It’s half a century since the Beatles embarked on a Transcendental Meditation course in northern India. Fashions for alternative therapies have waxed and waned ever since, but one of the most exacting got a surprise boost in January, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announcedhe had shut down his smartphone and spent 10 days over Christmas meditating at a Vipassana centre in the United States, remarking afterwards that it had been an “incredible reset”.
Vipassana students are not allowed to speak. No food is served for 19 hours – that’s from lunch at 11.30am until breakfast at 6.30am, unless you count a piece of fruit for supper. Meditation takes up the bulk of your waking moments, and after a couple of days, you are not supposed to shift your bum or even open your eyes, no matter the discomfort. Men and women are segregated, even sitting on opposite sides of the meditation hall. But, I reasoned, if Mister Twitter could take the time out – and rejoice in doing so – why not me too?
Buddhist in nature, the course is open to everyone, regardless of their religious inclinations. And so my wife and I found ourselves bound for a getaway quite unlike any other we’d ever experienced, a mere 90 minutes’ flight (and an hour sitting on the tarmac: thank you, HK Express) from Hong Kong, in Taiwan.
An austere Vipassana centre in Taiwan’s Xinshe district
An hour’s drive east of Taichung, the Vipassana centre in Xinshe district is an architectural motley of prefab sheds ranged around what was once a family-run hotel and bordered by maize and loquat fields. Men and women are segregated on arrival and a long list of regulations in English and Chinese proscribes (once the course starts) speech, books, writing, any form of physical contact – especially hanky-panky – or any sort of gesture, stealing, telling fibs and harming any living being. Nor may you leave the centre. Valuables, including phones, are handed in on registration.
I wave goodbye to my wife, and set off to inspect my room – sliding door, no handle or lock – which I am to share with a complete stranger who turns out to be a puckish 62-year-old Chinese Californian.
The single beds are unsprung, the mattresses an inch thick, the floor of bare concrete. A plywood partition screens adjoining rooms, and there’s one tiny window. The bathroom’s interior designer seems to have incorporated a rust and mould motif, and the three urinals have been so spaced that you need to tuck your elbows in very tight. All that said, the showers spout endless hot water and there’s a choice of sit-down and squat loos.
Together with the sort of apprehension that accompanies any new venture, the aromas and communal facilities evoke the long-vanished sensation of the beginning of term at a new school. Vipassana’s motto is “Be Happy”. Can’t argue with that.
Two meals a day proves to be enough
Carol Reed’s film of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist may be 50 years old, but the opening scene – warbling workhouse waifs lining up for a bowl of gruel – is as fresh as ever.
If one thing’s perplexed me about the days ahead, it’s the prospect of three anything-but-square meals a day. The menus vary, but it’s generally rice (congee at breakfast) accompanied by boiled veg and tofu – grand for the digestion, but hardly lip-smacking. I’m saved by coffee (instant) and a bulky jar of brown sugar, a piquant black bean sauce, nuts and sparkling fresh apples, guava and bananas.
Each of the 20 male students is assigned a seat in the dining room, and I’m sandwiched between my roommate and a vividly tattooed twenty-something, with a view of the watercourse and garden that is occasionally enlivened by the arrival of kingfishers or egrets.
Oddly, I never feel hungry, and make the lengthy trek through the desert that stretches from lunch till breakfast (excepting the teatime oasis apple) with nary a tummy rumble. There again, I usually arrive at the dining room with the first stroke of the breakfast gong, narrowly beaten into second place by Thelonious, the only monk on the course, distinguished by his immaculate flowing robes and the jaunty nickname I’ve silently awarded him.
Satya Narayan Goenka, the founder of Vipassana
Vipassana (which means “to see things as they really are”) meditation was pioneered by a portly Indo-Burmese called Satya Narayan Goenka, who died in 2013. That Taichung is one of more than 200 centres around the world, including one on Lantau, is some indication of his legacy.
A new video featuring Goenka is played each evening, in which he sums up the day, urges us to work a bit harder, relates some rather long-winded parables and makes refreshingly un-guru-like jokes about his lack of magic carpet and students being “in prison”. Group sessions are enlivened by audio tapes in English and Mandarin, capped by Goenka chanting in Pali, a distinctive string of noises that vary from arthritic barn door to overheating kitchen mixer.
The first three days are devoted to concentrating exclusively on the breath going in and out of your nostrils. From there, we are enjoined to run a mental body scan, from the crown of the head to the tips of the toes, and vice versa, observing the sensation throughout. In the last couple of days we’re told to send out positive, loving, be-happy energy to all and sundry, dispensing with any bitterness at those who’ve wronged us in the past.
While Goenka can at times verge on the tedious, his sincerity and goodness are beyond question. Still I cannot help but notice that – despite urging students not to gorge themselves at mealtimes – he certainly looks fond of his vittles.
Meditating on the 10-day course, the long road to Nirvana
There are about 50 students in total, including four Caucasian males placed at the back of the meditation hall lest their semi-spastic wriggling disturb the Asians who fold themselves into the lotus position with the ease of origami Olympians. We meditate, sometimes drawn up in ranks in the hall, sometimes in our own rooms, for about eight hours a day.
After the fourth day, we are enjoined to sit absolutely still with eyes closed for each of the three main 60-minute sessions. This is not easy. Indeed, it’s something that I never achieve. And the feeling of unreality is exacerbated by the sight of the back of the only Western female in the room – my wife, who contrives to ignore my presence – occupying space B23.
However, there is something entirely admirable and utterly calming about a room filled with dozens of adults who barely make a sound or budge an inch and who, perhaps for the first time in their lives, are concentrating almost totally free of outside distraction. The sessions are led by George Hsiao, 75-year-old Vipassana master and – get this – former abattoir builder, who sits immobile and ramrod straight with a benevolent eye for all his charges.
Occasionally we are called forward in small groups for a progress assessment. I confess that I am probably his crappiest student. “You have made a start, that’s all that matters,” he smiles gently.
Finding solace in routine tasks
Contemplating your toes, “noble silence” and going off-grid are all well and good, but I miss the physical satisfaction that comes from actually doing things. Cleaning my bowl and chopsticks and drying them takes only a couple of minutes, even when I’m really conscientious, so the solution is washing my clothes.
I have done this sort of thing before, but now – in a day that is otherwise largely cerebral – I embrace it willingly. Uncaring that I might seem like a housewife in a 1950s soap-powder advert, I marshal hot water, bowl, scrubbing board, detergent, hangers and pegs, and fix the result on the line in the sun with a vast sense of achievement. So did Ivan Denisovich contemplate his completed wall at day’s end in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic 1962 novel.
One afternoon, irked by the tatterdemalion bathroom and itching to do something practical, I purloin a screw from a piece of scrap wood, filch a screwdriver from the store cupboard in the dining room and repair a shower socket that had been hanging loose. None of these activities is forbidden by the Vipassana code of conduct. I didn’t steal the screw, I borrowed it. Be happy.
Counting down the days
In a way, this gig has certain parallels with childhood. Food is always on the table, there are some minor chores like making your bed, and there’s no arguing with the rules imposed by the adults.
The routine turns any sort of incident – such as the American in front of me fainting during a meditation session – into a high-profile drama, all the more so for not being able to discuss it. The day’s programme is only posted on the noticeboard at reveille, so we never quite know until the day in question what is going to happen, although meditation is a constant.
By day eight (when the thermometer disobligingly plunges from 30 to 10 degrees Celsius), I’m anticipating the prospect of meat for lunch, a proper mattress to relax on and a wife to relax with. But at no time does tedium ever set in, although my knee joints occasionally look in vain around the meditation hall for a clock.
The power of nature to inspire rustic ruminations
Xinshe is farming country. Immense sheds buzz to the susurration of ripening mushrooms. Tractors trundle along nearby lanes. The local hardware store is a drive-in, catering to agricultural customers used to buying goods in bulk. The centre is shaded by maple, oak and pine trees, and the boys’ garden enjoys the added benefit of overlooking water that’s home to schools of carp and a family of terrapins, which obligingly sun themselves on a log at lunchtime.
Students who might normally spend their down time gabbing with Siri now wander the garden, lips sealed, stretching against the trees, admiring the foliage, filling their lungs with country air. An occasional military helicopter, a firecracker orgy at a temple up the valley and the refuse collection truck – which chirrups merrily as it goes about its business – are the few outside sounds to intrude.
I commit a murder
I’d arrived armed with gallons of insect repellent and salve, but Taichung’s mosquitoes must have absorbed some of Goenka’s philosophy, for, by day, they hum docilely about the bedroom in the manner of a potential house buyer rather than a bloodthirsty insect embarked on a manhunt. By night, they are deterred by my mosquito net.
But one afternoon, sitting in the garden, barefoot and fancy free, I feel something tickling my ankle. I look down, assess the situation and perform the action I’ve been performing all my life. Just as I’m bringing my hand down, Goenka’s dictum runs through my mind: “Don’t harm any living being.” Too late.
One dead insect; one guilty conscience. But – nobody’s seen me, and if it came to a court case I think I could get away with justifiable bug-icide. Otherwise, I stick to the rules pretty rigidly, unless you count swearing when I bang my head in the shower, and clearing my throat loud enough for my wife to hear as she walks past the border fence. Which is made of wood, not razor wire.
For the past 14,400 minutes, we’ve only been allowed to speak with the course manager about urgent administrative matters, and to Hsiao about the intricacies of Vipassana. After a final hour in the meditation hall on the morning of the 10th day, we file outside.
Conversation seems foreign, and as physical contact is still discouraged, B23 and I stand talking to each other like two guests who have just been introduced at a cocktail party.
The course – accommodation, meals, instruction – is free, but donations are accepted, and as well as being allowed to speak, our valuables are returned, so we hand over roughly what we might have paid for full board at a hotel for a week.
I thought I might whoop and holler, but we find ourselves mainly conversing quietly about the more quirky of the other students, officious staff and favourite meals. Mildly mind-boggled, conclusions about Vipassana will come only later.
Back to reality
Buddhist, existentialist, naturist, round-the-twist: nobody can deny the boundless benefits of 10 days cast away on a reasonably well-supplied desert island. In a world that increasingly resounds to the clattering treadmill of social media and the likes, switching off is a spa treatment in itself.
Blighted with what Goenka aptly called a “monkey mind”, I was never able to access the really deep states of meditation that he advocates, but I did take time to think properly about what to do with the rest of my life; and if I didn’t entirely forgive the various people who’d f***ed me about over time, at least I was able to decide they weren’t really that important any more. My hips are now more limber, I’m slimmer, and I left the centre free of any pressing desire to open my smartphone immediately, turn on the television or read a newspaper.
Back in Taichung, we do what any normal healthy couple who haven’t been permitted to so much as kiss for the best part of a fortnight would. We both have chicken tikka and garlic naan, and I have a beer, followed by gelato for pudding.
So – apart from the “incredible reset” – how was it for you, Jack?