For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude
Vipassana is the art of living, not the art of escaping Goenka I wonder whether Wordsworth had gone through a Vipassana experience, perhaps from the Buddha himself, since he was before Goenka.
Vipassana is an Awakening. It’s as the word in Pali means, seeing things as they really are. The website dhamma of Goenka, a diamond merchant from Burma, relit this last lamp that Buddha lit in the minds and hearts of his immediate followers, 2500 years ago. Cured of his migraine by a small group of Burmese practitioners, Goenka undertook as his life mission the resurgence of this powerful practice.
I experienced Vipassana two decades ago. It was a flash upon that inward eye that often recurs to provide bliss in my solitude. It’s an awakening that led to my discovery of multiple other pathways, some simpler, which kept that tiny lamp alive in my heart.
On the face of it Vipassana seems tough. Ten days of solitude and silence on the body and mind, no talking, no looking another in the eye, no exercise, no reading, and no watching TV. This is enough to drive anyone mad. Yet, it rejuvenates, refreshes, recreates, awakens and transforms. You need not pay anything for the ten days of free accommodation and food, and the experience of being born alive.
The first two days are difficult. Those who cannot bear the burden of silence and solitude leave. In my group of over a 100, 5 left. I feel sad for them. The day starts at 4, with mediation at 430, about 10 hours during the day, with breaks for breakfast, lunch and a weak cup of tea, followed by some rest, ending at 8. You wash your own clothes, do not nap, and have a chance to speak only to the Acharya, the facilitator, once a day. All he would say is, ’this too shall pass’, whether your experience was good or not.
Many of the participants had never experienced before, as I had. Many of us, like I, had rarely shared a room with two others as adults. Rarely had anyone spent about 15 hours a day, with the last meal at noon, without speaking, reading and watching, for 10 days. Rarely had any of us sat cross-legged or near cross-legged for so long and in the end felt immensely grateful.
We watched our breath with utmost awareness the first 3 days; which nostril inhaled, which exhaled, how the breath fell on the upper lip, how fast, at what temperature, what did it fell like. For the first time in my life, I understood what it’s to breathe. If you lost awareness caught in thoughts, you recovered and restarted. No blame games.
There was no drama. No one watching. If you cheat, you only know you do. As I breathed, and watched my breath, sometime I relaxed and sometimes I tensed. Every now and then, I needed to shift position, cross uncross, stretch, sometimes stand up or kneel. I started becoming aware of what I did, when I wasn’t aware, and what I was aware of when I was aware. It was over two decades ago. I still remember the room and the ambience. As far as I remember, this is all we did the first 3 days.
The fourth day, we were introduced to body awareness in addition to the breath. Acharya said, ‘let your breathing continue in the background. Now watch your body scanning it from the top of the head, limb by limb, part by part, to the tips of your toes and heel, and start all over again.’ Meekly I followed. The following several days for an hour in the morning after breakfast and another in the afternoon, post lunch, we sat in the same posture we sat in for an hour without moving a limb. Over the next several days we tried several positions, but nothing took away the pain that started after the first 20 odd minutes. I discovered parts of my body I didn’t know existed. I prayed that the hourly bell would ring to end my torture.
On the sixth day, I obtained permission from the Acharya to sit on a chair. My excuse, a genuine one, was that I had a bad back. The next morning as we left for breakfast, I left my shawl on one of the several vacant chairs. When we returned, we found many from an earlier cohort I the room, some of whom occupied all the vacant chairs except the one that had my shawl on it. As I sat in the chair, I saw a guy with a limp who always sat in a chair struggling to find one. I got up and offered mine, knowing that I had an hours’ torture ahead, and yet preferring that to the other guy suffering. All I remember is the bell that started the hour and the bell as well as the chant ‘anicchha’, meaning impermanent, from Acharya. I could not believe what happened. I spent the rest of the program free of pain.
That evening, as we did every day at 630 PM, we watched a video from Goenka, who that day spoke of the power of compassion as the noblest of all emotions, one that conquered pain. He said, ’some of you may have already experienced this.’ Is this for real, I wondered. Does this mean that I was not the only one with such an experience? What is this process about?
The ninth day clarified. In the post breakfast meditation soon after the bell, I disappeared. There was no body. There were no thoughts. There was a pulse I could vaguely feeling my heart space. Except that I had no sensation, felling or thought. It was as if a truck could have passed through me, I was empty. At the time when I could speak to Acharya, I explained and asked what this meant. An older man, he looked at me kindly and said, ‘this too shall pass.’ It indeed did, only to be recovered several years later when I stopped trying. Now it stays.
That evening Goenka said in his video, ‘some of you may have experienced nothingness; don’t be afraid; don’t fight it; don’t seek it; merely treasure it.’ This made no sense to me. How many others have had this experience? I never really got an answer to this.
Vipassana was a gateway for me. It helped me enter a space of compassion and love, disengagement and witnessing the ‘no mind’. It wasn’t a fluke that I coined the term ‘mindlessness’. I had experienced it. Over time I learned to replicate it. Anyone can. It can be learnt, but not taught.
Ancient wisdom says, ‘one who experiences it cannot express it. One who expresses it has not experienced it.’ There is nothing I can say about the experience I had. A Wordsworth says, it is bliss, neither joy nor pain, merely a neutral space where the ‘I’ disappears leaving no trace of sensation, feeling or thought. I hope you all can.
The best place for Vipassana could be Tiruvannamalai, the home of Ramana Maharshi, where the program is conducted. Spend 10 days at the program and then spend a few more days sitting in Maharshi’s samadhi, where his body rests. This integration could be the best experience one could have in one’s lifetime.