MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – X

While at the Vipassana Course from 15th to 26th April, 2015 at Dhamma Ketana, Chengannur, Kerala, it was being close to nature at its best. Every day we had free time from 6.30 – 8.00 am, 11.00 am – 1.00 pm and 5.00 pm – 6.00 pm respectively. Over and above these we had small 5 – 10 minutes break after group meditation sessions and after Acharya Goenkaji’s discourse ends at 8.15 pm. Being an early riser I preferred finishing my everyday ablutions before the 4.30 am session began, and hence was relatively free afterwards. As the instruction page said very clearly that the only facility for laundry is washing by oneself, I had carried with me enough dress changes. This then gave me time for myself, to explore and be with nature.

Since the accommodation had a tiled roof, day time was hot. When the fan was switched on, it circulated hot air making it quite uncomfortable to be indoors. So I went out, strolling beneath the canopy formed by huge trees. Teak, mango, jack fruit, bread fruit, silk cotton, scores of coconut, and some other trees that I could not identify towered over each other in a bid to compete for sunshine. The rose apple and bilimbi (irumban puli in Malayalam) tree right at the entrance of our quarters were comparatively smaller in size but were laden with fruits. After breakfast at 6.30 am, it was so invigorating to take the walk. The orange and yellow rays of the sun created patterns of light when they gleamed and sparkled through the gaps of the lush canopy.

The Serene Walk Path

The Serene Walk Path

Morning is the best time to watch bird and I spotted woodpeckers, golden orioles, drongos, parakeets, babblers, magpie robins, crow pheasants, red whiskered bulbuls, mynahs, brahminy kites, water hens and pond herons. The twittering, chirping birds were a sight to behold. The melodious Cuckoo on the other hand could be heard loud and clear but was very difficult to spot.

A little white spider would spin a big web each day and wait patiently for its prey. And one day I spotted an unsuspecting bee fall onto the web. The spider rushed close and started spinning silk around the bee and rolled it up soon into a small bean like ball! The truth of life was writ large there – what is food for one is death for another.

The pond nearby was a favourite of some water birds. One day I espied a long shining yellow rat snake swimming across the pond to gracefully slide into some fissures between the stone walls around the pond.

A special corner in the verandah of the meditation hall came to be my all-time favourite.  Sitting there, in the green paddy fields beyond I could see flocks of egrets and storks. The creepers in hedges were the haunts of sun birds. The tiny birds – the purple male and the brownish female were a delight to watch. As I sit on the floor and look down on the ground, I also observed ant-lions (kuzhiaana in local language) in action, in its sand pit traps. It was remarkable watching tiny insects walk by the insecure foothold of the pit. And when they slip to the bottom, the prey is snapped up by the lurking ant-lion. Yet another fascinating spectacle was a colony of miniature honey bees that had made its hive in a crevice under the wall of the building. Bee after bee flew into the crevice and flew away too, displaying its trade mark diligence. Then as I sit there and peer into the darkness, I saw scores of fireflies, twinkling in an enchanting sort of way. It suddenly struck me how much of light pollution we have created around us that we hardly see these fascinating little creatures.

There were a couple of stray dogs that came to forage the waste bin far behind the meditation hall. And some fellow meditators (mostly foreigners) would pet them and play with them. It always made me wonder why anyone would want to befriend strays. Any dog for that matter unless vaccinated can be a carrier of rabies. Maybe I learnt this lesson quite early in life being a Vet’s daughter and because we always had pet dogs at home that Dad vaccinated with unfailing regularity.

We plucked the tangy, juicy fruits of the fruits of the Rose Apple tree (Syzygium samarangense) (Chambakka in local parlance) and munched on them while walking down the path.

Rose Apples

Rose Apples

Butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies were aplenty. These fluttering and flying beauties held me captive during the walking sessions.  The ripe rose apple fruits fell down in large numbers and were swept away to the side of the walk path. Some butterflies fed on the fermenting and rotting fruits and later staggered and flew away as if they were on a high!

Spectacular streaks of lightning on the days when we had summer showers added light to the pitch darkness of the night. The rumble of thunder reverberated and sometimes rudely woke us up from our meditations. As the downpours subsided a different kind of ensemble played out – and the whole place came alive with thousands of chirruping crickets!

Observing nature closely and being in its midst has had a telling effect as it seemed to improve the overall feeling of emotional and mental wellbeing. I am sure being out of touch with the outside world as well as being constantly connected with our technological devices hastened the feeling of respite and joy.

Vipassana thus brought in me a lot of inward happiness and optimism towards the future. Every time there has been a stressful situation I have been able to tell myself that even this will pass away. It has been just about two months since I completed my Vipassana course and I have been able to practice it every morning on almost all days. I know I must practice it for an hour in the evening too and am confident that I will be able to do this in the near future. Spending time in silent retreat with nature for company was the best way I lightened my mental world and increased the world of my heart. The emphasis was not only on engaging in noble silence but also in enjoying the peace and quiet. No doubt that Vipassana is a beautiful technique to make holistic changes in our lives and help us become self-aware.

“Bhavatu Sabba Managalam”
“May there be every blessing”

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – IX

Day 10 (25/04/2015)

Ah, the final day has dawned. What started as a slow and an excruciating experience gradually became more interesting and meaningful with the passing days. As I look back, I am convinced this is one amazing decision I have taken. Suddenly the delusions were exposed – the realization dawned that we look at change to happen only in the outside. So we tend to correct things outside. But we fail to look inwards, inside. Actual change can happen only there, within. Vipassana gave us the other angle – as we progress and look at things inside we realize the cause of our misery it’s 50 % outside and 50 % inside. And with continuous practice one is sure to reach the stage where one becomes aware that misery is generated from within. Whenever one reacts one causes misery. In the course of the 10 days, we were taken symbolically and systematically through the facets of the Triple Gem i.e. in Buddha, in Dhamma and in Sangha – the qualities they stand for. One who traverses through the path of enlightenment is taking refuge in the Buddha. The path in itself is called the Dhamma.  Constant practice alters the practitioner and the stage of goodness one reaches is called the Sangha. And the final result of taking refuge in the Triple Gem is to purify the mind.

In the morning session we were introduced to Metta meditation. Metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, is a method of developing compassion. It is rooted in Buddhist tradition and after Vipassana practice we are expected to close it with Metta Bhavana. While Vipassana is looking inward through a moment-to-moment observation of the body/ mind with awareness, focus and equanimity, Metta is a practice wherein one opens the heart to oneself, others and all of life, thus accentuating the inter-relatedness of all life in this beautiful planet. After Vipassana we were asked to relax (sit quietly with closed eyes and a peaceful mind) before initiating us into Metta meditation. In Metta Meditation we were asked to focus on Metta phrases:

May I be free from all anger, hatred, ill will and animosity…
May I generate love and goodwill, peace and harmony…
May all beings share my peace…
Share my harmony…
Share my merits…
Share my Dhamma…
May all beings feel happy…
Feel peaceful…
Feel liberated…
May all beings be happy, be peaceful, be liberated…

Finally it ends with the Pali phrase “Bhavatu Sabba Managalam” meaning “May there be every blessing”.

This is the only time when we were asked to focus on phrases. Otherwise Vipassana stays clear of visualizations and phrases in a bid to induce focus. According to Vipassana using mental images, using mantras etc are artificial and do not help in clearing the cobwebs at the deeper level. So those who are used to guided visualization meditations, verbalization or mantras may find it difficult to break from that habit. Choosing a particular object to stay focused on makes Metta a concentration practice. We practiced Metta the whole day so that we get enough practice in the technique. The aim of Metta is to share the purity one develops during the practice of Vipassana with the world at large and thereby creating goodwill, harmony and peace.

At 11.00 after the morning session the noble silence ended and we were permitted to talk. The lunch was a noisy, chattering affair. We looked at each other and talked and talked. We went to our fellow meditators and got to know them better. Even after spending 10 days under the same roof without talking and meeting each other’s eye, it seemed there was an underlying camaraderie betwixt us. In between we found time to buy books and CDs that were displayed. We also handed in our donations to the staff detailed for the same.

The next session started at 2.30 and after it ended and we had our tea, we were asked to collect our phones and valuables which we had submitted on the first day to the authorities. After that it was time to get in touch with folks at home. The next session was at 6.00 and so we were left with very little time. Another round of Vipassana and Metta Meditation was followed by the screening of the documentary “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana” a film by Eilona Ariel & Ayelet Menahemi. The winner of the Golden Spire Award at the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival and the winner of the 1998 NCCD Pass Awards of the American National Council on Crime and Delinquency, it captures brilliantly the path breaking prison reforms undertaken by Kiran Bedi when she held the position of Inspector General of prisons in Tihar Jail. (Dear readers do watch this movie at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkxSyv5R1sg – it will be a life changing experience). Yes, ‘the little woman with a big reputation and an even bigger vision’ Kiran Bedi introduced Vipassana in Tihar Jail, and it came to be the most ambitious project in the history of Indian prisons. Many prisoners experience profound change, came to realize that they can be normal human beings. Incarceration is not the end. There is the possibility of a life with positivism, forgiveness and transformation into a complete human being. The film was so very engrossing and poignant. I wish many more prisons all over the world would weave Vipassana into their systems so that there are no more criminals, only reformed souls. When the sessions for the day ended, we went back to our rooms and were once more huddled in conversation. We sat late into the night and by the time we went to bed it was 2.00 am.

Talk! Imagine how much of chatter goes on in our daily lives and the impact it has on us, even though we scarcely realize it.  The actual physical act of chatter and then the non-stop chatter in the mind! I hope I will be able to be aware and control both kinds of chatter, especially the second kind. And when I hit the bed, my mind played it over and over again like a stuck tape recorder – the ten days’ experience, the people and the place around and most importantly the documentary. Technology is a great distractor too. Gmail, Face Book, Whatsapp – all kept me wide eyed till 4.00 am – and I woke up with not even a wink of sleep. And that was how I went in the closing day morning for the meditation session. After the session another discourse by Acharya Goenka was delayed due to another power outage. After breakfast, when the power supply resumed we watched the discourse rapt in attention. In the discourse Acharyaji once more exhorted us to take in only things that are logical, pragmatic, reasonable and rational. Use this yardstick to review what was learned in the last ten days. Another yardstick is to see if there are tangible benefits by practicing it. And the third yardstick is to ask if it is harmful to others. Then if it is acceptable by all three yardsticks, accept it at the actual level – at the level of practice.

As we bid goodbye to our fellow meditators, we exchanged telephone numbers, email ids and so on. I realized how we came from such diverse cultures but have all been tied to the sacred thread of Dhamma. As I look back, what has enamoured me to this day is that the entire teaching of Vipassana is completely universal. It is absolutely non-sectarian. It never praises one sect and puts down another. It is balanced and equanimous. It is utterly devoid of rites and rituals. The shift through Vipassana is the shift from misery to happiness, from ignorance to wisdom and from bondage to liberation. And this shift being gradual, may not be immediately perceptible. And as I come to the end of the narration of my Vipassana experience I can only gratefully acknowledge this soul for silently gifting the world one of the most powerful and life changing kinds of meditation – Vipassana. I thank and am eternally grateful to that moment when I decided to join the course. I am also indebted to that power if discernment in me that held me captive to Vipassana during the entire course.

Finally, dear reader, I do hope you get a chance to experience the life-changing Vipassana technique.

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – VIII

Day 9 (24/04/2015)

The first thing that came to my mind as I woke up on this penultimate day of the Vipassana Course was the exasperating shoulder pain that was getting from bad to worse. Added to this was the hurting knee. I wondered if I was regressing and was vexed as to what would happen if these persisted even after the course was over. I had to undertake the travel back home by train, hauling the luggage, and climbing the most user-unfriendly steps to reach the platforms in railway stations. Keeping these in mind I sat in the chair for the early morning session of meditation. However, I felt rather incomplete doing so and quickly moved back to the crossed legged position for the rest of the day. I brought in a couple of cushions (many of different sizes and shapes were piled up for us to pick and choose to suit our need) more and made myself comfortable before I entered Vipassana practice.

The surprising matter however was notwithstanding the pain which overshadowed everything else, I was able to experience the warmth / tingling and other subtle sensations in other parts of my body. Today we were asked to sweep head to toe and in the reverse direction and then see if we could feel the sensations inside the body as well by moving our focus, this way and that way, piercingly and penetratingly through the body. We were asked to see if we can pass our focus through the spinal cord. After this, we were asked to do spot checks by taking our focus randomly to a body part and to see if the mind immediately feels a sensation in the area of focus and if the sensation remains limited to the area of focus. For the last couple of days I have also been noticing a strange occurrence. As I got engrossed in my Vipassana practice, I experienced occasional sobs. But there were no tears whatsoever. I wondered if it was the soul that was weeping for the hurts and broken spirits of many a life time. It dawned that some very deep cleansing was what was happening to me. I am reminded of one of my favourite poets, Khalil Gibran’s lines:

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls;
the most massive characters are seamed with scars…”

I told my daughter about this later and she says, “Ma, don’t freak me out!”  🙂 May be one day she’ll discover for herself the unmistakable benefits of Vipassana and then she’d be in a better position to understand the multifaceted technique and the effects it can have on the sincere practitioner.

By evening the pain was so unbearable that I doubted if I was suffering from Spondylitis. The need for a quick fix remedy was so very desperate that it made me do something which is not permitted. We had an acupressure specialist in our midst (with whom I interacted on Day 1 before the noble silence began) and I went to her and signalled that my shoulder pain was unbearable. She felt the area and opined that the pain is in all probability mental defilements finding external outlets. She applied pressure at various points, took out the acupressure plaster dots and put them in a couple of places. It was pure magic and very soon the ache was contained. The relief in me was palpable and a new verve and buoyancy radiated from within me.

The evening discourse of Acharya Goenka reminded us that the next day was the last day and that we would be initiated into Metta or Loving Kindness meditation. The liberation from pain and the fact that the next day was the last day of the course (we would get to talk to each other in the afternoon and by 5 pm we will get our mobile phones to talk to our dear ones back home!!) made me anticipate the day with exhilaration. After so many days of not being able to sleep as soon as I hit the bed, I drifted immediately into sound sleep and woke up only when the gong went to wake us up at 4.00 am.

(To be continued)

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – VII

Day 7 (22/04/2015)

Contrary to expectations, I did sleep late woke up at the clang of the bell with a heavy shoulder. It was as if a ton of bricks were kept on them and I wriggled under the weight. Besides my calf muscles were sore too due to cramps I experienced sometime in the course of the night. It was another rainy night but thankfully there was no power outage. The roof of our room was tiled and hence when it was hot it was unbearable with draughts of hot air making one feel oppressed while when it rained in the evening or at night, the tiles became cool and it was very pleasant. Despite the heavy rains, water logging and greenery around it was amazing that we were not tormented by mosquitoes.

Today’s meditation was a continuation of what we practised earlier – observe sensations objectively while moving one’s awareness from head to toe, part by part, piece by piece. The fact driven home was that the secret of success in Vipassana lay in the continuity of practice and determined focus. The two keys that will assist one in the path of Vipassana are awareness and equanimity. If you miss sensations, you miss the deepest recesses of your mind. Change and breaking the habit pattern must start there. The most important thing to remember is to never crave for or develop aversion for this sensation or that sensation. The deep surgical operation of the mind that happens during this time is sure to remove many deep seated complexes that have been in your mind for ages. With their removal one experiences liberation from sankharas and through that natural enlightenment. When all the gross, solidified sensations dissolve, one experiences only fine, subtle sensations.

By evening time we had more rains and the weather was so very pleasant. Meditating in such positive environs is any meditator’s dream. Evenings were pleasant and nights cool. But the rains also brought in thousands of termites that swarmed around lights. These pesky termite alates forced us to switch off the lights ahead of time. We were told to focus for a couple of minutes on areas where we felt grossness and this only increased the solidity I felt on the area of my shoulders. Though I knew it was some very persistent and stubborn sankharas getting eradicated, I admit the skeptic in me wondered – did I create a new pain for myself?? I have already had enough issues with my back and knees, and this one was most unwelcome. Once again the night was long and arduous as I kept tossing, turning and aching.

Day 8 (23/04/2015)

Waking up with a nagging pain is the worst way to begin one’s day. Though I did feel like running away from the course at times, the last couple of days have steeled my resolve. Notwithstanding the gross sensations and the pain experienced, I was keen to give Vipassana a fair trial. So I moved to the meditation hall with steadfastness and the conviction that Vipassana will do me good.

Today we had to move our awareness from head to toe, toe to head, and then sweep in both directions. After two sweeps we had to go part by part again. Wherever there were gross hardened sensations or blind hazy spots, we had to focus our awareness there for 1-2 minutes. This focus intermittently on my shoulder made the dull ache a throbbing pain by evening. Even while writhing in agony, I made earnest attempts at being aware with equanimity. As each wave of pain shot up, I told myself – “even this will pass away.” Aniccha. Aniccha. Aniccha. There are some very deep seated and deep rooted complexities that were getting eradicated through this numbing pain, I reasoned.

I had to apply Profenid again to ease my pain but I don’t think it really helped. I lay on the bed, listening to the chirping crickets, the croaking frogs, the occasional rumbles of thunder and finally at some point of time the song of cuckoo birds. The night thus saw me spending hours in wakefulness before sleep enveloped me.

(To be continued)

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – VI

Day 6 (21/04/2015)

I woke up to darkness all around me. So I turned and closed my eyes once more, only to be startled by the clang of the bell announcing it was 4.00 am. Power has not been restored. After over 14 hours without electricity and switching on the motor to fill the overhead tank, I knew water would be scarce. The early bird catches the worm. I just about managed to get some water for my morning ablutions before I saw the water trickle, drip and then stop. Ouch, I cannot have a bath! The downpour had left the atmosphere cool and it was better not risking a cold water shower even if water were available, I reasoned. The Dhamma volunteer had kept a couple of emergency lamps on the path to the meditation hall and so we did not have to stumble along.

It’s the sixth day today and we have already clocked over 50 hours of meditation! Yes, a good many hours were spent on training the mind which galloped hither and thither, bringing it back to awareness and attention. A couple of months ago, I would have thought of undergoing such intense meditation as impossible. But here I am – in the thick of it all and relishing it to a great extent. It’s at such times one looks at oneself with fresh eyes and respect.

Vipassana_Quote

Today too two participants who wanted to leave the camp were promptly shown back to the meditation hall with the advice to give Vipassana an earnest trial. In the course of the day’s meditation, we were to move our awareness from head to toe part by part and observe sensations and then go in the reverse direction. As I paid attention to the observations without reactions, I noticed that a lot of them were subtle tingling/warm sensations. However there seemed to be some gross sensations which gave me dull aches especially around my throat, nape and shoulder areas. I observed the pain on both knees too as I continued to sit on the floor. The teacher called us to him in batches of four to ask questions and make clarifications regarding the technique. A fellow meditator complained that she could not sleep at night and the teacher replied that it was normal as one is not doing physical work and at the same time spending close to 10 hours in meditation. This answer comforted me a great deal too. And when my turn came, he said he was happy to see me not using the chair and earnestly make an effort to overcome the sensation of pain. His appreciation was a great incentive and I continued to sit down cross-legged despite the numbing pain which by now I had learned to take in my stride.

The point driven home time and again by the teacher and in Acharya Goenka’s video discourses was that the entire structure of the body is composed of sub-atomic particles called Kalãpã – consisting of one of the four elements, earth (solid), water (liquid), air (gaseous) and fire (temperature). However, when one starts to examine the reality within, one will understand the elements at the subtle level. Thus if the fire element is predominant, the sensation is either heat or cold; earth element reveals heaviness or lightness; air element has everything to do with movement and water with cohesiveness. And when observes the sensations, all the sankhãrã or the accumulated karmic burdens of all our lifetimes arise and pass away. They burn up layer by layer till even deep rooted ones show up and just evaporates. It’s probably this that’s causing me those gross physical sensations. What began as simple discomforts in the morning were threatening to take a much painful shape by night! And I was just not looking forward to another sleepless night accompanying an already aching shoulder.

(To be continued)

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – V

Day 5 (20/04/2015)

Though I slept late when I woke up I did feel refreshed. No hangover of a sleep deprived person, though I always believed myself to be someone who needed the full quota of 8 hours of sleep. I remembered suddenly the teacher’s reluctance to permit me to sit on a chair. I readied for the morning session’s meditation, steeled and told myself I was going to sit on the floor. By the end of the two hour slot from 4.30 – 6.30 am, I realized that it is easier said than done. Aches, pains and groans pervaded my being. So, after breakfast when I went for the session, I gave in to the feelings controlled by pain. I sat on the chair for the one hour group meditation during which I should not stir and then the rest of it till 11.00 am. Tough! Sitting on the chair which was anything but ergonomic, it was much tougher.

So for the rest of the noon’s sessions I decided to give sitting on the floor cross-legged a good try. The session from 1.00 to 2.30 was trial time. I pushed myself really hard and was able to sit without moving for close to 45 minutes and thus changed posture just once. Inspired by this small success I was thrilled when I was able to sit completely motionless during the hour long group meditation session from 2.30 – 3.30 and later between 6.00 – 7.00 pm, though they seemed to be a classic tests of pain endurance. By the time the end was within sight, it was as if time stood still! The deep connection between physical sensations and the mental connections was quite evident. The mind was so obsessed with the physical pain that the physical one became a mental pain too. Now that I started observing the pain objectively and disassociating it with the mental one, it seemed to have halved!! Goenkaji’s words were like a soothing balm – pain, like pleasure, will arise and disappear. It is impermanent. Nothing is permanent. Anicca, anicca, anicca!

Quote - S N Goenka

Quote – S N Goenka

All through the day’s meditation sessions we had to move our awareness from head to toe part by part and observe sensations. This, Goenkaji explained was to heighten one’s sense of awareness. Not just the awareness of the reality of the surface level of the mind, but at a deeper level. It brought about one more realization – the so called unconscious mind is anything but unconscious. It is always conscious of the sensations in the body and keeps on reacting to it. That’s why we like pleasant sensations and crave for them; we dislike unpleasant and painful sensations and engage them with hatred and aversion.  This then snowballs into a habit pattern, making the mind a complete prisoner of likes and dislikes, craving and aversion. This generates negativity. Though at the intellectual level we are able to understand that we shouldn’t be generating negativity, the deepest level of the mind which is in constant touch with the body sensations, pays no heed to it. It is through the constant observation and awareness that the message reaches the deepest level.

One more young girl dropped out of the course after lunch was served at 11.00 am. By noon time the skies outside darkened ominously and brought in its wake welcome showers – clearly one of the most severe summer showers we have ever had in Kerala, for it ended only by about 3.30 am the next morning. Lightning streaked and lit up the dark skies and claps of thunder reverberated throughout. This also left us bereft of electric supply till about the morning of the next day.  Once again sleep eluded me, which left me completely surprised. I have always taken pride and been very grateful in having no difficulty in sleeping – all I usually remember is lying on the bed and lo, it’s already the next day! Since the previous day too I found it difficult to sleep, I had taken care not to take an afternoon nap. Even that seems not to have helped. Many a toss and turn later, as I stumbled into Slumberland, Nature’s music was still at play – streaks of lightning, rumbling thunder and of course the shrill chirps of a million crickets, all teeming with life thanks to the heavy downpour.

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – IV

Day 4 (19/04/2015)

Impermanence is one of the most important Buddhist teachings and one that must be fully understood and accepted in order to fully understand life. Nothing is permanent and the sooner you understand its meaning and accept this, you will be able to live a life filled with less expectation from anything and anyone. This is the greatest lesson learnt along with Vipassana on the 4th day. Besides we had learnt the prerequisites to Vipassana in the last three days and will continue to do so till 2.30 pm today.

Today we started the 4.30 am meditation with our focus on a smaller area, the small triangular one just below the nostrils and the upper lip. The smaller the focus, the sharper the mind becomes and thus it becomes ripe enough to absorb Vipassana. Focus was difficult and trying. The mind would ramble and behave like a child in tantrums, and had to be brought under control with utmost perseverance and in between all that one had to observe with equanimity the sensations that arise in the chosen area. Gradually there was some semblance of order. Now I know why we were forced to be completely cut off from the outside world. It did make things easier.

At lunch time I discovered that the foreigner in my room had left, unable to manage the strict code of conduct. Anyone leaving the course midway leaves makes the weak minded long to drop everything like a hot brick and move on. Thankfully I felt otherwise – happy to stay on course for it gave me an opportunity to tell my mind, hey there, I am the boss and not you. 🙂

By the time the 3.00 pm session started everyone were eager to go through the Vipassana session, waiting with bated breath. The instructions were from Acharya Goenka, vide a recorded CD. We were to move our attention from the top of our head and observe sensations. Then we were to focus on each and every part by part and observe objectively and with equanimity the sensations. The top of the head, the scalp, the shoulders and down to the right arm and then the left arm, neck, trunk, pelvic region, right leg up to the foot followed by the left foot was the order. After this the focus was directed to the nape, back, spine, back pelvic region, and the back side of the legs up to the toes. Irrespective of what the sensations are – pleasant or unpleasant – we were to accept the reality moment to moment.

When we started the practice, at first there were sensations in some parts of the body. In some places there were none whatsoever. It also became clear that we experienced easily the intense sensations and not the finer, subtle ones. That came with practice. The most challenging aspect for me was sitting in the same position for two hours continuously – for we were asked to try not to move during the Vipassana time – 3.00 – 5.00 pm. I must say that I was not able to comply with this, thanks to the nagging knee pain as I had been sitting cross-legged all the three days. After the Vipassana experience we had another session from 6 – 7 pm in the evening, a group Vipassana meditation. During such group sessions everyday (four sessions – 8-9 am, 2.30 – 3.30 pm, 6.00 – 7.00 pm and 8.15 – 9.00 pm) we were told to stay motionless. With a nagging knee pain I decided that during the question hour from 9.00 – 9.30 pm I would ask the teacher if I could sit in a chair. The teacher was quick to dissuade me but I told him that I do have a back / knee problem and as he unwillingly relented, there was a sigh of relief in me.

Before hitting the bed I gently applied an analgesic gel on the painful areas hoping and praying it would go away as I wake up in the dawn. But sleep eluded and that worried me. What if I don’t have enough sleep and droop while meditating? After considerable tossing and turning when I drifted into slumber it was way past midnight.

(To be continued)

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – III

Every evening during the short meditation from 8.30 – 9.00 pm, after the discourse by Acharya Goenka we were given instructions and practice of the next stage of Anapana meditation. This was a technically sound practice as we were able to practice for half an hour immediately and then the whole of the next day. This helped us to get a good grounding in the technique.

Day 3 (18/04/2015)

Today during the meditation sessions we were required to be aware of the triangular area of the nostrils and the area just above the upper lip. The smaller the area, the sharper the mind will get. Normally the mind is so gross that one cannot feel subtle sensations. We need to learn to sharpen the mind. So we need to be aware of the touch of the breath anywhere on the inner wall of the nostrils, outer rings of the nostrils or the area below the nostrils or above the upper lip. The smaller the area the subtler the mind will become. This is also symbolic of the progress we make – movement from the gross reality to the subtle reality. However we had to remember that we cannot create subtle realities. We had to leave that to the laws of nature. Whatever manifests there, we had to be aware of it. There would be some biochemical reactions there which will make one feel sensations like tickling, tingling, itching, throbbing, prickling, warmth and so on. We cannot choose sensations. It happens naturally. Whatever comes up, just observe and accept. Just observe the sensation and acknowledge it to be the reality of the moment. This is called Samma Sati in Pali, the right awareness. Do not react – for example don’t scratch when it itches. Just observe. No itching is eternal. Even this will pass away. A new word came to enter our everyday vocabulary – Anicca (pronounced aniccha) – it meant that things rise in one moment and in the other moment pass away. Imagine a river. At no point in time will the water in the river remain the same. It flows and moves on. But the continuous flow of water in the river creates an illusion of permanence in our mind which makes us believe that the water is the same.

Simple, logical things. Why didn’t it occur to me till now? The answer was also readily available. In the fast paced world we don’t observe things. We do things. But we don’t observe. We do things mechanically and never with awareness. And even when we do with some awareness, we do ten things together, that we don’t even remember what we had done. Ah, multi-tasking! In the corporate world we take such pride in this skill.

Day 3 was truly insightful. The practice began at 4.30 am like always and till noon no luck with sensations. But by the end of the day I could feel subtle sensations in the inner wall of the nostrils. Ah, the exhilaration of the “eureka” moment! But wait, that’s precisely what we had to stay away from. Liking something results in craving and hating something results in aversion. Both lead to actions that fulfil the craving or aversion respectively and the next action and the next and so on. A vicious cycle of craving and aversion is born and the mind gets mired in the bog over and over again till the point of no return.

By night however I could feel the gnawing pain in my knees – the result of sitting cross-legged for hours together. There was no hard and fast rule that one has to sit cross-legged. I have been used to doing that and hence my preference for it.  So before going to sleep I liberally massaged my knees with a gel that I had carried with the fond hope that I would feel alright in the morning. I was also looking forward to Day 4 as it was the day when we would be initiated into what is actual Vipassana. Whatever we had been doing for the last 3 days and till 3.00 pm on the 4th day were only baby steps towards Vipassana.

(To be continued)

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – II

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – II

The short half hour meditation ended at 9.00 pm drawing a close to a very different day. By 9.15 pm looking forward to another day, I drifted towards sleep. Sometime in the night I woke up and realized that there was no power supply. It was 3.00 am. The tiled roof of the room was as quick to cool down as it was to get heated by noon time. Therefore, once again slumber enveloped me only to be startled by the loud gong of the bell. It’s 4.00 am. It’s still dark – and the power supply hadn’t been restored. That didn’t dampen my spirits and I marched into the washroom to have a bath, armed with my torch.

Day 2 (17/04/2015)

Another gong and I moved in the direction of the meditation hall. The volunteers had kept a few lamps on the path and slowly everybody trickled in. The session began sharp at 4.30. Watch the breath. And when I do that what happens? The mind is focussed on the act of breathing for a few seconds and there it goes on a wild horse ride. To the past, to the future and many a time I realized that there is no order to the kind of thoughts that overwhelm me. By noon with practice I gathered momentum in noticing the drift of the mind and then bring it back to focus on the respiration.

As the morning session ended at 6.30, we moved into the dining hall. We had separate halls for males and females. Breakfast over, I moved to the walking area under the canopy of tall trees – teak, mango, jackfruit, coconut and a huge silk cotton tree. The morning air was cool and fresh. The entire area was full of bird calls and the eastern sky was glowing as the sun rose. I strolled taking in the vibrancy of the place. As speaking was taboo, it was the right opportunity for me to commune with Nature.

The trees are God’s great alphabet: With them He writes in shining green Across the world His thoughts serene. ~Leonora Speyer

The trees are God’s great alphabet:
With them He writes in shining green
Across the world His thoughts serene.
~Leonora Speyer

The schedule for each day is the same and so am not replicating it. Day 1’s long sessions have already started having an effect on me. There’s an ache in the knees for I have been sitting cross-legged. Nevertheless, I am game for Day 2. By noon time we heard some helpers speaking about two in the camp who dropped out in the morning. I wondered how many of us will be around on the last day.

On Day 2 the focus is again on respiration. But this time we were asked to sense the cool air of inhalation and the warm air of exhalation. Vipassana stresses on meditators focussing on normal breath – not hard or contrived breath. Hard breath may be taken only briefly if you just cannot experience breathing at all. Then you are asked to move into natural, flowing breath. Since natural breath is such an inconspicuous and involuntary affair, it is with a lot of struggle that I managed to start experiencing it. For the first few hours I just could not sense either the warmth or the coolness but as the day progressed, I could faintly distinguish both. And then when one feels excited at the success, you are gently reminded, do not be elated at success and do not be frustrated at failure. Be equanimous. Truly a tall order!

The day’s discourse was on the habit pattern of the mind. If one observes it, it is clear that it swings like a pendulum from the past to the present, generating either craving or aversion. One cannot perform an action that harms others without defiling one’s own mind first. The result is anger, ill will, hatred, animosity and the like. And with these negatives in the mind one is surely bound to be miserable. On the other hand when one performs an action that helps others, it naturally generates positive aspects like love, goodwill, forgiveness and compassion. By practicing right awareness one starts breaking that habit. Once you learn to fix your mind on the present reality you enter the realm of Panna, the development of wisdom, of insight, that totally purifies the mind. Thus Vipassana is actually a deep surgical operation of the mind, bringing out the negativity and purifying the mind.

I still cannot figure out how people like me, householders with duties and responsibilities, can live a life of balance, without liking and without hating. We are not monks or nuns to develop complete detachment. I will need more clarifications in this matter. These were my thoughts as I hit the bed at night.

(To be continued)

MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE – I

There is only one moment in time when it is necessary to awaken. That moment is now. — Buddha

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. And so it was with Vipassana and me. I had wanted to join the Ten-day Vipassana Meditation Course way back in 2009. That did not happen as the seats were full. The time was ripe only in April 2015.  When I applied online for a place in the course, my understanding was that I would hear from the organizers only in a fortnight. So when I heard from the registrar of the course in about 6 hours flat, it caught me by surprise. And I was truly excited. Yayyy… am finally going to do a Vipassana Course!!

To those of you who are not familiar with it, Vipassana is a word in Pali language which can roughly be translated as “insight meditation”. The word “Vipassana” has two parts; “Passana” means seeing or perceiving, and the prefix “Vi” which has several meanings, one of which is “through.” Vipassana is thus insight which literally penetrates the curtain of delusion in the mind. “Vi” may also be considered as a substitute for the English prefix “dis,” suggesting discernment — a kind of seeing that perceives individual components separately. The idea of separation is relevant here, for insight works like a mental scalpel, differentiating conventional truth from ultimate reality. Lastly, “Vipassana” can also mean intense, deep or powerful seeing.

One of India’s most ancient meditations (over 2500 years old), it has its roots in Buddhism when Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, discovered it. He propounded that the actual cause of suffering can be eradicated by knowing ourselves and our true nature. The practice of Vipassana therefore exhorts us to be calm and peaceful; alert and attentive as well as balanced and equanimous. Though originated in India, Vipassana soon lost its purity in India and many other countries where it had spread to. However, a devoted line of teachers and disciples in Burma (present Myanmar) maintained it in its pristine purity. Vipassana was brought back to India by Sri S N Goenka, a highly respected teacher and an Indian who lived in Burma, and who studied the technique under the venerable Sayagyi U Ba Khin.

The course started from the evening of 15th April 2015 at the Dhamma Ketana Vipassana Centre, at Cheriyanad, 8 kilometres away from Chengannur, in Kerala. Though the registration time was from 3 – 5 pm, I could reach the centre only by 6 pm, thanks to the Parasuram Express which was running late by 2 hours. After a 20-minute ride by an auto rickshaw, I was at the Centre. What struck me as I entered the Centre was its rustic and sylvan locale. After registering for where I had to fill in forms and affirm my commitment to the course, I moved ahead to hand over my mobile phone and valuables for safe keeping. Yes, I had read the code of conduct rather elaborately. It clearly said:

  1. No conversation, verbal and non-verbal, is permitted during the entire course. And this included using mobile phones to communicate with the outside world to something as inconspicuous as making eye contacts with fellow meditators. Music, reading and writing is also taboo. This is called following the principle of Noble Silence. (I learned later that this is to shut out all kinds of stimuli that will create delusions in the mind and which will veer the meditator from the path of discovering oneself.)
  2. Discontinue all kinds of rites, rituals, prayer and worship during the entire course. (We were told that mixing this with Vipassana meditation can seriously impede the meditator’s progress and even regress as Vipassana is thoroughly non-sectarian. Besides one needed to give the technique a fair trial while maintaining in all its purity.)
  3. Physical contact of any kind is a strict no-no; with same sex or opposite. Outside contacts and going outside the centre’s premises are forbidden.
  4. Drugs, intoxicants, sedative etc. must be avoided strictly. Any medicines / special diet due to illness are however permitted albeit with the Teacher’s permission & know how.
  5. Clothing needs to be modest, comfortable and simple. After all you will spend close to 11 hours each day meditating. There’s no facility for laundry – however you are free to do it yourselves during break times. (This made me carry nearly a dozen pair of clothes!)

After tucking my bag underneath the cot and washing my face to ward off the weariness of a long journey, I reported at the meditation hall. The session began at 8.00 pm sharp flagging of the course as well as the code of conduct.

Day 1 (16/04/2015)

I woke up to the first sound of the gong. It’s 4.00 am. When I move into community living, I always loved to have a bath as early as possible (read it as before it gets used, misused and abused by cohabitants) and this time was no different. By the time the second series of gongs went at 4.25 am, I was ready to take on the day, refreshed and energized by a cold water bath. The schedule was quite daunting:

  • 4:00 a.m. Morning wake-up bell
  • 4:30 — 6:30 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 6:30 — 8:00 a.m Breakfast break
  • 8:00 — 9:00 a.m Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00 — 11:00 Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s nstructions
  • 11:00 —12 noon Lunch break
  • 12:00—1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher
  • 1:00 — 2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 2:30 — 3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 3:30 — 5:00 Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
  • 5:00 — 6:00 p.m. Tea break
  • 6:00 — 7:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 7:00 — 8:15 p.m. Teacher’s discourse in the hall
  • 8:15 — 9:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00 — 9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall
  • 9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights out

We soon found out that all meditations, group or individual, were all in the hall as the centre did not have individual cells for each meditator. There were 2-3 of us in each room and under this circumstance it was quite challenging to meditate in our rooms. The hall was spacious to accommodate over 50 of us. It was simple and Spartan with no pictures, religious objects, talismans etc. true to what Vipassana professed – thoroughly non-sectarian and non-religious. Each one of us had a wide cushion to be used as the seat to sit. There were also plenty of cushions of different sizes to suit your comfort for you had to make yourself comfortable. Long hours of meditation do demand that. Each one of us had a seat and we had to stick to that throughout the course. This was most welcome from the hygiene point of view.

During the meditations, tapes of Acharya Goenka with instructions on meditation were played. Accordingly Day 1 focussed on awareness of the breath. A moment of awareness and then the mind would wander away. We were encouraged not to feel guilty about it and gently bring back the mind to awareness. By the end of Day one, I could find out in a couple of minutes whenever the mind wandered. Taming the mind is such an arduous affair! Besides, one is not used to sitting cross legged or in any other comfortable position for long hours. And not to forget – we cannot talk. No communication from your loved ones back home. We are in new environs. Only simple vegetarian food was served – though not difficult for me, it must have been for many others. Amidst all this and moving far away from our comfort zones, each one of us were trying hard to be aware of respiration; nothing but respiration. The 7.00 – 8.15 discourses were the recorded video tapes of Acharya Goenka. In his first day’s discourse he advised us on how to go about our work and encouraged us to make the best use of the time, the opportunity, and the technique so that we benefit wonderfully. It was very interesting and soon many of us looked forward each day to hear his discourse. His words exuded simplicity, genuineness and limitless compassion. Every now and then in the course of his instructions and the discourses he exhorted: be calm and patient; be alert and attentive; be balanced and equanimous.  Day 1 found me focussing yet, there were very many questions that remained unanswered. Nevertheless I was willing to give Vipassana an honest try.

(To be continued)