“Dispatches From a First-Time Vipassana Retreat Attendee,” by Nam Hoang Tran

Jan 10th, 2024 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Day 1:

Heading into the course, I had expectations regarding how the next ten days would unfold, which was exactly what the website said not to do. A part of me envisioned robed figures wandering about barefoot with unkempt beards and various bracelets spanning the length of their forearms. Thus, I was surprised by how normal everyone looked. Most were dressed in loose-fitting tees with flowy bottoms cinched above the ankles with rubber bands creating makeshift capris. Being eighteen at the time placed me in the lower age bracket with fellow meditators being well into their forties and fifties. I struck up small talk with several only to realize they, too, had never attempted something as physically/mentally demanding. And I breathed a sigh of relief knowing we were just a group of folks trying to better ourselves at whatever capacity we could.

Day 2:

Sometime during the evening meditation session, it occurred to me that I might lose both sets of toes. I’m not sure how long we’d been sitting. Thirty minutes, maybe? Forty-five? All I knew was there had been a disconnect between my brain and the entire lower half of my body. My fingers felt them, sure, the only problem was vice versa. While I’m a self-proclaimed optimist, this cross-legged business was doing more harm than good as far as I was concerned. I tried mitigating the panic with breathing exercises picked up from my mother’s pregnancy classes. Deep breath through nose. Hold. Exhale through mouth. Repeat. The plan worked until I was overcome by the prospect of lying upon an operation table. There I’d be, one amputation later with fins for feet and a steep learning curve, faced with my newfound inability to properly grip smooth surfaces.

Day 3:

I was reaching the cusp of cognitive bliss when the guy behind me started coughing. Judging from the raspiness in his tone, I’d say he was somewhere in his early to mid-sixties. Heavy smoker, perhaps? Had it been a quick, restrained cough I would’ve ignored it altogether. However, after five straight minutes it dawned on me this was a full-fledged respiratory episode and he might actually die. In my chest pocket were several throat lozenges but because we couldn’t move, I finished the remaining hour of meditation feeling guilty for something beyond my control. Contemplating all the while of effective ways to annihilate the cornucopia of germs clinging to my shirt back.

Day 4:

In my restless state this morning, I walked into the edge of a table and spilled an entire serving of oatmeal. The bowl was made not from ceramic, but some sort of plastic, thus hitting the ground with no more than a light thud. Still, the impact caused it to tip and several blueberries began escaping on a bed of oats like a miniature water slide. One was braver than the rest and rolled a good foot and a half before hitting the side of some guy’s shoe. The man in question appeared to be of Hispanic descent, mohawked, and looked as though he could lift me with no effort whatsoever. Head low, I went to retrieve the berry while praying he’d view the ordeal as nothing more than a gesture of kindness. “I’ve had my fill,” I wanted to say. “Here, have some of mine.”

Day 5:

I had three panic attacks today; a first. Accompanying each were tears and waves of self-doubt as I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. On paper, doing nothing but sitting still seems like the most stress-free way to spend ten days. How awful could it really be, right? Without the familiarity of everyday chaos to divert our attention, we are forced to face our demons in their most raw, unfiltered form. Evening discourse was delivered via a small television screen where our teacher, S. N. Goenka, taught us about suffering and ways to eradicate it. “Unwanted things happen, wanted things do not happen and one feels miserable,” he said. “However, instead of reacting, you are observing equanimously, understanding this will also change.” Did I want to leave? Yes. Could I? No. In an effort to alter my mindset, I tried celebrating the days I’d conquered instead of dwelling on those yet to come. Deep breath through nose. Hold. Exhale through mouth. Repeat.

Day 6:

A falcon landed upon the oak beside my window and for a brief moment we became friends. Having been deprived of external stimuli for nearly a week, I saw nothing wrong with seeking solace in a potentially dangerous bird of prey. After staring at each other for several minutes, I asked in a hushed tone where he came from and whether his day was pleasant. The falcon spread his wings and I, instinctually, spread my arms as if receiving a hug. Right as I achieved full Jesus pose, my feathered companion flapped twice and took off, leaving in his wake an overwhelming sense of disappointment. The least he could do was acknowledge me with a little falcon call or whatever. But then again, he was probably practicing Noble Silence like the rest of us.

Day 7:

I cried only once, so that’s something. The puffy-faced episode occurred before my bathroom mirror where I realized how ugly of a crier I am. From the nostrils down it looks like I’m smiling, but both eyes are swollen shut as if I’d been ambushed by a swarm of bees. This whole ordeal began when I discovered my favorite t-shirt was wrinkled beyond recognition after sitting inside my drawstring knapsack. Everything was going swimmingly as I danced while filling the handheld steamer up to the designated water line. The moment I plugged it in, the bathroom lights went out followed by those throughout my entire room. Shit, I thought. With the misshapen top back on, I poked my head into the hallway to see if anyone else noticed. Folks were shuffling out carrying battery-operated alarm clocks and contorted expressions upon their faces. “Don’t look at me,” I shrugged. “I’m just as shocked as you guys are.”

Day 8:

Lunch today included a helping of beet salad with some sort of Mediterranean stew which resembled liquefied asphalt. The former went down no problem, but the latter proved more difficult considering it looked even worse sitting on my spoon. It wasn’t the texture or aroma which bothered me. More so, the prospect of it hardening inside, leaving me to spend the remaining two days with a chunk of road drifting around my abdomen. I returned to my room after eating and searched for the gastric medicine my mother ordered from a Chinese website that also sold gardening shears and embroidered couch cushions. The bottle was palm-sized, displaying two individuals in business casual attire dancing inside what looked like a human colon. They seemed to be having a swell time which I’m guessing translated to superior digestive health. Cocking my head sideways, I examined the two figures and thought, “Hm, I wonder what kind of music they’re listening to?”

Day 9:

In celebration of making it this far, I slept through the morning session and went straight to breakfast. The standard blueberry oatmeal got swapped with two slices of toast alongside a generous dollop of grape preserve. Why it took nine days to switch things up was beyond me. Although I insisted it was to expand my dietary horizons, a more realist part of me knew it was to avoid being Public Enemy #1. Given that toast, at best, would become no more than a C-grade projectile were I to accidentally run into something. Folks started shuffling into the dining hall as I took my seat and it struck me how composed everyone was. Lack of adequate rest accompanied by borderline paralysis has a funny way of softening even the most hard-pressed of individuals. Aforementioned Scary Hispanic Guy even held the door open for me on the way out. While I was expecting him to trip me up with his massive leg, strangely enough, nothing happened.

Day 10:

Noble Silence was officially lifted following our eight-to-nine a.m. meditation. It was such a surreal feeling to suddenly be bombarded with all these voices after nine days of auditory deprivation. Our final evening discourse centered around love and compassion; beckoning participants to wish for the liberation, peace, and happiness of all beings. While trying my best to exude positivity with whatever energy remained, a sadness consumed me as I realized I’d be leaving my little meditation family behind once the retreat was over. My brain struggled with the fleeting nature of it all; how ten days could simultaneously mean everything and nothing at all. Deep breath through nose. Hold. Exhale through mouth. Repeat. And on the second inhale Geonka’s words returned. This will also change, I reminded myself. This will also change. This will also change. Repeating the four-worded mantra again and again until I had no choice but to believe it.


Nam Hoang Tran is a multidisciplinary artist based in Orlando, FL. His work has appeared in Posit, The Brooklyn Review, Word For/Word, New Delta Review, Always Crashing, Diode, and elsewhere. More at www.namhtran.com.

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