Vipassana part 2

Just back from my 2nd Vipassana course and few things have become very clear

– Without regular practice, Retreats done annually do not help – so friends keep pushing me to be at it

-Have you ever seen an old movie or re-read a book and felt that its a whole new message? Its possibly due to the changed “I”- the person who was reading the book has changed between the two sessions. Well, the reality is that the person is changing with each chapter, each page, each paragraph, each word & maybe each letter. Am not sure I have grasped this fully, but yes – its something which is becoming clearer…. one step at a time.

– The old phrase “Shraddha vanam labhte gyanam” – meaning only the devoted ones get the knowledge – is so much true when it comes to the journey within. Came across this guy from Latvia who was the most humble & devoted being I have ever seen in my life. His progress on this path was visible from the comforting & strong presence his being had over the whole campus.

Prayer Wheels

– Its not just you, but most others have an interesting chain of coincidences that lead them to this path. Like this French doctor, who almost died while trekking in the Alps. Decided this is his 2nd life and he will not puruse money or fame but devote it to helping others. When he recovered from the broken bones, he decided to travel & someone recommended India. He said- why not. Reached Delhi & didnt like it much, someone recommended Dharamsala up in the mountains, he said – why not? On the bus ride up here he met someone who told him about Vipassana and the center at Dharamkot- so he came up without applying to check at the center. Was on the waitinglist but unlike others, just waited through the whole registration process of confirmed students got over. One didnt turn up & guess who got the chance?

– The mind is the perfect bargainer- just like kids are. It will plead & beg and if you give in once, it will definitely come back with a bigger demand. Learn when to say no & mean it.

– Good advice is all around us. Its upto us to figure out what we do with it. My 1st course someone had recommended that I listen to the discourses in Hindi. I wasnt sure my Hindi was good enough & went through with the English ones. This time also one old gentleman, suggested the same thing  & fortunately I acted upon it. Trust me, for us Indians who carry a lot of baggage of religious beliefs, rituals, faiths etc the Hindi discourses, talk to us at a whole different level. If you plan to sit for a Vipassana course & understand Hindi- do the same.

– The world is learning Yoga, Meditation, Spiritualism etc from India. While some of them might be just getting a kick out of these experiences, its hard to ignore the vast number of foreign nationals who go through all kinds of trouble(coming and staying in India) to gain the knowledge that India has been carrying/preserving/growing for so many years. Only if we could see how close we were to some true gems of human civilization.

– We are not our bank balance, we are not our degrees, we are not the brands we live in or with. We are not even what we created or what we destroyed or even what we protected……

What is vipassana?

Disclaimer: I have attended just one course and my understanding of Vipasanna might be inaccurate. I would recommend interested people to read literature on the same by Goenkaji or actually attending the course.

vipassanaVipasanna is best summarized as a meditation technique that revolves around body sensations. Sounds strange- right?
But apparently this strange but simple technique was what helped Siddarth Gautam (The Buddha) to progress on his path of enlightment & nirvana in top gear !

So here’s how this course approaches the technique:
– For the first 3 days one is asked to practise what is called Aana-Paana. This refers to an exercise where you tell your mind to focus on the normal breath- as it comes in & goes out. It might sound easy- but trust me its really tough to keep the mind focused on such simple things. The idea of taking breath as the object of focus is cos this is always with the person, you can hence practice this anytime, anywhere right upto the moment you die !
Initially we are supposed to observe the flow along the full length of the nostrils and the area above the upper-lip, but by day 3 this area has been gradually narrowed down to the tip of nostrils and the area above the lip.
This narrowing of the area (to focus on) helps make the mind sharp and ready for the next technique- Vipasanna.
Also all throughtout the techniques one is told not to verbalise or visualize anything. These might help focus faster but then it beats the purpose as you are not focusing on the breath or body sensation but the word or image.
It is this aspect which also proves that Vipasanna is not aligned to any religion. Many including me feel that this is a Buddhist technique and sometimes that creates its own set of apprehensions or perceptions.

– Gautam Buddha felt that there has to be a path that should actually help one become equanimous. The power & need for equanimity in life was something that had been highlighted for ages, but most sages/philosophers had failed to find and show the path to reach there. In his quest to find such a path, Gautam Buddha started looking within.
He found that the mind is made of 4 parts:
1.The Cognitive part which is basically taking the input from the senses; 5 senses and 6th being thoughts
2.The Recognitive part which basically takes the input and tries to match with its existing database. Say the cognitive part feels a smell, its this part which will say it smells like rose.
3.The Feeling part which actually starts reacting to the input and manifests itself as body sensations. This is the part which would say, ah the smell of rose, its good!
4.The Reaction part is where the mind finally reacts to the body sensations. It is this part of the mind that is deep rooted and always working (even when we are asleep).

It might sound strange at first that our mind actually reacts to body sensations and not directly to thoughts or sense inputs. But think about it for a moment and you would remember that there were a lot of bio-chemical changes you experienced in your body when you were really angry, when you saw that woman who you really feel passionate about, when you were “trembling” with fear….

So Buddha asked himself, how can one break this chain, and he realised that the only point it can be done is between stage 3 & 4- i.e. if one can train the deep rooted, always awake mind to “observe” body sensations and still remain equanimous, the cycle is broken, we are not prisoners anymore 🙂

– So Vipasanna begins by making the mind focus on each body part and the existing sensation there- whatever it might be. In some cases it would be unpleasant, and we would have to keep on telling the mind, this is impermanent and hence dont react. Similarly once we come across pleasant sensations the same argument applies.

So from day 4th to day 10th we basically observe body sensations and there are various variations that one does in the approach.

– Even before the course starts there are some strict rules that one must observe, basically the 5 shilas- or vows of morality like no stealing, no lies ,no sexual misconduct etc. These are taken to ensure that one approaches the meditation with a calm and pure mind.
– The silence also helps one in achieving focus as there is less noise of the thoughts. I also think that since we hear nothing but Goenkaji’s words during the course, our minds start giving more attention to his words 🙂

My experience of the Course
My own experience of the course was amazing as it helped me see myself as a stronger person. I saw that many people had moved their cushions and chosen a spot where they could rest against the wall. I was really tempted to do this myself, but then I saw this really aged chap- must be 60+ who was sitting with an upright back and I felt ashamed of myself. If he can do it, so can I.

Similarly, after day 3 there are 3 sessions of 1 hour each when you cant move at all- no opening of eyes/hands/legs- in my first 2 sessions I kinda cheated- found a pose where my arms were supporting the back and I was happy with myself for being so smart. But then again, stepping out of the hall, I saw this Jap kid sitting like a true Buddha, cross legged and calm even after 60 minutes of no movement, and the same wave of inspiration washed over me again…

I couldnt sleep for a minute on day 5 & 6 and you can well imagine how I felt on the 7th morning. I was out of the dorm at 3.00 in the morning, pacing the lawns.Somehow managed my sessions and was having chai in the evening when I realised that my mind was again wandering off to things far away from the course. I started asking myself, whats the point of all this meditation if even after 7 days, I cannot get my mind to focus on present, and then a thought stuck me- maybe I am supposed to practice aana-pana or Vipasanna when I am drinking tea. And I was thrilled with myself (am still far from the desired state of equanimity you see !)- and I started observing my breath as I took my walks that evening.
And then it happened, the evening discourses started and the first thing that Goenkaji says in that is that some students might be having trouble sleeping. It felt that he was speaking directly to me- I looked around- how many others had a trouble sleeping- I distinctly remember hearing 4 sets of snoring last two nights from 17 other occupants 🙂
Anyways I was relieved to know that sleeplessness is common and then came the next shock- He said the next two days need real hard work & he expected all students to keep on practising Vipasanna even when they are not sitting for the course. I could feel my hair standing, was it telepathy- did I read his instructions a day before?
Coz even during the 4th day something similar had happened.

On day 10, when we could talk to co-students, a monk asked me how my experience was. I related to him the incidents of day 4 & particularly day 7 and summarized it thus – ” I feel that Vipasanna was always within me, and it just got discovered here”. He smiled.
And then in the discourse that evening, Gonekaji says that there are two types of students- ones who had the seeds of Vipasanna already and it got sprouted here and the others in whom it has been planted now.
I looked across the hall to the monk- with a look saying “See. Told you!!”

Whatever way you look at it, I think if your own mind seems to find the next step on a path, it might be a path worth walking- So here I am back in normal life, trying to give Vipasanna a good try…

Time only will tell how much progress I make & where it takes me ! But I have AY & his mom to thank for persistently nudging me to sit for the first course- really good to have such friends in life.

Disclaimer: I have attended just one course and my understanding of Vipasanna might be inaccurate. I would recommend interested people to read literature on the same by Goenkaji or actually attending the course.

My first vipassana course- part 2

Couple of masala-teas later,when the shock of the situation had been absorbed, I started figuring out how best to utilize my time before the registration (which was to start at 1400hrs).

dkotAY had already told me about a good trek to Bhagsu village, but I needed to freshen up and dump my stuff somewhere. The chai shop owner told me that I could go into the center office once it opens at 0900 hrs and use the facility even before registering.

So sharp at 9, I walked into the campus;told the guy that I just reached a little early for the registration and needed a place. He asked me to dump my stuff in the dorm and showed me where the showers etc were. Now, this dorm was one damp place as there were no brick walls to it- it was just a tin-roofed place with plastic sheets as walls and partitions. Given how much it rains at Dharamsala, you can well imagine how the place would have looked. As I walked into the dorm, I kept telling myself, that this doesnot look like a place which is used to house students, so I need not worry! I took a quick shower, packed my camera & stepped out to have a look around.

It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining brightly every time it dodged the clouds. I took a small road downhill and was clicking at the corn fields when this Aussie came up. We both acknowledged how lovely the day was and started talking about Vipasanna- he had already done the course sometime in the last 2 months that he had been at Dharamsala.
He said he was on his way to Bhagsu to move into a different guest house.He had a habit of moving into a different locality every 15 -20 days so that he could get to see and experience more.
His only comments about Vipasanna were – “Mr Goenka is a funny man and he will make you laugh in the evenings….”

I spent some time @ Bhagsu and then decided to trek back to the center to be on time for the registration process. As we were waiting infront of the office, exchanged brief introductions with a lot of people – an Indian priest who looked all of 30 and said he couldn’t say where he was from as he has been on a spiritual journey for many years, a lady from NZ who was working in Rajasthan with NGOs, a Brit who was training to be a TaiChi teacher…..

Given that it was Dharamsala, more than 70% of the students were foreigners…even the volunteer helpers for the course were all foreigners… I couldn’t stop wondering that isnt it a shame, that its a technique which originated here (didn’t know that Goenkaji was Burmese) is being tested, adopted and accepted more by people from abroad. What is it with us? And the only answer that came to me was that we are more skeptical than others in such matters.

The registration started a little late but was managed very smoothly, we were asked to deposit all valuables including any reading/writing materials; asked to sign a form saying we will not “run away” from the course or atleast try our best;given a laundry bag each and finally given a detailed set of instructions on how to conduct ourselves. And then came the shock!

I was told that my room is B4- B being the alphabet that adorned the dorm – I wasnt sure I had heard it clearly so I asked again- “Do you mean that dorm out there?” and they said yes. Am not kidding you, but I really thought I should just pick my already-packed bags and leave. There was no way I was going to spend 12 days in that damp place- the morning trailer had told me what to expect.

But somehow I didn’t say anything and just stepped outside and it occurred to me that if these other guys can sweat it out there so can I. I also realised that its the old students and the aged first timers, who were being given the “better rooms”. So I told myself that see the whole Vipasanna thing is a test. And as Al Pacino says in “The Recruit”- “Everything is a test”- maybe this is also a test- just that mine got a notch tougher than some others.

So I settled in into B4, which turned out to be half of an 8×8 enclosure that I was to share with someone else- our individual areas separated by a curtain.

You might be thinking, why am I sharing so many details about the infra etc when I should be talking about the course. I believe that most experiences are based on how you are feeling & thinking when the moment starts, so for you to understand how I felt through the course, its imperative that you see what I was thinking & going through on Day 0 :-). Maybe some of you will also land up in the dorm during monsoons – if you do lets compare notes…. ha ha

Also met this young chap who was in a really bad shape- altitude sickness symptoms he said. He said he would see how it goes and if it does not improve he would quit in-between- but that would be a real shame ! Little did he know that he would become a source of motivation for me also…

On Day 0 they serve you light snacks at 5.00 and I had not eaten anything since morning except the toast I had with chai. So I decided to utilize the time meaningfully and stuff my tummy for the tough ride ahead…and then I realized that I had just submitted my wallet 🙁

I went down to the office again and asked the guy in-charge with valuables if I could open the sealed bag again (the one that I had just submitted 5 mins back !!!) and he ever so politely said- sure. That was the first time I realized that maybe these old students have more patience than normal folks- coz trust me even on my best day, I would have frowned upon such a request.

Stepped out, grabbed a heavy lunch and picked up a shawl and umbrella also on my way back- two things that would prove to be very useful in the next 11 days!