I hadn’t been regular at my meditation practise ever since I came back from my last retreat at Tushita in September’19 as I was trying some other new things. But I knew in my heart that it was only a temporary hiccup. Meditation was going to be an integral part of my life in the long run. I had googled Vipassana retreats in the past too but their rigorous schedule from four in the morning to ten at night had put me off. Only after two comparatively easier retreats and building a meditation practise over a couple of years later, did I feel ready to take on this challenge.
I had also become reticent about leaving home in recent months. I didn’t like taking a holiday unless it was a learning opportunity. (That can happen to you when your whole life is a holiday!) But this felt like a good reason to leave the house. So by the end of January, after doing permutations and combinations of weather, availability, proximity and ratings, I zeroed in on the Dhamma Dhajja centre in Hoshiarpur for a course in the first half of March . Incidentally, that was the last course that took place before the centre closed due to Covid. They say it’s your past good karma that lead you to this retreat. Mine lead me to the retreat just in time!
The reporting time was one in the afternoon. The centre was far away from the highway and we had to travel on small village roads to get to it. My relatives from Hoshiarpur were dropping me off. They got increasingly uncomfortable doing so the more remote it got. I got nervous too. But all that nervousness disappeared as soon as we reached the centre. There were multiple cars entering in and there were women of all ages among people spilling out of these cars. That eased our minds. We also noticed many foreigners in the crowd.
I took a tour of the centre with my relatives and after helping me settle in, they left. I had lunch followed by a long nap.
In the evening, we gathered in the Dhamma hall for the initiation. (Dharma, called Dhamma in Pali language are the teachings of Buddha. Thus Dhamma hall was a place to practise these teachings).We were allotted our asanas/cushions and instructed to sit on our allotted asana only for the next ten days. Then they put on an audio discourse on the speakers by the late SN Goenka ji.(He was the one who brought the technique of Vipassana to India from Myanmar and established these centres. Henceforth referred to as Guruji.) He made us seek refuge in the Buddha, his teachings (Dhamma) and his followers (Sangha) – “Buddham sharnam gachami, dhammam sharnam gachami, sangham sharnam gachami”. He explained the significance of seeking refuge in a discourse days later. He administered to us the vows that we were supposed to follow for the next ten days – no killing, intoxicants, lying, sexual misconduct or stealing. The funny thing was that they didn’t trust us to follow any of these vows. They made the conditions at the retreat such that each of these vows would be automatically followed.
– We had a rigorous schedule from early morning to late at night and we were not allowed to leave the premises for the duration of the retreat. So it was difficult to go missing and kill someone. Same for consumption of liquor/intoxicants.
-We took a vow of silence. Since we couldn’t even talk, lying was out of the picture. Na rahega baans, na bajegi bansuri.
– Men and women had separate quarters which were cordoned off from each other. Consequently, there was not much of an opportunity for sexual (mis)conduct.
– I guess if you really tried , you could steal something. But would you? All the valuables were deposited in safes at the reception, plus all our needs were taken care of. So breaking this vow would need special effort too.
Guruji then explained how to do Anapana meditation. We did it for a short while and then retired to our rooms.
It involves observing the natural breath in and out of the nostrils. It is an exercise to build concentration. It sounds easy enough; the challenge is in the doing.
DAY 1 – Anapana
I could barely wake up at four and I miscalculated how cold it would be. I had this idea that since it was March, it was not going to be so cold. I had not brought many winter clothes. I failed to factor in “weather conditions at four in the morning” part as well as the “being in the middle of the jungle” part – both ingredients of the extreme cold. I wrapped myself up in my flimsy shawl to cover the distance from my room till the Dhamma hall. I was positively cold by the time I entered the hall in my semi-sleep and irritated state. Shivering- that was how I spent my first session. The shawl just wouldn’t provide any warmth. As I was leaving after the two-hour sitting hoping I hadn’t caught pneumonia, I noticed someone had carried the blanket from her room into the meditation hall. I, and many others picked up that idea and did the same for the next ten days.
The next session was at eight. I had slept off right after having breakfast at six-thirty. When the gong-ringer came to knock on my door, I was sleeping so deeply, she felt guilty and assured me I could get back at nine and continue sleeping. She told me that the 9’o clock meditation wasn’t compulsory (It was compulsory). Just for the first day, the first-timers were instructed to go to the room at nine and meditate there. That was not what I did. I dropped dead on my bed as soon as I reached my room and slept so soundly that I almost missed lunch at eleven. Yeah , lunch at eleven. (At home, I was having breakfast at twelve, so this was a shock to my system. So much so that I was constipated for a few days!)
I was well-rested by the time afternoon sessions rolled in. But anapana can be incredibly difficult. I had never meditated for so long. My mind would get distracted and I would get stuck in some thought. Then I would try to take it to a logical conclusion. The more I tried, the more deeply I would get trapped in the thought like an insect would trying to get out of a spider web. Going-over the grievances I had with one or the other person in my life, hours would fly. I was kind of happy with these distractions. Atleast I could pass the time stuck in them. I was feeling pretty sure time would stand still if I tried to pass it by observing my breath. It was so boring!
I enjoyed the breaks between meditation sessions by ogling at the forest all around. It was a very green campus surrounded with trees. No humans were visible apart from the retreatants as far as the eye could see. We ambled around the campus during the breaks, soaking in the sun whenever it came out.
In the evening, a video of Guruji giving a sermon after the first day of retreat was played. There was an option to watch it either in Hindi or English. Since he had lead so many retreats for both Indians and foreigners, they had taped videos in both languages.
Guruji was an exceptional speaker. I didn’t realize when 1.5 hours passed listening to him. Not only was it a welcome digression from back-to-back meditation sessions all day, it was enlightening and gave the meditations a philosophical foundation. These sermons were a daily feature and I used to look forward to them.
DAYS 2,3 – Anapana contd.
Day 2 and 3 were more of the same – Anapana meditation. I was still getting stuck in some thought thread and going through the motions without actually staying with the breath most of the time. It dawned on me that my concentration was not going to improve the way things were progressing.
I was counting days left in the retreat and going through the sessions thinking about the next break. Somewhere after lunch on day 2, I realized that was not right. I was there for the meditations and I was not enjoying them. I decided to ask the teacher how to improve my practise. (Goenka ji was the main teacher/guru but there was also an assistant guru to answer the doubts – a strict looking guy with a huge mustache.) He gave me a terrific response – “Thoughts are a part of meditation. Don’t think of them as a disturbance; they are all a part of it. As far as getting stuck in a thought is concerned, a car cannot run without fuel. If thoughts are the car, then emotions are the fuel. When a thought arises in your mind and you notice it, don’t attach any emotion to it. Instead, just view it as a thought – acknowledge it, let it go and return to the breath”. This advice improved my meditation experience vastly and I was finally on my way to building some semblance of concentration.
Everyday, a new element was added to the meditation. That also kept it fresh, for example, by changing the area where to pay attention to – from feeling the out-breath on the upperlip to feeling the in-breath at the back of the nostrils. I had tried to feel the out-breath on my upperlip while meditating at home, but with no success. I was ecstatic when I was finally able to do it. The long hours of training and precise guidance had borne fruit. Another day, we were asked to notice the difference in temperature between in-breath and out-breath. That was an interesting exercise. The more I invested in these exercises, the better results I got.
To be contd… Part-2
Further reading on S.N. Goenka ji : His life, NYTimes obituary