This is a post about my recent experience with Vipassana meditation. Although I have meditated before, this is possibly one of my first courses of this rigor. Vipassana is a mediation technique that was discovered by Gautama Buddha around 2500 years ago in India. Over time, due to a variety of reasons, the technique was lost to the Indian civilization; however, Emperor Ashoka’s emissaries who ventured into eastern lands helped preserve the technique in its purity — particularly in the country of Burma (Myanmar). Some years ago, a Burmese citizen of Indian origin, Shri. S. N. Goenka came to India and began to teach this technique. As of today the technique is very popular and there are many such Vipassana centers around the world.
I attended a 10-day course at the Igatpuri center in Maharashtra (2-3 hrs by train/car from Mumbai) between the 20th and 31st of December 2010. Since this was a unique experience, I decided to chronicle it here for posterity.
Here is their website — http://www.dhamma.org/
Warning I: This post is going to be intellectual and philosophical in nature, and is going to lack much of the general frivolity (as much as possible) that is usually associated with the posts on this blog! There is a small section at the end that is my attempt at humor — check out section VI if the above is not your cup of chai!
Warning II: This is a LONG post — I did not want to split this in parts. I have marked out sections however, and it should hopefully help with the reading process (if anyone cares to read;)).
Note: Most of the italicized words are in Pali/Sanskrit. I have generally mentioned the language next to the word, where used.
YOU HAVE BEEN FAIRLY WARNED!
I. The Course
There are many variations of the course, and I attended the 10-day version held in the small town of Igatpuri. The course begins on the evening of Day 0 and ends on the morning of Day 11. There are many requirements that a student needs to fulfill before he/she is taught the technique of meditation. The first is to have proper sheela (moral conduct) — this encompasses the following:
One shall abstain from
- killing any being;
- all sexual activity
- telling lies
- all intoxicants
In order to ensure that you as a student follow these percepts, there is complete segregation between the two sexes. Further, there is a requirement to keep silent through the duration of the course. You are not allowed to speak with any other student or even gesture or acknowledge any one’s presence. Essentially, you are supposed to behave as if there is no one around you and you are alone with yourself through the duration of the course. You are only allowed to speak with the teachers if there is any difficulty that arises during the course. In general though, you should keep mum. Obviously, the place requires appropriate attire (no shorts, no sleeveless, no short skirts, skimpy tops etc. etc.). Intoxicants are not allowed on the meditation grounds (no alcohol, ghukta, pan, tambaku etc. etc.). Further, the diet is extremely strict and you are only supposed to eat during the meal hours and the food that they provide. No snacks and stuff of your own allowed either. Essentially, you go there with your clothes and sealed lips and they will take care of everything else for you.
You are also require to abstain from practising anything else during the period of the course — other meditation techniques, yoga, exercises, chanting etc. etc. The only exercise allowed is walking around the campus. You are further required to remove all talismans/chains/God stuff before going there. Essentially, below your clothes, go as the day you were born!
The general schedule for the day (every single day) is as follows:
4.00 AM — Wake Up
4.30 – 6.30 AM — Meditate
6.30 – 7.15 AM — Breakfast (Upma/Idli/Dhokla/Poha + brown, home baked bread + tea/milk, no coffee)
7.15 – 8.00 AM — Bath/ablutions etc.
8.00 AM – 11. 00 AM — Meditate
11.00 AM – 11.45 AM — Lunch (Roti, 2 sabzis, Dal, Rice, Salad + curd/buttermilk)
11.45 AM – 1 PM — Rest
1 PM – 5 PM — Meditate
5 PM – 5.30 PM — Dinner (Fruits — generally bananas/papayas + milk/tea + murmura)
5.30 PM – 6.00 PM — Rest
6.00 PM – 7.00 PM — Medidate
7.00 PM – 8.30 PM — Discourse by S. N. Goenka
8.30 PM – 9.00 PM — Medidate
9.00 PM — Retire to bed.
II. The Principle
The course is based on Buddha’s realization that man is in general miserable. Based on Buddha’s intellectual as well as experiential analysis, this misery is caused because of two major reasons — craving and aversion. When we get something that pleases us, we crave for it and its lack makes us unhappy. Similarly, when we get something that is unpleasant, we start to develop an aversion to it and its presence sends us reeling into bouts of depression. These ‘things’ can be people/material objects/thoughts etc. — essentially, anything that our sense organs come in contact with. Gautama further realized that this misery is not a function of the external object, it is a function of the human being’s mind. For example, if you own a 1000$ watch and it falls down and it breaks, you are depressed. The same watch, when owned by someone else, broken in the same fashion does not move you in the least bit. The watch — the material object — is then not the cause of misery. The cause of human misery is the inability of the human mind to remain objective when confronted with an input from the sense organs. Siddhartha realized that this inability to remain objective stems from the quintessential human nature of reacting when stimulated with sense objects. The solution then, the Illuminated One realized, is to train the mind not to react when confronted with any sensation. If one is able to train the mind to do so, then man will remain objective when stimulated with both pleasant and unpleasant sensations — indeed, the definitions of unpleasant and pleasant would be lost to that trained human mind. Objectivity will imply no craving or aversion, ergo no misery. QED.
Obviously, much of this parallels Hindu philosophy and the contribution of the Buddha was to discover a simple technique in order to achieve this detachment, this nivritti (sanskrit). Buddha’s technique — Vipassana — is pretty straight forward. In order to stop reacting to sensations, man needs to sit down and quietly observe his sensations. As a start one observes the sensations on the surface of the body, although with time one should move on to subtler sensations. When one observes these sensations, one simply observes. One does not attach any importance to the sensations. It is extremely important in this state to not only be aware of the sensations, but to also remain detached, non-reactive. Thus, one looks, but does nothing — immaterial of whether the sensation was pleasant or unpleasant. Maintaining this stability of the mind when reviewing sensations explicitly, will finally lead to an un-conscious adherence to such detachment when faced with real world sensations. Thus, the meditation technique is as simple as it gets. Sit down, close eyes, observe sensations from head to toe, part by part. Some of them may be ‘nice’, others, not so ‘nice’ — immaterial of what it is, do not react. Do not create a liking or aversion to either sensation. Repeat over and over again for as long as possible. Become Buddha!
The course is extremely practical in nature. As S. N. Goenka describes with the help of an example, in one of his discourses:
You are sitting on one bank of a river and a traveler comes by from the other side and describes to you the wonderful, beautiful nature of the other bank. Your interest is piqued. Now 10 other travelers come back and report to you the beauty of this other bank. Now you are slowly beginning to form an intellectual opinion of the other bank. You theorize and hypothesize sitting on this side, and state that the other side is green and beautiful with exotic plants and birds and creatures that defy definition. After some time you are convinced that all that you hypothesize is true. However, you have never visited the other bank! If you wish to ‘realize’ for yourself that what is being said is true, then you have to build your boat and sail across the river and see for yourself! Vipassana is that boat and realization of the ultimate truth is the other bank.
Through his discourses, S. N. Goenka touches upon the underlying theory of the technique, but he always seems to come back to the simple refrain. You need not believe in the theory. Hell, you may even reject it outright — maybe just because it does not align with your religion. However, since the practice is non-sectarian in every which way — you simply observe the sensations on your body, without any imagination of any God or form or shape or any chanting or recitation — there is no harm in practicing the technique. He extols you to give the technique a fair trial and promises that apart from the long term benefits, you shall see immediate results.
Man is by nature miserable — hate, greed, envy, pride, lust are constant companions. This technique, he claims, will rid you of your misery. Forget the theory and the deeper philosophy. You have a problem, he has a solution that does not require you to believe anything — just requires practice of a simple (conceptually) technique. Mr. Goenka, I am sold!
III. Why I chose to go
There were two main reasons for my going to such a meditation camp, both equally important.
First. I am a generally happy person who is perpetually lost in my own world of imagination. I have always considered myself a positive-thinker and although I have had tiffs and quarrels, as all of us have, I have never generated any hatred or deep-rooted ill-will towards any person. However, owing to certain events of the past, I found myself generating extremely negative thoughts against the people involved. My thoughts had taken such a viscerally dark form that I started to imagine impossibly cruel things happening to these people. Indeed, my thoughts were so negative towards this set of people that it is probably impossible for a decent human being to even write them down. I hated these people with such intensity that I started to scare myself. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t turning into a monster or something. In general, I was as happy and care-free as I always was, but against these people my thoughts took a turn for the worse. I hated living as I was, with so much negativity toward fellow human beings and I decided that I had to do something about it. Meditation seemed like a right option. Of course, I wanted to do it right the first time over and hence a decently rigorous course, such as Vipassana, was my only option.
Second. I have always been disenchanted with human life. I find it purposeless. Think about it. We take birth, eat, shit and eat again and waste enough time with frivolous activities till we are ready to die. Our short existence of 60-70 years does not even cast a speck on the palette of time, our lives purposeless and useless, full of misery due to either craving or aversion. Sankaracharya put it beautifully in his Bhaja Govindam (Sanskrit, my translation) —
punarapi jananam, punarapi maranam,
punarapu janani, jathare shayanam,
iha sansare, bahu dustare,
kripaya paare, pahi murare
Birth after birth,
One is sheltered in his mother’s womb;
This world, Oh Lord, is a cruel tomb,
Bring me release!
puratapi dhana bhajam bhitihi
sarva traisha vihita ritihi
In wealth you fear your son’s greed
Oh fool, that is law of riches, heed!
The standard questions such as : why are we born? is there a God? what is my purpose? etc. have haunted me for many years now. I have, over the years, sought answers to these questions in scriptures. I obviously began with the Bhagavat Gita and then migrated to some Upanishads , the Vedanta and the Manu Shastram. I also explored non-Hindu scriptures such as the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, the Buddhist Dhammapada and dabbled a bit in the Islamic Koran. Based on what I read and what I had heard from people around me — elders, learned scholars, teachers, parents etc., I formed an intellectual understanding of the world around me.
My actual belief of the theory of the world is a topic for another blog post, but the essence of all of it is simple. I believe in the existence of the supreme — God, Jehovah, Allah, call it what you may. My beliefs are in line with the traditional Hindu outlook (advaita – sanskrity) that the world is but a mere shadow of the reality and that all of us are parts of the supreme — that which is unchangeable and possibly indescribable by mere human terms. Now, this supreme, in my belief, is not an entity, but an energy of some sort — the same unchangeable energy that exists within our core. The corporeal form that we have is simply a casing that we have to learn to look past and into, in order to realize this supreme. Our painfully mundane experience of life has to be transcended in order to achieve this goal of realization.
All of this is well and good. The problem generally arises when one actually tries to reason out how to acquire this realization. Again, based on my literature review if you will (mostly Paramahamsa Yogananda’s excellent set of works), I intellectually understood that this realization, which EACH PERSON MUST DO ON HIS OWN, can only be achieved through Yoga — not the Hatha Yoga (the one that spandex wearing women practice to reduce weight and maintain figures, the one that Baba Ramdev teaches to rapt millions on the telly) but the non-physical one, Kriya Yoga. I was biding my time, when this idea of Vipassana came along, and its concepts sounded to similar to Kriya Yoga that I decided to take the plunge.
IV. My Experience
Let us get certain things clear straight off the bat. I had absolutely no trouble sticking to the keeping-noble-silence bit. None whatsoever. I never felt any need to talk or communicate with anybody. Even with the teachers, I may have spoken 3-4 sentences over 10 days. I hated it when they allowed everyone to speak. I could not tolerate the noise. I totally detested the environment in the cafeteria (we were not allowed to talk even then in the meditation hall) after the silence was lifted. I loved the silence, I craved for the silence and I enjoyed it while it lasted!
I did not for once feel hungry through the 10 days. If anything, I possibly felt over-full after lunch. This is not surprising in the least bit, since I had MUCH more options at the ashram then I have ever had for lunch! My regular lunch consists of 2 rotis and a bowlful of sabzi…given the variety and quality at the ashram, I never had any trouble. Even the evening murmura was more for taste rather than to fill my stomach.
What has difficult was something that no one ever warned me about — the pain! Even my father, who has attended the course before never warned me; all that he said in his characteristically stoic fashion was ‘It is going to be tough!’. Sitting through the 10.5 hours of meditation day-after-day is not physically easy at all. Now, I do not consider myself terribly physically active, but I do have a decently active life. At 24, with a decently active life, I was pretty much aching through the first 5 days. The back aches like crazy — one tries to sit up straight to avoid this pain later, but sitting up straight causes so much pain that you automatically bend your back — ah comfort. But wait. When you get up after the session, the pain hits you like a lighting bolt — oh the agony! Hold on, this is not all. Apart from manhandling your back, the sitting also seemingly tears through your legs. Your legs hurt in places you would have thought were impossible! My knees actually hurt. I did not even know that knees could hurt. How the hell do knees hurt? Do you realize that if your knees hurt, there is no position in which you can sit comfortably? The knees simply continue to hurt. Wait wait. There is more. The butt hurts. When you sit with your legs folded, the place where the butt rests on the cushion (yes, thankfully there was one) is the same through the sessions — of course, it hurts! The biggest pain was not from these physical injuries though. The biggest thing hurt is your ego! Especially when you see a 50-year old firang, sitting comfortably in the lotus position, his back ramrod straight, his attention not wavering and his body absolutely still.
The soothing balm on all of this comes when you are informed that not only is the pain due to your lethargic, sitting-on-the-chair life, but also because the process itself generates the pain that you feel. The goal, obviously, is not to react to it. When you hear this, you feel relieved and stop blaming your cheese-pizza binges for your discomfort and start to regard the pain as your friend — one who is always there!
I was also lucky to get a room to myself with an attached bath. Any problems that I may have had with respect to hygiene with a roomate or a dorm-like facility were now not in consideration at all! Thank God for small mercies. Thus, physically and environmentally, I had no trouble through the duration of the course. I was well fed, well rested and well bathed!
The meditation process in itself is very straight-forward. All that one has to do is observe the sensations on the body. The first 3 days, one simply observes the breath — just that and the region around the nostril. Obviously, the mind wanders in a minute and when you realize that you are dreaming about a vacation in the Caribbean, you ask it to focus again, which it does with great reluctance before wandering off again. The cycle continues. With time however, you improve. I am not saying that I managed to focus through the entire session, but I did manage to do so for a sizeable chunk of it. The Vipassana — i.e., observing your body — was taught in a massive 2.5 hour session on the fourth day. As I said, it is simply observing the sensations on your body — the coarse painful ones or the subtle vibrations — and not reacting to them either with craving or aversion. As usual, the more you do it, the better you become. Unfortunately though, I was never able to sit through an entire session without changing my position. I managed 50 mins at the max and averaged 40-45 mins — not too shabby, but I was expecting to be up to an hour by the end of it.
I did not have any ‘white-light beckoning me’ experience, but I did achieve part of what I set out to achieve. As they say, during the course of the meditation old deeply rooted memories surface. You are supposed to simply neglect them and not react, since you are observing the sensations. I did get a couple of memories — one that I did not even remember, from over 10 years ago! The other was pretty much expected. The first was easy to ignore and laugh-off, after all I was a kid then. The second took some time, but that was easy to ignore after a day or so as well. I think I have in my heart & head finally forgiven the people who elicited the negativity that I did not know I possessed. Now when I think about these people, my thoughts are those of nonchalance and I do not sense any anger or hatred. Indeed, I wish them well in their lives. Phew! I can go back to living my completely-unaware-of-the-world life again!!
I enjoyed the course. Not only for the meditation, but also for the experience. I did not go there expecting a cure to all ills, but went there hoping to find a path that I can tread on in my life in order to cure these ills. I think I found this path. However, it is up to me to continue practice, after all practice makes perfect! The discourses in the evening were a bonus, and what S. N. Goenka said were pretty much in line with my beliefs of the world and my scorn for rites and rituals. In one discourse he said something that gladdened my heart.
I have had many a fight with my mother on the concept of God as she and ‘elders’ define it. I have specifically questioned the sense behind a God who supposedly created human beings solely for the purpose of chanting his name! If this is true, then such an ego-centric God does not deserve my respect, let alone my love and faith! This word — ego-centric God — was used by Mr. Goenka in exactly the same context and I was glad that someone else who is well read and has realized something thinks in exactly the same fashion as I. Another example. I have always argued over the futility of ‘asking’ something from God, especially with bribery. For example, someone is sick and you go to the temple and ask God to cure this person, and if God does so, you say, you will go and shave your head, or give him 500 Rs. or something along those lines. What sort of corrupt individual have you made out God to be! Is your faith so fickle that He needs to do you a favor before you please him? Additionally, why should God help you at all? Just because you chant his name? I have always held that man is punished for his sins and this law of retribution is just and does not discriminate against one who calls out God’s name and one who does not. If you sin, you have to be punished, as simple as that. Calling out to God does not lessen the punishment in any way, only grants you some support and help in facing the situation. Again, Mr. Goenka agrees! As he says, God did not make man in his own image, Man made God in his own!
So the verdict you ask? Go for the course! If not for the meditation, then for the experience of isolation. If not for isolation, then for the discourses. And if not for discourses then…well see below…
VI. Reasons to go for Vipassana
Given that most of this post is extremely serious in nature, let me end with a lighter note. If you do not wish to achieve the lesser goals of self-realization and misery-culling, here are a series of more practical, important ones why one must go for a course like this.
Living with 200-300 men in closed confines for over 10 days makes you realize many practical truths to life. Note that even if one understands all of this intellectually, one needs to experience it to realize it!
You realize that (no particular order):
— The mixture of multiple bodily stenches of multiple bodies, perfume, deodorant, hair-oil and mouth-decay makes for a better intoxicant than any alcohol ever brewed
— Farts, burps and scratching sound extremely loud in quiet meditation halls
— When put together with 200-300 men for 10 days, you would have seen each one pick their nose, scratch their ass or smell their fingers after God knows what at least once
— Man is capable of making the weirdest possible sounds ever heard. This is especially true when everyone is meditating with their eyes closed, and trying to concentrate
— At least one person in each meditation hall will have cold/cough at the start and by the end, it would have traveled through each person and gone back to the first guy (yes, I got one in the process)
— The amount of white rice eaten by an Indian man on a average per meal can feed the entire country of Ethiopia for 23 years and 58 supermodels for 101.5 years
— The amount of vegetables consumed can unfortunately feed only 0.25 normal adults
— Immaterial of how many notices are put up, and immaterial of the meal being a buffet, people will ALWAYS throw something away from their plates
— Even in places like this, the quintessential Indian nature of jumping the line and running and shoving to get to the head will not go away
— When it says, ‘drinking water, please do not spit here’, people will spit there
— An average Indian male has the capacity to carry twins for a full term of 40 years — and he does
— No talking with each other under any circumstances implies speak with each other freely, only whisper and do it acting very suspiciously
— You are free to take second helpings implies, immaterial of you piling up your plate the first time and dumping the contents on to your small, over burdened stomach, you HAVE TO pile some more on to the plate
— Spoons are not instruments to drink liquids, they are objects to crush rice
— Your command over hindi actually sucks — especially when you learn new words such as – spanda, chirmirahat, jhunjhunahat, chitt etc. etc.