“The bells, the bells” I said to myself with a wry smile as I lay there in the pitch black darkness under a thin floral blanket.
It was four in the morning and I was listening to the loud chimes of my new alarm clock in the form of a huge golden gong. I rose from my bed, also known as a thin slab of wood covered in lino and peeled off that thin layer of blanket I’d attempted to turn into an extra layer of skin during the night.
The temperature had dropped so dramatically I couldn’t quite understand it – we’d only travelled ten miles from where, the day before, I’d lay next to a swimming pool sweltering in thirty degrees heat.
Those skimpy stripy PJs covered in poached eggs I’d gone to bed in were definitely not enough to keep me warm so I made a little note to self; must wear more sensible nightwear to avoid frostbite and potential death from hypothermia.
VIPASSANA DAY ONE
Day one of my vipassana and I dove headfirst into delirium, the entertaining kind.
I got myself washed and in a hope of blending in I put on my one token pair of dark green elephant trousers and a white, embroidered blouse that my parents had bought me on their travels through India earlier on in the year.
We piled out of our chalets and everybody zombied their way slowly towards the hall.
I was brimming with excitement and just wanted to skip. Everything was new, everything was exciting, everything was a little bit bizarre and a little bit surreal. I couldn’t stop smiling or secret laughing to myself.
The little satirical Satan on my left shoulder came out to torment my thoughts and I found myself playing truancy à la tête.
Today was going to be all about mischief.
GANDHI, U OK HUN?
As the silhouettes started to fill the meditation hall I noticed that everybody had brought their bed sheets, their blankets and were still wearing their big fleeces and woollen socks while I was, once again, sat shivering in one thin layer of cotton.
Another note to self was duly made, I closed my eyes and waited for it all to start. The lights went out and I heard a switch being pressed. I could tell the speakers were on and I could hear that crackling sound you hear on an old wireless radio.
And then it began, that singing began.
Anybody who knows me well enough knows that holding in laughter is most definitely not my forté, in fact it’s pretty much an impossible feat. At the office it can send any trace of professionalism flying out of the window and in a social surround if there’s a glass of Ribera del Duero in my hand then anybody within a five foot radius should be on red alert.
I knew my thoughts were misbehaving and I ran the risk of being horrendously disrespectful to every peaceful, devoted mediator in the room, so I bit my lip as hard as I could and tried to ignore the fact my stomach was blowing up like a balloon that could burst at any minute.
A deep man’s voice was singing and chanting in, I think, Bengali. It was a slow, gargling sound that was rhythmic and harmonic in parts but then interrupted by short, abrupt staccato words and a drawn out, almost disturbing murmur that sounded like he was about to pop his clogs.
To keep myself distracted, I let my mind wander but it only made things worse.
For some reason I pictured Gandhi, absolutely bladdered drunk with his orange robe falling from his shoulders, stumbling out of The Blob Shop, a well-known hometown hoard for day time drunkards. He was waving his wooden cane in his left hand, swigging a bottle of Jack Daniels in his right, swaying from side to side and muttering out the rest of his words relentlessly like somebody who hogs the microphone at the end of a karaoke night.
I could. not. cope.
Every time you’d think it was over, he’d get going again. All I could keep saying to myself was “Gandhi, u ok hun?” and feel the balloon of air in my stomach getting bigger and bigger.
As the morning prayers came to an end, I breathed a deep breath of relief that the pains from my stifled laughter would soon dissipate and I could resume my excited focus.
But then another type of singing began.
Somebody at the back of the room let out one of the most enormously loud burps I’ve ever heard. Then another joined in, and another, and another.
They weren’t the cute little overly polite British burps I’m accustomed to, oh no. They were ferocious belches that came deep down from the pits of their stomachs and were let out into the air with a forced blast of pride.
They didn’t stop. At least every one or two minutes there would be another type of bodily noise reverberating around the meditation hall and nobody seemed to bat an eyelid.
My instant reactions were puzzled frowns and the inverted lips of disgust but it wasn’t before long that I had to bite my lip again to imprison my laughter. I just couldn’t quite believe that in a room full of respectful silence we had nuns, monks and locals all melodically burping out the Burmese alphabet.
At 6.30am I was saved by the bell and it was time for breakfast.
I queued up eagerly awaiting my morning caffeine treat but instead, sat there sipping a sugary coffee imposter which I later came to realise was chai. Whatever it was, it was served in a little silver metal cup that I cradled like a miniature hot water bottle to keep me warm.
MOGGIES & MISCHIEF
And that’s how it went on for the rest of the day.
From four thirty in the morning until nine thirty at night, twelve hours of which were spent with our eyes closed in complete darkness, I sat there silently mischievous having quite a laugh with the seventeen personalities in my head.
There was one meditation session where I had the most ridiculous football chants on repeat, especially when I was inspecting an oversized egg yolk yellow crochet beanie hat a few rows in front…
“She’s got a teeeaaa cosy on her head, she’s got a big tea cosy on her head, she’s got a teaaaa cosy on her head, she’s got a tea cosy on her head.”
Focus Laurie, focus is what I told myself, but I knew that any form of inner discipline was pointless – I was already past the point of no return and hosting my own stand up comedy show in between my ears. I was making up films and songs and chants and stories, and I was laughing at anything and everything.
When the afternoon break came I sat on the steps outside the teacher’s residence and was befriended by a beautiful Burmese kitten with thick, silky charcoal coloured fur.
I don’t care what anybody says, I thought to myself, I have a gift – I can talk to animals.
She twirled around my legs, looking me straight in the eye and meowing incessantly, so I talked back to her, telepathically of course. Then when I got up to do a slow lap of the grounds, she followed me the whole way, so closely and obediently it was as though she was on a lead.
And it was probably at that point, when I’d started calling myself a Cat Whisperer, that I knew it was official….day one and I’ve already gone mentally insane.