Sunday, January 31, 2010

thai smile

I took a bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. It was only 9 hours, so compared to the 30-hour bus ride in Indonesia it was a breeze. The bus service was called VIP and it deserved the name by all means, the seats were as wide as airplane business class seats with leg rests and 4 different vibrating back-massage options. There were even several movies, in which everyone was fighting with one another every 10 minutes, the leading female actor having the fists and kicks of Jackie Chan, getting beaten up somewhere in the middle of the movie but always maintaining a perfect make up and hairdo. Seriously, they must have shown 3 movies during the trip and all had the same plot – or it was same to me as I didn't understand a single word that was spoken.

My hostel was on the opposite end of the town from the bus terminal and the taxi ride took over 45 minutes. As we arrived and the driver wanted to open the trunk to give my my luggage (which grew to a worrying size and weight after I lost all my senses and bought an embarrassing number of fisherman pants and cheap yoga t-shirts from the Chiang Mai markets) the trunk insisted on staying locked. The driver smiled at me, I smiled back and he continued to struggle with the lock. Hearing the noises, a few men from the surrounding shops came to see what's going on. The taxi driver told them the story they looked at me and we all smiled at each other. They tried to help him but after 15 minutes of struggle, one of the bystanders who spoke some English explained that the driver wants to go to a repair shop with me to get the lock fixed. I smiled in agreement and got back in the car. After 9 hours in the bus, I preferred a shower and some curry but apparently it was my day to be driven around. And this was an interesting ride, I was able to see some slums of Bangkok probably not many tourists have seen so far. The first repair shop we went couldn't manage to open the lock too. The mechanic, his assistant, his wife, his son, the taxi driver and I smiled at each other. For them it was probably embarrassing, so smiling was a way to save face. I was perfectly fine and enjoying the moment so smiling was my way of showing that I wasn't mad or anything. So the repairman's son (who was probably no older than 12) joined us in the car, to lead us to another mechanic. This time we've gone deeper into Bangkok through twisted roads or even dirt tracks and I started to wonder if and when I should start to worry if these guys are going to rob me... Well the most valuable thing was my camera and since the lock was stuck anyway, that didn't seem like the thing on their mind. The second mechanic was either more skilled or the lock realized that it was time to give up, but after a few tries he managed to open it. We all shouted in joy and smiled to each other. By the way I haven't seen the mechanics using any tools on the stuck lock. Their means of working was more of pushing, pulling, kicking. So maybe this guy had better muscles, I don't know. On our way back, we dropped the first repairman's son back to his place, waved hands and of course exchanged big smiles. After about 2 hours of adventure and drive, we were back to the hostel, me and my luggage were finally off the car. The taxi driver went out of his was to help me with my bags all the way into the hostel. Knowing that we were finally able to go our separate ways, we smiled at each other maybe 5 times, between exchanges of thanks.

It was a very Thai experience, something goes wrong and you smile, once it is fixed you smile again :)

In a way it is also very Buddhist, nothing in life is permanent, pain comes and eventually it goes away, happiness comes and at some point that passes too. There's no point it getting attached to a certain moment, feeling or sensation. It would only make you miserable as it prevents you from living the moment. Really, perhaps the best thing one can do is just observe and to smile.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

thai massage course

On 3rd January, when I was on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai, I realized that I never had a Thai massage before. This realization came 2 weeks after registering to the Thai massage course, in an airplane that was about to land to Thailand. So one might think it was a bit too late and I would totally agree. Many times in my life I acted purely based on impulse, but I was under the impression that such massively impulsive actions were in the past. My recent urges were restricted to a change in breakfast menu or going to Kuta for beach instead of yoga. I had left my dear Bali to take a 2-weeks Thai massage course in Chiang Mai and had absolutely no idea and no experience what it was. Recently I was just toying with the idea. One afternoon, while I was sitting in the Little K organizing my photos, I logged onto the Old Medicine Hospital website and ended up registering for not only but 2 levels of the course. Now in the plane it hit me; What if I couldn't do it? How would I touch a complete stranger's body? What if it required this and that? As I feared and hesitated more I realized that I was on the right track. If my mind was coming up with such lame excuses for a simple massage course, there was something to be explored there...

The school provides a free dorm accommodation for students if they choose to stay in the premises. I ended up in a room with 8 beds! Well, beds would be an overstatement, they were Thai massage mats on the floor. That meant a good amount of back pain in the coming weeks. That is if sleeping in the same room with 7 other women wouldn't kill me sooner. I was somewhat tense as I had no experience of such a dorm setup.

First thing I did after settling into the room was of course having a Thai massage at school. OK, it didn't look un-doable and it was even quite relaxing, it was jut weird to pull, knead, knock, kick someone.

As everyone settled in, our room became quite international; there were 2 women from Chile, 1 from Spain, 1 from Portugal, 1 from New Zealand, 1 from Argentina and 1 from Japan. The main language in our room had no option but to be Spanish... There were other dorm rooms and some students stayed outside the school so we were a group of almost 20. There were only 3 men, and all came with their spouses. I would have expected to see more men as Thai massage requires some strength, but then one of the girls in the group pointed out this was probably because men were less comfortable touching others' bodies. I don't know if it was so gender-specific but especially in the first days, I felt very weird massaging others too. It always felt so good to relax while I was receiving a professional massage, but giving it was a completely different story. I wasn't able to manage my pressure, couldn't tell a muscle from a tendon and couldn't bend legs and arms fearing that I would break someone. Thai massage follows a certain sequence and has 100+ positions and some of them are quite a challenge to get into.

The course was more intense than I thought it would be. The morning hours were generally dedicated to learning the positions and then we would practice them on each other in the afternoons. But that practice time was hardly enough so third day onwards, we organized additional practice sessions among ourselves 7-8:30am. At the same time, I was trying to maintain my “regular” life where I went to a yoga class every evening and practiced Vipassana meditation every morning at 5am. This meant very little sleep and no time to just chill out and explore the city. Others in the course thought I was very disciplined to be up from 5am and to continue with yoga every day. In reality, I was unable to prioritize and wanted to do everything at once. It was exhausting but somehow worked out fine. At the end of two weeks, I got my certificate (though I still need to keep the book ope by my side when giving massage to remember the sequence), met most of the yoga community in Chiang Mai and even managed to squeeze in two workshops in addition to regular yoga classes and enjoyed the city life to some extent. I visited as many markets as I could; it was such a visual feast. I had 14 days in Chiang Mai and ate all my meals but two from street food stalls. Of course all these meals were vegetarian Som Tam (green papaya salad). Having Thai food in Thailand was a dream for me and I realized that dream more than 20 times. Every meal, where I was sitting by the street waiting for my Som Tam to be served with some raw white cabbage leaves was pure joy. I have a feeling though my massage partners were not happy with the amount of garlic I had to consume in the Som Tam ( I think each portion has at least 4-5 cloves of garlic, so I must have been eating about 10 nasty cloves a day) but hey, it was a price that others had to pay for my happiness so I didn't really care.

Despite my worries of 8 women staying in one dorm room, our entire group got along pretty well too. I thought it was inevitable to have problems when so many people had to live together the entire time for 2 weeks but n problems or dramas came up. Well maybe it's hard to pick on someone in the evening after cracking their toes or rolling your elbow on their butts the entire afternoon... I again met some amazing women who inspired me through their choices, words, smiles and wisdom. But that's a different subject for another blog entry.

Chiang Mai is an interesting city. It has the soul of small community, the ease of a well-established town yet the resources of a city. It is relaxed almost in a hippie way but not a forced or artificial way. Hard to describe by words but if there's ever a concept as hippie, Chiang Mai must have been hippie before the label has ever been used in the US in the sixties. Just as it is, very organic.

Oh, and after giving and receiving Thai massage so intensely for 2 weeks I now know that however impulsive it was, I made the right choice. My body is quite different now, which I can observe very well during my yoga sessions. Thai massage is not necessarily a relaxing and feel-good session but it definitely stretches the muscles and stimulates energy points in the body. I can't wait to do the advanced level training in May, back in Chiang Mai.

Friday, January 08, 2010

new city, new in a city

You can only be a first timer in a city once. There's only once chance to form a first impression of a city and that's quite precious. The first step outside the airport; is it crowded, does it look old, does it smell? The taxi; is it an old car or a shiny vehicle, does the driver speak English? Then the first roundabout on your way, it hints if should you expect a wild traffic in this city.

The street lights, shop signs, width of the roads, posters for art events, all would give some clues, some ideas to form your first opinion. You notice some of them, yet most only register to your unconscious mind.

Then once you settle into your accommodation, you set out to explore the city. This is where it turns out to be a sensory feast. Food specific to that city, shape and height of the sidewalks, what locals wear, accuracy of the road signs, traffic noise or any other noise that is noticeable in that city... Some cities smell like springtime because they have so many trees and parks, some cities smell damp, because of the constant rain and never drying coats and umbrellas, some cities smell like bakeries and some cities have a very macho smell. A city may have one very distinct smell that you associate with it, whereas another one may have several undertones.

Then music... For me, Helsinki is “Pure Morning” by Placebo, Athens is “Tell Me” by Madonna and Muscat is Spin you Around by Puddle of Mudd. I don't know if the city reminds me of the song or vice versa. But once that connection is formed, it is also registered among my first impressions.

You are generally very perceptive with all your senses, at both unconscious and conscious mind to absorb and to understand whatever is going on there. The more foreign the city is, the more you keep your senses open, because you don't have many incidents where you can give in to the comfort of “oh yes, its just like in city x / I have seen that in town y” You are even more alert to absorb in as much as you can...

Here I am in Chiang Mai, for the first time. Whatever it is, Chiang Mai will always be special for me because it is the first city that I've traveled to without a guidebook or a map. I wanted to struggle, get lost, find and feel good all by myself. Since the moment I dumped my luggage into my accommodation and headed out for the city center it's been a sensational and sensory feast for me. The taste of the pineapples that are sold on streets, the colors on the Sunday market, smiles on peoples faces, constant buzzing of the tuk-tuks, … Then the new age cafes, juice bars, trust-fund babies …

I now have my first impression of Chiang Mai, accompanied by the thrill of discovery. Novelty is always exhilarating, especially if it comes from exploring a new place. Maybe that's why I'm homeless, maybe that's why I keep moving around every so often. I constantly seek that feeling and quite possibly get my kick from it. Whatever it is, this is a very valuable experience for me, to see a new city and to be in a new city.

If I stay long enough, I may add considerable amount to my first impression, I may find out contradicting facts, I may even say “what the hell was I thinking when I said that about Chiang Mai?” None would change the senses associated with being a first timer and the power of my first impression. It's very precious.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

vipassana days - part 2

Day 6

Bogor has thunderstorms 320+ days in a year and this is one of those days. It is gloomy, rainy and there's a freezing wind. It is 6:30am, I am in the communal bathrooms of the ashram, trying to take a cold shower. I lost track of the calendar, but it must be just a few days before the new year's eve. Most of my friends are either preparing for a good evening with family and friends at a home party or they are preparing for a grand night out or traveling somewhere nice. I am in Bogor, not having established eye contact to anyone (let alone speaking) for the last 6 days, in severe pain in the entire lower part of my body, tired of sitting on a cushion for 10 hours a day and trying to breathe deep so that I gather enough courage to step under the cold water. Oh, I forgot to mention that I fueled myself with chilis in the breakfast. This is my newly discovered joy in this ashram. Seriously deprived of sensations or pleasures I take refuge into chili whenever it is served with meals. Today's breakfast menu was some heavy rice dish served with some fried veggies, fried garlic, chili sauce and fresh papaya. The idea of eating any rice, noodles or fried stuff at 6am (or any other time of the day for that matter!) is even more painful than sitting in lotus for hours, so I take a lot of fresh papaya and raw green chili pepper slices. I play with it. I dice the papayas with my fork and put one thin slice of chili on each cube. (Oh did I say that the dining hall has no knives or glasses? We are served food in metal cafeteria trays, have metal or plastic cups for drinks. I wonder if they had previous incidents of meditators stabbing eachother fighting for a better meditation cushion so that they removed knives as a precaution?) Then I eat each cube of papaya topped with chili with great pleasure. We are not supposed to have eye contact, but that doesn't forbid my neighbors from taking glimpses into my plate every so often. My eating habits are weird for them, I know that. What they don't know is that I do this to get some sensations and to gather enough courage for the shower.

This was the new year I planned and wanted for myself so I cannot complain. Cold water showers were not a part of the deal but hey, it certainly builds character and stamina. If I was a guy, I would have done compulsory military service in Turkey years ago. That's how they are supposed to grow from being the “baby of their mom” into men... Instead, here I am taking cold water showers in an ashram when there's a storm outside.

Sometime in my teenage years, I remember reading in Cosmo that cold water showers keep your boobs firm. Now this is a proper motivation so I step into the shower by taking a very deep breath. I am not even allowed to scream.

But hey besides all that drama, the meditation sessions go very well. The exhaustion of the first 4 days is replaced by a lightness and somewhat more energetic feeling. I do very well with less resting time and I seem to have developed what's called the “meditators sleep”. My sleep is very light, I am almost conscious of everything that happens while I am sleeping but do not feel disturbed. I have very vivid and colorful dreams. My creativity seems to be off the charts. If only I could write...

Day 7

Besides the mealtimes, the only activity and naturally the highlight of our days here is laundry. That's when we have a purpose and can use our upper-body muscles. So generally after lunch, we all rush to the laundry area, grab a bucket and start soaking, rubbing, rinsing and squeezing with all our energy. I don't know about the others but I put my heart and my soul into the washing. Then the next step is selecting a strategic spot to hang the clothes; from what direction is the wind blowing, where would it be safe from rain and dry the quickest. During breaks, we would go to the laundry area and examine the clothes, change the hanging location if the wind changed. I remember one time where it started pouring and a few of the meditators rushed out of the meditation hall; I have no doubts that they went for their laundries. So much for “sitting of strong determination”, it was washing of strong determination... We craved for action, which would enable us to move, spend some energy and give quick & visible results; and dry t-shirts the next day fulfilled all these criteria. Day 7 was significant for me, as it was when I felt competent enough to wash cargo pants by hand. I did it. Took a lot of effort but I did it.

Despite not having any yoga or proper stretching for the last 9 days or so my body is more flexible than ever. A friend who sat for Vipassana before told me that would happen but I had my doubts at that time. It seems to be true. It is said that physical stiffness is a reflection of mental stiffness or impurities and when mental blockages start to dissolve, the physical body opens to a level that no gym activity could provide.

By now, I can sit in meditations for up to 35 minutes without fidgeting, really feel that I am meditating and getting benefits out of it. My mind is clear and it keeps getting clearer. Many things dissolve, come out to the surface and I enjoy this process of discovery. I enjoy this ashram life too, super basic but everything I need is here. Surprisingly I do not miss talking or listening to music as much as I thought; however I miss writing. And mangoes

Day 8

On the tape, Goenka says “Those are the last two days that you will be able to work hard on your meditation seriously as on day 10 you will start talking” What? I was just getting warmed up. Seriously if I had an option if extending this course for another 10 days, I would go for it without a second thought. Except that I start to feel seriously under-fed and malnourished. Despite feeling great, I now have dark circles under my eyes and my skin is drying out. While registering for Vipassana, the form asks if you have any special dietary requirements. And it mentions that if those requirements are very specific, one may rather do the course at a later time. Fearing that my list of exclusions would have been probably too much to handle in an ashram environment and my application might have been rejected, I didn't fill that part. The food served is great and has a surprising variety every day but I just eat a few pieces of fruits and whatever vegetables are available. The result is probably less than 1000 calories a day, a good weight loss, super mental clarity as very little energy is wasted for digestion and of course a detox. Everytime I sit for meditation, I sweat a lot. Somedays I shower 3 times. I need to scrape my tongue after every meditation session. During the total of 10 days, I scrubbed my entire body many times and proved that whoever said the skin renews itself once every 28 days is not accurate. My skin was coming out almost every 3 days. Which of course also means that my Kuta tan is completely faded, a sad collateral damage.

The detox was the unexpected bit, but come to think about it, it makes sense. My mind is being shaken radically by this intensive meditating, I am highly introspective and eat very pure foods in small quantities. So nothing that cannot be cured by some coconut water& wheatgrass shots when I am out.

In such situations, it helps to share some experiences with others going through the same stages. I wish to know if I am the only one sweating during meditation sittings, having very vivid dreams, suffering knee pains etc... These are the only times that silence becomes a bit annoying. But actually by now, everything makes sense. Why we meditate for 10 hours a day, why we don't communicate with eachother, why we don't eat anything after 5pm. This is a thoroughly thought course plan aimed solely at giving the maximum amount of learning and practice time to students. I especially love the theory part and the underlying philosophy.

Day 9

The evening meditation session is interrupted by a lot of noise coming from outside. I realize that it is the new year's eve sometime later. Wow! This is what I wanted and it is happening. I believe that how I start the new year will have an impact on the rest of the days. In this stormy town of Bogor, I am peacefully sitting on a meditation cushion at the depths of introspection. My senses are sharper than ever, my mind is tranquil.

Yet what is more important to me is that I know that although the course is ending tomorrow I haven't excelled at the technique. There's still a lot I need to work on to say that I fully practice Vipassana. Nobody goes into a 10-day course and comes out as a full-fledged Buddha. I am far from it. I have a very long path ahead of me and for the first time in my life this doesn't bother me. I have always either done things very well from the start or else quit trying immediately. I was always afraid to be a rookie, who possibly screws up, doesn't understand or fails in the earlier steps of learning. I must have missed out a lot of things that had a potential to be fun once I gave a fair effort. Doesn't really matter at this point of time. What matters is that after all this knee pain, sensory withdrawals etc, I still need to keep trying much more, fail that much more and this doesn't bother me or make me quit. I accept to be a beginner and progress from that point, even if it takes 1000 attempts... That's my “happy new year”.

Having this insight, I fee the urge to wish someone a good year. During one of the breaks, I approach Natalia behind the bathrooms and very silently whisper “happy new year!” and she wishes me back. We share a big smile as we are partners in crime. I break the code of silence, if Karma decides to kick me in the ass later on, so be it. This was so worth it.

Day 10

Today after 9:45am, the silence period will end. And as promised, the schedule for the rest of the day is very relaxed. The morning meditation ends and as soon as we leave the meditation hall we are free to speak. I am not sure if I want to speak though being able to smile and look into the eyes of others is such a relief. My first exchange is again with Natalie, we wish each other happy new year again and discuss how good those 3 words felt last night for both of us.

From that point onwards it turns into some hysteria. All the 42 women who had solemn, expressionless faces and no voices until now goes almost berserk. The laughter and the chatter in the dining hall is just unbelievable. And the partition between the male and female sections in the dining hall is removed so we can now mingle provided that there is no physical contact. Then I find my roommate and we introduce ourselves. She is a very experienced meditator, who works as an acupuncturist in Jakarta . It's weird that all these days we have seen each other in all the ways possible, in pain, naked, angry, moaning in sleep, never exchanging a word or a glance.

Many people come to me and to Natalia to ask where we are from, what we do here, why we choose to sit for Vipassana in Bogor. Well, the last question I wonder myself too... As I expected some immediately ask me why I don't eat rice. This raises more curiosity than why a Turkish woman who travels alone decides to sit for Vipassana for new year in Java. This is real. I am different and the people around do not feel the need to hide that they are curious. No one feels the need to be politically correct, to maintain a neutral tone and to pretend that nothing is surprising. “why you not marry, you not afraid to travel alone, why you not do Vipassana in Turkey”... In return I bombard them with questions too. We are all curious and do not need to hide that and then as much as we find out the answers to our questions, we also form a bond.

Then it is announced that we can get our wallets, IDs and laptops back. Now I am excited! As I mentioned, writing is the only thing I truly missed and as soon as I grab my laptop I go to my favorite spot in the ashram; somewhere at the very back of the garden with a great view of the valley below. I am even glad that I left all the crowd and the noise behind and write more than two hours, until the afternoon sitting. Then our mobiles are released to us in the afternoon but that doesn't excite me so much. Oh, along with the mobiles I get my ipod. The first song I listen to is Parabola by Tool. I missed Maynard's voice so much.

The rest of the day is pretty wild. Everyone's so relaxed that there's hardly any meditation. There's a surprise though; apparently sometime in the afternoon a list was passed around for the cleaning schedule of the closing day. Dorms, kitchen, bathrooms and halls need to be cleaned before we leave. However the list was in Bahasa Indonesia so eventually all of us foreigners who didn't even know about this list were left to fill out whatever group needed more members. Yes, Natalia, Isabel and I are in the group that will clean the communal bathrooms and toilets :) If this isn't the perfect way to end an ashram experience, I don't know what else is.

closing day

We again wake up at 4:00am, have a much shorter meditation session and then have a grand breakfast. Around 7:00 the cleaning teams go to their assigned locations. We joke about it saying that actually cleaning toilets is the fast track to cleaning your karma. The only glitch along the way is that we don't know the “Indonesian way” of cleaning. Well, I know no way of cleaning anything. I was just studying “laundry for beginners” so floor scrubbing is not an area I've mastered yet. I observe one of the girls and then get on with the next bathroom. Everyone including me is having fun with the way I clean, or more accurately the way I attempt to clean. Once in a while, they give me tips, more often than than we laugh.

Fun part aside, scrubbing toilets and bathrooms that were used by 42 women over a period of 11 days definitely is a good way to scrub off a bit of ego too. That is a major aspect of the ashram life and the Vipassana meditation so I cannot complain. We have an hour of fun, take many photos and when we make sure that every tile is scrubbed senseless with copious amounts of detergents we are relieved and go back to our rooms to change.

The transportation is arranged for those who do not have a car and one of the ladies from my dorm invites me to her place until the time of my flight to KL. With my heavy bags, this is a tempting offer so I join her.

This Vipassana course was one of the best things I did in my life. As soon as Anders mentioned it in October, I felt attracted and jumped in without any research, preparation. It turned out to be right. I will not mention anything about the technique, the practice or the very specific mental/emotional experiences I had with the technique. I don't want to create any false expectations or taint anyone experiences by describing my own. There's sufficient information on the web and especially on the official site for those who are interested. It is definitely worth the time and the effort of 10 days invested. I know that the next time I have time and a course is available, I am jumping in without any hesitations.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

vipassana days - part 1

Day 1

I wake up to the sound of the bell from a distance and my first reaction was “oh, this bell is for meditators, so I (the yogini) can sleep a little more” Hah, I am very prepared! It is 4am, still dark and I grab my towel to rush to the communal, open-air bathroom to prepare.

According to the schedule, we have about 10 hours of meditation every day, starting from 4:30, finishing at 21:00. In this first day, I must have spent about 6 hours fantasizing about Ino, 2 hours fretting about some trivial past issues, 1 hour planning the next step of my trip and then maybe an hour trying to meditate. Very fruitful day when Vipassana is concerned. By midday, my hands and my feet are swollen incredibly. Knowing that I will not be allowed to do yoga, I tried to “stock up” by practicing about 5 hours every day in the last few days. That much mobility, followed by a 30 hour bus ride and then all day trying to sit cross-legged seems to be taking its toll on my lymphatic system. By the end of the day all muscles in my body was aching from trying to sit and my mind was exhausted from trying to meditate yet slipping into all sorts of wild thoughts.

Day 2

My muscles, especially my back is sore and I barely drag my ass to the meditation hall by 4:30. Although my mind is still half asleep, I have a really good meditation session. Some deep-rooted issues pop up to the surface. “Why have I been obsessing about this, why can't I let go of that?” all the answers come. It caught me unprepared to face some mental patterns so soon and I start crying, but they are tears of relief.

The rest of the day, meditation also seems to improve significantly, I think I fantasized about Ino only 5 hours or so...

Observing the old students, I figured that I need to spend every minute out of the meditation hall resting. So I become very efficient in breaks. When the bell rings, I am one of the first to rush out, pee with the speed of light, quickly refill my water bottle and then go to my room to lie down even for a few minutes. If the break is longer than 15 minutes, I try hard to fall asleep as this seems to be the only thing to reset my back and my knees. The meditation cushions are 60x60 cm,the rear 25 cm of it slightly higher than the rest to give room while sitting. Ideal form for people with knee or hip problems as a flat cushion is very painful to sit on for extended periods of times. I secretly try to do stretching exercises while everyone else closes their eyes to meditate. It partially helps with the pain, but I crave for a strong massage session.

The meditation center seems to be built in two symmetrical sides, separated by a partition about 2 meters high. Guys are on one side and we are on the other side. In the meditation hall there is no partition but we sit at a considerable distance. Even meditation cushions are marked M or F. So I wonder what happens if I put my butt on an M-marked cushion? Probably some bad karma will come and bite me in the ass.

Day 3

During one of the resting hours, I find myself brushing my index finger at a spot under my bed frame, where the wood was rough. Then I realize that I try to touch everything constantly; the seams of my mediation cushion, the bed frame, hardwood floors. This is some serious sensory withdrawal kicking in, not being able to talk, read, write, listen to music etc makes me feel very weak now. All I can do is to touch stuff so that I at least the texture gives me some senses.

Day 4

The Vipassana training is very systematic, it builds on new things every day and the teacher makes sure that we understand the previous step before we move to the next one. We are constantly encouraged to keep trying. And today is a big day as we will jump a major step. We're all excited and looking forward it. We are given the instructions and asked to practice. Oh and from now on, 3 times a day, for duration of one hour, we are not supposed to move. These will be called “Sittings of strong determination”. Not only was I periodically slipping away from the meditation hall to drink more water and to pee, I was also becoming quite effective in turning my 60x60 cushion into a mini yoga-mat. In 4 days, I managed all sorts of leg and arm stretches, spinal twists and hip openers and was just about to develop a trademark technique for back bends, and now I am not supposed to move for an hour? Impossible... For one thing, my knees are repetitively injured and I cannot sit in any position that requires me to bend my knees at any angle for more than 6 minutes. Then of course also I fidget a lot. Here I learn that there are two types of tricks that our minds play to us to keep us away from focusing: one is to shut off by sleeping and the other is by constantly being distracted and having impulses to move. I am definitely the second type. I wish I was the sleeping type though, I could have at least faked being into deep transcendence. Instead I keep itching my head, rotating my neck and peeking at the clock for the lunch break. Especially fueled by yoga, I cannot even imagine having the Buddha determination where I would sit in the perfect lotus for an hour, with a serene smile on my face.

Besides the worry to sit, actually everything else goes quite well. I heard some horror stories where people ran away on the 3rd day unable to put with the pressure, emotional issues etc. Even in the registration form, there are lengthy questions about past history of depression and drug use which was kind of scary. No one questions your mental history unless they will mess around with it; so I was expecting some serious trouble. Well when I look in the mirror, I see dark circles under my eyes and even in 4 days I lost weight (which is because I am super selective with what I eat and refused to eat anything but fruits and stir-fried veggies) but mentally and emotionally I feel really stable and strong. Noone else in our group of 80+ meditators seem to be losing it too.

Day 5

In the 4 “sittings f strong determination” sessions that I had since yesterday, my determination lasted no longer than 5 minutes. However I am very charged by the evening discourse, where Goenka talks about how one needs to “dissect and analyze the pain, go right into it instead of trying to avoid it”. In the last sitting of the day, I get into an easy cross-legged position and start meditating. I manage the first ten minutes without any problems. Pain kicks in my left knee after 15 minutes. This time I stay with it; I focus all my attention in my knee, try to find the spot where it originates, what type of pain it is and if there are any secondary sensations beneath the pain; yes, I feel it there is a lot of throbbing and heat. It becomes unbearable, I feel as if my knee will explode. Then I start to fear if I am risking some serious injury by putting so much strain on it. Injury be it; I know the chiropractics, osteopaths and whatnot in Ubud who can fix it so I tell my mind to shut up. Trying not to cry, I now start to shiver and some minutes later the pain actually decreases. It doesn't go away, but the throbbing is now more like a flow of tingling sensation and the heat is not unbearable. I never thought I would have passed that threshold, define it clearly in my mind and feel it dissipating. Finally I hear the bell that ends the meditation sitting. I then open my eyes to see that it's been 25 minutes! From 6 to 25 in one sitting is great progress. This was my “fight club” moment where acid is poured over my hand and unless I accepted the pain it would only keep hurting more and more. Yet I don't feel victorious; one of the things I learned thanks to Vipassana is not to get attached to any feeling. All things good and bad will pass; nothing in life is permanent so there is no point in getting attached to anything.

Now only if I can get up from the cushion and walk back to my room...

27-hour bus ride

“Why you take bus, take plain. It is more safe please take train” my Indonesian friends told me when I shared my decision to take a bus from Denpasar, Bali to Bogor, Java on my way to the Vipassana. None of them ever took the bus they told me, flight or motorbikes is the way to travel in Indonesia.
The journey is a little over a thousand kilometers but it takes 27 hours if there are no delays. From what I've heard and read, a delay is to be expected in the rainy season because roads around Jakarta tend to flood. I don't know if it was the difference of cost or if I was overtaken by a sudden sense of adventure but flight option did not appeal to me. I was kind of scared of the unknown; a 1000km distance to take 27 hours? Either the roads were horrible or the buses or both. But I had time; disposable amounts of it. So I booked my ticket and tried to gather more info. I met 2 foreigners who took the buses and they were both very positive about it, interestingly it was Indonesians who were more pessimistic about their own transportation network. That gave me a little more confidence and I set out Monday morning 5am from Ubud by taxi to Denpasar bus terminal.

I chose the Lorena bus company, which is supposed to be the most comfortable and safest between Bali and Java. When I saw the bus parked in the terminal, it looked much better than I expected. There were blankets, pillows, lots of leg space, a smoking room and a toilet. Travelers were mostly families as it was the semester break for schools on Indonesia now. The first 3.5 hours on the bus was in Bali, with a beautiful green scenery and reggae music. We were stopping often to pick up passengers and it was part of the fun. About 3.5 hours into the ride, we embarked on the ferry to cross to the Java island. Then the real fun began. Along with everyone else, I got off the bus to get some fresh air in the deck. The minute I was out, guys started approaching and trying to talk. I was not in a talkative mood, especially not when I know that the guys were hitting on. Still trying to be polite, I was answering with single-syllable words to all questions. Convinced that I am not interested, the guy would leave in 5 minutes, only to be followed by another Romeo who thinks maybe he can do a better job. After 30 minutes and a variety of Romeos, I got really tired and went back to the bus.

After the illusion of fun of a bus ride is replaced by a more realistic sense of boredom, I started randomly texting my friends. I figured out that Ino the photog was in a town just 5 minutes from my meditation center visiting his friends. He offered to pick me up from the bus terminal and take me to the meditation center. Not only that, he added his plan was to leave that day back to Bali but he would stay another night just so that he can meet me. This was too good to be true; firstly the meditation center is so remote and I had no idea how to get there except for taxi which would cost a small fortune. Secondly, Ino the photog is hot. He is beautiful, sweet, willing to wait for me for a day in a god forsaken town, a photographer and travels on his motorbike wherever and whenever he feels like it. Such a dangerous combination for me at an even more dangerous time; I am going into Vipassana. Well at least the rest of the journey went easy as I had something to obsess over.

At the end of a 30 hour journey, I finally reached Bogor and saw Ino waiting with his friend. They picked me up and we headed to his friend's place for a cup of tea and to figure out the map to the meditation center. As they were discussing heatedly, I figured that there's something wrong. Ino said that the map and the address don't seem to be of the same location. Puzzled, I called the meditation center to get directions. Since I spoke to her in English, the lady on the phone asked my name and after keeping me on hold for a few minutes told me that I am registered for the Vipassana in Klaten, not in Bogor! What was more fun is that Klaten is about 8 hours far from Bogor, towards Bali. If I were to take a direct bus there, the journey would be about 16 hours. The misunderstanding is totally due to a difference in how we interpreted information: Back in November, I opened the confirmation email and there was a link for a map along with an address. Then I looked up the address in the google maps and saw that it matched with the map in the link and proceeded to get transportation there. However the lady on the phone said it was the map to the Java Center, not Klaten. I asked her why she would send me the map of a place that I am not supposed to go to and she asked me why I didn't call before coming. I told her that I generally call if I see that there's something missing or wrong and for me in this case everything looked clear. Realizing that the discussion was getting to a dead end, she suggested that I fly to Klaten and I said no way. About to burst in tears, I tried to tell her I registered month ago and came all the way from Bali by bus. “Bus” turns out to be the magic word again! She said “By bus? Well then come here and we'll see what can be done” On the way to the center I really tried to hold myself not to cry. Ino said “Well if they don't have a space for you, maybe we go back to Bali togther with my bike ? Tonight we reach Jogjakarta and by tomorrow we will be in Bali” Hmm, I am so afraid to be on a motorbike but this is such a temping offer in all the ways. Ino, Jogjakarta, motorbike... Suddenly the idea of not having a space in Vipassana stopped feeling like the end of the world.

As we reached the meditation center, I am somewhat alarmed by the sight of the big iron doors and the security guards. I was told to wait for half hour, don't know for what. Inside is full with people trying to register, drag their bags in, chatter chatter. I wasn't expecting such a lively scene. Well it makes sense as the silence meditation did not start yet. Half hour later, I was invited in to meet with the teacher. The teacher asked me to tell the story of the mess up again and made sure that I will not practice yoga or any other sort of meditation while in Vipassana. By this time I am ready to commit to whatever he asks for anyways... Then he says that I got a space in! Yippeeee, I went out, took my bag from the car and thanked Ino a million times. I must admit though, as I hugged him goodbye, something inside said “Just grab your bag and run out! There are Vipassana courses every month, how often do you get the chance to jump on a motorbike with a hot photog?” If I was 25, I would have been impulsive enough to grab my bag and run out. At 35, I walked in congratulating myself for being very mature, at the same time determined to create another opportunity where Ino would offer me a similar journey again.

Inside, I am asked to fill in more forms where even my relationship with my parents is questioned. Then I am given two canvas bags, I hand in my mobiles, laptop, ipod, passport, wallet, all my money, food items, books, any piece of paper that I can write on and my pen. Feeling sufficiently naked, I am directed to my room. It is a 2.7x5.2 meter room with 3 beds, 3 plastic hangers on the wall and nothing else. There's not even enough room to put my bag so I am a bit puzzled how to manage the space.

The bathrooms and toilets are in another block and they are shared. The rest of the grounds are pretty small; I was kind of expecting a large forest at the back where we can take long and slow walks under the shade of the trees between meditation sessions. I headed back to the registration area and see another non-Indonesian girl. She is Natalia from Spain and doing the exact reverse route; she came from Chiang Mai where she was doing massage courses and after Vipassana she is heading to Bali. Then she told me how she was registered for Klaten but ended up here because she was sent the map of this place! Unbelievable how similar our stories were. It relieved me a little though, I was just about to feel stupid for mixing up two entirely different cities. She gave me lots of tips on Chiang Mai and I tried to fill her in about Bali before silence started.

At 6pm, we had a dinner followed by a tape recording on why one should leave now if he/she doesn't feel ready or committed for Vipassana. Iron doors, security guards, forms and now this? I am getting scared. After dinner we head to the meditation hall for the first time and our wow of 10-day silence starts. Not only silence in words but we are not supposed to touch or make eye contact with other meditators. We are however free to speak to the management and to the teacher anytime we have a question or problem.

The meditation hall is big, spacious and beautiful. We have cushions allocated to us, so we know where we will sit for the rest of the sessions. Sit, meditate and do nothing else. I have ten days to figure out if it will feel as difficult as it sounds.