Last month I spent ten days at a meditation retreat. One of the first things I decided after returning home was that I had to write about it. Before I jump into the details of the ten days’, let me tell you a little bit about myself and how I started on this journey of self-discovery.
I was infected by the meditation bug about five years back. It all started when I read chapter nine from the Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnu Devananda. The book had been in our family for decades. At home everyone did yoga to the best of their ability. The book helped fine tune the yoga poses. Years later after I moved out of my parent’s house and set up base in Mumbai I purchased the book again. It was all about the yoga exercises and poses described in the book. Then at the ripe old age of 43, I read chapter nine from the book and it changed my life. The chapter was all about how you could make your mind accomplish impossible tasks through the powers of meditation. The chapter spoke about astral bodies and mind control and I was hooked.
If books alone could guide then there would have been no schools – book stores and libraries would have replaced schools and colleges. I tried various techniques of meditation and was going nowhere in my efforts. Then I realised that I desperately needed some expert assistance. Someone who could guide me on meditation and also help me understand its nuances. That was when I stumbled upon Vipassana on the internet. I came to know that there was a group which ran meditation retreats across the world. I decided to go to a vipassana centre near my house.
Vipassana to the un initiated is a style of mediation which was discovered by the one and only Gautama the Buddha. I am a non-practicing Hindu by birth and over the years have become a great fan of the Buddha. Why? Well I have read a lot of the Buddha’s teaching and find him extremely scientific and logical. He never tried to force spirituality down the throats of his followers. He advised his followers to first experiment and try out his methods and accept them only if they were convinced. I do not think any other religion or religious leader ever allows his followers this level of freedom. Any way back to the main story.
Vipassana centres are spread across the world. You can check out their website site here. A simple form on their website allows you to submit your name for the various courses they offer round the years. The submission of the name is the easier part. What is difficult is getting accepted for the waiting list on these retreats is long. I had to wait five years to get selected. I started applying in 2013 and finally got a slot in 2018!
The ashram was about 70 kilometres from where I lived. Descended from a family of nervous people I inherited all the jittery genes in the family. I started packing one week in advance. I assumed that a ten-day stay would require at least three sets of clothes in case there was no laundry service. I did several runs of filling up the one backpack I intended to carry. I timed myself doing it and found out that it took me about five minutes given or taken a minute. I arranged all the clothes and toiletries neatly out on my bed. My wife watched me do this multiple time over the week and eventually stopped losing her temper. Like all wives her behaviour is the exact opposite to mine. In a similar situation she would start packing after the time for the journey had started.
The day of the journey I was asked to report by four in the evening. I started before ten in the morning. I found that the train journey was not as bad as I had anticipated. The 70-kilometre journey took me about two hours. By 12 in the afternoon I reached the ashram. It was tucked away in a corner on a side street. The autorickshaw driver had no idea where he was supposed to go or so he said. Google maps came to my rescue. I later found out that the autorickshaw driver had charged me sixty rupees for a ten-rupee ride!
Day 0 of the camp.
The day we reached the camp was not exactly the start day. It was more of a day to when you got yourself registered and had your accommodation setup. The meditation retreat was in the middle for a ten-acre coconut and mango tree plantation. There were signs everywhere asking asking that people maintain ‘Noble silence’ while in the premises. The ashram was far away from Mumbai and was hot and extremely humid. It could have been about 38°c if not more. Had it not been for the trees covering the ashram it would have been like being in an oven. A thin bespectacled man came up and asked me to follow him. He took me to small dormitory type room.
“Use this bed for now. Use the bathroom if required. You will be assigned a room later,” he said.
I immediately went out to check. I had a quick bath. By the time I came back to my temporary bed there were more people with carry bags and lost looks on their face. I saw a young clean-shaven man staring at me. I avoided his stare and went directly to my bed and lay down pretending to be asleep. The clean-shaven guy occupied a bed near me and pulled out two mobile phones and immediately started talking on both. Somehow, I knew he was going to be a problem. As if his irritating chattering on the phones was not enough the heat was such that five minutes after a bath I had already started to sweat.
“Come and have lunch,” the spectacled man was back. He had a tag around his neck which said Dhamma Sahayak or Helper in the path of Dhamma. I guessed he was a member of the staff. The rules in the ashram required people to observe absolute silence. Those who came in were already observing it.
Lunch was rice, chapatti, some vegetables, lentil and curd. I ate like a true monk. I could see that the others were eating like normal people. The plates spoons and glasses were all arranged in a rack out side the dining hall. The inmates were expected to pick up plates according to their bed numbers. We also had to wash the utensils and return them after use.
After lunch our registration started and we were allotted rooms. Luckily, I got a room on sharing basis with a young man. The room had an attached bathroom and toilet. No need to wait in a queue outside the dormitory bathrooms! The number of people who had turned up was twenty-four by now. We were now told about the rules that were to be observed for the ten days while in the vipassana retreat. These were basically five rules which were as under:
- to abstain from killing any living creature; – this included mosquitoes and bed bugs. Luckily there were hardly any.
- to abstain from stealing; – this included even looking or sharing items from your room mates.
- to abstain from all sexual activity; – there was no chance for this as such. There was a clear division of the men and women area of the retreat. We were in total seclusion during the ten days.
- to abstain from telling lies; – the total silence took care of this rule.
- to abstain from all intoxicants – some of those who came had a history of substance abuse and as such this rule was required.
The one rule about which they were very particular was the observance of silence. The rule was that students of vipassana were not even to communicate with gestures or signals with one another. By now all out mobile phones had been collected and the retreat has started.
Next the group was lead to the meditation hall. It was a rectangular hall which thankfully had an air conditioner. Cushions were arranged on the floor on which we were asked to tag our names. We were asked to use the exact same cushions for the duration of our stay.
The daily schedule which was tagged to the walls was as under
4:00 a.m. —————- Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m. —————- Meditate in the hall or your own room
6:30-8:00 a.m. —————- Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m. —————- Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 a.m. —————- Meditate in the hall or your own room
11:00-12:00 noon —————- Lunch break
12noon-1:00 p.m. —————- Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 p.m. —————- Meditate in the hall or your own room
2:30-3:30 p.m. —————- Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 p.m. —————- Meditate in the hall or your own room
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 own room–Lights out
The rule was no one could leave the meditation hall during the group meditation sessions.
Now that we were told about the rules, shown the place we were asked to go to sleep. You see I have a problem. I tend to snore. My wife says that when I am in full flow, the sound resembles the roar of a tiger! Well I cannot say I am proud of that but I definitely am very sensitive about it. Of late at home I had mysteriously stopped snoring. But I was not taking any chances. I waited for my room-mate to fall asleep. By the time he fell asleep it was already twelve in the night. I realized that in two hours I had to wake up. I switched on the alarm clock but then realized that I could not fall asleep!
As clearly printed out in the daily schedule the day started at four in the morning. The Dhamma-sahayak would ring a huge bell. Then he would proceed with a torch and a small bell to go to each of the rooms and ring it to wake up those still sleeping! Over the ten day I did not need his help in walking up. I did not sleep for two days. On the days that I slept, I was awake by one in the night. My schedule was to have a bath by two fifteen and then get back in bed and lie there with my eyes shut waiting for the bell to ring at four! Yes! I did drive my room-mate mad with all the light being switched on in the middle of the night business. Luckily, he could not say a word about it. That is where the golden silence rule helped.
On day one we were taught the basics of meditation. Vipassana we were told would take a life time to learn and in these ten days we were given a glimpse of how to master it in ten simple steps.
On day one we are asked to concentrate on our breath. The way it flows in and out of our nostrils. I had a problem here. A lifetime of yoga practice makes one try to control one’s breath the minute anyone says we have to observe it. That is exactly what is NOT done in vipassana. The idea is to watch the natural breath. Observe it without trying to modify, improve or stop it in any way. This sounds very simple but believe me this is extremely difficult to put in practice. Try it if you do not believe me.
Stop reading and try to observe your breath for one minute. Just for one minute, for sixty seconds try to concentration on your breath. It would be a wonder if you could manage it for five seconds without having your thoughts diverted. The problem is with the way our mind works. Our mind loves to think! That is after all its job. We love to think about what happened in the past – how someone hurt us with their words or how stupid we felt in a particular situation. Our mind also loves to think about the future – we try to imagine and predict how things will turn out in the future. In all this thinking about the past and the future we fail to realize that the present is slipping by. We are almost never in the present. If you do not agree with me, just try that one-minute challenge I mentioned about earlier and see. All that you have to do is focus on your breath for one minute without being carried away in the past or future. The breath as it comes in and goes out is an indication or action which is happening now. In the present. By focusing on the breath, we are simply anchoring our self to the present. All this focusing is to be done on the natural breath. There is no need to say ‘I breath in’ or ‘I breath out’ because once we do that we start mechanically repeating these statements and lose focus on the breath. Try it and you will realize how difficult it is to control your own mind. Our mind likes to be in control at all times. Like a Hollywood movie director, it creates stories for us. It directs and shows us these never-ending masterpieces in our mind. Without any control over our self we follow the chain of thoughts and are soon caught in the middle of this ‘masterpiece’ in our mind.
During the first day itself it became clear that I had absolutely no control over my mind. We were told to expect this. There is a story of a monkey who was jumping around from tree to tree. Now imagine this monkey has some alcohol! Imagine how erratic his actions would be. Now this drunken monkey gets stung by a bee! Our mind is like this drunken monkey who is stung by a bee! We were told not to worry as this was normal for all human beings. In our normal state of existence, we do not bother about this wayward streak of our mind. It is only when we try to control the mind do we realize the chaos that exists in our mind.
There is a senior mediator or an acharya who is available to guide the students. Our group had an acharya who must have been in his early sixties. He was amazing. He would sit ram-rod straight for the duration of the meditation session. While the people before him were groaning and crying out in pain from sitting on the floor, he would hardly move. Every two day he would call you individually and check on your progress. Our acharya was scary. Almost like a school principal! I wondered if he could read my mind. Whenever he called me over I desperately tried to think happy thoughts about him!
As each day ended there is a ninety-minute religious discourse. In that video sessions the founder of the ashram would explain what we have experienced during the day and how we were to cope with those emotions.
I am thinking of leaving the camp. I am finding the room I am in is too small. I feel a constrictive pain around my chest. After breakfast there was a one-hour break and I go out and walk among the trees in the garden. I walk and talk to myself. Then I notice a young man – maybe in his early twenties. He was also walking around talking to himself! I find that reassuring. I look carefully and find that he reminds me of my son. My son just turned twenty. He is in his first year of article ship training. You need to put in three years of article ship before appearing for the chartered accountant final exams. I begin to think what my son’s response would be if I came back home after just a day in the vipassana camp. My son had seen me mediating or trying to mediate for years and he knew how interested I was in attending this camp. If I return after just one day there, I wonder how it would impact him? Would he have any respect for me? Also, would he not use this as a case study to give up whenever any problem came up in his life. I decide to continue. Nine days to go!
The second day we were asked to concentrate on the triangle formed by the nose and the portion up to the upper lip. We were asked to focus on sensations if any experienced in this triangular space. All other sensations occurring in the body were to be ignored.
During the lunch break I realize that I have experienced similar desires to run away from situations in my life. As I lay in the room in the sweltering humid heat I went through all those episodes. I had this same constricting feeling around my chest during all those incidents. There were about four or five such incidents, some decades old. I remember them clearly. Then I realized that there was something common in all those incidents. In all of them I was in a closed restricted environment. A room in a hotel, or a compartment on a train or a cabin on top of a hill. I realized that I had something to do with the fact that I am claustrophobic. I jumped up from the bed and changed the position of the pillow on my bed. Instead of looking at the blank walls in the room I was now looking at the window and through it the outside world. I immediately felt a sense of relief. It was as if the room had suddenly opened up. Outside the window I could see the trees swaying in the breeze and squirrels hopping on those branches. I could see the sky. Suddenly I felt ok. I could see my room mate look at me with suspicious eyes but I did not care. If he wanted to stare at the empty walls he was welcome to do so. I was going to sleep looking at the open window.
It was cloudy and the humidity suddenly came down a few notches. Then it rained! The first rains of the year 2018. June 3 was my birthday in all my official records, so I was happy. Rain on my birthday – not a bad gift. I hoped the rains continued. The desire to run away had lessened considerably now that I was facing the open widow. I realized I had that constricting feeling whenever I started thinking about the future – the immediate future. Whenever I thought about the number of days left to spend in the retreat. That was when the thought of running away would come. I stopped thinking about the time remaining.
The mediation now became more focused. On day three we were asked to concentrate on the portion below the nostrils and above the first lip. The portion where you grow a moustache – that is if you wanted to! Since I already had a moustache this was easy for me. I was able to mediate very well using this technique. I was beginning to like the camp.
That day during lunch I noticed the young man who had been jabbering on multiple mobile phones was missing. Apparently, he had left the previous day. I laughed at the memory of the man talking on the two phones. I remembered how I had correctly figured out that he would be a problem. Then I realised that I was also planning to leave the previous day. That feeling brought me down a few notches.
Day Four: If I were at home we would have been celebrating my birthday. It was the fourth of June. That day at the ashram breakfast was all south Indian fare. Somehow, I felt it was another birthday gift. The previous days rain had made the temperature bearable. I went for a walk amidst the trees after breakfast and sure enough the young man who reminded me of my son was there – talking to himself and gesturing at the trees! I gave him some space and did my own talking to the trees bit in another corner of the garden.
This day was special from the mediation point as well. That day we had an extra-long session in which we were initiated into the actual practice of Vipassana. The process was an eye opener.
The story goes that the Buddha practiced under the foremost spiritual masters of his time. He learnt under them for over twenty years. In the end they told him that they had taught him all that was to learn. The Buddha was still not satisfied. He realized he still had the same yearning, desires and cravings as before his training. He realized that there was something more that had to be learned. He meditated on this and finally found the answer. He realized that all sorrow in the world started from the sensation that were create in the senses namely
– eye and visible objects
– ear and sound
– nose and odour
– tongue and taste
– body and touch
– mind and mental objects
The buddha discovered that if you could control and eventually remove the craving these senses created you would attain salvation. It is a gradual process first you train your mind to identify these sensations. This was done though the awareness of the breathing. The next step is to isolate and observe these craving and not to be drawn into them. This eventually leads you to the mastery of these senses and that is the step to enlightenment.
This observation shook the roots of my understanding and I must say I am not the first who has been hit by this profound discovery. In a world where we are told to visit shrines and chant verses from holy books this is a very simple approach to enlightenment or nirvana. I liked the theory. This is something I can practice and check out for myself. In a way that is the cornerstone of the Buddha’s teachings. He said that you and only you can help yourself. No God, angel, priest or temple can help you achieve salvation. There is no white robed, bearded man, no angel or woman sitting in the clouds who can help you. Seems a bit rough to think that you are all alone in the universe with no support available. The Buddha said that that at most the guru could show you the way, it is for he disciple to walk the path. It is like saying that just because you have Usain Bolt as your coach does not mean you would win the gold medal at the Olympics! Right in the end you have to put in the effort to achieve success. The Usain Bolts of the world can only guide you not carry you on your shoulder and win your gold for you. I liked the theory! This vipassana journey has been worth it.
Day Five to Seven
We are now asked to observe sensations. The process starts from the head. The portion at the top of the skull. You concentrate on the spot for a minute. If you feel anything then good you move on. If not even then it is good! Slowly this way you make your way down the body, right up to your toes. In my case I get a feeling as if an ant was crawling on my head. This does not happen whenever I want. It is a faint feeling and comes only when you concentrate for some time. I wonder if there is an actual ant crawling there. I have seen ants on the floor! The meditation requires to slowly scan the body starting from the crown of the head- down through the eyes, nose then lips, neck and so on down to the toes.
The next day we go in the reverse order once we reach the toes. From the toes we slowly make our way back up to the crown of the head. Going through each leg, each arm. It is a slow deliberate process of scanning the body for sensations. The idea is to observe the sensations without being drawn into the type of sensation – if it felt good or bad. Just observing and moving on. Each scan from head to toe should not take more than ten minutes, we were told.
The third day we are asked to change the style of the scan. It could be whole sections at a time. The entire arm, leg or the back at a time. Sweeping our body like a scanning machine in the hospital. If there were no sensations in a body part then that in itself was to be observed. There was no need to panic or feel bad about the experience or non-experience of sensations. There was nothing good or bad it is just transitionary and to be considered as such. The general idea that is meant to be conveyed is that all emotions, feelings, pain, happiness, sorrow, joy …everything was temporary. Nothing remained with us for ever. There is no point in clinging to an emotion. It will not remain the same for ever. That is the message that is somewhere behind this simple exercise of observing sensations.
On day six two boys including the young man who reminded me of my son leave the camp! They were in the room next to me. I felt sad that the young man had left. Then I applied some vipassana to the thoughts and consoled myself that every thing was transitionary!
Day Eight and Nine.
The reverse count has started at least in my mind. Earlier it was like ten day, nine days left to complete, now it is just a couple of hours left in the centre. I realize a few things about myself. I guess it was all the silence that was behind this. I had started to analyse myself. I realized that the simple solution I found to deal with the claustrophobia could have something to do with the vipassana. All that breathing and silence was making its mark somewhere. Then I ran into a more practical problem.
I realized that I could sit for hours on the floor without any problem. No pain in the joints or aching bones to worry about. That could not be said about my stomach. I realized that my stomach made loud grumbling noises when it was empty. This was all good when I was in the world outside but in a sound proof room packed with twenty people all sitting in close proximity these noises can be quite embarrassing!
I was used to an early breakfast at home -by five thirty which I made myself. I left for office early. Usually by six thirty I was at my desk in my office. Then again, I had a habit of a quick snack at about three in the afternoon. Both these timings clashed with the meditation timings. My stomach would register its strong displeasure at these timings not being met. This caused much delight of those sitting around me. I was desperate for the camp to end. It was a catch twenty-two situation for me. I enjoyed mediating but was not able to give full attention as my stomach made noises! I am again counting the hours left for the camp to end!
The last day on the retreat. This day was interesting. By ten in the morning we were allowed to speak. Within a few minutes people who had been silent for the last ten days started talking and discussing as if they had known each other for the entire lives. By eleven mobile phones were handed back. I called up and told me wife that I would be back the next day. My son wanted to know if I had attained nirvana! Somethings never change. Welcome to the real world.
At the ashram they told us that the idea behind keeping people for a day after the ten days were over was because some of the folks who had attended Vipassana sessions in the past – kept silent for ten days – had problems when they went out into the real world. The one day allowed to talk and interact is a way of ‘cooling’ down the people before letting them out.
The ten-day sojourn as I have mentioned earlier is free of cost. The payment is all voluntary. You can pay as per your desire. On the tenth day after we were allowed to talk, a temporary cash counter was opened up and people queued up to pay. Those working in government organisation asked for certificates to prove back to their bosses that they had indeed attended the vipassana session! I took the details of the centre and made the payment online through my bank.
Books and publications by the centre were also put up on sale. Most of them were in Hindi so I just browsed. While I can speak and understand Hindi very well my ability to read the language is a bit limited. Bought a few books which were in English.
I could hardly wait for the day to end. I had finally completed the journey and held my nerve. It had been a tough ten-day journey. Meditation is tough. Let no one try to convince you otherwise. It may look easy – sitting in a spot, doing nothing but believe me when I tell you that it is difficult. It is easy to sit three hours in a cinema theatre. It is also possible to sit a full eight hours in a stadium and watch a boring cricket test match but try to sit for ten minutes and concentrate on your breathing and you will realize how difficult controlling your mind can be. There are some people in my family who say they enjoy sitting long hours and meditating. I can only laugh at their comments. Sitting long hours and dreaming about what happened that day in office or in your house is not exactly meditating. Meditating is sitting in a spot for a few minutes concentrating on just your breath. You want to jump up and run. You want to escape. Your bones start aching. You feel itchy all over and in places you have not scratched in years! Yes! meditation is a lot of hard work!
The day at the ashram still starts at four! Only the meditation was replaced by a video presentation. A discourse about the practice of Vipassana. It was a general directive of how to practice what was taught over the previous ten days. After the video we were given breakfast. I skipped it as now I was preparing for the travel back to reality and the real world.
At seven in the morning I left the camp along with my backpack and my roommate. Our destination was the railway station. My room mate was from a village and had absolutely no idea how or which train to get on to reach back home. I volunteered to take him to the railway station and get him on the proper train.
As I left I knew I was never going to come back to a retreat again. It was not because it was not good or the food was bad . It was because I do not see a purpose in going to camps again and again. The whole purpose of vipassana is to implement it in your life. In these ten days I learnt a method of mediation. Now I need to practice it and perfect it in my life.
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