When you sign up to do a Vipassana, there's a form they ask you to sign saying that you won't leave. When you arrive they ask you the same question, and then when you're unpacked and sitting in the canteen sipping herbal tea, they ask you again if you're really prepared to stay for the entirety of the course and follow each of the rules to the letter. A more sensitive soul might get the impression that you weren't really wanted at the Vipassana at all.
The rules are simple: You must meditate for up to ten hours each day. You can't talk, you can't read, you can't use your phone, you can't smoke, you can't make eye contact with other participants, you can't masturbate, and you can't leave until the morning of the 11th day. You're also not supposed to kill anyone.
Our teacher is called Davide. He looks like Buddha—round and chubby, with that perma-smile beloved of holy people and high people alike. He looks around at everyone, sizing them up, checking for doubters, the odd head shaking, a weak upper lip, and when he sees none, he smiles, asks us to hand over our phones, notebooks, and wallets (which I don't, already breaking one rule) and the Vipassana can begin.
A Vipassana is a type of silent prison that you enter of your own free will. During the time you ape the life of a monk, meaning you do no work, have no entertainment, and reduce your responsibilities to breathing, swallowing, and pissing when you need to.
The standard limit is ten days, but serious meditators do up to 90, which I can only imagine is as close to death as the still-living can ever experience. The technique was developed by Buddha himself more than 2,500 years ago, but it was lost until the 1950s. In the 70s, Vipassana centers started cropping up in California and Europe offering people the chance to change their life. John Frusciante kicked heroin after a Vipassana, for example.
About half a year ago I started taking psychedelic drugs fairly regularly. Partially because they were fun, but also because I could see how they benefited me therapeutically. When I heard that meditation could produce similar effects, I found a ten day intense silent meditation course I could join in Italy. The waiting list is a testament to their popularity: I signed up seven months ago and just got in the door. When I finally did, I activated my out of office reply, shot one final load into the covers, and boarded a plane for Tuscany and perfect silence.
You sit there with your body crumbling beneath you, waiting for the minutes to come to an end so you can stretch your legs and get a quick cup of tea.
The first day of a Vipassana is the falsest of false dawns because you're still allowed to talk and socialize. The women and men—about 80 altogether—sit down, talk, and eat soup in a big common room. Bursts of laughter ring out. A little flirting here and there as we get up for seconds. The next day a loud gong rings at 4:00 AM and we march in pitch darkness into a meditation hall, men and women are cruelly separated. The only way we know that they're is their soft footsteps crossing their side of the courtyard or the sound of a faraway lonely hairdryer in the dead of another bitterly cold Tuscan morning.
I'm put in a room with five guys in their 20s who I assume from their clothes and pudgy waists are all Italians. But I don't know for sure, because apart from their snores at night, we can't talk to each other. I also get to know them by their smells because on a Vipassana you tend to wear the same clothes every day, and sleep in those clothes because it's cold at night, and because we are told to conserve water, our daily cleaning is not much more than splashing water on our face. The smell is at times warm, at times musty, and at times like the spongy feet of a water dog after a long day nosing his way through cow manure.
In the beginning, the hardest part of the Vipassana is sitting still. They give you one cushion and a blanket and expect you to stay on that with your legs crossed, hour after hour, all day. Your back starts to hurt, your knees feel like they're on fire, and your tailbone—that bone that only seems to exist when you land on it from a height—starts to throb beneath you. After the hard posture, the second hardest part of the Vipassana is time. You sit there with your body crumbling beneath you, waiting for the minutes to come to an end so you can stretch your legs and get a quick cup of tea. I have a watch on my arm. Every time I open my eyes and look down at it, nothing has changed. I swear it's broken. I take it off, remove the battery, blow on it, rub the battery case against my arm, put it back and wait until the second hand creeps. The watch is working perfectly. It's time that's somehow broken.
That night I go to bed and sneak my phone out in the darkness. I can't get any reception. I make a promise to myself that tomorrow, instead of going to the meditation hall at 4 AM with everyone else, I'll go out of bounds, climb a hill and find cell reception.
But the next morning, I'm in too much of a daze to scheme an exit. The gong rings and before I know it, I'm sitting cross-legged on my cushion, surrounded by all the other meditators, listening to the instructions about following your breath, and another day of torture awaits me.
There's an older man who's been assigned the space beside me. He's wearing a bright red hoodie with an inscription along the arm: Surf, Life, Love. Est. 1987.
To pass the time, I turn it into a code, where each letter represents its numerical position in the alphabet, plus one. So Surf would be 19, 21, 18, 6. And 1987 is A, I, H, G. I do this all day, and although it doesn't make time pass any quicker, I convert all the numbers and letters I see. By the time night comes around, I'm more convinced than ever that I'm going to leave. Tomorrow morning, I plan to take my phone to the top of the hill, contact friends, leave, drink wine, eat mozzarella, talk, jerk off, and have an adventure in Italy.
When I wake up the next morning, I'm in battle mode. I put on my coat and while the rest of the dreary meditators file off into the hall, I slip off the path, hop the fence that we promised to never cross and run through the long wet grass towards the hill. The first thing I notice is how useless my pins have become after two days sat cross-legged. My knees make a noise like old door handles. My thighs start aching after just a few steps. And then when I finally get to the top of the hill, the reception is so patchy that the only thing working for me is Whatsapp. I send a message to my friend Andrea:
I'm leaving tomorrow. Can I stay with you?
Once I've sent the message, I feel relieved. I come back down the hillside and go back to bed. When breakfast comes along, I drink the instant coffee and eat the cold porridge with the swagger of a man who knows tomorrow there'll be nothing but cappuccino and croissants in my future. And when the gong rings a little later that day, I walk towards the meditation hall, climb the 49 steps (I'd counted them too) and take my place beside the older man in the red hoodie with calmness and serenity. The instructions begin: Concentrate on your breath. Only this time, because I decide there's no point in resisting something I'm about to abandon anyway, I follow them. I close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing. I concentrate so hard that I feel my head dropping.
Only it's not my actual head that's dropped, it's something inside it. And then the next thing I know, the room has become impossibly quiet. I say impossibly because at every session so far there's been at least two coughers and some sneezers, a whole load of shufflers and half a dozen throat-clearers. But now the room's quiet as the grave. My head drops a little deeper and then all these lights inside my skull turn on. I see shapes, like mandalas, and then shooting rockets and a big blast of lightning that's so bright, I have to open my eyes again and I lose balance, slip off my cushions and fall on top of the guy in the red hoodie next to me.
"Sorry," I say reflexively, and he looks back at me with gentle eyes and puts one finger to his lips.
It's just like coming up on ecstasy, only there's no music, no dancing, and I'm doing nothing more than closing my eyes and concentrating.
On a Vipassana, in case of emergency, you're allowed to go talk to Davide, the teacher running the course. Afterwards I go to him in his little room. He sits on a tall, white, cushioned throne. You sit in front of him on the ground and instantly feel like a small child approaching Santa Claus in a shopping mall after standing in line with a weak bladder for 40 minutes.
"Davide," I say, "I've just tripped balls. "
"Ma che?" says Davide.
"I hallucinated. In the meditation hall. It was so strong I fell off my cushion. What does that mean?"
"It means it's starting to work," Davide says, and sends me on my way.
We break for lunch. Lunch is always very simple at the Vipassana: It's vegan with very little flavor but, eating is the only time of the day when you actually have something to do so the excitement you feel when those times are approaching is huge. The menu is more or less the same every day: rice, veggies, broth, and some green leaves, followed by fruit. We eat in silence. Across from me is a guy in a poncho eating a banana with a knife and fork. Three seats along from him someone is holding a lettuce leaf up to the light and licking it. My mouth is full of cold lentils. I close my eyes and the mandala shapes reappear, diving, floating into the corner of my vision like feathers from a burst pillow. Whatever I've done, I've managed to access a section of my brain which neurosurgeons may or may not call "free drugs."
I go back into the meditation hall and start following my breathing again. This time I start feeling electricity running through my arms. And then my belly starts rumbling and a great ball of air starts traveling from my gut up towards my neck and out of the top of my head like some huge earth-shattering drill. It's just like coming up on ecstasy, only there's no music, no dancing, no manic consumption of cigarettes, and I'm doing nothing more than closing my eyes and concentrating.
I decide to stay. This is too good to miss out on. That night as we're walking back to our dorms, I slip out of the line, go scale the little hill and send another message.
Abort rescue plan. Tutto bene.
In bed, I close my eyes and I trip and I trip and I trip till morning.
But the next day is a sad one. The old man wearing the red hoodie has left. He's not in the meditation hall beside me. In his place is just a cushion and the gentle smell from where his ass had pressed against it for the last three days. I close my eyes, concentrate on my breathing and wait for the beautiful hallucinations and the dancefloor rushes to creep up my spine. Except they don't. I can't even concentrate. For some reason all I can do is think about sex. I'm sitting there in the silent meditation hall going back through every women I've slept with since I can remember and imagining that sex again in real time. I have to pull a blanket over my erection. After the break, it continues. Nothing I can do can do to remove the vivid recreations of all the sex scenes I've had in my life. It's not very attractive and most of it is drunk in rooms with grubby mattresses where the posters are stuck to the wallpaper with thumb tacks.
A friend of mine who's done Vipassanas before told me to watch out for this. In fact it's the main reason they separate the sexes. The devil makes work for idle hands I guess, especially hands that can't get you off for ten days.
After the break, I go back in to the hall again. This time I'm determined to not think about sex; I want to hallucinate again. That determination changes something, just not how I wanted it to change. Now I'm thinking about having sex with men. Hairy fellows with big beards and thick tangled chests. And then the hairy chests turn into dog hair and then I can see a dog, my neighbors' dog—Rascal is his name, a rutty yellow thing—and Rascal's climbing over my chest and before I know it, Rascal has got his long tongue out and I have an erection and I stand up, drop my blanket on the ground and stumble out of the hall and into the daylight.
It's a beautiful late spring day in Tuscany. In the valley below there are farmers pushing tractors through fresh muck and old ladies picking mint from the sides of the stream and up above their heads on the hillside, I'm realizing that four days of intense meditation have either revealed to me that I'm a sex fiend or turned me into one.
I go speak to Davide.
"Yes?" he says.
"Davide," I say, "something's gone wrong. Yesterday I had nothing but euphoria and today I'm trapped in a world of grim sexual deprivation."
"Deprivazione?" he says.
"Si," I say. "It's horrible."
"The law of impermanence," Davide says, "nothing lasts forever. That's the lesson of Vipassana."
"So tomorrow won't be like this?"
"Nothing lasts forever," Davide says and he smiles again.
"Thanks," I say to him, and then to myself I say 20, 8, 1, 14, 11, 19 and wonder if Davide's right and will I ever return to a time of not converting letters to numbers or fantasizing about fucking all things with holes. For dinner they makes us penne pasta. Hundreds of tiny oily holes staring up at me. I eat them with a hard on, of course.
On the fifth day, someone else leaves. One of the chubby Italians from my room. I come back in from a morning of meditation and see his bed made and his belongings gone. His snoring was like a small two stroke engine on a hill. His smell was old rubber and talc. God only knows what his name was. I'll miss him all the same.
Crossing my legs in the meditation hall feels about as comfortable as removing splinters, and the worrying sexual fantasies continue, although I am relieved that they no longer include family pets or hairy men. The hallucinations won't come back either. I feel like I'm right back at the start again. That day, after lunch I make a break for the hill. I send another message:
Leaving. This time for real. See you soon. Un bacio.
I come down the hill and go to talk to Davide. We're on first name terms at this stage. I go into his small room and sit cross-legged in front of him but before I can even begin to speak, he points at my leg.
"Look," he says.
I pull up my trouser leg and I see a small tick burrowing through my skin. Our hill is in deer territory. There are warning signs, which I've long since converted into code, to not walk in the long grass. Davide reaches over and with remarkable skill, clamps the tick between his fingernails and pulls the tick free. He holds it in the palm of his hand and shows it to me. The tick must have a hole, I remark to myself, but I feel no sexual desire towards it. In one move Davide has saved me from Lyme Disease and cured my rampantly escalating sexual deprivation.
"What was your question?" Davide says.
I say nothing.
After all that, I know I need to stay. For the sixth and seventh days, I go to every single meditation session—even the optional ones. I meditate during free time and I even meditate before going to bed. I treat it like a sport, competitive meditation—the first to transform into a flaming ball of light wins.
My legs feel like chalk. My ass feels like someone's kicked me really, really hard. My back spasms in pain.
It rains during those two days and maybe it's the weather or the fact that the lower halves of our bodies are rotting away in slow torment, but people start to act weird. An Italian boy in my room starts talking to objects. At night he arrives at his bed and says "ciao letto" and in the morning when he puts on his shoes, he encourages them along with "andiamo." Another guy comes to the meditation hall with his tracksuit pants on backwards and the top of his butt cheeks on show. The drawstrings hang out over his ass like a two-tailed cat. And then later that day a woman on the other side of the hall starts snoring. A teacher wakes her up, but she keeps on falling asleep. Nothing will keep her awake anymore, not even the pain in her legs, the hunger, or the exhaustion that comes from having nothing to do.
That night we leave the meditation hall and mill around outside on the hill waiting to file back to our dorm rooms. It's a starry night. They're as bright as they get. One shoots across the sky leaving a long trail behind it. It's the brightest shooting star I've ever seen. No one says "wow."
On the eighth day, I get up before the gong rings and go to the empty meditation hall and start meditating. My legs feel like chalk. My ass feels like someone's kicked me really, really hard. My back spasms in pain. I follow my breath. I follow my breath. I look out for the tiny sensations that run through my body. I examine them like a surgeon, as the instructions tell you to and then something really wonderful and unexpected happens. Tiny waves that move like long silk scarves start traveling through my sore limbs. My body feels incredibly light. I can't feel my ass anymore. Maybe it's dissolved into the flat cushion beneath me. My shoulders drop away and a great energy shoots up through my stomach, into my skull and then falls back down on top of me like buckets and buckets of warm, velvety water. I feel like I'm levitating that I've moved beyond my own bones and flesh. This goes on for the next hour and when the gong rings for lunch, I don't get up, I don't stretch out my legs, I just sit there and cry.
Bhanga Nana is the term Vipassana teachers use to describe the dissolution of the body. It's an extremely powerful experience where you move beyond all body pain. And that's pretty much how the ninth and tenth days play out: with me in a type of suspended state of hyper-sensation and lots and lots of tears.
When Davide finally gives us the all clear to talk again we walk out onto the hillside and look at each other like we've just come out of comas until someone finally gets up enough nerve to say "buon giorno," and then because you have as much chance of keeping Italians quiet as you do keeping beach sand out of shoes, the hill erupts in chatter.
Some people felt very little it turns out. The guy who was talking to objects, Raphael, tells me that he had no visions, no silky sensations—just a broken ass for ten days straight.
"Why didn't you leave then?" I ask him.
"The food," he said, "and another train ticket would be too much money."
About two hours before we leave, the men and women are allowed to see each other again. Two hours was just enough. Everyone is so horny, any longer and our quiet little monastery setting in Tuscany might have turned into the Folsom Street Fair.
Tuscany is beautiful. Maybe one of the most beautiful places in Europe. On the train ride to the airport it feels like I'm passing through the Garden of Eden, although the only Garden of Eden I know is a florist on a roundabout near Dublin where they sell plastic roses.
When shit happens in life, you're reminded of the pain you felt during the Vipassana and you know that you have the choice to either stress about it or let it slide.
In the airport I watch a big screen showing images of the Nepal earthquake and can't stop myself from crying. A woman comes over and asks me if I'm OK. "Did you miss your flight or something?" she asks. I look up at her and she's got buck teeth. They fall over her lip like a pair of floor boards. I can't help but think how hard it must have been for her growing up and that makes me cry even more. Somewhere in the distance I hear a father giving out to his daughter. And just like the waterworks continue. It's as if the constant stream of unrequited erections have manifested themselves into some form of optical ejaculation. Or what those in Vipassana would call more correctly, a reawakening of compassion.
Sitting silent for ten days and learning to meditate were, as it turned out after all the resistance, the close call with Lyme disease, and the pain my hips, knees, and ass experienced, a beautiful experience. Back in the real world, it helps you to put things in perspective. Pain is only temporary, pleasure is only temporary and you only bring yourself misery if you go chasing after either is the basic deal. And while those things sound simple as a rule of thumb, that doesn't make them easy to follow. Being confined and restricted for all that time and concentrating on this wisdom has the effect of transforming it into your own. It becomes yours, just like your accent or your walk or that woman's buck teeth. So when shit happens in life, you're reminded of the pain you felt in your legs during the Vipassana and you know that you have the choice to either stress about it or let it slide.
In the short term, I think doing something like this has the effect of slowing down time. Possibly because in the immediate days after a Vipassana you're not stressing over things you don't need to, and that frees up a whole world of extra hours. Also, decision making becomes way easier. As dumb as this sounds, your body actually tells you what to do because you've managed to connect with it on this very deep level.
As for all those sexual deviations, all I can say is the the first beardy gay man I saw did nothing for me, nor did the second. The same went for Rascal. I gave him a kiss on the head and basta.
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