This is a little piece of writing about my experience doing a ten day meditation course in Ladakh warning* I only used the word ‘climbing’ once
The room was always very dim with soft light, soft floor and not-soft-enough cushions. I noticed I was holding my breath, trying to hear how loud my footsteps were. I took up my seat, wondering how best to sit today. Knees crossed? Knees tucked? I cautiously manoeuvred my cushion into a new position, a position I hoped would yield less pain.
Seriousness infused the room. An absolute calmness and a silence like a museum or a library or a morgue; a place where every small movement is a sharp disturbance of the peace. Goenka’s chanting in ancient Hindi marked the start of our practice. ‘Here we go again’ I thought and all 21 of the women in the room closed their eyes and began to meditate.
All of a sudden the familiar slow melodic chanting was punctured by something else, some other kind of noise. The silent calm energy of the room was at once shattered like an ice berg erupting into water. Then I realised what it was: somehow the played tape had been infiltrated by the local radio station’s Indian pop music. And not just any pop music: it was a Bollywood remix of a cheesy American Country and Western song! A combination already unimaginably absurd, and yet made more so by Goenka’s background chanting in ancient Hindi. Not to mention the fact that a meditation hall is hardly the context for Bollywood remixes. Perhaps it was my mind in it’s vulnerable state, but at some points it seemed as if his chanting was actually in time to the music, a little bit like he was rapping. I thought of french hip-hop.
I started to giggle hysterically and even though I was fully absorbed in the humour and ridiculousness of the situation I was also aware that I was laughing like a psychotic person. In the same way an insane person might laugh at their own reflection in a mirror. The laughter sounded so alien it felt like it belonged to someone else. I’d only said a handful of words in the last seven days. I certainly hadn’t laughed, made eye contact or touched another human in that time. Hearing the other women laugh, I experienced an intense feeling of shared humour and I guess with that an intrinsic feeling of human connection. So intense was this feeling that my laughter started to sound all too much like crying.
And still our teacher hadn’t noticed! There she remained, posture in tact, eyes closed, legs crossed at the head of the room. Like a animal hibernating for the winter, or a statue; just a replica of a human. The assistant teacher went over to Queen Iguana lady (as I had named her, in lack of knowing her real name) and tried to rouse her from her meditative slumber. You’re not supposed to touch anyone whilst they’re meditating and as the tempo of the Bollywood music increased in frequency, so too did her shaking of Queen Iguana’s cushion. More stifled laughter sprung from the room. The music was so loud and outrageous it was unfathomable how she still couldn’t have noticed. In an instance I realised that this was what it was to be Zen; completely unfazed, Country Bollywood or no Country Bollywood.
Eventually Queen Iguana agreed there was something strange about the tape today, and the sound system was sorted. Over-stimulated from all the entertainment it was hard to get serious again. I tried my best to clear the images of our teacher dancing to Bollywood from my mind and began to focus on the small area above my upper lip. Over the course of the past week I’d noticed my mind begin to sharpen. At first I couldn’t feel the drag of air across this part of my body as I inhaled, and now it felt like the stroking air could have been someone’s hand.
And yet my mind still wandered. It wandered to anything and everything. It wandered to what I would tell my friends when I left the course. ‘Would I write a blog?’ ‘Is it too personal?’ ‘To weird?’ It wandered to climbing, to men, to mountains. Worse than the wandering was the all-too-close world of sleep. It wasn’t real sleep, it was the world of the conscious mind being dirtied by the unconscious.
At one end of the spectrum is the crystal-clear mountain stream mind of the present, those rare moments I find when I’m climbing, and without which I wouldn’t love it as I do. Then on the other end: the so called unconscious mind, the world of dreams. But during the sittings I would too often experience the strange land of the in between, the land of lucid dreams, random fragments of thought, visions, vivid faces of people I’d never seen, people talking, in the background a television set spouting nonsense. The deliciously warm world of sleep doing its best to invite me in.
Three seconds of attention to the meditation followed by three seconds of dreaming. Then my head would drop forward shaking me back into reality only for the torturous cycle to begin again. ‘Concentrate Hazel!’ Once again I imagined a torture camp, prisoners of war, a terrorist detention centre, a sleep-deprived man on his knees held up by his arms. For ten days: eleven hours of meditation a day, twelve hours of sitting, up at 4am, two meals a day, no talking, no laughter and always the sound of the bell bringing you back to the hall. The no-talking part was easy. My friends know that I’m OK at being in my own head. But the sitting… I won’t talk about the pain. The embarrassing fact that sitting down on a floor has caused me more pain than I’ve ever felt before. All the suffering of a big alpine route, minus nearly all the good parts.
This small strip of land in the desert with temporary or half-erected buildings, all of us sat separately, wearing head scarfs under the blazing sun. In such a sensitive state you noticed things you wouldn’t do otherwise. How after rain a certain plant would sprout another leaf in the space of a day, how the Delhi - Leh 7am flight would sometimes be a few minutes late but always during our breakfast hour, how some of the other girls had also taken to putting small stones around the larger plants to protect them, how the mountains in the distance would loose snow as the day grew. On my first day, I’d began to think warmly of this place as ‘Vipmo bay’.
There is so much more I could say about my experience of Vipassana. I could try to explain how the hardest thing I’ve ever done could be something I’ll want to do again. I could try to explain my thoughts on meditation, I suppose I could even explain what we did! But I don’t think I will. Partially because I’m not qualified to explain the philosophy of the practice, partially because I’m frightened to share something so personal and partially because I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone interested in becoming a student. It’s really something you have to experience for yourself. You can do a google search if you’re interested and if you’re really interested then you can do the ten day course!