“I want to leave now” I said to the manager. A little stunned he responded, “well you’ll have to interview with the teacher first”. Through his eerily benign smile the teacher gave some rhetoric of remaining the entire 10 days to give it ‘fair trial’. These words in themselves provided me with a nice dose of guilt for not giving the process fair trial. This was coupled with the threat of ‘catastrophe’ if one leaves early. I could not reason with a man that put his faith in a binary process, I was done with this shit.
I am a curious explorer by nature, whether travelling in remote areas of the world, psychedelic explorations, relationships, books, conversations and meditation. I commit myself to each activity, which usually leads to a novel discovery of some sort. Along this path I also learn when to tread carefully and when to throw myself in… or so I thought. What I am saying is that this wasn’t my first rodeo.
This journey was one of the most testing experiences I have encountered. I went very deep down the rabbit hole, faced some really tormenting demons, which followed me back to reality. I went into the Klein bottle and observed reality from the other side. I made some notes during my 2 week integration period, with explicit detail relating to my experience and emotions.
When I face a challenge, it is driven by ego. Not completing this ‘challenge’ would make me feel like a quitter or someone that’s leaving a ‘mind operation’ mid-surgery, as Goenka (the guru behind this retreat) put it. In fairness I did leave feeling a little like I’m walking round with an open wound, but this was inflicted through exploratory surgery rather than out of diagnoses. The old ‘cut and see’.
Vipassana has left its mark on me in a big way. The process is centred around very strict guidelines to ensure you remain for 10 days. 10 days is the prescribed format to an already strict protocol. You can look up the rest of the stringent regime elsewhere, but it is effectively complete silence, no communication or sensory indulgence and meditation for 11 hours a day.
By the second day I had peaked in the sense of the physical practice on offer and achieved what Goenka was touting in his discourse the following day. I felt the trillions of cells throughout my body dissolving and regenerating at a rapid pace until I completely dissolved into my surroundings. This was not a freak occurrence and one that did not feel so unnatural, given inclinations from previous meditation practice. It was a novel experience, that is all.
When conveying this transcendental experience to the teacher, he remarked, we are only concerned with getting the breathing technique right, like a regiment sergeant telling a sniper that just made a 1000 yard kill that he only cares if his gun has been lubricated. I was holding back my frustration with the process but felt even more so that I didn’t belong there, it was day 3 and I overheard questions from students about sensations of the breath. The teacher was fulfilling his duty as part of the institution and was not there to help everyone understand their experience.
As my practise deepened throughout the week, amongst the bodily sensation I was also experiencing intense visions, when falling into a deeper state of unconscious. It was exhausting given that each experience felt like a psychedelic trip.
Walking around the retreat, you tend to question what everyone else is experiencing, particularly when you catch a look of desperation in someone’s eyes, or that glazed look of serenity, or just wondered what triggered someone to leave early.
By this point I was yearning to leave, but my internal objects were trying to keep me there. Fear of failure, fear of judgement from others and fear of regret, which were all somehow intertwined. The treatment they were peddling there, while it may work for the uninitiated, did not ring true to my sense of self and felt unnecessarily harsh. I needed more time to recover from my deep meditative journeys within, which could be 1–2 hours at a time and required conscious digestion, but the process is designed to throw you right back in.
I felt that I already had a good awareness of my truth and the sensation of who I am, but walking around in a constant state of dazed detachment felt more like a state of purgatory when there was work to be done back in reality. The stringent restrictions and Goenka rhetoric were harming my growth and slowly grinding me down, day by day.
By the end of day 4 my practice came to nil. I could not meditate on demand for 11 hours a day, I reached a point where I needed to return to the real world and engage. Not with my phone or emails or books but engage with myself at my own pace.
My final night in Vipassana was the peak of my internal rage. Anger is not a common feeling I experience, yet it is my natural response to when I make a mistake — when ‘I should have known better’, yet given it the benefit of the doubt.
Fear of failure was faced by leaving. This was my biggest challenge to overcome and while I left with a sense of disappointment in myself for not completing the process and a rekindled hatred for institutions, this only concreted my thought that I did not belong there.
My Struggle in Vipassana
This experience reminded me of the many things I’ve walked away from in life, be it relationships or jobs etc., which were extremely difficult to yet necessary to alleviate suffering. But once you go so far into your own head and remove yourself from reality as you know it, you are left with no one to blame for these things but yourself.
The irony of the situation knew no bounds. An institution selling (paid in time and voluntary donations) a reconnection to your nature through their sacred method. Yet, my true nature was telling me to get the hell out of there! Yes, it is technically free, but I was committing time and insane amounts of mental energy towards relearning something I already practised over a number of years. In the sense of the practice, it was like being back at school after already graduating. This was my rational justification and represented the suffering I was experiencing, yet I kept hanging on in order to experience the ‘promised land’.
When I conveyed my views and understandings to the teacher in hope for some guidance, it was not listened to, I understood that we all must face our own truth and only we possess the tools to do so, yet this seemed a somewhat reckless approach as we were responsible for containing ourselves and our emotions — something that isn’t innate to man, a species that has only survived because of community.
A one-size-fits-all approach has never succeeded for everyone, but it must have some promise given Vipassana’s longstanding and still burgeoning success. While the doctrines practised there are based on morality and non-attachment, they themselves form a type of religious code. But these were necessary to prevent distraction from your self-exploration.
While I can understand why I left at a conscious level in respect of this ‘omniscience’, that I had already internalised my truth and that Goenka’s preachings were frustratingly patronising and superfluous and my ability to meditate just died away, I think these are the surface level rationalisations for what my unconscious was not ready to reveal.
Once I’d escaped…
The 3 hour journey back to London was spent mostly meditating, as I was so disconnected form reality at this point.
I thought back to one of my visions in the retreat which was leading me into a dark tunnel in which the blackness got thicker as I progressed. In a dream state it was a fear of the unknown, the depths of my unconscious mind. Eventually, I found light within the darkness. A warm orange glowing light of serenity. This is how it felt to be out.
There was no lightbulb moment, just a slow devolution into frustration. I knew that epiphanies don’t appear in a moment, nor do they happen in a sensible order. They are a resolution that can occur in a long drawn out and painful process.
A part of me questions that if I had stayed there where my mind would have gone to. But perhaps the unconscious fear of losing my underlying attachments was too dear to go beyond. That is a truth as scary as death, because it would essentially mean letting go of my connection to humanity. And one that I am happy to observe only from an intellectual level at this moment.
Nature loves courage, and it took far more courage to walk away than to go initially. What may be conceived as failure to complete a process was the courage to follow my nature and leave. This felt intuitively right and nature always trumps rationale in the end. Again, nature loves courage.
The paradoxical nature of having an intuition against something, yet enough curiosity to go ahead with it in order to learn a lesson which was follow your instinct can only be laughed at as the dualities of life continue to make light of the human disposition.
The days leading up to Vipassana felt like a small death. Saying bye to loved ones, tying up loose ends with work. That worry about leaving your dependants taken care of (in my case these were my house plants). This process in itself is preparation for detachment, albeit temporarily.
Coming out of there I did feel very different, it was surreal. I had no desire to turn my phone on, to read, to eat, no sexual desire, nothing. I felt that I had let go of the person that entered and struggled to reconnect with him. An out of body experience that lasted around a week was scary as fuck!
I experienced an Increased sensitivity to light, sound, touch and even to negative transference from interactions. Like Superman hearing all the cries of the world around him without having control over it. It was difficult to accept this new veil of truth over reality and equally difficult to describe.
I was overcome by this sense of detachment and there was a desire to continue ardently down this path of meditation but I did not feel that living a wholesome life and an ultra-urban life should be divorced, otherwise what is the point?
Fits of despair at the newly unveiled reality and the feeling that something deeper and darker lurks in the depths of my unconscious — a truth too painful to bear. Death and the severing of lifelong connections. Connections that had contained as much lovingkindness as they had inflicted unconscious pain and suffering.
In the days following I experienced physical pains such as intense abdominal pain and tinnitus. I was yearning to be back in a place of ignorance but could not even focus on Netflix for 30 seconds.
The harshness of my immediate urban reality was even more painful to bear. The hatred projected by people, the anxiety surrounding Coronavirus had created even more barriers, light and sound was intensified and the world became a truly unforgiving place.
What once was a compassionate view of the world had been flipped to observing the darker side of reality, a living hell.
As I was disconnected from reality, I continued the meditation journey for the 2 days following my return. In my final meditation before suspending my practise I came to the realisation that this sense of omniscience pertains purely to myself and my inner truth and no one else. In a sense it felt as if the universe was centred around me and everyone and everything was a true projection of me. This was a very lonely place and I knew there was a flipside to this coin.
Coming back to my apartment, I felt completely removed and unable to relate to anything. I became an observer of my previous state of being. Experiencing detachment from the self is both painful and pleasurable at equal measure. Philosophy became inverted and I was yearning to return to the life of balance between attachment and non-attachment. A balance that I felt I had struck before the process, yet there were negative attachments in my mind that I could bare day to day which were now relinquished.
Doing an online anxiety test following this experience indicated high levels of agoraphobia, social anxiety and panic. Being restricted from interaction with the world around you may lead to your deepest sense of truth or enlightenment just as equally as it will lead to psychosis and who can tell the difference but yourself?
I realised that the lack of interaction or exercise in this retreat provides no place to explore aggression, so this builds up. The negative side of aggression is anger, that you can direct nowhere else but yourself in a self-destructive manner.
I hoped that experiencing a darker end of the spectrum would enable a vulnerability to experience the lighter end. I hoped that this pain would die down and it could be integrated.
I knew these feelings of anguish, despair and anxiety, dusted with a hint of suicidality as the darkness inside me became debilitating. I knew that I had survived them once before in and that I needed to direct my repressed aggression towards positive physical endeavours.
The desire to rid myself of this darkness was immense and the only way to do this was through getting it out. Not through more darkness like vomiting, abstinence from food or worse but through embracing it through human things like exercise, talking to friends and taking a break from the unrelenting challenge. Think about this next time you are at work and you respond to someone else’s provocation with spite, in action or in thought. It only makes it worse, the provocation needs observation, understanding and compassion in order to accept it.
I witnessed the endless loop of duality rather than the beauty in its fine balance. This veil masked my enjoyment of the human experience, like seeing the inside components of your phone when all you want to do is watch Youtube videos on the screen.
Intellect, knowledge and experience fell by the wayside, as my ‘inner truth’ took over me in the form of an uncontrollable energy, a force that I was not ready to embrace. What was the warrior mindset had turned into masochism, what was previously perceived as love had turned into hatred and being in a world of hatred was a difficult reality to bear. My meditations were filled with all sorts of bright lights, yet when I opened my eyes the world around me appeared dark.
On day 4 of reintegration I could start to appreciate that I am not an island and how deeply I require attachment to the network of friends and family around me. Just as the non-attachment I experienced and distance I was experiencing beforehand, letting the loved ones see the depth of my truth created a deeper bond, a bond that I was apparently yearning for in my life of independence. The healing process had started.
Darkness turns to light, just as night turns to day.
Reading about the girl who committed suicide after Vipassana due to what psychiatrists have labelled Self-imposed Depersonalisation, and even though I experienced these symptoms I still knew that I was human and that there was something keeping me here, just like there was something pulling me away from Vipassana in the form of ‘distractions from reality’.
I am trying not to minimise my experience or reduce it to psychological labels because I did experience delusions, psychosis, manic depression, anxiety and depersonalization. This was an ego death in the darkest sense and it felt like punishment to be alive yet disconnected from reality. These experiences are likened to spiritual experiences in some cultures, yet they are as dark as they are enlightening.
I knew that I had previously experienced a deep sense of love for family, friends and life and making every effort to connect to that was difficult having lost connection to these objects within those closest to me. Now I could only sense the negative in people and found it almost impossible to reconnect. I knew that a part of me had gone and that I needed to form new connections, not just positive ones, but also to pay attention to the negative traits that people perpetrated. This was not out of judgement for superiority but to relate to what rings true to me to keep me on my path, which remains unknown but had seemingly clearer markers.
My intuition became guided by my anxiety. I recognised the physical sensation in the pit of my stomach which once was excitement, was now only dread. It restricted my path to such a limited route, it left no room for going off course and experiencing the joys of the life’s journey and the fallibility of being human.
The power in the anxiety was equal to the power of love I had experienced previously. The paradox itself was difficult to bear as it became a rock and a hard place.
I knew these feelings needed to be integrated rather than ignored and the desire to self-medicate with prescription pills and alcohol was hanging over me. The tools I had developed to sit and observe these emotions were as strong as medication and I was grateful to myself for having them in my arsenal, even though my experience had cast a shadow over them.
Previously discarded trivial distractions were a necessary break from the mental roller-coaster — just like Freud had his porcupine to distract him from the ‘real work’. I tried to embrace conversation, exercise, TV (so much TV) and refrained from introspection and intellectualisation in order to ground myself in the reality I once knew.
My source of misery was not walking away soon enough aka. attachment. But if your intuition is perfectly honed you will never be attached to anything — like a monk.
I was attached to a process that was no longer serving me, ironically a process that removes worldly attachments. A thought crossed my mind as why one could struggle to find a partner, because what may be misconceived as fear of commitment is in fact fear of attachment and the suffering that comes with it. That is why we can feel alone, even when surrounded by our loving family and friends. That is why it is hard for me to get off coffee, because the addiction to caffeine is an attachment that provides comfort.
Attachments have a lifespan. Who knows how long they can last but one thing is for certain, the misery starts when the attachment ends, whether mentally or physically. This is why it takes years to overcome the loss of a loved one or only a few seconds to get over that cute girl you exchanged a look with in the bar.
This is why one blissful meditation can lead to disappointment when not followed by an equally blissful experience. This is why I may have a completely different opinion of Vipassana from one day to the next. If I had attached my anger to it and not worked through it, it would leave a deep scar which bleeds every time meditation is mentioned.
I guess this is why Buddhist monks are required to rid themselves of worldly possessions and why hoarders can’t bear the pain of loss. What is the difference in practice besides the polar opposite ends of the spectrum? The question to ask then is where is the balance? The balance is ever shifting and ever evolving.
You become attached to something because of an investment in it. It may be 3 years in an undergrad before you learn you want to do something completely unrelated and have invested all that time and money and expectation only to have a change of heart. For some it may be a masters, a phd and 10 years slog up the corporate ladder before the change of heart. It may be committing to social arrangements be it a night out or a holiday, which is not only you invested in terms of finance and time, but your conscience of others being invested in you, only to have a last minute change of heart.
We don’t say No enough. Forget your investments, forget your expectations, how do you feel right now? But what if….no.
This is how I felt about Vipassana, being invested in something that I committed to months beforehand, yet I remained apprehensive every time the retreat was mentioned. Rather than pay attention to my decision being challenged by external objects, my ego was firmly in control. There are cues and markers all around us, which are projections to our inner truth. Pay attention to them. You won’t get it right every time, but you’ll notice when you get it wrong.
Practising non-attachment is essential to ending suffering, but don’t avoid attachment out of fear. The road which attachment leads down is the joy of life, but be selfish in ridding yourself of attachments that cause suffering.
People judge you because of their insecurities. You sometimes notice these and learn how to respond so that they see themselves in you, not through manipulation but in understanding why and responding with compassionate truth.
Conversely, judgment can be one of the most useful tools in our arsenal. Being judgemental is to put yourself in a place of superiority thus insecurity. Judging something that does not fit with your truth and recognising it keeps you on your path. When you find that judgement leaning towards a place of superiority or insecurity, it is time to question why.
I showed the institution compassion rather than walking away against my ‘better judgement’.
It doesn’t matter where it’s from
One truth I did discover is that it doesn’t matter where it comes from. If you can sense it, it’s in your reality. The teachings of Ram Dass and Eckhart Tolle about being in the moment were ringing in my ears. The clothes that touch your skin create sensation. The drugs that you take may be the formula to the way that you feel but they are not the reality of the experience. The feeling it evokes is the reality. It doesn’t matter how you learn something or how you achieve something, life restarts moment by moment.
The physical feelings I experienced in meditation ranged from the feeling of a heavy dose of Valium, to the flu, to electrocution and dissolving. They are all there, happening constantly and there are countless ways to tap into them. Sometimes it can take minutes, sometimes hours but it is about allowing it to come moment by moment and losing the attachment to the previous moment, yet noticing reoccurring themes.
Why do we feel alone? The space in between meaningful interactions with others can be lonely. Even when you are surrounded by people, if you cannot recognise the spirit in them, the likeness to you, to god, and of course the Freudian idea of being excluded from your parental relationship at a young age stays with everyone.
Being alone can be so rewarding, just to take some time to reconnect with your nature but loneliness is a terrifying epidemic. To feel like you’re alone in this world can make it all seem pointless. The happiest people are those surrounded by family and friends with whom they share a loving and honest connection. I say loving and honest, because some people are surrounded by lots of ‘friends’, but can only connect on a superficial level, thus don’t have depth of connection. We feel that we cannot present our true self because it will not be accepted and we may lose the connection to these ‘friends’.
Research has shown that people with meaningful connections generally live longer and are happier.
My advice to anyone experiencing loneliness is to talk to people honestly and you will be able to connect on a new level if they accept your honesty. If they cannot accept your honest self because of their insecurities then perhaps consider what value the relationship brings to you otherwise and treasure the aspects which you can connect to.
Once all my worldly attachments had dissipated, I was left only with this painful existential anxiety. Where our anxiety is usually directed towards specific objects day to day, not having these objects left nowhere to direct it and made the world seem even more farcical.
In the phase of manic depression, the anxiety flipped to crying with joy at each connection made with those around me. This was a broadened emotional spectrum of the general day to day experiences of happiness and sadness, and too erratic to function ‘normally’ with.
I had become so well adapted to experiencing excitement rather than anxiety that I had forgotten how to interpret these animal instincts which are there to protect me and now they felt almost alien.
Sitting with the anxiety and paying attention to it in its efforts to steer me away from things that wouldn’t benefit me taught me to trust my body and my shadow.
There is power in the shadow and it can be the kick up the ass we need in order for growth.
It is difficult to let go of ideas, even those you know as your deepest truth, even those can be temporary. Permanency does not avail growth, it limits your view and in this case, I was so attached to my perception of reality after re-emerging, I struggled to let go of my own truth. I had learned to observe myself moment to moment yet felt these emotions were inescapable.
The permanency offered by the process of ‘fix yourself in 10 days’ is the biggest hypocrisy of all.
Suppressing your natural masculine aggression and removing external objects by way of people, animals, talking, exercise, sex etc. and being forced to be with yourself had led me to direct my aggression at myself. Everything had become a projection of my own reality and I knew that aggression towards others was aggression towards myself. A suppressed aspect of the shadow.
What was previously a seemingly healthy practice, was now directed in a masochistic way and I became a source of truly evil inclinations. This made me realise that the religious doctrines imposed by the self-purporting non-sectarian cult were labelling aspects of being human as distraction from the true nature. That may be true to an extent but by removing the human from reality you are not able to express that true nature. The paradoxical approach temporarily turned someone who embodied a good amount of love for themselves and the world around them into the opposite, whereas, I would assume the converse affect would take place for someone that viewed reality in a negative light.
Thoughts are just thoughts, yet they also contain some level of truth but it is difficult to discern what they mean.
I am grateful for the loving support network I was able to throw myself into and appreciate that many people do not have this. Perhaps unconsciously I knew that I could take on this challenge just for that reason, and it was my unconscious that removed me from the torture of Vipassana.
While the retreat is what you make it, it is happening on an unconscious level and we are not equipped to delve into this part of ourselves in such a radical way. It is hidden for good reason and slowly manifests itself throughout organic experiences or with professional help as required.
Intuition is vital and to embrace the ego against this can lead you down a dark road. These, however, are how we learn and grow.
It takes time to reintegrate after a traumatic experience, even those that appear to be self-imposed and giving yourself time, having patience and utilising your resources will get you to a place of relative equanimity. The journey does continue but a new sense of power will emerge and tempering this energy is a challenge.
It took around a week for me to overcome the worst of it and a further week to return to feelings of the mundane, yet I remain vigilant in sensing the previously ignored anxiety to keep me on track.
There is immense power in your truth, and it’s not all roses.
Vipassana on reflection
Vipassana is a reckless approach to ‘connecting with your true nature’ because you may uncover some very dark parts of yourself and bring them into consciousness. It is a crash course for something you should spend your life doing and they are not called ‘crash’ courses for no reason.
This course is for the mindless that have zero inclination about their true nature and affords them the opportunity to touch themselves. But offering a quick resolution to something that requires a lifetime of work is as useful as any pyramid scheme advertised online.
Having such a successful and wide-reaching organisation fills us with a false sense of security, yet look at the oil companies and rubber manufacturers we all benefit from in our day to day lives, yet they destroy lives in the process. Even the schooling system benefits many but is not necessarily a perfect process and not fit for everyone, it requires ongoing refinement to suit that generation. Just as the main monotheistic religions are now seen as archaic by many, so to will this as people discover the flaws in their approach.
Another danger of the practice is that they ask you to surrender without providing any form of support or containment. The risk of ‘searching for inner peace’ means going down a dark path, which if you are honest with yourself can be extremely testing and perhaps rewarding and if you’re not honest can be extremely superficial.
I’m angry that I went against my intuition and even more angry that I succumbed to their cult like indoctrination. Telling someone that they’re broken and that they must commit to this method whole heartedly in order to save them is abuse of the most intense nature, unless you have an inclination to sado-masochism. Imagine your therapist telling you that, they’d be struck off instantly and for good reason. Even if that approach may be suitable for some people, only a therapist that understands their patient and what they were doing would be very hesitant before exploring such a radical approach.
Yes, I had a rough ride and yes many followers experience very positive results but my brief anecdotal research shows that the entire process divides opinion and people should be aware of the risks of submitting their agency to a ‘higher power’ that seeks to remove them from reality.
This practice did hone aspects of my practice and my sensitivity significantly. I could not only hear the buzz of a fluorescent bulb from outside the meditation hall, but could experience it in my body.
The process is binary but I am a human and anything but binary.
Being denied my basic human desires of sensory and interactive experiences removed me from the world I know and coupled with my already deep spiritual practice took me down a dark existential rabbit hole. Objects of my mind, darkness that my unconscious repressed for my survival and enjoyment of the world were unleashed. Reconnecting with the world around me and people feels as real as the darkness but the abundance of love here is touching me in a new found part of my psyche.
Among learning about intuition, humility and fear of judgement I have learned that one should be attached to their true nature but not entirely. My visions and discoveries about my lighter parts were very endearing. Beauty, kindness, curiosity but I must express these in this reality. How can I be disassociated when I represent these things in the world around me?
I am a strong mother fucker. Daring enough to go on these deep journeys and vulnerable enough to share the intimate details. If you’re reading this thinking you’re well-adjusted then think about how many of the points raised resonates with you and whether it manifested as a judgement or compassion.
Being open minded exposes you to all manner of experiences but can be testing, being close minded is a safe place but leaves no room for exploration. Both are as important.
Dancing with the devil in psychonautic explorations can be challenging but when he follows you back to your reality it can be harrowing. Like a crying baby it needs attention, the shadow needs soothing and sometimes that can take a while but with love and compassion it will start cooing.
This is just one of many iterations of challenging experiences and one that I will not be partaking in again, yet it has not killed my curiosity, it has merely tempered my ego.