Rose versus the void

Mindfulness is said to be so life-transforming it’s prescribed by the NHS for depression. But can meditation really turn a stressed-out near breakdown into blissful mental clarity? I did it the hard way with Vipassana, an intense meditation retreat involving 12 hours of meditation every day for 10 days.

Several years of 15 hours in the Andaluz heat with two kids under five sent me into the arms of Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug you should never ever take, not even when you are convinced that The Guardia Civil have been trailing you for weeks because you failed to get planning permission for your patio extension. I popped this drug meekly and daily for nearly a month until one night my husband found me hiding from under my neighbour’s Peugeot 107.

It was time to read the contraindications:
“….hypomania, coma, closed-angle glaucoma, metabolic acidosis, gradual neurologic deterioration, seizures, intracranial hemorrhage, hematologic abnormalities, skin breakdown, renal failure, bradycardia, intraventricular hemorrhage, cardiovascular collapse, tachypnea, tachycardia, diaphoresis, incoordination, psychosis, and something called ‘gasping syndrome’.

The next morning I looked in the mirror and noticed that I had transmogrified into Peter Cushing from Star Wars.
My husband agreed and checked me into a 10-day Vipassana programme.
Vipassana is a meditation retreat based on the concept of seeing things as they really are, a.k.a swathes of time spent alone and in silence with the conference of demons that live in your head.

Meditating almost 12 hours a day for 10 days in a remote Spanish town in February had all the allure of stage-four pancreatic cancer, but it was too late. In an effort to see me off, my husband had packed my suitcase, driven me to the bus stop and booted me on. On the bus I dared to read the timetable, then wished I never had:

4:00: Morning Wake Up Bell
4:30 – 6:30: Meditating in the hall
6:30 – 8:00: Breakfast & Toilette (Toilette?!!)
8:00 – 9:00: Meditating in the hall
9:00 – 11:00: Meditating in the hall
11:00 – 12:00: Meditating in the hall
12:00 – 1:00: Rest or interview with the teacher
1:00 – 2:30: Meditating in the hall
2:30 – 3:30: Meditating in the hall
3:30 – 5:00: Meditating in the hall
5:00 – 6:00: Tea Break
6:00 – 7:00: Meditating in the hall
7:00 – 8:15: S.N Goenka’s Discourse
8:15 – 9:00: Meditating in the hall
9:00 – 9:30: Teacher’s lecture in the hall
9:30: Retire to your room, lights out.

I stared out of the window at Castile-Leon – Spain’s largest, flattest and bleakest province – and longed for 1985. Life was simple then. Maybelline mascara, fluoro rah-rah skirts, whole days spent smothered in Hawaiian Tropic on Bondi beach, dancing on night club podiums to Wham and being chauffered around in Ferraris by swarthy restaurateurs. Simple. Now the sky was end-of-the-world grey and all I could see was gouged out fields, piles of builders’ rubble and electrical botch jobs laced through towns populated by blank faces squinting into the sun, each going nowhere.

Eight hours later the bus dropped me outside a beautiful church of white stone and blue mosaic with automatic glass doors that hugged me in. In the wood panelled reception area I danced a jolly jig to I Just Called To Say I Love You which some sweet soul was playing on a Casio organ next door.

“Bienvenido hija,” said a Joni Mitchell-looking nun in a blue nylon bow tie, her eyes slick with joy. “Welcome to Jesus’s home.”
Joni led me to a pristine bedroom with apricot walls where an ecstatic teddy bear perched on a candlewick bedspread. There was even a minibar.
But something was up. This looked nothing like the website.

“Vipassana?” I asked nervously.

Clearly not. For next minute Joni gasped, grabbed me by the jacket and practically hurled me through the glass doors. “Next door,” she whispered so Jesus couldn’t hear.


Next door looked like the building where the Ceaucescus were executed. There was a concrete forecourt with coils of barbed wire and horizontal windows like slits. This was definitely not Jesus realty.

The ceausescusA vast iron gate opened and me and a sorry clump of depressed, circus-looking folk shuffled in. A man started playing handball like Steve Mcqueen in Papillon. He was asked to stop.

“Put your things in a bag.” said a voice behind a wall. “Mobile, books, photos, reading materials.”

I wasn’t taking any chances so I included my belt and shoelaces.

Later there was an orientation meeting.

“This is not going to be easy,” said a gaunt man with a conquistador’s beard to the 140 of us gathered round a big electric fire that gave out no heat at all.
“You will feel sad, lonely, confused and desperate, but this will pass and you will feel happy…”
280 eyes lit up.

“…but then you will feel sad, lonely, confused and desperate once more.”

And dimmed again.

We were to sleep in a dorm with bunk beds and blankets that smelt of pee. It felt like the women’s prison of an Almodovar film. I quickly ceased to be Rose Wadham and became just one of 77 women all snoring, rustling and moaning the night away. That first night insomnia set in and I cursed myself for ever leaving Bondi Beach.

At 3am I read the rule book again just to make sure I wouldn’t break any laws and end up in a penal colony in French Guiana.
The rule book said:

No talking
No stealing
No sexual activity
No telling lies
No drinking
No revealing clothing
No sensual entertainment
No body adornment
No looking at anyone’s faces
No eating after midday
No reading
No writing
No mirrors
No phone calls
No singing
No dancing
No jogging
No eating (other than the designated one meal a day)
No exercising (other than strolling round the quadrangle)
No high or luxurious beds

I imagined myself defiantly pushing a mahogany four-poster bed into the meditation hall and then can-canning around it in a yellow fringed bikini whilst swigging a bottle of Jack Daniel’s shouting: “Rule Brittania, Brittania rules the waves!” down my mobile phone.
I read on: “Vipassana is neither entertainment, nor a rest cure, nor a holiday, an opportunity for socialising or an escape from the trials of life.” I wondered where the author went for his holidays (I guessed either Chernobyl or Gdansk). “Vipassana is a technique that will eradicate suffering, a method of mental purification that allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way, it is an art of living.”

I could not see anything purifying about shuffling around an asylum for 10 days communicating with ones peers via their bedroom slippers.
At 4am the bell went. We dressed in silence and dragged ourselves to the meditation hall. Men and women were separated, we had a cushion each and that was it.

Clive was our teacher. A New Zealander. Tall and thin as a Masai, he wore a long hemp dress and sat on the stage with a terrifying look in his eye like he had just committed some terrible terrible crime. His accent did not lend itself well to lulling us into a meditative state. “Yoo must ruleex und sunse the un breeth (sense the in breath) and thin surunder ind sunse the air-t breeth,” (the outbreath) and focus the mind on ubzoooorrrrrrrveeng (observing) the breathing no matter what comes up.”

Big Beardy CarrottClive’s accent made me want to shout shut up shut up for chrissakes stop talking about the hid and nik and the upper lup, I just want a coffee and an almond croissant and a whisky chaser NOW. I had to grip the sides of my cushion to stop me hitting him with it. Finally he rang the bell and the first meditation session began.

OK, OK I thought, I can do this: Japanese water gardens, orchids, bamboo in the wind, kittens playing, a bubbling brook, a sunny day at the seaside, yellow fringed bikini, march to the front of the stage, rip Clive’s dress off and… No! No! STOP IT! Palm trees, flowers, puppies, Cath Kidston fabrics…

This mental topiary went on until breakfast by which time I was so faint I fell back into the lap of the woman behind me who was weeping so uncontrollably she didn’t notice.

In the breakfast queue, you could hear people’s thoughts sniping through the strip-lit silence.“Look! She’s pushing in. How RUDE!”“What? FOUR pieces of toast! what a LUSH!”“That’s way too much chickpea puree you’ve got there woman. You’d better not sit near me.”“Please don’t take the last hash brown…please don’t take it…please don’t…please…”I wondered how long it would take before we all started stabbing each other with nail scissors for the last hash brown. With this gloomy thought in mind, I retired to the dorm where I studied the rule book again. It didn’t say anything about No Wine Gums so I comforted myself with one final act of evil before dragging myself to the hall for round two of Rose vs The Void.Breakfast calmed my mind a bit but did nothing for the torturous pain in my left hip. For the next eight sessions I used all my yogic training to try and merge with this pain but nothing touched it and the more I tried the worse it got. Days two and three were just as bad.On the fourth day I felt my last ally – humour – slowly slipping away. My shoulders were no longer heaving at the fashions of the other inmates: multi-coloured pantaloons, ridiculous distribution of facial hair, incomprehensible ethnic jewellery etc. Now all I could think of was the sensation of molten lava ripping up and down my spine and all over my pelvic region.Not surprisingly, I was the first to put my name down for an interview.“I can’t handle the pain, Clive.”

“Hmmmm. I should till you thit eighty per cint of physical pain is mintal rusistince. Stick wuth it, you’ll staaaart free flowing soooon.”

“Look I’m not sure that I want to be equanimous with everything, Clive. What if I just become boring?”

Clive looked genuinely shocked. “Hey! What about me? Do I look like a vijtuble?”

Well yes, Clive you do actually, I thought. A big beardy carrot.

“Miditation doesn’t make you boring,” he continued, “ut just makes you more aloive and if you’re a comedian then you’re just gana be funnier ut the ind.”


From then on I began to relax. That afternoon, memories of my lovely Grandma Nancy bubbled up into my conscious mind. The smell of her hair stiff with Harmony hairspray, the saintly way she gave us strawberry Angel Delight every single night, and the little O of envy her pink lipsticked mouth made when The Galloping Gourmet chose some lucky lady from the studio audience to share his Filet van Zeetong Nerleoise.

The 5:00 tea bell tore me from my reverie. Tea time at Vipassana was purgatory. There was a harrowing race for the six or seven bananas that lay seductively atop a pile of rock-hard pears. Six or seven bananas for 77 women! It felt wrong to race but with no hope of sugar for the next 15 hours what choice did we have?

“Gottagetthelastbanana, gottagetthelastbanana, gottagetthelastbanana,” was the mantra going through everyone’s hids. Being the youngest of five greedy daughters meant I had the advantage as I was genetically primed for competition. However Clive was onto us and reminded us daily at 4:55 that “Greed is the manifistation of an awt of contruul ego.” I chose to ignore this particular teaching and always got the banana which I hid under my pillow to devour first thing in the morning. Without these bananas I would not have made it to the end.

On day 5 I developed intense feelings for my fellow inmates. There was this one girl with tiny feet in tartan slippers. For some reason, I was compelled to take care of her. One morning in the quadrangle I noticed her hands were freezing so I offered her my gloves to which she gave me a look of pure hatred probably because I had broken the law and drawn her into crime by proxy. Maybe she’d tell Clive. I never went near her again.

Another girl, Sylvia, wore slippers with a Gold Crown motif. Every morning at breakfast she reflected my own greed back at me by gobbling more hash browns than anyone else with her mouth wide open. I loathed her with a black passion I have never felt before or since.

By day 6 the pain in my joints were so bad that I cut my losses and prayed to both God and Satan to make it stop. But the worst thing of all was loneliness. It dogged me at every step. Being silent with 77 women felt like the most intense group therapy ever. To relieve the boredom I wrote an entire operetta in my hid about what Clive did on his days off. Mostly online gambling, Paypal fraud and dealing in Cambodian mail order wives.

On day seven, seven of the 77 women had gone. 3 had cracked, 2 American exchange students from Ohio had been caught eating something called Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the weeper behind me had dissolved into a pool of tears and a guy who looked like a Spanish version of Catweazle lost it one breakfast, flipped the buffet table over and was dragged off like poor Billy Bibbit. No hash browns for him.

The only exercise permitted was walking up and down and around a small featureless field. In a pathetic act of rebellion on day eight I slipped behind a bush and found myself out of bounds in a field where I chanced upon a slow moving convoy of caterpillars. They were yellow and black and hairy but we soon found a common language and from then on I confided in them my every joy and sorrow. I can’t tell you how happy I was just knowing that they were there for me: receptive, attentive, hungry for my news.

That afternoon on Day nine, I experienced the free flow that Clive had promised. Comforted by the fact that I was no longer alone, my mind surrendered completely and I was now fully present throughout every session. Moreover, I had transcended the boundaries of my body and I was just a free flowing mass of energy sensation. This must be what heroin feels like.

‘Don’t get attached to it, it will pass.” said Clive. Well hooey to that. This was even better than bananas. At tea break I didn’t even queue, I just lay in my field blissing out with the caterpillars.

Then, disaster struck. Next break time I rushed over to share my latest joys and…THEY WERE ALL DEAD. My reaction was to snap back into ego mind. I blamed Sylvia and vowed that night to fill her beloved Crown slippers with their delicate, blameless corpses. But that was madness. Whoever was responsible for this holocaust would have to live with their karma and that would be punishment enough. I stumbled back to the hall to offload my grief but, amazingly, acceptance quickly followed. It was obviously their time.

On the last night Clive congratulated us for making it through. In our final interview he included a couple of jokes which were not particularly funny and yet I could not stop laughing. I was just so happy to be alive, to have made it through this ordeal of sense deprivation. The last meditation we did was called Metta Meditation whereby you transmit love to yourself, then to your fellow meditators, then to your loved ones, then to those whom you feel indifferent and finally to those you despise. I thought of Sylvia and wished her a mountain of hash browns.

Last breakfast. I didn’t feel like eating so I had a mint tea, buried my friends after a short but touching address, and then lay in my forbidden field soaking up the chlorophyll before my bus arrived. As I lay there, I felt absolutely loved, absolutely safe, absolutely held. I was invincible and so was the life within and around me. All I had been and done in my silly little existence had led me to this one sublime moment and I was just so freaking grateful to be alive and human with all of its torments, because as humans we are lucky and sentient enough to experience unconditional love and that sure beats Lorazepam.


1 reply
  1. Hayla Genevieve
    Hayla Genevieve says:

    Thank you Rose, I loved reading every part of this blog, eve the sentence made amused and fascinated me as well as admiring you! There are few in this world that are so brilliantly funny, witty, honest and just good fun !! Even with all adversities of life, that we all share, you come out tops Rose, everytime :)))), everything you shared about this vipassina retreat rings true… I did one a while ago, never forgot the initial pain of not being able to have a cigarette, the silence, really and truly not speaking for 10 days… The wooden pilow, mosquitoes and dormitories, no mirrors, al, of it., vegetarian food, all in a Buddhist retreat in Thailand, similar timetable as yours.. Right out of the party world into this was tough and enlightening. Up at dawn, yoga surrounded by exquisite dragonflies, lotus flowers and palm trees.. Wonderful monks, all ages, full of wisdom, humour and dharma. The journey, deep… The initiation of going beyond the senses, beyond needs and desires and first finding that deep Essence, so expanded in light… So pure and beautiful. Resonate with you, admire you so much in all you do, with all my heart 🙂 love you in every which way, your unique generous spirited beyond measure and give so much to so many in your retreats and more I know.. Big love, your childhood friend Hayla xxxx


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