BootsnAll Travel Network

Brain enemas, Holy cows: a book I can’t put down.

Travel much? Ever worry about the cultural imperialism inherent in “tourism,” especially in countries full of poor people? Two recent films touch on these issues, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Sarah Macdonald wrestles the beastly issues skillfully in a book that is for me a real page-turner. Last night while doing errands (because it’s too hot to go out in the daylight) I came across her Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure. It’s reviewed here (do read the review and all the comments–fascinating!), and I agree with everybody who writes about the book. It’s smug, it’s respectful, it’s loving, it’s arrogant, it’s an Australian woman’s experience of India, her own spiritual quest undertaken inadvertently and against her better judgment, and it is also, as most of the reviewers fail to mention, gut-busting hilarious. I’ll copy out some pieces of the book below the line.

When I opened the book at random, I found Macdonald’s take on one of S.N. Goenka’s 10-day “bootcamp” Vipassana experiences and knew I had to take the book home with me. The official Vipassana line on descriptions of the experience is that we shouldn’t even try. People have to experience it for themselves. It’s indescribable. But people will ask, and the official books about it include words like “defilements” and “mental impurities,” guaranteed to turn folks off. I’ve been to four of these ten-day courses myself, and I’ve found each of them profound and important. I’ve tried to describe what they’re like to friends who ask in fascinated disbelief why anyone would spend ten days of their life this way. The Goenka course has been the subject of a thread on the Bootsnall site to which I tried to contribute usefully, but now I will forever more just refer people to Macdonald’s account. It’s too long (13 pages) to copy into the blog in its entirety. She describes each of the ten days in glorious detail. Here are a few excerpts:

I decide to start my quest for inner peace with a brain enema (68).

Day One: It’s a boring technique. There’s no mantra to focus on, white light to receive or god to picture; we’re just told to observe our breath. All damn day. (71)

Day Three: Today I realize I’ve spent more than thirty-six hours concentrating on my nose and lips. It’s only slightly less boring than focusing on breathing. I don’t even like these areas of my body and damned if they feel any different for all the attention. I’m starting to get cranky. Why am I wasting ten days of my life learning to sleep sitting up? (73)

Day Five: I’m beginning to think there are some people not suited to Vipassana and that I’m one of them…. I can’t do this.... (75)

Day Seven: We are told we should now be observing a flow of energy throughout the body…. What’s wrong with me?…Yet I can feel a tingle of something. It’s as if my cells are realizing that suffering is temporary and my mind has moments where it can move above the pain and feel in the groove with another level of being. (77)

Day Eight: I’ve almost stopped craving for the end of the course. There are times when I’m actually enjoying the process. I’m in love with the peace, the self-control, the self-discipline and the calm. The world outside seems daunting, brutal, loud and ugly; can I ever maintain this state out there in the madness?…I miss the emotion of joy and I can’t see why mastery of the moment doesn’t allow for its expression. If nonattachment and equanimity don’t allow for hilarity, I’m not sure I want them. (78)

Day Nine: For just a few seconds today I did lose myself altogether. While observing my sensations, I felt sick when I could feel the blood pumping through my veins, but I kept calm, and slowly the vibrations within and on the surface of my body melded together with those in the air around me. I couldn’t sense where I ended and nothingness began. For one brief moment I realized I am just vibrating matter–arising and falling away like all the other particles in the universe…. Goenka’s video chat congratulates us for starting to dissolve our egos. By renouncing our creature comforts, observing moral precepts and trying to gain wisdom through self-observation, I should also have developed tolerance (which I’ve failed to do), truthfulness (which is easy when you can’t talk), strong determination (which I’ve needed) and pure selfless love (which I’ve begun to desire)…. This course is free (Goenka refuses to receive payment for teaching people to observe reality) but donations are encouraged…. (79)

Day Ten: We’re told that to maintain this new state we’ll need to meditate an hour each morning and night, and come back to the center in a year. This sobers me up. Vipassana has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’m not sure I could do it again. Brain enemas are not pretty…. (81)

Freedom Day: For the first time in my life I feel a level of mental and physical control I’ve never experienced before…. I skip out the gates, down the hill and back into India on air. My mind is clear, my heart is open, everyone is beautiful, everyone is worth loving, the world is wonderful and I feel universal love and complassion for all. For the first time in my life I’m living in the moment and I no longer miss my job, perhaps because my need for outward success to feed the ego has diminished. (81)

I love this description because although each of my four courses (two in Massachusetts, two in Texas) was different from all the others, I did go through the same sequence of experiences Macdonald describes–especially the boredom, the endless stream of mind-garbage rising to the surface, and then the sense, at the end, of great courage and power arising from the experience I had of truly gaining some control over my mad monkey mind. Like Macdonald, I giggled when I thought I heard Goenka chanting something about “gay protection” (it’s Pali, so what we hear has no relation to meaning, but that is what it sounds like), and I was also troubled by the lack of humor and imagination in the technique. Well, humor and imagination we can get other places, other times. But much of what she describes mirrors my own experience wonderfully.

I want to include a bit of her wonderful description of sounds and speech, and then I’m going to go back and finish the book.

Suntre tells me she came to Kesroli to be married when she was nine, and now, at the age of twenty-three, she’s the proud mother of four children and two buffalo.

“And two girls,” she adds as an aside.

“In Australia, girls are counted as children, too,” I stammer.

The women laugh….Suntre insists I don’t worry: “We are all very happy, we have no other choice.”

A man appears and breaks up the fun. He speaks in English,

“Of course she is happy.”

The women scatter.

“And I’ll be telling you why you white people are not happy.” He adjusts his penis.

“We Indian people, we look at the people more poor, more low, more hard than us and we be thanking God we are not them. So we are happy. But you white peoples, you are looking at the peoples above you all of the times and you are thinking, why aren’t I be them? Why am I not having that moneys and things? And so you are unhappy all of the time.”

I think of the times I’ve walked around my Sydney suburb wishing I could buy a house or a flat near the beach; I think of the magazines of envy I’ve drooled and dreamed over and I nod my head.

He spits and walks off.

The women go back to work. (110-111)

Actually, I don’t do either. I look at people “more hard than us” and try to find a way to change the world, to fix it, to remedy the suffering. If I can’t change the world, I try to change things where I am. I’m afraid my response is more arrogant and idiotic than Macdonald’s or the Indian man’s, and I’ve probably done more damage trying to fix things than I would have done if I’d done nothing, but there you are. It’s my way. My orientation, if you will. I look at people “more hard than us” and wonder why it is so, what would help, what needs to change, and what I can do. But back to Macdonald, that passage is both smug and self-deprecating; both funny and sad; skillfully rendered and thought-provoking, but yeah–exoticizing of the Other, as the cultural theorists say. But it makes me want to go hang out in a coffee shop with Sarah Macdonald and inveigle her into telling more stories. If I look to her stories as an account of an Australian woman’s experiences in India, if I explore what they tell me about her Australian consciousness transported to that place, I am deeply engaged. I would never look to an Australian to tell me about India, however. I’ll trust Arundhati Roy to do that, or Manil Suri, or Jhumpa Lahiri, or Salman Rushdie, whose book was being burned in Pakistan yet again today, according to BBC News.

Speaking of hanging out in coffee shops. I had a great time in a wonderfully chilly coffee shop this blast-furnace Houston afternoon with a former student who is now a writer. She’s thirty, asking many of the same questions about herself and her craft as I asked when I was thirty. It was all I could do not to hum “The Circle of Life,” and I did laugh out loud with pleasure. Hell yes, she’s a writer. She writes, she tells stories, gripping stories. I celebrate her work. She learns who she is through writing. That necessity. She said she feels a need for an audience, and I suggested she consider opening a blog. I said that for me, writing in the blog has taken the place of writing essays. I no longer read literary magazines. I read blogs. Basta. I’m on p. 114 of Holy Cow, and I will probably finish it before I sleep tonight.

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2 responses to “Brain enemas, Holy cows: a book I can’t put down.”

  1. constance says:


    Whether we are looking down or up at others; we are still looking at others to define us. Thank you for this writing; I have been made aware of how my “mad monkey mind” has taken possession of me, once again and against my best intentions.

  2. stephenbrody says:

    Oh no really, there’s nothing more boring than ignorant tourists poking around India in search of ‘spiritual experiences’ and trying to be smart-assed

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