Part II: The Monkey Mind & More BS
It is incredible what the mind will resurrect when it is totally and completely free of distraction. Well, most distractions. ‘Vipassana Camp’ (it’s like ‘band camp’ for spiritual folk), is sex-segregated with women on one side of the property grounds, and men on the other. Clearly, this separation does very little to mitigate distractions of the queer-identified and curious individuals who sign on to this particular brand of zen torture. I’m fairly certain I fell in love with the back of someone’s head, and a pair of hands dishing out Mung Bean Curry (side note: a truly blessed meal, but altogether, too many beans were served on a daily basis for a retreat where 80% of one’s time is spent in a quiet hall, #silentbutdeadly).
The mind is an untrained monkey with cymbals. If I didn’t know it before, I certainly know it intimately now. Handing in my phone and personal effects like my gun and my badge, doomed to abstain from all my usual inputs (Tim Ferriss, Almond Milk London Fogs, the squad group chat, re-runs of Friends, Margot Robbie’s instagram feed, etc.) and outputs (documenting my experiences, written and verbal comic deflections, ‘yes, and’-ing various grand schemes, etc.), I embarked on the arduous task of utter and complete isolation with my mind's eye. Absolutely fucking terrifying.
I discovered in the first few days that I hardly missed all the things I thought I’d miss the most. Things like my phone, social media, television, partying, and (believe it or not) speaking. I also got clarity on the things I definitely missed. Things like writing, reading, sharing ideas with close friends, spinning jokes, sex, music and art, my own space, and (believe it or not) my Mommy. I recognized those impulses and strong positive feelings to be those things that I am meant to devote my time and energy to, forever and always.
On the flip side of all that warm and fuzzy are the things that keep popping up in your mind that you don’t want there. Things like self-doubt, anxiety, worry about the future, unresolved feelings, and in essence, any situation that prompts pain or distress. The nature of these undesirable emotions and body sensations were things I could previously numb with my usual distractions - but Vipassana Camp makes you into a mind warrior, trudging through unwanted thoughts like barbed wire.
My mind is impatient and wanting. This becomes abundantly clear on Day 3. The good news is that almost everyone (at the retreat and in the real world) is the same way, so we’re all in this together. The bad news is that it’s no wonder most of us are miserable half the time - wanting things to come to us faster and faster without necessarily putting in the effort, and getting pissed off at each other in the process. On Day 1 to 3, we prepare for Vipassana body scanning meditation by sharpening the mind using a technique called ‘Anapana’. This technique focuses exclusively on watching a small part of the face - the nose and upper lip - for any sensation. Yes, for 30 hours, we are just observing the area around our nose for sensations. We are also asked for 3 hours each day to sit without moving our legs or arms in what is called the “Sitting of Strong Determination”. During these initial sits, I found myself wanting to fast forward to the end, in discomfort and boredom. I swore that when I went back to work I was never going to complain about being bored again.
I noticed how often my mind was trying to distract me from focusing on the work I came to Vipassana Camp to do: working on quieting my mind and simply observing myself. Instead of focusing on my breathing, I’d often go on tangents, either thinking about new ideas I wanted to pursue, past and imagined future events, or intellectualizing what was happening in the moment (like why I’d have this pain or that pain, this thought or that thought). It was super hard to accept just being there, and that something could be as easy as just sitting and watching.
Every day during the lunch hour, we were free to approach our assistant teacher, Jane, with any questions and ask for feedback. I thought I was rocking this meditation thing. I thought since I’d been meditating regularly for quite some time that I’d have a leg up, like a marathoner in an Iron Man race. But the more I attended the office hours, the more I realized I was approaching it all wrong. Why was it so hard to just watch myself? Why did I feel like I needed to follow every thought and sensation and label it? Was I really that hard up for control of my own experience that I honestly couldn’t follow the simplest of instructions and literally just be? These were questions that I took into the back half of my 10 day journey.
A painful cry ensued on Day 5, when after 5 days of replaying passed heartbreaks I thought were gone for good, I asked Jane what I was doing wrong and why my mind was looping all of these painful pasts. She asked me what happens when I think, and I think, and I think about not wanting to have a thought. I was trying to hold it together, and failing to choke back tears, a real statement managed to squeak its way out: ‘it just makes it feel like...more’. Feeling it, and saying it, and letting it escape my body was an instant relief. It was in the ether now, and I got to experience in my body that repeating a thought and trying to force something to go away only made it snowball into this overwhelming monster that kept taunting me. But this is the habit of our minds - we have trained them our whole lives to make things more complicated than they need to be.
I had experienced this instant relief before in my life and should have recognized the connection between mind and body then. The point of Vipassana Meditation is to experience Truth - to feel in the body what we intellectually know, thereby forming new and better habits based on the lived experience of what feels right and good. For us to know something to be true, we can’t only know it intellectually, we have to experience it. The first time I experienced this was when I first knew that I was gay, or queer, or fluid. I didn’t know. But I knew something was up, and kept thinking and thinking and thinking about it, not bringing it to the surface, and pushing it down every time it demanded my attention. I trained it to be more.
Being gay, or queer, or fluid is literally nothing. I mean, it’s something according to how much weight you put in others’ assumed opinions and judgements, but it’s actually nothing. It’s nothing because if it was just allowed to be it just happens to be something about you no different than the texture of your hair, the colour of your skin, and your preference for Coke or Pepsi. What makes it more is stockpiling all the unexpressed thoughts and burying them because you won’t accept that it’s there. Fighting or flighting from the thoughts is what makes them feel like more. Alternatively, seeing the thoughts as they are, and just accepting that they are there is enough to make them less. The experience of coming out (telling someone you love them, seeing something through, stating what you want out of life, asking a partner or friend for something you need, whatever) and releasing all the mind's built up bullshit from the body is something that physically feels like less.
You don’t have to go to a 10 day retreat to practice calming TF down. You can practice right where you are - when a thought arises, just let it be there, and it passes and it is less than it was before. The more that happens, you train your mind to just let things be the way they are rather than controlling, and wrangling with every thought or experience you have. You can save so much energy by doing this, not to mention allowing yourself to experience what it feels like to just be a goddamn human for once in your life, and little by little, you might start to feel better about just about everything in your world. I mean, I’ve got a lot more work to do before this mind is spotless, but I feel like I’m less full of shit than I was in 2017 and that’s a big step forward.