Thoughts prior to entering:
This course demands 10 days (actually 11 days if you count the half day for on boarding and another half for de-briefing) of noble silence (no communication of any form through either speech, gestures, reading/writing, technology or eye contact). Further, the wake up bell strikes at 4am every day and you are in meditation from 4:30m to 9:00pm (11 hours daily excluding breaks/meals time). Forget snacking, there is no dinner for anyone and no meals post 11am. Segregation of sexes and isolated quarters means that homesickness is amplified. There is no exercise routine, also no diary; greens are served, risking a severe readjustment to one’s health and daily minerals/vitamins intake. One rationed piece of fruit hardly compares with the copious quantity and variety that most of us are accustomed to in free life. In addition, this is a Buddhist society catering to primarily Hindus, Christians and people from different faiths, so there is many chances of harm due to ambiguity, confusion and self-doubt.
Clearly, it is no picnic, then why did a narcissist, hyperactive, extrovert did sign up for a white room torture willingly in a course that is centered on sensory deprivation? Isn’t signing up for religious discourses the hobby of the retired & grey?
I interviewed/read the experiences 4-5 individuals who have attended the course earlier. Each one had a unique personal experience. However, the common theme was that everyone wished they had enrolled a few years earlier. Everyone advised me that unless there is full commitment and disciplined following of rules, the 10 days would be a great loss for your time. In addition, I was repeatedly warned not to underestimate the physical and mental challenges that one faces during the course.
- There were no idols of Buddha anywhere. You cannot find the large size painting of the founder nor his name plastered all over the place. There were no scriptures on the wall, the leader also did not use any superlative titles like “His divine grace”, “Sri Sri” etc. Nobody was chanting his name or worshiping his picture. The meditation room was a white room free from any colors, symbols or hints of any cult, sect or group.
- There was no rate card! For a Hindu, it is hard to experience spirituality without seeing a menu of special services along with their printed prices.
- I am used to institutions where your distance from the idol and the time you are allowed to worship it is determined by the magnitude of your donation. Here I was not allowed to buy my extra seconds/minutes with the teacher through a donation. Neither my capacity to donate determined what kind of room/facilities or special treatment I am entitled to.
- A migrant laborer working on minimum wages, a foreigner and I shared adjoining rooms and equal treatment. Special focus only for students suffering from addiction/ substance abuse, psychosomatic illness, mental disorders or expectant mothers. It is quite liberating that one’s need rather than status determines the focus one receives.
- Out of a batch of 80, only 4 persons opted for Hindi as a medium of instructions and the teacher was more than willing to make special classes for me. Similarly 3 Russian student were being taught in their mother tongue. The school emphasizes on teaching in one’s mother tongue and in very simple language to ease the comprehension and imbibing the philosophy in one’s daily life.
The generosity and consideration by the personnel of the institutions simply sweeps you of the ground. The food across the 10 days did not have a trace of potato or similar low cost fillers that are typically associated with Mess food. Simple vegetarian, well-cooked nutritious food was served without any limits of how much quantity one should consume. The whole campus was clean and well maintained. I had an independent room with attached bathroom which was impeccably clean. The meditation seat allotted to me was similarly was very comfortable and there were practically unlimited supply of cushions that I could add to make it more comfortable. For a small batch of 70-80 meditators, at least 10-15 assistant teachers, Dharma workers (management) were dedicated to make your stay more fruitful and everybody was eager to help you in whatever way possible irrespective of the hour of the day and how ridiculous your needs were.
Day 2: body pains
It would have been easier if I was chanting a name/mantra or trying to visualize a concept, but here meditation is though self-observation of breath. The philosophy emphasizes on teaching the core crux on religion/dharma void of any fancy crux, packaging or distractions. However making the mind that is used to multi-tasking focus on a single breadth is not easy.
The shame of being physically worse than a frail fellow meditator in his 60s surfaces. Sitting for 15 minute in one posture is a challenge for me and I have never meditated before so naturally second day the ground reality hits hard. The teacher had a simple advice, “happens to everyone. It is not because what you do is physically challenging, but your mind urging you to find a more exciting stimulus for it to process. Drink copious amounts of water and take brisk walk to maintain circulation and ease into transition.”
Day 3: euphoria
Suddenly all the body pains evaporated. I was smiling so much that my lips were aching. I never had such a feeling before and could not explain it. Was it my mind/body’s push to make the meditation a success? Was it because the dilemma about religious preaching and practices were finally answered? I wasn’t sure and asked my teacher had some earthly advice. “Nothing lasts forever, if you feel like jumping for joy today, tomorrow it will be opposite. Focus on your meditation and maintain noble silence.”
Day 4-5: withdrawal
Home sickness, the restrictions starts kicking in. The dreams start becoming more vivid and the mind starts drifting to thoughts even when I am awake. Some of the remised memories, thoughts, plans as long as 20 years ago came to light. In the words of the Aacharya, the continuous self-examination allows one to critically examine ones sub-conscious. Vipassana was making you increasingly aware of your thoughts, feelings & bias. Cleansing your mind and thoughts is the only goal of the program.
Day 6-7: realization, self-shame and pity
Our reflection is often confined to one’s action, but here the focus is on the thoughts. This sensory deprivation program gives enough time to analyze them and isolate the vices. Day 7, I was almost near a breakdown when my mind was trying to temp me with ill thoughts and I was fighting it back. Trying to sleep was making it worse and inability to talk or find some occupation was making it hard. So rather than pushing the thoughts deep back in the sub-conscious that one normally does, I had to face them and tackle them one by one. It is not a simple exercise but one of the primary reason why I was here. So I went through the motions with the best effort to maintain the five precepts:
- 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.
Day 8: magic
Till now I was at least 2 days behind in my progress with the meditation. However, for the first time, I was successfully able to scan the whole body for the first time. It is an experience that was nothing like I have done ever before and there is no words to describe it. I must say that it made my previous 8 days worthwhile. I think getting rid of the clutter that I had accumulated in my mind allowed me to focus and experience this joy. The teacher’s words were a major bummer. The aim is Vipassana is not to experience this joy of meditation but to be able to develop equanimity and not to react to it. I was feeling eternal joy and my teacher was saying not to develop any craving or aversion to it.
Day 9: countdown
I developed a lot of admiration to the philosophy of Vipassana. Why Dharma is non-sectarian in nature. How it has been commercialized by the leaders, why the focus is on the religious activities rather than praising the good traits, thoughts & actions.
I think I stopped learning after day 8. Only think I was able to think of was getting back home and resume one’s daily routine.
Day 10: confusion
The vow of silence was lifted, but speech became difficult. I guess this day was to help ease back into the physical world. They also, gave people opportunity to donate. Irrespective of how generous/stingy you are there is not gratitude or frown from the authorities. None of the 15 odd teachers and helpers in the program got any remuneration or worldly benefit for their time and services. It’s hard to find a true service devoid of any commercial agenda and this is one such gem. The teacher repeated that the best donation would not be money but practicing the learnings in the daily life.
I did a mistake of opening my laptop and Cell phone on this day. Scanning the mail, messages, WhatsApp took away half the day. There was so much I could have learned from the experiences of fellow meditators but the phone robbed me of that. Then I realized how many meetings, lunches I have attended where one/all the participants found the data streamed on the phone more interesting than real life face to face conversation.
Religion by traditional definition is submitting to higher power. A trip to temple or holy place, a grand gesture, a ritual is all designed to beg the higher power for divine intervention. In vipassana the focus in in self-observation and cleansing ones sub-conscious thoughts/ideas… a whole U turn. Acharya S N Goenka’s freeing us to practice whatever we feel right felt strange. The freedom to mix and match based on one’s own comfort level made me uncomfortable as typically religion to me was based on doctrines with little room for free will.
In short, these 10-11 days was a transformative experience. It has made me more conscious of my thoughts, actions, feelings and its implication. I wish everybody would attend and hope that benefit.