The red brick schoolhouse that is Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport is a study in inefficiency: visa applications scattered everywhere, a few bored officers napping, a broken metal detector and luggage scanner (you have to push your luggage through; the belt doesn’t work) and a faded banner welcoming you to Mt. Everest. There are no queues. Neither Nepalese nor Indian currency is accepted to pay for the tourist visa. But step past the chain link fence and taxi drivers surround you, grabbing at your bag, offering to take you into town for inflated prices.
Traffic chokes the unpaved streets, kicking up a perpetual haze of dust that grimes its way into your eyes and throat. Paths don’t go straight; you’ll get lost. Years earlier, on my first visit to Nepal, one of the frequent transit strikes hit the city after I arrived at 5am after an overnight bus ride from Pokhara. Riot officers patrolled the bus stop. Only after waving my passport around and paying a “transit fine” (and deleting a photo I took) could I make it to my guesthouse. (I had been strongly advised not to take a night bus in Nepal – the country’s traffic safety record is a bit troubling. So I did.)
The strikes make sense given Nepal’s recent history. The ten year long civil war between the Communists and the monarchy ended only nine years ago with the peace accord in 2006. But clearly, progress has been halting. Maoist rebels still patrol some remote areas of the Himalayas, demanding bribes from trekkers.
Despite the chaos, I spent my second visit to Nepal largely in silence at the Dhamma Shringa vipassana meditation center, about an hour outside Kathmandu proper. It lies snug in the foothills of the Himalayas. Warm days and cool nights.
At the door, I gave up my passport, money, phone, books, paper, and writing instruments. Everything I had depended on to get through the flight from Shanghai, and now I couldn’t use them to get through these ten days. I headed to the dorm, spread my sleeping bag on a wooden plank, and took a vow of silence (all communication – no gestures, no eye contact). I woke to a gong’s deep ringing the next morning at 4:30am.
Cross-legged on a thin cushion in the meditation hall, I expected to receive some sort of enlightenment. That was, after all, why I had come. Instead, what I got were instructions to focus on my breath: the small area beneath my nose, where I could feel my breath entering and leaving my body. Just to focus on my upper lip. For ten hours a day. For three days.
I thought I couldn’t take it. The complete lack of distractions (no texts, no emails, no tweets!) made me panic. How had I become so dependent on these diversions – these drugs? Several times I had to leave the meditation hall and simply pace around in circles, like a caged animal straining against being tamed, the physical expression of my mental anxiety. It’s called “monkey mind” – swinging from branch to branch, the mind never settling. (It’s interesting that the lack of stimulation exacerbated my anxiety, just like too much stimulation always had.) But by the fourth day, my monkey mind calmed down, accepting its fate. I sat in the meditation hall, listening to a thunderstorm pelt the roof, noticing its passing, noticing the shimmering light that arrives after a storm.
I learned how to not react. I had to struggle to cultivate that specific, unfamiliar skill of not struggling. Most of my days outside the center are spent in immediate reaction to events. A slow commute – frustration. A reprimand at work – shame. Sitting, simply sitting for ten days, allowed me to observe these reactions arising. And, not being consumed by the reaction or pushing it away, I observed it rising, but then also falling. Everything eventually falls away. Emotions, thoughts, actions, all just sensations that ultimately slough off the consciousness like a butterfly’s discarded cocoon.
Sitting creates a sort of muscle memory to learn this lesson (which is why the center confiscates all writing material – so you experience, not intellectualize, the lesson). My hips ached, my legs fell asleep, my back burned. Observing the pain didn’t make it disappear, but it did make it manageable. Instead of being consumed by my back pain, I could step back and observe it: there is a burning pain in a space of about two square inches below my right shoulder blade; the pain comes in waves; the rest of my back feels fine. This pain is like anything else, neither good nor bad. Like fire – its nature doesn’t change whether it’s warming you in a tent at night or burning your hand on the stove. Who could judge fire as right or wrong, good or evil? Fire changes and eventually burns out. So do any sensations we experience. Simply release judgments of them, observe their arrival and disappearance.
On my last morning, after ten days of vegetarian Nepali meals, walking barefoot around the center, and drinking water from my cupped hands, I acknowledged the hundred other meditators at the center. We finished our morning meditation and were released from our vow of silence. At first, no one spoke. What words could express what we had gone through?
Then, slowly, laughter started rippling through us. It began quietly, a chuckle with heads bowed, then grew louder, the type of laughter that rumbles from the gut, releasing us. Laughter, the best description of those ten days.