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Published: March 26th 2015
14 – 25 March 2015
“Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea-cozy, doesn't try it on”
“Strive ardently,.... and burn! Purity comes from burning away the dross. Gold must pass through a crucible in order to be refined”
What could possess one to spend 11 days in a relatively small captive space while in one of the most expansively beautiful countries on earth; to be woken each morning at 4 am; and to then spend 10.5 hours a day sitting on the floor (often in pain); to have one's life totally regulated by a bell; to be absolutely silent even when back in a shared sleeping residence and not even making eye contact or gestures with anyone; to leave one's phone and laptop locked away in the office; to be completely segregated from females; and to then above all else to spend one's time in one's head throughout the entire period.
I would describe the Vipassana experience as a cross between an extreme sport (one young Indian doing
it told me this was his 7th
time... that he does not actually practice Vipassana but just comes for the buzz it gives him); surgical rehabilitation (this is when I thought about my knee pain and coping with that pain from so much sitting); and a health spa resort (in a beautiful setting, serene, good food, everything very shanti
). Of course one would also want to achieve revelation and wisdom.... self development and actualisation... even enlightenment (but that, in the context of the whole point being to transcend desires is a 'Zen end'.... you can't get enlightenment,freedom from desires, by craving enlightenment.
My time to do all this had somehow come, or so the universe seemed to be saying. I had known about the Vipassana Meditation Training for at least 20 years (there being a Vipassana Centre not far from where I grew up in Australia) but had always seemed to have a good reason not to do it (despite a certain attraction to have the experience). But in the last two months, several close friends and new friends had done the course in two Indian based centres and back in Australia (my younger brother) also announced
on Facebook he had just done it there. When I checked on the internet about courses in Kathmandu, there just happened to be one on at the very time I was going to be there waiting around for my Indian visa renewal to be processed, and there were vacancies. So in a moment of sheer madness I signed up.
There is also a certain penchant I seem to have from my particular childhood experience and perhaps from my position on the spectrum of autistic tendencies (which includes my persistent habit of wanting to count to myself while watching the breath..... with me saying again and again in that process to myself “stop counting”) which also seems to attract me to habitual and ritualistic behaviour, repetitive behaviour that is supposedly going to gain grace of one kind or another.... and this falls in line with being attracted to being a kind of monk for 11 days. I do recall that as a young Catholic boy I once repeated the ritual of prayers and in and out of the church 32 times on a certain 'All Souls Day' in the days when the Holy Catholic Church taught that one
could release souls from purgatory (a kind of half way house for those who had passed on, were not bad enough for hell, but not quite yet good enough for heaven). And then too another time when I was taken aside by the Christian Brother headmaster of the boys school I attended to be counseled about why I thought I needed to make my confession to the priest every morning of every school day in the school chapel. But I do digress.
Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique said to have come out of the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha 2,500 years ago. It is a technique that claims to be totally non-sectarian and devoid of ritual and gods and emphasises that the Buddha's path to liberation was not a sectarian religion but a universal path of knowledge that was fundamentally scientific in character. It is however based on acceptance of 5 Buddhist moral precepts (sila –
no killing, no sexual misconduct, no drugs, no lying, no stealing) as a prerequisite to then bringing the mind under control (samadhi
) in order to thirdly gain wisdom based on ones own experience of sensations in the body (panna
). The claim
then is that by practicing awareness (being in the 'now' and focused on actual body sensations both pleasant and unpleasant) and equanimity (non-reaction one way or another... no craving or aversion to those sensations), one learns to experience things as they really are, and to break the mind's need to feed off reactions (creating what are called sankaras
). The mind then must find old existing past sankaras
to satisfy it's insatiable appetite … and brings these to the surface and automatically dissolves them so that eventually one becomes liberated from all misery, from all craving and aversion.
And the central point here is that it is not external events that we react to directly (even though that is what we perceive to be really the case). It is the sensations that external events create through our senses that we react to. So, for example, we react to the sound of a loud noise out there, but that sound is a sensation in our ears that we make a sense of and then react to (or not). It all happens within us is the point taught. And so awareness of our bodily sensations and how we deal with
them is central.
S.N. Goenka claimed to have a direct line back to Gautama Buddha. He came from Burma where Vipassana was kept alive and true (having arrived in Burma when the Buddhist emperor of India Ashoka sent emissaries across the known world to spread dhamma
– the way to liberation) while in its country of origin (India) it had lost its core purity and design. Through his guru, he was commissioned (as ordained in prophecy) to take Vipassana back to India exactly 2,500 years after the Buddha found the technique through his enlightenment. Goenka started teaching the technique in India in 1969, and soon thousands from all faiths and walks of life started signing up to do the 11 day training. Centres were then founded across India and then across the world. The course is free, with students invited to make a donation to support others to do the course in future.
Based on teaching Buddhist dhamma,
Goenka stressed that it is the science of the technique which is the core, and other aspects of dhamma
can be set aside for the time being at least (e.g. the belief in reincarnation). However, the
three core pillars of sila
(moral precepts), samadhi
(mind control), and panna
(wisdom but the type based on personal direct experience) are non-negotiable in this teaching.
It soon became apparent that the course depends entirely on the actual presence of Goenka himself. This is an interesting statement given that the man died in September 2013. When he was alive he kept tight control on standardising the course at multiple centres through video and audio tapes of himself giving the teaching. In early life he was a very successful businessman and I guess had the marketing brilliance of McDonalds in using the strategy of standardising a product. While teachers sit at the front to answer students' questions at two daily set times (one-to-one), their role otherwise is to push buttons to start and stop the technology that delivers Goenka's teaching and presence. With him now dead, this is all a bit of a weird experience... I felt I was having a relationship with a dead man. He was (is?) very charismatic and an artful orator with a keen intellect. I mused that I tried to have such a personal relationship once with a person called Jesus when I
was very young, but unfortunately that particular guy did not leave any video or audio and so the whole thing was not so effective for me as in this case.
Throughout the 11 days, students are also submitted to Goenka singing in Palli language (the liturgical l
anguage of Theravada Buddhism used at the time of Gautama Buddha) the sayings of Buddha. And he does this in a very distinctive low guttural rhythmic dirge style which at first was very off-putting (specially in the context of saying that Vipassana was free of religious ritual). But I have to say it grew on me.... he sang this distinctive style quite well. Having said that, sometimes it just went on and on.. up to 20 minutes long... while you sat there and tried not to crave the fact that breakfast was next.... and my mind at times was saying “don't give up your day job” and “could someone please shoot that audio equipment now”.
In the first three days we (some 160 students – male and female but strictly segregated at all time … and reduced to about 140 by the time various people dropped out during
the course for various reasons) were taught to concentrate on the small triangle bounded by the top lip and and the apex of the inner nose (then later reduced to just the smaller area between the nostril opening and the upper lip).... observing the sensation of the breath only … in and out. Now this might seem simple enough. But the challenge to do that for even one entire minute continuous is really huge. It took me by the afternoon of day three and still then 1.5 hours of really hard work to achieve a full concentrated minute without my mind wandering to the past and future and any number of thoughts and places and people and things. I kid you not... this is really really hard to learn and train to do. It is bringing the mind under control (samadhi
). And to my huge surprise apart from my inability to do it for three days, I did achieve it and can now do it (so long as I keep practicing). From there we got into Vipassana technique proper: systematic 'scanning' the surface of the body (from head to foot) with one's attention and observing the sensations with equanimity, becoming
progressively more aware of their ever-changing nature (impermanence). It was stressed that this is not about visualisation and the use of mantras and chanting is ruled out completely... it is actual 'feeling' those parts of the body... being at that point of the body (e.g. the shoulders or the wrist etc) in terms of real time consciousness... not just visualising those parts of the body in the mind only.
What did I make of all this? I can't say that I am sure about this claim that the mind will evaporate all sankaras
through the process. But I do know that while I have gotten better over the years at recognising and laughing at my outbursts and reactions to things (anger etc), I do not seem to have found a way to stop having the reactions in the first place.... and I would very much like to do that. I also know that I have very physical sensations when I 'lose' it emotionally as I react to being pushed beyond a certain limit. What I figure is that maybe it is possible that a kind of alternative hard-wiring of the brain occurs if you repeat this pattern
of inner non-reaction scanning often enough; so that your mind and brain is trained to better not react in day to day transactions and to external events.
But the pain... oh the pain, of all that sitting. I can handle sitting for up to an hour a day meditating (albeit that what I have been calling my meditation in the past looks a bit shallow and lame now when put against this deeper practice), to then spend over10 hours a day sitting is a wholly other thing. I just don't think that Eastern teachers get it that Westerners either need to have been doing this since birth (like they have); or to be double jointed at the hips; or to have already had their knees replaced surgically in order to stand a chance at it.
And to have such pain is to my mind a distraction from the main game. I spent so much time playing with pillows at the beginning of each session... first I got two and thought I had it cracked. But once you use one position long enough, it too tends to result in excruciating pain. I moved on to
another and another pillow... to five in the end.... plus two folded blankets. Eventually (so long as I reserved it for special times) I did find one position that really was best. By Day 5 we were asked to spend three special 'group meditation' hours (8 am to 9 am; 2.30 pm to 3.30 pm; and 6 pm to 7 pm) without moving at all.... staying absolutely still.
And notwithstanding that in general an Eastern person's pain is not the same as for a Westerner, we were being told that the pain served as a learning tool … that we could use it to practice equanimity, and divorce our quiet minds from our screaming body. OK.... I got that. I even did it during several of these hours (although the pride in 'making' it was totally an attachment and against the point of equanimity). I did manage in those times to simply observe my pain body and smile in my thoughts. But having been brought up a Catholic where 'if it hurts it's good for you', I am totally over doing this stuff on purpose again and again. To illustrate my point: if the only place to
sleep is on a bed of rocks, then OK, go for it and do it with equanimity and make the best of it, but I am not into putting rocks in my bed just for the learning experience thank you very much.
Here are my scores on those special hours:
Day 5: 1 out of 3
Day 6: 2 out of 3
Day 7: 1 and then CRASH on the second when I totally lost it. I was certainly not equanimous. I got angry at this whole thing. I was thinking about running away from the course. I was totally distracted for a further 2 hours where I just was unable to meditate at all. I could do nothing more than sit there with my legs comfortable in front of me looking around and thinking all manner of distractions. And why inflict pain on oneself, I thought. Specially when it is all so arbitrarily defined by the choice of a particular sitting position. I had started this second special hour feeling comfortable but within 20 minutes it was unbearable.
And the thing that struck me during those hours was that how
everything printed around the centre ended with the phrase “BE HAPPY” while here we all were being miserable over this pain.
Then I started on this track: I don't want to live my life being equanimous and detached. I want to LIVE life to the full. I want to feel passion and desire; to anticipate with delight pleasures; to have those pleasures to the full. Why not? Being a monk is boring and unreal, my mind was saying.
So after having had my little tantrum, I decided to either leave the course, or stop doing my head in and just get back to my step by step getting on with things (knowing full well that 'this too will pass'). And of course I did the later and it did pass. I am not by nature a quitter. I rearranged the pillows, and I scored a blissful 6 pm to 7 pm hour.... so 2 out of 3 for Day 7 in the end. A little bit cosmically, the video discourse (Goenka) that evening was on how to use antidotes to the doubts that arise in the mind that make one think about giving up
and running away. As if he was talking directly at me.
Day 8: I still had pain but again made it through and got a 2 out of three. However I decided to go and ask the teacher (as was required by the rules) for his permission to sit leaning against the wall for the rest of the course. I was sure he would agree... that he would take pity on me. After all there were already about a dozen who had that permission... some much younger than myself. But to my surprise he turned me down flat... told me I had made it so far and could continue... and that I should keep using the pain as a tool. I practiced equanimity there and then and returned to my torture pad on the floor.
Day 9: Don't even ask the score... anyway I was totally detached by this stage at keeping score or caring about it (which was very convenient as it turned out).
Day 10: this was an OK day and I got 3 out or 3 only because being the last real day of the course, we only
sat for five hours and not 10.5. So the pain was not so cumulative.
That morning the sound system went bonkers and Goenka's singing was horribly distorted, out of tune, and crackly. I thought in a bemused way: this is his own little test of equanimity on us all. Will we be able to take it and just observe without aversion or craving? AND... will the teachers controlling the switches be able to make a decision in favour of pragmatic non-ritualism and kill the thing (well the answer is no... they made us listen to the whole 20 minutes even though you could now not even make out the words which were in Pali anyway).
I want to mention the phenomenon of finger cracking. In a still meditation hall of 150 people, the smallest sound is heard and very soon the sound of someone (seems usually a male) cracking their finger joints becomes quite annoying to those yet to master the art of equanimity. I imagined this to be some national pastime among young men in both Indian and Nepalese classrooms... a kind of secret code... and defiance of rules about being quiet. Perhaps
not just India and Nepal... maybe across the world.
Here is another observation... my own personal little brain trick which a dear and loved friend (you know who you are) will either find hilarious or disturbing or both. There was a sign repeated all around the centre which read 'NOBLE SILENCE'. Every time I saw it my brain read 'MOBILE SERVICE'.
Slightly weird experience sharing a small room with a stranger for 10 days with no eye contact, gestures, and of course speech at all. To not hear his voice or know his nationality or anything about him until the end... We got on well if that means anything. I think we were well suited – both obsessive types and both into our very tight use of time to secretly maintain our exercise and stretching routines (strictly speaking we were told to refrain from all exercise during the course) with a respectful sharing of the floor space running between our beds.
Did I have a transformational experience doing this course? Well... no, not really. At least no more than anyone might have if they spent 11 days in silence in a
monk-like state secluded from the world with no cares or worries. But for sure I did learn some things I can apply to my path for controlling my mind, feeling more peaceful (dare I say more happy... well let's just say more peaceful); and being better equipped at avoiding mindless reactions to things that occur around me. That would be good.
So will I take Goenka's insistence that I must spend one full hour each morning and each night practicing this technique. In all honesty I think not although I am going to attempt to do meditate morning and night at least for some reasonable time … enough to concentrate the mind and practice equanimity.
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam (which roughly is Pali for 'be happy')
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