Many a kitschy quote has claimed that travel is one of the only things that you can buy that will bring you true happiness. I think this is trite and overstated. However, I do believe that travel can provide perspective.
Travel won’t necessarily bring any positive impact on your life; it gives back the energy that you put into it. If you approach every fellow traveler with enthusiasm, an interest in their story, and a compassionate acceptance of their culture and personal identity, you’ll certainly receive many great conversations, shared adventures, and some lasting friendships. Of course it’s important to rest sometimes as well, or you’ll become socially exhausted or come across as needy.
This concept also applies perhaps more visibly to sights and destinations. The more time and energy a traveler spends climbing the mountains, riding the bus, and going through airport security, the more destinations they’ll have under their belt. However as with socializing, it’s important to maintain a balance. I’ve met lots of travelers who are so focused on filling every hour with sights, experiences, tours, and new places that they automatically become distant in relations with other travelers and even lose interest in the places they are so frantic to see. We have an energy budget and it’s important to not overdraw.
Here is one source of perspective I find in traveling: the freedom to control my balance of time and energy outside the demands of normal life. I think this is particularly critical for young people transitioning from the highly structured world of mandatory education into the more ambiguous reality that awaits them. How is one supposed to figure out who they are when school and school related activities make up their entire energy and time budget? High schools are just sophisticated baby sitting programs. They threaten the personal, intellectual, and spiritual development of students by consuming the entirety of a student’s freedom and often replacing the role models, masters, and teachers that a cohesive community would provide with professionals who are just as stifled and constricted by the education system as their students.
Taking time outside of one’s baseline system, be it highschool, college, or a career in progress doesn’t just provide the space to contemplate the vectors of one’s life, it provides you with hundreds of examples of how other people are building their lives, making ends meet, and keeping their passions alive, woven into the fabric of their story. Additionally, travel can provide perspective into different modes of thinking: different perspectives on standard, quality, morality, adaptability, even providing insights on the basic functions of our own minds.
Unfortunately, I don’t have hope that every young person will find for themselves a brief moment of freedom before they’re chained to a mountain of student debt, family commitments, or other responsibilities. However, this benefit of travel applies to anyone who finds themselves at a crossroads and I’ve met many travelers older than myself who’ve convinced me that while some forks in the road come along at pre-programmed waypoints along the journey with massive flashing neon way-signs and advisors to inform us on the merits of each path, there are in fact subtle crossroads arising and passing away infinitely many times during our journey through life. It seems to me that the number we are aware of – that become visible to us – is correlated to our level of resistance to change and the number of institutions, popular mass hallucinations, or dependents (e.g. governments, money, children) that may intentionally or unintentionally be obscuring the true number of opportunities we have to affect our live’s trajectories.
What I mean to say is that these benefits of travel are obvious and logical for young people at crossroads like the one I find myself at but they are equally as present and potent for men, women, and children of any age, though people at other stages in their life with different economic mobility or reduced geographic mobility may live under circumstances which diminish the real or perceived viability of all choice beyond the perpetuation of the status quo. Perhaps unsavory or impractical or as good as impossible, alternative routes are still continuously arising and passing away, arising and passing away.
The Experience Festival
An island in the Gulf of Thailand. A depression in the earth. A stage, a sound system. A gathering of the psytrance tribe. A genre and subculture like an orphan, its mother – the hippie movement – having long ago been suffocated and abandoned as a flamboyant counterculture and an era of the past. Psytrance survived and grew slowly, breeding and evolving in underground dance and festival scenes. Birthed in Goa, India, it spread its fluorescent tentacles to the the U.K., U.S., Europe, Israel, Australia, Japan, through forests and deserts and over seas.
Two days to downbeat, an excavator was tearing and spreading the dance floor into existence, it’s engine screaming and boiling the air; shielding stripped away for ventilation in the oppressive Thai heat. Men and women worked till 1a.m. welding and cutting, assembling the stages, canopy, and food stalls.
The festival ran over four nights. My first true music festival, I picked a hell of a party to drop into. Each night started quiet, with no official start time since the performances ran round the clock. In front of the Chill Stage, partygoers lounged on Thai cushions vibing to psybient, psy-chill, and forest trance tunes, speaking in hushed susurrations and resting up for the long night under the main canopy.
For its cozy size of around 3,000 attendants, a comparatively high percentage come every year they can. For me, this made all the difference. When I was headed from Phuket to Koh Tao, I had booked a combined ticket with two buses and a ferry departing from the airport. The departure time on my ticket was listed as 10a.m. and I arrived half an hour early for check in. As it turned out, the departure time was actually 10:30 and my ticket was an error, so I spent the better part of an hour pacing frantically, enlisting the aid of the airport info booth, pacing more, and checking every arriving minibus’s operator logo.
Unbeknownst to me, one of the coolest couples I’ve ever met had the right departure time on their ticket and was bemusedly watching me scramble around the airport bus terminal probably thinking: “Wow, watch this guy go.” Once on the bus, I discovered that Kyle and Kim were going to their second Experience festival as well as Kyle’s uncle and long-time psytrance tribe member Ash who had been cycle touring around Thailand. Any experience is filtered through the lens of the people you share it with, and I am so thankful to have met the wonderful people of the psytrance community from this awesome family to Zoë who showed me the genre to all the Brits, South Africans, Americans, French, Aussies, Thais, Kiwis, Germans, Italians, Israelis, Hungarians, and everyone else I met over those four days.
Under the main canopy, the energy was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Visible in the air, it flowed from the fantastic DJ’s and spectacularly engineered light show through the crowd, every dancer feeding off of each other and this unique space they had created; a place to escape the bonds of “normal life”, to let their animal side show. A space without judgement, without animosity, a space with respect. Even at the New Year’s countdown when the main floor was packed to overflowing, if one dancer accidentally knocked into each other a nod of apology and a wide smile was instantly proffered by both. I didn’t see a single argument in those four days and the light and joy on reveler’s faces were like beams of sunshine compared to the dark and impersonal techno clubs I’ve been to across Europe.
By the end of the festival, I was truly wasted. The nature of full-on psytrance, the variety found on the main stage, is both fueling and exhausting so that even an early sleeper like me can party through the night, but by the end it feels as if some terrifying percentage of your life force has been sweated out onto the dance floor. Not only was my being sapped of all vitality, but my kit had suffered as well. Someone had fallen on my tent and broken the pole during the second night and my phone had ceased charging. Despite these losses it was an Experience I will never forget, my first of what I’m sure will be many psytrance parties, and an introduction to a community of some of the most accepting, interesting, and diverse folk I’ve ever encountered.
Vipassana Meditation Course
“A sensation appears and liking or disliking begins. This fleeting moment, if we are unaware of it, is repeated and intensified into craving and aversion, becoming a strong emotion that eventually overpowers the conscious mind. We become caught up in the emotion, and all our better judgment is swept aside. The result is that we find ourselves engaged in unwholesome speech and action, harming ourselves and others. We create misery for ourselves, suffering now and in the future, because of one moment of blind reaction. But if we are aware at the point where the process of reaction begins, that is if we are aware of the sensation, we can choose not to allow any reaction to occur or to intensify… in those moments the mind is free. Perhaps at first these may be only a few moments in a meditation period, and the rest of the time the mind remains submerged in the old habit of reaction to sensations, the old round of craving, aversion, and misery. But with repeated practice those few brief moments will become seconds, will become minutes, until finally the old habit of reaction is broken, and the mind remains continuously at peace. This is how suffering can be stopped.” – S.N. Goenka
I paced in front of the windows of Bus Terminal 28 in Butterworth Central Station: the seething combined ferry, bus, and train transportation hub for George Town and the island of Penang, Malaysia. The bus driver and the passengers were nowhere to be seen and the bus should have been leaving henceforth.
Two Germans and an Italian were also milling in confusion and we quickly established that we were bound for the same Vipassana meditation retreat. Somehow while we introduced ourselves, a group of locals and two drivers materialized simultaneously and we were underway to Kulim, a town of exactly zero interest to any tourist.
On the skirts of the Kulim where the houses taper out into the crease of a valley walled by second growth forest, palm plantations are terraced into the orange oxidized soil. Among this equatorial carpet, concealed by fronds and Durian trees a squat and square building watches over the valley. It’s here that ten men and twenty five women from near and far have convened to be trained in the ancient technique of Vipassana.
For ten days and eleven nights we had signed up to become established in the Vipassana technique of meditation. To do this, each student accepts five core precepts: to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and consuming intoxicants. To aid the students in obeying scrupulously the fourth precept and to provide an environment where all students could work seriously and be free from distraction, for nine days we would maintain Noble Silence. This means we would not communicate with each other in any way be it with speech, eye contact, or gestures. The daily schedule included approximately ten hours of meditation time and one or two hours of video discourse from the revered S.N. Goenka on the technique, theory, and application of Vipassana.
Day 1-3: Planting The Seeds
We did not start right into the Vipassana technique, but rather began with Anapana meditation: focusing solely on the sensations of the nose and the natural flow of the breath through the entrance of the nostrils in order to sharpen our minds’ focus and perceptivity to physical sensations within a limited area.
The instant I took my seat in the Dhamma hall, I knew this was going to be a physical challenge. The Dhamma seats were nothing more than some foam and optional hard packed cotton pillows. I’ve always lacked in the area of flexibility, and avoided the cross-legged posture in particular. Tough shit, Lane. I was here for a jump start in my own meditation practice so might as well learn how to sit like a normal person while I’m at it. Every day was built around three hour long group meditation sessions followed by an hour and a half of discourse and another half hour of group meditation in the Dhamma hall.
The first time I took my seat, I barely made it into position, piling up cotton pillows in a desperate attempt to keep my hips from dislocation and my tendons from breaking like warm sticks of string cheese. After three minutes, my spine contorted into a centenarian’s hunch. As the audio intro set the focus of the session, my mind set upon itself with rabid criticism. “You idiot, you brainless boob. What made you think this would be a good idea? This is a waste of ten days of your pitiful meaningless life.” But we had already spoken the traditional request for the teacher to impart his knowledge upon us, so there was no going back.
The first day continued in this fashion. Every ten minutes I had to change posture, squirming from the upright fetal position to a listing outward splay of limbs and joints until I became uncomfortable enough to crack my neck and return to the sagging spine and dearly aching crossed legs arrangement. Every minute felt like a day and my attempts at focusing on my breath were hopeless at best. Two inhales and my mind would be miles away, running at full tilt from this memory to that idea to some conversation to this dude in front of me meditating so serenely to… anything at all to be anywhere except the current experience.
At the 5p.m. tea break (dinner is a piece of fruit or two. Only lemon water for return students) I was contemplating how best to break it to the management that I’m a weak piece of shit and needed my phone and wallet back so I could leave. Then began the Day 1 discourse: “Your body and mind are in pain because you are doing something to which they are not accustomed.” Correct.
Day 2 and 3 focused on Anapana meditation as well; focusing and sharpening the mind’s perceptivity to sensation on a small, limited area of the body. This became easy for me and the pain of joints and ligaments was something I could now set aside by concentrating my attention on that one tiny, harmless area to the exclusion of all other sensations for 30-40 minutes at a time.
Outside of the meditation hall, lack of activity and input was beginning to affect my thought patterns. When we arrived, we checked in all electronics and agreed not to exercise, read, write, or take notes. Boredom isn’t quite the word I would describe the feeling as boredom implies a disinterest in the current state. Quite the opposite was true. In the vacuum of information and activity, our attentions narrowed and sharpened just as in our Anapana sessions. During break periods, students would gaze out across the valley and take in every minute detail and change from the last viewing or walk in slow circuits of the yard, mindful of the sensations of every step.
The local wildlife became objects of great fascination. A gathering of students would stand transfixed when a family of dusky leaf monkeys that lived in the trees behind the center was in view, swinging from branch to branch clutching their fiery-haired young. The ants provided a more constant stream of entertainment. One night after a discourse in which the teacher talked about maintaining certain moral qualities including abstinence from killing or harming other beings, I watched a group of seven small ants slowly take down a much larger injured black ant and drag its spasming corpse into their den. On the final day when the Noble Silence was revoked, we reminisced about watching the ants, lizards, dragonflies, butterflies, monkeys, moths, and a particular chunky toad that we all noticed peering out from the mouth of a drain pipe one day.
My mind didn’t just turn outward. It also turned inward, feasting on my stock of acquired memories, fears, dreams, possible futures, and unlikely pasts. As one fellow meditator put it, after an hour’s session it almost felt like kicking your feet back and watching a movie to let the thoughts reel out of deep archives. At other times though, the lack of a remote was problematic. I’ve always been an expert at falling asleep the moment my head hits a pillow regardless of my surroundings. However, during this retreat I struggled to sleep every single night, often laying awake as the movie ran on and on until as late as three in the morning.
Day 4-5: The Storm
Equanimity is central to the practice of Vipassana: it’s both the destination and the vehicle. The idea of the meditation is to provide a space to cultivate the awareness and objectivity that one will need to face the trials and temptations of life with a calm and equanimous mind. What kind of training would it be without difficulties for a student to cut their teeth on? Thus, an unsupported sitting position is the default for those without obstructive injuries or illnesses as it will certainly generate a number of unpleasantries to which the student must remain objective and equanimous.
Day 4 was to be our initiation into the technique of Vipassana, so the schedule was altered to accommodate an additional two hours of guided meditation. Due to my poor choice to sit in the hall during one of the individual mediation periods, I ended up sitting cross legged from 1pm until the 5pm tea break. This was too much for my out of shape back muscles and creaky joints. By the end of that session, all I could think of was: “fuck this, fuck meditation, fuck all, fuck this place, etc…” That night my resistance peaked. My brain was fighting the discourses and theory, finding any little hole I could punch in its rationality that I could use to bring down any argument for persistence.
The dawn broke on day five to a beautiful and cloudless morning. My resistance had eased off by a few degrees and I made a good effort during the morning meditations. However, as the heat of the day set in, my emotions began to boil once more. Lying on my bed watching the ceiling fan whap-whap-whap in circles, I was reminded of the opening scene of Apocalypse Now where the protagonist waits for a week in Saigon for his mission, quickly going mad from stagnation.
During the third group Adhittana meditation (“sitting of great determination” in which students are asked to make as few movements as possible, not rearrange their hands or legs, not open their eyes, and above all to not leave the Dhamma hall) of the day, I had a true panic attack for the first time in my living memory. I started the meditation agitated and unfocused. The more I thought about it the more I just wanted to walk out of the room. After half an hour, my mind was becoming frantic just trying to think of something to think, something with which to distract myself. Finally it settled on a chant which I happened to have memorized that many people use in mantra or chanting meditations.
At nearly every discourse, the teacher cautioned against the mixing of practices, prayers, ceremonies, emphasizing the importance of giving Vipassana a fair trail and keeping traditions separate and distinct lest they become entangled and muddled, confusing the student beyond any hope of progression. Almost the moment I began to repeat this chant in my mind, I lost all semblance of equanimity. I broke out in a full body sweat, began to hyperventilate, and overcome by anxiety, I sat with my forehead on my knees for the remaining half hour using my last shred of control to just stay in the hall as every fiber of my being screamed to go, just leave.
When the teacher called for the five minute break, I was through door like greased lighting. Some deep breathing, moving my feet, and a couple glasses of water brought me back to an exhausted sense of stability. As we returned for the evening discourse, I had to ask myself, “what the fuck was that?” By the end of that lecture, it was as if a screen through which I’d been viewing this entire body of knowledge had been torn wide open. I could see so clearly how the misery of those hour sessions, the stupor of inaction during break periods, the sleeplessness, it was all because I was choosing not to be comfortable, to react with destructive aversion to circumstances that were harmless and unnecessary for me to try to control.
Additionally, I could see that many of the memories which had been filling the vacuum of the last four days and which had been keeping me awake long into the night fell along similar lines. Memories long buried or fresh and recent, of excellent times but also terrible times. Most prevalent were the single, isolated moments; moments of event and reaction that my mind had identified as potentially useful for future survival and created a shortcut linking the event and reaction so that next time a similar event arose, my reaction would that much faster, that much more automatic. I could see how the system that creates muscle memory and skill from repeated experience was also driving my subconscious to react thoughtlessly to events that triggered aversion. Patterns of behavior cut into my subconscious like river channels cut deep into the soil where only a few drops had preceded.
That’s the practical beauty of Vipassana: the understanding that the subconscious is not entirely subconscious. We were taught on both an intellectual and experiential level that with the subconscious genesis of aversion or craving; anger and fear or hunger and addiction; a correlating physical sensation arrises somewhere in the body. Thus the importance of precise and practiced awareness is demonstrated: if the student is accustomed to being aware of the physical manifestations of sensations in their body, then they can perceive the heat of anger, the prickle of indignation, the pull of addiction, and recognize them as markers of subconscious creations and make the conscious decision to maintain equanimity and balance in the heat of the moment.
After the discourse and another short break, we returned to the Dhamma hall for the final half hour of meditation. I sat down on my pillow and, in a moment of inspiration, folded my legs into an even more tightly crossed position with one folded back over the other. This redistributed my weight and for the first time, I sat the entire mediation with my back straight, eyes closed, and mind perfectly equanimous.
Day 6-9: Down To Work
Progress after Day 5 came in fits and starts, however the worst of the resistance seemed to be over. I had gotten what I had come for: a unique experience, a deeper understanding of meditation, a jumpstart for my own practice, and a new tool for living in the 21st century. The next three days were my time to refine my intellectual understanding of the theory and progress in the technique and I did my best to make use of it.
As the end of the Noble Silence and the end of the course drew near, one could feel an interesting convergence taking place in the minds of the students. On one hand, excitement was building to re-enter the real world and on the other hand, the proportion of students who had experienced a free flow of awareness on multiple occasions and had developed their equanimity to a level where the efficacy of the technique was experientially understood rather than simply intellectualized was nearing 100%.
Day 10: Finally!
Being able to talk and communicate for the first time in nine days felt like taking the biggest shit of my life. At every break, humorous and excited conversation filled the air. It was interesting to hear how each of the other students had progressed through the course. All of the difficulties I’ve expressed in this summary of my own experience were reflected in the experiences of the others at different points throughout the course. However without having been influenced by the comparison of progress and thought that can so often corrupt personal learning experiences by the power of suggestion, each student’s journey, interpretation, and progress was exactly as unique and individual as the students themselves.