On Meditation: Myanmar
Sitting in the garden of the Dhamma Niri retreat center one morning after breakfast, gazing through the palm trees as the Burmese sun climbed their branches, I felt a rumble in my gut. It’s sort of par for the course to have consistent, mild food poisoning during travel, and I didn’t think much of it. I shifted in my seat and was surprised to feel a few chilies from the previous day’s lunch slip into my underwear. I guess that’s how meditation retreat seems to go for most of us; we expect to find ourselves in a peaceful pleasure garden contemplating life and instead spend days sitting in our own shit.
My roommate and I oversleep the morning gong at 4:00 AM on the first day. Wordlessly, we dress and stumble into the dharma hall an hour and a half behind schedule. Gazing up at me, the other womens’ faces tell me that this morning sit is a grueling one. Their looks shout everything from ‘save me’ to ‘fuck you for rolling into this late.’
I’m late to everything that day. I haven’t assimilated to the predictable unfolding of hours yet and I’m still trying to work out where I’m supposed to be moment to moment based on the unintelligible instructions being given by the teacher. I spend part of the day wondering whether the entire retreat is conducted in Burmese. Mid-afternoon, I realize the teacher is, in fact, providing instructions in English when I pick up the word ‘please,’ and it dawns on me that he’s speaking my language. My singular tie to language feels exceedingly thin.
I quickly discover that burping is socially acceptable in Myanmar. A lot of it is happening around me in the hall. Dead silence punctuated by belching. Days later, staring at a concrete wall in agitation, I count the woman in the neighboring meditation cell burp over 600 times during an hour and a half meditation sit.
At least the food is good, I note to nobody at all, as I eat my first meals in silence next to my equally mute neighbor seated at our two-person table facing the wall.
The boredom becomes intense less than 12 hours in. I have the first iteration of my ‘what the fuck have I signed up for?’ thought. I find a grasshopper that has died on the concrete path and set it on the dust for the ants to swarm. I braid my hair. I make my bed three times. I unpack and re-pack my backpack. I watch a mosquito siphon blood from a vein in my right hand, its abdomen slowly tinting red. A gigantic spider crawls onto my meditation cushion for the evening sit during which I am not allowed to move a muscle. It’s the most thrilling part of my day by far.
This silent retreat wasn’t my first, but it was certainly the most rigorous and challenging I’ve participated in. The schedule is a grueling one: 10.5 hours of meditation daily, complete social silence, fasting. I’m told that, outside of Myanmar, many retreat centers only mandate the three-hour long sits listed in the program and make the rest optional. At Dhamma Nidi, however, the course managers are not at all shy about pounding down your door if you opt out of your eighth sit of the day.
The technique taught at the centers is one that uses objective examination of physical sensation as a means to acquire greater equanimity. I’ll attempt a quick crash course on this particular theory of vipassana meditation; you can find a deeper explanation here.
The human experience is distilled into an experience of physical sensations. When we experience a sensation — be it a breeze on our face or the stomach ache that accompanies guilt — we label it good or bad. If it’s a pleasant sensation, we want more of it and start clinging to it. When the sensation passes, we wish it had not. This is greed, one source of suffering. On the opposite hand, sensations we perceive as negative we receive with aversion. When they refuse to fade, we battle them. This is hatred, another source of suffering. We can observe this tendency to alternately cling to things we enjoy and push away things we do not in the larger plane of our lives. Just as we feel the twinge of disappointment as the bath water grows cold on our skin, we ache to hold on to a relationship of many years. Just as we wish a mosquito bite would stop itching, we hope that the work situation causing stress and frustration in our lives will resolve quickly.
Physical sensations translate into the rich tapestry of emotional and intellectual experience. The idea, then, is that, by practicing equanimity at the level of physical sensation, we begin to free ourselves from the suffering of our lives and the patterns of clinging and hatred that create misery. We practice by sitting in stillness, slowly scanning the body for physical sensation with complete equanimity of mind. Should an intense itch arise, we remain still and greet it equanimously. Should our knees ache during hour nine of the day, we examine the pain equanimously. Eventually, we hope, we can meet any circumstance, large or small, with objectivity and equanimity.
The meditation practice takes place within the container of retreat to allow for greater depth of practice, and, to enhance this, there are some guidelines. First and foremost, everyone at the retreat agrees to Noble Silence. This means abstention from speech, but also from gesture, eye contact, and other forms of communication including reading and writing. The intention is to gaze inward deeply. Those who practice vipassana generally agree to five precepts; they pledge to abstain from harming other beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. In case you’re wondering — I was — other beings include mosquitoes, sexual misconduct includes masterbation, and intoxication does not include caffeine. Those on 10-day retreat also agree to three more precepts; they pledge to abstain from eating after midday, bodily decoration, and sleeping in high and luxurious beds.
To sum up: 10.5 hours of meditation per day, no talking, fasting after 12:00 PM for 10 days — all with an equanimous mind.
Of course, it’s a long path to perfect equanimity.
My body wears down in the long stretches of meditation. Around day three, the physical pain that accompanies long periods of intentional immobility grabs hold. Immediately, when I sit on my cushion, my knees flare up, and I feel as though I’ve strapped on a backpack of pain. Tendrils of ache curve across my back like a wrought iron gate hanging on my frame, its weight growing with each subsequent minute. This physical pain becomes a particular challenge during the Sittings of Strong Determination, hour-long sits three times a day where practitioners are asked not to open their legs, hands, or eyes regardless of the physical sensations that arise. For days on end, I feel like I’m stuck at mile 25 of a marathon. Sitting on a meditation cushion and running 26 miles at a time, it turns out, require a similar type of physical grit.
Self-talk becomes an indispensable coping mechanism.
“There are only seven days left. You’re three days in. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. If you finish tomorrow, there are only six days after that. You’ve already finished three days. Just seven days left. Just 57 more sits. Just 71 hours of sitting. If you can sit through this sit, you only have 70 hours left.”
The physical pain awakens a particular anxiety. I’m generally fussy about my health and well-being. I insist on eight hours of sleep a night, healthy food, daily exercise. I faint at the sight of my own blood. Sitting in pain and actively doing nothing to address it surfaces a profoundly personal sort of fear. Almost immediately, the pain in my knee becomes symbolic of my general physical vulnerability. I find that, in sitting with ache, I actually end up sitting with the concept of my own mortality. At night, I have visceral nightmares about harm befalling my body. I’m mangled in car accidents, stabbed through the gut. In one dream, I swallow a lightbulb. I wake up in the night terror-stricken and then walk to the hall the following morning to meet the pain again in a seemingly endless cycle of monotony.
Extended boredom has a particular flavor to it, and I recognize the taste. At the beginning, it’s disorienting for those of us from cultures where constant stimulation is the norm. But push through the initial crazed period where you feel like you’re floating above your own physical form in restlessness, and you become radically receptive to the beauty of experience.
There’s a pile of bricks near my room lit by the cool, white light in early morning, Their casual scatter resembles a still-life painting. It feels like there’s some meaning in the beauty of how they lay that’s impossible to place. Beside them grows an old cashew tree, it’s base haphazardly surrounded by a cracked stone square — fissures in the stone straddling massive roots that have patiently split their enclosure over time. You can’t write the way morning feels, but I trust you know the way shafts of light fall between tree branches like sifted flour in the air, the way the sun feels light and ebullient before it takes on its oppressive midday glare. I’m sure you’ve felt the clarity of the air, the way sounds ring through like bells softened by the mist. Perhaps you know too the way you can feel similarly weightless, potentiated and bright.
One morning, I walk out of the meditation hall and find quick tears in my eyes at the thought that every day there is a dawn. This is the sort of moment of moving realization only possible inside the profound stillness that nips at boredom’s heels. How easy to miss: the sun rises everyday.
One night, I walk past a leaf floating in midair illuminated by the light from a nearby building. It hovers a foot and a half off the ground, spinning slowly on its axis as if held there by magic. It’s delicately suspended by a single thread of spider’s silk.
“Given a concern and robbed of distraction, the mind can reach some truly frantic, even irrational, conclusions.”
In the space beyond boredom, sometime in the middle of each day, time displays its true flexibility. The hours become bendy. The final few minutes of meditation last a month. The cup of milk tea served at breakfast is gone in the space of an instant. Viscous minutes slide by with an impossible restraint. In this experiential world of Einstein’s relativity theory, it’s equally possible to look at birds for an hour and to glance at the clock after what has felt like twenty minutes only to find forty seconds have elapsed.
The grasshopper from day one has been gutted by the ants now and is a shell with wings. The color of its body starts to bleach from grass green to wheat. I’m watching it day by day with the kind of fascination I usually reserve for Game of Thrones.
Stimulus withdrawal becomes a severe problem around day four; I feel desperate to be an actor in any way whatsoever. By day five, I feel like I’m losing my mind slightly.
There’s profound beauty beyond boredom, but sometimes instead of embodied connection, a hyperactive anxiety takes me completely out of my self. I inevitably start to feel unhinged in the time warp. There’s an insatiable need for human contact; an exhaustion with the mind takes hold. I long to laugh. I feel dulled like a photo losing its color to the years.
Several monks participate in the retreat. They’re easy to spot with their sienna robes and shaved heads. They’ve come from across Myanmar to practice for ten days with the rest of us lay people. One of them, a woman with a rounded face and light pink robes, has a look of consideration permanently written on her face. Her eyes are wide, eyebrows slightly raised, the skin on her face pulled back gently by the invisible hand of introspection. Her movements seem to take place in another dimension. She shifts so gradually as to appear parkinsonian. I find myself watching her constantly despite the instruction to ignore the people around me. I’m desperate to catch her breaking focus, to witness a sudden hurried step, to voyeuristically track an emotion winding across her face. I want to be a witness to her humanity.
On day five, I’m power walking the track around the meditation garden. I’m stir crazy and lonesome. I’m aching to share a laugh with someone. I race around a corner to find my favorite monk making tentative strides towards the bend in the path, eyes down, brow raised with a perfectly mild observational gaze. In my frayed and silly state, the contrast in our demeanors strikes an amusing chord. I turn the next corner and catch the eye of Steph, a woman I’d met before the retreat started. Caught off guard by the prohibited eye contact, we grin at each other and I feel the laughter I’ve been tamping down all day well up and spill over. I’m paralyzed by a fit of giggles that leaves my face sore. I’m still pulling it together when the gong rings to signal the one o’clock meditation.
Loneliness and fear make their first appearance on the evening of the sixth day. Sitting from 6:00 to 7:00 PM, I feel distraction creep as I start to replay scenes from the movie Up in my mind. I recollect the beautiful love story that opens the film, reach the point in the montage of the old man’s partner passing. I vividly remember the moment she slides a book of memories across her deathbed. As if from outside of myself, I watch, shocked, as my face contorts and a sob erupts from my lips into the silent hall. That’s the beginning. On day seven, I slip into a hole miles deep.
I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. My stomach is upset. I have a headache. I’m fucking bored with the thing. I’m pissed off and resentful through the whole morning sit. The chanting annoys me. I’m starving. My back hurts. About half the Westerners seated in the back of the hall walk out on the meditation midway through and I find myself resenting them. ‘We’re in this shit together. Where’s your fucking commitment?’ I eat breakfast furious and go back to sleep; sleep is my personal reset button. I wake up on the wrong side of the bed again.
Through the morning, I walk a tenuous tightrope over sorrow, gripping with mental focus to keep my footing. But through the hour-long sit at 2:30 that day, my mind meanders through every worry I can manufacture. Given a concern and robbed of distraction, the mind can reach some truly frantic, even irrational, conclusions. I obsessively replay the painful and disempowering moments of losing a job. I rehash a breakup conversation from years ago that went poorly. I wonder if perhaps I’ve misplaced my favorite dress. I can’t remember packing it before I left. Could it be gone? Is it possible I’d been exposed to HIV during my time in Namibia? What about tuberculosis? Have I been tested for those things since then? Do I need to get tested immediately? I imagine the incredible sorrow of hearing the sentence alone in some clinic, feel the ache of the vulnerability of mortality, drown in the shame accompanying diagnosis. By end of the hour, I’ve tumbled so far in convincing myself I’m desperately ill that I consider leaving the center immediately for the hospital in Yangon. Fraught with worry, mired in the pain of loss and death, spinning into fear, I emerge from the meditation center for the walk through the garden, to the whitewashed pagoda and into my cool, concrete cell number 14.
Stepping out in the sunlight between buildings, temporarily released from the cage of my mind, I realize that all of the things I’ve spent the last hour dreading in the dark hall were ridiculous — merely stand-ins for a deeper fear of the breadth of possibility available to me at this moment in my life. Stepping out of my routine at home has left me paralyzed by choice. I’m terrified of making a mistake.
There’s a knot in my throat. The joints in my hands ache the way they always do when I’m sad or grieving. I journey in my mind through a long-gone summer as I walk up the steps beneath the pagoda to my meditation cell, enter the tiny room for the 3:30 PM sit and close the door. Alone in a room for the first time that day, I lay facedown on the dirty concrete floor and sob, unmoving, for the entire hour and a half.
Every evening, we spend an hour and a half listening to a recorded discussion given by Goenka to his students years ago. Each recording begins with “The x day is over. You have y days left,” which is essentially what I’ve been telling myself the entire day as a coping mechanism. These talks provides sustenance to feed the next day. The loneliness of silence is quelled as Goenka, somewhat miraculously, seems to say exactly the things I’ve spent all day thinking. It’s easy to forget, amidst the noble silence, that everyone else is similarly defeated by physical pain, discouraged by the lack of focus in their mind, and uncertain there’s any point to this exercise at all.
During one of the evening dharma talks, Goenka tells the story of a painter. This painter paints an image of a person, a beautiful person, and promptly falls in love with that person. The painter pines and aches over her love for the man she’s created on canvas, this tragically unattainable being. She suffers greatly. The same painter paints an image of a terrible, frightening being, and she screams in horror as she looks upon her creation. She hides beneath the bed to escape the callous gaze of the evil eyes brought to life by her brush. Of course we recognize, Goenka points out, that this person is acting completely irrationally. We know this behavior is misguided. Yet, we spend our days doing exactly this. We paint an image of our past or future on the canvas of our mind and then react to it. We imagine that we could have somehow been exposed to a terrible disease and then we feel the grief of diagnosis. We imagine the development of a relationship with a new person and rejoice in how perfect our hypothetical love will be. We replay being dismissed from our job and roll in the misery of the injustice. We constantly paint images for ourselves and react to them — and sometimes, we even accept these imagined pictures as facts.
Sitting for long periods of time has a way of exposing the narratives we craft and reinforce daily. It scatters them out in the light. In the stillness of sensory deprivation, we’re forced to watch our stories play out on the stage of our mind. Some of these come as no surprise to us. Others arise as if for the first time.
“In solitude, I have paradoxically observed a lack of separation between myself and other people.”
The particularly tricky stories are the ones we’ve been telling for years: tales about our parents, our partners and ourselves that have become foundations on which we build the possibility of our lives, shape our judgements of others, and frame our identity. We bring them out in social settings; we say them inwardly to make sense of experience. We have a troubling relationship with this sibling, our mother always judges everything we do, we’d like to be doing a different job but we can’t because…
We all have a tendency to reinforce the strongest narratives in our lives. Goenka explains that each time we have an experience or a thought, it’s as if we draw a line in our mind. Sometimes that line of thought is like a line drawn in water; it disappears as quickly as it is drawn. Other times, that line is like a line drawn in sand; it stays for a time but is soon washed away. When we are strongly affected by a thought or moment, however, it can be drawn into our mind as if it were a line etched in rock. This is a harder sort of line to erase. We compound the situation by revisiting the sources of our hurt and misery, digging the line deeper and deeper into the stone of our mind.
The accumulation of stories leaves the shine of romantic love particularly susceptible to tarnish. Over time, we build a box around the person we love constructed of narratives about who they are. They always do such-and-such thing to us. They aren’t interested in trying x experience. They’re reckless and, therefore, need to be managed. Eventually, we stop considering whether our partner actually is any of these things and instead start relating to them via these ‘facts’ we’ve already accepted about them. We pile story on top of story until the person in front of us becomes totally obscured. Simultaneously, our partner starts to accept these stories about themselves. How often do we reach the end of a great love to discover that we’ve somehow lost track of who we are in the light of our partner’s gaze? To the degree we are in relationship with another, we’re defined by them, by their stories, by their definition of our self. This fundamentally shapes who we become for better or worse.
“without the gaze of another, we look into a mirror to find only a crystal clear, bottomless pool reflected there.”
It’s been ten days since I’ve really considered how I am perceived; suddenly, the perception of others seems to take up most of my energy. I’m reminded forcefully of going to Capetown for the first time after my year in Namibia. Having barely glanced at a mirror, I forgot about how I looked. It happened slowly and imperceptibly. It didn’t even strike me as radical that I had released years of obsession about my appearance — until I found myself in a city. I felt paralyzed by the sudden social pressure, the gaze of others. My hair was lopsided. My shirt had holes in it. I’d put on weight. I realized on a busy city street that I felt hatred and disdain for the sweat-stained, plump body I was walking around in. The revulsion didn’t hit until right then, looking at myself through the eyes of a crowd. I fled back to my hotel an hour after venturing out so consumed with paranoia about perception that I vomited in the bathroom and cried myself to sleep.
Now, after ten days of retreat, I slowly arrive back into the world of interpersonal interaction. In solitude, I have paradoxically observed a lack of separation between myself and other people.
Take the example of the lover. The lover, that daily polisher of our self image, who simultaneously affirms who we are and spins a web of possibility for who we could be. Our lover can pile narratives upon us, trapping us beneath the weight of daily moments past, or they can daily liberate us to life. They can deepen and enrich our connection to self, hold a mirror up for us so that we may examine the reflection in the safe space of their hands.
It’s not just the lover who holds this space for us. When you’re truly alone, you begin to see that the ‘I’ you’ve created fundamentally exists only when foiled by a ‘you.’
Our lover and loved ones potentiate our self.
When we fall in love, we fall in large part in love with the ‘I’ suddenly made possible by the lover.
When we gaze upon a friend, we see, in them, the unfolded story of our self.
The difficulty of withholding eye contact disorients, in part, because of our reliance on the gaze of others to see ourselves. In retreat, we deny ourselves the ability to daily self-construct. It’s as though, without the gaze of another, we look into a mirror to find only a crystal clear, bottomless pool reflected there.
In silence and isolation, we come to know that our ‘self’ only really exists in company and through the mutual construction of narrative. For me, this insight has two-fold meaning.
It liberates from the illusion of a set, permanent self. Our self does not exist in a static and unchanging way. This feels like an invitation to take the knife away from my own throat, to cease the quest for perfection in the crafting of my life story. This allows us limitless potential.
Simultaneously, this insight reveals the importance of how we relate to others and show up in their lives. It seems rather trite to point out that we could not be who we are without the people who surround us. Yet, in a real way, the people who inhabit our lives moment to moment hold the door open for a version of our self to arrive. We do the same for them.
It’s an incredible gift to allow the people in our lives — be they lovers, partners, friends or family — to show up as themselves without piling our narratives on top of them. But this requires a great deal of internal practice and a willingness to meet them time and time again with compassion and curiosity.
Of course, this means we first must meet ourselves this way.
We must allow for a version of self that fails to measure up to a pre-envisioned ideal. We must allow ourselves to be complex. We are flawed. Each of us in draft form from moment to moment our whole life long, and that practice lasts longer than ten days.
For 10 days in February, I participated in a Goenka-style vipassana retreat in Myanmar. In Myanmar, a particular thread of the vipassana meditation tradition has been carefully preserved over generations even as it slowly disappeared from practice in India. Through Goenka’s teaching centers, it has been revitalized and is now practiced by folks around the world. It’s completely free to attend and learn. Since I had the opportunity to go to the source of the teaching, I went for it. You can learn more about this particular technique at dhamma.org.
I might add that, while I enjoyed elements of this practice and learned a great deal, I would be hesitant to recommend this retreat experience to beginners. It’s a highly rigorous and cerebral style of meditation that may not speak to everyone. Many threads of meditation are practiced across the world that , some of which feel more heart-based and speak to me. It’s worth exploring the technique that speaks to you.
Author’s note: I’m currently making my way westward on a 6-month circumnavigation of the globe. This piece is the second in a series of musings from the journey (read the first here).They’re informed by place — though more reflection piece than travelogue. You can find photos from the trip on Instagram using #ParzyWalk