Last Thursday I completed my first 10 day Vipassana training – a meditation course with nearly 10 hours of meditation practice per day while observing “noble silence”. This was my first time doing the course and it has been a fascinating experience to go offline and move my attention towards “inside” rather than being focused on work and other worldly things. In many ways it turned out to be harder than “real life”. Here’s my take on what happened during that course.
Enlightenment and Liberation
I was born into a rather traditional Brahmin family and my mother tries to follow all the religious rituals and kept teaching & brainwashing me that ultimate goal of life is to attain Moksha and the Jnana – Knowledge is needed for reaching that goal.
Reading and listening to The Bhagavadgita was almost a daily deal in our home. Later in my life out of intellectual curiosity I continued reading a lot of other religious and spiritual texts, trying to understand the meaning of life as depicted in Hindu vedanta.
All the teachings/books refer to the Liberation as having continuous knowledge of oneself. The Knowledge gives one an awareness of his part in the universe and how everything else is just the same as oneself.
The Liberation is achieving the union – yoga of oneself with the universal spirit Brahman. According to the Indian Hindu Vedanta there are 4 major paths that help to attain Knowledge needed for Liberation –
- Karma Yoga – The path of action
- Bhakti Yoga – The path of Devotion
- Raja Yoga (a.k.a Ashtanga (8-part) Yoga) – The royal Path.
- Jnana Yoga – The path of contemplation.
I don’t want to go too much into the details, there are many resources online which explain what these paths are in-detail. The Raja Yoga was the most practical and intellectually appealing path for me. One of the principal concepts of Raja Yoga is Dharana – Concentration & Samadhi – A ultimate state of mind achieved via meditation.
While the above philosophy is mostly from Hindu Religion, the Buddhist tradition has more or less similar concepts. Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation (re)discovered by Gautama Buddha.
When I heard about Vipassana Meditation course it felt like it would offer me a nice, albeit infinitesimally small, chance to practice some of the concepts I’ve been reading about for well over 15 years of my life.
Vipassana means Observation – during the meditation one sits and observes ones own thoughts and body eventually to have an awareness that the body is composed of kalapas (sort of atoms) and the various sensations come and go due to the fundamental “moving/changing” nature of kalapas. When one understands and experiences it first hand the knowledge of impermanence becomes part of the mind and one starts to see the life in a more balanced manner. Or at least that’s the idea.
The Vipassana Meditation course is taught around the world and the introductory course is 10-days. During those 10 days Noble Silence must be observed – which means absolutely no talking with the co-meditators, avoiding eye-contact or touching others. The no-communication rule also implies that no mobile phones or computers.
The location in NL is near Amersfoort and during the course the student is not supposed to leave the premises.
There were a couple of Assistant Teachers who’ll answer questions during a limited time everyday one-on-one.
The course is completely free and only driven by donations. At the end of the course any student who’s completed one 10-day course can give a donation.
The Daily Schedule
The day is pretty much packed with back to back meditation practice. In some ways the days I spend at the course are busier than a busiest work day and at times very exhausting both mentally and physically. By 9:30pm I felt very tired and will drown into deep sleep within the matter of minutes.
Here’s how the schedule looked like:
4:00 am – Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am – Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am – Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am – Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am – Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noon – Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm – Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm – Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm – Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm – Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm – Tea break 6:00-7:00 pm – Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm – Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm – Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm – Question time in the hall
9:30 pm – Retire to your own room–Lights out
The Teaching & Technique
Days 1 to 3 – Anapana: Observing Respiration
The first three days were about getting started and getting used to the meditation. During these days Anapana is practiced. Anapana or Anapanasati is focusing attention on the breathing and developing mindfulness.
Day 4 – Vipassana: Teaching
On day 4 afternoon there was 2-hour continuous sitting during which the Vipassana is taught – which is moving the attention slowly on the entire body surface trying to get a sense of sensations on the entire surface of the body, at the same time being aware that whatever sensation is impermanent.
Day 5 to 8 – Vipassana: Practice
From 5th day the practice of vipassana starts with moving the attention “part-by-part” on the surface of the body and by 8th day it is suggested that the attention move in a “continuous flow”.
Day 9 – Vipassana: Practice – Later Stages
Day 9th’s teaching is about the experience one should focus on after progressing through various levels and moving the attention “inside” and eventually through the spine. Apparently after this state one starts to see the body as mass of kalapas continuously changing and the knowledge of impermanence becomes permanent in the consciousness.
Day 10 – Wrap-Up
On Day 10th the Noble Silence vow is broken after the 10am meditation, students can talk to each other. Also during this day Metta Bhavana is practiced – which is compassion for all beings.
For me the entire experience has been very exciting and gave me a quick glimpse into how uncontrollable the mind was. There’s a metaphor in Indian scriptures that the mind is like a monkey, which is drunk, bitten by a scorpion, possessed by a ghost and its tail is on fire.
The first couple of days I was trying fix my posture. Luckily for me sitting cross-legged for extended period of time isn’t a big deal, that was because of back in my days in our public-school there were no benches or chairs. So I got used to sitting cross-legged for the entire day in the school on the floor. After fixing and getting used to keeping back straight it was getting the monkey-mind under control.
While I struggle to force the mind to keep its attention on the breath during anapana the mind kept zooming through thoughts with the speed of …. thought. But finally on the seventh day between 8am to 9am, I was able to sit still for the entire hour without losing focus for more than 3 times. Success!
After I got a the mind to do what I wanted, I started observing what the hell that’s going on inside. There are a couple of things that I learned:
The mind spends a lot of time using past thoughts to imagine the future. Clearly the future is the result of present actions not the result of past thoughts. I’d to remind myself a lot of times that I need to live in the present and not worry about even the next day’s meditation or the work later. Otherwise I keep losing focus of the mind while it is busy constructing the imaginary future.
The other thing with my thoughts is that they fall mostly into two categories – thoughts about things I like and thoughts about things I hate. As the teachings point out, the mind is always keeps experiencing either craving or aversion – and these two feelings are the ones that are the cause of human’s misery. An enlightened being is a Stithaprajna – one whose mind is in balanced state all the time which doesn’t get too attached and too craving or too averse to hate things. These generate various emotions which makes one lose the state of calmness.
This is somewhat comparable to flying an airplane. While flying the objective is the keep the nose just above the horizon if it goes down then it is bound to crash or when it is up too high it will stall.
Similarly when the mind has too much craving or hatred towards any object/person/thing/emotion/thought/concept it is bound to crash. The aim of the meditation, IMHO, is to provide this sort of indicator and help with returning to the balanced state.
LOLs or LIS(Laughing In Silence) moments
Although the subject matter was very serious there were moments of LOL (or LIS rather Laughing In Silence) moments which made things lighter.
On 7th day during the 8-9pm meditation someone dozed off and started snoring. After keeping a very serious mood for seven straight days it was extremely difficult to control laughter. I’d to wait for 5 minutes in the meditation hall, wait for the completion of the hour, walk to my room close the door and then burst into wild laughter with eyes in my tears.
Other fun thing was Mr.Goenka’s singing. His nasal way of singing Pali hymns and Hindi dohas certainly annoyed me a bit in the beginning. Apparently he is also fond of throat singing which is plain torture which has given me an opportunity to practice how to keep the mind balanced when something adverse happens.
While I clearly didn’t achieve the coveted enlightenment during the 10-day meditation but I hope I have a heading and know which direction to turn. As with every other skill in life, practice makes it perfect. I’m curious how long I can sustain this.