I went silent for 10 days. No in­ter­ac­tions. No eye con­tact. It was phys­i­cal and men­tal an­guish. And I’ve never felt bet­ter

Toronto Life - - The 2018 Self-Care Guide - by jeremy van­der­meij

Ihave known I was gay for as long as I can re­mem­ber. I grew up in Scar­bor­ough in a lov­ing home, and my early child­hood was filled with joy and won­der. That I was ef­fem­i­nate was fine up un­til I was about 10, when gen­der be­came a fac­tor in defin­ing so­cial sta­tus. My male peers tor­mented me. I kept the abuse from my friends and fam­ily, buried the shame and tried to move on. When I was 26, a ho­mo­pho­bic bully con­fronted me, and my trauma came roar­ing back to life. Ther­apy helped me un­der­stand how the bul­ly­ing had stayed with me and shaped who I was, but I strug­gled when it came to deal­ing with its present-day ram­i­fi­ca­tions. Then, one day, two close friends told me they had com­pleted a re­treat at the On­tario Vi­pas­sana Cen­tre in Eg­bert, about an hour’s drive north of Toronto. It was a 10-day silent ex­pe­ri­ence that re­quired 10 hours of med­i­ta­tion a day. It sounded daunt­ing, but they raved about it. So I signed up. And then I can­celled. I was ner­vous—about star­ing in­ward so in­tently, about con­fronting my fears, about be­ing bored and sit­ting still for so long.

Fi­nally, on a frigid day in Fe­bru­ary, I hopped on a GO bus north. As it turned out, the fa­cil­ity was an old Boy Scouts camp that I used to go to as a kid, in the woods just off County Road 56. There were four dor­mi­to­ries and two cafe­te­rias, sep­a­rated by gen­der, and a main med­i­ta­tion hall. Like the hun­dred or so other at­ten­dees, I handed over my pos­ses­sions upon ar­rival: cell­phone, wal­let, book (no read­ing al­lowed), jour­nal, pen and pa­per, snacks and drinks. I was given a room num­ber and went to check it out: a spar­tan box, small and sparsely fur­nished with two sin­gle beds. I briefly had a room­mate, but he soon fled and didn’t come back. Af­ter we’d un­packed, the teacher sum­moned the group to the main hall, where he ex­plained the pre­cepts: we were to ab­stain from killing any be­ing (that is, no eat­ing meat); sex­ual ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing mas­tur­ba­tion; ly­ing; and con­sum­ing in­tox­i­cants. He went over the con­cept of “noble si­lence”—of the body, voice and mind—which means you can­not speak with other peo­ple, ex­cept for pe­ri­odic quiet con­sul­ta­tion with the teach­ers. We were to avoid con­tact with other peo­ple and ex­ces­sive move­ments, all of which are dis­trac­tions from the ob­jec­tive, which is the process of self-purification by self-ob­ser­va­tion. He then went over the sched­ule: wake-up was at 4 a.m., bed­time at 9:30 p.m., and in be­tween were 10 hours of med­i­ta­tion, short meals and op­tional solo walks in the woods. Part of me wanted to get up and run home through the woods, Revenant-style, to my Park­dale apart­ment. But soon, the speech had ended and the si­lence had be­gun.

On day two, I woke to the soft, sonorous sound of a gong and walked through the dark­ness to the med­i­ta­tion build­ing. In­side were roughly 100 other stu­dents, men on one side, women on the other. I found a mat and chose the most com­fort­able po­si­tion I could think of: cross-legged, hands on my knees. I was to fo­cus solely on air from my nose pass­ing over my up­per lip. In, out. The ex­er­cise, a style of med­i­ta­tion called Ana­pana, is meant to sharpen aware­ness. In a world of con­stant stim­u­la­tion—fid­get spin­ners are a $500-mil­lion in­dus­try—do­ing one thing is in­cred­i­bly hard. Ten min­utes in, my legs, hips and lower back throbbed. Go

ahead and try it right now, for just 15 min­utes. I swear it will feel like an eter­nity. We were ex­pected to do it for two hours. As hard as I tried to empty my mind, I couldn’t. Vi­gnettes of the weird­est stuff in­vaded my thoughts—long-ago friends, ran­dom snip­pets of my child­hood. For some rea­son, I kept pic­tur­ing my most ma­cho friends dressed in drag, stand­ing be­side the teach­ers, try­ing to make me laugh. Mul­ti­ple times, I had to cover my mouth with both hands to sup­press a hys­ter­i­cal squeal.

Two hours later, the gong sounded, sig­nalling break­fast. I was fam­ished. In the cafe­te­ria, we shuf­fled through the buf­fet line, mov­ing slowly so as not to brush against any­one, star­ing at our plates to avoid eye con­tact.

Af­ter about eight hours of med­i­ta­tion, I had a break­through. Not only could I feel the cool air be­ing pulled in and the warm air be­ing ex­pelled, but I could de­tect mi­cro– air cur­rents mov­ing across my face and pin­point ev­ery spot on my arms where hair pro­truded from the skin.

By day four, we had moved on to Vi­pas­sana, a prac­tice that in­volves scan­ning your body from head to toe, mil­lime­tre by mil­lime­tre. It’s a com­pli­cated ex­er­cise, but the idea is to note sen­sa­tions with­out at­tach­ing any nar­ra­tive, neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive. That might sound easy, but it’s not. Think of your most pain­ful mem­ory and try not to have any emo­tional re­ac­tion.

By day seven, my senses had be­come wildly height­ened. I could feel the sound waves from some­one else’s cough pass through my body. I could sense tiny ed­dies of air caused by my own body heat, hear the dis­tant twit­ter­ing of a bird out­side. A sin­gle leaf of let­tuce teemed with flavour, a thou­sand dif­fer­ent tastes from one end to the other. It was as if my life had sud­denly switched to HD. When I went out­side, the for­est crack­led with beauty—alive, in­tense and wild. In the best of ways, I felt like a kid again.

It wasn’t all won­der and joy. I con­fronted what you might de­scribe as phys­i­cal and men­tal pain, and bizarre, un­com­fort­able thoughts buried deep in my un­con­scious. But each time I passed over them with­out re­act­ing, they be­gan to dis­solve.

I started hav­ing dif­fi­culty fall­ing asleep. That’s nor­mal, it turns out, since the body is so rested from med­i­ta­tion that it doesn’t re­quire much sleep. So, as in­structed, I med­i­tated. Even­tu­ally, my aware­ness be­came so fo­cused that I was able to feel my or­gans, one by one, sens­ing each with the same tac­tile re­al­ness as rub­bing my hands to­gether. My di­aphragm was taut, my brain a roil­ing storm of twitch­ing jelly, my heart a pow­er­ful com­bus­tion en­gine slap­ping against the in­side of my rib cage. Even­tu­ally, the neg­a­tive thoughts and phys­i­cal pain—I re­al­ized how in­ex­tri­ca­ble the two are—sub­sided, and so too did much of my trauma.

Be­fore we were dis­missed, the in­struc­tor warned us about re-en­try. Noth­ing would be the same, he said. But the su­per­sen­si­tiv­ity we had cul­ti­vated in the camp would wane. When I got home, I put on some mu­sic and then quickly turned it off. Mu­sic was a dis­trac­tion. It stuck in my mind, im­ped­ing my abil­ity to per­ceive the present mo­ment clearly. Same with TV.

Out­side of be­ing bul­lied, my 10-day vow of si­lence was the most dif­fi­cult thing I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced. It was also the most ben­e­fi­cial thing I’ve ever done. Today, I med­i­tate of­ten, and I find I’m able to be more present with other peo­ple—to fo­cus on them, to em­pathize with their feel­ings and re­spond with kind­ness. I have a higher ca­pac­ity for love. And I now pos­sess an amaz­ing self-help tool: if I sit down and med­i­tate for an hour—some­thing I do of­ten—I can al­le­vi­ate al­most any im­bal­ance or anx­i­ety. I do it at work, at home, on the street­car. I used to have panic at­tacks, but now my anx­i­ety is all but gone. It’s been two years since my first visit to the cen­tre. I’ve been back once since, for another 10-day stint, and I plan to go again this win­ter. Ev­ery time I go, I feel bet­ter. So why not?

The On­tario Vi­pas­sana Cen­tre oc­cu­pies a for­mer Scouts camp an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Guests are ex­pected not to speak or in­ter­act for 10 days straight

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