He didn't know it at the time but one healing encounter with his grandma has equipped him better than most for surviving the Year of COVID-19.
I may be the first sane person on earth who has scrupulously read the terms and conditions multiple times and it's all I can think about as I enter the Vipassana Meditation Centre headquarters in Jaipur, India. No talking, no electronics, no outside contact, no eating after midday, no exercise, no reading, segregation of men and women and no communication amongst peers, not eye contact, written notes or even opening the door for someone. I think back to why I'm here to convince myself that this isn't a huge mistake.
AS A 20-year-old university student, I had no interest in the spiritual realm until last Christmas, when I had an unexpected, overwhelming first experience of reiki. It was performed by my grandmother of all people, who, I discovered only then, was a master of the healing technique, which is based on channeling energy through touch. As she began to skim her hands across my skin, they started to shake involuntarily and violently, sending pulses throughout my body, yet leaving me spellbindingly calm. This "peace" felt like a brand new emotion that was stronger than any happiness, sadness, anger or excitement I had ever experienced but as she lifted her magic hands, that feeling slowly passed away.
I asked her how I could permanently maintain this state of mind but she insisted that once you crave the feeling, you lose the game. She told me that I'd only understand this if I did a Vipassana course and advised I should go to India to obtain the most authentic experience. This was a big ask but I trusted Grandma and I was hooked on recapturing that serenity.
I arrive in the late afternoon, greeted by former Vipassana students who politely take my possessions and show me around the simple stone-built campus set amid beautiful gardens inhabited by peacocks, squirrels and monkeys.
To my surprise, the volunteers seem normal but as I explore further I notice all the doors, both bedroom and bathroom, lock from the outside. Considering they've taken all my possessions and are going to be watching me meditate with my eyes closed for 10 hours a day, I'm starting to realise that I could be about to get robbed.
Breathe in, breathe out and focus on the breath. Done, easy. I wait for the next step but there is none.
I enter my dorm which comprises a bedroom with no furniture apart from two basic beds. The mattresses are no more than 5 cms thick and blankets are almost as thin as my dwindling self confidence that I can stick this out for 10 days. Then, Denver, my roommate for the next 10 days, walks into the room. He's a 22-year-old architect from New Zealand. I can't believe my luck. We hit it off and talk non-stop until we're called to the meditation hall.
Inside the towering dome-shaped meditation hall, I sit with 100 elderly Indian novice monks, all of us staring at our teacher who stands with perfect posture, his aura of peace permeating the hall. I'm tapped on the shoulder from behind by three unlikely boys my age, Finn, Dom and Dylan. As we introduce ourselves, we realise we all grew up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney and presently attend universities in Sydney. It's a promising connection but before we can get to know each other better, the teacher calls for the vow of noble silence.
I wake up to the sound of a gong, shivering and aching due to the minimalist bedding in my dorm, and step outside to defrost, only to realise that it's pitch black and 4 am.
I join a sea of elderly Indian men stumbling out of their rooms and shuffling to the hall like the dead-eyed zombies in Michael Jackson's music video "Thriller". I sit in the hall and await instructions on to how to uncover the key to my happiness.
Breathe in, breathe out and focus on the breath. Done, easy. I wait for the next step but there is none, the instructor just repeats himself. Breathe in, breathe out and focus on the breath. I keep searching for that feeling of grandma's peace but the strongest feeling I experience in my first two-hour session is boredom.
I spend 30 minutes trying to get the song "Eye of the Tiger" out of my head in our midday meditation session but give up and open my eyes. I look over at Finn but he appears to already be in a state of zen. I can't control my inner monologue. "What is he doing that I'm not?" I need to focus. I close my eyes again. Breathe in, breathe out. Is he also singing "Eye of the Tiger"' in his head while imagining himself as the Buddhist version of Bruce Lee? Focus! Breathe in, breathe out. How would the 1976 American classic Rocky have been publicly received if the protagonist was played by Adam Sandler? Focus! Breathe in, breathe out.
Eat, sleep, meditate, repeat.
After our morning meditation session we head to the kitchen for breakfast. It's set out like a high-school cafeteria with long rows of white tables. I don't know where I stand in the Vipassana social hierarchy so as usual I sit by myself. I know that Indian culture has strict eating etiquette so I carefully spoon my curry into my naan bread and fold it over neatly to make a wrap. To the left and right of me 100 elderly Indians are breaking the naan up and eating it with their hands. I quickly realise what I've done wrong. They are looking sideways at me like I've just dropped my cafeteria food all over the floor, bent over to scrape it up and split my pants. If there is a Vipassana social hierarchy, I now know where I stand, right at the bottom.
Eat, sleep, meditate, repeat. The old Buddha wannabes keep distracting me with their coughs and splutters. Still no spellbinding serenity. Maybe they're saving it for the end as a grand finale.
I rush out of the meditation hall busting to go to the bathroom but I can smell Denver's body wash wafting out of our shower window. I power walk to the communal washroom and burst into the only toilet cubicle. As I sit down, I hear someone else walk in. I unsuccessfully try to close the door which confusingly locks from the outside. How do I let this unsuspecting fellow student know I'm taking a shit without using some form of communication? Too late. The door thuds open and caught off guard, I let out an embarrassingly feminine squeal. I guess this is what I'm going to be thinking about in my next two-hour meditation session.
Eat, sleep, meditate, repeat.
Normally when I go to bed, my mind goes blank then I wake up the next day. Tonight as I'm drifting off, I have this awareness of my body and mind that continues into my dream state as I begin my first lucid dream, I'm so aware I'm dreaming.
I've given up on my journey for peace. I've come to the conclusion that Grandma just has magic hands.
I wake up feeling tired as usual, except I relish the tiredness. I notice myself becoming bored while meditating but it doesn't bother me. I no longer detest the other Buddha wannabes when they distract me with their coughs and splutters. I still feel the anxiety within me while struggling to eat a curry without embarrassing myself but I embrace it as a friend. Grandma was right, "as soon as you crave, you lose the game". I still go through phases of happiness, sadness, excitement and anger but I no longer crave the good emotions and avoid the bad. And there it is: peace is not a new feeling, it's hidden in the cracks of every state of my mind. It's the sunglasses I've been looking for that were on my head the whole time.
The instructor allows us to break the vow of silence and my composure is washed away in a wave of suppressed social cravings. Denver, Finn, Dom, Dylan and I congregate together and recount our experiences. Finn said he was looking at me in the meditation hall with jealousy, wondering how I stayed so seemingly focused. Denver, Dom and Dylan admit they had similar feelings of jealousy but shared my realisation of the danger of craving. We all agreed to keep meditating at least 20 minutes a day.
One month later
We face-time and everyone has kept their word. Nothing has changed, or at least in the way you would expect. Denver is back at work and the rest of us have continued our normal lives as university students. However, everyone agrees that through not reacting to our cravings and aversions, our world view has changed ever so slightly for the better. I still feel anger when I'm stuck in traffic (or in COVID-19-enforced isolation at home) and disappointment when I receive a poor assignment mark but I don't react and can find peace in both emotions.
It makes more sense now. Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.