the silence

Wow. I did it. I’ve just completed the 10th and final day day of a Vipassana silent meditation course. This was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve encountered in my life. Sound overly dramatic? Perhaps you think it is a gross exaggeration from someone who has the luxury to travel and needs to find something to complain about? I assure you, however, that I not be more serious. This was no vacation… On multiple occasions throughout days 1-4 I contemplated getting up and running out. I thought, “this must be what Purgatory feels like”. All day long, with the exception of slight breaks for meals, I was returning to the same spot in the same hall and doing the same thing for a total of 10 hours of daily meditation; no one to keep me company except the voices in my head. Today they gave us back our valuables along with reading and writing materials (which is how I am typing this now). Ten whole days of life with no talking, reading, writing, or communication with the outside world whatsoever. This was complimented with a 10-hour a day meditation schedule which started at 4:30 am and ended at 9 pm. Besides 3 breaks throughout the day for meals, there were only 5 minute breaks between 1-1.5 hour long sittings in the meditation hall. And you had to had no choice each time to have your butt on that cushion. Vipassana courses are offered free of charge at facilities all over the world, but if you want to come, you have to work.

Would I ever consider doing it again? Absolutely. Even though at first I thought Vipassana was the cause of my misery, that eventually lifted as I began to understand the science behind the technique and potential for great change in my life. The technique of Vipassana meditation and mindfulness has deepened my understanding of how my unconscious mind works, has given me powerful tools to help me unbind the negative habit patterns of my mind, and with this knowledge it has increased my compassion for others who continue to generate negativity and suffering in this world as they are the ones who truly suffer the most… living in ignorance, one dooms themselves to repeat their mistakes which cause much suffering both mentally and physically, potentially for many, many lives (if you believe in reincarnation, which I personally do).

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I am going to make an attempt at describing the Vipassana technique as I experienced it. Please know that there’s lots more to the technique than I will include here, and of course there is lots of room for human error. This is a blog, after all. I don’t claim to be an expert.

I would say this 10-day course is especially difficult for someone who is doing Vipassana for the first time, and is perhaps otherwise not very “experienced” in meditation. Even if one does consider themselves an “experienced” medititator, Vipassana is a very unique technique which differs from most popular forms of meditation. Many popular meditation practice that I’ve heard of either involve focusing on a mantra (chant, sound, or song) or a visualization which helps to distract the mind, or the technique encourages the mind to focus on nothing at all. Vipassana, by contrast, requires intense mind/body awareness and concentration as one observes physical sensations throughout the body and simultaneously does not allow one’s mind to react to those sensations whatsoever, neither negatively or positively. This requires an large amount of discipline. Effectively, Vipassana practice is re-wiring your brain’s deeply ingrained neural pathways of unconscious reactionary habits, which, according to them, are the root causes of one’s suffering and misery…

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Vipassana is actually the technique which was discovered 25 centuries ago in India by Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as Buddha, and the technique by which he used to achieve full enlightenment at the ripe old age of 35. Having so much love and compassion for all humans to come out of their own misery, we were told through recorded lectures of Vipasssana leader S.N. Goinka, that after becoming enlightened himself, Gautama humbly and lovingly dedicated his whole life to freely teaching those that asked to learn (thousands) this meditation technique of mental and physical liberation before he consciously breathed the last breath (he is said to have declared the very night he would leave his body, while lying under a tree) at the age of 80. Just to clarify, Buddha wasn’t teaching or preaching “Buddhism” – far from it. That religious sect was developed after his death. Gautama taught non-sectarian Vipassana meditation practice to people of all religions, just as modern Vipassana centers also do today with great success.

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We were taught that Vipassana meditation is a technique for learning an important Universal Law of Nature, the law of impermanence. This law is learned by the student not only intellectually, but at the experiential level within the framework of the body. The self-recognition at the experiential level is of supreme importance in this technique. An example was given about someone with an addiction to alcohol. (Note: I personally know many people who suffer from alcohol addiction, and I recognise that it us a very serious condition. I by no means am attempting to reduce the seriousness of the disease. I am only repeating the teaching given in Vipassana, who claim to have a solution to this very serious addiction, as well as all afflictions of the human mind. According to this teaching all causes of human suffering have the same cause.). In the example, when one with alcohol addiction reaches a point and they are interested in recovery, of course cognitively they recognise that drinking to excess is causing damage to their life. Even when one resolves to change and takes great care, the chances of relapse unfortunately remain very high, because, we were told, these resolutions are changes made within the conscious mind, which is merely the surface level of the mind. The root of the addiction, according to Vipassana, lies within the habit pattern of the unconscious mind, which still has a strong craving for the sensation that alcohol provides, and probably aversions to other sensations which alcohol helps them to avoid feeling. Unless the neural pathways are broken and re-wired, alcohol will always remain a strong craving, and the aversions to other sensations will also remain there in this person’s unconscious mind. Alcohol is a very literal example, but Vipassana teaches that this also goes for cravings for, or aversions to, sensations provided by anything, including anger, greed, jealously, passion, resentment, etc. as well as other sensations provided by any other object that may come into contact with our six senses. This is why the Vipassana teacher refers to this practice as a “deep surgical operation into the mind”.

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So, have I reached full enlightenment after these 10 days? Duh, I’m totally transcending time and space right now, updating this blog from a dimension you’ve never even heard of… Um, no. Obviously it’s quite a long path to enlightenment. The 10-day thing is regarded as the minimal time needed to train the brain to become sensitive enough to begin to learn the technique. Daily practice is also required. I’m going to make an effort to do this.

Currently my thought is that perhaps I will give the 10-day course another try towards the end of my journey in India. There are many insights I gained towards the end of the course that would have made me a better student in the beginning (those days that I spent lots of time fantasizing about running away). Also, on day 5 there were memories in my life that resurfaced as a result of having so much time to think which I knew needed some immediate action after the course was over. This was incredibly distracting, so I hope if given another chance I could give the technique the proper attention it deserves. Vipassana or no, I was truly amazed to deeply experience how much personal growth can be achieved by bringing prolonged silence into my life. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to do this.

How I found myself at Vipassana is a pretty interesting story. Anastasia, a friend and fellow intern at Navdanya who is from NYC by way of Oakland, told a little me about Vipassana courses, very little. Basically she told me she was headed to a silent meditation course in Haryana that started on January 2. “You should do it, too. It’s free.” That’s all it really took before I was researching available courses online. I felt I was ready for a challenge, along with some warmer weather. As soon as the sun went down, life on the farm outside of Dehradun in the state of Uttrakhand had turned severely cold. I had been volunteering at Navdanya for the month of December and my pre-arranged departure time was upon me. I had some other plans brewing that would lead me a little further South for a bit, so I found a course in Pushkar that started at the right time. Luckily, there are Vipassana centers located all over India, and most appear to be very active, offering courses quite regularly. After a rather frustrating couple of days failing to be able to reserve a train ticket both at the train station in Dehradun and online, finally I booked a ticket through an agent that works with Navdanya. On January 7 was on a train (my first Indian train ever) overnight to Ajmer.

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I arrived in Ajmer at 7:00 am with every intention to find a restaurant immediately to sit down, start drinking chai and eat some warm food that would get me on the path to recovery from a cold and rather sleepless 15-hour voyage on the train in sleeper class (the lowest and cheapest class where you have no choice but to share the joys and sorrows, sounds and smells of humanity with about 75 other humans in your car as there are no doors or curtains in theses cars. Supposedly there was a 12:30 pm bus I could catch in Ajmer that would take me to Dhamma Pushkar meditation center for 2:00 pm. I could worry about all that after some tea…

As luck would have it, and as I did actually suspect, no sit-down restaurant in India is open at 7am (at least none that I have ever found). I stared longingly for a few minutes at the sign which hung above a locked grey metal garage door for the Jai Hind restaurant, which my guide book said served delicious curd platters. Eventually I decided to turn and walk in the other direction towards one of the small-ish organge-colored mountains that surround the city. There’s little information in guidebooks about Ajmer. They say besides the holiest Muslim pilgrimage temple in India and a lake similar to it’s more touristy neighbor city Pushkar, there is little to do or see in Ajmer. What they had neglected to mention was how incredibly sweet the people are. Still, not knowing this myself, I thought the mountains looked pretty sweet and climbable before noon, so I started on my way through the city streets towards to mountain with all my belongings on my back. This turned out to be the best decision ever.

City streets started getting narrower and narrower as they wound their way up the mountain. The streets actually become more like windy paths, passable only by foot, hoove, or bike. The buildings have beautiful architecture, are brightly painted and inside I could hear and smell families chattering and making breakfast.

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I kept going up and up until I reached the end of the dwellings and right into this woman’s dooryard (for those unfamiliar with a dooryard, this is a term used by Mainah’s for the patch of land around an entrance to one’s home). This woman and her daughters came out and stared at me, totally confused as to what this foreigner was doing at their mountainside house so early in the morning. They were sure I was totally lost, or crazy, or both. Beyond their home I could see the path diminished to what I would call the need to start bouldering, and really it did not look ideal for someone carrying as much weight as I, so I turned around, a bit disappointed I could not reach the summit. On the way down I and decided to stop and take some pictures.

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During this maneuver I managed to lodge some vicious thorns in my shoe from one of desert-like state of Rajastan’s many thorny and prickly plant varieties. Several of these gnarly things pierced through the entire sole of my shoe. I was sitting down with my shoe in one hand and my Leatherman in the other trying to dislodge the thing when a man came out of his home, saw me and did a double-take. He also seemed perplexed as to what I was doing, nevertheless he took pity on me and insisted that I come into his home. “Please come. Please come.”

This man’s wife welcomes me into her brightly-colored home with a big smile and warm hands. She quickly flips a light on in the room immediately to the right, awakening two teenage boys that were sleeping there, and clears a place for me to sit on a small couch. She made me some lemon tea and the whole family, father, mother, and two sleepy-eyed teenage boys begin their questions about where I am from and what I am doing. “Nappy”, as he likes to be called, is a journalist who works for an Ajmer-based magazine. From what I could gather, the magaine is dedicated to exposing corruption and crime schemes. Nappy told me humbly that he was a poor man. He gesured towards the rest of his home and said, “look, only two rooms”. He also told me in his culture, however, it didn’t matter, they treat their guests like god. I thanked him gratefully as I could certainly feel that love (They even insisted that I not use water from the tap for hand washing or for using the toilet. According to them, that water was too cold, and even though I disagreed, I learned quickly that resisting any form of Indian hospitality is futile and very disappointing for them. Instead, they gave me warm water from a separate tap, and in the case of hand washing, Nappy’s wife poured it onto my hands from a cup as I washed them. I felt awkward accepting this kind of treatment, but it made them very happy.) Also, I thought Nappy was being very modest, as his house was a palace on the mountainside compared to many dwellings I had seen, and more importantly, he was blessed with a really beautiful family (which he knew). Nappy eventually went into the kitchen to make me an an onion omelet and toast. His wife had injured her hand recently so she was unable to cook. She laughed as she joked that her husband was a “cooking master”. She then showed me some family pictures and explained that her husband and herself are from different castes and that they had a “love marriage”, which in Inida means a marriage where the couple met before marriage and fell in love, rather than the marriage being pre-arranged by family members. Outside of big cities, it is my understanding that most Indian marriages are still arranged by the bride and groom’s family. This was the first couple that I’ve met here who have admitted to having married for love. She also interestingly told me that her husband does not drink or smoke, “I’m very lucky”, she said.

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After a really lovely morning with the family it was time for me to go. I had some business to take care of in town before catching the bus. Everyone insisted that Nikhil, or Nick, the oldest son should take me into town on his motor bike to assist me and ensure that I got on my way safely. Nick proceeded to help me get some passport photos taken, arrange me a taxi (because there was apparently no bus, which I would have had a much harder time figuring out), and because we had time to kill, he also became my personal Ajmer tour guide on a beautiful sunny day. He took me to a beautiful lake, a park, a Hindu Lord Haunuman (monkey god) temple on top of a mountain (at the top of which we interestingly saw a real live pregnant monkey) and a Jain temple which housed a depiction of the story of the creation of the Jain religion (a sect of Hinduism) in a large room that contained an ornate gold-encrusted scene of miniature figurines which included elephants with 7 trunks and “floating” ships which were suspended from the ceiling.

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It was one of the best days I’ve hand in India up until this point. Nick is honestly the sweetest 18 year-old I’ve ever met. As we were walking through a park he told me that I was “like his sister, and best friend.” He asked me not to forget about him and his family. I assured him it would be impossible to forget them.

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3 thoughts on “the silence

  1. Wonderful! Thank you for all the details. Meeting people with hearts open is such a special experience. It used to happen to me and my now husband when we would hitch hike in the 70’s.

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