After 10 days in silence with only your thoughts to keep you company (unless you count the other meditators who have also taken a vow of silence and renounced any form of human contact, including eye contact…so yea, pretty much you’re alone with your thoughts…), I expected to have thousands of words to type. And I did. And I still do. A lot happens in 10 days, even when you’ve let go of Instagram and Facebook – and reading and writing and talking and exercise.
However, I figured I’d let the experience marinate for a while and see if I could provide more of a 30,000 foot view instead of jumping into all of my immediate reactions. Fortunately for all of us, I think I can.
Let’s see. Vipassana….
In a sentence, Vipassana meditation was one of the most intense and rewarding challenges of my life.
I am grateful for the experience, and I am glad that I did it. For many reasons, it was what I wanted and needed to do. (Though, I do smile at the irony that one would undergo such an “extreme” experience in a quest for balance).
For me to explain Vipassana meditation objectively would be doing the practice an injustice, since there is more clear and helpful information online. And I’m not just being lazy in saying that – as much as I’ve worked on my ability to simplify and get to the point in the past months, the explanations of Vipassana online are better than what I’ve managed to parlay to others, though I am always eager and happy to share.
I’m working on it, but Vipassana meditation has layers and is complex on an experiential level.
Some main take aways are that it is non-religious, it is based on the meditation methods Buddha practiced on his path to enlightenment, it is a sensation-based way to experience reality in the moment, and it is fundamentally a means to welcome harmony, balance and presence into your life. Everything in life is impermanent, and equanimity is paramount in facing the ups and downs that life inevitably throws your way. For anyone genuinely interested and physically/mentally capable, I recommend it.
That may sound pretty broad, but Vipassana is a different and highly personal experience for everyone, as it should be. So, while you may be able to read about Vipassana online, you won’t be able to read about my experience with Vipassana anywhere but here. This is where I will elaborate.
Where to start? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… But no, really, my 10 days on Penang Hill East in Malaysia was both a prison and a playground. Apparently, I think I’m hilarious and I’m excellent at entertaining myself. I am also great at torturing and scaring the bejesus out of myself.
The breakdown: I spent about 75% of the time either daydreaming or drowning in anxiety. 20% of my time was dedicated to honest attempts to focus my attention on my breathing and my sensations. 4 % was actually (probably) spent in a meditative state where I felt completely relaxed, present, and aware. I have no idea what happened with the other 1%.
The daydreaming mostly included pleasant thoughts and ideas about art that I want to create, food that I want to cook, places I am excited to travel, and activities I am looking forward to enjoying with friends and family. Dad – we need to hit up some yoga classes together and put that dehydrator to use! Mom – get ready for me to experiment cooking dinner for you with all of the delicious inspiration I’m gathering from people and places. Stephen – I can’t wait to come visit DC. Friends – who’s up for joining me at Burning Man in the near future?
The anxiety was a little less glamorous. In true form, where there were no problems, I managed to create new ones. At one point, I was smoothly gliding through my inhalations and exhalations when my mind started to wander and all of a sudden I questioned whether I had checked my visa entry stamp into Malaysia. I was pretty sure I had been given 90 days upon entry, but… How sure was I? Had I checked my visa? Like, actually looked at the stamp? I couldn’t remember anything beyond waiting in the immigration line after the bus from Singapore.
I’d entered Malaysia by land. Was I sure the rules were the same if I entered by land or by air? The Thai visa only gives you 15 days if you enter by land, but 30 days if you enter by air… I didn’t remember checking! Surely I was fine. I am a (semi) responsible adult…
But, was it 90 days? Or 30? Or maybe 15?
Surely I was fine… but, was I SURE!?
Had I checked? Had I checked? HAD I CHECKED!?
For those of you that have seen “What Women Want” with Mel Gibson, I felt a bit like Marisa Tomei’s character when she’s screaming thoughts in her head but not saying anything on the outside.
Where my mind ultimately found itself? “Alex, have fun writing postcards to your loved ones from the inside of Malaysian prison.”
Clearly, this sounds a bit over the top, but I promise I’m not exaggerating. I might even be under-exaggerating. When I brought it up to the meditation teacher, Ms. Radhi Raja, we agreed that worry wasn’t serving me and that there was no need to check my passport right away (while all other speech and forms of communication were suspended during the course, we were allowed to speak with our meditation teacher as well as management).
Naturally, after holding off for 24 tense hours, I finally caved and asked to see my passport. Since I’d included my passport in the bag of valuables that had been locked away in some safe at the start of the course, this meant that our course manager had to go dig the thing out of a locker somewhere.
Which she did.
And of course 90 days it was.
As for the time spent in a meditative state or “trance,” (no out-of-body experiences to report as of yet), it was best described by one of my fellow meditators, Dr. Citra (pronounced Cheetrah). Before the course started, we were all allowed to speak amongst ourselves, and Dr. Citra likened her experiences in the meditative state to the beautiful moment when you are in an airplane and there are clouds above you and clouds below you but only clear air in-between. And you’re coasting through that clear air space, able to see the clouds above you and the clouds below you, but you’re just gliding and observing.
Dr. Citra nailed it. If I ever hear a better description, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Another big thing for me during Vipassana was that I felt physically present for the first time maybe ever. It lasted briefly and sounds rather simple, but while I’ve long known on an intellectual level that living in the “now” is a goal, I don’t think I’ve ever physically experienced the sensation of living in the “now” until I spent 12 hours a day for 10 days focusing my attention on my body’s physical sensations. It was pretty cool, although it was extremely short-lived.
The truth is that while Vipassana may sound like an intense undertaking, the real work really starts after one has completed the course. For me, the challenge will be my ability to incorporate meditation into my day to day as I move forward.
Going back to the panic attack I mentioned about my Malaysian visa, I smile. Even at the time it occurred, I was fully aware that my worrying accomplished absolutely nothing. While I panicked and sweated for nearly a full day (some daydreams may have managed to sneak their way in there at some blissful moments), nothing changed the fact that my visa sat in a locker in a room somewhere and had a stamp for X amount of days. Nothing changed the potential repercussions if I had totally effed up and “not checked” the days. Nothing changed the ink on the paper on my visa.
Where am I going with all of this?
At some point in the past several months, the lens through which I view the world has undergone a huge shift. I fully believe that life gives you everything you need.
This wasn’t always the case.
Just several short months ago in July when I was newer to travel and still smarting from the pangs of self-doubt and anxiety that often weighed me down, I questioned the importance of attitude in facing life’s vicissitudes. I literally wrote in my journal, “I understand that having a positive attitude is important, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if this is something people just tell themselves to make themselves feel better…?” Intellectually, I understood that being positive (or at least equanimous) was supposed to make a huge difference, but I didn’t feel it. I didn’t get it.
And here I should make another important point before I continue: ‘life giving you everything you need’ does not mean that everything is going to be easy or pleasant. Quite the opposite. It simply means that whatever you need at a given moment in time, life will bring it to you in some shape or form. Maybe what you need is a lesson, maybe you need to check yourself, maybe you need a change of heart, maybe you need to get knocked down, maybe you need some inspiration or words of encouragement. You get it.
Anyways, my time in Malaysia proved to be a great illustration of this theory. Especially after hearing form many other travelers that Malaysia was only worth a brief visit (word of mouth tips from other travelers are often invaluable and are generally my favorite way to plan, though on this one I must strongly disagree – Malaysia is awesome and I wholly recommend exploring it fully!), I’d only planned on being there for a few weeks, tops. And this included my 10 day retreat. So, I budgeted a few days for some major points of interest and then after the Vipassana I’d move on.
As my travel plans unfolded, it happened that I entered Malaysia on December 17. Since Vipassana didn’t start until January 6, this meant I’d have some time to kill between December 17th and January 6th – three whole weeks! Maybe I’d hop over to Thailand and then come back in time for meditation…
One can plan, but then life happens.
I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that I got to know Malaysia pretty well. And no, I didn’t “hop” over to Thailand. Between the cancelled Visa credit card (result of some mass fraud compromise in which my credit card was included), the not one but two attempts it took Bank of America to get a working credit card back in my hands, the simultaneous cancellation of my back-up Amex card (American Express finally caught the trend of other credit card companies to install a security chip in their cards, though unfortunately this meant that my old one – sans security chip – would be useless and I couldn’t delay getting the replacement card any longer. Subnote: had I initially planned to travel longer than 2 months, I would have just opened an account with Charles Schawb, apparently the bank of choice for Americans traveling abroad long-term), the fact that this happened over Christmas and New Years, and add bed bugs and food poisoning (no joke) as the cherry on top…in the end it made the most sense for me to stay put where I was in Penang, Malaysia and hold tight while everything got sorted.
And you know what? It was awesome. It was just what I needed.
Sure, initially I was annoyed. No working credit card? Why couldn’t Bank of America get their S*** together? Why did I have to “waste” time in this random Malaysian city?
What about my other plans!? Really, bed bugs???
And then I met nearly a dozen amazing new people from all over the world. And within a few short days, they became my friends. And together we explored the hidden gems of a new place. And I/we got to have a favorite hang-out spot with nightly live music and the best cake and espresso martinis I’ve ever had. I had the best New Year’s since I can remember, and I laughed a lot and I was happy. And the credit cards and the bed bugs? I could stand to learn a few lessons in patience and stress management.
At the end of the day, especially after Vipassana and my time in Malaysia, I truly believe that life gives you what you need. I needed to travel. I needed to get out and stretch my wings and see what I could accomplish on my own terms, with my own means, in my own way. And here I am now, in Thailand, just taking the days as they come. Usually I’m really sweaty (welcome to Southeast Asia), and I’m not always comfortable. But it’s what I need. At least for now.
So here I beg the question, what do you need?
Ask yourself honestly.
Learn about Vipassana better than I can explain it: www.dhamma.org