(Note: Photography was not allowed at the centre and I was in a rush to leave at the end to avoid missing a train. As a result, I have no photos, and have instead found some online. I did not take these, and if anyone has a problem with me using them then please contact me. Anyway, without further ado.)
My feet kicked up small clouds of red dust as I dropped from bottom step of the bus. Several others followed behind me. No one looks certain that this was the right stop as the rickety old bus jerked to an unhappy start and continued on its way down the dusty road, further towards the middle of nowhere, leaving us in its diesel infused wake.
A little ahead of us was a collection of low buildings and a battered sign that let us know we had reached our destination.
Arunachala Vipassana Meditation Centre
As I approached the small huddle of people by the closest building the familiar heady feeling I associate with the unknown and a fluttering of excitement rose in my chest. There were no walls, no gates, no guards, and yet, no escape. I wouldn’t leave the compound until the courses over, in a little over 10 days time.
Meditation is not something I could ever claim to have had any interest in. Anything I have ever learned and all my past thoughts about meditation are stored in a dark and dusty corner of my brain, alongside crystal healing, Ayurvedic massage, kale crisps and the like, under the heading ‘Other’. Despite this, a friend had convinced me that accompanying him on this 10 day, highly intensive course in Vipassana meditation was a good idea. To my surprise, this same friend announced two days earlier that he changed his mind about the whole thing and would no longer be joining me. So I was alone as we were lead into a room and instructed to sit in silence before an orange curtain. The colours seemed to me to be a warning, my mom was already convinced I was joining a cult.
Once we were all sat down, the curtain began to chant.
The teacher credited with returning this ancient technique to India and then the world is S.N. Goenka. Born into a rich Indian family in Burma, he was a businessman before he started teaching meditation. He died in 2013 at the age of 89, yet it was his voice that we heard through the curtain. Chanting in a strange language, rough and uneven, filled the room, forever changing my preconception that chanting is supposed to be serene or relaxing. Then Goenka began to talk. The curtain waves gently as he welcomed us. He warned us that the next 10 days would be challenging and gave us a code of discipline that we would be bound to until the course was over.
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
At the start of the course we were instructed to declare (in Pali, the language spoken in the time of the Buddha) ourselves willing to follow these precepts and follow our teacher’s instruction. We were also instructed to maintain ‘Noble silence’ for the length of the course. That meant no talking, writing, reading, non-verbal communication or even eye contact with anyone but the teacher and his assistants, and then only when absolutely necessary.
Silence began after a meal of rice and lentils. Everyone went to bed early, after turning over our phones, notebooks and anything that might tempt us away from Noble Silence.
Five days passed. We had five days left to work.
By my calculations I had been sitting for 50 minutes already, not that I was supposed to be doing calculations, or thinking any thoughts at all. Without getting angry at myself, or disappointed, or stressed, or excited, or pleased, or proud, I stopped myself from thinking that I only had to sit motionless for another 10 minutes and returned to thinking about nothing but the sensations in my body. It wasn’t easy, but this was the best I had done so far. After five days I have managed to work through most of the pain and discomfort. Using the Vipassanna techniques I had been taught I could observe the burning in my ankles, the cramp in my toes, the fire storm currently raging in my knees. I could be stronger than the back pain, I could analyse the neck ache, I could master the feeling that every minute was stretching to an hour as I sat in that silent room and tried not to move. In just 10 minutes I would’ve sat for a whole hour, in one position, without moving so much as a finger.
Then something shot passed my ear with a dull whine. “Shit,” i tried not to think.
I was halfway through observing the sensation on the right side of my lower back when the mosquito ricocheted off my eyelashes and came to rest just millimetres under my left eye. “Anicca”, I thought, focusing on the impermanence of all things. The mosquito, with time, would cease irritating me, I just had to wait it out and focus. Unfortunately, when you spend a week or so ignoring everything but the sensations your body experiences, you can get fairly good at it. What, to most people, would feel like an itch long after the mosquito had departed, I felt in detail, from start to finish, even before it had landed on my face. The sensation of the blood sucking seemed to be draining me, I could feel the energy being sucked from the left side of my face and I couldn’t drag my focus away. My right hand silently lifted and I fanned it in front of my face, not wanting to kill the subject of my misery. It was soon gone. Defeated, I opened my eyes and glanced at the clock behind me. 6 minutes to the end of the session. I sighed silently. Maybe I’d do better after lunch.
Our daily routine saw us sitting as still as possible and totally silently in a hall for almost ten hours a day, broken up only by occasional breaks of 5 minutes and the odd hour break for meals. Our movement was dictated by gong, which woke us every morning at 4am.
On day 10 we were allowed to talk, this allowed us a buffer period before going back into ‘the real world’, and gave us a chance to discuss our experiences, so long as we were quiet and the two sexes didn’t mix. I got the impression that for most the course had been an interesting but distinctly un-life-changing experience. A couple seemed more enthusiastic, but a few of those were also the ones who had taken toilet breaks every twenty five minutes despite being asked not to leave the hall, so I figure that enthusiasm was mostly wishful thinking.
For me, I’m glad I took part in what is generally considered to be one of the most challenging introductions to meditation. I enjoyed the feeling of the meditation, the hyper awareness of your sensations is incredible. Before the end I was able to sit for an hour or more around 5 times, which I thought was pretty good going out of 100 hours of practice, and when you first feel all your pain and discomfort dissolve into full body vibrating sensation it really is thrilling, even if your not supposed to think that it is. However, the theology behind it, the idea that the sensation is all my bad stuff bubbling to the surface, I couldn’t really stomach. Pain is pain in my opinion, not the physical manifestation of that time I shouted at someone or envied my mates pretty new girlfriend.
Despite all that, as I climbed back onto the same rickety old bus that had dropped me here, I though that it was worth trying, because who knows, maybe theres something in it after all.