Before I left home at the close of 2016 I had a rough idea about kind of things I wanted to experience while away. I had plotted down a journey through Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, spanning up to two years. In my first month, I followed a pretty typical backpacker route through Thailand, finding familiarity within this new style of living. But it didn’t take long for me to crave experiences that felt different, that would test me and that I hadn’t read or already heard about from friends or on my Facebook feed. Around three or four weeks in, I found myself sitting atop a two-thousand-year-old temple in Bagan, Myanmar, with a handful of travellers watching the sun descend into the Earth, covering the space around me in beautiful colour. At this point, I’d ventured out on boats at the crack of dawn, slept in stranger’s homes and rode bikes off the beaten track to waterfalls, cliff-points and places that didn’t exist on maps. I thought I was doing pretty good at this travelling thing.
Watching this particular sunset, I really fell into the moment. I was completely absorbed by my present. All the distractions of my external world slipped away. As I looked across the vast golden land and temples that spread out in front of me, I felt the breeze brush over my cheeks and through my hair. I felt the sun on me. I watched the couple a level below me dance together to the music of their home. Another pair laugh sharing quiet stories. One guy to my left was lighting a roll-up and blowing smoke into the sky, watching it drift away in the wind. To my right, a girl from the Netherlands was meditating, smiling. Eventually, her eyes opened and I fell into conversation with her during the fading crimson of the sunset. I told her of my aspirations to become more aligned with myself and to learn more about meditation. In that conversation, she introduced me to an ancient technique called Vipassana; a 10-day silent meditation that she had recently finished. She talked about her experience with pride and admiration, as if it had humbled her and taught her so much. The idea of it baffled me… arriving at a retreat, handing in all your possessions and spending 10 days in complete confinement and silence. Why would anyone put themselves through that?
Over the following months, this retreat kept coming up in conversation. And the more it did, the more I felt pulled into the idea. I started to think about it like this: our whole lives we’ve been connected. From our earliest years with our parents and siblings. Through school with friends. And now, more than ever, through the media. You could be completely alone in a room and be connected to a million other people through a tool that sits in the palm of your hand. Good or bad, I have my arguments for both, but one thing I’ve come to understand a great deal over the past few years is the importance of balance. It exists within everything we do. Digital and social media has offered us so much; the means to communicate with my grandparents from thousands of miles away, or the chance to present voice for change from anywhere in the world and push culture-bending movements like Me Too and March For Our Lives. On the other hand, it has morphed us into a new breed of socialite, where for some, the constructed image of our lives on social media is more important than your actual life. Where limitless connection to world content has rendered us desensitised and sometimes cruel, abusive of our anonymity online. We live in a world now where a plea for positive change can be sparked into viral trend at such a rate that it can reach millions in minutes, but also where a video of someone else's pain and misfortune can trend just as quickly within a misguided form of humour.
What I've found is that it is immensely important for us to be aware of the power of social media, our influence as individuals and also, our consumption. Over the last decade or so, we’ve completed the transition into a new digital culture, but keeping oneself within the present and developing a balance in your life between reality and what you find on your phone is more important than ever. Vipassana offered me an opportunity to explore a life without connection, and intimidating as it was, I felt like it was something I had to do.
I completed my 10 days last October in Nepal, just after tackling Everest Base Camp, going from one extreme to the other. Now, with considerable distance from the experience, I can really say it has had an incredibly positive effect on how I approach my day-to-day life. While it still remains one of my most intense experiences since being away, it has brought a monumental level of clarity and understanding to my own purpose and direction.
For those who are unfamiliar with Vipassana meditation, it's an age-old technique originating in Burma and rooted within Buddhist tradition. Amongst a list of its rules are no speaking or communication (even eye-contact is forbidden), no reading or writing, no food after mid-day lunch, and ultimately, you must adhere to the meditation schedule of 10 hours of meditation a day, including an hour of discourse in the evening. To further stress the intensity of the retreat, here's a glimpse of our daily schedule:
Up until this point, everyone I had fallen into conversation with about Vipassana had adamantly refrained from oversharing. The logic here was that the experience of Vipassana is entirely unique to the individual, and thus, giving a detailed account of ones experience only leads to expectation. I respected this intention, and despite my burning curiosity, I loved approaching this fresh new reality with barely any knowledge of what I was getting myself into. One friend had said to me of her experience “I found myself going crazy for the first three days, but after that, I started the most intense conversation with myself I think I’ll ever have.” The statement both intimidated me and incited me. I set aside some spare time in Nepal after my Everest Trek and discovered a Dhamma Meditation Centre in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. I booked my place, and before I knew it, I was on a bus heading away from Kathmandu and into this rural town, to essentially cut myself off from the world.
The night before, my apprehension and excitement to dive head-first into something completely alien to me was overwhelming. I attempted some basic research on my phone, finding statements like ‘Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’ and Vipassana is defined as ‘the art of living, the true nature of reality’. It was all very profound, but I felt fully ready for whatever lay ahead. Upon arrival the next morning, I was asked to hand in all my possessions, keeping the bare essentials; a toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel, sandals and a basic set of clothes. One of the meditation leaders said to us, “You will soon find yourself in line with nature, you will even free yourself from your name.” I let the notion sit with me as I filled out an entry form. And then it was time. Time for silence. Time for reflection. That was the last time I properly spoke for 10 days.
The Dhamma course is progressive, each day of meditation building on the last, and advancing your understanding of the practice. The theory is led by S. N. Goenka who shares discourse every evening through a screening, talking us through new lessons and exercises for the following day, facilitated by a plethora of anecdotes and fables. Interestingly, these nightly lectures often illuminated some of the experiences I was going through over the ten days. He compared the Vipassana course to brain surgery, clarifying that over the course of our time spent there, we would be cutting into our brains and it would hurt. As we slowly identify and remove all the negative roots that have dug deep within our past, until we get ‘stitched up’ on the last day. While I discovered this to be true for most others in conversations shared after my ten days, my own experience was quite different. Maybe that comes down to where I was mentally when undertaking the retreat, but I truly never felt a sense of emotional pain or any real sadness. This is, I think, because Vipassana offered me something I had desperately, desperately craved for such a long time, and never had... Time. In the world I grew up in, time was fast and fleeting. I was constantly in a race against it; sprinting through my childhood and school years, always trying to seize the moment, living each day to its fullest, trying to make good use of my time. And I wasn’t always on my time. How many of us really are? When a close friend of mine passed away when I was 19, I cried. I grieved. And later that day, I went to the university library to finish my end of year assignments, my eyes swollen, my mind twisting. When I broke up with my long-term girlfriend at 22, I began a journey into heartbreak more intense than I’d ever had to deal with before. And then I got on the train and went to work, forcing those emotions as far into the back of my mind as I could, until my journey home where they summited once more. What I’m getting at here is that in our day-to-day lives, time can often become disjointed, broken and rushed. As human beings, we are emotional creatures, and all too often we can neglect our most basic emotional needs, replacing them for the intense demands of the society we exist in.
Vipassana offered me time. During the ten days, I took my time working through anything that was complex, complicated and affecting in my life, accompanied by the meditation techniques I was learning. I ventured back to age 7, when my parents separated. I thought about its impact on me. And by that, I mean I took a deep dive into every trait of my character that has been affected by that experience in my life over 20 or so hours of stillness and patience. Uninterrupted thought and reflection. Time was mine, completely, and I used it wisely. I thought back over past relationships, friendships, triumphs, failures. I contemplated the concept of ‘regret’ for hours. What is regret, really? Can you ever truly regret something if that experience has led to growth and progression, mentally or emotionally? Many hours passed. Days, even. I felt like I was having a deep catch up with myself that had been pending for years and years. And I didn’t just reflect on my past, I thought to my present and my future. I thought about where I am as a person, in immense detail. What I’ve achieved. How I’ve grown and what I’ve learned up until this point. I thought about my future, who I want to be, what I want to do. What I define as personal success. All of these thoughts were given hours of dedicated time. Patience. Soon, I’m returning back to a corporate world, in one of most fast-paced cities in the world. The difference is, I understand time now, probably for the first time ever. I don’t fear it, or run from it, or chase it. I own it, utilise it. I create it. My time is mine. And that is the greatest gift Vipassana gave me. An understanding and contentment of self. A learning of my own clock and how to control it.
This understanding of time came hand-in-hand with other valuable lessons, such as forgiveness. According to S. N. Goenka, our old disinclinations are stored within us, as sankharas. The idea is that if you keep ignoring these distressing emotions, they will continue to rise to the surface in the form of physical sensations; itches, aches, pains. We were taught to become aware of these sankharas, and when they come, not to react with a scratch or a shuffle, but to simply remain still and focused. Through this process, you endure the irritation as it develops within your physical structure, and eventually you are liberated, and it passes. In other words, you have finally let that suppressed pain leave you. Some I spoke to found this practice to be true, others did not. Personally, I felt incredible physical change over the course of the ten days. Early on, my body ached and irritated. My second night I could barely sleep through the back pain that had manifested over the initial day of 10-hour meditation. During my meditation, I found so many itches, aches, and nerve pinches in my back, neck and fingers. But once I dedicated time to the practice, these small irritations began to appear less and less, and the release of physical stress and agony felt amazing. Was it down to my body simply getting used to the new routine, or was the sankhara theory really true? I guess I’ll never really know for sure. Whilst the technique was mostly based in the physical, I found myself drawing some psychological conclusions from the underlying philosophy of sankharas. I looked at these sankharas as suppressed emotion, coming from painful moments in the past, or simply, the idea of holding grudges. How many of us do this all to often; find a suitable place, experience or person to point blame for our own pain, anger or misfortune? I know I have.
I would definitely have considered myself to be an over-thinker in the past. Things that affected me emotionally, however great, would have the power to manifest at an unbelievable rate into something so elaborate and well-thought out in my mind. On occasion, this offered me an aptitude for understanding people; why they are a certain way and are driven to particular emotions. It gifted me a level of empathy that has allowed me to connect with so many different people, especially on my travels, in a way I know isn’t particularly common. On the other hand, it has had the ability to fuel my depression, forcing me into deep black holes that I found impossible to climb out of. Since my early teenage years, this was something I was desperately trying to get a grip on. I wanted to understand my psyche better and have more power over my train of emotional thought. I talked with my Mother about potential therapy. I delved into books on depression, social anxiety and the power of the mind. Before Vipassana, I spent many years working on this successfully, but during the course of the ten days, I made rapid progression that has followed me into my daily life. I learned the invaluable art of letting go. Similarly to the theory of sankharas, I let any past grudges and grievances surface. I’d digest them, process them and then finally release. I made my peace with so many things during my Vipassana experience. There was once a time I had considered my mind a bit of a prison. I spent many years reconstructing that idea; planting fresh seeds and weeding out the things that didn’t belong there anymore. Vipassana allowed me to finally walk through the lush, flourishing garden I had been creating. I left feeling unshackled by anything from my past, fearless of anything awaiting me in my future, and most importantly, so alive within my present.
After the experience, I spent a lot of time reading and writing. I jotted down memories of ideas I had visited, and documented my feelings and thoughts towards what I had gone through. I read amazing articles from others who had undergone the Vipassana practice and evaluated my own experience in conjunction. I remember coming across someone who’d written that they had developed ‘an acute sense of self’ and scribbled it on the top of my page, underlining it. I related massively. I found the experience to be extremely personal, and while most of it I have and will keep for myself, I’m glad to be able to share a small portion of it with the world. After all, we are all on a personal journey, and the simple sharing of our stories can turn out to be some of the greatest gifts we can offer one another.
I hope to continue sharing mine.