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On a silent meditation retreat deep in the Thai jungle, a Brazilian feminist, a neurotic French scientist and a ruthless Ukrainian businessman are struggling to find peace.
Laeticia is a brilliant human rights specialist broken by the harsh lived reality of ambitious women.
Francis analyses the likelihood of future threats to humanity, but those threats now live permanently inside his head.
Ivan got everything he ever fought for, until his best friend stole it all.
As the world around them falls silent, their inner voices become louder, clamouring for their attention, seeding doubt and dysphoria. Over the course of ten mosquito-ravaged nights and ten achingly uncomfortable days, their deepest fears begin to overpower them.
Will any of them survive to restore the balance, happiness and prosperity they have come to seek? Or will their past lives bury them forever?
A “provocative spiritual novel… a metaphor for life itself, made poignant as the trio [of characters] explore their own fears and limitations.”
“Funny and often poignant… And Breathe will delight anyone who has wondered what it feels like to sit cross- legged on a cushion for 11 hours a day. Does Vipassana change these characters’ lives? The ending, like much of this short novel, is a surprise.”
Emma Carmichael, founder of Travelling Through Bookshop, author of Driving Tito
“Enthralling to the end… a grippingly intense, yet beautiful read.”
Sarah Boyd, author of The Wrong Cake and other stories
“An intriguing novel which explores the healing properties and power of meditation – and its sometimes unexpected results.”
I first learned about Vipassana meditation from a Ukrainian friend of mine, Galina, who told me about it one sunny afternoon in Kyiv, while we were drinking tea on the Lesi Ukrainka Boulevard. She is someone who is constantly embracing new ways to live fully and with joy and natural power. She hosts female empowerment workshops at her home; she is both a student and a teacher of many practices. I was always interested in what she had to say.
Galina had done a Vipassana meditation course in the UK, where she had lived for several years. I’d never heard of silent meditations, and when she told me about the ten days, I immediately saw the potential for a novel structure. Ten days with only your thoughts? What personal terrors and joys could ensue? Of course, during these ten days, you are not meant to be paying attention to your thoughts, but rather focusing on your breath, your physical state and being in the present… but thoughts are something that cannot be escaped. And thus the novel was born.
A novel is born
The idea burned me to the extent that I didn’t wait to do a Vipassana course myself before writing the first draft. I felt there should be three characters, as the journey of just one would be too intense, but three would give enough space between the minds to allow the reader to enjoy the novel. Two of the three characters – my Brazilian and my Ukrainian ones, Laeticia and Ivan – seemed to arrive in my head knowing exactly who there were, while my third character Francis took a little more time to show himself. He’s the most sensitive of the three, so it makes sense that he took some coaxing.
Once the first draft was done, I had to check my facts. I signed up to a Vipassana course in the beautiful English countryside and put my life on hold for 12 days so that I could travel to a remote location and sit in silence for 10 days, before returning to my chaotic life.
It was summer, and the weather was perfect. I shared a room with a Slovakian woman, and we had a couple of hours to talk before the silence began. While it was her first Vipassana experience, she had done many Buddhist retreats. I explained that I had only ever meditated for 30 minutes at a time. She looked sceptical that I was going to make it through.
The Vipassana course
First of all, I was delighted to find that most of the assumptions I had made while writing the first draft of my novel were correct. But it was the details that I noticed as I participated that I would never have known. In between meditations, we walked on wooden pathways through beautiful foliage. As the silence stretched on, I noticed nature more and more. I could spend ten minutes looking at a spider’s web laced with dew drops caught in sunshine, and only partly because it was the most interesting thing I had seen all day – its beauty was revealed to me because I had the time to look, and the space in myself to observe and appreciate. The connection with nature became very strong, and with it, a sense of wonder, and happiness.
Another revelation: the understanding of my own personal drama. As one meditator sitting in a room of over a hundred, I became aware of how each person in that room was experiencing their own drama, playing out with its own set of characters and own goals and struggles, their own hurdles and triumphs. It gave me a sense that all these dramas were essentially unstoppable, the battles unwinnable because there would immediately be new ones, the relationships unsatisfying because every period of intense happiness would be followed by something different – the ups and downs a part of it. It made me realise that what I was subconsciously and consciously trying to do with my life: win every important battle; have joy flowing from every relationship all the time; live fully and joyfully – was not the key to happiness. Something different was. And that was what Vipassana helped me with – giving me a separation from the drama – and showing me that my personal peace was an internal space that only I had control over.
None of that is new, especially to anyone interested in meditation, but it was something that came to me in a very real way during the course.
One of the fun things about the ten days was wondering how the world would have changed when we stepped out of the centre and jumped onto a news website. Much can happen in such a period of time, and I found myself imagining dramatic changes to the world as I knew it. Rather disappointingly, everything was much the same by the end, but in an alternative novel… my characters could have been the only survivors of an apocalyptic event…
And finally, the meditators. Sitting for so many hours around strangers, you get to know them in a physical manner without any clue as to their outward personalities. I knew who fidgeted (me!), who scratched and sniffed, who fussed, who skipped the meditation sessions, who needed endless cushions, and most impressively of all, who sat spine-straight and motionless day after day (not me!) and awed me with their grace and composure. What fun, on the final afternoon, to talk to these people, and discover if your guesses about them were correct. There were several musicians on the course, seeking a respite from the endless noise of their lives. There were high-strung professionals; there were truth seekers; there were busy people balancing their lives with two weeks of Buddhism. There were private people who didn’t want to talk. There were the servers who were returning students who had been cleaning and cooking for us all week. It was an uplifting and lovely group of humans.
I’d recommend a Vipassana retreat to everyone. Ten days is a lot of time to commit to our inner selves. But it is our inner selves that most needs attention and most needs to be in a peaceful state so that we can carry that peace out into the world.
Since I visited the retreat, I’m more convinced than ever that this is exactly what the world needs.
Please visit dharma.org for information about courses.
Ten-thirty at night in Paris.
I am sitting cross-legged in a silent meditation hall in the middle of a Thai jungle.
A fan is creaking as it circles on the roof above us.
A small animal is scampering over the tiles.
I hear the heavy breathing of the man on my left.
I smell the toilet soap of the man on my right.
The person behind me has shifted position five times.
I am Francis. I am François.
My job is to anticipate future risks to my country.
But I reached the point where all I could see was risk.
A short break, they said, to calm your mind.
Everyone feels better afterwards.
We will be waiting for you, Francis.
Don’t come into work tomorrow, Francis.
See you in a month, Francis.
Goodbye. Au revoir.
I took the bus from the local airport. Thirty meditators cramped together, wiping the steaming windows for a view of the Thai landscape: jungles and distant mountains, villages and perched temples. I sat beside an Englishwoman who was returning to “serve” for the ten days. While we meditated, she would be cooking our meals and cleaning our showers, washing the dishes and beating the gongs that would wake us up at four in the morning. I liked her. She was excited about ten days of hard, menial work. I was moved.
“What has brought you to Thailand?” she asked.
“My head,” I replied, “gets fizzy. I see too many things. I observe too intensely. I cannot switch my mind off and then my reality becomes distorted.” I paused. “Or so people tell me.”
She laughed. “The main principle of Vipassana is to observe intensely,” she said. “So, you should be great at it.”
Her words didn’t make me feel good. Her words made me worried.
On the first evening, having settled into our rooms, we trooped into the meditation hall where we would spend eleven hours a day meditating, a hundred and ten hours in one space, two feet by four feet, our small place of peace. We listened to the instructions.
They were simple: Observe the breath. Release any thoughts that draw your focus away from it. Do not breathe deeply or strongly. Breathe through the nose, as if you were not paying attention to the process. Observe the movement of the breath in and out of the nose. Do not follow it down to the lungs. Do not track its passage out into the meditation chamber. Just the small movement in and out of the nose.
Simple. Specific. Seriously impossible.
“Close your eyes. Observe the breath.”
The time is four-forty-five. There are ten-and-three-quarter hours remaining to observe the breath. It is not going to be any different. I have observed it. It is shallow: low intake of oxygen, release of carbon dioxide.
If there was a chemical attack on the meditation centre and we had to seal the room with no air coming in, I calculate how long we would survive. Eight cushions by eight cushions: sixty-four cushions on the men’s side and the same on the women’s makes one hundred and twenty-eight. Teachers at the front, a row of old students and monks down each aisle give an extra twenty. One hundred and forty-eight people in the room.
I estimate the volume of the chamber, with twenty percent oxygen content and net consumption of four cubic metres an hour. Divide this between a hundred and forty-eight people and we have fifteen days to survive.
However, in the case of an attack, we’d be in fight-or-flight mode with a double respiration rate. That takes us to seven-and-a-half days. And the meditators would be dying off, with the corpses using oxygen to decay, so let’s deduct two days for that. Oxygen only needs to decrease to ten percent of air composition to induce coma and death, so we’re down to three.
Three days, then. If there is an attack and we need to seal the hall, then we’re all dead in seventy-two hours.
If we were to draw this on a chart, we’d use Time as Axis X and Panic Level as Axis Y and I’d draw the oxygen as a line steeply descending, hitting the horizontal at three days, to show total death.
However, this also supposes that the hall can be properly sealed. We have dozens of thick blankets for us to wrap ourselves in while we’re meditating, and I’d help them secure the doors and windows, but if the gas or chemical was strong enough then it would seep in, and we could all be dead within an hour.
Unless there was a strong wind.
Another graph: Strength of Chemical meeting Wind Level. Lay on top of that the percentage of success in sealing the hall windows and doors with blankets. Then the wind level seems to be the dominant factor. But who would launch a chemical attack in a high wind? Someone of low intelligence. So, another variable: intelligence of the attackers.
New graph: Intelligence of Attackers on Axis X, Wind Level on Axis Y.
These are both random factors over which we have no control.
So, in the event of an attack, the main factor of survival is chance.
How is this helping me be calmer?
I am meant to be breathing.
I should take in as little oxygen as possible, just in case.
“I like your accent,” the Englishwoman on the bus had said. “You’re French?”
She was pretty. She was wearing a cotton dress to her knees, and no make-up. Her hair was in a ponytail. But it wasn’t a case of having no sense of fashion or making a statement by being pared-down. It just felt natural. I was drawn to it.
“I’m both French and English,” I replied. “A father of one, a mother of the other.”
“Where did you grow up, then?” she asked.
“In English boarding schools and French farmhouses,” I replied. But that sounded pretentious, so I added, “and a poky Paris apartment.”
“I’m from Liverpool,” she said. She just offered it. Like the dress and the clean face, it was a simple statement. I began to wonder if I’d met anyone else like her. I knew plenty of women who dressed badly and wore ponytails, but I got the sense that she could have been all sorts of interesting things, and she was choosing this clean simplicity. But then I don’t trust my senses anymore. They tell me too many things that start my brain fizzing. I’m from Liverpool, she told me. No more, no less.
“Francis,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Jo,” she replied.
“Or François, if we’re in France.” Again, I sounded pretentious. Her clear eyes were bringing out the fool in me.
“Two names,” she said, with a little smile. “That must get confusing.”
“My mother called me Francis, and my father François. In France one, in England the other. Not confusing at all.”
“I should start calling myself Josephine when I go to France,” she said.
We said goodbye when the bus pulled into the jungle clearing. She went off with the group of servers and I remained with the meditators. First task: lock away all electronics and writing materials. I sent a final text to Jimme before I switched off my phone.
Arrived safe. See you in 11 days. Enjoy the flat. Remember to lock the door. F.
Then I sent another one.
I love you. F.
A heaviness rushed suddenly into my head as I locked my phone away for good. And then a flash of hope: what if my mental state had been caused by the negative impact of technology and endless information? Technology was the greatest security risk to the world, central to all the terrifying scenarios I had mapped out for my department. Could locking my phone away help me?
Then I remembered once again that no, it was not technology that had caused my unbalanced mental state. It was moving to England to work at Hartbridge Laboratories. And a science fiction teacher. And reading science fiction books.
I walked away from the locker, trying not to let my mind begin running down those paths. I could see it warming up, stretching, ready to begin a powerful, stamina-heavy journey into the terrors of the surrounding world.
I did not cry.
I was in a place that might be able to help me.
I looked around instead. A jungle of intense lime green. A rustling noise coming from the distance. Hot, thick, rain-tinged air.
[Extract taken from Chapter 1]