Turn off, tune out: Clearing the garbage in my head

Turn off, tune out: Clearing the garbage in my head
John Lui, at Junction 8, on Jan 07 2015. John went for a 10-day silent retreat in Indonesia - no phones, no computers and no talking.

SINGAPORE - The problem began the second night. The guy in the bed to my left was a snorer.

He snored like it was his passion in life. His repertoire of sounds included the Passionate Rhino, the Dying Moose, the Kraken Awakes.

I lay in the dark, fuming. The two other men in my bunk shared my agony. I heard one moan pitifully at 2am, two hours before the wake-up gong. There was going to be eight more nights of this. For not the first time that day, I wanted to quit and go home.

The next day, I asked the course manager - very quietly, because of the rule on silence - for permission to change rooms. He looked surprised, I think because we students had been told to show love and compassion. I'm Singaporean. Those things come only after we've taken care of everything else.

I had signed up for the 10-day Vipassana course in meditation knowing all about its hardships.

There was the 4am rising, the nine hours of silent sitting a day, the ban on phones, laptops, cameras, reading and writing materials and all forms of communication between students.

The last full meal of the day is served at 11am.

For years, I had wanted to learn to meditate. I have the attention span of a hamster. Slow walkers bother me. Cyclists on pavements bother me. Rudeness bothers me. Very little, in fact, does not bother me. I am bothered by how easily bothered I am.

It was a matter of finding the right time and place. Then this story came along and a colleague sent me a link to the Vipassana Meditation website.

The course looked unapologetically severe, but reassuringly, the centres have not just thrived but expanded globally without watering down its rules.

If this boot camp of the soul did not work, it is likely nothing would. I wanted to go for broke.

The timing was good. Ten days over the Christmas and New Year holidays meant that I could flee Singapore's tinsel-blighted landscape and, if things went well, greet the new year with a new frame of mind.

In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, on the other side lies serenity, or insanity.

There are more than a dozen Vipassana training sites from Thailand to Australia. But the decision of where was made for me because by early last month, there was only one place close to Singapore still accepting new students, with lessons in English.

My destination centre sits on a hill on the outskirts of Bogor, a city two hours by taxi from Jakarta. It is one of three in Indonesia.

It is an assembly of small, low beige buildings, made up of accommodation blocks, shower and toilet blocks, a dining hall and a large group meditation hall in the middle.

Men's and women's blocks are separated by a wall. The place looks well-used, but kept spick and span.

At registration, they take my wallet and passport for safekeeping. There are no locks on the doors. They take my phone, notebook and pens. They ask if I have personal food items. I say no. They ask again.

I reluctantly hand over a few biscuits rescued from the airport lounge. I guess I have the look of a food smuggler.

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