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The first clang of the metal gong reverberates throughout the compound, up through the spindly legs of my rickety wooden bed, and into my skull, shaking me awake at 3 am. I resist, turn over, and descend back into the dense haze that sleep deprivation brings. But the static of the loudspeaker follows. Moments later, the chants of hundreds of Burmese monks sear through the compound. Submitting to the call, I drag myself to the meditation room and collapse amongst three Vietnamese nuns who are already effortlessly perched like larks on straw mats. I nod in and out of consciousness, physical exhaustion sabotaging my best of meditative intentions, until the clock emits four shrill chimes. One hour down, 15 more to go.
Upon arrival at the Mahasi meditation center, I was handed a simple brown nun’s longyi and a small meditation booklet, poorly translated from arcane, mystical Burmese into English. I was casually informed that the center’s internationally revered instructor was overseas. It was up to me to play the roles of both teacher and pupil. Frustrated and annoyed, I pored through the disorganized and theoretical musings until I had pieced together the ground rules: no speaking, no eating after noon, no contact with the outside world, meditate for 16 hours a day, sleep for four, and mentally note every “encountered phenomenon” during all waking hours. I was intimidated and in a bit of disbelief, but decided to embrace the challenge. I had first learned of Vipassana through its pop-culture incarnations and thought it would be an exotic avenue to accomplish my goals. However, I had no idea that my romanticized respite would quickly escalate into my absolute greatest mental, physical, and emotional challenge to date.
By day three, I despised these rules and my resolve was bordering on collapse. My head constantly throbbed and I had begun to shake from caffeine withdrawal. Sharp pain in my lower back from hours of sitting upright had begun to shoot up my spine. Without proper guidance, I began to question if my attempts were merely a waste of time. The mandate to mentally note all phenomenon, from “walking, walking” to “brushing teeth, brushing teeth” was agitating and seemingly pointless. Extreme fatigue and hunger teamed up to exacerbate the intensity of every small challenge. That afternoon, I lay in my drab room, overpowered by an oppressive blanket of Yangon heat, and sobbed. I desperately wanted out. It was impossible, unthinkable to complete one more day, much less eleven. However, I reminded myself that I had come to learn about Myanmar alongside the Burmese, and sacred to the Burmese is Vipassana. In this moment, I made a firm decision: I would complete the course, period.
Each of the remaining 11 days labored on as if time were in fact slowing down, nearly coming to a halt. But each sitting became increasingly easier, the pain more bearable, the mental notation less frustrating. By day nine, I had begun to internalize Vipassana theory and to understand the practical intent of the practice. I recognized my “attachments” to this world and had made small steps to free myself from them, an invigorating process. The answers to persistent personal problems and difficult decisions began to effortlessly unfold. I realized that the tantalizing corporate offer a Silicon Valley technology company had been courting me with was antithetical to my true desire to pursue research on social entrepreneurship in Cambodia. On day twelve, others noticed my efforts. A seasoned guru approached me, out of the hundreds of monks and handful of female meditators in the packed dining hall, and proclaimed, “We are proud that you are so young, alone, and the only western woman here, but that you are taking meditation seriously and trying so sincerely.” When a Burmese patriarch breaks the rule of silence, you respond with a quiet “thank you” and a modest smile. But internally I was elated and accepted this recognition as a nod that I had accomplished my goal of learning through cultural immersion.
On my final night, I meditated under the luminous glow of the Shwedagon Paya, Burma’s iconic golden pagoda, that enveloped the city in the distance and whispered of adventures beyond Mahasi’s walls. Pain still streaked up my back and down my legs and my absent teacher would not likely approve of my meditative technique, replete with alternating postures and a frequently wandering mind. But I did not care. I was leaving Mahasi with wisdom much more valuable than impeccable meditative technique. For me Buddhism had transformed into a personal philosophy rather than a foreign and disparate religion. I had found peace and solace in my meditative practice and experienced an unprecedented sense of calm clarity. I hadn’t reached enlightenment, nor did I even make it through a single hour of meditation without shifting positions. But I completed the program, a goal that initially seemed incomprehensible, and with a rejuvenated sense of willpower, a shifted worldview, and a love for a practice that I initially disdained.
Image cover credit: h.koppdelaney
Guest post written by Kym Cole: Kym Cole is 25- year old researcher and entrepreneur based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Presently, she is the launching start-up Interprise, a virtual platform for first-time entrepreneurs in Cambodia. She is originally from southern California and holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania.