Vipassana, the original unchanged meditation and self discovery technique taught by Gautama the Buddha, once lost to India but rediscovered thanks to generations of Myanmar teachers who carried on the tradition silently through the ages, and reintroduced to its home country by S N Goenka.
I was immediately grateful for choosing the Igatpuri center after seeing the Dhamma Giri Pagoda! A beautiful Burmese pagoda sitting atop rows upon rows of meditation cells, surrounded by lush greenery. Many thanks to Minakshi, friend of Masha's for her great advice.
Inside the center I had to surrender all my books (I had tons of them!) writing materials and my malas and bracelet, and make a promise to observe noble silence throughout, along with other promises to abstain from sex, intoxicants, religious practices, etc. I was given a beautiful room to stay in all by myself, little more than a bed and bathroom but very clean and cooling and peaceful.
The meditation work was done daily in a meditation hall as a large group. We would wake at 4am to start the morning with a 2 hour meditation session, followed by more meditation and more meditation, a meal or 2, then more meditation (you get the picture).
For group sittings we were expected to sit without moving our hands or legs for an entire hour! But it soon became natural, and now I am able to meditate freely in a Burmese sitting position for up to 2 hours. The comfort comes not from the pain going away, the pain and discomfort is always there, the comfort comes from being able to relax and stop resisting the pain, and watching it objectively, all part of the Vipassana process of liberation!
THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
The biggest problem I had in the course initially was with my fellow meditators. There was a lot of farting and burping going on in the hall during meditation. Combine this with knuckle cracking and loud yawning and the occasional snorer, you have a cacophony of noises to meditate with! With eyes closed, the noises intensify and seeming pull you from any state of concentration effortlessly.
“I have problems with distractions from other meditators” I begged my instructor, defeated after an entire day of meditation marred by uncontrollable feelings of anger and irritation.
With his help I tried to manage these feelings best I could, first coming in terms with the reality of meditating as a group and that I was a naturally irritable person, then working at the feelings of anger and irritation best I could.
"The cause of the anger is inside you, not outside." he said, "So don't be angry at the people outside."
We were initially taught an introductory technique of watching our breathing, this was to sharpen our minds to receive the Vipassana technique proper with the right kind of mind. Vipassana proper was taught on the 4th day. Something was afoot! Walking to the canteen after the afternoon initiation I was suddenly overcome with a wave of inexplicable emotion which brought tears to my eyes and almost make me choke on my food from sobbing. What had happened? It was such an intense emotion I had a feeling that I had waited many lifetimes for this opportunity.
I continued to work to contain my feelings of irritation and anger with mixed success. The urge to react always comes like a painful shaft with every distraction, even under the intellectual understanding of the cause of my anger. At times I slip up and let loose a verbal counter at the noisemakers. I must have been a very difficult person to meditate next to in those times.
My pet peeve, apart from the usual farting and burping that Indians seem apt to make while in meditation, are the silent smacking noises one makes when they wet their lips or swallow with their mouths open. The person sitting behind me was especially wont to do that. Once I got so mad I turned around and made an extremely loud and childish smacking noise back at him! What a demon I was turning into.
Another favourite of mine was a meditator who insisted on cracking his knuckles, finger digits, and other assorted joints, and make irritating tapping noises with his feet and yawn loudly.
By the 6th day I was ready to throw in the towel at containing my irritation. I had made makeshift earplugs that I wear while meditating and it kept the distractions down to a minimum.
"Those that have the silence inside them spread bliss to those around them. Those that don't only vomit the hell to those around them." Those are not the exact words my Master, Paramahamsa Nithyananda, used but it contains the jist of it. On that day I remembered his words with much misery at my failure.
In my anger I was getting mad even at my Master. It is a truth that in my life I have only ever put the blame on some other person or excuse for things that have only gone wrong inside of me. But I had only been able to bring that understanding to an intellectual level. When it comes down to it, I was never more than a helpless slave to the whims and fancies of my rampant emotions.
"OK Master," I mentated in my mind. "So I don't have the silence within me. You can talk so much about it. How about showing me what to do?"
What happened next in the evening meditation was absolutely jaw dropping.
Bravely and foolhardily I decide one more time to try mediating with the noises and distractions and put away the earplugs.
LOSING MY I
The struggle, the fear of losing control, the burning up of emotions, all ensued. This time somehow I remembered the words of one of S N Goenka's evening lectures. "There is no I". He had said.
Although I had heard that statement many times in the past, once again it was only an intellectual understanding.But that evening when that thought came into my mind, something clicked, something registered, I fell instantly into a state I can only call a greater sense of relaxation.
It was an extraordinary experience. I was completely open and defenceless inside to whatever distractions that used to make me steel myself up with tension in defence. But there was no longer any "I" to defend. There is no I.
And the distractions soon fell to the background with another thing that was happening inside of me.. as I worked with the Vipassana technique I was filled with the now familiar energy of Kundalini. It straightened my spine almost painfully, and pushed my head upwards and backwards with a great pressure. I was locked in that position, sitting ramrod straight effortlessly held in position by the strange force, when in days past I had slouched time and again from the fatigue. A brilliance was filling up inside of me. Soon it was so bright inside my inner space it was completely and uniformly white. I was blinded, albeit blissfully so, for I was filled with so much joy.
It died down close to the end of the session, relinquishing its grasp of my head and spine, my head started drooping a little. The ending prayers sounded, and that was that.
Later that evening while watching the nightly video lecture in a small lecture hall, a boy who had been sitting near me while I was being an irritable nuisance started deliberately making the wet smacking and slurping noises with his lips every few minutes. I came to know that he did this deliberately as he is completely silent whenever he thought that I wasn't around.
He carried this torture through nightly till the end of the course. I must have been a great nuisance for him to have been so overcome with feelings of revenge.
But alas he was a day late. My head was still humming blissfully from the intensity of the experience, and there was no "I" left inside to be affected by his attacks. Elvis had left the building.
In fact, sitting silently and peacefully every night in the video lectures amid his constant lip smackings was a tremendously helpful tool for me to practice and imbibe the lessons experienced. I surprised him and even myself at the extent I had changed after that experience.
"ThereisnoI THereisnoI ThereisnoI ThereisnoI..." my mind went on an on the next day, in between uncontrollable bursts of gratitude for the experience. It was fading from memory and I could sense my "I" returning, feeling the beginnings again of irritation. In my panic I started repeating the statement like a mantra to keep the experience alive inside me.
"Fool," my Masters voice echoed in my mind, laughing playfully,"Unclutch from the experience. It will become a part of you and will never be lost. And stop vocalising!"
Who am I to disobey voices in my head? With difficulty I stopped mentating, and found that though the sense of "I"ness returned, I found I was now able to move to the state of relaxation at will. My experience had been a "Sneak Peek" at a spiritual state, but it had left the doors open for me to make my way there permenantly.
THE PATH OF JNANA
Whether a product of the process of Vipassana (to see the bright light during Vipassana was not uncommon, I later found out) or the intervention of my Master I will never know, all I know is gratitude for the experience. It was a truly rare moment in my life when I had come to an experiential understanding of such a sublime truth.
And this is what the process of Vipassana is about, Goenka had said in a lecture. It is a path of Jnana or self knowledge, a knowledge born from self experimentation and experience, as opposed to intellectualisation.
And all through an ingenious process of training the mind to be a watcher of all the sensations that the body receives, instead of the usual habit of reacting to them, and using the body as experiemental lab and playground for the mind to work on these sensations.
The revelations come as an “AHA!” that seem to come out of nowhere, while practicing the technique diligently, rather than come out of the technique as a direct conclusion. Rather than as a logical or technical tool for figuring out the great Truths, its more like an exercise machine to prepare the mind for the Truths to settle into it once it's ready.
There were also demons to exorcise. Sankaras are deep unconscious desires that control a person like a demon possessing a host. By the process of Vipassana we stop the creation of new Sankaras by stopping the mind from creating new ones by its natural habit of reacting to sensations with craving or aversion. Once this process is stopped, old and deep Sankaras start surfacing and then it’s up to us to purge ourselves of them. Not like in Hollywood movies where the demon claws its way out of a man’s chest! They manifest themselves by sudden feelings of inexplicable discomfort, pain and craving that manifest themselves in the body while practicing.
Once surfaced, by remaining equimanical, balanced and detached to the raging emotions, one becomes freed of them.
The biggest Sankara that surfaced in my course for me? It was the Sankara of lust.. and lots of it! The beautiful meditation cells under and around the main pagoda were out of bounds for new students to meditate, but we were kindly given permission to meditate in the cells for 2 sittings. The cells are a beautiful space of sensory deprivation and intense energy, and inside my cell at 4:30 in the morning I was hit by wave after wave of lust and sexual fantasies, all of which I recognized were from my fantasies of the past!
There was another truth revealed to me near the end of the course. That everything is transcient. Once again, a truth that is proclaimed again and again, but never quite understood, until direct experience, and divine Jnana.
And between the revelations and beautiful experiences, outpourings of gratitude in tears and more tears! I must be the crybaby of the course for the amount of tears I put out, for it is much normal to see austere faces in Igatpuri than a raving crying madman who cannot decide if he is crying or laughing! In fact it was difficult to decide who to be grateful to.. my Master for starting and guiding me on this path, SN Goenka for reviving the practice of Vipassana in India, Buddha for giving the world this method, anything, everything, everyone! It seemed the best thing to do was just raise my eyes to the sky.
“Ah this world of sensations,” I mentated in ecstasy after a particular beautiful session, a momentary glimpse of liberation, having conquered a painfully discomforting sitting, “I am no longer your slave”. It proved to be a bit premature, as it faded from experience with time. But once again a subtle change was left behind, a way was opened in its wake.
But a feeling of freedom is still inside me right now as I write. The changes left in me by the course are as obvious as day from night.
Once I was a victim of my emotions. Once I was caught in a helpless chain of cause and effect, watching in depression as I am carried from sorrow to sorrow from an untamed reactionary mind. This mind now watches calmly at situations that used to instigate it to react in a sadly predictable manner, and any attempts at containing it resulted in a volcanic explosion of pent up emotion or a dead end.
Verily, I am freed. Far from total liberation, but free enough to feel an incredible lightness, and a drive to keep the practice of Vipassana ongoing to see where else it takes me. To be in total defenceless relaxation in the face of the world despite of the world! The dream I had of flying, it felt like this!