To me, the rules on a Vipassana retreat~to abstain from contact in the form of speech, written word, gestures, looks or physical touch~are meant as a contract that leaves the mind free to focus on meditation. We trust the other participants to stick to it and we respect others enough to adhere to it ourselves. I assumed that everyone going on a Vipassana retreat would feel the same. Unfortunately this is not so.
My room-mate Trudi was tall and slim with short hair, sallow skin and dark brown eyes. We chatted for a while before the silence began. I told her about my hearing problems and that I had an alarm clock in case I missed the wake up gong. She was very pleased she said as she had forgotten hers.
Arriving back in the room the next day I found the alarm clock, after a small search, had been put under my pillow. I was a little disturbed by this. Maybe Trudi might not like having an alarm clock after all?Or maybe I had put the alarm clock there myself?
A little while later Trudi came up to me in the corridor proffering a smile and a banana, the first in a stream of fruit she began to send my way. We all had more food than we could eat and I could not fathom why Trudi had decided to break the rules to give me more. Later I found the alarm clock had been replaced on the window sill but over the next three days it appeared and disappeared until I put it permanently under my pillow.
The fruity gifts continued and the wardrobe began to look and smell like a grocery shop. It crossed my mind that because of my hearing problem I was being seen as a diminished person, someone in need of constant assistance an attitude that annoys me hugely.
There were constant attempts at eye contact too which my avoidance did not seem to deter. I felt as if my personal space was shrinking and that the attempts at communicating, which I clearly, being on a silent retreat, did not want could only escalate. Over the days Trudi kept breaking all the rules that were the only boundary between us, two strangers. My own respect for the rules left me vulnerable, with no way to negotiate or defend. By the end of the third day I was in turmoil and miserable.
The final straw was when I was tapped on the shoulder outside the meditation hall. I turned to see Trudi, in front of the whole group, letting me know how long our next break was. That evening I contacted the retreat manager to ask her advice. The problem was immediately taken from me. I fell asleep that night feeling torn, feeling like a bad person for ‘telling’ but relieved too.
At 2am I was woken by a loud noise, a door slamming or a window closing perhaps. It was not the first time it happened but this time as I lay there I could smell smoke or actually the smell of smoky skin as if a smoky hand or even a smoky face had recently come close to mine. My heart clenched in anxiety as Heidi shifted on the bunk above.
The next morning I was told I was to be moved but it was fumbled badly and Trudi found me and my packed bags in the corridor waiting for the manager. Thinking I was leaving she knelt and before I could do anything her hand was on my thigh and she was rubbing it. Hard. I was so sickened by this strangers intimate touch that I wanted to smack her but instead I recoiled and fled down the corridor.
I was unsettled to find that my new room was directly across from my old room but in the next week I passed Trudi in the corridor only once. As she walked by I could feel her anger billow and swirl, settling around her like a cloak.
The first night in my new bunk I lay there feeling miserable. I stared at the wooden slats above me only half-seeing the names the previous occupants of the bed had etched in untidy blue biro. Directly over my head a line of neater blue script came into focus. I read…
“Everything is going to be OK.”
On a visceral level it felt like a massive hole had been torn in my retreat but after a day or two that sensation receded and I was able to settle down to the business at hand. Still, I do wonder if it would have been more successful for me if the first days had been spent relaxing into a place of peace instead of silently, desperately defending my space. I do know that if I ever go on retreat again I will insist on a room of my own.
When the silence lifted Trudi did not approach and her hostility was evident. I didn’t bother to approach her either. There was nothing to be said.
NEXT VIPASSANA: THE PEOPLE