I took a shuttle bus to Dhamma Sobhana, the Nordic Vipassana meditation centre. I was twenty minutes late for the shuttle and the last one on and was surprised to find a cabin full of twenty and thirty-something Nordic men and women on board. I sat next to a boy with hair so deeply red, I was sure when I met him that he had dyed it. After the retreat was over, though, we spoke and his nature made me think that I had been mistaken.
I thought that the bus would be full of granola types engaging in intense and meaningful conversation, but most of the people were silently listening to music and using their phones. I hadn’t thought about listening to music on the busride and realised that, as it would be the last time that I’d be able to for the next ten days, I better.
We drove thirty minutes to the centre in Ödeshög, which, from what I could tell on the bus ride there and back again, is a farming village. The centre sits between two ninety degree turns on a slow road in between the Tåkern and Vättern lakes. The centre is very Swedish; the buildings are red, wooden and several stories high, with no decoration on the outside, just gravel surrounding them and a wooden sign out front the main hall which says Välkommen.
The centre has a Christian summer camp feel — women and men are separated into halls which sit on opposite ends of the property. In between, there are two eating halls, two meditation rooms and a kitchen. You have to take your shoes off anytime you enter an inside space. There is hand sanitiser at the entrance of every building, along with relevant laminated instructions and information:
DON’T ENTER THE DINING HALL UNTIL YOU HEAR THE GONG.
WATCH OUT FOR TICKS IN THE FOREST.
Though you apply online, they require you to fill out another application form when you arrive. It feels like an explicit attempt to ensure that everyone who arrived to the centre today knows exactly what they’ve signed up for.
We were to read the course guide again, which included information about what we were going to be doing and what we were not allowed to do (That is, pretty much anything. During the ten days, we couldn’t exercise, stretch in public, wear shorts, eat in our rooms, speak, read, write, make eye contact — the list goes on. The general rule of thumb for the retreat was “Don’t bother anyone and don’t let anyone bother you.”).
Then, we needed to fill out a series of questions about our physical and mental health, as well as information about our intentions and meditation practices (Do we have any addictions or suffer from any mental health problems? What is our general state of mind like today? How would we describe ourselves? Why do we want to do the course? How much do we meditate?)
After filling out the form, I sat with a volunteer course assistant (all course leaders are volunteers), who took my phone and my books and my notebooks and all of my other valuable possessions (passport, id, wallet, headphones) and gave me a small sheet of paper with my room number on it. This step didn’t make sense at the time, but we handed all of our things over because there were no locks anywhere in the facility. The instructor emphasized that it was important to keep our things safe and hidden from the “tempted minds” of other meditators.
My assistant told me that the next meeting on the schedule would be dinner, at 5pm. This was the first moment that I panicked: it was probably about 3pm, though I’d turned my phone off about ten minutes ago, so it was hard to know exactly what time it was. How will I know when it’s 5pm? I decided not to ask and figured I could follow a crowd. But then, what was I supposed to do for two hours? I asked.
So am I supposed to just unpack my things or something?
The course volunteer shook her head and said yes. She gave me nothing more and so I got up and decided I would have to sort out myself by myself.
My piece of paper said 206D. I headed to my room.
My room was above the main door on the second floor of the women’s hall, my single bed beside two large windows looking out at the back of the centre, at the kitchen and meditation hall mostly, but also at the forest. The bedrooms are fitted out with Ikea furniture — everyone gets a chair, a bed and a dresser for their things. I shared my room with two women about my age, one Swedish and one Dutch girl. I met both briefly after dinner and before the silence started at 7pm.
At 5pm, the first gong rang. Gongs rang every single time that the beginning of something was imminent. This time it was dinner, but it would also ring one hour and fifty minutes later, ten minutes before our first meditation. It rang before every meditation and meal. It would also ring at 4am to wake us up, mid-dream, wondering if we really were living or whether we’d fallen off the universe and landed in some distorted reality, living in the couch cushion of an enormous spider.
The first dinner was the last opportunity that we had to speak for ten days, and I spent the time by myself, thinking about how the soup was nice and about how I was ready for silence. There were so many women around me chatting and I couldn’t understand how they all had so much energy to meet one another and talk about their lives, especially now, at a time when we wouldn’t be able to speak to one another again for ten days.
I reassured myself that it was okay to not speak, that everyone was different and that the woman next to me didn’t want to talk to me. This loop repeated twelve times and then I got up and went back to my room to sit on my bed and wait for the silence to begin.
When the gong hit at 7pm, we made our way to the women’s entrance of the meditation hall. The female course assistant called out our names one by one and whispered our meditation cushion seating assignment into our ears. My name was called out midway through. I was at E2.
E2, that sounds familiar, I thought.
I thought this every single time I walked up to my cushion and never figured out why E2 was familiar to me.
I walked inside, grabbed some extra cushions and blocks from the wall and found E2. The meditation hall was dark and the curtains were closed. Around my cushion were seventy other cushions, all inches apart from one another, forming a checkerboard pattern on the floor.
At the front of the room, two men and one woman sat on elevated white cushions staring blankly ahead. The dark atmosphere, serious leaders, sterile, modest religious furnishings and the strong smell of hand sanitiser made the hall seem a lot more like a room where cult meetings would be held than I was expecting.
The meditation course started with the first of many long, traditional chants, played from speakers. The chants are sung by S.N. Goenka, who doesn’t want you to feel like the chanting imparts any religious sentiment, and instead just wants you to be able to meditate in a loving and relaxing environment. I hadn’t learned that, yet, though, and started to laugh.
Oh, no, I thought. This is more religious than I thought it would be.
Goenka is a Burmese man who passed away in 2013 but who lives on in hours of course material played around the world at Vipassana centres. He is kind and happy and oftentimes cheeky, something you learn from watching the feature film length discourses that he gives at the end of each day, which explain the meditation technique and why it works.
The discourses are filled with jokes and anecdotes and fables, simple old tales about very rich men and rivers and fish and doctors and fruit, and they keep people like me alive through the course. They’re the only reassurance that everything really is as hard as it feels here.
Silent meditation retreat. That is how I described the experience to anyone who asked before I turned off my phone. It’s what I thought I was going to: a relaxing ten-day retreat, devoid of modern distractions. No conversations, no technology, no sex, no books. No writing. No exercise. I knew meditation would play a part, but I didn’t realise that it was the only part.
I imagined introspective walks and moments of mindful bliss, eating food with my eyes shut and staring at the sun and smiling. I knew it would be challenging — I imagined struggling to not say what was on my mind, struggling to cope with not knowing if my family was alive and if a world leader had died or there’d been a natural disaster since I’d turned off my phone. I imagined it’d be hard to not know the weather. And I thought I would get bored and anxious without the intellectual stimulation of reading and writing.
That, though, was simple. In fact, I mostly enjoyed the never ending moments of silence, and a lack of distractions meant that I spent my free time watching dragonflies land on my sweater — there were five on me at one point — and staring at that pattern that their translucent wings made.
I let the hair grow on my legs and so I could watch the time pass through my hair growing out and then along my calves.
I’d set a plastic chair out in a grassy lawn so that I could watch five wind turbines planted in a row in the distance rotate. They were always moving, though sometimes not very much. Sometimes they rotated all at different speeds and were all positioned differently against the wind and I’d wonder why — do the wind turbines themselves choose how to sit in the sky or is someone controlling them somewhere, in some Swedish wind turbine central office? Picking at random the direction the turbines sat and betting on the kilowatt hours they produced as a result?
I spent a lot of my free time in a forest at the back of the retreat centre. To get to the forest, you have to walk over a small wooden bridge that was built over a stream which seemed to run as a result of a very large, natural septic tank on the site. Water would flow from the tank more during the day when people were showering and it’d smell worse in the afternoon after lunch, which made me wonder what the stream was made of and how the tank worked.
The forest was divided into two parts: the first half was traditional, leafy and green and covered with large brown barked trees and ferns. The second half, which was accessible after crossing another small bridge, was a forest filled with tall, thin white-barked trees with small leaves only at their crown. They stuck up like a straw fence along a dune at the beach, some tilted and some sturdy, some broken at their centre but most so tall that you had to turn your entire head upward in order to see their end.
Before and after meditation sessions, women would duck into the forest. Some women used the routes as a means of exercise; they’d pump their arms as they passed by with their sneakers laced and tied up.
I would drag my feet across the ground, barely making progress. My shoes would be untied and nearly slipping off as I scanned the ground for slugs and mushrooms, which, when the mosquitos would leave me alone, I would crouch near and watch. The forest is where I re-learned that bugs eat holes in leaves and that caterpillars become butterflies and that you can lift the branches of a tall evergreen and stand inside of it, hopping along its roots, playing balancing games until the rotations make you dizzy and you stop or until the gong hits and it’s time again for something, probably meditation.
The absent time also meant that I spent a lot of time in bed, asleep or with my eyes closed, laughing at a hardly funny joke from a week ago when I could speak, or staring at the off-white curtains hung above my window, which moved with the breeze, back and forth over my head.
I studied my clock in bed, a Casio, small and square and black with green numbers and a minute hand which moved slightly with every single second. This differed from the clocks of the centre, whose minute hands only changed position every 10 seconds. I became so obsessed with my clock and the clocks of the centre that I’d fantasize about wearing a watch when I got out. I imagined bringing my watch to a shop in Liverpool Street Station to get the battery replaced so that I would never have to live without knowing exactly how many more minutes remained in the day.
I spent free time reading as much as I could, though, since we couldn’t bring books, that meant reading the schedule and other course materials which were printed, laminated and hung at the front of the women’s hall.
The schedule only changed on day four and day ten, but I’d read it every day again, along with the laminated sheet describing our “sessions of strong determination,” the three hours each day that we’d have to meditate without moving or opening our eyes. I’d look at the page about noble silence, our vow to not speak, look at or make gestures to any of our fellow students. I’d read all of these laminated sheets in English and then in Swedish and then in English again.
Though it had the fewest words on it, I spent most of my time looking at the laminated sheet which stated today’s day. It was always posted at the top of the wall.
Day 1, Day 2, Day 3: I’d smile at the day in the morning, refreshed to see a later day than the one I’d seen the day before. By the end of the day, I’d look at the day with tired eyes — I couldn’t wait to see the next day, which would mean that I was one day away from the day after that. The next day would come, though, and I would look forward to the day after that, which meant that I was one day away from the day after that, which was only so many days away from the end of the retreat, when I could finally call my mom and tell her that I could go on our family vacation because I figured out a way to make it work and I’d been waiting a long time to say that so I know it’d feel good.
Sometimes, I’d watch the other women meditators who, like me, spent their time staring at leaves, positioning their faces to catch the sun, picking up rocks, counting them and putting them back down. Because no one could tell anyone their secrets, I learned all of my retreat hacks by watching others. I learned that there was a whole other grassy lawn for the women at the other end of the centre which was barely used and that if you sit next to the potted plants you could watch bees pollinate flowers.
All in all, the endless boredom was nice. I felt like a child, free to revel in the boredom of an afternoon in the summertime when all my friends were gone on holiday. What was hard, or rather almost impossible, was sitting for ten hours, cross-legged on the floor with eighty other students silent in the dark — eyes shut, focusing on my breath, feeling the pain in my hip shooting outward toward my foot and feeling my hands grow number until I couldn’t remember how they were holding one another as the minutes passed in perfect stillness.
My body was still but my mind wasn’t. I thought of something new to take my mind away almost every instant: words to a new folk song I wanted to write, funny band names, pranks, holding hands and kissing and laughing and skiing with my family. Some things would catch me so off guard that I would begin to laugh silently to myself so hard that tears would roll down my cheeks and dry there, my hands stuck held together, unable to wipe them away for some time longer.
Vipassana requires focus, something I lack most of the time. It also requires the ability to scan your body inch by inch and part by part, to feel any pleasant or unpleasant sensations happening. I struggled with this — I’ve never tried to investigate the sensations on my throat or cheeks or on the backs of my arms and I discovered that my brain simply cannot. I could not even focus on the back of my arms at the start — the nerves assigned to that area of my body were so unaccustomed to being used that I needed to spend days activating them and making them aware that I was now, for eight days at least, going to pay attention to the information that they were sending me.
On top of my brains blindness, I struggled to not use my eyes to scan my body. It was much easier to focus on a body part if, even with my eyelids closed, my eyes were directed downward or upward to the part I was focusing on. After a little while, though, this caused me to feel dizzy and nauseous and I ended up spending days unlearning this sickening habit.
Days. So many things happened for days. I had songs stuck in my head for days at a time. I was sick for days. It was blisteringly hot for days. But time passed and those sensations passed and I was still there, at Dhamma Sobhana. No one thought or emotion or obsession lasted — they all came for what seemed like forever and then left before the retreat ended.
Which is beautiful, because this is what I learned: impermanence. That all sensations and events share the same characteristic of arising and then passing away.
While meditating for an hour without moving, my hip would begin to shoot out intense painful sensations. It would build from a dull sensation at first to a shocking, screaming one. I would sweat and repeat chants and songs and motivational phrases in my head and wish over and over again that Goenka’s chanting would start and mark five minutes until the hours end.
And he always did begin to chant and the hour did always end because that is how time always works — it always moves forward. And my pain would subside and within minutes I’d be walking outside and back to my room to write on my contraband train ticket full of notes a terrible band name I thought of before the pain started and I was supposed to be focused.
In time, I learned to control my mind for at least some of the time. I learned to see the pain and not feel it — to examine the pulses and strains and pointy bits of pain that moved like waves, coming and going away. And sometimes staying away for long enough for me to enjoy sitting, eyes closed and cross-legged, feeling nothing but the subtle vibrations that are always present but easy to miss, coursing inside our bodies and outside on our skin.
I learned to avoid thinking about the time, and knew for moments at a time that even though it wasn’t now and even though I couldn’t escape, eventually I would feel the soft smoothness of concrete below my sneakers again and that I would feel the acceleration of a high-speed train taking me back to Stockholm and back to my phone and coffee and the tube and London and the life that I desperately wanted to feel new again ten days before.
That was so cool and in those moments I felt like a meditation master, but that couldn’t have been more than an hour out of one hundred, the rest of which filled me with pain and frustration, though sometimes also laughter and wonder and gratitude for nature and soft clothing and the sound of crickets that played through the night in what was, for ten days, my Swedish forest.