“You are going for Vipassana meditation at the perfect time of your life,” my cousin said trying to console me. I was crying uncontrollably and could only manage to nod my head in agreement.
After completing the 10-day Vipassana Meditation Course, I realised that he was absolutely correct. 2019 has been the toughest year of my life and I have suffered a lot due to multiple reasons. I spent sleepless nights overthinking and crying. I was disturbed and wanted a way out. I wanted to emerge victorious and experience long-term elation, and for this, I was looking for something real and stable. So, I thought of trying Vipassana, for which I finally applied in September on my way back from my Kerala trip. I chose the Dhamma Salila Vipassana Meditation Centre, which is located amidst the greenery and peace of Uttarakhand. The programme was scheduled from November 27 to December 8.
I had to follow a very strict timetable throughout the course. The day began at 4.00 am and ended at 9.30 pm. All I had to do there was wake up, meditate, eat and sleep. Easier said than done! Meditating for 12 hours a day to become more and more aware was making me crazy and also giving me a continuous sharp pain in my back. When I saw two girls leaving the course on the second day, one on the fourth and another on the sixth day, I started having a lot of unnecessary thoughts. On the seventh day, I got so frustrated that I wanted to run away from there. But one important thing that I noticed while I was there was my constantly oscillating state of mind. In one moment, I was sad and in another, I was happy. On some days, I used to feel very hungry as there was no dinner in the meal plan. At the end of the day, while feeling the chilly wind on my face, I used to look at a distant mountain where only twinkling lights coming out of homes were visible at night. I used to feel so peaceful and only after spending 5-7 minutes there, I entered the residential quarters.
What is Vipassana?
One of India’s most ancient meditation techniques, Vipassana was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago. It means ‘seeing things as they are’ and constitutes the process of self-purification with the help of self-observation. It starts with observing the changing nature of body and mind and leads to experiencing the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society. It helps in facing life’s tensions and problems in a calm and balanced way. The 10 days give a very close experience of living life as a monk because except our clothes, nothing else there is ours. The teachings are given by Dr. S.N. Goenka via audio and video mode at all centers worldwide.
Things to be deposited before commencement of the course
• Cell phones and other personal electronic devices
• Reading and writing material
• Musical instruments
• Personal food items
• Tobacco in any form
• Non-prescribed drugs
• Religious or spiritual objects such as prayer beads, amulet, etc.
• Jewellery or other unnecessary valuables
Strict rules to be followed
• Observe the noble silence. Communication with fellow students via speech, gestures, sign language, written notes, etc. is prohibited.
• Avoid eye-contact with other meditators and keep your eyes downwards.
• Do not go to the residence of any other meditator.
• Do not walk with any other meditator. Always walk alone.
• Not allowed to step outside the campus during the entire duration of course.
• Hot water for bathing is available till 12 noon only. And you cannot take a bath during the time assigned for meditation. You have to do it during the rest time only.
• Not allowed to use perfumes or other cosmetics having fragrance.
4.00 am Morning wake-up bell
4.30 am - 6.30 am Group meditation in Dhamma Hall
6.30 am Breakfast
7.00 am - 8.00 am Rest
9.00 am - 11 am Group meditation in the hall
11 am - 11.30 am Lunch
11.30 am - 1.00 pm Rest/question answer
1.00 pm - 5.00 pm Group meditation in the hall
5.00 pm - 5.30 pm Tea break
5.30 pm - 6.00 pm Rest
6.00 pm - 7.00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7.00 pm - 8.30 pm Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8.30 pm - 9.00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9.00 pm - 9.30 pm Retire to the room/question answers in the hall
9.30 pm Lights out
All arrivals were to be latest by 4.00 pm. We gathered in the Dhamma Hall at 6.00 pm, and all the rules and regulations were explained to us via recorded audio. We were told to start observing the noble silence immediately after stepping out of the hall. After that, we went to another Dhamma Hall where we were assigned a meditation cushion and everyone had to sit at the same spot during the entire course. There, we took a pledge in the Pali language to follow all the rules and regulations. At 9.00 pm, we were asked to head to our residential quarters to sleep. It was so cold there that on all days, I slept with my jacket, gloves, cap, socks and two blankets.
Day 1 and Day 2
Requested my agile mind to focus
I woke up at 4.00 am to the loud sound of the bell along with my alarm clock. It was raining. I was excited to start my day as I was very curious to see what all I was going to do today. We were taught Anapana meditation on the first two days, which included focusing on our breathing and feeling sensations on the triangular region, starting from nose to upper lip as it is—with no craving for the pleasant sensations and no aversion for the unpleasant sensations. Observing each and every inhalation and exhalation was very difficult as my mind and thoughts started running away just after 5-7 breaths. Again and again, I had to bring my stubborn, restless and indisciplined mind back to breathing. With 12 hours of meditation a day, my back was paining terribly with every passing moment. At the end of each day, there was a video discourse that comprised the logical explanation behind why we were doing this, along with other good thoughts. When I went back to the residential quarter and lay in bed, I told myself that though this was going to be very difficult for both my mind and body, I had to be strong and complete the course no matter what.
Day 3 and Day 4
I was completely surprised
On the third day, I decided to get the hang of my untamed mind which has an old habit of running in all directions at the same time. That day, we had to focus on our sensations on the smaller triangular region starting from nostrils to the upper lip. I was able to feel minor sensations and was absolutely amazed. I never knew that a lot is going on in my body continuously—things about which I never had even the slightest idea.
Day 5 and Day 6
Something was crawling on my skin
On the fifth and sixth days, we started performing deep surgery of our brain. The teacher taught us to observe and accept the sensations of each body part one by one, starting from the top of the head and ending at toes. By following this technique, we made our mind capable of observing sensations (strong and weak) that are happening in every moment throughout our body at the skin level. At first, I was not able to feel even the weakest sensation, but in the evening session, I began feeling faint vibrations on my neck, arms and legs. My back was still in pain, but it was manageable now.
Two new things happened that day. First, we were assigned our respective cell in the Pagoda (Shunyagaar) — the chamber of nothingness. It is a huge structure with many capsule-like small rooms meant for individual meditation. Second, we had to follow Adhitthana, which means trying not to change our posture or open our eyes even once during the assigned one-hour group sittings (happens thrice a day). One significant thing I noticed was that I have the power to change my thoughts and divert my attention to the desired results. I was in emotional and physical pain, and I had 1,000 things to think about, but I still focused my mind to observe nothing but the sensations. As a result, I started feeling as if worms were crawling on the part which I chose to focus on.
I was surprised to realise that all this was present in my body from the day I was born, but I never focused on it. The teacher explained to us that, with this feeling, you learn that everything is temporary and; even your body goes through innumerable changes every single moment. He said, “Life is full of miseries. Nothing is permanent in this entire universe, neither your good times nor your bad times. So why create craving or aversion?”
Day 7 and Day 8
Waves of energy
The spiritual training was getting deeper and deeper with each passing day. We were given instructions to focus on our entire body together (head, face, neck, shoulders, arms, fingers, chest, back, stomach, legs and toes). As a result, I was able to feel strong wave-like vibrations on some parts of my body on the seventh day. But still, I felt nothing at all on my shoulders and stomach area.
Complete body scan
On this day, I started observing a continuous flow of sensations throughout the body. It was like scanning my whole body from head to toe. I felt as if my whole body was a laboratory where I was observing a seamless flow of sensations. After experiencing the flow at the skin level, I tried to go deeper and deeper, as we were told to not leave even the tiniest area of our body. I was in awe with the way my body felt in those moments and I experienced a rise in my body temperature. I kept on exploring more and more.
Silence is golden
Nine days had passed without talking and I felt so calm. The teacher told us that the noble silence was to be opened by 10.30 am after Maitri Meditation, which aims to spread happiness to everyone. Initially, I was excited to listen to my voice again but later I realised that I was quite happy with the silence. Everyone started talking together, and hearing so many voices was a bit of a shock to me.
At 4.00 pm, we were allowed to collect our phone as well. Holding my phone after nine days, I thought that it would have been better if they give it back to us tomorrow at the time of leaving from the centre. I called my mom with whom I could speak with for only two minutes. After that, I immediately switched off my phone again and kept it inside my bag.
Since this was the last day, there was a special lunch menu that comprised matar paneer, rajma and gulab jamun. We were also served noodles as an evening snack. My happiness knew no bounds!
Time to face world again
We had our last meditation session at the centre from 4.30 am to 6.30 am. I was overwhelmed and a few tears rolled down my cheeks. I decided to continue this meditation at my home (which I am doing) and will also enroll again next year.
The breakfast was beyond delicious that day. Kheer was the highlight. At 7.00 am, I was free to go and face the real world again after undergoing a successful deep surgery of my mind and body.
What did I learn?
After completing the 10-day Vipassana Meditation Course, I realised that it was the best gift that I gave myself. I was trained to accept all my sensations and feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, just the way they are. I connected this with accepting every life situation the way it is, without being judgmental or creating craving/aversion. I had moments of joy when the breakfast menu once had my favorite idli-sambar. I also had moments of despair when all I wanted was to run away from there because I was in severe inner pain. I was unable to control my tears. But then I reminded myself that I had put a lot of dedication, sincerity and efforts into this. Whenever my sad memories and current problems grew strong and I felt weak, I asked myself why I began this in the first place. I was here to tame my inner demons and work on maintaining an amazing relationship with myself. I have also been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for nearly three years now because of which I know that I have infinite potential inside me and I can achieve anything in life. Drawing motivation from that, I kept on going and the result that I have received is definitely worth all my pain. Along with noticing a positive change in my attitude, I have also realised that I should accept the truth of the moment (whatever it is) with love and compassion, not with anger or hatred.
If you ask me in one sentence how my experience was, I would say it’s like my life before Vipassana and after Vipassana. It’s like being born again.
Should you go for it?
I would definitely recommend it to everyone. Vipassana has as many as 203 centers, 139 non-centers across Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Anyone from any race, community, religion, country, age and gender can enroll for this course. But be ready for the physical and mental fatigue that you will experience during the span of 10 days and after that also. Please know that this is not some kind of vacation. It’s an extremely serious exercise of your mind for self-improvement. Apply only if you feel that you can honestly and scrupulously follow the discipline. The seats are limited and getting admission is not easy.
At the beginning of the course, we were told clearly that you don’t have to practise it just because someone is telling you to; you should do it only if you yourself observe anything at an experiential level.
You are the best judge to decide this for yourself.
And if you decide to do it, then please ensure that you don’t leave the course in between because if you do so, you would come back with the exact same state of mind with which you entered the centre along with an additional baggage of disappointment.
The programmes are run solely with donations from old students. You won’t be charged a single penny for getting all the basic facilities and attaining absolute happiness. All this is done for a very noble cause. So after completing the course, it would be great if you could donate money to them for food and maintenance of the place, as per your convenience. It will definitely help the new students. This is part of their compassion programme and works on a pay-it-forward system.
My random thoughts during meditation
While meditating for 12 hours a day with a mind that is not used to it, it was quite obvious for me to think automatically about random things. Some of them were:
• Oh God, 10 helicopters have flown over the centre in just five minutes. Their loud noise has completely distracted me. I saw the cantonment area while coming here. Does that have a helipad? Is it that huge? I don’t think so. Has a war been declared between India and Pakistan? I really hope not. (I checked the news as soon as I got my phone back on the last day)
• Where should I travel next month? In 2020, I should cover five countries at least.
• Which books should I read next year? I should make a list ASAP.
• Why didn’t Joey and Phoebe end up together like Ross-Rachel and Chandler-Monica?
• Oh, it’s so cold here! Should I skip bathing tomorrow? But I will have to wash my hair soon. They are so oily now!
• Is the voice in which I am thinking my real voice?
• There are monkeys everywhere. One huge monkey entered the kitchen today. I got so scared. What if it comes inside my room? (Those who know me well will understand this)
• Today during lunch, I mistakenly took gourd on my plate. So, I had to finish it anyhow. Can’t wait to eat chhole bhature, paneer momos, white sauce pasta and golgappe once the programme gets over!
• What if Rusty (my pet dog who passed away in August 2019) suddenly comes running to me and sleeps on my lap after hugging me?
• Aprajita (a very close friend who is like sunshine and with whom I connect deeply at a spiritual level) will be doing this course in Ontario next month. I am so excited to share my experience with her. She must have sent me so many texts. Her mom also loves me so much. She is the strongest and most understanding woman I know.
• Bedasree, my lobster (with reference to F.R.I.E.N.D.S), should plan my surprise birthday party this time.
• Chirag (my guardian angel on Earth) must be praying for my emotional strength and an incredible experience. I adore him a lot.
• Rohit (with whom I never agree on anything) was absolutely correct when he said that this would definitely help me. But how did he know? I was the one who told him about Vipassana.
• Is mom worried about me? Is she thinking about me all the time and wondering if I am eating food and sleeping properly?
• I missed Riaan’s (my nephew) annual day function today. Next time, I will surely be there to cheer for him. God, I love him the most!
• When will I be doing bungee jumping? I think I am destined to do it in New Zealand.
• Can a celebrity do this? Their life is already so tough. And how will other meditators focus then?
• And most importantly, how am I going to write a blog about this experience? They have taken my travel journal and I am unable to jot down all the important points in my mind. I hope I remember everything when I start to write.
Nearby places to see
After completing this wonderful course, you can visit these beautiful places in Uttarakhand to give yourself a treat. You deserve it!
If you still have questions regarding the Vipassana Meditation Course or my personal experience, then feel free to ask me in the comments section below. I would love to answer.
If you are looking for more unique travel experiences, then you should drop in at my Instagram page strolling_shoes.
Keep Travelling :)