Travel: Confessions of a Vipassanā novice

The 10-day course of Buddhist meditation in complete silence is painfully emotional, but ultimately cleansing and healing.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation(Getty Images)
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation(Getty Images)
Updated on Jul 21, 2019 12:12 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Gayatri Jayaraman

For years, I have wanted to do Vipassana, a Buddhist form of meditation taught by the guru S.N. Goenka. But life got in the way. Finally, the day my son completed his 12th board exams, I had no more excuses. Since Vipassana means sitting cross-legged from 4am to 9pm every day in Arya Maun or Noble Silence, I decided I at least needed pleasant weather. So I picked the centre at Dhamma Sikkim, situated on the Assam Linchey ridge of East Sikkim across the valley from Gangtok and facing the Kanchenjunga.

After a scenic ride to the centre from Bagdogra airport, I meet our teacher, Mr Amal Ghosh, who it turns out, lives in my neighbourhood in Mumbai. You know what they say about travelling halfway around the world and finding the answers in your backyard? That.

Day Zero: I am surprisingly more sanguine than I thought I’d be when they take away my phone. Printed airline tickets constitute distracting reading material and so those go into the deposit box too, along with religious paraphernalia or jewellery (Vipassana is non-sectarian).

Printed airline tickets constitute distracting reading material....those go into the deposit box too, along with religious paraphernalia. Vipassana is non-sectarian

After a yummy dinner of hot Sikkimese rice, yellow dal and three varieties of fresh mountain veggies, there’s a brief orientation and they ask if anyone wants to leave yet. No one admits to it. We repeat the formal request to be taught aana-paana meditation without which we cannot be taught. Sanghas of monks should roam the country teaching men what consent is, I think. Now Noble Silence begins.

Day 1: A gong chimes at 4am; the first session begins at 4.30am. It’s just enough time to brush and run. We are asked to simply focus on our breath going in and out of our nostrils. I can feel the cold air being sucked in, and much warmer air exiting. This is why monks took to the mountains, I think. The breath is so much more tangible here.

The centre at Dhamma, Sikkim, faces the picturesque Kanchenjunga mountain range (Shutterstock)
The centre at Dhamma, Sikkim, faces the picturesque Kanchenjunga mountain range (Shutterstock)

Our eyes are closed but our bodies are restless. I jam cushions under my calves and make a mental resolution to be more regular at the gym. It’s so easy you’d think, the mind only has to focus on the breath, but 45 minutes later you realise you’ve been directing a movie inside your mind. Whither breath? Drag that truant mind back to base.

Vipassana is a Buddhist form of meditation taught by the late guru S.N. Goenka (Getty Images)
Vipassana is a Buddhist form of meditation taught by the late guru S.N. Goenka (Getty Images)

The evening discourse by Mr Goenka has an uncanny way of answering all your unasked questions. He mentions the coldness of the incoming breath and says the Buddha asked you not to accept anything you don’t experientially accept as the truth.

Day 2: Gongs chiming already? I’m late. The only way to maintain my cross-legged position is to remind myself of giving birth to my son. You wouldn’t move if you had a child popping out, would you? Oh damn. Doesn’t work. You are asked to narrow your focus to the small triangle at the base of your nose. Beyond the movie of your life that is now running on a screen inside your head, the upper lip begins to feel like you smeared too much Vicks on it.

Lunch is an amazing Sikkimese paneer chutney with radish slices. Make mental note to take the recipe when we can speak again.

By afternoon, memories bubble up like a shaken glass of cola. I can’t defeat them so I let them rise. The chain of reacting in anger is suddenly crystal clear. All of a sudden I break down. I have not cried like this in a long time. I see my own reactions as a chain and make a mental shift from blaming others to self-awareness. The evening discourse is about our aversions, clinging, and the value of not reacting.

Day 3: Today I am swatting aversions and cravings like my grandfather goes at mosquitoes with his buzzer bat. The meditation is working so effectively it is generating heat. I have come up with a new mantra for myself: what you can do, you do. What you can’t, release.

Day 4: Today is Vipassana day and there is a fruit custard with lunch to celebrate. We still don’t know what Vipassana actually is, and it’s all I can do to not guffaw at the memory of my son warning me it might turn out to be a spiritual Hunger Games.

Simple yet delicious meals are served at the meditation centre (Shutterstock)
Simple yet delicious meals are served at the meditation centre (Shutterstock)

Every time I step into the hall, I hear a throbbing electromagnetic pulse that gets louder and louder. Four days of complete silence and meditation has heightened all our senses. I think of the Buddhist caves of Ajanta and Ellora and the monks’ quest for silence. It must be unbearable to be one with the universe, I think. To hear its every sob and feel its every ache.

We must make a formal request to be taught Vipassana meditation again. Once it is taught, energy flows through the body like an electromagnetic pulse. It feels as though my body has been dipped in Vicks, cool but burning at the same time. I am sweating now. The pulsing is rapid, both physical and in terms of sound, and it’s giving me a headache.

Day 5: Thank god our minds are numb on a daily basis, or can you imagine the amount of pain we would walk around with?

We must now sit in adhitthana, the determination not to change position or move one’s hands while in the three sessions of one hour each that constitute group sittings. My mind has decided to take this as a challenge, but I can barely manage 10 minutes.

Haven’t you noticed, Goenkaji asks in the evening discourse, that the vagaries of your mind have reduced to questions about Dhamma? That’s when you notice you feel every twinge, ache, tingle, itch, burn, throb your body carries. The Buddha’s enlightenment is the realisation of this burden of misery we constantly carry, Goenkaji says. It’s a bit depressing.

Day 6: Okay, I’ve learned Vipassana, can I go home now? I just want to see my son. What if he’s injured? Or dead? What if we’re at war with Pakistan and he’s been conscripted into the army? The mountain slopes almost vertically to the left into dense forest that’s full of leeches, they’ve warned us, but with a good flashlight and some scrambling I can escape, I think. I like being the eternal optimist, truth be told. Don’t think I can get on this morose bandwagon.

I go back to the sensations. Heightened sensitivity is the outcome when the mind is this sharp. I am low and just want to hug my son.

By the third day, the meditation works so effectively that it generates heat (Getty Images)
By the third day, the meditation works so effectively that it generates heat (Getty Images)

This is one of the toughest days of the course. The sitting, but also the confronting of oneself, one’s past, one’s mad mind. We can all be Buddhas tomorrow; perhaps what we all need to be is more compassionate today.

Day 7: Today is colder than usual. By late afternoon it is snowing on Kanchenjunga and the angry clouds she sends our way are symbolic of the Doha on rage that’s posted on the bulletin board as our contemplation of the day. The more anger you carry, the deeper the affliction. The less you react, the less deeply it gets embedded in you.

Day 8: I see in all its glory, against a freshly-washed sky, the brilliant Himalayan range. The awe is overwhelming. I feel a twinge of sadness for the knowledge that this excitement too will pass. Meditation resorts sell meditation on the Himalayas like buddhi ka baal (candy floss) at India Gate, but if you’re a serious meditator, views are only distracting. What the meditation reveals inside is truly more fascinating. I know beyond doubt that I gained what I came here to gain.

Day 9: It is the last day of serious meditation. Most of us are dealing with some deep rooted blockages – gross sensations of pain and aches – that interrupt our flow. The trick is to be averse to neither and crave neither. That’s the trap. We like to feel good, we dislike feeling bad. Just watch, don’t react and release. It’s a beautiful way to acknowledge your pains and joys.

Day 10: Arya Maun is lifted after the morning session so we can readjust to the world outside. Once the phones hit, it’s back to life as it was: 165 emails, numerous WhatsApp messages and texts. Clutter, clutter, clutter, white noise. What remains of the silence? As we make our way down the mountain, something inside is calmer, less reactive, walls dissolve. I return lighter than when I went.

The writer is an author with a forthcoming book about her journey through Vipassana meditation

From HT Brunch, July 14, 2019

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