A year ago to the day, I was clinging on for dear life to the poles inside a hot songthaew. As my feet held my 30L backpack carefully in place, we were snaking our way up a narrow road to the top of Doi Suthep, a jungle-covered mountain overshadowing the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. I was on my way to study Vipassana for 10-21 days at the International Buddhist Centre (IBC) — a silent meditation practice where participants meditate for up to ten hours a day in a remote location. Very Eat Pray Love.
This year, however, I’ve been living in Melbourne, and I’m sure the strict Covid-19 lockdown needs no introduction. While last year I was busy being quite the adventurous backpacker, this year my biggest achievement has been to walk beyond the well-worn path between my bedroom and kitchen. It might have been the intensity of the lockdown slowly rotting away my brain, but I couldn’t help but start to draw some parallels between my time locked up in my bedroom in Melbourne, and my practice of Vipassana in Thailand. Masks and social distancing aside.
When you agree to engage in a Vipassana practice there are several rules you must abide by. Much like the differences in state regulations surrounding Covid, each Vipassana centre differs when it comes to what rules are enforced and how strict they are. My experience at the IBC was very self-regulated. For example, our phones were never confiscated off us by the centre volunteers, it was up to us to have some self-retraint and leave them turned off in our bedrooms. Without someone physically enforcing these rules, which ones to abide by became somewhat of a moral dilemma. If I did decide to break any rules, would anyone actually care? Would it take away from my own practice? Of course, we weren’t allowed to speak, so there was no one to ask about any of this. At best, when we did need to speak, it was always a whispered thank you, or a hushed discussion in the corner of the dining room. Some people took their practice much more seriously, and should I wish to break any rules – my favourite was engaging in physical exercise and getting a coffee each morning from the market down the road – I wanted to make sure I wasn’t a distraction to another’s practice.
In contrast, the Victorian lockdown was enforced by the police. We weren’t allowed out after 8 pm, we needed work permits and, we had to (and still do) wear masks everywhere. However, other rules weren’t as easily enforced, such as time spent out of the home and what we did in our own private space. Living in a shared student accommodation meant that we needed to come to a moral decision about what we were comfortable with, knowing that there was both a monetary and health risk for all involved. Should partners be allowed? Were we OK with one member of the house having a friend over? Just like during Vipassana, the lockdown also forced me to consider what rules I was willing to risk breaking at the detriment (or arguably in benefit) of my health.
Inside versus outside worlds
One of the most difficult aspects of being locked down in Melbourne was seeing friends in other states living in a “Covid-normal world”. While we were confined to the four corners of our houses and only allowed outside for up to one hour a day, my NSW and WA friends were out having pints at bars. “Insular” is perhaps the best description of what it felt like to live in Melbourne. Not only were we sealed off to the rest of the country by hard state borders, but we also had borders erected between metropolitan and regional areas on top of enforced 5km travel limits. Even in the early stages of lockdown, certain postcodes became off-limit to visitors. This emphasised a divide between “green” and “red” zones. The home very much became symbolic of the inside world – even my online yoga teacher mused in one class about how we were more in a “yin” state (as opposed to “yang”) – and everything outside of our four walls (and especially outside of the state) began to feel foreign.
Vipassana had a similar divide. However, instead of postcode markers or enforced borders, clothing was used as a symbol to denote who was studying, who was a master (the monks teaching us wore the traditional orange and gold robes), and who was just a plain old tourist. All students studying Vipassana must wear white. This creates quite a spectacle, especially when you are required to appear in public. The IBC was a ten-minute walk from a very popular temple. As a student, I tried to avoid the busloads of tourists who would come up from the city every morning. Technically I wasn’t allowed to talk to them, after all. However, one evening we were requested at the temple for Buddha Day. We were instructed to sit down in an alcove and wait to be called forward where we would place a lily at the feet of a gold statue. Tourists in the area at the time began rushing up to us to take selfies. I guess we were quite the spectacle given there were about 20 of us all dressed identically. It was hard not to feel detached or separate, partially because we couldn’t really talk or make eye contact, but also because we physically looked different. When stripped back from all of our individualistic and identifying features, what ‘vibe’ do we give off to those around us?
It is also worth mentioning that Vipassana is an intensely personal experience and not being able to communicate with anyone there makes the experience even more intense and alienating. Many people seek out a Vipassana centre because the time spent in this space can be transcending and extremely therapeutic, but it is also extremely difficult and uncomfortable. Part of the appeal of this inner work is that it is only temporary. Both your time at the IBC, and your time in the depths of your mind are extremely liminal. Similar to the discomfort one feels in therapy, but instead of a one-hour session every month, you do about 12 sessions per day. It supercharges your experience. The monk that taught me used to laugh during his 5 am lectures as he mused about how Vipassana is like a holiday for your mind (through meditation), stomach (through fasting) and your throat (through silence). When times start to get tough — and believe me there were days where I thought that I wasn’t going to make it through — knowing that the experience is temporary and that things would eventually go back to “normal” really kept me pushing through my practice.
It’s probably obvious to you now that lockdown life was extremely similar in this regard. For all of the hardship that Melbournians in particular endured, there was always the promise of better days and a “Covid-normal summer” ahead. There was an unwavering sense of faith that at some point, things would once again return to normal. Of course, there were times where we thought that day would never come, where time almost felt suspended. But, we persevered and have now reached the other side of a collective physical and mental battle.
Perhaps, however, the most fascinating relation I have discovered between my two experiences, is that there was a degree of social anxiety that came with returning to the “real world”. Both experiences were devoid of so many of our usual social and time markers, such as keeping track of dates or conversing with strangers in designated spaces like cafes. I have personally left both experiences plagued with questions about what actually is real or important after these temporary, yet etremely isolating experiences.
[All photos courtesy of Carolyn West.]