Going Mad on the Path to Liberation : A Vipassana Account

In the same place Buddha himself reached enlightenment - only 2,500 years ago...

In the very place same Buddha himself reached enlightenment – only 2,500 years ago…

I’ve always thought meditating was just for hippies and spiritual goofs, you know, the kind of people that hug trees and talk about feeling the energy in everything. I mean, how long can you sit and think about nothing for? I could manage about 2.5 seconds and even that was a struggle. But in the spiritual basket of the world, India, I thought I’d give this Vipassana business a go. When in Rome and all that…

The Objective

A Vipassana meditator seeks to purify their mind completely by eradicating misery from their life. It is thought that misery arises in two main ways; craving: wanting something which doesn’t eventuate, or experiencing something negative that you wish to stop; and aversion: feelings of ill-will or hatred towards someone or something.

The Practice

Vipassana is, in its essence, the practice of observing all sensations of the body objectively, with the idea that no feeling, object, or moment is permanent and is in a constant state of change and evolution. The meditator must learn to accept any and all sensations without developing a craving towards those that may feel nice, or aversion to those that may be bloody painful not so nice.

The Reality

10 days of noble silence (no talking, eye contact, gestures, or touching), male and female segregation (even for couples), 10.5 hours of meditation per day, no form of distraction whatsoever (no phones, computers, books or writing materials), no dinner, and a very sporadic and uncontrollable mind.

I’m gonna admit it. I was shitting my pants going into this thing. I mean, it’s not a scary experience, but 10 days – TEN – where I can’t talk to anyone, I can’t even smile at anyone. How do I say thank you for my food? Is it cheating if I sleep talk? How the hell do I live with 24 other women without muttering a word? 10 days is a long time.

Surrendering belongings to live like a monk. My simple bedroom

Surrendering belongings to live like a monk. My simple bedroom

We arrived in the afternoon and had a few hours – after depositing everything worthwhile in the world (computer, cellphone with Candycrush, perfume – yeah, no strong smelling toiletries that may ‘distract others’ either) – where we could talk to each other and be normal sociable humans before night and noble silence fell upon us. We were each assigned our own meditation cushion on the floor of the Dhamma Hall (hall for group meditation) and were introduced to the assistant teachers who were running the programme. A slow grumbling sound crackled from behind me. The speaker started throwing forth the most hilarious sounding voice. I had to contain my laughter. Goenkaji, the man responsible for spreading this practice again throughout India, was giving us instructions. As. Slow. As. Possible. “Cooooooncentrate on the triaaaaaangular aaaarea of your noooooose and upper lip. Oooobseeeerrrrrving the sennnsaaaations of your breeeeathhhh on the innnnnnside of the nostrils, and on the oouuuuuutside of the nostrils and on the outer riiiiiiings of the nostrils.”

Breathing. The big secret to happiness is breathing. And I had 10 more days of breathing to do. We all shuffled off to bed in deafening and awkward silence.

Our daily routine looked like this:

  • 4am: Wake up
  • 4:30am: Meditation in hall or room (2hr)
  • 6:30am: Breakfast and free time
  • 8am: Group meditation (1hr)
  • 9am: Meditation in hall or room (2hr)
  • 11am: Lunch and free time
  • 1pm: Meditation in hall or room (1.5hr)
  • 2:30pm: Group meditation (1hr)
  • 3:30pm: Meditation in hall or room (1.5hr)
  • 5pm: Snack
  • 6pm: Group meditation (1hr)
  • 7pm: Video presentation
  • 8:30pm: Meditation in hall (0.5hr)
  • 9pm: Bedtime
  • 9:30pm: Lights out

That is except for the first day when we got to sleep in till 5am. I mean, everybody else got to. My French-Buddhist-nun roommate didn’t understand the instructions and started ruffling about at 3:45am. Sigh. I am not a morning person.

The first morning, and all others, followed much the same pattern. I would wake up to the sound of my roomate shuffling about before the gong at 4am. Sleep until I heard it sound. Splash my face with some cold water and sleepily wander through the dark grounds to the Dhamma Hall with my blanket wrapped around me and hunger biting into my stomach. I would sit with legs crossed and back straight. Then with knees up to chin and arms wrapped around. Eventually (I say eventually as if it took a long time – it didn’t), my mind would wander and I would fall asleep. Sitting up. It got to the point where I could manage to sleep in any sitting position. The miraculous mornings where I willed myself to stay awake, I still wasn’t meditating. I tended to be harboring a slowly growing hatred for everybody that was moving, shuffling, scratching, burping, farting, coming and going through the door and generally disrupting me that I could not have concentrated even if I tried. The only thing that cheered me up was food. Oh man, I love food. Breakfast time was my favourite time of the day.

After my mood calmed down (I’m not a happy person when I’m hungry) I would shower (out of a bucket) and wash clothes before the next meditation session. This session never failed to be my most productive of the day. No longer distracted by hunger and feeling clean and warm I would sit down with great ambition, and start the routine of mentally moving part by part across my body, observing sensations objectively and genuinely succeeding at life. For four minutes. Then my legs would start hurting, and my bum would go numb, and as much as I tried not to, I would succumb to the absolute need to change positions. I mean, feeling pins and needles is a sign your legs might drop off, right? Whoever said that meditation is relaxing obviously isn’t doing it right. It fricken hurts. And what’s worse, you have to accept this pain and not feel aversion to it. WHAT?! Buddha, you are talking crazy talk.

The Pagoda at sunrise. Each person was assigned a small personal cell here for meditation

The Pagoda at sunrise. Each person was assigned a small personal cell here for meditation

Every group session involved listening to the low rumble of Goenkaji’s voice as he gave us slowly evolving instructions. The first three days are occupied by Anapana meditation – a breathing technique that focuses on observing the sensations of subtle breath on a small area under the nose. Practising this technique for three days helps train the mind to focus on smaller areas of the body and recognise even the subtlest of sensations.

By Day 2 you go mad. We are told that Day 2 and Day 6 are the hardest and many people choose to give up and leave. I could maintain this breathing business for a whole day, even enjoyed testing my mind to concentrate on one sole thing. But by the end of Day 2 it was enough, AND I still had another day to go. Urrghhh… What am I doing?

The afternoon sessions were the worst: too many delicate elements to balance. After a hearty thali meal for lunch – with seconds of course – we’d have a whole hour and a half of free time. So, naturally, I slept. But, I had to make sure I didn’t sleep too much – or at least wake up by 12:30pm to do some walking laps around the decrepid grounds to wake myself up. Did I mention you are not allowed to do any form of exercise apart from walking? I also had to make sure I didn’t eat too much at lunch. The first few days are hard because in the back of your mind you are thinking “I don’t get dinner. This is my last meal. I have to eat as much as possible.” But then you do, and then you have to sit for four hours on a ball of rice in your stomach. Then you have to choose whether you meditate in your room, on your bed, which is so comfy and … zzzzzzzzzz, or in the main hall where you have people that distract you.

My very own meditation cell

My very own meditation cell

Let me explain one thing about Indians. They have a totally different concept of noble silence. For example, burping is socially acceptable. In fact, when someone burps, no-one close by even batters an eyelid or looks their way. It’s the same with hoiking and spitting. They may go outside to do it, but it’s not silent and it’s not far from the door either. But the prize winner of differences comes in a bigger, smellier and more giggle-worthy package: The Fart. I met this adversary everyday a multitude of times. He would show his face at many times but found the sessions after meal times to be of particular enjoyment. He also seemed to know when you were at your weakest, vibrating in your ears when you had just managed to wrangle your mind under control after a long battle. He destroyed my concentration everyday.

On Day 4 we started to learn the technique of Vipassana. Instead of focusing on breathing we had to focus on the sensations we felt on our bodies as we moved slowly from part to part, head to toe, then toe to head. We were to observe objectively: no feelings of aversion to unsavoury sensations nor feelings of cravings towards experiencing pleasant sensations. Just observing. I felt mostly pain, or tingliness. And pain.

As I wasn’t allowed any form of writing materials I couldn’t even note down any revelations or major events that happened in the following days. In fact, most of the time I couldn’t even remember which day it was. During one of the hours of naptime freetime I noticed that someone had marked the days in lines on the wall of my room – like you would in a prison. Fair enough.

After days living inside your own head you start to crave outside entertainment – anything that differs from the routine. On Day 3 I saw a small lizard sitting in the sun. I came back to the same spot every day to see if it was there. It didn’t even move, but I still came back to watch it. On Day 4 a cat appeared and wouldn’t stop meowing. It would walk directly in front of you tripping you up. One day it even bit me (I broke the vow of silence). Why were these animals mocking me? I’m not allowed to sunbathe or talk and here they were, just, rubbing it in. I washed clothes everyday. I even brushed my hair everyday – I never do this, because afro. I even ate my 5pm snack of spicy puffed rice and peanuts by seperating the peanuts from the rice so that it took longer to eat. I read every possible sign that was stuck around the complex. I even tried to decipher the ones in Hindi, as if reading them sideways would miraculously produce words as in English. I started to give fellow meditators names and personalities: one rather enormous lady I named “the Belching Beauty.” Another man, almost as old as Buddha himself, I referred to as “Fartenstein” – as you can probably gather, they were both rather apt at passing wind. I craved communication and entertainment. This place even looked like a prison.

The female residential quarters

The female residential quarters

The nightly videos are life savers. The familiar sight of the round guru and his wife sitting so peacefully (maybe they don’t have legs anymore) on their cusions, and the explanations of the philosophies that help to piece everything together like a mental jigsaw, represent an hour of the day of pure entertainment. You no longer have to concentrate on sensations or breathing. Hell, you can even change position if you want to! And the miracle of it all is that more often than not he will explain the very thing you struggled with that day. The day that I burst into tears due to absolute frustration at not being able to concentrate because of other people moving about and burping and farting and distracting ME (oh, the arrogance of some people!), this very day he talked about tolerance. The day I got so angry because noone would shut the door after themselves and light would flicker across my face like someone shining a torch straight into it, he talked of letting go of hatred towards people; “They don’t realise what they have done. You are the one carrying the anger – they are not angry. Why then, should you make yourself suffer more?”

The sessions would range from being kinda-successful, to downright impossible. In the hours where we were not allowed to change our posture, open our eyes, or leave the room, I would find my head turning so slowly to sneak a peek at the clock behind me – as if trying to trick the rest of my body that it wasn’t really moving. I would leave a session where I would have almost complete success, thinking“this isn’t so bad, I’m pretty much Buddha” and then optimistically enter the next session where I’d battle constantly with my mind for control, and come out feeling devastated at my failure. But the reality is you learn not to think like this. You have to live in the present. That bad moment is gone. That good moment is gone. Everything changes.

The course, for me, was a life changer even though I haven’t maintained my two hours of meditation a day despite vowing to myself I would continue (I’m sure I will get back to it one day when I have a more stable routine). Even though it was incredibly hard at the time I’ve come out the other side with a different perspective of my life. Would I do it again? Definitely, but not for a few years. Even if I’d had no revelations, the mere social-experiment aspect of it was interesting. 10 days of living inside your own head brings so many forgotten memories, feelings and ideas to mind that you are forced to deal with them.

Either that, or, you could just use the time to sleep – like Angelo did.

And it's all thanks to this guy

And it’s all thanks to this guy

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2 thoughts on “Going Mad on the Path to Liberation : A Vipassana Account

    • Thanks Liz! I whole-heartedly recommend it to everyone to try at least once – but I do feel like it has to be the right time for you to do it. Hopefully I can get back into the practice of it when I have more routine and stability!

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