This last year has been difficult and interesting at the same time. Many of us are conditioned to believe that a ‘secure’ and ‘certain’ life is important to be happy. From early morning to late evening, we studied, worked, strived each moment for the comfort of a home, job, savings, family. So, it was almost surreal watching an invisible virus unravel all of it, and that too so effortlessly. We have all heard of someone that lost a job, a business shutting, someone evicted from home, someone battling the virus or worse lost a loved one. Nothing is certain anymore, and we don’t know yet, if and when it might ever be. But, come to think of it, was anything ever certain?
To some extent, I was used to settling and unsettling my life time and again. Over the last 7 years, traveling and uprooting myself have been the only constants in my life, something I love a great deal. I was arguably best equipped to handle this, because uncertainty was the only thing I thought I mastered. My challenge was to figure what to do with the time I had on my hands, since traveling was no longer an option.
My days passed comfortably until the day I watched in horror the stories of migrants on foot, walking thousands of kilometers in a country that came to a halt with a sudden lockdown. Without income for daily survival, they seemed to have very little option to remain in heartless cities. When a few thoughtful volunteers started a helpline to support, I jumped in. “Taking a few calls wouldn’t hurt”, or so I thought! Before I knew it, 6 hours a day changed to 18 hours a day. Every single one of us stretched ourselves to humanly possible limits coping with the volume and stresses of speaking to people in utter distress. Days and nights merged. The calls didn’t end when I slept. They haunted my dreams before turning me into an insomniac. I remember that first night when I did not sleep, wondering if the migrant I spoke to was suicidal, and what I should/could have done or do.
If I was hoping to find some solace or comfort in the work I was part of, it proved to be the opposite. The crisis ended at some point, or maybe just the attention to it ended, but mine had just begun. It was the beginning of watching my mind unfold. My own privileged existence gnawed at me, as if scratching at my soul one layer at a time. I felt guilty for the very comfort and security that was supposed to make me happy.
I turned once again to Vipassana and signed up for a grueling 10 day course. I would have preferred for “Siri” to have answers to life’s existential questions if given a choice, but until that happens, Vipassana seemed the only plausible alternative.
For those that don’t know, Vipassana is a meditation technique re-discovered and practiced by Gautama Buddha to attain enlightenment. The technique is taught to newbies over a 10 day period. Anyone is welcome, at no cost, as long as they are willing to follow the code of discipline.
The first time I heard of the course, I simply dismissed it. Reason – its rules. Apart from the expected ones like, no stealing, killing, intoxicants etc, there are few others
- Complete silence for 10 days. No talking, gestures or even eye contact. (I could do that!)
- No laptops, tabs, phones (yayyyy!)
- No reading, writing, listening to music, exercising etc (Oh, let me think?)
- Two vegan meals – breakfast at 6.30am, lunch at 11 am; a mild snack for first timers and lemon water for old students at 5 pm. No other food or snack allowed. (Hmmmm. No ginger chai in the morning. Is it possible to survive that?)
- Wake up is at 4 am and meditating up to 10 hours a day (Maybe not my thing!!!!)
- Once you commit to the course, you cannot leave in between. (Definitely not for me!)
I had laid the thought to rest. A year later, a fellow traveler enroute Kashmir mentioned the course. My curiosity picked again. I decided to brave it. What’s the worse that could happen? It certainly wont kill me.
We are supposed to arrive a day earlier to settle in. The ashram/center was pleasantly in the outskirts of the city, well planted with trees. I am given my own room with attached bathroom. I had to deposit my phone and valuables with the meticulously organised team. Volunteers introduced us to the center and explained the routine. They were there to help us through the 10 days on anything we needed and a teacher to help us progress. It was so pleasant that I regretted not going earlier. By the end of the first day of the course, I was kicking myself for signing up.
The first 3 days, focus of meditation is on sharpening and concentrating the mind through breath. The fourth day, the technique of vipassana is taught. Now, don’t go about expecting to feel calm or floating on the clouds during or after the session, ain’t happening! Vipassana teaches true ‘mastery’ over mind, and that isn’t going to be easy. The technique digs out memories long lost, neatly folded and tucked away in multiple layers of the mind, and presents them on the body, in the form of sensations. The sensations could be pleasant or unpleasant, and emphasis is to train the mind in not being attached or repelled by them. I could have easily tried not being attached to pleasant ones, but ofcourse I got lucky and ended up mostly in painful ones! The sensations themselves should be observed dispassionately. Try that with pain of sitting down hour after hour!
There is no doubt to merit of the technique. It is meticulously thorough and detailed. It doesn’t take long to realise that every rule make sense. No talking, reading, writing etc. deprives the mind of any new information. With no distractions, the mind is forced to look within. The teaching of vipassana is done on the 4th day, to allow for the mind to settle down and be focused enough to observe the sensations. The rule of not keeping any valuables takes away fear of losing something. Meals are designed to prevent lethargy. The only thing left to do is meditate.
I persisted through my first course, on most days feeling like a zombie. On odd days I wondered why I was doing this to myself; on even days, I was grateful for the people running them. I had no problem being removed from technology, being silent, not reading or even the lack of my favorite masala chai. The only major challenge was sitting through hour after hour to meditate.
One incident stood out from the first course. Around the 7th day, a memory from childhood surfaced, quite visibly, not just as a sensation. We had a small rose plant that blossomed occasionally. The flower was the color of early sunrise and one of the most beautiful I had seen. As a child, I used to be very excited each time a new bud started blooming. I would check on it everyday. The day it was supposed to fully bloom, my dad would pluck it before I even woke up, and offer it in his prayers. I would be livid, screaming, much to my dad’s amusement. It was a pattern for us. I had forgotten about it for over three decades. The memory surfaced out of nowhere, and the intensity of my childhood feeling returned, but this time, I let the anger slide by. I didn’t know if it was weariness but I wasn’t angry anymore. The physical sensation of pain in my back shrinked as the memory faded. It was an eye opener. The mind seemed like an unending warehouse of memories. As per Vipassana philosophy, memories go back to several past lives; and until one is able to absolve themselves of all the memories by observing them dispassionately, the cycle of birth and death continues. I wasn’t too invested in philosophy. My interest was in it’s practical application.
For weeks and months after the first course I could feel its impact. Nothing rattled me. The calm I felt inside was unlike any before. Unfortunately, my resolution to continue daily practice ebbed away with life successfully distracting me. For years, I had forgotten the practice, until now. I knew I needed it more than ever.
This time, I breezed through the first 5 days of the course surprising myself. But, ofcourse it wasn’t going to last. My mind played havoc on the 6th day. Anger, frustration, restlessness rattled me, this time, anger on the unjust world. I feverishly wanted answers to so many things. The restlessness seemed impossible to be rid of. But Vipassana forces one to be dispassionate. That meant that I should simply observe the restlessness’ and not try to be rid of it. Easier said than done!
It continued through to the 8th day and took every ounce of effort and will power to continue to sit and mediate. At noon, I forced myself to sit as still as possible in my allotted meditation cell, and keep practicing. Half hour in, something started changing. My scalp felt cold, as though it was soaked wet and I felt a wave of heat pass out of my right ear. A sense of calm washed over me after what felt like decades. Those cartoons that show smoke coming out of ears of angry person weren’t really very far off I say!
That has never happened before. Ofcourse, it didn’t mean that every time I am restless, the same would happen. What the body discloses is so unique to each person, at each moment that even the teachers can’t and don’t tell you what to expect. At each practice, one observes patiently whatever the body chooses to disclose, and the teachers repeatedly remind not to use any imagination and create your own sensations.
This was the third 10 day course I had done of Vipassana. Earlier, I hadn’t felt inclined to write about it, but something changed. With so much uncertainty and disruption that we had seen over the last year, it seems important that we learn some real life skills.
In a world where each organised religion is trying to prove its superiority over the other, each believer emphasizes that their version of God is the only true God, and each religion is trying to increase it’s following, Vipassana came as a breath of fresh air. There is no emphasis on God in any form or formless. The only theory that is taught is about the technique. There is no follow-up from the centers to join any groups, or to check if a student continues practice. The technique involves ones own body and breath. No rituals, mantras, chanting’s, offerings, symbols etc. Infact, there is a great deal of emphasis not to attach anything to it. The simplicity of the practice is so much in contrast to the complex, diverse and largely divided world we seem to live in.
Vipassana’s principle learning in life is summed in one word “Anitya”, meaning impermanence. Nothing is certain. Nothing is secure. Nothing is permanent. The only work or job you have to do is watch the change, both within life and the world, dispassionately.
Does that mean we cannot act when we see an injustice, or to ignore the reality. Ofcourse not. Meditation does not stop one from acting for the right cause. It simply shows a way to act on it effectively without getting affected.
The answers are all there. Waiting to unfold, waiting to be discovered, by each one, on their own, within their own body and mind!