Losing my shit at Vipassana(and then finding it)

*This blog was originally published in October 2017 after going on sabbatical

Last April, during my Sabbatical, I did a 10 day Vipassana (silent meditation) retreat in Thailand. It’s funny what the mind focuses on when we aren’t talking. You start noticing and fixing little details. For example, I started getting so annoyed when I saw that people were letting their water bottles touch the tap when refilling. “Well that’s just great, now I am gonna catch your fucking diarrhea”, the voice of my ego would say.

My bed at the Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage

Also, I would borderline lose it during lunch, because our silence amplified all the noises people made while eating. Munch, crunch, gulp. Lettuce crunching, rice mashing, and the insanity driving, constant banging of metal cutlery against metal plates. “Table manners motherfuckers! OK, let’s change places and sit next to those who looked like they were raised well”, my ego would say. After studying the situation, I ended up sitting on the outer edge of the canteen with a few others, overlooking the plants, trying to think happy thoughts.

“Energy flows where attention goes” — Huna Principle

If I let my mind go on like that, by the time we got to the meditation room I would be a total mental hater. I was annoyed by the cocky walking attitude of the overachieving-looking german kid; by the software-developer-type guy next to me, who lied down instead of sitting up straight in a proper meditation pose, like he was on a beanbag at a freaking hackathon. I was annoyed by the guy doing Ujjayi breath right behind my head. “This is not an Ashtanga class dude, what part of ‘noble silence’ didn’t you understand …you piece of sh**… OK, we get it, you do yoga, so now maybe… shut up?” my ego’s voice would say.

And like that, the list of annoying things continued, from the morning yawn of my next door neighbour (“is there a dying hyena in there?”), all the way to the other side of the meditation room, where the women sat. All the coughing came from that side. The lung emphysema philharmonic. Acapella. In concert. Which reminded me: “Urgh, I need to do something about those water bottles, I don’t want to catch their disease ”.

So I ended up going to the office to have a chat with the Head of Facilities volunteer, a nun-looking Thai woman who wore a gentle smile at all times. “Hi, excuse me” I whispered “I would like to break the silence (day 2) to express my concern about the fact that people are sticking the water taps right into their freaking bottles. And that, I don’t want to catch superbug, please. May I kindly ask if we could do something so they stop doing it?”

She gently smiled, (even more) and told me that sometimes, when in silence, our minds focus on these things. “Sure, but can we do something? I would be happy to help you make some signage” So, she brought me some paper and I found myself making a series of eight, A5 little posters, with felt tip illustrations, asking to avoid bottle — tap contact, like: bottle touching tap…wrong, bottle not touching tap…right. Then went around putting those up next to every water filter station in the entire temple. Ridiculous, I know, I know.

While my signage worked, I still had to deal with everything else that bothered me. On day 3, we had our first interviews. My advisor was a charismatic Thai middle-aged man who wore an old school grey tracksuit and taught Tai Chi in the mornings. I told him what was going on in my mind, that I was losing my shit over those distractions, and asked for concentration tips. He gently smiled, made a pause to clasp his fingers, and told me that sometimes, our minds focus on these things. “Just let it go man!” he said. “Focus on your breath, it’s all you have to do.” I felt like a wimp, I knew what I needed to do, but I wasn’t putting it into practice.

Over the next couple of days, it really sunk that the problem was not “them”. It was me. I was focusing on their noises and their manners, instead of my judgement and my pickiness. It was all me. Me, me, me.

As I became more aware of where I focused my thoughts, I became more aware of how emotions and moments change so rapidly. One moment you feel like this, then like that. One moment you are calm and blissful, the next you can’t sit still, and so on. And that’s when I started understanding ”impermanence”. Life is a series of transitory, ever-changing moments, that go on and on until we die. This moment and the way we feel about it, will soon pass too.

That was a breakthrough moment. Since everything is impermanent, attachment makes no sense!

Our teacher would always say: “Nature is a system and all parts in that system are connected”. Once you can let go of something, that expands, and you can let go of other things. I was able to identify the root cause of other emotions that came up during meditation and eventually realized:

“Who cares!? It doesn’t matter!” If everything is impermanent, I could let go of my old grudges. I could let go of my guilt for past mistakes or regret for bad decisions. I could let go of memories of embarrassment or criticism. I could let go of stuff my parents did or didn’t do. “I am right here right now, and it’s all good.”

Reality became interesting after learning those things. It’s crazy that one can live one life when the glass is seen half full, and an entirely different one when the glass is half empty. One can change their life and reality with one thought, we can change (our) reality with our freaking minds! “When in silence, our minds focus on these things”…

Actually, our minds can focus on all sorts shit all the time. I still have crazy inner dialogue, but I am more conscious of it. Since Vipassana, when the negative thoughts and chatter start flowing, something makes it stop and my inner voice reminds me that “Energy flows where attention goes” or that “I am right here right now, and it’s all good”. And that is how I lost my shit, and then found it.

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