I’ve never given much thought to my thoughts… what a fool I was.
I do not come from a religious family. I was never told to follow any sort of schedule, or culture, or rituals. But I have always been a bookworm, and I questioned the meaning and purpose of life from an early stage, so I did read quite a bit on this subject. But not satisfied with just reading, I always sought experiences. So I developed this unquenchable thirst for understanding…. well, basically for understanding what the hell is going on?
Most of our wishes in our lives are a disconnect. Even if the conscious mind (a thin upper layer of the consciousness) does not pick up on these disconnects, the subconscious mind does. And because the subconscious intellect wishes to be and stay consistent, the way we lead our lives puts us into a constant state of turmoil. We find ourselves craving opposite ends of the spectrum, at the same time. Like fire and water, at the same place, at the same spot. We want to lie, but also not be punished; we want to live life free as a bird, but we also want to live by the rules of the society, marry and procreate; we criticise greed in children but move around burning in envy. The uncountable layers of our subconscious sees these discrepancies.
I wouldn’t call myself a happy person, or a depressed person (although few years ago, I did have my struggles with the disease). When I went to attend this 10-day course of Vipassana, I was in a healthy state of mind. I was not going through any state of mental torture (that I knew of).
Here is the schedule that is required to be followed by anyone attending this course:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
All who attend a Vipassana course must conscientiously undertake the following five precepts for the duration of the course:
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
There are three additional precepts which old students (that is, those who have completed a course with S.N. Goenka or one of his assistant teachers) are expected to follow during the course:
- to abstain from eating after midday;
- to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations;
- to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
*Please note, this is all my experience and should not influence the truth of your experience, should you decide to attend this course yourself.
*This course is not chargeable, although they appreciate donations in the form of money and seva (service).
As I neared the Vipasana center, I didn’t feel anything extraordinary… Except for an extraordinary headache… Not sure why… could be because I woke up at 6 am that morning… For a 9 am bus from Mumbai to Pune. Yes, I am not of the particularly laid back category.
I had arrived the bus stop 45 minutes in advance. So well, go figure.
It could also be because I didn’t take any breakfast, which is typical of me before a long road journey. My stomach cannot handle too much anxiety. And the last thing I wanted was to throw an air bagel at my poor unsuspecting co-passengers.
I did try to eat something when the bus stopped midway. But the sandwich was less than edible.
My bus seat was broken. So even when I would adjust it up right, it would eventually slide down. So when I woke up after an hour long nap, my first sight were the people sitting behind me, munching on chips and staring down at me.
I immediately readjusted my seat. They said something in marathi and laughed. I have to imagine is was something like… We have never seen a person drool THAT much during their sleep.
Anyway, I was busy day dreaming when I realized that the bus had emptied. The conductor was yelling at me to get off. Apparently a different bus was now going to take us to Pune station.
I got up in a daze, confused, collected my things and got off the bus.
Once I reached Pune station I had to struggle to get a cab. The center was in another corner of the city. The drivers knew they won’t get a booking from that far off. But eventually, I got one.
There was also an unfortunate incident where I was almost attacked by a lady beggar for standing too close to where she was sitting. But I’d prefer not to dwell on that.
I finally started my journey to the Vipasana center in my cab.
Was I nervous? Slightly. Although the headache helped in distracting me.
Then I saw a hut like structure in a distance. There were some beautiful structures on the roof. Something yellow. This is it, I thought. Here I go….
There was a board, I couldn’t tell what it said. Until I got closer and could read the board…. “Rishi Laser limited”.
Oops, I thought and put on my spectacles.
The ride was much longer than I had expected but I finally got there. The registration didn’t take long, after which they even asked me my room preference, whether I would like to stay alone or with someone.. and what type of toilet I would prefer, Indian or western.
I reached the centre at 3:30 pm. I was done and registered by 4:30 pm. I called my folks and friends to say my final goodbyes. My mom was super tensed… For the last 25 years not even 2 days have gone by without her speaking to me.
After depositing all my valuables, including my phone, and after the registration, I went to see my room and keep my luggage.
This was my room at the centre:
I need to give some background here.
I am an MBA student. After completing 1 year of MBA, I joined a 2 month internship at a bank. For our induction, they had us stay for 3 days at Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the most expensive and luxurious hotels in India. They pampered us interns to death, there wasn’t any type of facility that was not made available to us.
But oh my god, I was so anxious those 3 days… something didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel like I am headed down the right path. The right path for me.
Here at this Vipassana Centre, I was given bare minimum of resources and facilities (obviously, since they don’t even charge, but the stay there was not by any means uncomfortable or inconvenient. They worked very hard to make sure of that); but somehow from the minute that I got there, I felt content, relaxed, optimistic.
At 5 pm, we were called to the mess for evening snacks and tea. After that we were introduced to the centre through a video that explained to us all the rules and regulations. This evening, our noble silence began. There were about 30 odd men and 22 women.
I remember walking to the main Dhamma hall for my first taste of meditation feeling suddenly unsure of the entire thing. I had gone from calm and optimistic to restless and unsure in just a few hours.
I felt, while these percepts were OK for 10 days, was I willing to live like that all my life? The terror gripped me that I am not. But I somehow put off that decision to after finishing this course.. thinking now that I have come here, I have to finish this.
At 7pm that evening, we were all seated in the main Dhamma hall for meditation. Acharya S.N Goenka (the main teacher and founder of this course) gave us instructions through a tape-recording, while the assistant teachers also sat facing us, in meditation.
The day ended without dinner and I had a lot of difficulty while sleeping that night. Dinner was one part, anxiety that was back in full force, was another.
The morning bell sounded at 4am.. which was great because I had forgotten to carry my watch. I really was living totally free of technology.
The fears from last day still were eating into me… is this practice for anhedonic people?
My first day at the centre was tiring, yet soothing. We were asked to witness our breaths. Put our entire attention on the breath. This, was not easy… but the stillness of the mind, given the noble silence, helped.
The discourse in the evening aided in putting at bay a lot of my fears and anxieties. This discourse was given by Acharya S.N. Goenka through a video played on a projector in the Main Dhamma hall.
The Main Dhamma hall from outside:
Yes, you got that right… we were meant to sit for all the meditation sessions cross-legged, on the cushion assigned to us. However, if one cannot sit cross legged on the ground, they were provided with chairs.
The food was good, tasted well. So there were no complaints on that end.
I missed my phone several times, being a social media addict. Plus since I was used to sleeping with my phone, sleep was a little harder to come by now.
That day was a little better than Day 1. But I missed my life outside the centre.
On this day, I experienced an absolutely clear head for a while and I remember feeling lighter than air, my breath coming and going with such clarity as if it were all I could feel.
Obviously, like all things in life, this did not stay. I was soon back to the struggles of a distracted mind and the pains of again and again dragging it back to my breath.
During my breaks, I would stroll around the place, which was green and beautiful. I pondered on the impermanence of life and the temporary nature of absolutely everything.
Day 3 and 4
By the end of the 3rd day, my back was murdering me. I wasn’t sure if I could make it through this.
By Day 4, my self pondering had me fretting how I will make all this that I am learning, fit properly in the big bad world outside. I was feeling raging pain in my body, and my spirits low too.
On the 4th day, Acharya Goenka taught us Vipassana, to witness sensations and vibrations in our own bodies only to realise their inherently temporary nature. A lot more knowledge was imparted to us during the discourses. We were asked to sit still during Vipassana for 1 hour. This was called the sitting of strong decision. We were asked not to unlock our legs or hands. This was agony!!
I remember that my legs hurt so much that my eyes welled up.
One thing I understood with real clarity was that Transcendence of a person, is his own task and that it is a path of sheer struggle, practice and perseverance.
The only way to transcend, is to make the consciousness still from within, no matter the circumstances, season, outside, if a person is able to maintain constance inside… he has transcended. He is free from all pain and suffering.
Day 5 and 6
I remember thinking a lot about my family while practicing… wondering how I could get them to join the course.
I was starting to understand the impermanence of life and everything in it with depth. However, the meditation sessions were surely killing my body.
On Day 6, I witnessed extreme pain and heat during my meditation. We were told that this could happen if the subconscious is remembering some deep-rooted negative feelings and emotions. So I stuck it out somehow.
During the rest hours, I remember thinking about weather. How it comes and goes, never same, never still. Our lives are much the same. If someone’s feelings and life state were to depend on the weather… they would be in constant ups and downs. Constant cycle of pain and pleasure. It is one thing to hold your breath and wait for spring to get here faster, and quite another to smile and relax even in scorching heat by understanding nature of the weather. This too shall pass, this too shall pass, this too shall pass.
Sheer pain during sittings of 1 hour each 3 times a day was seriously getting to me, but I knew that at a deeper level, it was helping.
I remember missing my family a lot at this time and feeling a little desperate to get back to them.
Then it struck me, the nature of my wants, my desires. Contradictory. I am afraid of going out in the world and making my consciousness dirty again, yet I want to go back and be with my loved ones.
Deep rooted, deep seated attachments, cravings.
During my breaks, I pondered on babies. When a baby is born, he doesn’t need to be taught how to suck the milk from its mother’s breast or how to use the muscles of his anus to push out fecal matter. He just knows.
The conscious and the subconscious awareness of a child are the same. He is in full awareness of the self. There is no hidden sub-conscious part. He is aware of the physics of his body.
The old rishi munis of India didn’t give too much importance to studying the matter outside of their bodies. The western world did the opposite, and continue to study only physics of the matter outside. Indian rishi munis (who were also research scientists of their times), realised that whatever exists outside, already exists inside. All the laws of the universe already exist within. So why look outside when you can understand everything by taking a journey within?
I thought I had lost my passport. I didn’t remember depositing it with my valuables and this fear dawned on me at 9:30 pm on Day 7. After lights out. So I couldn’t even go and speak to any Dhamma-sevika (volunteers) about it.
Now, I could fret about this all night, and ruin my entire next day, or I could put myself to sleep and go check with them the next day.
But oh dear, my mind. Such is the nature of our minds. We create a horrific picture, much like an artist painting on a canvas. Then we start scaring ourselves in our hearts with our own creation. Oh how the irony washed over me.
This is when I remember having conversations with my mind, refuting every fear it came up with, with a simple “maybe, let’s see tomorrow”. I repeated this over and over and over again until my mind tired out and slept off.
The next day I went and checked, my passport was very much there with the rest of my valuables deposited with them centre. In my head there was a sigh of relief. I dismissed it, only observing, not enjoying the relief. The volunteers asked me if I lost my night’s sleep over it. I simply smiled and said, if I had, the past 7 days I have spent here would have been a sheer waste.
This was the last day of our noble silence. Next day, at 10:00 am we would be able to speak again and we would get our valuables back along with our phones, etc. I would be able to call home.
I tried not to dwell on it, but it was difficult.
I was beginning to accept truths in a non-judgemental manner and not dwell on the nature of the truth. I remember the body pains being atrocious, and I had started PMS-ing too. I also remember phases where I lost control and started dwelling on dark thoughts and feelings. At this point, I would simply take cognisance of that truth and bring my mind back to its initial inert state. Not reactive, only observant.
I understood the meaning of religion, the reasons behind it and how it was meant to make our lives better but has ended up adding to all our suffering. I finally understood what all our educated, saint ancestors were talking about and how the whole perspective is distorted today.
Through pain, I understood my own selfish nature, which is innate. Then I recognised the need to accept the truth, no matter how ugly, painful, in order to change it. And then this “change” is automatic. No conscious efforts need be made.
I understood the essence and root cause of all our pains that lie in 2 main emotions: Craving and Aversion.
Our heart Craves more money, more love, more attention, more fame, more, more, more…. There is no end to it. And where things happening on the outside are not in accordance with the demands of our hearts, we feel Aversion.. towards that situation, person, thing, etc. And this is a constant cycle and we are writhing in pain due being tossed around like a football by our hearts/minds.
After the usual morning schedule of meditation from 4:30 am to 6:30 am, and then 8 am to 9 am, we broke our silence at 10 am after learning a new form of mediation, “mangal maitri” (spreading happiness).
At 10 am when I got my phone back, I was a little overwhelmed while speaking to my mother, whom I called first, because I had thought about my parents the most during my course. Also because I knew how this worry from separation would have made her feel uneasy.
I had so much to share, but I wasn’t used to talking so much anymore so I remember feeling out of breath while speaking. After hanging up, I felt odd while texting and handling my phone, it felt awkward and unnatural, which is so weird because as most of my friends and acquaintances would know, I am a bit of a social media freak.
They gave us nice sweets with lunch and I remember a lot of energy, vibrance and happiness in the environment. Since I was in Pune, people around me preferred to converse in Marathi and I didn’t understand much but I smiled and nodded along until they asked me a question 😛 . But even with the language barrier, I could feel the vibrations, the happiness and energy, which felt great.
When I went to my room that night, I stared at my reflection in the mirror. Nothing seemed to have changed, yet when I looked inside… I felt a paradigm shift.
Through a departure video, Acharya S.N. Goenka bid us good bye in the morning, after arming us with the courage to face the world after this. He gave us tips and told us what to expect.
I am an inquisitive person, I find it hard to just accept things. So naturally, I had many questions during this course. While the assistant teachers were there, and I did ask them, I didn’t feel satisfied with their answers but kept quiet out of respect. But as the video discourses continued, it was as if I were whispering my questions into Acharya Goenka’s ears and he was saying the answers during the video discourses.
There were times that I felt so overwhelmed at finding my answers, I teared up. Not out of happiness, or sadness … maybe out of relief. The way a thirsty person would, at reaching a well.
We are all born with the thirst to transcend. Whether we are or are not aware of it, is immaterial. Reading and studying scriptures is all well and good, it gives inspiration. But inspiration alone won’t solve the purpose unless we include that inspiration in reality and the same culminates into our lives.
For example, if a man is thirsty, and he reads about how it feels when one drinks water, understands it, even starts imitating the satiated person, it is still an illusion of quenching his own thirst.
When one transcends, he is filled with a feeling of kindness so benign, that he wants to help everyone. A single trace of ego isn’t felt behind. However, no matter how much he wants, he cannot magically make others transcend with him. He frees only one person: himself.
Our freedom from pain and suffering is in our own hands. This is the bitter, bitter truth of life. One can go seeking experiences, money, fame, outside of themselves all they want. But it is not the answer. It can never be.
We all come from different religions. Those born and brought up in staunch religious environment may find it hard to digest this practice at first. It feels criminal. Wrong. Fills them up with guilt. But if, with faith and patience, if their thirst is pressing enough, they carry on …. and by 4th or 5th day they realise that the prime truth is the same. No matter which religions. Nature’s laws are the same, and the nature punishes anyone who violates them, now be that the beggar on your street corner, the president of your country, a renowned scientist, a rich businessman, a doctor, a professor, a Christian, a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist a whatever. The law of the nature is the same for all.
Even so, this practice does not ask you to convert to any other religion.
It only asks you to come and try it, with all your heart and dedication for 10 days.
And then decide.
On my departure, I felt as ambivalent as I did when I reached this place. But somewhat lighter, more enlightened.
Vipassana is a meditative practice that was used by Gautam Buddha to free himself from all pain and suffering 2500 years ago. Back then, he imparted this knowledge to all kinds of people far and wide in India. It carried on in India for the next 500 years through teacher-student legacy. However, after 500-odd years, it disappeared from our fair country.
About S.N. Goenka
Acharya S.N. Goenka comes from a business family in India. Many years ago he suffered from a psychosomatic disease that would cause him migraines every 15 days. To mitigate the suffering, he would have to take morphine injections. This went for 2-4 years after which he was advised by his doctor to look for an alternative route, other than morphine, since these injections could result in morphine addiction. This would mean he would have to take this sedative injections even if there were no pain. There was no alternative in India. So he travelled far and wide to find a cure. But to no avail.
Then his friend (now the Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India) told him about this small family that has protected Vipassana in its purest forms in Myanmar. His friend suggested him to go seek help from them.
On reaching this place, he met with his guru, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. His teacher told him to stay in Myanmar with him and learn Vipassana.
Acharya Goenka felt inspired by the knowledge he had attained and felt a notable change in the quality of his life. He decided to stay back with his teacher and serve the students there, while honing himself.
After 14 years, he heard of his mother’s sickness in India due to some psychosomatic anxiety issues. He came back down to help his mother. During the course he taught his mother, other people joined as well. When the course finished, everyone benefitted a lot from it and wanted their own friends, family, etc to join in and benefit as well. The numbers kept increasing. Acharya Goenka didn’t get the chance to go back to Sayagyi U Ba Khin for a long time.
Few years later, the news of his teacher’s demise reached him in India. While he was shocked, he did not despair, as what taught to him by his teacher. But Acharya Goenka felt indebted to his teacher. So he dedicated his life to spreading this knowledge far and wide.
Today, Vipassana is being practiced all over the world. I encourage you to join and learn the art of living, the art of dying, the art of recognising, accepting and facing the truth. The truth, the truth, and only the truth can and shall set you free.