As the bus, carrying only a dozen passengers, left BTS Bus Terminal in Kuala Lumpur, my thought had already covered the 250km to my destination; an oasis of calm in the middle of an oil palm plantation near the town of Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast.
This was my second 10-day Vipassana Meditation, but that didn’t give me any consolation, I was as nervous as my first time. Nervous not because it was a silent meditation or the fact that I would be cut off from the world (which I was looking forward to), but because of what I would find when all the noise was muted and all the fluff that comes with living in society disintegrated.
At the end of 2011 when I emerged from my first meditation cocoon, there was an indescribable lightness and clarity. That was achieved with hard work that involved mental and physical discipline.
Four and a half years on, hoping to find clarity at a time in my life when I was assaulted with too many options for the future, and my judgment clouded by what others want me to do or think I should do , I decided once again to look for the answer within.
I was among the few who arrived early. Upon check in, I surrendered my phone thereby cutting me off from the world. There went the incessant need to check Facebook, the unquenchable thirst to reply WhatsApp messages, etc. It was easier to part with my phantom limb as I was ready to switch off.
I opened the door to my assigned room and find a simple space with an attached bathroom. There was a thin mattress and a pillow on a raised platform on one side and a shelf on the other side. This would be home for the next 10 days.
I had a couple of hours before the program officially start. So I walked around the male side of the compound. There were a total of six residential blocks. Each block contains 8-10 rooms. My memory of the place wasn’t very vivid and I couldn’t even be sure which was the room I stayed in the last time. But I remember the main hall, where I laboured for most of my waking hours.
The “noble silence” started right after dinner. For the next nine and a half days we were only allowed to speak to the teacher for consultation at appointed time. We could also speak to the Course Manager, but only for problems pertaining to our staying there; i.e. Asking for more toilet papers, or purchasing things you have forgotten to bring, etc.
I settled in to my current reality. Disconnected from the world, I existed in a bubble-wrapped reality of the meditation centre; where everyday consisted of waking up at the ungodly hour of 4am, and going to bed before the people in Spain even start their dinner.
The rest of the day was spent in a lotus position inside the main meditation hall, and sometimes in our own room or private cell. Returning students were given a tiny cell, so small that squeezing a super-single bed would fluster any calm mind. But the perk was that these cells were air-conditioned. That was where I took refuge most of the hot afternoons.
It took a few days for me to quiet my mind; like a wild horse it refused to be tamed. On top of that my aging body refused to be a still lotus; it twitched with restlessness like fish out of water.
I had good days and bad days. But halfway through I faced some tough challenges. My nose started running nonstop for a few days. I also started to have problem falling asleep before midnight. There were days I didn’t even hear the wake up bell and missed the morning meditation session.
However, these trials and tribulations were the prices I was and will always be willing to pay for the calmness of the mind and the peacefulness of the soul. Not unlike the experience walking the Camino de Santiago.
Each 10-day course takes in 100 participants: 40 males and 60 females. There were about 38 male participants when we started, but by the fifth day we were down to 35. I was told later that the female side also lost a few of its original 60 participants.
It really isn’t easy to spend 10 days in silent and follow a strict schedule. We weren’t allowed to read, write, and exercise. We were also asked to suspend all religious practices and rituals during these 10 days. I witnessed a thin and tall German guy explored in front of the Course Manager, and by the following day he was gone.
Even though we shared most of our waking hours together we were not allowed to talk to each other; preferably not even to have eye contact, treating your fellow participants as ghosts that co-exist in the same space.
When the noble silence was lifted on the ninth day, I started to unravel the mysteries of these ghosts.
One of the most imposing persons was a Maori from New Zealand. He was tall and solidly built. There were many scary looking scars on his body. These were testaments to his past life when he was selling and using drugs. But Vipassana saved him and changed his life for the better. He now exports organic products from New Zealand to China.
Even though the way he talked still had traces of his past, there was nothing but peace and calm when he sat down to meditate. There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing someone not only changes his life but begins to heal his soul.
There was a French guy who told me that this was his 15th or 16th Vipassana course. His every movement and action seemed slow and deliberate, and he had this aloof air about him.
On the last evening I heard him talking to a few of the men outside the meditation hall. I approached them as the topic seemed intriguing by the look on the face of his listeners.
I heard him said that “death is a mental construct. We don’t die but transform from this body.” It was an interesting idea and I don’t disagree with him.
As I was regurgitating about this idea, I suddenly heard him said that he was a Cosmic Traveler, that in his past lives he had lived in different planes. That’s the cue for me to take my leave. I guess my spiritual exercise and experience is more earthbound.
One day as I was walking to the dining hall for tea break, I passed an opened door. A bald, bespectacled old man was sitting on his bed with his back to me. His lonely silhouette magnified by the dull orange glow of the light struggling against the growing darkness outside.
It was a poignant image; I was imagining a lonely old man living alone and doing his own washing. Did he have a family? Someone to love him and care for him? Is he alone in this world?
But when I talked to him, I found out that he was a cheerful old man who comes to do this meditation on a regular basis.
So why did I feel a sense of melancholy when I saw that image?
Was it the fear of seeing my future lonely self? I’ve been alone for so long that loneliness has lost its stinging grip on me, but there are moments of weakness. So was this one of those moments? A glitch in my self-protective wall?
So am I single because I value my independence too much, or am I just afraid to let people in?
I did get the clarity of the things I was struggling with, but in the process it had opened another can of worms.
As I sat on the bus carrying me from the oasis of tranquility to the chaos of Kuala Lumpur, I couldn’t help but felt the quietness and solitude slipping away, as my smartphone beeped maniacally in my hand, like an overjoyed dog seeing its owner after 10 days of separation.
But I wondered who is the owner…