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Gateway to Hell or Heaven? Recounting my experiences at Vipassana centre, Igatpuri –Part 2

Day 6: (continued from part 1) Today’s breathing variation is to focus attention on sensations in a tidal wave from head to toe. Subtle sensations preferred over the gross. The objective: to enhance memory.

Rejuvenated and perky, I feel my mind razor sharp, receptive and keen. Shorn of all external stimuli, I use this brand new mind to whittle down my story plot. It shapes up better and better. I scribble down the plotline maniacally at lunchtime (been doing it for past 3 days. Yes, I’ll duly acknowledge Vipassana when the idea fleshes out into an actual publication 🙂 Virtue born out of a sin.

Day 7: We are elevated to the ‘privilege’ of entering shunya-agar aka isolation cell. Shunya = zero, i.e zero disturbance, total isolation. Image result for zero

Shunya-agars are 2 x 2 feet cubicles built side by side in concentric whirlpools within a pagoda. No window, no ventilation, no fan, no chair. It has one floor cushion, one door and one dim bulb (No! the latter is not in reference to my brain.)

The cubicle is a haven for agoraphobians ; a nightmare for claustrophobians.

The door carries a pinned warning – Shut the door tight ‘in case insects get into the pagoda’. That, of course, floods my panic button as I imagine snakes and caterpillars slithering out from every corner. So much for mental peace!

I expound on the many extra benefits of this cell. Any criminal aiming to get incarcerated in an Anda cell is advised to initiate their training here. The shunyaagar also yields answers to deeply insightful research queries, such as Did that embarrassing rumble in the hall emanate from my stomach or my neighbor’s stomach?

I try to estimate the motive behind this isolation. I guess they are equating physical isolation with mental isolation – but is that actually feasible in the chaotic outside world? Shouldn’t we aim to develop an oasis of peace in the midst of din, depression and disturbance?

Day 8: Ennui strikes again. Monotony creeps in again. Questions explode in my mind. Even if I achieve equanimity to skin sensations, how will it help me deal with deep organ pain, if any? (Anatomy has already taught me that dermal and visceral nerves are different.) Is the whole goal of this exercise to make me ignore an itch, twitch or ache? 

I voice my query at FAQ time. The teacher stalls it with ‘Have Patience. Guruji will explain eventually.’ I fidget. Silence can be either peaceful – or sterile. The one in this meditation room seems like the latter.

Sonu Nigam once again intrudes into the vacuum to murmur Kal ho naa ho. Me, the reading addict, am getting withdrawal symptoms from the ‘No reading’ clause. I clutch at straws – I compensate by diligently reading every notice board on the campus. Twice.

I miraculously discover a six-month-old newspaper tucked in the back flap of my suitcase! I clutch it to heart and devour every printed word. Yep, even the matrimonial columns. (It’s heartening to note how many families want slim, fair, beautiful and ‘homely’ brides for their boys. Homely??? Do the idiots even know the dictionary meaning of homely = plain/ unattractive? I sincerely hope all the ‘boys’ have got their well deserved ‘homely’ spouses by now.)

In the post-lunch session, bang in the midst of meditation, I gasp as I discover a superb plot twist . Hmm, if nothing else, meditation is doing wonders for my creativity.

Evening snacks is the usual encore of chivda (puffed rice) + bananas/watermelon. I resolve not to touch chivda for the next 10 years.

Desperately missing mummy ke haath ka khaana. P.S– Poor Mummy is also here with me.  I sneak a look at her & wonder how the talkative woman is faring in absolute maun. She makes for an elegant and diligent student perched upon her cushioned throne, while I creak and groan on the hard floor.

Day 9 : Today’s variation is to mentally pierce the body through and through. To feel the vibrations or waves radiate from side to side, from front to behind and vice versa throughout the body. To feel the body as a porous, spongy, sieved object rather than a solid mass of bones and muscles.

Day 10 : End of silence – they finally free all the caged birds and permit an words. Needless to say, there is pandemonium as the ladies chatter & jabber as if words were O2 in this gas chamber of silence.

We learn Metta i.e whatever sensations we internalized till date are now radiated outward to wish peace for everyone.  Just as Metta hour ends, the skies darken, clouds rumble, lightening strikes. I overhear a volunteer say that heavy rains are inevitable. She has experienced this at every single Metta, irrespective of the season. Heavy rains are a byproduct of the collective peace & joy we radiated on day 10. (Now, isn’t that an innovative solution for droughts in India?)

What is Vipassana?

It’s a mood + behaviour modification technique based on the triple pillars of शील साधना & प्रज्ञा. Sheel (conduct), sadhana (Anapana or breath awareness) and pragya (learning to be equanimous to bodily sensations. This ‘no reaction’ method teaches the body that pleasant and unpleasant sensations are anitya or temporary.

Code words at Vipassana:

भवतु सब्ब मंगलम  = May everybody be happy/ May good things happen to all. This reminds me of Yoga prayer – सर्वे सुखिनः सन्तु सर्वे सन्तु निरामय ; OR even the ‘duritanche timir jao, vishavsa’ shloka of Dnyaneshwar. Great minds think alike!

साधू = Tathastu or ‘So be it’. This is expected to be uttered by students after Sh. Goenka says ‘भवतु सब्ब मंगलम ‘.

अनित्य – fleeting , temporary sensations/ feelings/ emotions

How is Vipassana different from Yoga?

Vipassana focuses attention on observing normal respiration, while Pranayama aims at altering the normal breathing patterns via deep breathing, slow ‘rechak’ exhalation etc . Also, Yoga  imbibes physical asanas for flexibility, hormonal balance & muscle tone; while Vipassana forbids mixing itself with physical exercises (except brisk walking).

Wow factors at Vipassana centre:

* Eco friendly campus with reverse osmosis drinking water, solar energy panels & rainwater harvesting. There are plenty of trees and flowers everywhere.

* Spic-n-span rooms with inbuilt mosquito nets and snake filters. Neat dining hall with sparkling clean tables & no flies hovering over dishes. Sincere and efficient Dhamma-sevikas managing the prayer hall, dining, catering, laundry etc.

* Strictly avoids any mention of religion, God, caste, cult or mantras.

* Despite the draconian rules, it remains a Genteel world. They stress on self- censorship rather than moral policing. (Yep, they never actually checked my bags. I could’ve sneaked in pickles, cookies, mobile phone, novels etc etc)

* Delightful, tinkling silver bells rung by sevikas going from cottage to cottage to sound an alarm for meditation time or wake-up times.

* Goenka’s insistent statement to those fidgeting and yearning for escape – You are not doing a favor to anyone, except urself.

* Totally free of cost!Meals, bed & room, training all at zero cost. You may (or may not) donate a cheque at departure time (80G sanction in Income Tax too!)

Oww factors at Vipassana

1] Scroll way up for the grueling schedule.

2] Duration – I’d suggest to reduce the course to 5 days, to make it bearable and interesting. Avoid repetitions thru’out the day. Also, tone down meditation sessions to 45 mins, cos’ thats’ how long an average human brain can focus.

3] Physical exercise was almost zero. Why should flexibility/tone/core strength based asanas interfere with Vipassana’s mental exercise? (On asking, they said mixing 2 healthy foods like fruits & milk is ill-advised, likewise mixing 2 health techniques is taboo. Hmm..)

4] Monotony – Once a variation was taught, we were expected to repeat it throughout the day. The motive behind the exercise was explained far too late, on day 9-10. If told earlier, students had higher chances of imbibing them.

5] Goenka often poked fun at the conventional methods  i.e the illusion of flame/divine sight visualized at the centre of forehead. Yet, he himself cheated by describing to us in detail about the sensations v were expected to feel. Why drill it into our imagination, instead of eliciting honest answers from us? Expectedly, when instructors enquired what sensations we experienced, out came the parroted terms – exactly in Goenka’s words. Isn’t  this too a form of brainwashing, which he so vehemently denounced in rituals?

6] Is it seriously possible to sit in meditation for 10 hours a day? Any new knowledge makes sense only when it is practical, doable and feasible. Else, it’s just a fad. 

What I deduced about Vipassana:

It may not be a foolproof method to achieve peace – but may reduce the frequency, extent & longevity of maladies, both physical and mental.

The motive behind 10 days of introspection is perhaps, to develop the ‘Observation’ technique. To look at sensations and watch till they dissolve and fade. Sensations mirror emotions. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, we should train the mind that physical sensations & emotions are ephemeral, flaky and momentary.

Thoughts lead to words, and words to actions. Developing emotional control may (hopefully) lead to control over speech & actions.

If nothing else, it does wonders for creativity. Every person with writer’s block is recommended.

And the release on day 12 makes you value everything you always took for granted – freedom, choice, home and ghar ka food!