Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Tryst with Vipassana

I’m back from my 10 day trip to Igatpuri, back to the realities of the world where people talk and human beings exist at a totally different plane. If I really have to write down my feelings, it would honestly be difficult; I have tried to structure my observations about the experience in the form of a private interview with my Self – more in keeping with the kind of life that we lived there.

(The Golden Pagoda at Igatpuri)

So, now that you are back, how does it feel?
What do you think? Like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix or the Monk who sold his Ferrari (Smiling) Actually, the only feeling that I can use to describe the event after the 10th day is the feeling of lightness. Maybe, somewhere, the heart has grown a bit soft, has melted and it feels a bit peaceful or maybe it’s a placebo temporary effect; can’t say.

You have got the answers to your questions??
Friend, I remain zapped; getting answers to my questions!!! I don’t think I know my questions clearly enough, forget the answers...There is probably a feeling of some change internally but I’d not like to sit on judgment on it now itself, let’s give it some time.

Fair enough, then let’s discuss the nitty-gritty a bit more. The 10 day silence – how awful was that?
Actually, it is a 9 day Arya maun (Complete silence – no gestures or actions or eye contact and not only an absence of words). During the 9 days, you can still talk to the assistant teacher or the management regarding any problems on the technique or the arrangements and all but you must avoid all communication with others.

On the 10th day, the silence is broken and you spend a day in the centre without the vow; the idea, as I understand, is that exposing oneself to the world immediately could be a bit of shock.

But a 9-day silence still seems quite a punishment. Wasn’t it tough?
Honestly, it was not that tough. You are in an environment where everyone is a stranger and silent and there is no external stimulus of any kind that could make you feel like talking – you know no TV, internet, books, magazines, music. But you do a lot of talking to yourself inside; you probably do that all the time but never realised it. Come to think of it, I think I did enjoy the silence – some challenges can be inspiring.

So, you’d have thought about family, friends and office???
Actually, it was a random flow – no, not flow, avalanche is a better word – of thoughts and nothing much in specific. I hardly ever thought of office which surprised me, considering that my world seems to start and end with it. Quite a few thoughts, on the first few days, on near and dear ones but otherwise it seemed only about myself. I know this sounds pretty selfish, but then I guess that’s the truth. Deep down, maybe that’s the only thing that matters (sighing)..

Alright, so, what was the daily routine like?
We were supposed to wake up at 4 AM in the morning and then do a 2 hour meditation from 4.30 to 6.30, either in our rooms or in the Group Hall. Breakfast was served from 6.30-7.15 and the next session commenced at 8. After an hour of meditation, you could choose to continue the same in your room or stay in the Hall. Lunch was served at 11 AM and then after the required break/siesta, the next session was to start at 1 PM. Again meditation and then snacks at 5 PM, followed by the next session at 6 o’clock. Then there was a must see/hear 1.5 hr video recording discourse by Guruji (Shri S N Goenka) at 7.15 and then you retire to your room by 9.30 night. The same schedule went on for 9 days.

So, you basically, eat, sleep and meditate that’s all?
Well, that’s all I suppose; I also walked a lot during the breaks, especially after the lunch. Other than the regular breaks, you also had a 5 minute break after an hour of meditation. Maybe if the schedule had much more time in between, it could lead to a lot of boredom.

The Ashram food; what about it?
Guess, it was a bit surprising; I kind of liked it. It was less spicy and not much masala (for obvious reasons) but it was pretty decent – tasted better than my office food. But there were quite a few people who did not like the food but then you can’t make everyone happy. The fact that there was no dinner served (the last food was served at 5 PM during the snacks) was a concern to a few but then since you are not actually doing any great physical work, ideally, that should not have been too much of a problem.

Tell me about the meditation – that was your only activity during this period!
For the first 3.5 days, we practised Aana-Pana meditation; involves focusing one’s attention first on the sensation of breath passing above the upper lip and in and out of the. Then the Vipassana technique was taught on Day-4 where you observe the various sensations in your body ranging from heat, cold, throbbing, vibrating, tickling and any possible reaction, which are sensitised by the Aana-Pana meditation. The idea is to merely observe the sensations and not react to them.

Sounds pretty trivial a thing to do for hours..
Breath and energy flow is considered trivial by most of us because education has never taught us the use and relevance of this activity. At a very high level, every reaction or emotion that you exhibit triggers a sensation in the body but you are not sensitive to realise that. As soon as the sensations are felt, we are supposed to move our attention from the top of the head to the feet, and so on until we have scanned each and every part of the body. Most important is that we cultivate a sense of impartiality and equanimity to all sensations.

If we experience pleasant, subtle sensations we crave for them while if we experience gross, unpleasant sensations we develop hatred towards these sensations. We need to observe these experiences and treat them impartially; all things are impermanent and our suffering is because of our sense of attachment towards these feelings- negatively or positively.

And did you feel that magical power or whatever it was during this period?
Actually, I struggled for close to 6 and half days to figure out what I was doing and it was only after the teacher (an affable French gentleman named Yves Guichard) corrected my technique that there was a change. I did feel a lot of energy flow (gross and subtle) after that and that felt great but of course, the point is that the flow may be great but you must never develop any ego because of that; it kills the very purpose of the entire sadhna. Maybe being a Reiki practitioner, it may have helped but even then, it did take 7 days to make some progress.

Actually, there’s no point in discussing the sensations or the experience and calling it magical and all that; subtle behavioural changes are not very evident immediately but have a much lasting effect and merely taking about seeing light, vibrations, and energy is purely superficial. Each person’s experience is different and these cannot and should not be compared, otherwise you’d have people searching for mysterious electric, electromagnetic, vibrating, thermal and what not effect without understanding the final purpose.

You think this could make a change to your life and that more and more people should actually learn this...
It is too pompous a presumption that I have changed (when I can’t even explain the change) and henceforth, things would be different. I guess, the seeds for some change have been put but nurturing them is upto the student and that’s what determines any progress in this regard. I think more people should try this out and experience and then decide whether they want to go ahead with it or not.

But let’s be clear, the 10 day experience is not easy. You need to leave your family behind, stay alone like a bhikshu and follow a grind of early morning waking up, no talking, meditating for a greater part of the day – not exactly what you describe as a holiday. I myself had this urge a few times to run away from there during this period but then jaon bhi to kahan? I used to look at each Day waiting for the Day 10 to arrive but eventually, you kind of accept it. In hindsight, you kind of feel so much better but can’t say the same during this period. Anyway if you are determined, you can do it, if so many others can, why not you?

How was the crowd there? Mostly of a higher age group maybe..
Funnily no..There was a few guys fresh out of college, somebody doing his PG, quite a few employed and about my age, a few couples and all kinds. My neighbour was a young Australian who had his own bakery business in Navi Mumbai; there was this 45+ Muslim guy, the son of an Imam, who looked just 25 and was some kind of a fitness freak; another guy in his late twenties who was broke and just travelling to various places; another guy was a filmmaker who had co-founded an organisation to promote social change, a media manager with a private TV channel – all an interesting assortment of characters with nothing much in common.

Ok. But how would someone sit for hours, close the eyes and meditate? That easy??
(Laughs) Sorry, no such pretensions at all. Lots of thoughts went around in the mind during the first five days during meditation in the hall with the eyes closed. And even after that the mind would keep wandering wildly from one place to another but then somewhere in the midst of all this wandering there are periods of powerful concetration too. The initial breath observation and the complete silence did play an important role.

Also, the sexes were segregated during the entire period and you actually did not see any female during this period except while walking towards the dining hall but for some reason, I abstained from looking in that direction during this period – some poor attempt at will power, I guess:)

You plan to go there again?
Actually, no plans for anything at all at this point of time; let’s take each day as it comes, who knows how much the world changes before I take another break. Monday and back to office and so back to reality; we will leave it at that.

My Closing thoughts...
This was a 10 day break from routine and eventually, it felt good. This could be due to a change in the routine or due to an actual change at the basic level where I suddenly felt, what should I say, connected with myself, a little bit. Maybe it was the exhilaration of lasting for 10 days and proving some kind of a point to oneself and others. Whatever, it is, the feeling is itself transient and needs to be understood – Trying to develop equanimity towards both happy and sad events; for me, this was one of the most important points that I picked up during this course.

There is also a spiritual ego or baggage that I have been carrying – I am a Reiki healer and have read a lot of books in this regard and all that – but this journey has managed to inject in a more sense of humility and reality. Reading and analysing spirituality does not make for any change or even if it does, it is purely at the top level, the inner feelings remain the way it always was and that needs much more hard work and practice deep inside to change. But then there’s nothing to despair, each journey has its own stream of joy; pick it up and proceed on the next journey...

Saturday, August 09, 2008

In Search of Silence

Come Wednesday August 13th and I am on a 10 day long sabbatical from everything that I am associated with and have been so far in my life. I will be in Igatpuri, a small town which lies between Mumbai and Nasik and whose primary claim to fame is the Vipassana Research Institute.

I call this a sabbatical and not just a break because during this period, I will not only have no access to Internet, Mobile and other forms of communication but I will also have to maintain total silence. 10 days without speech/noise does sound rather stiff, I concede, but then if you have volunteered for a programme, I guess you better abide by the rules. I distinctly remember Amit telling that I speak much more than an average girl speaks in her life (no stereotyping intended) and so the challenge seems just that bit more intimidating!!!!

When I announced my decision to do so, there were all kinds of reactions. Some folks wondered why I would want to subject myself to this torture (getting up at 4.30 AM is also part of the rules); some said that would like to know from me how it feels once I am back so that they could also plan a trip;some wondered if I were not crazy to do so and how my office gave me this leave; some felt that it is too early to venture into such a but most people were of the opinion that I should go for it, it was just that they did not either have the time or the inclination or initiative to try this out despite all the good feedback that they had received.

So, why am I going? Honestly, I do not know; this was a decision taken on an impulse. Mind you, since I first read about it in the Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald, I have been intrigued by the idea. But there is always a huge gap between conception and implementation; the flights of fantasy need wings and it just does not come that easily. Since arriving in Mumbai last October, I, Kunal and Infy have discussed it many times but have been postponing the idea, so hopefully, my trip will spur them on. I guess that on many an occasion, what drives people is their pursuit for meaning in life, advocated by Viktor Frankl, the father of logo therapy.

The pursuit of meaning in life is quite abstract and is not something that someone can explain with logic and analysis because each of us has a different purpose and the discovery of the same comes at different stages. You don’t need to be 45+ to start looking for it; searching for it when the energy levels are high and the passion to explore new territories is there is more important. Age can never be a limiting factor in our search for truth.

Of course, this is not to say that you take a 10 day silence period and you learn the truths in life; I would be kidding myself if I were to even suggest that. However, it is important to listen to myself and try to answer some of the questions that I have been asking myself for so many years now. I have experimented with Reiki, Transcendental Meditation, Raja Yoga and a few other alternate paths but somewhere keep losing track of all these paths. But a traveller should never stop; sometimes, the destination may not be very clear but it is important to ensure that the travel continues. There are many sign posts but we need to identify them and move ahead.

Every time, we introduce each other, we relate to our profession and describe ourselves accordingly – I am Pradeep, a banker who works in XYZ Bank. Funny,we seem to be confusing our lives with our means of livelihood. We need to ask ourselves what is it that we want to do in my life and not what is it that we want to do for our my livelihood; these are totally separate things. Are we confusing our lives' goals with career and personal goals?

If we don’t live for our profession,we live for our family or for things that we derive pleasure in but the soul's craving seems to have gone into hibernation. I guess something from inside always asks questions but in the din of everything around us, we just don’t seem to listen to it. We have, unknowingly, suppressed the inner voice and maybe, just maybe, this short period of solitude will help in throwing some light on understanding the destination.

We met many people who seem so restless with their lives and live empty lives – going to office and coming back and servicing their families but the joy seems to be lost. Life can be quite a taskmaster, I guess, and the small things in life have suddenly flown out of our lives. Will the Vipassana trip make a difference to my life? I do not know but it is still an attempt to try to make a difference in my life which is ambling around Interest Tables, Pricing Controls, Fees, Parameter changes and all those mundane things that make up the life of a Business Analyst in my domain.

The world will be the way it is and we may not be able to change it as per our needs and this leads to a lot of inner turmoil and frustration. We cannot change the world but we can change is the way we face the world and its trials and tribulations. Eventually, I believe, that we need to meet our karmic destiny and there is no running away from that- can we be ready to take responsibility for our lives and not blame others for our problems? All sounds too snobbish, expecting so many things to happen just by keeping quiet but then there’s no harm in attempting to change when you know that you need to, otherwise you will anyway be the sufferer.

And then, finally, escaping from the cacaphony of the urban madness called Mumbai (could be any other urban decay) is necessary once a while to retain your sanity. You cannot reflect back when you drive in fifth gear; you need to slow down ..... 10 days of serene silence can never harm anyone, can it???