Vipassana – My Quest for Self
I drove the car up the steep slope arriving at the Old Goa retreat complex. A light drizzle blessed us as we made our way down a stone pathway, past well-manicured lawns. Birds chirped in the trees around us with not a sound of civilisation. If ever there was a place to find my self, this is it, I thought. Then the gates were locked.
A quest that started in the mountains of the Himalayas during a family trip three years ago avalanched into a yearning for the spiritual self. Over these years I have read books on Buddhist teaching and philosophy, dabbled considerably deep in Zen meditation and voraciously watched YouTube discourses from monks, Roshis, and Zen masters. Drawn to the philosophy of the nondual Zen state of no-mind and the inter-connectedness of the universe, I embarked on a journey deep within myself.
I am a self-taught seeker, never having been in a guided meditation course. Close friends, aware of my quest, suggested Vipassana and I was inclined to accede. But a 10-day course conducted outside my home state has its unique set of logistics. Then in May, I learnt of the course scheduled right here in Goa, and I jumped at the opportunity, dragging my wife of 16 years along with me.
After a wait of a month, we got our confirmation emails in mid-June, and the course was set to commence in the first week of July. But nothing could have prepared us for what was to come.
Inside the complex, I parted ways with my wife. A quick, methodical registration process followed, at the end of which, I was assigned a room and lost my phone, wallet and other distractions. These would be reunited with me at the end of the course, I was told.
“You cannot step outside the building,” the Vipassana volunteer informed us. “If you’d like to walk there are the long corridors.” I knew they meant business.
Vipassana is a 10-day course based on the techniques of meditation taught by the Buddha. Over the ten days, students wake up at 4 am followed by nearly ten hours of meditation each day until lights out at 9.30pm. During the entire 10-day period students are required to maintain strict silence – no speech, no gestures, no big body movements and silence of the mind itself. This form of silence is called Nobel Silence.
At around 8 pm we were led, single file into the main meditation hall – the Dhamma Hall. Soft lighting greeted us here. The vibrations must be getting to us as everyone walked on soft cat feet. You could hear a pin drop. A large screen at the front of the hall was the focal point in the room. Rows of cushions on the floor marked the spots where we would be sitting for the next ten days – men on one side and women on the other. At the head of each section sat our teachers looking serene and still on their elevated platforms.
The voice of S N Goenka, the founder of the Vipassana movement greeted us, inviting us on a journey into the deepest recesses of our being. I was ready.
Vipassana, a technique of meditation from ancient India, was lost until it was re-discovered 2500 years ago by Siddhartha who, using the technique, attained enlightenment. “This is not to say you will attain Nirvana at the end of the 10-day course,” a jovial Goenka told us, bringing out laughter among the students. Over ten intense days, we would be learning this ancient yet simple technique of awareness to bring ourselves into present moment awareness. This was not some mumbo jumbo from a matted-hair guru with beads around his neck. And the rules were there to serve just that purpose.
“Start by closing your eyes to all the distractions of the world around you,” instructed Goenka. That night we were taught to use the breath to bring our minds into the present moment. “Focus solely on the breath. The breath as it goes in, the same as it comes out. Just be aware without any judgement,” came the instruction from Goenka.
As I soon realised, this was easier said than done. I had entered this place from a world in constant churning, bombarded by 140-character messages, 15-second videos of people doing crazy things, phone calls and text messages demanding my attention. And now I was asked to still that mind. I tried to focus on my breath, but I found my mind wandering like a monkey on steroids. That’s my in-breath, and this is my out-breath. In-breath. Out-breath. In-breath. Out-breath. The next thing I found myself in a mire several miles away from the Dhamma Hall. I reeled my mind back into the current moment. A few more breaths and the wild elephant was once more on the rampage in some thicket on the other side of the world.
The next day – the first day of ten, I wrestled with my mind. With no books or reading material, no tools to write and no chance to talk to anyone else, the Self was all I had. I believed I had a strong will, but sitting in that great hall, I found otherwise.
The discourse at the end of the day gave me some solace. Goenka, in his amiable manner, described the nature of the mind and its conditioning to keep running away from the present moment. I saw first-hand, how averse the mind is to the Now and instead, constantly lives in the past or the future. And in these two playgrounds, it revels in desire – the desire to push away what is bad and to cling to what is good.
The taming of the mind became my singular task over the first three days. With each excursion, I gently brought it back to the here and now – the awareness of the breath.
By the third morning, I realised the wild horse had been domesticated. Thoughts were not as frequent as on Day 1. And those that came were not as erratic. It was now much easier to concentrate on the breath.
I was happy.
But as I became more aware of the breath, I also grew aware of a growing pain in the back. Two spots the size of a rupee coin below the shoulder blades were screaming at me. Sitting cross-legged on the floor became increasingly difficult. I looked around the great Dhamma Hall and saw some of the senior meditators sitting on chairs lined up by the side of the hall. Among them were some younger students too. Ah! I thought to myself. Perhaps I could join them. I spoke to my teacher during a personal session and told him of my difficulty sitting on the floor. He was kind and said, “It is perfectly understandable. This is the first time you are sitting thus on the floor in meditation. The pain will pass.”
Day 4 and I was in agony. Now we were tasked with concentrating on sensations all over in the body. What sensations? I asked myself. All I can feel is the damn pain. “This will not work,” I thought. “I’ve given up a lot to make this course possible. If I am to get something out of it, I have to change things now.” The only way to change, in my mind, was to move to a chair.
Determined to tilt the scales in my favour, but not wishing to ask to sit in a chair, I brought up the issue of pain and my inability to concentrate. Once more my teacher was very gentle with me. “Pain is passing,” he said. “Just as everything else is. Life too will throw pain at you that will be beyond your control. What will you do then? Treat the pain you experience as a boon for your meditation, not a curse. Instead of wishing it to go away, just be aware of it and move on the sensations in other parts of your body.”
Pain doubles in the mind. But when my teacher told me the pain is passing, I could only curse. Of course, it’s passing. And for it to pass all I need to do is not sit on the floor but in a chair. How does that simple act affect my meditation? I began to see this course as being ritualistic and rigid. Not in tune with the times. After all, who sits on the floor these days?
Day 4 and most of Day 5 passed with thoughts of walking away from this fossilised, ritualistic madness. Wake up at 4 am? Not a problem. I was up with the morning bell every day. Survive on two meals – breakfast at 6.30am and lunch at 11 am? Sure, that’s easy. Speak to no one around me? It was awkward at first, especially when in the room and not be able to acknowledge the presence of my roommate. To not know the sound of his voice was strange. But I got over that in a couple of days. But sitting on the floor with those two-inch nails piercing into my back, the bones in my knees twisted and crying out and legs constantly in cramps – now that was too much. It had to end.
Amidst the turmoil, the words of my teacher kept coming back to me. This meditation technique was meant to give first-hand experience of the impermanence of all things. Siddhartha used this technique to come to the realisation that desire is the cause of all suffering. The desire to cling on to things and situations we like and the desire to be rid of the things and situations we don’t. This realisation led Siddhartha to enlightenment. Now here was my test to understand directly the meaning of a mind that does not bend either way – the equanimous mind. I was determined to sit on the ground for the remaining five days.
With that decision, I found the last meditation hour of day 5 to be a turning point. Before I knew it, the bell had rung. Day 6 was a completely different day. The pain was still present. But substantially reduced. Gradually it turned into a burning sensation, the kind you feel after an analgesic spray. Sensations in the rest of body became more pronounced. I knew I had learnt my lesson on the impermanence of all things, including pain. And I secretly thanked my teacher for not acquiescing to the whining demands of a child.
Little did I know the Teacher was not through with me. The Universe had yet to teach me its Law.
Throughout the time I was grappling with my pain and suffering in my meditation, I saw how intently my wife handled her first meditation experience. But on Day 4 I found her seated in a chair at the back of the hall. Ah! My smart wife has managed to convince her teacher, I thought, even envying her.
Then, on Day 6 I noticed she missed a couple of the sessions during the day. Did she get bored? I wondered. But I kept my mind focussed on my training and soon got over thoughts of her.
We had passed the crucial Day 6. The day when the weakest minds leave the course. We are now on the home run. Day 7 dawned. I woke up as usual on the hour at 4 am; a lightness in my step as I entered the great Hall at 4.30. My wife was not yet there. She’s decided to meditate in her room, I thought. That’s common among students. We are required to meditate in the Dhamma Hall thrice a day for group meditation. At other times, students may meditate in their rooms, unless the teacher decides otherwise. I settled down in my cushion on the floor and began my session.
Two hours flew by, and we headed out of the hall for breakfast. Breakfast was the usual upma and tea. Looking down as I ate, blocking all others around me, I was happy with the previous day and looked forward to what this day would bring.
8 am, and the bell rang for group meditation in the Dhamma Hall. I once more settled down in my cushion on the floor, but not before glancing to the back of the hall to check on my wife. The seat was vacant. Some concern now crept into my mind. But as the session commenced, I was soon lost in the moment, letting go of all thoughts.
9 am, and the teacher signalled the end of the group meditation hour. As I opened my eyes, I heard my name called, softly. I looked in the direction of the teacher. He nodded his head towards me. A sinking feeling came over me. The rest of the students filed out of the hall to stretch their limbs and ready for the next session.
The next few minutes were my darkest hour at the Vipassana. I sat before the teacher and bent my head low to listen. He whispered a word at a time, “Your wife has a medical emergency and must leave the course. She will not continue.” A stillness descended in my deepest being. Then he continued, “We have made arrangements for a taxi to take her home. She asked us not to inform you because she does not want to disturb you,” he said, “I thought you should know. But only you can decide what you want to do. If you would like to leave, you have my full permission.”
The night before, during the Dhamma talk, S N Goenka spoke about the dangers for meditators. The two biggest dangers he said were desire and aversion. “The ardent desire,” he said, “to experience enlightenment or something special from their meditation practice can itself become the obstacle on the path.”
Sitting there before my teacher, I thought about all the plans we made for months, to make it possible to attend this course. Here I was finally experiencing it. I had come this far, and there were just three days to go.
I made my choice and informed my teacher.
The rest of the students re-entered the Dhamma Hall as I met my wife in the hallway. The Vipassana course had taught me my greatest lesson yet. Desire is the root of all suffering. Even the desire for Nirvana.