A disclosure before we begin: although this and the still-to-come parts of prose are peppered with moments of merriness, it has to be understood that Vipassana was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The rawest, realest, most painful, most profound and most incisive experience I’ve ever, well, experienced. Just keep that in your mind as you make your way through what happened in my own.
Silence for several sequential days has always been a to-do of mine. The idea of being in my own self, with no communication with others for three or five or even 11 days seemed such a noble notion; a means of quietening down the monkey mind and learning to sit with myself in stillness. However the timing never worked around where I was globe gallivanting at any given time, plus I feel my frantically full-on self was never quite mellow enough to actually accomplish it. It was talking to my best friend Beavs earlier in the year and deciding I would actually undertake something in NZ rather than overseas for once that I applied and got accepted – October 31 through November 11 in Kaukapakapa.
And as I drove up on the day of orientation there was a complete, all-embracing, absolute and entire sense of,
WHAT. THE FUCK. AM I DOING.
You see, Vipassana is a mediation technique of mental purification through self-observation. As the logical process unfolds through each of the ten days, the practitioner gains insight into their root causes of agitation, tensions and knots within, to obtain a balanced and equanimous mind. Taking place in centres all around the world, those in for the residential course are under the guidance of a qualified teacher, secluded in an area free from any outside distractions and observe silence the entirety of the time.
So pretty much? Ten full days of 12-hour mediation, where you can’t speak to, gesture to or even look at any of the other 70 people around you, nor leave the 300m squared area you’re roped off in.
Poppy Wortman, why do you always do this to yourself?
It just so happened The Pedaller returned from riding in circles overseas the day I was due to depart. During our two-hour crossover period (and I mean that in the pure sense of the phrase, nothing untoward), I told him of my apprehension.
“I don’t want to go,” I sez.
“But you’re going,” he replied. Quite firmly. (He wanted to head to the Hawke’s Bay asap and work on his car; a skittery Poppy would definitely put a puncture in the plan).
And so I went.
The drive up had me being lost in what was blasting from my UE (I’m good at getting away from things I don’t want to think about when I have distractions) – but when Siri announced I was a mere 45 minutes out from my point of place the emotion set in.
I put my calls in to my people. Rang one of my closest Rene, had a howdy to Papa Henio, dialed up Mummy Dee Dub (an instance of irritation here; she was in Rotorua hunting down the Royals – bit of a fan girl of Meghan Markle – and at the exact moment I called Mummy Dee Dub, her mate Meghan was a mere metre away. Trying to take a photo, she hung up on me – Deb, not Meghan, let me clarify. Quite affronted, I called back – at the exact moment Meghan was holding her hand and Mummy Dee Dub was ecstatically trying to capture it with a click. The moment was missed. Sorry, Dee Dub 3) and ended on The Pedaller. But of course he was entering the Napier-Taupo road and thus no coverage so I couldn’t get through, and upon driving in the Vipassana centre driveway I realised I had no reception. So no final see-yah was had.
Now, I’m not a very emotional person usually. I’m pretty gosh darn good at suppressing any sadness, detaching from any despair, blocking out the blues. But when something is to occur that I’m a little uneasy about, I get a little angst-ridden and ridiculous. And to mask it, I sometimes turn – the only word that even partially encapsulates it – a bit frolicky.
Back in 2015 when I undertook my solo sojourn to India and Nepal, I got absurdly attached to two items: an empty Berocca tube which Papa Henio had given me to take (just to clarify, it was full upon presenting it to me; Henio has always maintained original orange flavor B is the elixir of life) and a munted, again empty, Powerade Zero bottle that Mummy Dee Deb had bought me to drink on the plane (I had to skull it back before I went through customs and couldn’t bring myself to leave the bottle behind).
The whole few months, these two items remained with me wherever I went. They were present at the back of the room as I sat my yoga teaching exam, went to the Taj Mahal as I strutted around in my hippi pants and I even carried them in my day back all the way to Everest Base Camp. And – in the case of all honesty – they are still nestled in my Desk of Special Things in my old bedroom.
Fast forward to 2018 and my foreboding of Vipassana, with the item of attachment my car – Gemmy. (Yes, she’s got a name).
After I drove up the driveway and dropped off my baggage (literal, though the figurative was very soon to follow suit), I drove back down and parked Gemmy up. (There was a little episode of myself somehow shepherding cars up the driveway and explaining to them what to do and where to go; later on a woman asked me a question about where things were and when I said I was unsure, she said, “But don’t you work here?” “No,” I sez. “Somehow I was just directing everyone for about half an hour.”).
“Gemmy,” I said to her. And I do mean out loud. “Every day I’ll walk down and see you. I won’t be able to talk to you or sit inside”- they took my keys away – “but I can sit against you and send you messages through my mind.”
This idea greatly gladdened me; just to know I could be with a significant thing of mine if the going got tough (“if”? “if”?! I was so naïve). But during our orientation meeting later when the manager talked out the female boundaries and how they in no way extended to the carpark, I was instilled with an intense sense of trepidation.
Omg I lied to my car.
The guilt was starting to surface.
After signing in, filling out my forms (the compulsion to write my age as 22 was overcome – somehow that being harder than signing away my understanding that it was vital I stay the whole course), handing in all my valuables (phone, keys, wallet, notebooks and – the hardest of all to surrender – my pens) and settling into my room (number 12; a simple set up of a single desk and hooks for all my hippi shawls) I didn’t know what to do so I went walking. And then the gong rang loud and lengthily, signaling dinner time (our last for 10 days) and our final hour of talking.
At the table I was instantly drawn to three others. Earlier I had been given an alarm clock lesson (didn’t work – I couldn’t figure out how to change my set time so it was a 3.51am awakening every day for me and all the others around my room) alongside a beautiful red-headed girl called Tay, and knew straight away we’d be each other’s people. There was also Katherine, a striking blonde woman who just emanated some kind of connection, and a teeny Argentinean girl called Lucia. We yarned as we ate our vege concoction thing, speaking of our apprehensiveness and concerns, while grilling another lady at our table about what we were to face (her 10thcourse would you believe! And a high-flying CEO from Australia – shows Vipassana attracts a real range of souls).
We had a meeting stating all the rules: the whole no talking, refraining from all reading and writing, being segregated away from all the males. No exercise apart from walking the short bush track, no yoga or such lark, staying in the secluded and roped off area. I was nodding along my agreement throughout, until the manager piped up with a point:
“And there a lot of animals around,” she sez. “There is to be no interacting with them at all.”
She looked a bit baffled when she saw the despair that was quite clear across my face; I couldn’t hang out with the birds or any other creatures that crawled into my circumference? I had to ignore the possums as well as my peers?
I think that was the hardest part to concur to. But I conceded.
And then it was time to adjourn from articulating.
We all went up to the meditation hall, and were invited in one by one and showed to our space. We each had a little square cushion that specified our seat, with a blanket and pillow to prop (by the end of the course we each had about seven or eight pillows in strategic arrangements all about our bodies). After we listened to a disembodied voice explain what we were about to undertake (we soon came to know the voice as Goenka, who you’ll meet in part two) we made the promises required and the stopping of speaking started.
I felt right. The emotion had (momentarily) eased away, and the eager exhilaration was beginning to build.
After just under an hour of meditation (most of which I thought about whether to cut my hair or not) we retired to our rooms for rest.
It was at this point my severe hankering for a writing utensil started.
You see, even in prep for Vipassana I had told myself no matter what, a pen was coming in with me. At least two or three. But on handing in my no-nos I had a moment of martyrship; no, I had thought. I’m doing this completely properly. And each of my five pens has followed suit into the “This is the best day ever!” pom pom bag.
I had a deep-seated hatred for my earlier self and her sacrifice.
My desperation grew; thoughts were burbling all through my brain and I needed to write them down. A moment of jubilation came when I remembered I had an eyeliner in my bag that could double as a pencil (sharpener and all) and then I sunk into a deep, deep despair as an overwhelming wave of realization hit – I recalled myself at home that very morning, pulling it out of my glittery toiletry bag and leaving it behind. Before I could reel it in, my mouth opened and a very loud phrase was released.
My first foray into Noble Silence lasted approximately 47 minutes. And it was broken with a profanity.
Blast me and my wish of ill-vanity, not caring if I looked like a 12-year-old German boy going home.
Depleted, I got into bed at 9.15 and – surprisingly – fell asleep straight away, ready for Day 1.
“The basis of any healthy, harmonious society is always the healthy and harmonious individuals who populate it. Only if each individual has a pure, peaceful mind can we expect peace in society.”
S. N Goenka
Parts 2 & 3 to come.