Seeing as I have to start somewhere in relating the story of these four years—during which I tried to write an upbeat, subtle little book on yoga, was confronted with things as downbeat and unsubtle as jihadist terrorism and the refugee crisis, was plunged so deep in melancholic depression that I was committed to the Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital for four months, and, finally, during which I bade farewell to my editor of thirty-five years, who for the first time wouldn’t be there to read my next book—I choose to start with this morning in January 2015, when, as I finished packing, I wondered whether I should take my phone, which in any event I wouldn’t be able to keep with me where I was going, or leave it at home. I selected the more extreme option, and no sooner had I left our building than I was thrilled to be under the radar. It was just a short walk to the Gare de Bercy, where I’d catch my train. From this annex of the Gare de Lyon, small in size and already quite provincial, dilapidated train cars take you straight to the French heartland. The old-fashioned compartments, with six first-class and eight second-class brown and gray-green seats, reminded me of the trains of my distant childhood in the sixties. A few army recruits slept stretched out on the seats, as if no one had told them that military service had been abolished long ago. With her face turned toward the dusty window, the only person near me watched the graffitied buildings file past under a fine gray rain as we left Paris and passed through the suburbs to the east. She was young, and looked a bit like a hiker with her huge backpack. I wondered if she was on her way to go trekking in the Morvan hills, as I’d done long ago, in weather conditions that weren’t any better than they were today, or if she was going—who knows?—to the same place I was. I’d made up my mind not to take a book, and spent the trip—an hour and a half—letting my eyes and thoughts wander in a sort of calm impatience. Without knowing exactly what, I was expecting a lot from these ten days I’d spend cut off from everything, out of contact, beyond reach. I observed myself waiting, I observed my calm impatience. It was interesting. When the train stopped at Migennes, the young woman with the big backpack also got off, and, along with me and twenty or so other people, headed over to the square in front of the station where a shuttle bus would pick us up. We waited in silence, seeing as no one knew anyone else. Everyone sized up everyone else, wondering if they looked normal or not. I would have said they did, or at least normal enough. When the coach pulled up, some sat down together, I sat alone. Just before we left, a woman in her fifties with a handsome, solemn, sculpted face climbed in and sat down beside me. We said quick hellos, then she closed her eyes, indicating that it was fine with her if we didn’t talk. No one spoke. The coach soon left the town and headed down narrow roads, crossing villages where nothing seemed open—not even the shutters. After half an hour it turned onto a dirt road lined with oak trees, and stopped on a gravel driveway in front of a low farmhouse. We got off, picked up our bags from the luggage bay, and entered the building through separate doors, one for the men and one for the women. We men found ourselves in a large, neon-lit room fitted out like a school dining hall, with pale yellow walls and small posters bearing bits of calligraphed Buddhist wisdom. There were some new faces, people who hadn’t been in the coach and who must have arrived by car. Behind a Formica table, a young man with an open, friendly face—dressed in a T-shirt while everyone else was wearing either sweaters or fleece jackets—welcomed the new arrivals one by one. Before going up to him we had to fill out a questionnaire.
After pouring myself a glass of tea from a big copper samovar, I sat down in front of the questionnaire. Four pages, back and front. The first didn’t need much thought: personal information; people to contact in case of emergency; medical situation, medication, if any. I wrote down that I was in good health but that I’d suffered several bouts of depression. After that, we were invited to describe: (1) how we’d become acquainted with Vipassana; (2) what experience we’d had with meditation; (3) our current stage in life; (4) what we expected from the session. There was no more than a third of a page for each answer, and I thought that to seriously tackle even the second question I’d have to write an entire book, and that in fact I’d come here to write it—but I wasn’t about to mention this. Prudently, I stuck to saying that I’d been practicing meditation for twenty years, that for a long time I’d combined it with tai chi (putting, in parentheses, “small circulation,” so they’d know I wasn’t a complete beginner), and that today I combined it with yoga. However, I didn’t practice regularly, I went on, and it was to get a better grounding that I’d enrolled in an intensive session. As to my “stage in life,” the truth is that I was in a good way, an extremely favorable period that had lasted almost ten years. It was surprising, even, after so many years when I would unfailingly have answered this question by saying that I was doing very, very badly, and that that particular moment in my life was particularly catastrophic, to be able to answer candidly, even playing down my good fortune, that I was doing just fine, that I hadn’t suffered from depression for some time, that I had neither love nor family nor professional nor material problems, and that my only real problem—and it certainly is one, albeit a privileged person’s problem—was my unwieldy, despotic ego, whose control I was hoping to limit, and that that’s just what meditation was for.
Around me are fifty or so men, in whose company I will sit and be silent for ten days. I eye them discreetly, wondering who among them is going through a crisis. Who, like me, has a family. Who’s single, who’s been dumped, who’s poor or unhappy. Who’s emotionally fragile, who’s solid. Who risks being overwhelmed by the vertigo of silence. All ages are represented, from twenty to seventy, I’d say. As to what they might do for a living, it’s also varied. There are some readily identifiable types: the outdoorsy, vegetarian high school teacher, adept of the Eastern mystics; the young guy with dreadlocks and a Peruvian beanie; the physiotherapist or osteopath who’s into the martial arts; and others who could be anything from violinists to railway ticketing employees, impossible to tell. All in all, it’s the sort of mix you’d find at a dojo, say, or in any of the hostels along the Way of Saint James. Since the Noble Silence, as it’s called, hasn’t yet been imposed, we’re still allowed to talk. As night begins to fall, very early and very black behind the misty windowpanes, I listen to the conversations of the small groups that have formed. Everything revolves around what awaits us in the morning. One question comes up again and again: “Is this your first time?” I’d say about half the group are new, and half are veterans. The former are curious, excited, apprehensive, while the latter benefit from the prestige that comes with experience. One little guy reminds me of someone, but I can’t say who. Since I’m a negative sort of person, my attention focuses on him. With a pointed goatee and a wine-toned jacquard sweater, he’s annoyingly smug in the role of the smiling, benign sage, rich in insights into chakra alignment and the benefits of letting go.
Teleportation in Tiruvannamalai
The first time I heard about Vipassana was in India, in the spring of 2011. To finish my Russian adventure novel Limonov I’d rented a house in the former French enclave of Puducherry, where I stayed for two months almost without talking to a soul. I started my days, which invariably followed the same routine, reading The Times of India in the only café, as far as I knew, where you could get an espresso. Then, following the streets that intersect at right angles and which, lined with run-down colonial buildings, bear names like Avenue Aristide Briand, Rue Pierre Loti, or Boulevard Maréchal Foch, I walked pensively back to the house to work on my book. I went to bed very early, around the time when the innumerable stray dogs in Puducherry would strike up a chorus of barking in which I could make out a few voices, and I got up very early too, woken by the first rays of dawn and the croaking of geckos. This sort of homey routine, without visits to museums or monuments or touristic obligations, is my ideal trip abroad. One time, however, I did go to Tiruvannamalai, which is a hot spot of Indian spirituality because that’s where the grand mystic Ramana Maharshi lived and taught, and where his ashram is still located. The hot spot made a very bad impression on me: a fairground of gurus and spiritual seminars that attracts hordes of gaunt, grimy, fake Western sadhus oozing both pretension and suffering. Now when people who practice yoga talk to me about retreats in India where they hope to benefit from the ancestral teachings of the great masters, that’s what I think of. For me Tiruvannamalai and Rishikesh—said to be the cradle of yoga—are the places where you stand the least chance of benefiting from the teachings of a great master: as little chance, say, as you do of meeting an original artist on Place du Tertre at the top of Montmartre in Paris. Bertrand and Sandra, the only two friends I’d made in Puducherry, had given me the address of a French guy who lived there. Dressed in a lilac-colored robe, he was called Didier but he had people call him Bismillah. When I asked him about his spiritual journey, Bismillah told me that one big step for him had been a Vipassana training session: ten days of intense meditation that, as he said, really cleaned out your head. As I practiced meditation in my own small way and on the face of it wasn’t against getting my head cleaned out, I was curious. However, I was a little put off when I found out that on the next step of his spiritual journey Bismillah had come to Tiruvannamalai attracted by a seminar on teleportation. He’d been disappointed, he said. That left me thinking. Teleportation consists in traveling instantaneously from one place to another, simply through the power of your mind. Disappearing, say, in Chennai, and reappearing the next moment in Mumbai. A variant of that is bilocation: being in two places at the same time. Several traditions credit such exploits to a few rare, distinguished saints, such as Joseph of Cupertino. But religious authorities—to say nothing of scientists—remain cautious on the subject. I couldn’t help wondering if a guy who registers for a public seminar on the Internet in the hope of having such an experience—a bit like signing up for a day of scuba diving in the hope of seeing manta rays—demonstrated exemplary open-mindedness, or whether to swallow such a load of fiction, and then to say you’re disappointed, you had to be a bit of an idiot.
The question of accommodation worries me. There are individual rooms and shared rooms, and of course I’d prefer a room by myself but I imagine so would everyone else, and I have no reason to say I need one more than anyone else. In another setting money would solve things: the best rooms would go to those with the most money and I’d have nothing to worry about. But here we’re put up free of charge. The teaching, the room and board, it’s all free. All they do is suggest you make a donation at the end, as much as you’re comfortable with and without anyone knowing how much you’ve given. There must be another criterion. The order of arrival? Or they draw lots? Or it’s completely random? When I’m done filling out my questionnaire and take it over to the nice guy who’s collecting them, I ask him about it with an amused, complicit little smile, in the unlikely case that it depends simply on his goodwill. No, he tells me, also smiling, they don’t draw lots: the rooms are assigned according to age. The single rooms go to the most elderly participants. So I don’t have to worry after all. The nice young man gives me a key, which I take, and I go out into the soaked garden behind the main building. To the left there’s the big empty hall where we’ll spend ten or so hours a day for ten days, to the right three rows of prefab bungalows. Mine’s in the first row. Just over a hundred square feet, linoleum floor, a single bed—under it a plastic box with sheets, a blanket, and a pillow—a shower, a sink and a toilet, a little closet: the strict minimum, all perfectly clean. And well heated, which is important in the winter in the Morvan region. The only source of light, apart from the window in the door with a pull-down blind, is a frosted glass globe on the ceiling. It’s not what you’d call cozy, I’d have liked a bedside lamp, but seeing as we’re not supposed to read … I make my bed, put my things in the closet: warm, comfy clothes, thick sweaters, jogging pants, slippers, this is no time for vanity. My yoga mat. A little terra-cotta statue representing the Gemini twins. Five inches tall, with full, round curves: a woman I loved gave me this discreet fetish, which I take with me wherever I go. No books, telephones, tablets, or any of their chargers. When we spoke, the nice young man asked if I had any such objects to leave in storage: lockers are provided. I answered proudly that I’d left all of that at home. Is everyone as compunctious in following the instructions I’d received when I signed up two months earlier? Fine, we’d signed and agreed to do without such distractions and not communicate with the outside world for ten days. But if we cheat, who’ll find out? It would surprise me if they made spot checks and confiscated any books or phones people had snuck in.
Or perhaps they would?
Vipassana sessions are the commando training of meditation. Ten days, ten hours a day, in silence, cut off from everything: hard-core. On the forums, a lot of people say they’re satisfied with, and sometimes even that they were transformed by, such a demanding experience. Others denounce them as a sort of sectarian indoctrination. The place is like a concentration camp, they say, and the daily meeting a form of brainwashing, with no room for discussion, to say nothing of disagreement. North Korea. The duty of silence, the isolation, and the poor nutrition demean the participants and turn them into zombies. What’s more, leaving is forbidden, no matter how bad you feel. No, defenders argue, if you want to go you can go, no one’s stopping you, it’s just strongly discouraged. Above all, the participants themselves commit to staying until the end. I was intrigued but not put off by such discussions: I feel immune to sectarian indoctrination, I’m even curious about it. “Come and see,” Christ said to those who had heard all sorts of contradictory rumors about him, and that still seems to me to be the best policy: come and see, with as little prejudice as possible, or at least with an awareness of whatever prejudices you have.
Copyright © 2020 by Emmanuel Carrère and P.O.L éditeur
Translation copyright © 2022 by John Lambert