I struggled to keep this piece short so instead, I’m breaking it into three shorter parts.
Kanpur, India — December 2015.
In my first few months of traveling, I had been searching for some way to create space and find peace in my mind. I wanted to break the habits, cycles and ways of thinking that led me to my burnout. But how? I kept hearing about mindfulness and spirituality, but what did they actually mean? I had dipped my toes into meditation via an iPhone app, but I had no idea what I was supposed to be searching for, nor did I have a sense of how I could even start to scratch the surface of so called “mindfulness.” I had been passively standing by, awaiting some sort of awakening, but what was an awakening?
In wandering the Himalayas, I felt little moments of out of body experiences, but that likely had more to do with my brain swelling at 18,000 feet rather than any sort of shift in thinking. In learning about Buddhism in Bhutan, I felt well informed about spirituality, but had no basis on which to apply those learnings. And throughout my first few weeks in India, I felt far too over stimulated to ascertain any sort of clarity of the mind.
In those first few months, however, I had met quite a few people who had done Vipassana, which I learned was a 2500-year-old meditation practice that involves committing to 100-hours of meditation over 10 days in complete “noble silence.” Beyond not speaking, noble silence also encompasses no eye contact, no touching, no sexual misconduct, no killing of any living beings, no agitation, and a hard commitment to the practice. Beyond that, it required total separation from all outside contact, including reading, writing and communication materials. It all sounded fairly miserable and didn’t seem like something I would consider. That slowly began to change, however, especially after meeting a trail buddy from Chile, Vicente, on the Annapurna Circuit.
Vicente was easily discernible on the trail, carrying himself with a confident and approachable demeanor with mid length curly hair peeking out of his backwards navy hat and trekkers scruff shading the lower half of his face. He was hiking with a German girl, Kathrin, and despite our groups leap frogging each other on the trail, we didn’t really join forces until several days into the trek. After finally making introductions, Vicente mentioned in passing that he had done a Vipassana. After telling him about my burnout, he also recommended a book, 10% Happier by Dan Harris, which he said drew quite a few parallels my story. Dan Harris is a national news anchor, who gained global notoriety for having an epically embarrassing on-air panic attack. In search of answers, Harris encountered meditation and long story short, found it to be the most practical, effective and attainable approach to taking control of his mind. I breezed through the book and my interest grew. After exchanging a few messages with Vicente following the trek, I made the decision to do it.
Fast forward several weeks later and I was on a night train heading to Kanpur, a small city well off the beaten track, where I had found a meditation centre called Dhamma Kalyana. After pulling into the train station early in the morning, the odd looks I was receiving quickly made it apparent that Kanpur wasn’t quite accustomed to backpackers. I had several hours to kill before the suggested arrival time, however, so I googled a place where I could gorge on one last breakfast before going into silence for the next 10 nights. I found a nice business hotel with a rooftop breakfast, so I jumped into an auto-rickshaw and headed that way. A few minutes later, I climbed out in front of the marble hotel entrance sporting my backpack and wrinkled t-shirt, wandering into the vast lobby that was clearly more accustomed to suits and quaffed hair. I received a few more odd glances as I scooted past a pair of guards carrying automatic rifles, making my way to reception, where I was greeted by the receptionist’s unwelcoming eyes. I dropped my back and declared, “I’ll be dining on the rooftop.” She reluctantly accepted my pack and handed me a luggage tag as I headed towards the elevators. It was only after the mirrored elevator doors shut that I saw my reflection and realized how truly haggard I looked after coming off of yet another one of India’s night trains. Observing my bloodshot red eyes, shambolic hair, wrinkled clothes, and a general look of filth, I detoured to the bathroom for a quick cleanup job before walking into the restaurant. I eventually found my way to a table between British businessmen and a wealthy-looking Indian family, filling my belly with crepes, sausages, fruit, yogurt, and a couple of pastries. Feeling well fed, I posted up on a sun-bed to take in a bit of reading. When the clock struck 3pm, I headed downstairs, collected my bag, and asked for a taxi.
According to the very brief email confirmation, the meditation center was located about 20km South of Kanpur Central on the Ganges. As the time in the taxi rolled by, the spacing between buildings became larger and the octaves of car horns faded until we emerged from the city into wide-open countryside. The driver turned onto a sole dirt road that led us through endless fields of agriculture and flowers until three golden pagodas emerged in the distance. They gleamed in the sunlight and as we drove closer, the details of each came into focus; two identical towers accompanied by one grand peak with dozens of secondary pagodas with find ornamentation on each. They all looked completely misplaced in the middle of rural serenity, yet also so fitting. Once the taxi pulled up, I grabbed my bag and paid the driver. Feeling a heap of anxiety, I realized there was no turning back.
The complex was surrounded by a tall fortified concrete walls with huge metal gates at the entrance. The whole vibe felt ominously similar to a prison, but in this case, it was designed to keep people out rather than in. As I approached check-in, I took notice of a number of Indian men, sitting around, just waiting, and inquisitively looking on as I stood in line. I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only Westerner in site, which for the first time, added to my apprehension. After a few minutes of waiting, an older Indian gentleman with a heavy accent simply took my name, handed me a folded sheet and burlap blanket, and gestured toward a 30-something Indian man to show me to my quarters.
The walk to the dormitory felt long and austere. While beautiful, the golden pagodas were no longer welcoming. We cut left and walked into the bland, banal courtyard of the men’s quarters, where I was introduced to my residence for the next 10 days. My room was dim and grey with a greenish tint. It was nearly empty aside from a concrete slab with a thin sleeping pad on top. I noticed a number of spider webs in the corners of the ceiling and dirt strewn across the windows. The floors were scantily mopped and a single light bulb illuminated the dark room with a dull white light. The bathroom, to my surprise, had a Western toilet, but no toilet paper and, as expected, the shower only ran cold water. I really didn’t know what to expect before arriving, but it was all of the sudden real and I was struck with the nervous realization that I wouldn’t have many, if any, comforts for the next 11 days. It was, however, a private room so at least I wouldn’t have to navigate the awkwardness of living with a roommate while in total silence. Before leaving, I was told that there would be tea at 5pm, I’d have to turn in my things by 6pm and then noble silence would begin at 9pm after a brief introduction.
That was all the instruction I got. I was confused and lost; not because I didn’t understand what I was told, but because I suppose I thought there would be some sort of collective start to the experience. It was a stark reminder that this experience was to be mine and mine alone. Nobody was there to guide me over any sort of start or finish line. It wasn’t a vacation and it certainly wasn’t leisure, it was going to be seriously hard and it might even take me to a breaking point.
Move on to Part II!