Monkey Man wakes me up at 4:15 a.m. He pokes his head into my dorm to see if I’m still asleep, while I hide beneath my tattered blanket. I wave him away, get up, and trudge out into the half-darkness.
Outside, there is a steady march of Indians, en route to the Kolkata Vipassana Center mediation hall. I am on day three of a ten-day Vipassana course, a Buddhist based mind-cleansing mediation. The sign at the front office of the center has the schedule: Rise at 4 a.m., meditate for twelve hours, sleep for six. Beneath it is a written lobby for a new water purifier, and a sign that reads MAY ALL THINGS BE HAPPY.
I don’t know Monkey Man’s real name. He is thin and light-boned, and when his head rotates, his entire upper body moves with it. I don’t know anyone’s name here, because I can’t talk.
At the Center, all forms of communication are prohibited. Speaking and eye contact are outlawed. In a Vipassana, your senses are limited in order to aide your mind to achieve equanimity—observe everything, without reacting. Monkey Man is bouncing and gesticulating, waving the early risers into the hall so the meditation can begin.
Inside the Vipassana Hall is a sweatbox of meditating Indians. Thirty men sit in grid formation, each on their own blue cushion. Ten women sit on the far side, separated from the men by a strip of worn carpet.
I’m attempting this meditation because I think it will help me with my own mind. My thoughts can sometimes spin out of control, dwelling on too many negatives, and embracing worst-case scenarios as inevitable events. After two days of communal solitude I’ve started to nickname everyone, giving each person a made-up personality, perhaps to postpone delving into my own.
The man I call Carol Channing—a light-skinned Indian—is slumped into a chair. His white hair sits contentedly atop his puffy face, which bears a striking resemblance to that of the American singer. His color seems to have been milked out of him.
The Pink Panther, wearing a rose-colored kurta, tiptoes around the room. With each step he appears to be tenderly feeling the ground for the first time: toes first, then a firm foot-plant. The rest of the men sit concentrating, while my eyes follow the Panther to his seat, happy to have something interesting to watch.
At the front of the hall, center-stage, is a portable tape player, divinely lit on its pedestal. To the right is the teacher, sitting on a large cushion in an impeccably white gown. To the left is the assistant teacher, sitting on a slightly lower platform. The amulet around his neck gleams like a bronze medal.
The teacher reaches over, and reverently poises his hand above the play button, his index finger hovering. With a soft click, the teachings of S. N. Goenka, the founder of the current school, emanate. Goenka speaks in a happy drone, and pauses every so often to sing ancient Pali chants in a deep Johnny Cash incarnation of Buddha. I close my eyes, while the mechanical fans whir above, stirring around the heavy air.
Today Goenka is instructing us to focus on the tiny area beneath our nostrils and above our upper lip. For two hours. Sitting cross-legged for 120 minutes without moving a muscle is akin to holding a yoga pose for one hundred times the normal length. Within seconds my mind starts to wander, and after ten minutes my feet are numb. Twenty minutes later, pain is flowing freely through my legs, which remain crossed in an infinity symbol.
The instructor turns off the tape player, blanketing us with silence to help us concentrate. I try focusing on my upper lip, and become acutely aware of my nose hairs. In my half-meditative state, I start to imagine a family, the Clydes, who live inside my nose. One second for me is half a day for the Clydes, in which they experience a slew of weather patterns, incoming breath gusts followed by exhalation storms.
A sliver of fiery molten lava pours into my knee where it circles in a warm pool of pain. As it flows down my right calf, which seems to be quivering like a malnourished bird, I start to lose all sensation in my left leg. My mind hooks into an old INXS song, “New Sensation.”
After an eternity a gong sounds, signifying we can break for lunch. I blink open my eyes and move my legs around in a wounded seal motion to coax some feeling back. Monkey Man, who is squatting on his own cushion, bares his teeth and points at my feet, which are pointed towards the teacher, considered an insult. I tuck them in, staring resentfully at the tape player.
Lunch is held in a dilapidated dimly-lit bunker. As I enter and take my seat, the men next to me plow through their food. With no conversation, the eating area has become a utilitarian food ingestion site. I motion for more bottled water—I am the only one drinking it, everyone else drinks the tap. The Panther snorts while stacking chapattis on his plate like flapjacks.
I shovel the food around with my right hand, Indian-style, swirling it in different directions. The dal—an Indian lentil staple—looks the same as yesterday, and the day before. After a couple of handfuls, I notice however that there is a subtle difference in preparation. Each day the accompanying dish—potatoes, bitter gourd, the radishes (pickled)—actually changes. Perhaps my awareness is slowly taking root. I get up to leave.
Outside, the Pink Panther is having an animated conversation with a plant. He is stroking it, and cooing softly. Looking more closely, I spot the cat that is hiding beneath, and crouch down next to the Panther to get a better look. It is the first interaction we’ve both had in days. After five minutes, the cat becomes bored with the attention-deprived humans and bounds away, leaving the Panther and I to avoid each other’s stares. I keep my mind at bay by watching a family of ants invade the first lace-hole of my shoe for twenty minutes.
Just before the afternoon session starts, Carol furtively slips me a note. He stuffs it underneath my cushion in the meditation hall, his eyes visibly nervous. I carefully unfold the illicit message and the words slowly sink in. “If you are having physical difficulty why don’t you seek help from the teacher? That’s what he’s here for!”
I fold it back up, my heart racing. Apparently my pain has become so obvious that a man I’ve never spoken to has broken one of the primary mediation precepts to help me.
I sit through another two hours of volcanic torture, and then take a carpeted spot at the foot of the teacher, staring long and hard at his index finger. Long, neatly trimmed, powerful. The audio player sits perched over his shoulder.
“Yes David, what seems to be the trouble?” It is the first time anyone has spoken to me in days.
“I’m having trouble sitting. It’s quite painful.”
The leader pauses, thinks, and replies. “Why don’t you take some extra cushions? You’re just not used to sitting like this.”
I nod, encouraged. The leader’s simple advice seems so obvious that I have to either recognize him as a genius, or myself as an idiot. My perceptions of the leader immediately change from audiotape pawn to meditation sage.
I walk out, feeling more energized. I watch Carol, the Panther, and Monkey Man head back to their dorms, and wonder who they really are. With a total absence of communication, I’ve projected my own thoughts onto the people around me. They all have unwittingly become part of my made up reality, and have helped to distract me from myself.
Carol comes up to me, and gestures wildly with big eyes. He wants to know if I got the note. I nod, smiling at him and he smiles back. He seems friendlier—his anxious gestures, which I mistook earlier for nervousness, are actual concern for my well being. We walk side by side along the residences. I enter my dorm, and take one more look out the window to catch a glimpse of the Pink Panther slinking sonorously through the grass. I watch him, fascinated, and then slowly, but resolutely draw the curtain shut.