It felt like something snapped in my brain.
A sound that went with it. I knew this wasn’t good and that it was related to stress.
I was in my early 20s and had just finished my first two years of Naturopathy. As a dedicated student, I sacrificed most of my life to utterly immerse myself in the science of the body, plants, chemistry. An unfathomable study load, especially when you aren’t familiar with how to do things in halves. My results were great, I knew I was on the right path, but I was cooked. I booked a one-way ticket to Asia, alone, and my life in Australia descended into quiet.
I had visited Vietnam with my brother a few years earlier, so Asia wasn’t brand new to me. My initial culture shock was when I was 16 in Thailand with my mum. Vomiting with heat stroke at the foot of golden Buddhas and deeply wondering how a country could have so many smells. Plus I had my courage. I wasn’t a particularly naïve young woman, but sometimes I look back on my time as an attractive, small framed, open hearted lass who consciously chose to believe in the good of others and I retrace particular moments of this trip to Asia that clearly proved I had someone or something looking over me. I made my way from Bangkok across the border to Cambodia, assuming that all of South East Asia had the same vibes of easy-going warmth, delicious food and a developing sense of a country in ease. Cambodia took me by utter surprise. How had no-one told me about this? In my usual style, I wished not to support Lonely Planet and so my guide to South East Asia was a two-page list of notes, hand-written by a couple of friends with their suggestions of particular treasures to visit across the continent. In hindsight – it satiates my desire I’d always had to choose an overseas destination purely by spinning a world globe with my eyes closed and trusting fate to land my finger upon where I was meant to be. I had been given needles in a hay-stack of culture, and I loved it. I knew I would be travelling straight past major tourist destinations without the slightest inkling of what I was missing and I loved the risk of it. The amusement. I often laugh thinking it was a good job I somehow found Siem Reap, probably the only touristy place I ended up in, and I’m glad I did.
I was faced with the heart wrenching truth that was Cambodia, the poverty that shook my bones, the abuse and hierarchy of power I could see underlying the surface, the young children with white males – ambiguous, dynamics at play that I knew didn’t have kindness at the heart of them. I made my way through various towns and cities, struggling to connect with other travelers as my tired nervous system held me in a state of shyness and solitude.
After years of hoping for an opportunity, I realized that this could be my moment to attend a 10 day Vipassana meditation course. I had an Austrian friend whom had delighted in his experience of it in Myanmar years ago. In luck, Cambodia had a center in Battambang, so off I went. It took a couple of days to get there, the towns getting smaller, the tourists diminishing, the menu’s no longer having English translations. I found a hotel. The lovely man said that yes there was a Vipassana Centre near by, but no there were no buses. If I wanted to get there I’d have to make my own way. I thought that these Vipassana Centers dotted all over the world had a connection with each other – assuming a kind of international refuge within this strange country. It was seeming less likely the closer I got. I organized a guy on a motorbike to drive me there in the morning, my backpack between his legs, my heart still in my chest although it would have been more suitable in my mouth.
Battambang Vipassana Centre. If I had closed my eyes, spun a world globe and placed my finger anywhere on it, only in my dreams would I have imagined truly ending up in the middle of vast nowhereness. This was not where my friends had come for their experience, this was not a sanctuary, this was not a magnet for other likeminded people for me to brush shoulders with. This was deep in Cambodia. I was the youngest human with the average age being seventy. There were about one hundred people attending, all Cambodians except for three. The majority were Buddhist monks and nuns in their robes (deep orange red for men, white for women), with the others being from poor rural backgrounds. I didn’t assume they weren’t happy because of their appearance, but it was obvious they had very little money and tangible means to support them through life. After studying iridology I noticed so many of the women had deep signs in the iris, anemia rings. Everything was spoken in Khmer, or French as the ‘International’ option, except for discourse videos that the three of us watched in a room of an evening.
Had I pried into my Austrian friend’s experience with a little more depth, had I read the information with a true sense of what the words were telling me, had I fully understood what a 10 day silent vipassana retreat meant – I would never have arrived. Especially not into the middle of a rice paddy in the middle of a country in the middle of a continent a long way from anything that was familiar. Initiation by fire? Perhaps initiation by being truly removed – mind, body and soul – from anything I could hold on to. It was hell.
4am wake up bells, 14 hours a day of meditating, men and women separated, silence, no writing running yoga stretching, no nothing. My bed was not a bed, and the mosquito net was not a mosquito net. We ate brown mush and boiled bananas two times a day and fasted in the evenings. There were ground up sesame seeds which I added to everything, the flavor of which is still deeply imprinted in my psyche.
I’m not sure how to express my relationship with the meditation. My body was in so much pain from sitting, and yet I built up an ability to sit still for 45 minutes. Without even a scratch of an itch. My mind went nuts, and no amazing memories surfaced as I thought might. But there were moments where perhaps I was learning to rest in there. Almost fifty Buddhist nuns around me sounds quite peaceful, but the reality was that they were like school kids, whispering to each other at the back of the class, farting regularly. Each session before I would head into the Dharma Hall, I would inhale the aroma of a frangipani flower from the tree outside the door. By day 6, the mere waft of the flower triggered an impending sense of dread. In a moment of stillness, and distinct quiet – I pierced the silence with a yelp as a foot-long lizard found its way to my lap; having weaved its way through a sea of people to arrive at me. It was tropical paradise.
By day 7 or 8, extensively constipated, undernourished, sleep deprived, stressed, I headed into another night’s sleep. The moon was full and the insects had arrived in impossible numbers with magnificent activity. My bed that was not a bed and mosquito net which was absolutely not a net left me covered in crawling and flying insects for the entire night. It was one of the most stressful nights of my life, this inability to find solace from the activity of the dark, as if my own mind wasn’t enough to keep me awake. The next morning, white with desperation, my room mate broke silence to say I didn’t look ok and I should speak with someone. She got a support woman to find me and I asked to leave. She said she understood, that it’s common to want to leave, but that we had signed a form to commit to the 10 days and that I could not leave. This was what the meditation is all about. I felt like I was trapped in the abyss of hell. The next meal, she came over and handed me a bowl of papaya that they had harvested from the tree outside the food hall. It is one of the most vibrant colours I have ever seen. A bowl of deep orange after being in a sea of brown for so many days. I felt a disastrous sense of guilt but ate it gratefully.
A few days later it was over. I watched people leaving with lightness in their beings. I got into the back tray of a ute with ten other people and felt utter dismay at how different we looked. One man, I remember him so clearly, radiated the natural beauty of life so deeply. Warmth and love carved into his old wrinkles, his eyes so bright, alight with deep inner joy. I felt tortured that I had committed to the same intensity of practice that he had and that I left feeling broken. What was so wrong with my practice?
I arrived back at the same hotel, I think in a state of shock. It felt, once again, like something had exploded in my brain. I wasn’t sure how to move through it. My sleep was all mucked up, my nervous system a complete and utter mess. My usual way to travel is to be pretty independent and alone, but from the middle of Battambang – I called my brother. I told him I’d just had the most horrendous experience and that he had to promise me that if I ever mentioned trying it out again sometime – that he should remind me of this phone call and that I was telling him to tell me that it was a terrible idea. I knew myself well; my courage is a curious fool.
Now more than ten years on I can laugh at that experience. The foolhardiness of my choices, the immense bravery I had without even realising. My guts have led me into so many amazing situations which have birthed great experience; trusting the sensation of my instinct which allows me to step through fear into the unknown. Last year I called my brother to say I was heading to a Vipassana retreat. To my dismay he did not remember that he was meant to stop me. Luckily for me, I had a few more skills up my sleeve that I’d built up in the ten years or so in between, and I now have the courage not only to sit in meditation, but to soften into the experience of non-resistance. I laugh because I was so terrified of what lay within me, back in Cambodia. And I have compassion for myself because I know why.
I truly believe it is the most courageous experience we can afford ourselves. To sit with oneself and truly see, to deeply see. I now have a strong practice which has been the single most important part of my journey toward freedom. I am so grateful to my Austrian friend who planted that seed in my late teens, to the young woman who made her way to Battambang to be initiated into hell, and for the person I now am who knows that hell can be observed, giggled with, held with love, and transformed. The Dharma, the Buddhist teachings, methods of meditation, are a truly powerful life affirming tool which I give deep and utter thanks for.