OK, so the title is a little sensational, but I couldn’t resist referencing a tacky noughties romcom…
This is the story of how I finally lost my mind during a 10 day silent meditation course in Yangon, Myanmar. In this post, I won’t go into details around the meditation technique or how it was taught, as I know some of you are considering the same course and I don’t want to impact your experiences. Instead, I will share my personal experience, in the hope that your sadistic side gets a right old laugh, if nothing else.
Before leaving London, I knew I wanted to learn some form of meditation in this part of the world; let’s face it, I was long due some spiritual cleansing. In London I’d experienced some light meditation and visualisation and had read around mindfulness, but I’d never pursued any technique seriously. Through some online research I found Vipassana, and after hearing two friends’ experience, I booked in for a course.
Vipassana was a technique taught by the Buddha in India over 2500 years ago, however it was diluted and lost by many countries over the centuries. It was in Myanmar (previously known as Burma) that vipassana continued to be practiced in its purest forms – first only taught by monks, then taught by others to enable more people to benefit.
According to its website, vipassana is the process of self-purification by self-observation. I would describe it as this: the techniques taught throughout the course lead you to heightened awareness of the sensations of your body. Through this heightened awareness, you can observe and adjust how you react to the things you want and don’t want at your deepest level, working through the mental blockades built through years of focusing on anything other than what’s really going on in your mind. As the technique is practical in focusing on only your own sensations, its not dependent on a particular faith or religion, so can be practiced by anyone without conflicting with existing beliefs.
Throughout the course new students were required to live by the following precepts:
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants; and
- to abstain from eating after midday (new students are allowed to request fruit, although I never did).
Some of these were clearly more challenging than others.
No killing: This didn’t seem like it would be challenging, however we were tested by the sheer number of mosquitoes around the centre. Without anyone splatting them, they seemed to be partying like a group of Essex girls at an all-you-can-drink adult Butlins weekend, swarming me regardless of the hefty amount of deet applied three times a days. Every day I was bitten at least 5-10 times and I almost went through an entire pot of tiger balm to soothe the bites. The itching was not conducive to focused meditation.
No eating after midday: As many will know, I love eating far too much to be healthy, so not eating after midday was my biggest concern before going in. What was slightly unsettling was that by day 2 I had completely lost my appetite, so even though I did feel empty I was never really hungry in the evenings. Most days I had no appetite even at lunch at 11am, so had to force myself to eat the vegetarian food, knowing it would be 19 hours until breakfast the next morning.
The final rule was silence – no talking to anyone except the teacher (at specific times), which was also said to help with the ‘no lying‘ precept (because all of us drop a few cheeky lies and exagerrations in normal human contact). This also included no gestures or eye contact to other humans, putting you in an isolated state where you focus only on yourself. Walking around we would all just stare at the floor, meals were eaten staring at a wall, time spent in your room was silent with your roommate sitting on the other bed. So close but a world apart. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so long without smiling.
The schedule was also pretty grueling – we were in bed around 9:30pm and awoken at 4:00am, so we were lucky to get 6 hours of sleep a night. I spent the 4 and a half hours of break between meditation washing myself, my clothes, resting my aching back and limbs (from 11 hour sat on a cushion on the floor) and pacing the paths in the centre. We were allowed no other distractions – reading and writing were forbidden, and we were even told off for petting the puppies that played near our tea spot.
I broke the rules slightly, and allowed myself to write only 3 words for every day, which gives some idea of the rollercoaster 10 days:
- Tired, achey, restless mind
- Achey, ACHEY, awake
- Achey, frustrated, fat
- Angry, agony… relief
- MIGRAINE, recovery, drained
- Optimistic, determined, tingly
- Inconsistent, delirious, impatient
- Doubtful, can’t focus, frustrated
- Weary mind, progress, restless
- Relief, gratitude, buzzing
At the beginning of the course my mind was like a restless toddler, protesting at being made to sit still and concentrate. In our modern lives, we spend our efforts switching between the numerous demands on our attention – our phones, email, loved ones, jobs, chores… Those who excel at life are those able to spread their attention and keep the most plates spinning, darting from one thing to another, never taking their eyes from their lofty plates to look at themselves. Now we were being asked to sit on our arses for 11 hours and think of nothing but the sensations in our body, our minds rummaging to find any thought to distract us.
Lesson 10: what lurks beneath the surface of the mind can be scary as hell.
After a few days, the technique deepened and my thoughts went from a seemingly random chain of nonsense to surfacing deeper fears and fantasies, many of which I had never allowed myself to really feel before. I’d finally lost my marbles. I became convinced that a family member was ill and the staff were keeping it from me, that there had been a terrorist attack in London, that there had been a zombie outbreak in the real world – I planned where I could find the best weapons in the centre, where would be the safest stake-out, which other meditators seemed like the most able companions in our battle against the undead. And these are just a few examples; my mind was determined to churn out anything to throw me off the path.
Lesson 11: I can’t meditate through a migraine.
I woke on the 5th day to a migraine looming. I tried to meditate, but after 3 hours of only making my head ache more, I asked to be excused. The teacher told me that she would teach me to meditate through my headache. Two more hours of meditation later, I couldn’t tell whether I was going to vomit or pass out first. The teacher excused me a whole 20 mins early for lunch and I lay in bed with a cold flannel on my head until the world stopped spinning. That will be the first and last time I try to meditate away a migraine.
As the days continued and I got a firmer grasp on the technique, I was able to understand why my mind went to weird and unpleasant places and stop myself getting carried away with my thoughts. This awareness of the inner workings of the restless beast of the mind was the first step along the vipassana path. As time wore on, more thoughts came to the fore, and for the first time I faced them instead of tucking them away out of sight.
By day 6 I was feeling rushes of intense euphoria, but on day 7 I completely lost all sensation – I couldn’t feel my finger when I poked my own arm. With this came such disappointment – I knew I shouldn’t get attached to any sensation, but how could I not be sad when euphoria, my measure of progress, had disappeared? I was low.
By the end of the ten days I had worked through some of my blockades and was back on the right track, feeling sensation gradually return. But this is only the beginning – the important thing is to continue meditating, continue progressing… But I’ve already found it difficult. Whilst travelling there is no routine, and with no routine ensuring I meditate daily has gone out the window. But I will try my best.
On the final day of the course we were able to talk to each other, and it was remarkable the warmth and affection I felt for everyone who had also been through the journey. I wanted to know everyone’s story; not their experiences during meditation and the past 10 days, but about who they are, why they did this, what do they want in life… We had shared a close space for 10 days during which I’d come up with back stories and theories about the meditators around me. Some were right, but many were way off the mark. Although we’d only spent a day or two speaking to one another, I was sad to say goodbye.
So why on earth spend 10 days of my early retirement travels in this spiritual prison? It’s hard to put into words how this changed me and, after speaking to others, I learned that everyone’s experience is different, so it’s impossible to know how it could change you. But here are some thoughts I’ve had during discussions with others:
Even if you don’t find the meditation effective, at the very least it is one hell of an intense experience. When people ask me about it, their response is always a variant of ‘Oh my god, I could never do that!’. But everyone can – you just have to be willing to throw yourself out of your comfort zone to learn something new. It’s certainly not for the fainthearted, but just knowing you made it through 10 days is a fulfilling thought at the end.
Next is the meditation itself. I was pleasantly surprised by how structured the 10 days were, and how they established a strong foundation for vipassana mediation. The process is maddening, as you want to focus on anything other than yourself, but every step made sense and I never felt pressurised or lectured on the religious aspect (vipassana has roots in Buddhism, but there was no attempt to convert). I actually enjoyed learning about the more Buddhist aspects.
Finally, without wanting to be too dramatic, I have sensed a change in myself. Generally I think I’m a fairly chilled person – I can rock up in a new country without a plan, I can deal with people being rude or difficult, I can keep a clear head when things go wrong. But underneath this is a more nervous flurry of worries and insecurities; all me giving myself a hard time, all deeply engrained from a lifetime of negative thoughts habits, all unproductive and distracting. Upon leaving my 10 days of meditation, it is this deeper level that has been calmed; I haven’t found my brain wandering to find something to worry about, I’m enjoying each moment because it’s now that really matters, I don’t feed my insecurities with negative thoughts and self-insults, I accept that things are out of my sphere of influence, so don’t spend energy trying to control them. This has all changed subconsciously – I’m not repeatedly reminding myself not to worry at the intellectual level; I look back at the last few weeks and realise it’s just happened.
I have a long way to go, and have to work hard just to maintain progress. But what I can say is that I think everyone would benefit from a little more equilibrium in their souls. If you are interested and want to hear more, just message me and we can talk. Remember, everyone can do it if they want to.
Thanks for reading and sorry for the rambling. Peace, love and harmony to one and all ✌💗🙏