What draws one into a new experience?
One could argue that curiosity is largely responsible for the accumulation of wisdom across our lifespans. Every wise old sage was once an eager student and every student was once an uneducated child. Without curiosity, we would never strive to know or become intrigued in a subject beyond that directly in front of our nose. A random remark by a friend piqued that sense of curiosity as she mentioned a Vipassana meditation course in India. I’ve always been intrigued by meditation but had never considered it more than an Eastern Asian snake oil, some kind of transcendental witchery. Regardless, I stored it away as something to look into further. I began researching and found reports of monks meditating throughout the night during subzero temperatures without harm or hypothermia. This seemed extraordinary, a complete mastery of the mind and therefore a mastery of the body. I knew that I would be traveling to Myanmar in the following months and decided to attend a ten-day Vipassana meditation course. It seemed like a bit of a stretch, the whole chakra cracking mystical thing, but given that I had yet to delve into the practice myself, I couldn’t cast judgement in favor of or against it. I would later learn that zeroing in the mind was similar to wrestling a greased pig: frustrating and exhausting. Yet immensely rewarding when aforementioned pig was adequately wrestled and victory was achieved. This seems like the most relatable analogy since greased pig wrestling is such a popular pastime these days.
To experience a belief system through interactions with believers is far more convincing than the exhilarating literature of religious pamphlets. It makes sense that a true convert would be an ideology’s best salesman and that was precisely the case with many of the fine citizens of Myanmar. Before I arrived in Myanmar, I had been traveling for just shy of a year throughout North America, Canada and Southeast Asia, meeting more than a few con artists, hucksters and scamps along the way. Perhaps because Myanmar is relatively new to the tourist economy, most of its citizens are actually friendly and honest. A few people in particular stand out in my memory for their exceptional hospitality. Although a language barrier was usually more than existent, a general sense of camaraderie was quickly formed while we sipped instant coffee out of small cups at roadside food stops. I had four different strangers on four separate minibus rides compel me to eat with them and that they pay for my meal. When I would insist to pay, they would respond, ” No my friend, I sup you. I sup you.” Three out of four of my new friends happened to practice Vipassana. This cemented a positive view of Vipassana in my mind with good memories of free eats.
The Road to Enlightenment
Arriving in any bus park in Myanmar can be a bit of a confusing experience. Each bus park is roughly the same, with the only difference being how the weather has affected the rutted dirt beneath your feet. The first order is getting your things and getting out of the coliseum of bus vendors and cell phone marketeers. With the advent of rain you will find yourself in a mud wrestling match with your fellow passengers while trying to retrieve your luggage and escape alive. To my good fortune it had been particularly dry, dust billowed out from the skirts of the bus carriage as we motored into the lot along with a legion of other buses. Hands begin beating on the sides of the bus and monosyllabic commands are shouted to help the driver back into a parking position. During the bus ride from Mandalay to Monywa, I meet a woman who is also attending the meditation course at Dhamma Nanadhaja named Nyein. Nyein comes off the bus, excitedly speaking in Burmese on her cell phone and making erratic motions at me with her hand. She explains via hand signals that she has arranged transportation to the meditation center for us. I nod and laugh while moving into the fray to get my pack. I can tell she’s a sweet lady and I’m glad to have met her. A young man around the age of 22, in cut off shorts and a tank top spits a long red stream of betel nut juice onto the arid ground before passing my pack to me. The midday sun glistens on his red stained teeth giving him the appearance of a bar room brawler stumbling out into the daylight after a good left hook.
Nyein and I are picked up from the bus park by two men on scooters and proceed to be transported out of Monywa into the countryside. We arrive at the meditation center where Nyein and I part ways, the men and women are kept separate and I only see her again once in passing. When researching meditation centers, I intentionally sought out sites that were a significant distance from Inle Lake, Bagan or any other destination hotspot. As a backpacker, I’m always slightly disappointed to see other backpackers. A destination’s authenticity is largely measured by its absence of fellow, pasty sightseers wielding Nikon and Pentax picture machines. A backpacker’s hypocrisy is boundless. Regardless, I was admitted into Dhamma Nanadhaja by a stern-faced Burmese man of few words. I had completed little research on the nuts and bolts side of the course which allowed me to arrive with few preconceived notions. He instructed me to carefully read the contract I was entering into and make sure I could comply. Basically, I agreed that if I wasn’t enjoying the course I would suck it up and finish the full ten days. We would learn the basic precepts of Vipassana through video lessons each evening with our virtual teacher, S.N. Goenka. While at Dhamma Nanadhaja, your mind is introduced to a reality devoid of distractions: intoxicants, talking, reading, writing, sensual pursuits, music, exercise and anything that sounds like a good time are prohibited during your ten-day stay. You’re here to find yourself earth child, and find yourself you shall. You will gain inner clarity, largely because there is nothing else to do.
For a week and a half I’ll get to live as a monk; the thought strikes me as funny. A life removed from the everyday vices of life is refreshing in theory and exhausting in practice. The normal concerns of work, food preparation, house maintenance and all of life’s other time investments are taken care of so that you can put maximal effort into seeking enlightenment. The way of the monk is an intriguing lifestyle that has been in practice over thousands of years, from the stone age Himalayan mountain hermit to the modern-day Western philosopher. You shut yourself off from the world to gain an honest perspective of the world. When you remove the furniture from a room, you see the true length and width of its space. Vipassana focuses on the pain in the body to teach a lesson about the nature of life. In a nutshell: pain will arise and fall away, trees will grow and eventually topple over, love will come and love will surely go. This is life. Once we learn to accept it and see it for what it is, we are able to live without excessive craving of good things and we are also able to live without excessive aversion to bad events or negative things that occur in life. In theory, one becomes pleasantly detached and finds a harmony to life’s chaotic orchestra of minor and sharp notes. You close your eyes and bob your head in approval of the score because you know that those melancholic minor notes give a song depth, while it’s ecstatic sharp notes give it meaning. In essence, you appreciate the song for what it is, knowing that the crescendo will pass and that the song will eventually fade into silence. Then again, perhaps this monk thing is just an excuse to get a cool bath robe, free food, and some time to Netflix and chill. Who knows.
The first meditation session of each day begins with the reverberating strike of a gong at 4 a.m. and a corresponding gong strike for each meditation session to begin. For the first three days I’m enchanted by the Bushido style call to all enlightenment seekers to rise and grind. By day four, I’m ready to throw that gong into the fiery hell of Mordor. Ten hours a day of meditation is no joke, and your lower appendage joints are the first to register a formal complaint. The focus of each session is to gain feeling of a small area, to sharpen your mind like a scalpel. You want to be able to make a deep incision into your mental complex instead of broad, skin deep scratches. The first two days you focus on just the area inside your nostrils, feeling the influx and expulsion of air and trying to control your wildly overactive mind. Imagine giving a three-year old cocaine and a thousand yards of bubble wrap, that’s your mind trying to meditate for 2 hours straight. For the next 3 days you expand your feel gaze from the upper lip to the bridge of the nose; feel and sensation is the name of the game and you want to sense any tingling, itching, or development in that triangular area. So far you’re at day 5 and you’ve covered about 3 inches of your body depending on how much of a beak you possess. For the next 5 days, you’ll begin scanning from the top of the head and work your way down the front and back of your body to the toes. Around this time most people begin developing an awareness of a tingling sensation throughout the body, which feels something like an intermittent electric current.
By the end of day two, your body is beginning to voice its discontent with this whole meditation business.
By day four, you despise the idea of going to sit in a half lotus position more than you could possibly imagine; your body is likely to be one large, pulsing ache from your ankles to your neck. My lumbar muscles were tied in twisted knots, my knees and hips would throb and ache with such an intensity that I would be snorting air through my nose, body shaking, grinding my teeth and saying every curse-word imaginable to try to make it through a session without changing my position. It seems impossible to try and meditate when you’re in that much discomfort. On top of that, your mind continues to run free and wild like the greased pig that it is. Every other day we would have a meeting with the head instructor of Dhamma Nanadhaja where we could ask questions or voice concerns we had been experiencing. The only issue with this was our instructor’s level of English was minimal, therefore the answer to every question was a memorized line of English. When asked about focusing on meditation while in pain, he answered very solemnly “You must not practice Yoga while studying Vipassana, you must focus only on Vipassana.” After a few rephrasings of the question I was 100% certain that I should not practice yoga while studying Vipassana. Meanwhile, the ten-hour sufferfest continued each day. Occasionally piercing through my rage,the audiotape would produce the benevolent voice of our master instructor, Mr. S.N. Goenka, chiming in to repeat the same refrain, “Take note of your breathing, right nostril, left nostril, slow or fast, it does not matter. Work diligently, patiently, persistently. You are bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.” In the midst of his lyrical encouragement, my mind was working overtime to mitigate the hateful urges welling up in my cranium.
Curiosity leads to an experience, most memorable experiences contain some sort of suffering and arising from such suffering brings elation and victory in some form or another. My moment of victory arrived on day six, while in my meditation cell, a small concrete room no larger than a coat closet. My shirt was off since I was in a concealed room and a sheen of sweat clung to my skin. My breath was steady and relaxed but my mind was in a searing hot rage, the constant pain infuriated me. I decided in that moment that I would not move until I heard the gong. I would not shift one inch until I heard that god forsaken, cursed gong. Hatred exposed itself as I called myself every insulting name under the sun, I berated myself in perfect silence. An internal battle was going on that I didn’t realize had been in the making for a quarter century. Forcefully expelling air through my nostrils, gritting teeth, I battled my mind, my doubt, my hatred for over an hour. The constant pain transitioned into a throbbing pain and then slowly dissipated altogether. Hatred followed suit. A moment of silence. An electric current arose and surged through my skull and into my torso like a rushing river. Violin solos and EDM music coursed through my reality, every cell in my body, fully alive, fully recognized. The oxygen in my lungs was finally perceived as a sacred life source and I felt the gravity of its necessity. I sat there, in my little concrete bunker, feeling like I was about to transfigure into an existential being. The gong rings across our jungle valley, all too soon this time.
I find it difficult to replicate that experience over the next few days, but I do tap into it a few more times over the remainder of the course. I don’t experience the pain as sharply, the malice is gone from my mind and while I may be uncomfortable, it is now manageable. I see the smiles of those who are serving us food, sweeping the dhamma hall, even the gong ringer and I recognize a peace and tranquility about them. They are all serving out of their own time and resources, because they believe in the efficacy of Vipassana. I no longer feel like someone attending a course but part of a small community. The evening of the final day we sit in the Dhamma hall and begin our last meditation session. Darkness hangs on the fringes of the sky, I feel the sun’s rays slide across my face as the ball of fire is consumed by the horizon. The cry of a coyote begins to rise and transforms into a mourning chorus surrounding Dhamma Nanadhaja. I open my eyes and see the dim outlines of humans sitting, closed eyes, slowly breathing. In that moment, I was connected with the entire world from a small bamboo meditation center in the foothills of Myanmar.
‘Til Next Time,