How I Found Joy in My Insignificance After 15 Days of Vipassana

First Person

How I Found Joy in My Insignificance After 15 Days of Vipassana

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

Almost everyone I know who has been to vipassana has claimed they’ve done it to “get away from it all”; as a kind of short-term rehab for their spiralling social media addictions. But that’s never really been a problem for me. For years I’ve been (only half) joking that my first order of business on becoming famous (like that’s a given) will be to shut down all my personal social media accounts. A few years ago, I deleted a profile with a somewhat-influencer level of following — on a lark. Just to prove to myself that I wasn’t tethered to my online existence in any meaningful way. This, coupled with my God-gifted aversion to most human contact, meant I was on no need for getting away from anything, really. If anything, I needed help getting with stuff. 

And yet, I signed up for 15 days of self-imposed silence.

That’s 360 hours of zipping your trap, trying to look incrementally self-actualised. If there’s one thing impostor syndrome had left untouched in me, it was my confidence in my ability to get by with limited to no human interaction. It’s embarrassing how cocky I was, going in. All of that bravado evaporated roughly 359 hours and 30 minutes before the end of the retreat. In the words of the wonderful John Green, “Crap crap crap crap crap crap crap stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid crap.” 

So why was I undertaking this exercise in masochism anyway? Mine was a very particular and powerful addiction called “The Need for Control” – a subset of the much-maligned FOMO. The thing that tortured me endlessly was not that there might be some wonderful experiences that the rest of the world might partake in while I was away, but that I had no way of knowing and therefore no control over what awaited me once I got out. One of the things my meditation instructor – a former Burmese monk – keeps lecturing me about is to stop trying to control the narrative. I’ve noticed that my need to manage people and situations so I’m taken by surprise can sometimes get in the way of me actually living my life. And so, on the aforementioned instructor’s insistence, I decided I’m going to allow the universe to “surprise (read: disappoint) me by heeding its signs”. 

When a friend declared that he was flying down a Bald White Guy (BWG) with impressive credentials and an obvious fondness for loose white robes to preside over a 15-day silent retreat at their farmhouse, I didn’t need much convincing. And that’s how I found myself in a large, temperature-controlled room with a dozen-odd ageing millennials somewhere on the outskirts of Delhi. Most silent retreats operate more or less on the same rules and structure: No speaking, even making eye contact is discouraged, and you could speak to an aide only in case of an emergency. No screens were allowed and a gong would be sounded at dawn to help recalibrate our circadian clocks to the light cycle. We ate four meals: a small cup of tea and exactly two biscuits at 6 am, lunch at noon, a light snack at 3.30 pm, and dinner at 7 pm sharp. The lights went out by 9 pm. 

Of course, there was also a lot of meditation. The goal, BWG insisted, was not to keep the mind from wandering but to be mindful of its trajectory to observe the chaos within it without giving in to the desire of controlling the outcome. The silence was to help us feel every sensation within our bodies acutely. When you’re forced to go deeper and deeper within the recesses of your consciousness instead of seeking distractions outside it, while simultaneously being robbed of the power to do anything about any of it, it’s like being trapped in a hell designed personally for you. For the first four days, I truly did feel my mind had turned on me and had become my own worst enemy. I didn’t think I’d survive. I’d end each day thinking, ‘Tomorrow, they’re going to have to wheel me out of here feet-first, on a stretcher.” 

FOMO, is an inherently egotistical fear, with the belief that our existence matters so much that missing out on something is a travesty.

It wasn’t just thinking of the worst-case scenarios about everything unhappy in my life, it was convinced that each one of those scenarios had come true. I was sure that all the editors I wrote for would dump me, someone would publish a book with the same exact premise, plot, and structure as mine, Standard Chartered would collapse like PMC, and my savings would evaporate overnight, my dream job would suddenly become available and they’d offer it to someone else because I wasn’t around to take their calls, someone I loved would die, and nobody would be able to get ahold of me. And all of this was going to happen in the 15 days that I was gone. 

For the first four days, all I did was sob during the days and howl through the night. When I went in, I thought my biggest discomfort was going to be physical — sitting ramrod straight for hours at a stretch without allowing the soreness and other niggling aches to break my concentration. It wasn’t. The hardest part was to allow your most paralysing fears to sit alongside the knowledge that you don’t have all the solutions. That’s a tough lesson for someone as used to control as me. 

It’s funny how you learn to value human interaction when you’re forced in situations without any. I, who prided myself on feeling mostly disdain for the incessant directionless chatter, found myself craving it. Right then, I would have given anything to peruse through the half a dozen photographic records of a friend’s daily life that she insists on furnishing on Facebook.

The good news is, it gets better, and keeps getting better. By Day Five/Six, my brain had entered a state of acceptance. There’s no way to describe its journey after that point — its intensely personal and unique. But I will tell you this: the tortured thoughts will still erupt, but you learn to observe them as if you’re floating above them, which forces them to drift away after a few minutes of lingering hopefully instead of wrapping their tentacles around your consciousness. By the tenth day, I was positively tranquil. When it was time to leave, I was sorry it was time to rejoin the world. 

Rejoining the world was thoroughly disorienting. I had gotten used to a slower pace, and of not being bombarded with information from every direction, confusing my senses and sending my mind reeling. After a fortnight of no news, no external stimulation, being thrown back into the real world was a shock. It was also a humbling experience. Literally, not one thing of consequence had changed while I was away. The world hadn’t come to a screeching halt. My editors had missed me, but they were neither wringing her hands in despair over my absence, nor furiously looking for replacements. It was life as usual for friends and family, and foes had not even registered I’d been missing for half a month! It made me realise how self-absorbed the belief is that our presence alone can alter the course of humanity. More often than not, it can’t even alter the course of someone’s day, let alone life. The fear of missing out, FOMO, is an inherently egotistical fear, with the belief that our existence matters so much that missing out on something is a travesty. Perhaps that’s my biggest takeaway from the exercise – finding joy in my insignificance and discovering that it comes with a special kind of freedom. Once you have this, FOMO almost seems vulgar.