With Vipassana, explore the worlds within
On a spiritual retreat, you go on a voyage of discovery into a universe you’ve probably never considered before – the universe of yourself. Read on for more.brunch Updated: Oct 14, 2011 13:22 IST
Where are you now, while you read your Brunch Quarterly? Stretched out on a lounger by a swimming pool, a tall, cold drink by your side, pink traces in the sky indicating that the sun has gone on its way, a koel calling somewhere near you, immersed in a feeling of perfect peace?
It’s a moment, isn’t it? A moment in which you’re somehow out of yourself and your world, but also more intensely connected to yourself and the world in a way that you seldom feel.
We’re lucky if we get more than an occasional moment like this. And also, while we crave peace, if we were to actively pursue it, it would mean giving up the world we love. So how do we get both peace and and the world we love? It’s simple. Try a spiritual retreat.
All you have to do is give up, for a week or two, the world you know as yours and your life as you’ve always lived it, to centre down on yourself. Away, for a week or longer, at an ashram or monastery or just a beautiful, serene place, switching your mind from to-do lists to another sort of discipline, you can catch that moment again.
There are all sorts of retreats. Here’s what happens when you go on some of these.
Know Your Mind
At the ferry point two years ago, on her way to the vipassana centre at Gorai, an almost-island just off Mumbai, model Aditi Govitrikar looked at her children and wondered. “Ten days. Am I doing the right thing?” Ten days meant 10 days of no talking, no email, no phone calls, no contact with her family. Was it worth it? Did it make sense? Was she a bad mother?
“I’d wondered about it even earlier, much before I got to the ferry point,” says Aditi. “But then a friend said, ‘maybe you’ll become a better mother.’ And I thought, good point.”
It had taken Aditi Govitrikar about 10 years to get to the point where her doubts about taking a vipassana course were last minute ones. It had been something she’d thought about over those years, but never got around to doing. “But around August 2009, I was at a crossroads in my life,” says Aditi. “I needed to figure things out. So I tried various things, like an Art of Living course, but nothing helped. Then I realised I needed a detox programme for the mind. And my sister suggested vipassana.”
At that time Aditi knew just a few things about vipassana. One: It’s a 10-day course and you’re not allowed to talk. “But I’m a quiet person, so not talking would not have been a big problem,” she says. And two: the days start and end early so that means no food after 5 pm. “That’s what scared me!” she says. “The fact that there’d be no dinner!”
But off she went, to do a course where participants are as isolated as it’s possible to be. “They advise you not to go with people you know,” says Aditi. “The idea of vipassana is that you are supposed to be with yourself. All contact with anyone else is to be avoided as far as possible.”
You’re even advised not to make eye contact with anyone, says Aditi. “At meals, you’re placed at tables so that you’re not facing each other when you’re eating, so you’re totally with yourself.”
Rooms are singles unless you absolutely can’t sleep alone, in which case you’re permitted to share. But the no talking rule is sacrosanct. “The only time you’re allowed to talk is on the day you check in,” says Aditi. “You can ask questions about the accommodation and routine, but that’s all.”
When you enter, you hand over your watch, mobile phone – everything that may be a distraction. “Forget an iPod, you can’t even have paper and a pen,” says Aditi. “But they don’t search your luggage because they don’t force anything on anyone. If you decide to cheat, you’re the loser.”
On day zero too, you’re given the tour, told about the routine, and taken through the concept of vipassana and the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. On day one, the course begins. And according to Aditi, that’s not the most difficult day of the course.
“There’s a sense of excitement, wondering what we’re in for,” she says. “While you don’t expect to achieve nirvana in 10 days, you really wonder what’s going to happen. And during the day, you’re getting into the process. You’re getting used to staying silent.”
Days begin at 4.15 am and by 4.30 am, you’re in the hall, ready to meditate. You’re assigned a place to sit and you’re given a thin cushion to sit on and small cushions to place beneath your knees when you sit cross-legged, for support. If, like Aditi, you have a back problem, you’re placed so you can rest against a wall from time to time. “But you’re encouraged not to do that,” she says. “Ideally, you need to sit up straight.”
Breakfast is at 7 am and consists of things like
, idli and fruit, with tea or coffee and milk. Then you can rest till 8 am, or continue to meditate in your room. Between 8 and 11 am, you’re back in the meditation hall, with a break of five to 10 minutes every hour. Lunch is at 11.30, followed by a 30-minute discussion with the teacher.
“I found it very difficult to sit still,” says Aditi. “There’s always an itch you want to scratch or your back aches and you have to bear it, because no movement is allowed. It was really difficult for the first two or three days, when you have to concentrate on your breath, its inflow and outflow and focus on the triangle beneath your nose. It’s the way to control your mind but ‘control’ is too aggressive a word for what this is. It isn’t a word the instructors use.”
What is Vipassana?
The idea is to focus the mind on the physical sensations of the body, and once that is achieved, to master these bodily sensations.
Vipassana holds that anger and other negative emotions manifest themselves in your breathing and physical sensations. The idea therefore is that if you focus on your body, you will be able to observe these sensations without emotion and let them dissolve away.
What does it do?
How easy Is it?
Vipassana is not an easy practice at all. Nor is it a quick cure-all. It takes focus and discipline and will deliver its benefits only if you put in the effort to achieve them.
Beginners need to sign up for a 10-day course at any of the centres listed on dhamma.org, the vipassana meditation website. During these 10 days, you literally leave your world behind. You are totally isolated from everything and everyone. In some vipassana centres, you even meditate by yourself, in your own room so as not to be distracted. The idea is to focus completely on your body and yourself. Nothing should take your mind off that one goal.
Given the stringent rules, vipassana is not a quick-fix solution to emotional problems or a getaway from daily life. It takes time to master the practice. Ten days is the absolute minimum, say the instructors and you may not succeed the first time. Plus, if you’re serious about it, it needs to be practiced daily at home.
The idea of vipassana is that the mind and body are interrelated. When you feel something physically, the mind is distracted. “There are layers of emotion we’ve collected in our minds not only in this life, but also from all our past lives,” says Aditi. “When we get rid of these layers, these attachments to emotions, we end our human suffering.”
The aim is detachment, but not in a way that means you turn into a hermit. “Does detachment mean I don’t love my children?” asks Aditi. “No. It means I give 100 per cent to my children. I give 100 per cent to everything, because I’m doing things without thinking of the results.”
To achieve this state of grace, however, you need to really see things as they are. See what you do, how you react to things, why you react to things the way you do. “That’s not easy at all,” says Aditi. “We live in a world of illusions. Like the story of the blind men and the elephant. One touched its tail and thought it was a rope, one touched its trunk and thought it was a branch of a tree, one touched its leg and thought it was a pillar. Are they wrong? No. But they’re not right either. To see things as they are is not easy.”
Then there’s the question – if there is a problem, what is the problem? “What you learn through vipassana is that a problem is not a problem,” says Aditi. “You may see a certain situation as a problem, but I might not see it that way. It’s your reaction to a situation that matters. And where does that reaction come from? Your mind.”
Grasping the concept is easier than practicing it, though. Focusing on nothing but yourself and understanding that much of what you hold dear is just an illusion is hard. “Some people just want to run away,” says Aditi. “We are hardly ever silent, our minds are constantly challenging ourselves. Silence calms you and defuses tensions. I actually experienced it. That stillness. For just a short time, but I felt it.”
She finds it hard to describe the experience. “You can’t explain it, when you feel it, you just know. You just feel tranquil and aware. Your consciousness is heightened and it’s beautiful. And you can only feel that when your mind is still.”
Everyone experiences vipassana in their own way. “I spoke to people before and after I took the course, and everyone’s perception of it is different,” Aditi says. “But everyone takes the course for a reason. How much you want to see is totally in your hands.”
Part of the strong desire to just leave is purely physical. “The most difficult thing for me was sitting still in one place,” says Aditi. “My back was killing me. And a strange thing happened. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the fourth day, I got up the courage to ask our instructor and she said, your mind and body are so wired always that here, you’re not tired. So she said I was to sleep for 90 minutes and the rest of the time, continue with my practice in my room.”
The pain that comes from sitting absolutely still, however, is part of the process. In fact, in vipassana, it’s the crux of the process, putting mind over matter. “There’s lots of itching and you feel ticklish and in my case, my back hurt. But you’re not supposed to react to all this, you’re supposed to let it pass, and it does pass,” says Aditi. “This is what vipassana is – you just keep doing it no matter what. People start crying, there are lots of things that come out. But slowly, you start feeling much lighter in your mind. You learn not to dwell on things. You learn to let go. Let it pass.”
Not everyone manages to achieve that in 10 days however. Earlier, vipassana courses were three weeks long. But since few people are able to put their worlds aside for so long these days, the course has been cut down to 10 days and it’s hoped that you’ll practice the technique at home. “You have to live your life. You have responsibilities and you have to fulfill them,” says Aditi. “But if you practice every day, you can get into that still space.”
That still space means living in the moment and Aditi found she was able to do that on the last day of the course, knowing she’d finally see her children after 10 days, but also still very much where she was, doing vipassana.
“On the last day, it’s like they reintroduce you to the world,” Aditi says. “They ask you to speak to the other people in your course. And it’s difficult. Your senses are heightened, everything appears brighter and louder. It’s like a shock to the system. A very weird feeling. Like I was on a hallucinogenic drug, but in a good way.”
Back home with the family, the feeling continued for a couple of days. “The vipassana experience was beautiful,” says Aditi. “I want to do this again.”
Path to Discipline
Some years ago, on a visit to Bali for a society wedding, Ira Trivedi suddenly found she was lost.
“Something in me snapped and I knew that I needed to be alone, away from the world, and I couldn’t possibly go back to Delhi where I was living at the time,” says Ira, the author of three novels, including The Great Indian Love Story, What Would You Do to Save the World? and There Is No Love on Wall Street. “So I stayed on, and everything happened so seamlessly – finding an idyllic home in the rice fields of Ubud in Penestanan village, quitting my job in the private jet industry, getting out of a semi-destructive relationship, finding a guru to guide me on the path of zen meditation – that I knew it was all really meant to be.”
In the two months of peace and silence that this experience brought Ira, she wrote The Great Indian Love Story and then returned to Delhi. And it was there that she realised that silence has to be sought. It will not just come to you.
“I was constantly looking for that inner silence and in that process, things happened in a most curious way,” Ira says. “When I returned from Bali, I found myself really off balance. The partying and all that was
happening in Delhi was so different from what had happened to me at Bali. So I decided to go to Kerala for a few days, and mysteriously, I found a Sivananda book on my bookshelf. I don’t know where it came from, but it was there. So I decided to take the plunge and spend two weeks at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala for what they call a yoga vacation.”
Ira had done various kinds of yoga before, but on a yoga vacation at the Sivananda Ashram, you do four hours of yoga a day, plus you must participate in the twice daily satsang, and also offer karma yoga – ‘selfless service’ – which means that you spend a couple of hours cleaning, sweeping, cutting vegetables – basically, doing whatever is asked of you.
“This was the first time that I had immersed myself in the yoga practice and I found it to be a tonic for my mind and body and it truly revitalised my soul,” says Ira. “I went on to do my yoga teachers’ training course in Uttarakashi and since then, I regularly go to the Sivananda ashram either in Kerala or Uttarakashi for retreats centred around yoga.”
For a normal urbanite, a yoga retreat follows quite a strict schedule. You wake up at 5.30 am and must be ready for the satsang at 6. Tea is at 7.30 am and by 8, you’re beginning what will be two hours of yoga. Karma yoga follows, then lunch, then by 2 pm, you’re listening to a discourse and getting into a discussion. Between 3.30 and 5.30 pm, it’s yoga again, dinner is at 6 and satsang between 8 and 10 pm.
“You don’t have to know yoga already before you do a yoga retreat,” says Ira. “There are people at the ashram aged from 15 to 50, there are yogis from South Africa and New Zealand, and a whole middle class family from Thiruvananthapuram. There are people from all backgrounds, from everywhere, but they’re all following the same routine and sitting and eating with you.”
Compared with vipassana, which Ira has also done, a yoga retreat can hardly be referred to as rigorous. But it does have a routine that must be strictly followed.
“You’re constantly doing something, constantly busy,” says Ira. “There is always a sense of purpose and focus that frees your mind and body because of the sense of discipline you gain. Ashram life is a very energising way of being.”
Ashram authorities suggest two weeks for a yoga retreat, but the minimum is three nights. “I think two weeks is essential so that you get the most out of it,” says Ira. “There’s no sense in doing it for less than that. If you do, you won’t feel the benefits.”
The benefits are more than the sense of calm that yoga leaves you with. The benefits of a yoga retreat are about discipline – something that many of us sadly lack. “It really brings the practice of yoga into your life,” says Ira. “I was almost addicted to it.”
What’s a yoga retreat?
You don’t need to be doing yoga already to go on a yoga retreat. Beginners are welcome.
A yoga retreat or, as it’s called at Sivananda Ashrams, a yoga vacation, typically comprises yoga sessions twice a day, meditation and satsang sessions, and karma yoga – service to the ashram. All are compulsory. For karma yoga, you could be asked to sweep and clean, or cut vegetables – anything.
Book a place at the ashram of your choice, ideally for not less than a week if you really want the benefits of sustained yoga.
Days begin and end early, and though you do usually have some free time to yourself to read, wander about, nap and so on, your day is well and truly set out for you.
Days are structured and you may find it hard to stick to a routine. This is not exactly your urban life and will require some mental adjustment.
If the spirit is willing...
Vipassana and yoga are not the only retreats you can choose to go on. Here’s a rundown on some of the other popular routes to find yourself
Forget the mind-body connection for a moment. A detox retreat is all about physical health. Usually joked about as a last ditch weightloss programme (a place like Jindal Farms near Bangalore, for instance, is often referred to as a ’fat farm’), the idea of a naturopathy retreat is actually to restore your body to its optimum levels of health, using a diet geared to your ailments and therapies you might require.
You need to book a room at the naturopathy retreat of your choice in advance. You should, ideally, stay for not less than a week. When you arrive, you go through a doctor’s check-up and undergo tests. Once the results come in, your diet and treatments are set.
A naturopathy diet is about water, steamed vegetables, juices and fruits. Tea and coffee are against the rules. Herbal tea is fine, though. The diet prescribed for you must be followed to the T. If you are on allopathic medication, you might be asked to stop taking it for the duration of your stay.
Meals are vegetarian, light and salted only minimally.
You’re always hungry, so getting through this puts an enormous strain on your willpower.
(Info courtesy Vidya Srinivas, faculty at Xavier’s Institute of Communication, Mumbai)DO IT YOURSELF
If you’d rather not tie yourself down to any particular practice or philosophy, but would still like to go on a retreat, you could simply check into one of the many ashrams that dot places like Rishikesh and, while abiding by that ashram’s schedule, make your own inner journey. You may or may not emerge enlightened, but you will most probably be rejuvenated.
For instance, you could stay at the Parmarth Niketan ashram (www.parmarth.com) on the bank of the Ganga near Ram Jhula, across Muni ki Reti, from where you could soak in the evening Ganga aarti performed by rishikumars, students of the ashram’s gurukul.
From 8 pm to 8 am, the ashram observes silence. Sattvic meals are served in the dining room. The ashram does not charge anything for your food and stay, but accepts donations.
Sex, alcohol, tobacco and non-vegetarian foods are the only things you have to give up in a do-it-yourself retreat like this. You must, of course, abide by the ashram’s rules, but aside from that, there is no difficulty at all.
(Info courtesy Phorum Pandya, journalist at the Hindustan Times, Mumbai)RELIGIOUS
This is hard to describe, because you need to be a follower of a guru to go on a religious retreat at her or his ashram, and so practices may differ accordingly. In general though, you could go on a religious retreat for anything between a couple to days to a month, and any such retreat will have a specific purpose. Many ashrams also organise retreats specifically for children and young people, and these continue for at least a week.
Aside from abiding by the ashram’s rules of meals (which are usually vegetarian), sleep, accommodation and so on, there are usually also classes, discourses and discussions about the guru’s philosophy, depending on what purpose the retreat has been called for. Days start early and end early, and though you will have some free time for yourself, you usually do not leave the ashram’s premises while you are on the retreat. Yoga is often part of the programme.
Aside from the need to adjust to the ashram’s schedule and the need to follow its rules of discipline, a religious retreat, if you are a believer, can bring about a great sense of peace and oneness with the world.
(Info courtesy Sneea Parolia, homemaker, Mumbai)BUDDHIST
You don’t need to actually be a Buddhist to participate in a Buddhist retreat, but you do need to want to know about the philosophy of Buddhism. You can sign up for a retreat at Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamshala, and at Root Institute, Bodhgaya. But Buddhist retreats are also organised by institutions such as Hay House India, a publisher focusing on spiritual, inspirational and self-help books.
The day starts at 6 am with yoga or a nature walk and after breakfast, teachings are delivered by a senior member of the monastery. This is followed by a question and answer session. After lunch, you are free to rest, read, wander or meditate, and that is followed by a two-hour class on Tibetan meditation. In the early evenings, you sit in the temple and listen to the chanting of the monks or meditate, and in the late evening, there is a Buddhism-related film or cultural programme.
Days start and end early, meals are vegetarian, and no sex, alcohol or tobacco is allowed on the monastery’s premises. You must abide by the given schedules. That apart, there are no restrictions.
(Info courtesy Ashok Chopra, CEO & MD, Hay House India)
This story is from the latest issue of the Brunch Quarterly.
From HT Brunch, October 9
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch