One step closer to enlightenment
on Indian Bells (India), 26/Oct/2010 07:53, 34 days ago
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I approached the gates of Dhamma Thali Vipassana Meditation Centre on the outskirts of Jaipur with feelings of intrepidation, having committed myself to learning an ancient meditation technique for 10 days in complete silence. The rules were extensive, aiming to create the best possible environment for students and enabling us to live like nuns to concentrate on purifying ourselves. Noble silence meant silence of body, speech and mind so no speaking, eye contact, gestures, writing or reading. We could talk briefly to the management if we had problems, and ask the teacher questions during set time periods, but without entering into long discussions. Easier to follow were the 5 precepts- no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct or use of intoxicants. Men and women were segregated with different residential quarters, dining halls and walking areas. Even married couples had to abstain from all contact. There were around 80 people on my course, 50 men and the rest women, with only a handful of foreigners. The timetable was strict and involved 10.5 hours of meditation per day, starting at 4.30am and finishing at 9pm.These restrictions seemed a small price to pay for the promise of a step closer to enlightenment and liberation from suffering. After all, this is the same technique that enlightened Gautama Buddha 2500 years ago. Although it has its roots in India, it spread throughout Asia and over the years the practice was gradually corrupted. Burma kept the technique alive in its purest form, and that’s where our teacher, Goenka-Ji learnt it. As a wealthy but stressed businessman afflicted with intense migraines, he had consulted the finest doctors in the Western world and was prescribed morphine but knew he had to find another way to ease the pain. When a friend recommended Vipassana, Goenkasceptically underwent teaching to cure the headaches, but cured much more than that. When his parents moved to India and his mother’s health deteriorated, Goenka got a visa to stay in India and teach her the technique. Gradually more and more people saw the impressive results and asked for teaching and his visa was extended and extended. Now there are Vipassana Meditation Centres all over India and in many other countries, training hundreds of thousands of students. It’s worth noting that Vippassana is not sectarian, it does not try and convert students to Buddhism, although I did notice certain expected beliefs in karma and reincarnation.In Dhamma Thali the teachings are given via tape, with every meditation session beginning and ended with Goenka’s chanting or guidance. In the evenings video discourses explained the theory behind the technique, illustrated with stories passed down from the time of Buddha. For the first 3.5 days we practised Anapam meditation, focusing on the incoming and outgoing breath and honing all our attention on thesensations we felt in the small triangle underneath the nose and above the upper lip. Sitting crossed legged for so long brought deep pain at first especially in my back and feet, and my mind fluttered around past events and events that might happen in the future. Like Goenka says, so often our thoughts are in the past or the future, we live in the present so rarely.The afternoon of Day 4 was the first teaching of Vipassana and Goenka guided us to feel sensations in every part of our body, moving from head to feet with the aim of seeing things as they really are. The first time I experienced this was extreme, intoxicated with the power of my mind, feeling the pressure inside my skull about to explode. I was aware of every muscle as I moved over my face, I could feel what it feels like to be an elbow. The mind was truly alert and sensitive to the thousands of subtle sensations moving all around us. As we practised more and more in the forthcoming days, I experienced‘free flow’, sensations moving seamlessly through my arms and legs like electricity. Where there were intense blocks of very strong sensations, such as the right hand side of my back, free flow was impossible, but we worked to disperse the pain. So what was the purpose of all this? The sensations are chemical reactions illustrating perfectly the law of nature that all things are impermanent, in time all will pass. So any negative thoughts, anger, hatred will in time pass, just like good times will pass too. We have to learn how to cope with the ups and downs of life. And how does the technique teach us to do this? By observing the sensations objectively without reacting to them, without creating aversions to the pain, or cravings for the free flow. These two emotions only lead to suffering when unwanted things happen and wanted things don’t happen. Vipassana relies on a belief of sankharas- negative habit patterns that we keep hidden inside ourselves and reinforce every time we get angry. By not generating any new sankharas (not reacting), we rid ourselves of our misery without planting any new seeds and gradually become lighter. Once they are all gone, liberation and the final goal comes.On Day 7 we graduated to being allocated‘cells’ in the pagoda. Tiny sparse rooms with port hole windows and nothing but a cushion on the floor. On Day 10 we learnt Metta meditation, which is a way to spread love and compassion for all beings, to feel peace and harmony. Then it was time to speak to prepare us for life outside the centre the following morning. What exactly do you say to people you’ve been sitting next to, eating with and experiencing overwhelming feelings but haven’t yet said a word to? The first thing I did after collecting my mobile from the safe was phone my Mum and check all was well with the family. One of the fears that had come out was that something would happen to me or my loved ones and I’d never make it back to England, never see them again. Luckily, as my teacher had reassured me on day 8, they were all safe. And the last day was fun. Less time for meditating and more time getting to know people, trying to make sense of what happened and making the gradual transition into the real world.So was it worth it? I definitely found the course very tough at times, especially the four hour block of meditation every afternoon. It felt like being confined in a cross between a monastery and a mental asylum. I did lose focus towards the end and wasn’t observing sensations for the entire time. By day 10 I’d planned almost every future major life event and relived some of the past key moments. It was hard not having contact with Rob and added to the sense of isolation I already felt being in Laporiya. But, I got through it, I’ve got a changed sense of perspective on life and I came out feeling more positive with a greater idea of what was important to me. And it was peaceful living in a forest area, living so close to monkeys and peacocks and without laptops, mobile phones and books. In many ways it’s easy not having to talk to people, it seems to take a lot of stress out of life!There were a few major learning points for me. An enforced sense that attachment only leads to misery, attachment to money, possessions, or a strong attachment to another person without realising that you are 100% responsible for your own happiness. By getting angry at situations and letting negative thoughts take over you are only reinforcing your own behaviour patterns, even when times are tough we have to stay positive and balanced to be able to cope, knowing that change is inevitable and things will get better. I learnt one technique to control craving and aversion and am consciously trying to make an effort to stay equanimous. And it’s not about avoiding all pleasure, life is to be enjoyed but they teach us to enjoy it in a balanced way. I’m still not convinced by this and can’t help feeling that to have intense feelings of joy is worth painful sensations. I aim to feel compassion for all, to go out of my way to be nice to people, to feel at peace. As they said to us on Metta day, “May all beings be happy”.Image (c) www.chopra.comThe views expressed in this weblog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.