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:
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 12:001:00 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)