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Friday, March 26, 2010

Part 2: Silent Waves at Vipassana


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The first time I attended the Vipassana meditation retreat course an old acquaintance told me to be careful to not let the devil enter my head while I was meditating, my mother cried herself to bed nightly thinking I was brainwashed and was being starved to death by a pagan cult, my oldest brother half-jokingly said to run if they offered me any Kool-Aid à la Jonestown. In this golden age of Google and Wikipedia, where information is at one’s fingertip I struggled to tolerate their ignorance. How can one dismiss something as wicked without first knowing what it was?


What is Vipassana? Where do I begin? Vipassana is a meditation technique that intrinsically changed my life for the better and gave me clear concrete tools to end my self-created misery. How soon we could quickly forget that we are in fact the masters of our own minds. When I had begun my trip in India I was full of optimism… Equanimity, acceptance, I was non judgmental. It only took a few incidents, and I became bitter, negative, needy, quickly irritated, placing the blame outwardly and reacting to what I saw and felt. My mind was so agitated by the beginning of March that I knew I needed a major refresher course and found out when the next and closest Vipassana course would take place.


That is how I came to end up in Ottappees, near Chengannur the afternoon of Saturday March 13th. I was anxious. I knew that the next 10 days would prove to be extremely difficult. When one is confronted with nothing but one’s own thoughts with no possible distractions it’s bound to be difficult. From the beginning, we are asked to abide to the regulations of the centre and its strict timetable. We had to agree to 5 precepts that were necessary to be able to meditate with an unpolluted mind. They might sound familiar to many…


1. Abstain from harming any living creature (all meals are vegetarian).

2. Abstain from using intoxicants (such as alcohol, cigarettes, drugs).

3. Abstain from any sexual misconduct (male and females are separated).

4. Abstain from taking anything that does not belong to me (no thieving, no stealing).

5. Abstain from telling lies (pretty hard to tell lies when you cannot talk).


The not talking precept is called the Noble Silence. For 10 days we agreed to not talk with the other meditators and only speak with the assistant teachers and designated server if we had any questions or problems. This particular rule scares many away because they automatically gasp and say, “Oh my Goodness, it would be impossible for me not to talk for 10 days straight!” But one only has to complete the course once to realize that not only is the Noble Silence necessary during the retreat it might be the least of one's worries once they start to dive in deep into the psyche of self discovery.


I remember that the last time I did the course in Quebec in the dead of winter, in the mountains a couple hours away from Montreal, I unintentionally momentarily broke the Noble Silence. I was retrieving my black Concordia University Communications hoodie from the clothesline. I had hung the sweater outside, upside down, the day before after hand washing it. When I removed the clothespins, I discovered that my sweater had frozen into what looked like a black cardboard cutout of a faceless hardened criminal, wearing a hood, that seemed to be shouting, “Wait! Wait! Don’t shoot!” “Ok, ok, I won’t shoot,” I said as I broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter possibly disturbing the peace of others.


Vipassana is sometimes referred to as the boot camp of all meditations. There are no mantras, no prayer beads, no enchanting music streaming from speakers, no visual imagery and visualization of any god or object, and no trance inducing repetitions of soothing words like “Om.” There is just you, your mind and your body. The only tool you have is yourself. The work is all done in the inside. The instructions of the teacher S.N. Goenka, currently in Mumbai, is heard via audio tapes and his assistant teachers who are physically present in the meditation hall are there to assure that students understand the technique properly.


In any sitting posture most comfortable to us, the first couple of days we were asked to observe our respiration and a small area around our nose, that area further narrows until we were asked to simply observe the small space below our nostrils and above our upper lip. We were to observe any sensations we might encounter, such as the air from our breathing. We were asked not to control or alter our breathing, or take deep inhalations and exhalations but to simply observe it at its natural state. As an old student, I was asked to narrow the area even more and focus solely on the sensations inside the nostrils.  What happened is that by the 3rd day our minds became so sharp that we were able to pick up on the smallest subtlest sensations.


Naturally, at first it was extremely hard to keep our minds focused on just our natural respirations and sensations. Minds will wander. My mind would wander so much that one moment I was focused on my breathing, the next I was imagining eating a Poutine (a traditional dish from Quebec consisting of melted cheese and hot gravy spread generously on French fries), the next moment I was thinking of the distasteful cheese I had on my pizza in Hampi, the next moment I’m remembering swimming in the magic lake in Hampi, the next moment I’m thinking of the river near my apartment in Montreal, the next moment I’m thinking that I won’t have the same apartment anymore when I return to Montreal, the next moment I’m decorating my future apartment that I would like to have in San  Francisco, the next moment I’m still in San Francisco with a great design job and a bustling social life. My mind would wander and wander and I constantly had to bring it back by just focusing on and observing the breath. Try sitting for 5 minutes, and try observing only your respiration without controlling it. How long before you think about this or that? 10 seconds? 30 seconds? What tends to happen to almost everybody is that the mind refuses to stay in the present moment. The mind would either drift to memories of the past or go towards the possibilities of the future.


Interestingly what happens is that when we start reminiscing it’s either pleasant or unpleasant memories. The unpleasant ones create a tension within because we do not want the same situations to repeat. The pleasant ones create craving for those situations to repeat. Likely, when our thoughts wander towards the future, unpleasant possibilities create a sense of dread, while the pleasant ones we start desiring and craving. And yet the only thing that’s real: the present reality, our minds fight to accept.


The 4th day was when we actually started practicing Vipassana. Vipassana means “the development of insight.” Essentially, without shifting our sitting posture for an hour, we scanned our whole bodies from the top of our heads down to our toes and observed all the sensations from the subtlest to the most intense. We were meant to observe and not to react, to remain equanimous. Not to react: that is what was so fundamentally important. When we have an unpleasant sensation we might naturally react with aversion, start to hate that feeling and wish it to go away, and that creates tension and suffering every time we feel it. Similarly, if we get a pleasant sensation we might automatically start to crave and desire for more, getting attached to that feeling. 

Similarly, in life when we react to unpleasant circumstances and people with aversion and hatred we undoubtedly suffer. And in life when we get attached to those things pleasant or those people and start craving for this and that, and if we do not get what we desire we become discontent. Essentially, by observing my sensations all over my body and not reacting to them, not labeling them as either good or bad, what I am doing is training my body and mind at the deepest level to remain just as non-reactionary in the real world. I am using the core of my body as a tool to eliminate suffering because if there’s one thing I had come to understand even before encountering Vipassana was that intellectualizing was not enough.

For years I would read books upon books of self-improvement, spirituality, wisdom. And every time I would find an abundance of information as to how to better myself, and in turn better the world. And every time I thought I would understand completely what I needed to do and what changes needed to be made. And every time I was willing and ready to do the right thing and become ultimately happy and positive. And every singly time after I thought I had it all figured out and had all the answers, I would blunder, stumble, and forget it all, forget how to be happy, forget the mastery of love, forget to live. It was only after I did Vipassana that I finally understood that it wasn’t enough to simply know what to do and talk about it. Because mind and body is connected, because we are made up of mind and matter, I now understood that in order to become master of my mind I had to use my body, train my body to remain equanimous to sensations. It was equally important to train both mind and body to accept the reality of things as they are and not as I would like them to be.


Our bodies have been conditioned for years to react a certain way to this or to that. Only a deep process of deconditioning could start liberating us from repeating the same mistakes over and over again and finally putting an end to our suffering. I loved it when the teacher, Goenka, explained that we didn’t have to wait to die to go to hell or go to heaven, that we could choose to live in unbearable misery right now or learn how to create a blissful heaven within.


Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness it always bothered me that we used to claim to have “The Truth.” We would actually call all our teachings The Truth, and everything else was of The World. With that logic it meant that Grace, my best friend, who at the time was very active in her respective church and faith did not have the truth because she was in the wrong religion and she was just deceiving herself. By my late teens I could no longer accept anything with blind devotion and intuitively knew that not one group could have dibs on the truth. It just seemed so ridiculous.


It was important for me that Vipassana was non-secterian, that it wasn’t part of a religion or practice, that it didn’t matter if I was Jewish, or Muslim, or Wiccan or an atheist, it was a technique for everybody and anybody. And when Goenka, the teacher, reiterated that the truth was universal, that the truth belonged to everybody, immediately it rang true to me. And if we do think about it, it is quite impossible for any one person or any one group to own the truth. The truth is indeed universal and the truth is that everything is impermanent and everything changes.


Every night there would be these Dhamma talks from Goenka via DVD. Goenka, a modest older man, dressed in a simple white shirt and dhoti (Indian male version of a sarong), would charismatically explain what we had done that day in terms of lesson and why. He loved to give many examples through stories. There was this one story that I particularly enjoyed. I can’t fully remember the details, but it was about these two brothers who when their father died decided to sell everything that was left behind by him, and divide the money equally in half. Later on, a small bag was found with two rings, a gold ring encrusted with diamonds, and a plain and simple silver one. The eldest one said to the younger, “Let us not sell these rings. Since this gold ring seems to be some heirloom and since I am the eldest I shall keep it, and you can have this silver ring.” The younger brother did not protest and said, “Sure, go be happy with your gold ring.” Seasons passed, and at times when it was spring and summer and everything was going well for the older brother he would be happy and delight in his success, and when seasons changed to fall, and then winter, and he would not be as successful he would be in utter misery wanting for things to be all shiny and good again. He would often be miserable because he was always at the mercy of passing seasons, or his success. The younger brother with the simple silver ring was never miserable. Spring, summer, fall or winter no matter the weather or what afflictions beheld him he remained constant and never suffered. As it turns out, there was a small inscription on the silver ring, “This too will change.” And so he understood the law of impermanence that everything changes. When he had good times he did not grow attached because he realized they would pass. When times were worse he was not miserable because he knew they would also pass.


Immediately after I heard the story I told myself that when I left the retreat I would go and buy myself a simple metal band, put it on my ring finger, as a small reminder that everything is impermanent. I had realized during the course that I had a real problem with attachment, especially when it came to relationships with the opposite sex, and it had always created so much suffering within, and I thought it could be nice to have a little something to remind me that “this too will change.”


And then something interesting happened the 10th day, the day when we were all allowed to talk again with the other meditators, share and laugh with them. On the 10th night of the course when my bunk mates and I, two Italians girls and a Russian girl in their mid twenties, were just talking and joking and laughing recollecting memories of our own respective self-journey within, an older woman of about 65, also an old student, from Kazakhstan entered our room all smiles and energy. She did not speak one word of English, only Russian, she came straight to me, uttered these happy mumblings in Russian,  took my left hand and slipped something on my ring finger, and kissed me on my cheeks. When I glanced down I was shocked and almost broke into tears. It was a simple but beautiful silver ring adorned with a small white pearl. I looked up at her, “how could she have known?” Of course she didn’t. I knew it was just the universe letting me know in a special way that I’m on the right path of finally getting rid of my attachments that had caused me to continuously suffer. I got up from my bunk bed and hugged this older Kazakhstani woman tightly and thanked her profusely.


Thursday, when I Skyped my mom and told her about all the great realizations and revelations that occurred throughout the past couple of weeks she patiently waited for me to finish before saying, “Can I ask you one thing?”

“Sure! Go ahead,” I replied.


“Do you still believe that Jehovah is God?” She could have asked me if I knew the exact date of my death and it would have had the same impact. I simply did not know. It was a question I could not answer. More importantly it just did not matter to me. I stammered to try to explain to her why her question was irrelevant to me. I said, it doesn’t matter if this person prays to this god, and that person to the other god. It doesn’t matter if this person prays fervently 5 times a day for 5 hours. It doesn’t matter if that person memorizes the Scriptures, the Koran, the Torah by rote and can recite any passage at will. It doesn’t matter if this person performs these intricate rites and rituals turning 7 times, touching the ground 4 times, ringing 6 bells. What does it all matter if the person who prays fervently still hates his neighbor, or the one who memorizes the scriptures continues to lie and steal, or that the one who performs all these rites and rituals in the name of this god or that god one moment, the next moment intentionally causes harm to others.


Our actions are what will be the true testament to our beliefs and not blind devotion. No matter the god, the prophet, the saint, instead of idolizing them and reciting empty words, one must instead follow the example of their saint, god, prophet, in terms of encompassing and practicing love, tolerance, compassion, selflessness and all their other irreproachable traits. I wonder if my mother will ever understand me when I try to explain to her that labeling God is not what matters to me, instead, being as close to God... the Universe, through my actions and right efforts was what truly matters to me.

The retreat ended on Wednesday March 24th, and at the present moment my mind is calm. I am ready for everything and anything and looking forward to the rest of my journey in India. I will put my best efforts forward to remain equanimous and this time I understand the importance of keeping up my meditation daily. Mind and matter are connected, interrelated, and in order to master my mind I must essentially use my body.


Song of the Week: is not a song but rather an inspiring documentary film about how Vipassana was used to reform prisoners in one of India’s harshest prisons.


For more information on Vipassana visit www.dhamma.org


Next Week on Veronica’s India: Staying with Mark Henry and his family in Alleppey. 


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