SOUNDS OF SILENCE
Updated: May 29, 2020
Back in Bangkok again, I was feeling like I needed something entirely new - a reset of some kind. So, I applied for a Vipassana course in Myanmar. 10 days of learning the practice. 10 days of simple living. 10 days of no speaking. 10 days alone in my own head.
It wasn’t something I was completely unaware of. I knew of a few people who had done the course, found great value in it and continue to practice. This particular meditation practice was recommended to me and has courses all over the world. I felt like I was at the right place in my life to give it a real try. I expected it to be hard and it was. Both in ways I expected and in ways that I didn’t.
With just six days before my Thai visa ran out, I still hadn’t heard back on whether or not my application to join the course had been approved. I had no idea where I was headed next. I had pretty much given up on the course at that point, knowing that it started in four days. I’d begun leaning towards going to Sri Lanka next but still hadn’t booked anything. I was on the bus up to Pai in the north of Thailand when I heard the news. Sri Lanka had just been rocked by multiple bombings around the country. All of a sudden, it seemed like I was back at square one on where I was going to go next.
The next day, clarity came in the form of an email. I’d been accepted to the course. Now all I had to do was get myself there. Somehow, even that was a struggle. Should I just go for the course? Or stay and see the country? How did I feel about going to a country that is currently experiencing a genocide? In the end, I decided to go just for the course.
Landing in Mandalay, I got in a cab for the two hour drive to the hills of Pyin Oo Lwin. April and May are the hottest months of the year in this part of the world so everything was dusty and dry but signs of spring were poking through. The evenings got cool but the daytime temperature still sat around 40 degrees C. The countryside itself was beautiful, little villages, open land, farms and pink flowers on all the trees. The land changed colour as we went too, from rusty oranges to deep purple rocks. I'd barely arrived and I was already starting to regret my decision not to stay longer.
Finally, I arrived at the centre. I’m usually a little more aware of my dress in relation to my surroundings but in the flurry of the last few days, I threw on my usually flying outfit - a leopard print t-shirt and skinny jeans. Normal generally, but here it felt distinctly out of place. Maybe it was because the majority of the people attending were Burmese in traditional clothing and/or because I chose to wear the loudest shirt I own to a place of silence. This didn’t seem lost on the volunteer helping me sign in either. He was lovely but couldn’t help making a joke about whether or not I really knew what I was getting myself into.
I arrived late in the afternoon so there wasn’t much time to do anything before the course and the silence started. All valuables and distractions got checked in and stored away for the duration of the course. It was time to say goodbye to phones, laptops, books, notepads, and anything else that could agitate rather than calm the mind. The centre was divided by gender and stayed that way until the day we left so I was shown to my room on the women’s side. Rows of small buildings of 10 rooms each. A shared space with two beds, a sleeping pad, similar to or thinner than one you might put on a beach chair, a simple bathroom with toilet, sink and another tap with buckets for bathing and laundry. After a short introduction to the rules and schedule for the coming days, the silence started.
After dinner - the only dinner we would have while in the course - we were lead to the Dhamma hall where we received our designated meditation spot for the duration of the course. Each of us had a square, blue cushion aligned in rows across the hall. Again, divided in half by gender. I loosely counted later and it seemed like there were around 180 meditators taking part in this course. After getting settled into our two main spaces for the week, it was time for bed.
(this is done by ringing a gong)
4:30am - 6:30am
6:30 am - 7:50 am
8:00 am - 9:00 am
(5 minute break)
9:00 am - 11:00 am
11:00 am-12:50 pm
1:00 pm - 2:00 pm
(5 minute break)
2:30 pm - 3:30 pm
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
(5 minute break)
7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
(5 minute break)
8:30 pm - 9:00 pm
9:00 pm - 9:30 pm
Prepare for bed and lights out
The silent mediation was not actually as silent as I thought. Each period of meditation was started with chanting and short reminders of the practice. In this case, they happened twice. Once in English, then repeated in Burmese. There was also the evening discourse that was like attending lecture hall, where the principles behind the practices are explained and more direction is given for the following day. The silence is really specific to the mediators themselves. We were not supposed to speak to eachother at all so as not to add any extra noise and distraction into our minds. The exception to this was when we would have brief meetings with the assistant meditation teachers. At that point, we were allowed to speak briefly on our progress or ask questions. It was also possible to speak with the volunteers helping with the course. They were there to make sure we got to where we needed to be and we could speak with them if there was an issue.
The only other noises to be heard were the natural ones. The birds and crickets singing outside. The cicadas calling for their mates, and then the bodily functions. So, so, so many bodily functions. Partially a cultural norm and general acceptance of ‘better out than in’, combined with 180 people silently sitting in a room together for extended periods of time. It was inevitable but admittedly, distracting and funny. A cough here and a burp there wouldn’t have mattered much. But it never was just one. As soon as one went, it seemed to set off a chain reaction of burps, coughs, flatulence and sneezes, chasing each other around the room.
A few hours in and I hated it. I wanted to leave. Sitting cross legged on a thin pad was uncomfortable. My knee hurt. My back hurt. But most of all my head hurt. I went into this meditation with a very noisy and chaotic mind. The inside of my brain has probably never really been a quiet, calm and organized place. I don’t think creative brains ever are but this seemed much crazier than usual. The instructions were to sit quietly and focus on the triangle of space that is your nose and upper lip. That was it. Just focus on that and your breath passing through. How hard could it be?
Now take a little break from reading this. Sit cross legged on your floor, and focus only on your breathing. Nothing else.
How long could you go before another thought came into your brain? How long until you noticed some part of you was in pain and you moved? Or you remembered that thing you need to get at the store later? Or that one time in grade school you did something embarrassing?
On average, I lasted three seconds. Three whole seconds before my brain drifted onto something other than feeling my breath pass through my nose. Then I made it worse by getting frustrated about it. I’m not amazing at everything by any means, but I generally consider myself to be a pretty capable person. I’m not used to actually being bad at something. The first day was also kind of an unknown. We hadn’t done the first discourse yet so I didn’t really understand what the purpose of this breathing was. I was frustrated that I couldn’t focus and frustrated that I lacked the information I wanted. The information I was so used to having immediately accessible to me via my phone that was now tucked away somewhere unknown to me.
The discourse that night did help ease my mind in some ways. It at least gave me more of the information I’d been desperately craving. It also mentioned that craving is one of the things we were trying to train our brains to stop doing. The purpose of this meditation technique is to experience the physical and mental discomfort, feel it and accept it rather than react to it. If you can do that, you can rewire your brain to think this way all the time to handle much larger situations without the pain, judgement and suffering that they might otherwise cause. This is of course a long term goal and it takes a ton of work to get there. I was still struggling through the very first few steps.
The one highlight of the first day was the food. All of the food was simple and vegetarian but I really liked it.
DAY 2 - 3
The morning meditation was tough. I am not a morning person and especially hadn’t been lately, so trying to meditate slipped quickly into dozing. Throw in adjusting my position, my clothing and blanket because I was either in pain or freezing, morning meditation was and continued to be my most challenging sitting of the day.
The rest of the first few days were similar but showed some progress in the technique. As the days went, I was able to sit longer and focus a tiny bit longer each day. There was that other part though still. The part I expected to be one of the hard parts. The part where my brain wandered, and wandered. It is crazy what comes to mind when it is just allowed to float. Bits of languages I learned popped into my head. I thought of things I wanted to cook. I thought of places I went once when I was six, snippets of conversations I had a year ago or a month ago and that time I fell over a fence when we snuck away from school for lunch when I was 12. The most random things came out.
There were brief moments of focus. Long moments of great creativity and other times where all of a sudden tears were rolling down my face because of something I didn’t even realize I was thinking about before I felt them fall. It pretty much continued this way for the rest of the time there. The only thing that changed was that I was actually able to improve my concentration little by little.
DAY 4 - 6
After spending the first few days trying to focus only on breathing, we moved into learning the actual practice of Vipassana meditation. The practice, at the very beginner level, is simply to pass through all the different parts of your body and notice the subtle sensations that happen. This is meant to improve your focus and teach you to observe without reacting. I was trying with varying levels of success. I was much less disturbed by the ‘failure’ though and was just learning to also accept it and start over when I lost focus again.
DAY 7 - 9
New students spent all of the meditations up to that point in the Dhamma hall. Older students where allowed to go to the pagoda or meditate in their rooms at certain points of the day. I was curious about the pagoda from day one. It was a place I wasn’t allowed to go yet so naturally, I wanted to go. Coming back into the hall after morning break, there was a small piece of paper set in front of the cushions of all the new students. It was our meditation cell assignments for the pagoda. My curiosity would finally be settled. The assistant teachers announced that we could either stay in the hall or go to the pagoda for the first of the mid-morning meditations. Craving to know what the pagoda was like is pretty much in direct contrast with what the meditation practice is aiming to achieve but hey, I’m a beginner. I’m still working out the kinks.
A meditation cell is kind of what it sounds like, without the bars. The pagoda was a circular building filled with concentric circles of hallways, filled with tiny closets. Something between a linen closet and a tiny walk-in without any of the shelves. Each one faced the centre of the pagoda and was fitted with the same blue cushions as in the Dhamma hall. The pagoda was my preferred spot right away. I found much more focus there, it was much cooler than the Dhamma hall and it was a welcome break from the bodily function symphony.
There were three sittings a day, each an hour long, where you weren't supposed to shift your position at all. I struggled with this particularly in the afternoon. Starting on day six I was able to sit through the morning and evening hours without moving but for some reason, struggled to focus and sit through the pain in my knee in the afternoons. Day 9 was the first day I was able to make it through all three hours without moving and maintaining a decent amount of focus.
The last full day was another shift in the schedule. The final part of the practice was introduced and that also meant a break in the silence. I’d spent the last 10 days among women I’d never spoken to but somehow built a bond with. The conversations, questions and laughs exploded out of us almost immediately. There were only 10 foreign women out of the 120 women there so we immediately pulled together to discuss what we had just experienced.
For awhile before I went into the meditation, I felt like I’d hit a wall with travelling. Part of me was wondering if I was over it. Sitting on the concrete, talking with people from Germany, the Ukraine, Japan, Chile and Brazil, is the part I love about travel the most. Getting to know their stories, paths and hearing about life from their different points of view was a strong reminder that I am not over it. Not at all.
Cell phone cameras and early morning sun don't make for the best quality photo but its full of quality people.
The final day was also they day you could make a donation to the centre if you chose to. The course is completely free and is funded solely on donations and volunteers to run it. I didn't know why but it was explained to me later. The whole point of the course it to remove the cravings that cause unhappiness. People tend to feel a sense of entitlement or have certain expectations if they pay for something. By making the course free of charge, it takes the expectation away and that feeling is replaced with gratitude to have a place to sleep and food to eat. It also ensures that the practice is available to anyone who wants to try it.
DAY 11 The final day was short and over by 7am. It's impressive how quickly 180 people can clear out and head back to their normal lives. For me, it meant heading back to Mandalay for one day before flying back to Bangkok the next morning. It was oddly difficult to leave. I’d settled into a routine and just met all these people that I really liked. I had a strange feeling that I didn’t want it to end.
THOUGHTS ON MEDITATION It was hard. Physically and mentally. It was the most challenging experience of the last 14 months without question. That being said, I’m really glad I did it. I still have some questions about some of the ideas behind it but see absolute value in incorporating it into daily life. I’m not religious, and I’ve not come across many other lifestyles that make sense to me as much as this did in a purely logical and scientific way. What I took from it at the end was that by practicing this form of meditation, you are fully accepting that you are personally and solely responsible for your own self, your own happiness and own success. There is no other outside force that can magically change your heart, mind or destiny. I also appreciate a practice that encourages questions and discourages blind faith and practice out of routine. My daily lack of consistency in location, schedule and sleep patterns has made it more difficult to incorporate meditation into my life but I have noticed small changes for the better. I see the value in the practice and will continue to build it into my life in a way that make sense for me.
Mandalay is a really pretty city with more greenery and water than I expected. I was staying just across from the old palace so I was in one of the more scenic parts of the city. After I returned to wifi and all the things that came with that, I headed out into the noise of the city to explore. I will admit that I like city noise. I like the life in it and I was happy to be back in the middle of it. The one thing I was not happy about was my decision to leave Myanmar so quickly. In the last 14 months, it is my single real regret. I didn’t go anywhere in particular. I just started walking. As I wandered the city, I saw very few other foreigners and was constantly met with curiosity and the warmest smiles from almost everyone I crossed paths with. Since I got to Myanmar, that was a constant. It has been rare for me to come across anyone who has been unpleasant in South East Asia but the people I met here were the warmest and quickest to offer a smile. As usual, a country's government has very little to do with its population in general. I don’t think anyone reading this comes from a place that can claim that their government has a clean past. I certainly can’t. I regret that I let that get in the way of getting to know this country and its people. There is no question in my mind that I will be back to get to know it properly at some point.
As a sidenote, all of the photos here were taken with permission on the last day. We really didn't have any electronics or much of anything else besides clothes and toiletries for the rest of the time there!