Ten days of brutal silence at a Vipassana Retreat in New Zealand.
It was 2005. The sedan was advertised on a notice board at a back backer’s hostel off K’ Road in central Auckland. It was a petrol guzzler, charcoal grey, and the headlights pointed down instead of ahead. Irish Yvonne and I didn’t discover this until dusk when we realised, we were driving blind, and by that time, we were lost in native forest in the middle of nowhere. And it was getting dark fast.
Yvonne slept in the driver’s seat, sleeping bag unzipped at the feet, keys in the ignition, ready to zoom off if a marauding villain should tap on the window.
Only days earlier, I’d been spat out of the hospital where I’d had boils cut out from my armpit, I’d become so run-down.
The nurses fed me morphine and nausea tablets for nausea caused by morphine. I was a drug-addled mess when Yvonne chanced to visit on her way to the top of the North Island to attend a retreat at Vipassana Meditation Centre. Although we had only recently met, she insisted I join, since clearly, my life was up the wop.
I sub-letted my one-bedroom Auckland flat, quit my three waitressing jobs, packed too many things including a box of high heels purchased in Los Angeles and Paris, where I had been the year before, and we hit the road.
Yvonne grew up in an Irish pub with seven older sisters and catholic parents. She was born with an S in her spine and endured many operations but still walked with a limp because one leg was thicker and longer than the other. Her right shoulder lower than the other. Her skin was beautiful; fine-pored, moisture-rich and creamy pale. Her laugh a kind of hooting toot.
It would be Yvonne’s second time at a Vipassana Retreat.
I knew nothing about meditation.
At the time I didn’t even know that swimming lengths, reading, knitting, or writing inflow were meditative experiences.
I didn’t know my thoughts needed turning off.
Vipassana, from what I could gather, was a reclusive not-quite-cult where speaking was forbidden.
Yvonne told me Vipassana means to see things as they truly are. The method inspired by the teachings of the Buddha. Yvonne wouldn’t tell me much more but assured me I was on my own journey and that it was a solo-spiritual mystery unfolding that may or may not, she couldn’t promise, result in a spiritual awakening.
Sounded a bit suss to me.
However, it was summer and I was free from having to work fourteen hours a day to pay rent on a one-bedroom so I could be alone to write, and free from the drag of writing which had become a lead bell around my neck, heavy and jangling every second I wasted not-writing.
After meandering for a few days semi-lost, semi-touring, we drove down a long curling dirt road, bordered by lush forest; crimson pohutukawas in bloom, cabbage trees like palm trees, verdant ferns, fat-trunked trees. The smell of rich soil and creek water, and Tuis tweeting in the trees.
Yvonne explained there was no smoking at Vipassana and I may as well leave my yellow pouch of Virginia Gold in the glove box. It would just be confiscated anyway. She told me this many times. When we stopped to get petrol and I had a fag, she told me there was no smoking at Vipassana and, when we repacked the boot and she queried if I really needed my box of high-heels? she reminded me there was no-smoking at Vipassana, after a sea-swim in my undies rolling one with wet fingers Yvonne would say,
“Make the most of it because you are giving up at Vipassana.”
We unloaded our bags and locked my pouch of tobacco in the car.
The complex seemed recently built and modern.
We joined a group of men and women in a large dining area. Massive windows lead to a wide deck with little patio tables and armchairs facing a panoramic view of lush bush with foot-worn paths.
There were liquid Refreshments on a table. A silver urn of hot water, lots of teapots great and small, herbal teas of every kind, carafes of fresh orange and tomato juice
But no coffee.
We handed over our phones, keys, wallets and anything that looked like a distraction; books, notepaper, pens.
We were told from this point talking was forbidden.
And leaving the compound was forbidden.
A woman with abundant freckles and wearing a turban and sporting hairy legs explained we’d be sitting in meditation from 5 am until breakfast, sit again until lunch, sit again with a break for afternoon tea and sit again until a late dinner. Men and women got separated, the men went off beyond to some mysterious location out of sight.
Sex of any kind was forbidden.
What the hell? Any kind?
Yvonne and I were separated
I dragged my suitcase into the chalet. The space was lovely, perfectly sized with two bunk-style beds laid end to end and out the window a grassy view of the gorgeous bush and blue still sky. I trilled at the thought of being completely alone for ten whole days. It was quiet. No road noise or music just the whistles and tweets and sing-songs of the bellbirds and fantails, the kaka and kakapo, and every once in awhile the squawk of kea and morepork.
The crisp freshness of the air stung my nostrils.
I awoke to the gong of the gong and hurried to get dressed. I was already experiencing festival envy, you know, when you go to a music festival and all the women are dressed like floating fairy goddesses, or warrior jungle beings.
I am practical in black leggings and a black t-shirt. I shove on my beat-up brown cowboy boots, wrap a shawl around my neck.
It is still dark out.
The meditation hall was white-walled and high ceilinged and still, like in a monastery. abundant pink wild roses stood in waist-high vases, their scent perfuming the space.
There were about seventy people, men on one side and women on the other, with a clear wide space between the sexes.
Two cushions had my name on them so I sat down.
On an elevated stage, a woman in her sixties wore a cinnamon kaftan and sat lotus position on a raised stage. She looked spry and wired, lean, and toned like she could definitely do the splits if she deemed that kind of thing necessary.
Yvonne way up the front wore striped pyjamas. Her sweet back very still her knees poking out the sides. Her hair all mussed up from sleep. She didn’t move a muscle.
A voice named Goenka spoke to us through the speakers.
“Changes, changes, changes, everything changes.”
He told funny stories. He told us to focus on our breathing first.
Breathe in breathe out.
Then after a while instructed us to imagine trickling water over your body, inch by inch, starting at the top of your head, over your skin, slowly down your body.
“ When your thoughts interrupt, notice them, and come back to visualising water trickling inch by inch down, down, over your body.”
Well, I couldn’t do it. I squirmed. My breathing staccato trapped in my chest. My belly growled. My back hurt.
I got pins & needles.
If someone lay down an attendant appeared and made them sit up. My thoughts went on and on about my ex, then my exes. I thought about my childhood, I remembered I’d forgotten my sarong in the sedan and wondered if I could somehow sneak out and get it and maybe have a wee puff on a ciggy.
The rules here seem a bit prison-like don’t they? I looked around. I got bored. I tried to trickle water over my head. I imagined an egg cracked on my crown and yolk dribbling through my hair.
Then the gong gonged for breakfast time.
I followed Yvonne into the dining area but she zoomed off to sit at a faraway table.
My eyes bulged at the sumptuous food in pottery and carved bowls on the trellis tables.
It was the Enchanted Broccoli Forest meets some kind of hippy kingdom feast.
There was a server making buckwheat pancakes on a girdle and plating them with whipped cream and real maple syrup. There was porridge and muesli, yoghurt, big bowls of nuts and big bowls of melon and pineapple, and a delicious concoction of stewed stone fruit in cinnamon and nutmeg juice, and huge almond flour muffins and polenta crackers and grilled goats cheese on sliced tomatoes and oh my god it was divine.
I tried to make eye-contact with Yvonne. It felt like we’d fallen out. I thought what am I doing here? I knew myself to be bereft and lonely and terrible said, grief-like sad. And humungously hungry.
Smear your face with food hungry. Cookie Monster hungry.
Then for three days, I broiled with intense anger.
My brain was aflame with vitriol and expletives. Indignant and righteous as meditation presented flashbacks of situations when I’d been hurt or insulted, humiliated and slighted, undermined and abandoned.
Those bastards. That bitch.
While I sat in meditation, but too, while I waited in line for the showers, or to pour from the urn hot water on a chamomile tea bag, I fumed at everyone. Hurry up, hurry up, I said in my head.
I craved a puff on a ciggy.
But, as I sat cross-legged watching this never-ending stream of memories slash flash-backs, I remembered more often to return to the breath, to the water trickling over my forehead, down my nose, to tingle on my lips and wash over my neck and chest …
I found a numb stillness and strange kind of spine support and I could sit for an age in one position.
On the fourth day, my perspective flipped; I viewed my stories from the other person’s point of view.
I saw with laser beam insight how everything was my fault that the drama, all drama, any drama, was futile and wasteful. And was grateful for the revelation.
Often in the room, someone would sob and leave. Or go up to the guru at the front and speak in whispered tones. Sometimes people snored.
I’d watch Yvonne’s lovely erect back and marvel and her utter stillness and how that stillness seemed to waft off her like a scent, or an aura, that I felt six rows behind.
I felt the compassion and empathy in her gift of friendship to me.
The spaces between thoughts became longer in timeless spaces. I could sit in a peaceful no-space and be lost to peace. I no longer feared sitting. I no longer wished it to be over. In the dining hall, I ate slowly. I felt love emanate off the family of meditators and I reflected it back like a mirror.
I found myself enchanted by the people; the heavy-boned woman with the loveliest ballet light walk, the old craggy lady who seemed invincibly feminine, the tenderness of a stranger’s nape, the clean soap smell from the sitter beside me, the enchanting way someone gazed into the distance and that I was somehow supporting her dream.
The harmony present in women-clusters while we sipped tea, in our socks, on the deck, mesmerised by the green, green, green forest, and the late afternoon light filtering down filigree through the trees.
I admired the men, from afar, on the other side of the hall, how they sat in reverence and goodness, their square shoulders and naked arms seemed so steady, and sure, and trustable whether they were old or young, frail or robust.
I stood naked under the shower and, each individual water drop, pinged my skin.
On the sixth day, I wandered barefoot on the powdery dirt tracks that weaved in the forest, struck by the sublime beauty of the moss, so luminously radiant in its light-filled lime green, soft as velvet and babyfur, spongy and alive.
Kneeling before it, this ordinary moss, myself in communion with it, so utterly aware of its aliveness, and the life in me, around me. The oneness. Unity. I truly got-it.
I laughed and wept.
From the sixth day to the tenth day I remained in a state of ecstatic bliss.
And one day, while we meandered to the meditation hall, there was a still shared moment as a flock of paradise ducks flew overhead in formation, we all stopped to stare. Sharing the marvel of those birds in flight.
Finally, on the last day, we were allowed to speak.
Yvonne and I reached through the crowd for each other and hugged and swayed, Yvonne honking her honking laugh.
Yvonne said, “I always knew exactly where you were and weirdly too how you were feeling, just because of the clomp-clomp sound of your cowboy boots.
Vipassana offers meditation retreats worldwide and is funded by donations.