Sam's Trip to China

Two years of college Chinese was not enough 😅


8 June ’20

He awoke to the four am gong. Feelings of grogginess were quickly replaced by excitement and apprehension as he hopped out of bed and began preparing for the four thirty am meditation. The first sit of the day was two hours, two of the ten hours they would sit each day. And today was the first of the ten days. Ten days of ten hours a day would be one hundred hours - equal to three hundred days of meditating twenty minutes a day. “Much more efficient” he thought to himself as he plugged his fitbit in to charge for a couple of minutes.

He had thought he would have to give up the smartwatch when he surrendered all of his other electronic devices. But to his delight, watches were allowed, even digital ones. He was looking forward to seeing all the data it would collect about his sleep and heartrate during the meditations. He tapped the watch face to wake it up. Four twenty three. Time to get going.

Growing up in the West he had understand meditation to be mystical nonsense reserved for monks and hermits. His conception had been that it was about removing thoughts from your mind or reaching God or Nirvana. But recently science had slowly started to prove that meditation worked remarkable changes on the brain. And the West had come around to it as a secular exercise for neural wellbeing. He had followed the literature for a while, but only got started last year with the help of a guided meditation app. Signing up for this course, Vipassana, he figured, would be the next step towards deepening the secular benefits of his meditation practice. He had heard good things about the neutrality of the program, but was still mentally prepared to discard any non-materialist nonsense they might try to sell him on.

Still quite groggy despite his excitement he stumbled across the cold stone pathways that had yet to see dawn and sat on his assigned cushion in the meditation hall. He would come to look forward to the morning mediation as the easiest one - despite his best efforts it would be spent slipping in and out of a half-asleep trance while his mind kept bouncing back to thoughts of breakfast.

Real work began after the morning meal (and nap). Eight more hours of (now focused) meditation broken into seven sessions, with a break only for lunch (and a nap) at noon, tea (and sometimes a nap) at five, and the instructional discourse at seven.

The discourses were what he ended up looking forward to the most everyday. They would watch recordings of the late S.N. Goenka charismatically explain the theory and practice of Vipassana, intermingled with charming and educational stories that reinforced the teachings. Communication of any sort, speech, hand gestures, and even eye contact, was forbidden between students during the course, so besides the occasional necessary communication with the staff, Goenka was the only form of human interaction he had every day. Freed from being trapped in his own head, he would listen attentively, laughing faithfully at every joke.

And at the end of the first, second, and third days he faithfully plugged his fitbit in to charge for several minutes before turning into bed. Having no phone, he had no way to check the watch’s battery level and frequently fretted about the possibility of it losing power and, consequently, losing precious data.

On the fourth day, after the lunch break (and nap), they began the actual process of Vipassana. The previous three and a half days had been training with a less intensive technique known as Annapanna, but the remaining six and a half were to all be devoted to Vipassana. It was not easy, and when the gong sounded to signal the end of the meditation he stood with relief, checking his fitbit to confirm that they had only meditated an hour (it felt like so much longer). But to his horror the screen just flickered and sputtered at him, white lines and dots scattering across the display in what amounted to static.

He continued to check it obsessively as the day wore on, but it continued to worsen. Finally at the end of the day, when he plugged it in before bed, the screen showed nothing. Simply black.

In the morning it was the same. He plodded down to the pre-dawn meditation, feeling unmoored with the dead smartwatch clasped to his wrist out of habit.

All beginners shift and move and open their eyes and check the time and sigh at the slow progression of the minute hand and he was no exception. A year of meditating twenty minutes a day had prepared him less than he had hoped for sitting an hour at a time, and before he would sneak peeks at his fitbit with incresing regularity as each session drew to a close. But now the fitbit offerred nothing, no confirmation that time had passed, no solace in knowing precisely how much longer he had to sit. There could still be five minutes or there could still be fifty - time moved so slow!

By day seven he was out of his mind. He was out of his mind with pain - the pain in his glutes and his shoulders had only worsened as day after day of sitting had hardened them into knots. He was out of his mind with fatigue - his body had not adjusted to waking at four every morning and despite napping at every opportunity he still felt the mental dullness that accompanies insufficient sleep. But mostly he was out of his mind with boredom - they had been sitting and observing their bodies ten hours a day for three days and there are only so many sensations to be observed. Every time he sat for a meditation his entire body screamed “I don’t want to do this anymore, I’d rather walk a bed of coals, I’d rather swim a frozen lake, I’d rather run five marathons, at least then I’d be doing something!”

Doing something. That was the crux of it. He needed to be doing something. He was craving the sense of accomplishment that accompanies finishing a task. He was an addict to the little rush that comes from checking an item off a todo list. He sorely missed the sense of assurance that comes with making measurable forward progress. To sit here being attentive to his body was a waste of precious time in which he could be being productive!

It was the middle of an afternoon session and his eyes flew open, his heart pounding in a frenzy. He got up and walked out of the hall, pacing around meditation center grounds in a panic. “I can’t stay here” he thought to himself. “I can’t stay here, I have to leave, I have to get out of here, I’m going crazy here.” He paused and collected his thoughts, but his mind just kept saying one thing: “I can’t do this.”

His frantic pacing unwittingly brought him back to his room where he collapsed on the bed. “Maybe I can just take a nap instead” he thought to himself morosely. Unthinkingly he brought his fitbit up to check the time and it’s blank, dead screen jolted him into anger. He tore the watch from his wrist and threw it deep into his suitcase. Rubbing his wrist where the fitbit used to be he flopped back down and closed his eyes. He watched as the red pulse of his heart on the inside of his eyelids gradually slowed and faded away. Heaving a sigh, he opened his eyes and rose from the bed, walking back to the meditation hall, finally ready to fully submit to the technique. No checking the time, no graphs, no data, no analysis, just breaths.

Later that afternoon he realized that the need to be doing something was itself a sensation to observe - a mental pain rather than a physical one.

But the challenges were still far from over. On day eight he fell into despair. He was so weak - weak of body, weak of mind. During the beginning of the course, before the silence was in place, a second time student bragged about having managed to not once move or open their eyes (a determined sit) during a two hour session - yet he couldn’t even make it one hour. He pawed through old memories searching for examples of inner strength, but all the challenges he had ever overcome were petty and insignificant - often resolved in a matter of days if not hours. All afternoon he desperately tried to stay still for just one hour - only one hour! - but every failure was just a confirmation of his mental fragility. Drfiting off to sleep at the end of the day he thought to himself “this is crazy. How can sitting still for ten hours a day be the hardest thing I’ve done in my life?”

He only made it through day nine by swearing to himself that he would never come back again. He would make it all the way through this Vipassana for the sake of his pride, and then abscond with the technique. His meditations at home would continue, but never again would he sit for ten hours in a day. Just this last day, he kept telling himself. Just this last day.

And finally, on day ten, the silence was lifted. They congregated in the courtyard and a hundred hours worth of words came spilling out of their mouths. They shared their stories and experiences - some spoke about the same boredom he had felt, confessing that at times they would tune out and watch a movie in their heads. Others spoke of the pain and silence being so great they broke down in tears while in private. Yet others bantered on about their great spiritual awakening, and their deep understanding of the ingenuity of the technique. He spoke of his surrender - surrender of action to observation, surrender of body to pain, surrender of pride to despair, and surrender to the technique.

Packing his bags in the evening he found his fitbit buried at the bottom. Pulling it out he tapped it unexpectantly, but to his suprise the screen lit up with the current time as if it had never been broken. Fastening it back to his wrist with a grin he synced it to his phone which had been recently returned to him. Scrolling through the charts he saw that his fitbit had had no idea what was going on - meditation so resembled (light) sleep that it often thought that he was sleeping until mid afternoon! “How could I possibly have been sleeping in that much pain?” he chuckled to himself.

Boarding the bus back to the city he reflected that he didn’t feel much different. But when he stepped off the bus he realized how wrong he was. The noise and the bustle were overwhelming as they once were, but no longer bothersome. The heat was oppressive as it once was, but no longer unbearable. As he went about the rest of his day he never felt that things took too long, or weren’t good enough - a real feeling of peace had taken hold. But most importantly the little energizer bunny in his heart that kept telling him to “do something do something do something” was quiet for the first time since he could remember. He supposed that when confined to the small, isolated and regulated space of the Vipassana center it was hard to observe the changes being wrought, but back in real life it was pretty clear. It felt so good!

A week later his girlfriend started asking him questions about it. She had noticed the change as well: the man she welcomed back into her life was more patient, more accepting, calmer, and more mindful. She loved it. He explained as much as he was allowed (Vipassana strongly encourages people not to share the technique lest they unintentionally spread misinformation) and reiterated that it was incredibly tough.

“I think I might want to do one” she said thoughtfully. Looking at him with big puppy dog eyes she added: “would you do it with me?”

Mike says:

excellent writing and expression of your experience…I almost felt your pain. Second time around will be a breeze. especially since you will have a good partner 😊

Nathan says:

Loved this - thanks for sharing sam

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