empathy

The Meditation Technique That Taught Me To Love Myself Again

Painted photography by Shae Detar

Painted photography by Shae Detar

Sometimes I think about the ant I accidentally took to a rooftop bar from his home in my notebook last summer. Next morning lying in bed I wonder how it would be like to grow up as the only child of a single farmer father somewhere in the Irish countryside. I even think about what it would be like to be in love with one of the most horrifying dictators of history sometimes. I’ve always been like this, but I almost never managed to put myself into the shoes of my most beloved ones until I looked into my own body and mind and observed what it feels like to be myself last month.

We all want the best for our loved ones – the most of us, anyways.

But only a few of us have the patience to actually be the one to give it to them.

I used to go to the old folks house in my hometown every weekend with my high schools community service group. The old people there would ask us all sorts of weird questions more than five times in half an hour, and make insulting remarks about us, but I always stayed calm and kept talking to them with sympathy and compassion. Even as a teenager, I could empathize with them and the rest just followed. But when I went back home, I would immediately find a reason to get annoyed by my mother and slam the door on her face.

My relationship with my mother and my family only got better when I moved away for college. Instead of them I was now channelling all my temper to my childhood friends who I moved to the same city with. To every other person, to my new college friends I was a super nice fun girl without a single worry in life. But to my dearests, I turned into a monster at least once a month.

Drawing by Federico Infante

Drawing by Federico Infante

Then I fell in love. I fell in love with my best friend. I started a fight with him and actually kicked him literally instead of kicking him out like Miranda from Sex And The City when I had realized I was in love. I guess he realized he was in love with me too, because he adopted this new form of our friendship quite quickly. At the age of twenty-two we were constantly fighting physically like twelve year old boys in the streets. I am not sure if we were making up excuses to fight so that we could touch each other or we actually disagreed in everything and started fights to touch each other anyways.

The thing is, we had great chats on the phone, I could see through him. I felt like I was his imaginary childhood friend, like I was there when all the important things in his life happened, even though we only met a year ago. I knew the reason behind him giving up on himself. Because I knew how it was like to grow up with a family like his, like hell.

We thought it was empathy that brought us closer, but it wasn’t. We felt sympathy and compassion, for sure. But we were just feeding each others depression by using the other as a masochistic mirror.

Then, one day, our lips finally found each other and all the kicking and slapping stopped at once. What we didn’t know was that after a few months of love buzz, the fighting would come back in a much worse form. On the bright side, now I was the perfect friend to my childhood friends. Him and I, the closest people to each other on Earth as we saw it, loved each other, we did everything for each other, except understanding one another. A year had to pass before one of us could put an end to it.

He was my first love, and I couldn’t understand why, how we could be so cruel to each other. When I had realized it was actually over, I fell rock bottom. I blamed him for making me believe that we were going to last for ever, even though he had relationships before and knew that this was going to end. I felt like an idiot for trusting him to take care of me, care about me no matter what. I blamed him for leaving me alone – until one day, I realized it was the best thing he did for me; the break up, pushing me down from the roof of our fantasy house. He killed the version of me he played the biggest role to create, and a much better version was born on that same date. A version of me I was in charge to recreate. Like a renovated apartment with white walls waiting for graffitis to be sprayed all over or a beautiful vase to fill with any flower I wished to collect.

I moved away from the country within a year to a city where no one knew who I was, what I had been through in life. I left my stressful job behind and started working part-time in student jobs. In a few months, I realized I hadn’t felt angry at anyone since I arrived. My relationship with my family and friends back home, and even my ex was better than ever now. I saw things from their perspectives, and understood them. I was happy and I only wished the same for them.

This is it, I remember thinking, I finally figured it out. Don’t get too close with anyone and you’ll be fine.

Artwork by Federico Infante

Artwork by Federico Infante

One day, in my new city, one of my new best friends told me about Vipassana: a meditation technique which is only taught in special camps where you have to stay for at least ten days and basically torture yourself.  “But once it is over, you feel lighter then ever” he said.  Then he went off to the camp for the second time. When he came back, he looked like the happiest person on Earth and I knew that moment I saw the spark in his eyes that I had to try it too.

So off I went, last month, to the Dhamma Vipassana camp. I left my mobile phone and book in a box (but I sneaked a notebook and a pen in, just in case I felt like I was about to loose my mind inside.) Then I sat in the meditation hall with one hundred others and promised I wouldn’t talk to anyone –or even make eye contact, eat or drink anything else than what they serve at the centre, have sex, steal or kill. I promised to wake up at 4 am every day and meditate for eleven hours, then go to bed at 9 pm. I promised to give Vipassana a chance without being cynical to the rules and discourses of the dead instructor that I was going to listen to every night. Goenka, the dead teacher, promised to teach us the technique with which Buddha became Buddha in return.

Vipassana means to see things as they really are in Pali. But we had to wait for four days before actually practicing Vipassana. For the first four days, we were instructed to just observe our breath. Can you imagine how boring it can get? I don’t think so. But Goenka said we had to do that to sharpen our minds. Buddha believed a sharp mind is the most essential rule for seeing things as they really are.

Finally the fourth day had arrived. We were going to start doing Vipassana. I didn’t really know what it was but I was sure it was going to be more interesting than Anapana, what we had been doing so far.

It turned out to be the most challenging thing I had ever done in my life.

And it was, simply, just scanning your body and identifying the sensations you felt. You had to start from the top of your head and go through every part of your body one by one. The trick was, you were only supposed to identify the sensation. You couldn’t add any reactions to them like wanting to scratch where it itched or enjoying the buzz in your loins. You were only allowed to identify. When your mind left you and started wondering in your past or future, you had to smile and bring it back to the scanning process. You couldn’t develop any reactions even if you found your mind on the worst memory of your life. Even if you found it on the funeral of your father, the moment you kissed his dead face, you couldn’t react. You had to go back to scanning your body. Now imagine that. Everything that I thought I had forgotten about my past was coming back to surface one by one. I was very angry at myself for putting myself through this when I was already at a good stage of my life. At one point, I was sure that I was now broken for life.

The woman meditating next to me left the camp. Later, I found out eight more people left in the following days. One woman burst into tears on day six. Me, I was actually funny. I found an excuse to stop meditating every day. First, I left the room because I had very bad period pains, next day I couldn’t stay because I had allergies to mite and I had to scratch myself all the time. Then I had to leave because I had scoliosis and my back hurt really bad, it might have been dangerous. Each time I left, the assistant teacher called me back in the room in the break and asked me what was wrong. When I told her about my spoilt complaints, she always smiled and told me to try harder, try to stay equanimous, give observation a chance. Every time I sat in front of her and talked about my complaints, the manager of guys sitting next to her would give me a look that made me feel uncomfortable and judged. The perfect meditator is annoyed by the spoilt, weak girl, I thought every time.

Days went by and I actually got better in meditating. On day eight, I felt the free flow in my body which was very hard to stay equanimous to. You know what, now that I am out I can say it out loud, it was awesome, absolutely aweome. But then and there, I just kept scanning my body over and over again until nowhere in my body hurt no more and my mind didn’t go as far as it did at the beginning. In the breaks I would look at the beautiful women around me as they looked at the sun or walked in the forest, being proud of all of us and hoping they were feeling better too. I felt like I knew those women very well, even though I hadn’t communicated with any of them in any way since we took the vows.

Artwork by Federico Infante

Artwork by Federico Infante

Then day ten had arrived. We broke the vow of noble silence and an ecstatic loudness took over the so far so silent Vipassana centre. Everything looked brighter, everyone was smiling, all excited. I was taking a walk in the garden with my roommate with whom I spent a room without talking for ten days when the judgemental male manager approached to us. “Oh sorry, are we not allowed to be here?” I asked, “Oh no, no, I just wanted to say hello because I believe we speak the same language,” he said, in my mother-tongue. Apparently that was the reason he was staring at me all the time. When we talked about our experience, he said he actually couldn’t meditate very much this time. He was mostly distracted by his own thoughts and found himself feeling annoyed by the meditators several times. I was shocked by the contrast between the guy I created with my assumptions and the guy I had just met.

Most of the time we believe we feel empathy when we actually just make assumptions about others. Then, we feel sympathy, we feel for that person. And we spend years believing that assumption plus sympathy is empathy. Vipassana showed me that only after observing yourself patiently and equinimously, facing pain or depression without projecting it on others, you come to peace with the absurdity of it all and start taking the bricks of the wall you had built around yourself down. Then you can purely put yourself in the shoes of other people, leaving your ego aside and actually seeing the world through their eyes. And when you can do that, the sympathy you feel for others and yourself turns into genuine compassion, and you have a ticket to leave your next depression with an earlier and cosier flight.

Nazli is a writer and dreamer based in Berlin. It’s very likely that you will run into her while she is writing in the train or reading at Spoken Word events around Rathaus Neukölln. If you live in a city far far away, you can read more of her stuff atrhnk.tumblr.com