Saturday, June 28, 2014

Thoughts of a brand new Vipassana Meditator

Or, a Review of the 10-day Vipassana Course

16 June 2014
In a train somewhere in the middle of Madhya Pradesh
I had the good fortune to spend the last ten days at a Vipassana meditation center this month, and I’d like to put my thoughts down for friends and family who have been asking about the experience. But let me first clarify my position on this subject. Although I've long been curious about meditation and have been drawn to courses that teach you how it’s done, there are two reasons why it isn't an active part of my life yet. The first is the stereotypes that exist around meditation and spiritualism. A lot of us say that we'd "like to be more spiritual", but at the same time, meditation is viewed with mild discomfort, perhaps even contempt. It is associated with people who are looking for attention or publicity, hippies, people who are lost, depressed, or sick, or generally people who just have a lot of time on their hands. I know such perceptions exist because I have held them myself. 

The second barrier has been the sheer hard work and commitment it needs. Mr. S.N. Goenka describes people like me with this interesting metaphor: Say you want a reliable source of water and start digging a well. Having dug a 5-foot hole in the ground, you get tired and bored and hear about a place where you can find fresher and sweeter water – so you go there and start digging. And get tired and bored after digging 5-feet. And so on until you have a dozen pits, any of which would yield water if you dig for just a little while longer. The key would be to choose one, and just keep at it. Easier said than done, of course.

The Vipassana Center in Borivali, Bombay

And now to my review of the course: 

I call it a review, not to be presumptuous or irreverent, but for lack of a better word for a description that I hope will get people interested. The course is conducted over ten days, which has been found to be the minimum amount of time needed to teach the basics of the meditation technique. For this entire 10-day period, you are required to live in one of the 150 or so Vipassana centers across the world, with no contact with the outside world. You give up all electronic devices, reading and writing material. And as a further device to still the mind, you take a vow of ‘noble silence’ for 9 of these 10 days. What this means is that you do not communicate with anyone, by word or gesture, unless it is with your teacher or the management and only about issues that make your meditation comfortable. You find yourself unable to take your mind off your painful knee? Ask the teacher. You forgot to carry soap, or want to drink only bottled water? Speak to the management. The living quarters are clean and comfortable (the place where I did my course, the Vipassana Center in Borivali, Bombay, is almost luxurious, with air conditioning, and laundry services. My old timer friends turn their noses up at these comforts and say that centers based in wildernesses – like Igatpuri and Jaipur – are more basic, but  many times more beautiful). You are served food 3 times a day – delicious, vegetarian food, in spicy and non-spicy variants. You do not get any food after 5.30 PM (they say an empty stomach is very conducive to effective meditation), but they’re happy to make an exception for you should your medical condition require it. And all this at no expense. The centers are run on voluntary donations given by students and patrons across the globe.

The management consists of volunteers who are all “old students” – which is what they call people who have completed at least one 10-day course. This group of people is entitled to participate in short courses (from 1-2-days) and long courses (up to 60 days) held across the globe. Nearly half the students in my class were old students, which I thought was strange until I learned that all practising Vipassana meditators are required to take the 10-day course annually, to ensure a comfortable journey on the path of meditation.

What does one do all day?

You learn to meditate under clear, step-by-step instructions. You’re taught to still your mind, to sharpen it, and to train to it to observe your body, with a goal to achieve increased mind-body awareness. And why must one strive to achieve increased mind-body awareness? This is an exciting area of thought, and every one understands this their own way. I'm reading Dr. Paul R. Fleischman’s book The Ancient Path these days and really liking it. This american psychiatrist is a brilliant writer - insightful and witty.Very simply put, the junction of mind and body is where our deepest truths are stored, truths that consist of unpleasant memories, motivations that drive us, everything. Modern psychiatry no longer finds this far-fetched, having dealt with victims of physical injury who carry ‘phantom pains’ in non-existent limbs. And meditating on your body begins to puts one in touch with the source of some revolutionary truths about oneself. While these principles are hard to understand (and accept) for a beginner, it is not essential that one understands the mechanics of meditation for it to work - just like you don’t need to know what paracetamol does to the COX family of enzymes in your body for it to stop the fever. 

As a more concrete example, on day 1, they teach you to still your mind and observe your breath. While this sounds simple enough, I agree with Dr. Fleischman when he says that it like to trying to stand on a beach ball. Just when you think you've got the hang of it, you fall. You get up, try again and fall again. But over time, under specific, patient instructions from your teacher, at end of a day or two of trying, you learn to do it. The instructions get steadily more complex over the 10 days, and you find yourself progressively understanding how the sensations on your body are inexorably linked with your thoughts and motivations. It’s an absolutely amazing realization, but it comes and goes. And to continue with the concrete stuff, my two biggest worries before the course – that it will be boring and physically painful – were both unfounded. It is a very interesting process, both at an intellectual and an experiential level, and I was bored only during the 90 minute breaks in the afternoon that you’re given for sleeping, washing your clothes, etc. And conquering the pain was one huge adventure. They also have backrests and chairs for people who might need them.

So what can Vipassana do for you? (Or, why I’m hoping to convince some loved ones do participate in a course soon)....

It's a great way to start the process of training your mind: People have described the process as tuning your radio to catch the positive and harmonious waves in the universe, to become calmer and more effective participants in life. For meditation to have any long term transformative effect, it needs to become a daily part of your life. But even the 10 day course can change the way you look, feel and act, albeit temporarily (I have never slept so well). Nearly everyone reports feeling more alive, more aware of the self and the world. 
It's a connection with an amazing community: Without going into details, let me just say that my ideas of what kind of people meditate have undergone a complete shift. On the last day, when you're permitted to speak, you learn that the unassuming people that you have been living with consist of some very impressive professionals and academics. And they all want to help you on your journey - they have centers in many cities where you can just go and spend a day of silence and reflection, any time you want. 

It is also worthwhile to understand what it cannot do.

What Vipassana is not:

It is not a religious sect. Almost my favorite thing about the course was its non-religious nature. Even though the meditation technique being taught here is firmly rooted in the principles that Gautama Buddha taught nearly 3000 years ago, it is important to understand that this is not Buddhism. Buddhism as a religion did not start until nearly 5 centuries after Buddha’s death. Even Buddha was not a Buddhist! They do not talk about God and souls and all those things, which, for me, was a huge relief.
It is not a therapeutic technique. I loved the sugar factory metaphor - If you set up a factory to make sugar, know that you're doing it for the sugar; you will get the molasses, sure, but do not set up the factory to get the molasses, they're not that important! What this means is that meditation is a way to transform your life, it is not something you're doing just to get rid of aches and pains and illnesses. 
It is not a way of life where you do not care about things. I know some people who worry about the whole concept of detachment - will I stop caring about things? Am I learning to let go of ambition, and of love and relationships? The answer is no. You're being taught to let go - not of love and ambition - but of the discomfort that accompanies these. Minus the discomfort, one can be that much more impactful.
It is not a place to have “experiences". Sorry to disillusion, but there will be no visions, no sensations of ecstasy, no sudden insights into the past and future. But there will be an amazing sense of joy for having started the process of learning something truly worthwhile. 

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