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October 09, 2008

Vipassana: Seeing things as they are

It's been three months since we attended the Vipassana course - a 10-day silent meditative camp. I have found the technique useful and felt that this was a good time to talk about the experience.
The group that hosts the camp is called 'dhamma' and has a pretty informative website regarding these camps. If you want to decide whether to go to such a camp or not I would encourage reading the information regarding rules, facilities, program, etc to decide whether they want to go to a camp or not (and not this blog!). This blog is an account of my experience which would not be the same as yours.
We arrived at the center on Tumkur road (Bangalore) passing the Jindal Naturopathy Campus. On arriving on day "zero" we gave up our cellphones, etc for safekeeping and cut of all communication with the external world. Turns out there were no international emergencies over the 10 day period for which I had to be called out. We had a evening snack of upma and slept early.
Day 1 started with a bell at 0400 hrs. The first session for the day would start at 0430 hrs. I was pretty excited since this was the first time I was attending a camp like this and was up by 0350 hrs and took a bath in cold water (oh, hot water is available at 0630 hrs break in case you are wondering). This became a routine for the 10 days there, to be done and leave the bathrooms free for others when they got up at 0400 hrs. Actually, I have been trying to kick the habit of needing hot water for a bath (carbon footprint and all) and now I often take a bath in cold water.
The 'noble' silence had started the previous evening. The 'noble' is a suggestion to keep your eyes low and avoid any eye contact apart from not talking. I didn't really know anyone in the men's hostel so this wasn't much of an issue. In the course of the course I realized that this was a great idea and perhaps helped me in my concentration. I didn't see much of Ani till the end of the course though we shared the same hall for much of the day. Recently, Ani and I tried the noble silence at home from Sat afternoon to Sun morning, and it was broadly effective, apart from a phone call from a friend, etc :).
Vipassana is not so much a technique of meditation than a technique of concentration on what is here and now. The first three days were what is called Aana-Paana which is just concentrating on your breath in and out. The technique then builds on it making the zone of concentration narrower...but, that was later.
The tougher thing for me was the physical aspect of sitting on the floor (actually, on a cushion on the floor). Padmasan has not been a position for me, never been flexible and not been used to it. I had difficulty sitting for more than 5 mins without stretching. Even this was not enough and the first few days I walked a lot in the breaks to keep my circulation going and help my legs get used to the stretch. BTW, the area for walking (and no jogging or running is allowed) is limited, but was sufficient for this purpose.
As far as monitoring breath in and out is concerned, how much easier can it get for a kid who has grown up in the defense! So the first day was spent in 1-2-1-2... In the evening we have about an hr lecture by the main teacher Goenka where he talks about what you did, why you did it and what you would be doing next. (The technique is taught using his audio tapes and video lectures. The people sitting in the sessions are assistant teachers who help you when you have difficulties). Anyway, he talked about why the technique does not use a symbol e.g. idols, visual pictures to focus on and instead on something that is real and existing like breath (yes, naturally) and the reason why we don't use mantras (yeah, yeah) or counting (hey! wait a minute!). The reason again being that you end up controlling your breath rather than observing your natural breath...Ah well! Day 1 wasted and to top it all my legs hurt worse than after a marathon.
Day 2 was extremely difficult, with the counting out, I was trying to focus on observing my breath. This was very hard. The technique had built on the last day and added a step of concentrating on where the air from the breath touches the nostrils which felt like something more concrete to focus on. But, I realized very soon how difficult it was to keep the mind centered in the here and now. From reruns of LOTR, Matrix, conversations from last week to incidents in my life I ended up doing everything else but observe my breath.
I found myself trying to tell 'me' (my mind if you wish) to focus on my breath, but by the time I was done with 'my' instruction 'I' had already drifted. Slowly over the day and partly the next I could tell that I had drifted and just needed to mentally say 'I have drifted into a different time and space' and find myself back again. This was starting to work (nice!) till I started wondering who the 'I' was who was telling 'me' what to do. Was there really an observer and observed? Wasn't the observer the observed as well in this case? This also raised the question that as soon as I would start observing my breath it would change, so it was not my natural breath that I was observing... Talk about mind games! Suffice to say that these thoughts kept me pretty occupied and messed any chance of meditation in the last session on the third day.
Day 4, I had arrived at a 'practical' solution. I would focus on my breath and any residual 'I' can do whatever it wanted to and join me if it liked. I'm not sure how, but this worked.
Mid-day of day 4 we started Vipassana. The session felt a bit of a let down then after all the hype that had been created about the technique by the assistant teachers and the main one. Rather straightforward to understand and implementable with just a bit of difficulty. It had slowly become easy to focus on an area of the body and scan for sensations and move to the next. In some body areas e.g. the head were very difficult to feel any sensations on the other hand the nose area which we had focused so much on was the easiest. In the more difficult areas I was grappling at straws, we had moved to a smaller and more cramped room and perspiration was what I felt and would look for.
It was 5 days since I had spoke a word and concentration became a lot easier, everything seemed to have become quite and calm. Sitting on the floor was still not working out. I was only able to manage 10 min in pseudo-padmasan 15 mins held up with my hands like a ball and that day we were asked to start sitting in adisthanam - i.e. in one position for an hour for three sessions a day (excuse me). This is where I decided to stand up for my rights! I was supposed to be meditating not contemplating pain. I went up to the teacher and told him (you are allowed to talk to the assistant teachers - about the technique and to organizers - about the arrangements), I tried to speak- no voice came out - I tried again and in a croaking voice managed to say 'you see I have tried this sitting on the floor business and can perhaps manage 10-15 mins, but with this one hr business I think I'll need a chair'. He let me know there was no reason to take the main teacher's word for it, that I could just sit for as long as I could and try to reduce the number of positions I was shifting between over the days. Secretly, I was really hoping to get the chair, a wall or something. Ah well, I went back to the pillow.
Day 6, something thrilling happened, as I concentrated on my nose-lip area it started to throb. Whao! what's going on here. This thing was really throbbing and as I 'moved my gaze' the area under attention started to buzz. I briefly visualized cyclops (x-men, eyes guy) and was pretty thrilled with the buzzing. I could feel sensations in all parts of my body. I kept buzzing all morning! I was eager to tell the assistant teacher about the buzzing, but I didn't get a chance till much later. The buzzing continued in the session after breakfast. I felt all ready for the hour long session that I felt I would be able to last with this feeling dominating over the body pain of setting in one position.
Before the session I spoke to the assistant teacher. He told me that this is a little early, but it was probably my good Karma. Hmm...I wondered if I was better off continuing my silence...then he settled down and told me things that seemed useful. He said what I was feeling was free-flow, this instantly seemed like a good name for it. He also told me not to worry and that it would go away! This seemed a little under the belt, here I was finally 'getting it' and he told me not to worry AND that it would go away. Needless to say in the very next session when we had to actually sit for an hour in one position the buzzing disappeared.
That perhaps was the most miserable hour of meditation, like a super hero trying to retrieve his power, but failing. I felt miserable. I wondered why? I didn't even know about this response before today. I settled down and got back to what I was doing the previous day. A few sessions later it was back and a session later it was gone. I got used to it being there and not. We had been warned about this aspect of having conditioned our sub-conscious to dislike some sensations (leading to aversion) and like some sensations (leading to attachment).
I finally started to grasp the two fundamentals of Vipassana, that it's not just about being able to feel sensations, but about recognizing their impermanence and staying steady - referred to as 'awareness' and 'equanimity' at the course. I had heard of these, but understood from my experience then.
The following three days I practiced what I understood of Vipassana on the 6th day. On the 8th day in adisthanam pain also reminded of incidents in my life that would have perturbed me and brought forth much emotion. Some of these incidents I had intellectually accepted a long time back and the amount of attached emotions were surprising. Interesting, I was able I stay equanimous and just observe the sensation come and go away. Three months later if I recall these incidents they don't disturb me. It's just there and I can just watch it like watching a movie.
This is an aspect in Vipassana I liked, although a pseudo world setting e.g. a lab instead of the real world (where you react) - you can fundamentally change how you have conditioned yourself and how sub-consciously you respond to a situation. You observe your sensations, not meaning to change them, but just as a practice. But, having seen so many there is the acceptance that they come and go. It appears that instead of reacting in the heat of the moment, you can act on them with a certain calm. This means you don't need to stay in the lab and retract from life but actively participate in life with (emotional) 'freedom'.
I have dabbled in 'spiritual' teachings in text, but this was my introduction to a practical meditation technique that I could use and learn directly from my own experience.


Netika said...

Great post, Sanjeev - glad you and Ani did the 10-day course. It's increased my appreciation for experiential learning. My first was in 2003 and its been immensely useful. The daily sits actually help even more, if I actually do them :)

8&20 said...

i loved reading it - and fully understand what you mean by the mind drifting as soon as you find what it's thinking... gosh.

an inspiring read!

EM said...

:) I am happy to read that you were able to become aware of yourself through Vipassana. My best wishes.

Saurabh said...

Very nice post. Very informative :).