, full of gaseous Burmese men and a handful of foreigners including Jack and I is no longer the prison of boredom it once was. Lying on my half inch thick mattress that covers a solid wooden base has become a favorite past time and a refuge of a sort, thoughts wandering freely with the light that plays across my white mosquito net. Fasting for 19 hours no longer sends my stomach into unending rumbles of hunger. Instead it’s been replaced with a dull ache that I’m sure would disappear entirely over time. Filthy washrooms that seem to hold more spiders and reptiles than a National Geographic shoot are hardly ideal, yet easily tolerable. As for the mosquitos…well f*ck the mosquitos and the rules protecting their super species.
The design of this place is simple and ingenious. It’s impossible that Dhamma Joti would spend funds on anything unnecessary even if they weren’t a donation based organization. Discomfort breeds self awareness in the same way that lifting weights builds muscles. Mental flexibility is the product of long hours of meditation dissecting the roots of misery; a formidable challenge still, yet now one with a clear purpose.
I’m halfway there. I question whether my sanity will hold up, or even the possibility of me exiting this world as someone that my friends would not recognize. A walking, talking Vipassana billboard that spews forth the principles and precepts at every opportunity, a perpetual cause of rolled eyes and uncomfortable silences. Only the next 5 days will tell.
Stay tuned for ’10 Days of Vipassana Meditation in Myanmar Part 2.’