Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Vipassana

Over 100 hours meditation. 17 hours of instructional videos. 8 sittings of meditation a day. 2 meals a day. Wake up at 4 am, finish at 9.30pm every night. No talking. No eye contact. No physical contact. No reading. No writing. No exercise. No entertainment. No electronics. Complete segregation of men and women. Just eat, sleep, meditate for 10 hours a day for 10 whole days.

We perhaps went into this course a little naïve thinking that 10 hours meditation a day would be a nice change from the hussle and bussle of everyday India. But we found out on the first day just how hard it would be. Vipassana meditation is not the “happy, feel good” mediation we imagined. It was designed to dissect your mind.

The basic technique is to concentrate your mind to be able to only focus on the sensations on your skin and then you are trained to make no judgement on these feelings, be they pleasant or painful, you are still to remain equanimus. I will not go too far into the technique as it is better if you learn it as they teach. The following timetable is how we were to spend each day.

Here is the day to day timetable:

4:00 am    Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 amMeditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 amBreakfast break
8:00-9:00 amGroup meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 amMeditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noonLunch break
12noon-1:00 pmRest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pmMeditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pmGroup meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pmMeditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pmTea break
6:00-7:00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pmTeacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pmQuestion time in the hall
9:30 pmRetire to your own room--Lights out


This meant that we had to sit still for 2 hour periods at a time sometimes! That is longer than some feature length films where you cannot move your eyes, legs, arms, face- anything! Just have to observe your sensations.

During the first few days meditation was impossible. Your mind works at 100 miles per hour, all the time. It doesn’t stop, even when you try. So even something simple like “focusing all your attention on your breathing” was a difficult task. But once you semi-master the technique you realize just how crowded your mind is and “not thinking” at all is such a nice break.

When you learn to focus and you can start feeling your breathing and your mind becomes sharper. You start to feel other sensations around the body- and this is what the Vipassana technique is about. To tell us when to be in meditation they would ring a little bell. Lets just say we are now very well “bell” trained. As soon as we here a bell of any sort it is like we automatically feel we have to move somewhere.

We were all looked after very well. All your food is provided for you- and it was delicious! It was a great change not to have to choose a dish from a menu and have someone do it for you. Everyday was a new thing to try. We had deep fried and sugar soaked toast, so that (unless you wanted diabetes) you had to squeeze We had breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea everyday- but no dinner. So the night time meditation was accompanied by a choir of rumbling tummies.

The rooms
The Vipassana course was not what we expected and we got a lot more out of it than we thought. They thoroughly discourage you from leaving the course half way through and I can honestly see why. The course is designed so that you are alone always, thinking your own thoughts and really finding out how your mind works. This means that often very dark things come on the surface and people want to run away. But without finishing the course it can be damaging. Without some sort of resolution to the technique or some hugs and smiles at the end one can leave feeling slightly anxious and unstable.

Finally the moment we had all (against the technique’s wishes) been “craving” had come- the tenth day. There was a buzz in the air and no one could concentrate on meditation. As soon as the silence broke, nothing could wipe a smile off everyone’s faces. Some people were saying it was the happiest they had ever been. So the “coming out of the misery” worked, as had been promised. Yet I wonder whether it was because of ten days intensive meditation or whether it was the fact that everyone’s craving for human contact had finally been fulfilled. Whatever it was, it was a magical moment that made the whole 10 days worth it. The girls got so excited and held Hannah down, dressing her up in a Sari, painting her face with make up and positioning her into various poses for photos.

Even though at the time we wanted to run away now after completion we realize that as hard as it was, it was worth it. And we would recommend it to anyone who wanted to try. It is all over the world and even if meditation isn’t your thing (which it wasn’t for us) you still learn so much. Even the fact that you are in a completely different environment for 10 days, no contact at all is a refreshing in itself.

Will we practice the suggested one hour of meditation morning and night? Honestly, probably not. Unfortunately time is precious and realistically 2 hours a day makes 14 hours a week. But we didn’t walk away from the course with just the technique. By sharpening your mind and learning to observe your sensations even in everyday situations it becomes handy. When we now deal with unpleasant Indians on the street you can feel yourself getting angry and impatient before you can react, so you have the choice then to treat the matter calmly, rather than snapping at them like we used to do.

We learnt also that everything is “impermanent”. Time. Money. Photos. Clothes. Things that you loose, are stolen, or damaged. Money that gets somehow lost at an Airtel shop and doesn’t get put onto your internet credit- all impermanent. You learn not to get too upset about it.  And this is very helpful especially whilst travelling in India.

Unfortunately, due to the way things work here, very often things don’t go according to plan. So instead of getting upset at spending a whole 5 hours just to organize a train ticket, or walking a whole half an hour just to reach a tattoo shop that was closed, you just learn to “accept the reality as it is.” You cannot get back the time you wasted so there is no point in getting upset.

On the last day and night we both had very different experiences. Throughout the course there was a guy that seemed almost in agony throughout the meditation, as if his mind were torturing him, Dan felt very anxious and worried for him and consulted the teacher, who said he would keep an eye on it. The last night came and Dan had gone to sleep as excited as a little kid on Christmas eve only to awake to the screaming of someone saying “who’s doing this, who’s doing this” repetitively and the sound of a banging on the wall.

To Dan’s horror he got up and found the man, who out of respect we do not wish to name so we shall call him Tom, banging on the door with hands covered in blood. At this point the management had left a student from spain to deal with the situation as they were scared of the seemingly violent man. Tom lunged towards Pablo (Spanish student), luckily Dan grabbed Tom from behind around his neck and they carried him to a separate room and held him for three hours until he calmed down. The whole time he seemed sure that someone was trying to kill him and that he had to escape this prison. Later we learned from him that he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia but had not had an attack for two years.

Whilst banging on the door he had split his finger open quite nastily so we knew he had no chance in India being scared and alone so we accompanied him to the hospital, after waiting 3 hours for the ambulance to arrive. When it arrived we found that it was just a van with “ambulance” painted on the side. Instead of a an ambulance siren, they just used hazard lights. The ambulance driver had to hop out several times on the way to ask for directions to the hospital as well.

Upon arrival at the “Private Heritage Hospital”, Lonely Planet’s best hospital in the area, the doctor was asleep and didn’t seem to care about Tom’s condition and brushed aside any suggestion of him treating Tom. He refused to do the stiches himself and asked the three of them to wait five hours for the plastic surgeon.

After a while waiting they decided to head to the general hospital which, although lengthy and trying, and the fact that the long waiting lines provoked more paranoia, the doctors were much more helpful. After 12 hours we had finally got Tom stitched up, been in contact with his mother and got his medication to calm him and had the plan of staying with him over the next five days until his father arrived.

The first day Tom mostly slept and after Pablo and Dan were exhausted physically and mentally they rested too. The second day we managed to get Tom out for a walk but had to head home when it became too much.

By the second day there was a large group of 6 of us all caring for Tom and taking turns spending time with him. When he was not having an attack we found that he was such a sweet gentle person with the best intentions and had come to India, it seemed, to find an alternative to medication for treating the poor torture of his mind.

Over the next few days we managed to get out more and more and finally on the last day, which happened to be Hannah’s birthday he was able to walk around other people outside for an hour with just Dan with him. We sat in a temple under a tree and spoke of many things.

That night we had a lovely birthday dinner for Hannah with all of us, the three aussies, two swiss, one Spanish, another older aussie couple and even Tom. It was a very nice occasion and good to see Tom enjoying himself. The next morning we had to leave to Nepal whilst Pablo and the other Aussie guy waited till Tom’s father arrived that afternoon. We said our goodbyes and parted ways from our little family.


Tom is such a lovely person and very gentle and kind and it seems so unfair that he has to live through such a constant torture. Although we were like his doctors for those six days we also consider him a great friend and think he has so much to offer, we wish him all the best.   

And now after 16 days of sitting down in a vipassana course and a guesthouse we need to get ready for an intense couple of weeks of trekking in Nepal. Wish us luck!

For those interested in Vipassana check out http://www.dhamma.org/ 

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