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Going…Going…Goenka

Chennai is not the obvious place to undertake a ten day silent meditation course. Former ‘Madras’ is a noisy, dirty, frenetic mess of south Indian culture, but if Google Maps was to prove accurate, the ’Dhamma Setu Vipassana Centre’ would be residing on the outskirts of the city in a clutch of greenery. We caught the bus out of town, encountering another bewildered meditator on-route also trying to find the appropriate local bus. A barrage of misinformation resulted in a shared rickshaw ride to the site, and we discovered during the journey that our fellow passenger had just arrived from Japan, poor soul. We entered the grounds which were away from the immediate noise of the city, but in a very ‘Indian’ choice of location, under a flight path. This actually proved to be of little consequence during the intense practice over the next ten days.

 

Our first test in developing an equanimous mind arrived at the signing in desk. Obviously there was no queuing involved and the man behind the desk was clearly enjoying his role, being over officious but warm and welcoming at the same time. At this point Hazell and I were separated and said our goodbyes as we were handed our starched, leopard print bed linen. This was a bizarre experience for us, having been together all day everyday for quite some time, plus I would be spending the next ten nights under a Del Boy duvet. On entering my room I agreed with the lizard that he could have his bed back when I’d finished with it in ten days time. I was also greeted by a semi translucent Scandinavian named Johnny, scratching furiously at mosquito bites.

 

Johnny, my sole roommate, explained to me that he had spent recent years in near seclusion, and during this time social interaction with the outside world had been minimal. This trip to India marked the culmination of his personal ‘searching’, presumably of the internal form, and he shared with me his future plans as ’inventor’. Johnny has designed a mechanical device which generates power, all based on a complex mathematic algorithm. At this point the first bell rang signalling the start of the course and embarkation upon ten days of silence. Shit. I did however cling onto one single characteristic that united us; we were both wearing Bjorn Borg pants, mine zebra striped and his a dazzling, traffic cone orange. ( * DISCLAIMER * Boxers aside, I fear I may have painted an unfavourable picture of Johnny in your minds. He is in fact a lovely chap who had been isolated because he was caring for his parents.) During an intense meditation course one develops a connection with one’s roommate, even though all operations are undertaken in silence. The mosquito bites got worse for Johnny and I watched in compassionate silence as he took to sleeping in his mosquito net with socks on, lathered in ’Odomos’ repellent.

 

A Vipassana meditation course is a highly tumultuous personal experience, so I shall refrain from describing every mental occurrence, but this is the schedule we were working to for ten days:

 

4am Morning Wake Up Bell

4.30 – 6.30 Meditation

6.30 – 8.00 Breakfast

8.00 – 9.00 Meditation

9.00 – 11.00 Meditation

11.00 – 12.00pm Lunch

12.00 – 1.00 Rest

1.00 – 2.30 Meditation

2.30 – 3.30 Meditation

3.30 – 5.00 Meditation

5.00 – 6.00 Tea Break

6.00 – 7.00 Meditation

7.00 – 8.30 Goenka’s Discourse

8.30 – 9.00 Meditation

9.00 – 9.30 Question time

9.30pm Retire – lights out

 

Ten and a half hours of sitting cross legged on the floor is a test for anyone, never mind what mental practice is being undertaken. I found it consistently difficult to begin meditation at 4.30am each morning; the two hour sit was broken by frequent walks outside and a conversation with the resident puppies. There were at least fifty meditators in the hall, separated into male and female, and all allotted a small cushion and mat upon which the days would be spent in concentration. Hazell and I could see each other across the hall and were therefore able to signal subtly to each other that we were OK; it was like being back at school! Far from being mystical ’Yogis’, the ‘teachers’ were two stern faced Indians who looked as though they would rather be somewhere else. I use the term teachers as a synonym for ’people who press play on the tape machine’, a form of teaching common to the Vipassana method taught by S. N. Goenka.

 

Goenka is a Burmese born Indian man who teaches a technique of Vipassana in the lineage of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, a Burmese lay teacher. Vipassana roughly translates as ’Insight Meditation’, and is employed as a method of awakening to the true nature of existence through observation of processes within ones own bodily framework. The technique is traditionally Buddhist, but as Goenka frequently reminds us, Vipassana can be practiced by all and is non-sectarian. He claims ‘the highest authority is ones own experience of truth’, and quotes the Buddha frequently in relation to the motives for practicing Vipassana, such as this section from the ‘Kesamutti Sutta’: ‘Do not simply believe whatever you are told, or whatever has been handed down from past generations, or what is common opinion, or whatever the scriptures say…when you yourselves directly know, ‘These principles are wholesome…and lead to welfare and happiness’, then you should accept and practice them.’

 

Initially our days consisted of sharpening our awareness and abilities of concentration, or ‘samadhi‘ in the ancient Pali language. This consisted of ‘anapana-sati’ practice, or ‘awareness of respiration’, simply sitting and watching sensations in the triangular area of the nose down to the top of the lip. As time progressed we sharpened our awareness further to focus on just the sensations at the tip of the nose where the air enters the nostrils. Undertaking this practice for days at a time eventually sharpens and stills the mind, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first few days as my mind began to settle and focus.

 

By day three a number of people had dropped out and legs and backs were starting to get sore. Wooden meditation chairs had been adopted by some and a large man to the right of me had constructed an elaborate throne with extra cushions. He then made a habit of falling asleep every ten minutes and snoring, but this was all part of the practice, learning to deal with distraction and return to the breath. I had taken to sitting in ‘half lotus’ with one leg crossed on top of the other, but had resigned myself to the fact that there was no permanent, comfortable position!

 

Our last full meal of the day was at 11.00 am, with tea, fruit and puffed rice at 5pm. To my mind the puffed rice was cereal like in nature, all be it flavoured with masala spice, so I consumed it as such, pouring milk on it first. I became aware towards the end of the week that no one else in the dining hall was doing the same, at which point I became insecure about my methods of consumption. It is these personal dilemmas that rattle around in one’s head during ten days of silence, though Hazell laughed at me as if I was a fool when I informed her after the course, so on some occasions, silence is golden.

 

The strict rules, or practice of ’Sila’, are fundamental to stilling the mind. Silence, not oversleeping or overeating and abstention from all killing (yes even mosquitoes), are foundations upon which to build a stable practice. Each night a video presentation of Goenka would be played; a little ’culty’ for my tastes, but he did add a little humour to the proceedings. By day three he asked us ’so you’ve discovered the pitfalls of trying to consume two meals worth of food at lunch, thinking ’I’d better stock up, as I won’t be getting a large dinner?’ Sure enough everyone in the room looked at each other and smiled, having spent the afternoon in a sleepy state after shovelling in too much food at lunch.

 

The fourth day signalled the start of the Vipassana technique, which essentially constitutes using awareness like a spot light and focussing on sensations throughout the body, scanning different areas progressively from head to toe. Over and over again, we heard Goenka exclaim, ’Anicca, anicca, anicca’ (an-ee-cha), the Pali term for impermanence, as we struggled to sit still. The teachings claim that insight into the nature of existence can be gained from Vipassana meditation. Through awareness of the body we observe that everything is constantly in a state of change, nothing is static. In Buddhist teaching, the belief in the illusion that there are permanent, self-existent phenomena plays a major role in our suffering. We develop attachment or repulsion towards something that will eventually come to pass, a form of irrational, if pervasive, thinking that we most overcome in order to liberate ourselves. Developing equanimity towards experience is crucial in cultivating a balanced mind.

 

Fantastic stuff, but this intellectual understanding is of very little comfort when being instructed to work through the pain of sitting cross legged, without moving, for one hour. The first time the group completed this task, many of us just burst out laughing in relief at the end of the session. The conceptual mind may understand the theory of impermanence, but it is this practice, so the teachings claim, that the meditator must experience in order to realise it. At this point, all I had realised was that I needed to do more Yoga.

 

As the week progressed my mind was able to scan more freely through the ’subtle sensations’ of the body, reactivity to discomfort settled, and the pain seemed to subside. During the last few days we were allocated ‘meditation cells’ inside the stupa; one metre squared concrete blocks reminiscent of solitary confinement areas in prisons. In our cells we were able to work in solitude more diligently, when we weren’t just having a nap that is. By this point I had become a little frustrated with the technique, as it focussed solely on the body as the object of awareness and didn’t move on to mental contents, a step which I was anticipating and didn’t arrive. At times I felt as though I was undergoing a course in pain management rather than insight meditation, and by the end of the week I had become quite frustrated. The reliance on recorded teaching was also irritating me, but not as much as Goenka’s Pali chanting, which sounded at best like a cat being strangled.

 

The course was a fascinating experience, the like of which everyone could benefit from undertaking at least once in their lives. Interestingly, the technique itself wasn’t particularly beneficial for me, but ten days spent observing the way my mind operates in a broader sense was very rewarding. This is the Vipassana technique as taught by S.N. Goenka, and other teachers do in fact employ other mental phenomena as objects of meditation. If I was to take part in a Vipassana course again, I would certainly do so within a different lineage, and perhaps not in India, where ’noble silence’ was interpreted to mean, ’we can talk just a little bit by day eight’!

 

I was feeling happier by the end of day nine, perhaps due to the fact the end was in sight! I had become frustrated in the previous two days and felt as though I was back at work, undertaking tasks unwillingly. We were permitted to talk at the end of day nine as preparation for reintegration with the outside world; it transpired that I didn’t really have much to say! The stern teacher told us ’hugging is unnecessary’, when we reunited with friends, and speaking to Hazell for the first time was strange and felt unnatural. ’So, how are you?’ was the extent of our conversation initially. It was particularly nice to speak to fellow meditators for the first time, each with their own story to tell. However, this process highlighted to me the personal film scripts we write in our minds; ongoing soap operas in which we are the lead role. For me, being written out of this script for ten days was one of the most rewarding elements to the course.

 

 

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