A Failed Attempt at Enlightenment
I was introduced to meditation by Japanese pickup artists. Their interest in the subject made me wonder if it could be useful to those of us who are not monks on mountaintops. I mean, if it can help Asian metrosexuals in fur coats get into Hello Kitty-emblazoned panties, perhaps it could help me achieve my own humble life goals?
Curiosity metamorphosed into a plane ticket, and I found myself far from the land of rising suns, cute robots and wasabi-flavoured everything, at the base of a sacred mountain on a small tropical island, en route to enlightenment (or something).
Koh Phangan is famous for full moons, buckets of alcohol, mushroom milkshakes and beachside partying. But it’s also home to Wat Khao Tham, a mountaintop monastery offering vipassana meditation courses. Vipassana is simply the formal name for the type of meditation we’re familiar with here in Westworld: concentration on the breath, the body or its sensations, and the insight this provides.
At the bottom of a leafy mountain, the monastery was just discernible through foliage and cloud cover high above. A dirt road stretched out and upward, with one small building marking the beginning of the ascent: a raucous, not very Buddhist-seeming structure, overflowing with loud local men shouting excited Thai at each other. I entered cautiously to see what the fuss was about.
The base of a holy mountain seemed an odd location for a cockfighting arena, but there it was, bristling with noisy punters. A timely Buddhist reminder of the truth of impermanence? A lurid symbol of the karmic suffering we all inherit by virtue of being alive? Or just a picturesque plot on which to build a friendly local bloodsport pub?
I’d met several cocks in my travels so far. If you haven’t seen one up close and personal, I can tell you: they are aggressive, stupid creatures. Sure, most of them are not so big, but still – you wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley.
The cockfighting taught me that despite all this, cocks don’t want to fight each other if they can help it. Trainers antagonised their animals until both were furious enough to fight to the death. Punters screamed odds across the arena as the birds attacked each other with leaping talon attacks and punishing beak strikes. Both opponents bloodied, one cock eventually keeled over.
What the fuck was I doing here again? Oh, right — enlightenment. Shaken and confused, I left the arena and started my climb upward.
Before long, I was fortunate enough to run into a monk in a jeep. He invited me to ride shotgun whilst making an esoteric joke about the Dharma Wheel that went over my head. Then he asked why I wanted to practice meditation.
A few short kilometres and several fleeting hours away, the next moon party would soon be in full swing. The siren call of sand and alcohol became very loud for me at this point. I had just witnessed a cold-blooded rooster murder, and been forced to endure Buddhist dad jokes. Was I up for this? Now that I was finally here, why did I want to practice meditation?
“Living in the moment” gets plenty of lip service, but how exactly do you do it if you don’t happen to have a beach and six vodka-Red-Bulls in a bucket close to hand?
You know those fleeting perfect moments where time stops, nothing matters, and the ambient beauty of existence somehow percolates to the surface, seemingly effortlessly, triggered by music or drugs, love or sex, serendipity or nothing at all? I travel the world chasing that feeling, finding glimpses through new experiences, people, cultures — that “new country smell” is the reason I will always have a little global hobo in me.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little more of that? Could meditation help? Could it help more than a huge moonlit beachside party?
I said to the monk: “I spend a lot of time in my head and have trouble living in the moment, so I want to learn to live in my body.”
I suppose that was close to the right answer because at the mountain top, he issued me a mat, pillow, sheet and mosquito net: everything I needed to join my dorm.
What happens at vipassana? You sit down and shut up. Sometimes you walk around, and shut up. All day you do nothing, but mindfully. You get up extra early so you have more time with which to do nothing. Every now and then, there’s food.
I learned that ‘silent retreat’ is a misnomer: it would be more accurate, if less poetic, to call it a ‘non-communication retreat’. Not only do you not speak, you don’t communicate with anyone. In practice, that means head down, no eye contact. I knew my fellow acolytes only by their feet. The hairy olive feet in old sandals? That was my dorm mate. Petite lily-whites in Havaianas was the girl who served breakfast. Then there was that one pair of sneakers in cankles who was always late to morning yoga.
The first days were hardest. Eventually, my mind settled and I found it easier to observe my thoughts, without attachment or narrative — and there were even occasional moments of mental stillness, a sudden serenity where the inner push-notifications switched off for a time. Look Mum: I’m meditating! Like a champion!
Enlightenment was surely just around the corner: I was going to ace this vipassana shit.
Or was I?
The thing about non-communication is that it’s practically impossible. You’re always communicating something: you can’t opt out. It’s the clothes you wear, the way you carry yourself — it all becomes a statement of sorts.
One woman in our group was smoking hot… by which I mean that she had the sexiest feet I’d ever seen. A golden tan evenly covered her extremities, except for a crisp thong line betraying a soft milky white base hue courtesy of the German winter she had fled (well, her feet looked German). A thick gold ring encircled her second right toe. As the monks would have said, I was experiencing a strong “sense desire”.
I kept my own increasingly crusty feet to myself. However, a bodhisattva I am not — just a man. I got to day seven before I lost the cockfight raging in my psyche.
How do you wank to the concept of a disembodied foot? Where there’s a will, and enough pent-up randiness and imagination, there’s a way. I sheepishly retreated to the toilet and became one with my sense desire.
I had just masturbated in a monastery: clearly, Nirvana was not written in my near future, after all. However, I did walk away from Wat Khao Tham with my sinful feet a little closer to the earth than before, and a mental plane ticket to that ‘new country smell’, no matter my current postcode.
I love that aroma and still meditate daily.
I haven’t kept up the foot fetish, though.
Cover by Ben White