Imagine this: a Godly salesman shows up at your doorstep and pitches a product to you. He says that if used properly, this product frees you from all misery. It guarantees you a peace of mind, freedom from misery, renewed positivity, exuberant energy, egoless compassion, eternal bliss, freedom from craving and aversion, and true happiness. Then he gets cocky and says that you do not have to believe him and that you can try it for yourself to see whether it works or not. And then he bamboozles you by saying that this product is absolutely free – all it would require is your honorable dedication. If a salesman said this to me, however Godly he sounded or looked, I’d first stare at him, then laugh and politely ask him to run away. If he persisted, I’d interrogate him not to learn more but to merely find a flaw in his logic and then politely ask him again to run away. If he somehow miraculously passed my interrogation, I would threaten to call the police. If he still did not seem scared at this empty threat of mine, I would get somewhat convinced because of his undying confidence. I would accept the product with a frown and give it a shot, willing to throw it away as soon as I found what the catch was.
Something of this sort did actually happen. The Godly salesmen were my mother, my father and my sister and this “product” was a meditation technique – Vipassana. I gave it a shot and came across something so brilliantly pure, something so simple yet revolutionary that it had the capacity to redefine the way I looked at everything. It has such unfailing logic and such obvious application that it is really a crime to not at least know about it. I excessively questioned its essence and my cynical-self failed to find a flaw. But, I did find a catch – it requires hard work and hard work does not come easy.
It is crucial to know what Vipassana is and what Vipassana is not. The official website (http://dhamma.org) puts it brilliantly:
What Vipassana is not:
- It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith.
- It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment.
- It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing.
- It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
What Vipassana is:
- It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.
- It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
- It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.
Yes, the above is true. It is almost scary how something so straightforward can be so effective. But it’s hard.
To understand Vipassana, I had to indulge in a gruesome ten-day meditation course that would teach me exactly how to make use of this. My mother inspired me to get on with it and before I knew it I was enrolled in a summer course in the United Arab Emirates, or rather in the middle of a desert. The meditation camp was located some fifty miles from Dubai in a city called Ras Al Khaimah. The secluded nature of this campsite can be explained by the fact that no road led to it. We had to conquer at least a mile of unpaved terrain before we reached the gates. We stepped out of the car and 105 degree weather greeted us with warm affection. We were to also eventually learn that creatures such as scorpions, snakes and rats were around to entertain our fears and that there was a beautiful but inaccessible swimming pool to tempt us. We were then enlightened with the rules – no talking or communicating with anyone, no internet, no mobile phones, eating only at meal times, meditating for ten hours a day and the list went on and on. We were basically converted into monks for the coming ten days. Fortunately, I was prepared for all this so it wasn’t a mental storm in any way.
The first three days were easy. I got into the routine and was excited at the prospect of what I was about to do. On retrospection, I don’t know why I was excited, but I was. Our day began at 4:30am in the morning with a loud bell and ended at 9pm in the evening. The schedule for the next ten days was straightforward – ten hours of meditation, no dinner, a five-minute break every hour and a video discourse from our teacher S.N. Goenka at the end of the day. These video discourses were crucial for our sustenance. They explained why we were doing what we were doing. For instance, the first of two meditation techniques we learnt was “Anapana.” This involved focusing on our breath and nothing else. In the discourse he explained how it helped concentrate our minds and how it was a stepping stone towards learning the main technique – Vipassana. Our teacher also spoke about the philosophy this type of meditation was based on. This technique had been passed down for 25 centuries in its purest form in the tiny country of Burma. It originated in India and was rediscovered by Siddhartha Buddha 2500 years ago. Some 400 years later, it got lost in India to Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and other such religions. But, it prevailed in Burma. S.N. Goenka brought it back to India from Burma in the 1970s after which has spread across the globe. Currently, there are over fifty meditation centers across the world in places such as North America, Australia, Asia and the Middle East and millions of people have benefited from this technique.
The essence of this technique lies in the fact that it is purely scientific and experiential. It is a non-religious; non-preaching art of living that is based on the universal law of nature and is applicable to all. It shows the path to enlightenment and even though attaining liberation is realistically impossible, it is possible if one works hard enough. The beauty of this technique is that all you need is yourself and truthful perseverance to reap its benefits. It took S.N. Goenka 10 hours over 10 days to explain the logic, philosophy and essence of Vipassana. So, explaining it in brief through this post is virtually impossible.
On the fourth day, we were finally taught the art of Vipassana. Surprisingly, I was super excited to learn this technique and couldn’t wait for the afternoon session. It finally came and my patience got the better of me because the teacher took so long to get to the point and explain the technique. But, I checked myself because the whole purpose of this course is to understand patience, tolerance and to free myself from the miseries of agitation, craving and hatred. Vipassana basically involves observing subtle sensations on all parts of your body and not reacting to them, or staying “equanimous” to them. It is based on the universal law of nature that says that everything is impermanent so there is no need for a reaction, because the sensations you are feeling will eventually pass away. This is the basis of Vipassana and it is mind-shattering. It makes so much sense and is so easy to comprehend, but at the same time, so difficult to implement. Our teacher told us that merely having such wisdom is not enough. One needs to train his or hers subconscious mind to stay neutral to sensations of joy and pain, because they are impermanent. He gives examples of how we get so attached to material things like our phones or our laptops or a piece of jewelry. He says that we are not attached to the object but are attached to the pleasing sensations these objects ignite within us. These sensations produce a craving and suddenly we see ourselves doing anything to obtain these objects. For instance, if we were to lose our phones, we would become so miserable. It is just a phone and it is not the end of the world, so why be miserably? That was easy to accept but what was a little more difficult to swallow was the attachment explanation. Attachment is the basis of misery. The more attached you are to something, the more miserable you become. This makes sense on a superficial level but then I am also attached to my parents and my family, is that wrong? If something does happen to any one of them, I will definitely be miserable because I am so attached, but then should I detach myself from my own family just to be happy? This dilemma was genuinely messing around with my head. So I spoke to the assistant teacher about it. He said that they were “my” parents and they take care of “me”. So I am attached to the pleasant sensations they conjure in “me”. They make “me” feel good. He said that it is all about “me” and “mine.” This self-propelling ego is one of the root causes of all that’s wrong in today’s world. Everyone is so selfish on such extreme levels that a lot of people get hurt along the way. Vipassana tries to destroy this ego. It tries to teach you to give without expecting anything in return because if you do expect then it becomes more about you rather than the cause. This is just a bit of what we were taught. I might not do justice to the explanation but the purity of the teaching was refreshing.
I was elated on the fifth day. Meditation was going well and there was this unexplainable joy that was constantly erupting within me. I couldn’t stop smiling and was thinking of how I would go back and blog about the brilliance of this course and how I would tell all my friends about it. I wanted to hug my parents, hug the Dhamma Sevaks, hug my best friends and unleash compassion in its true form. Yes, I was very happy. But, it kind of went downhill from there – not because Vipassana gets evil, but just because it gets much harder. Fifth day onwards, every day, every meditator is forced to sit in “Adhishtan” for three one-hour sessions through the day. “Adhishtan” means strong determination. So basically, we are not allowed to move our feet and our hands for an entire hour. This pretty much kills you. Sitting on the floor for an hour, cross legged with your back and neck straight is hard. After forty minutes, the pain rushing through your legs is almost torturous. The next twenty minutes is more like twenty hours and clock ticks ever so slowly. The pain is so severe, that your mind freaks out. Then why do this? Our mind naturally reacts to pain because it produces painful sensations and puts us in misery. Mere physical pain is also converted into severe mental pain. The purpose of Adhishtan or sitting through pain and not reacting to it is to change the normal habit pattern of the mind. Pain is impermanent and will eventually subside so why is there a reason to put yourself in unnecessary misery. So however crucifying it seems, it teaches you to understand pain and not react to it, which is brilliant. And that is the general nature of Vipassana. Every little thing that it teaches you is so pure and so right that you are ridden with guilt for not doing what you are supposed to.
The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth day were hard, really hard. The not-talking part is not hard at all but sitting and meditating for ten hours a day is agitating. The sixth day was killer. It was mind-numbing and painful and agony doubled when I realized we were only half way though. Even though it is for the good, our minds are used to reacting negatively to anything that is hard. Even though we know that we shouldn’t get angry, we do. At this point, I couldn’t wait for the course to get over. I tried finding excuses to why this was pointless but it was all so flawless and all so pure that finding excuses itself was pointless. I started slacking a little and meditated for less and less hours each day and the general level of happiness subsided. There were times when I felt pathetic and agitated but there were still times when I felt really positive too. These rapid booms and recessions in the economic state of my mind was a first. I don’t remember experiencing such rapidly changing emotions ever before. According to the teacher, my mind was getting rid of its deep rooted defilements. This was conveniently motivating.
As the days progressed, I started losing my appetite and barely got any sleep at night. All we did was sit, walk, sleep and eat. There was minimal consumption of energy which allowed for a minimum consumption of food. Dinner was not served and I really did not need it, so it was no longer a big deal. Three hours of sleep at night was enough to fuel the entire day, so a lack of sleep did not really make me tired or drowsy. But what all this meant was that I had a lot of time to think. So I thought of everything imaginable. From the most wrong things to the most important things to the most irrelevant things, the brain was doing a thorough introspection. I thought of life, ambition, parents, friends, sex, future, Texas, and a plethora of other things I can’t recall over and over again. Yes, I knew a lot about myself but I also learnt a lot more. I learnt that my mind is at its creative zenith when it has nothing to do. I came up with two feature length movies that would make millions for sure. I also came up with a gigantic list of things to do once I am done with this course and also estimated how many emails and Facebook notifications I would have after these ten days.
I meditated for only four hours on the ninth day. I was too excited for the course to end and to run back home to civilization. By this time, I had grown sick of the food, the schedule, the shitty shower, the ants, the heat and the sitting down cross-legged bit. My right knee couldn’t stop eliciting sensations of pain and I was sick of saying the pain was impermanent. Yes, day 9 was hard.
We were allowed to talk to other meditators on the tenth day and that made everything a lot better. My roommate and I could finally converse and I realized that there was this weird bond that nine days of silence had created between us. My roommate, a super-ambitious and successful business man, had given up on the sixth day. He had his Blackberry with him and that was enough to keep him entertained for the ten-day period. We had a much needed conversation and I found out that he is officially the first person I have met who has triplet sons – very cool. There were 30 individuals who took part in the course. There were mostly South Asian adults but there were five “young” individuals. There was a 14yearold, a 16yearold, a 17yearold, an 18yearold and me. The 17yearold ran away on the third day because he just couldn’t handle the meditation. The 18yearold followed on the fifth day and it seemed like all the “young” people were getting scared away. It is understandable though. Even our teacher said that many people feeling like quitting on the second day and if they make it through that, then on the sixth day. One uncle had done 14 courses which included two 30-day courses. There was also this Jordanian/Canadian actor/director who was very insightful on life. There were also two “Dhamma Sevaks” or servers who took care of us and they were both awesome. One of them was an elderly man who had done Dhammaseva for over 15 courses and had such a genuine desire to take care of us that it was highly refreshing. I couldn’t wait to hug him at the end of the course. The Dhamma Sevaks don’t get paid and to give ten days of their lives to this cause is beyond laudable. It was good meeting everyone on the final day. There was such a positive vibe in the air that all my frustrations of the previous days evaporated and I was magically left with only positive thoughts about the experience.
There was one last discourse at 4:30 am on day 11 which seemed so very long and then I headed back home with a great sense of accomplishment. The technique I learnt has the potential to make my life a much happier journey and that prospect is enough. The fact that I was exposed to this was itself satisfying. I feel that everyone needs to at least understand what this course teaches and what the human mind is capable of. We are the only creatures on this planet that can achieve such devastating control over our minds. This ten-day course is just a start. Our teacher told us that this course is not going to give us liberation or anything but it is just going to help us take the first step on the super-long path to enlightenment. But the point is that I don’t have to be completely liberated to gain the benefits of this technique. The more I practice the more it will help improve my mind. So, after ten days, a lot of people have asked me if I have changed. Quite honestly, I don’t know. Yes, my ideology on a lot of things has been altered but I seem the same. I would only really realize any small change over the months ahead. What is crucial though is continuity of practice. Goenkaji urges us to meditate at least two hours day and do at least one ten-day course every year. I doubt I am going to follow that but I hope to do at least thirty minutes of meditation every day. There is enough proof around me that this actually works. Vipassana has dramatically improved the lives of mum and dad. It would be sinful on my part to not indulge in Vipassana but at the same time it seems hard. It is not the most entertaining of activities and would really require me to make an effort. But I really need to do it and I strongly recommend it to everyone.
P.S. I have spent three days trying to write this post about Vipassana and how I felt before, during and after the course. It has been hard to put my feelings into words and explain exactly what I went through. I really tried to keep it brief but being any briefer would do injustice to this experience. The person who enjoys reading this blog the most is me, and ten years down the road, this long post will definitely be worth it.