Clearing the garbage in my head at a 10-day silent retreat

The problem began the second night. The guy in the bed to my left was a snorer. He snored like it was his passion in life. His repertoire of sounds included the Passionate Rhino, the Dying Moose, the Kraken Awakes.

I lay in the dark, fuming. The two other men in my bunk shared my agony. I heard one moan pitifully at 2am, two hours before the wake-up gong. There was going to be eight more nights of this. For not the first time that day, I wanted to quit and go home.

The next day, I asked the course manager - very quietly, because of the rule on silence - for permission to change rooms. He looked surprised, I think because we students had been told to show love and compassion. I'm Singaporean. Those things come only after we've taken care of everything else.

I had signed up for the 10-day Vipassana course in meditation knowing all about its hardships. There was the 4am rising, the nine hours of silent sitting a day, the ban on phones, laptops, cameras, reading and writing materials and all forms of communication between students. The last full meal of the day is served at 11am.

For years, I had wanted to learn to meditate. I have the attention span of a hamster. Slow walkers bother me. Cyclists on pavements bother me. Rudeness bothers me. Very little, in fact, does not bother me. I am bothered by how easily bothered I am.

It was a matter of finding the right time and place. Then this story came along and a colleague sent me a link to the Vipassana Meditation website. The course looked unapologetically severe, but reassuringly, the centres have not just thrived but expanded globally without watering down its rules.

If this boot camp of the soul did not work, it is likely nothing would. I wanted to go for broke.

The timing was good. Ten days over the Christmas and New Year holidays meant that I could flee Singapore's tinsel-blighted landscape and, if things went well, greet the new year with a new frame of mind. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, on the other side lies serenity, or insanity.

There are more than a dozen Vipassana training sites from Thailand to Australia. But the decision of where was made for me because by early last month, there was only one place close to Singapore still accepting new students, with lessons in English.

My destination centre sits on a hill on the outskirts of Bogor, a city two hours by taxi from Jakarta. It is one of three in Indonesia. It is an assembly of small, low beige buildings, made up of accommodation blocks, shower and toilet blocks, a dining hall and a large group meditation hall in the middle. Men's and women's blocks are separated by a wall. The place looks well-used, but kept spick and span.

At registration, they take my wallet and passport for safekeeping. There are no locks on the doors. They take my phone, notebook and pens. They ask if I have personal food items. I say no. They ask again. I reluctantly hand over a few biscuits rescued from the airport lounge. I guess I have the look of a food smuggler.

Day 1. There are about 90 of us, about 30 men and 40 or 50 women, sitting in the lotus position in the big hall, eyes closed. Men and women, as with all other aspects of life here, are segregated. We all have cushions, and most have more than one, in various sizes.

The man who helped established the Vipassana Meditation Centers, Mr S.N. Goenka, speaks to us from a recording. Each day, all group instruction, other than the personal sessions with the teachers, will come from Mr Goenka's audio or video recordings. We are told to just feel the air blowing in and out of our nostrils.

"Observe respiration," is the command. And that is it, as far as instruction goes for the next few days. What?

As I am to learn at the nightly one-hour "discourses", or video lectures by Mr Goenka, this method requires no chanting (no "ooooommmm") and no mental images. Just the mindfulness of sensations on skin.

I will have to do nine hours of this, every day.

Day 2 and 3. I hate the gong man, who goes around before dawn clanging us out of our warm beds. I've been moved to a new room and, thankfully, no one there snores. A good night's sleep should stop me from nodding off during the sittings. Even though it is very bad form, I sometimes bring my knees up, to rest my head. I have been assigned a sitting space at the back of the hall, where I can snooze discreetly.

I have, over the last three days, managed about a sum total of 15 minutes of mindfulness. The mind is a frantic monkey. Force it to focus on breathing and it thrashes about, scouring the past for hurts and injuries, or rushing ahead to savour future pleasures. I compose long e-mail messages to friends and enemies, retrieve lyrics to half-forgotten songs, rearrange furniture, make lists of things to eat when I get home.

Bogor is rainy and chilly this time of the year. After two days of icy-cold showers, I accidentally discover that there are public hot taps. I grab a pail and a water scoop and have the best bath of my life.

Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year's Day all come and go. The centre takes no notice of them. The only reminder is the sound of distant fireworks popping on the other side of the hill.

Day 4 and 5. The food here is remarkable. It is all Indonesian vegan, but cooked with love by volunteers, all former students. Breakfast at 6.30am might be kway teow in a tangy broth. Lunch, at 11am, is rice (all you can eat) with stir-fried vegetables and perhaps a mock-meat rendang, or even otah, with sides of soup and keropok. Dessert is fruit. The vegetables are cut impeccably and cooked carefully. No mushy carrots or disintegrating potatoes. Tea time, at 5pm, for new students, is two slices of fruit. It might be watermelon one day and honeydew the next. Returning students are allowed only a herbal drink.

After a couple of days, I get used to the food cycle. When you are asleep by 9pm, there is no time to get peckish.

The teachings here originated in Buddhism, but the thrust of it is practical and non-religious. At the dining hall, we have name labels affixed to our places and I see Christian names, Chinese names, Muslim names.

There is much, much more to Vipassana meditation than can fit in this article. The section on love and compassion, or using fleeting body sensations to teach the mind the truths of universal impermanence, would take pages.

Vipassana in the ancient language of Pali means "to see the true nature of reality". One of the rules is that students have to abstain from all other physical or mindfulness practice here, from yoga to jogging to any other meditation method.

Day 6. I am not doing well at mindfulness. I am focused only 5 per cent of the time. But in the afternoon, something happens. I slip into a mental state more relaxed than I have ever felt in my life. I feel a little giddy.

The rule on silence has become routine. In fact, I enjoy how I can pass by the same person several times a day and treat him like a stranger - no greeting, no eye contact. In the dining hall, the only sound is the scraping of spoons and the rustle of clothing. No talking means no cliques - old and new students, relatives and friends, all are equally distant. When everyone is an outcast, everyone feels included.

After meals, some do laundry. I walk round and round the small garden like a hamster on a wheel, or just gaze at the thickly forested hillside and valley, so often shrouded in mist.

Day 7. The lotus position is taking a toll. My lower back muscles are cramping, despite how I have arranged a complex architectural masterpiece consisting of seven cushions, big and small, wedged around my bottom and legs.

But at 5pm, something breaks open in my head. A warm gooey liquid floods my brain. I feel mildly euphoric and a little teary. The feeling lasts for an hour.

Day 8. I wake up with a back that is locked rigid. The teacher has told me that body pain, like all other pleasant and unpleasant sensations, can be looked at with detachment - that is the path out of all suffering.

I weigh the issue of metaphysical detachment versus modern medicine briefly and I pop two painkillers from my kit. For the rest of the day, it is impossible for me to find the mental state I found the day before. Ibuprofen has nuked the inner peace.

Day 9 and 10. Some of the deep calm comes back, but nothing as intense as on Day 7. On the final evening, the ban on speech is lifted to prevent culture shock after students are thrown back into the real world.

There is a little party in the dining hall and I chatter like a meth addict with Indonesians, Germans, French, Slovaks and Poles. About half the people are returning students. Some have come back five times or more.

A donation table is set up. The course is free. Students pay what they like. I give what cash I have in my wallet, but it is a pittance. I will do a bank draft later.

I plan to go back in a few years. To have every hour of your day scheduled, from waking to bedtime, is liberating, not confining, I've found. I cannot say for sure if I am meditating correctly, but I can say that sitting for hours lets me clear out a lot of garbage in my head. I plan to sit still for at least a few minutes a day. I will, however, do it with back support.

johnlui@sph.com.sg