In 2004 I set off to travel the world. To escape the boredom of my life in Dublin, and to seek out new adventures. It was the first time in my life that I had nowhere in particular to me, no time limitations, and thanks to a good job, three years of savings and the low cost for a western tourist in South East Asia, no time limitations on my trip.
Free to pursue whatever whim arose. Scuba diving, rock climbing, yoga.
Meditation. A 21 day silent retreat no less. Recommended by a friend who glows in the aftermath of her time spent at this temple in Northern Thailand. I want some of her glow.
I also have a deeper sense of a need to rid myself of a temper, and anger that lives deep within and makes an appearance at inconvenient moments. At this point, having children is far from my mind, but I have an inkling that I need to deal with this anger well in advance of that particular life experience.
So, with no prior experience of meditation, I sign up myself for a 21 day silent Vipassana retreat. Rising at 4 am. Bed at 10pm. No meals after midday. No reading, no writing. No yoga.
It’s day two and I have discovered that meditation makes you feel like your head is about to explode with thoughts and dreams and resentments and sadness. I imagine the hedonist exploits available in the city whose lights twinkle at me far down the hill and I want to be in the lights making some of those dreams and plans come to life instead of here trying to contain the chaos in my skull.
The only person I’m allowed speak to is my instructor monk. I tell him that I’d like to leave, that maybe this isn’t for me, this meditation stuff.
In a quiet, no-eye contact monk- like detached way he advises me to meditate on these thoughts as they arise.
I think, if my friend can do it, so can I (I am nothing if not competitive). Besides, there was that glow…
So I go away and when the thoughts come up I try to acknowledge them but not get caught up in them, and it’s not easy, but I make a real effort and another couple of days my brain feels clearer, lighter and I’m feeling calmer and happier than I’ve felt in a while.
So I decide to leave, (because I’ve clearly mastered this meditation thing and wouldn’t it be better to be all calm and happy on a beach somewhere instead.
But the monk’s response is the same “ when those thoughts come up, try to meditate on them”.
I’m in my room in the evening and construction work starts up outside (they’re building a whole new wing to the accommodation, this meditation thing is so popular)
Whatever they are doing – I think they are cutting through steel- it’s loud and highpitched and incessant and it makes it impossible to focus. I feel my calm and peace slipping away from me and anger rising up to take its place.
The next day I’m back to the monk to let him know about this obstacle to my practice, and I am furious when instead of assurance that he’ll look into it, again, I’m suppose to meditate on it.
And then I’m back in my room
I’m sitting cross legged on the floor and the noise starts up and my blood boils and I curse the workmen.
I curse the centre.
Fuck the monk
Fuck my friend who recommended this place to me.
Eventually anger gives rise to tears, and there is this tense ball of fire in my belly and I am screaming silently in rage.
Then, at a real loss for anything better to do, I begin to follow the monk’s advice.
I inhale and I exhale.
I begin to acknowledge the anger, repeating the word ‘ anger’ over and over.
After I don’t know how long, an hour maybe two, I realise something is happening.
I notice that there is a space between the noise and the word ‘anger’.
A space between the noise and my reaction.
In that space I realise there is freedom and choice. The revelation hits me – I can choose my reaction- to be angry or not. It’s like the mystery of the world has been revealed to me.
Slowly, the heat, the anger, begins to pass, my jaw and shoulders begin to relax and I notice, that suddenly I don’t hear the noise any more, at least not in the same way.
And instead of leaving the next day, I stay the full 21 days and another couple of days. The construction work continues but somehow, I don’t hear the noise again.