Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Journey Within

Ever since last week, I have stopped wondering how Alice must have felt like when she fell down the rabbit் hole.

I was on a journey unlike any other, exploring a destination where no one had ever landed before: my own mind, the unbearable lightness of my own being.

Only this time for me, unlike Alice, there was no White Rabbit or Caterpillar or Cheshire Cat or dormouse to encounter along the way. What I did come across instead was a 2,500-year-old rarest of rare gem, the ancient art and science of Vipassana meditation, distilled in its purest form and served in the same chalice that Gotama the Buddha drank from. Right down to the Pali chants the Wise One rang out to his followers and what echoes down unchanged through the centuries in the Vipassanic texts.

Some of life's most wondrous turning points, you find by stumbling across them rather than by planning. Thus it was that, two weeks after arriving in Chennai, I found myself in the womb of silence and surprises that is Dhamma Setu, the 26-acre Vipassana meditation retreat, near Thiruneermalai.

Two years back, I had been to the place to have an interview with S.N. Goenka, the pitamah of Vipassana meditation who had come down to Chennai to inaugurate the centre's pagoda. At that time, I had refused to look past the teflon coating my profession so liberally dabs me with. I was not a believer then, only an observer, something which Goenka himself would have had no trouble accepting.

Two years hence, gnashed about by an emotional turmoil I would never have dreamt would happen to me, I landed at Dhamma Setu not so much to look for answers but to shut myself away from all that was causing the anguish. I carried ( and still do) with me my pronounced distaste for any of the pop-spirituality that the Ravishankars and Mahesh Yogis and the Jaggi Vasudevs had made their millions out of.

What initially drew me there was the 10-day enforced silence: no contact whatsoever with the world outside, no telephone calls, no television/newspapers/internet, no notebooks, pens or pencils, no vacuous socializing, and no, absolutely not a single spoken word, not even eye contact with other meditators. All this amidst the rarefied resort-like surroundings of the Chettinad-style lushly landscaped Dhamma Setu (the Bridge of Dhamma), with you having to spend almost nothing. Perfectmente!

Instead, what happens is that within two days of the Noble Silence vow, your head starts exploding with the babel of inner voices, voices that you had never heard before, that you would never have heard otherwise, that come rumbling from somewhere deep within you, where they had been buried for so long under the mounds of noise you had choked them with.

But, let me, like Lewis Carroll, begin at the beginning: I had been adequately warned that it would be a self-willed prison. That for ten days, I would have to stay behind closed gates and that I would not be allowed to leave, however desperately I may want to.

And not without reason: to be able to even scratch the surface of the Dhamma that the Buddha gave, you have to put yourself through a gruelling schedule, from four in the morning till nine in the night, most of the hours being spent in meditating in a hall in which the fans would be switched off so that you will be able to hear your own breath better. In Chennai, that is roughly equivalent to walking barefoot on Arctic ice: it frightens you initially but very soon, simply doesnt matter.

Unlike the fluff that makes up the Art of Living courses (where they give you your own custom-made personal mantra and warn you it will lose potency if revealed to anyone else, and when, curiosity getting the better of you, you actually check it with a fellow meditator, you realise you have been jackassed out of your money), the Vipassana courses offered by the Goenkas throughout the world are blessedly free of commercialism: you dont have to pay a single paise for the ten-day course or for your lodging or for the simple and delicious vegetarian food. You can walk in and walk out with an empty wallet and need to make a donation only if you are convinced the course has helped you. The centres are run purely through such donations made on a voluntary basis by grateful former students.

The idea is to make you live like an ascetic for the course duration, totally dependant on the charity of others even for something as basic as your food, so that you totally lose ego. And if the ever-increasing tribe of Vipassana meditators is any indication, then shedding ego is the way to live.

The meditation itself is a precise surgical operation, performed on the mind by turning it upon itself. As your breathing settles down and the process starts, the technique slices deeply and sharply through the pus-and-memory-filled layers of the mind, peeling away strata after strata of anger, bitterness, loss, hatred, misery, pain and anguish. You smell, feel and hear the pus bubbling up and suddenly feel freer than you ever were.

And the best is yet to come: not only is Vipassana free of Guru or God, it also enjoins you to totally disassociate yourself from your religion for the course period: no rosary telling, shloka chanting, poojas, incantations, incense burning, namaaz, nothing ritualistic that would even remotely call attention to your religion. You need to suspend your religion to see who you really are. Not surprising, if you remember your history lessons: the Buddha's teachings were a direct antithesis to the orthodoxy and high-ritualism of the Vedic Hinduism of those days.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor amidst the heat that rippled through like a desert haze in the fan-less room, each one in the group of 50-odd meditators had come there on a personal quest:
23-year-old pretty Jewish lass Rotem from Tel Aviv needed to know what to do with her life after spending quite a few years in the Israeli army. She would go back with "very clear directions in her head" and a very stiff neck after trying too hard to sit erect in the lotus posture.
Forty-two year old Suchitra from Coimbatore had wanted to come to terms with her husband's detached nonchalance since he, a seasoned meditator, would never show affection to the family even as he made sure that all their needs were met. She would go back loving him more than ever.South Korean friends, Kim and Oh, would come looking for the peace and tranquility that kept eluding their country. From here they would go onwards to Auroville's Maitri Mandir where they would spend the next few years of their lives giving unto others what was given unto them.

For me, the near-nirvana experience would come rather suddenly on the third day: one moment, the still air in the room shudders with the vibrations caused by the roar of the airplane that just took off from the nearby international airport and the next moment, as the plane ebbs away, the gathering silence settles on you and covers you like a warm fuzzy cloud. Your body disssolves into the air around and all you feel is the lightness of breath passing in and out of you Nothing else. Bones, flesh, muscle..all are now luminously transparent.

Yet there is also the supra-real heightening of every single sensation: your skin is alive in every pore, your ears can clearly pick out the chirping of a distant cicada, your nose quivers with the trillion pulses that are zipping through. Suddenly, my emotional bleakness clears and my till-then pain falls off like a reptile's skin.

What you glimpse startles you. Raw. Uncensored. Stripped of everything. When you come out of the state a few minutes later, you realise life will never ever be the same again.

After that moment, you are led to steadily explore the interface between mind and body, your mind and your body. You learn where your pain comes from and where your smile comes from.
You start enjoying playing tricks on yourself: smiling away the pains and shrugging away the smiles.

You realise then that the Buddha had delved deep into and perfected a technique which modern science is just about starting to acknowledge the existence of: the mapping of the human mind. Into my mind springs suddenly a talk I had attended sometime back, in which Dr. V.S. Ramachandran (the Brain Man, as he is otherwise known) elaborated on something that now seems very clear: that it is always mind over matter. Or rather, mind matters most.

I remembered being intriguingly drawn to read more about Dr. Ramachandran's phantom limb experiment: how, in some cases, even after a person has lost an arm to amputation, he or she would continue to feel pain in the lost part and the 'cure' often is, parking the amputee before a mirror so that he sees there is only air where an arm once was. Read more on his work here.

When, in those Vipassana moments, I felt my own body dissolve into the atmosphere, I could clearly understand what phantom pains must have felt like.

One song which I have sung to myself in my darkest moments is Subramanya Bharathi's Nalladhor Veenai. The verses kept churning in my head every time I tripped on the mind and matter interface during my Vipassanic moments. Here is an English translation of Bharathi's prayer to the Goddess, by Sri Vidya :

All I ask for is—
A body that would obey the commands of my heart—with the swiftness of a thrown ball;
A clean enthusiastic spirit;

A life that springs anew into being daily: bright and energetic;
A pure soul—to sing Your praises even when the skin is scorched by fire;
An unshakable mind—

Do You have any issues in granting me these?

I may not have found my answers, but now I know where to look for them.


Ravi said...

Well written ! Kudos to portraying it as it is. Impressive post.

Vani said...

Thanks, Ravi....I owe it all to you, in so many ways!!!

Mark Bouffmann said...

You are saying all this happens in just ten days? Sounds too simple. Would there not be an agenda for follow-up later? In Australia where I live, it does seem quite daunting to be able to do this. Are you aware if the course is taught someplace here?

Ashok Chintapally said...

I do not know if vipassana is more secular than other courses,i dont think so.

In one course in dehradun which a friend attended, they made him remove his brahmin sacred thread but allowed christians to wear the cross. and then these christians would say 'jesus, jesus' everytime they started the meditation and noone objected. but when one other person said OM, immediately they objected.
so, i am thinking these courses are like the rest of the country only, that is, pseudo-secular.

Swahilya Shambhavi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Vani said...

I never ever said this was a ten-day-wonder course. This is no magic wand business, but continuous, dedicated, meticulous practice every day for the rest of your life.

For maximum benefits to body, mind and soul, I try combining it with 40 to 45 minutes of Ashtanga Yoga everyday. Once you finish the course, you will be required to practice for one hour each, every morning and evening and five minutes each before sleep and before you wake-up.
This sounds tough, but becomes very enjoyable as you go on and the changes have to be seen to be believed.
The Vipassana website lists quite a few centres in Australia:

All the best and do let me know how it goes. Stay well and be happy.

Vani said...

If this has happened to your friend, it is really unfortunate. The way it is taught is beyond religion.
Could it be that this was an error on the part of the administrators of that particular centre? I would urge your friend to write to the Vippassana headquarters at Igatpuri, Maharashtra at the following address and let them know what has happened so that it may not be repeated in the future:

Vipassana International Academy, Dhamma Giri, P.O. Box 6, Igatpuri 422 403, District Nashik, Maharashtra,India or email at info@giri.dhamma.org

I do not think it is fair to cite an isolated incident to dub the entire programe as being pseudo-secular, whatever that word means.
I only said Vipassana is beyond religion, for I am not too happy with the way the whole secularism debate is going :)


Swahilya Shambavi said...

Excellent Vani! Amazing write up about Vipassana...Though I do not agree with your condemnations about the other organisations and Gurus! Each one plays their part in helping people to turn towards spirituality. All roads lead to the same goal of looking within and finding one's true self.

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

What an inspirational, inspiring post! It is amazing how we let the noise in our minds rule our days and our emotions. How fantastic you had this time to uncover your inner self, which is the direct connection to the Divine.

I have found this connection after many years of quiet meditation, and I will continue to do this the rest of my life. I've become one with nature and I know I am connected to the larger whole, which is part of God.

My isolation came from a disability that kept me from working, but it has proven to be the biggest gift of all, because I am starting out again with the use of technology that will let me work past my permanent carpal tunnel problems. Boy, am I ready to go, to share what I have learned during my time of quietude.

Hugs, JJ

Vani said...

Swa: Thanks and point noted. The idea was not to condemn anybody but to ask practitioners of such methods to turn the mirror upon themselves and see if what they are doing is what they really want to do. My quarrell is not with the path shown but with the price paid for the passage. The heavier your wallet, the more liberated you will be should not be the credo.

Vani said...

You seem to be the kind of person the rest of us aspire to become, at peace with yourself and the world around you. Am touched by your compliment.

Expansiveness, not reductivism, is what meditation teaches you to reach. The feeling of being connected is a liberating aspect by itself, for you know whatever you do, you will never be alone and that nothing ever happens by accident or coincidence.
The Tenth Dimension, verily. Do drop in often. Cheers!

unrelentingdreamer said...

amazing.....but more amazing is the fact that you observed ten days of total silence...
Between, I can't stop admiring your writing skill....love your blog...
janani sampath