Picking up from where I left off in Part-1..
DAYS 4,5 – Vipassana
We were taught Vipassana in the second half of fourth day. (For a while I thought Anapana was Vipassana. It was such a relief to know that there was more to it than stalking the breath!)
The pre-requisites of the technique were
- To keep the eyes closed throughout the meditation
- To not move at all during the session
The main instructions were to
1. Scan through the body taking the mind through each body part
2. Notice any sensation in the said body part
3. Only move forward to the next body part after a sensation had been felt
4. Try not to feel any raag/dwesh (craving/aversion or liking/disliking) towards the sensation. (This was the key – the most important part of the exercise)
This was a mind-training technique to build equanimity. Since craving/aversion is the root cause of all suffering, vipassana aims to get rid of the root itself. (It can take some time to grasp the philosophy, so no need to fret it. Because of prior retreats I had attended, I understood it. Guruji’s evening sermons helped to further clarify my concepts.)
I was overwhelmed on my first attempt. I couldn’t feel any body part and at the same time, my body started vibrating. It progressively increased to such a level that I felt I would topple over from my asana. I couldn’t even figure out in which part of the body the vibrations were occurring. I had my eyes closed the whole time and was trying to follow the instructions. But the vibrations were making it impossible. All kind of thoughts streamed through my head – whether I had contracted Covid and this was a symptom, whether I was doing it all wrong and my body was reacting by vibrating. There was no doubt-time in the evening – we were only allowed time to ask doubts at noon. So I spent all evening sessions vibrating without knowing what was going on with me. I also spent the morning sessions the next day vibrating.
Finally at noon, I sat dejected at assistant Guruji’s feet and asked him about the vibrations. He said something to the effect of, “Some people would be happy to have vibrations. There is nothing to be happy about it. It is just another experience along the path. Continue training your mind without giving much attention to vibrations.” So, I was thinking it was a bad thing while usually people think it’s a good thing. But according to Guruji, it was no thing at all! I felt a bit assured that I may not be ill after all. Also, I thought I should wait for a couple of days for some other symptoms to develop in case I was actually ill. (I was ok)
Once I accepted the vibrations as something not to be wary of, my practise progressively improved with each passing session and day. I learnt to notice unpleasant sensations like pain and itching without reacting to them. The sensations would disappear on their own after some time. It was a revelation.
I had finally experienced for myself what MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) programs were teaching. The power of the mind astounded me. When I went from an experiencer of sensation (bhogta bhav) to a watcher of sensation (sakshi bhav), everything changed.
As I went deeper into my practise , my body reacted in varied strange ways, in addition to the vibrating. Sometimes, I would find myself having difficulty breathing. I would have to pause and take deep breaths. Sometimes, I would feel extremely hot in the middle of the session and would hastily have to remove the blanket wrapped around me. It was like my body felt it was being subjected to something alien and was finding new ways to protest everyday.
DAY 6 – Shunya ghar
The retreat had a magnificent pagoda which the first-timers were not allowed to use. We did not even dare enter and see how the inside looked. On sixth day, my morale dipped -this was happening for like the third time and as per Guruji was not unexpected in such a rigorous retreat. As if by divine intervention, that same day, assistant Guruji told us that the first-timers had been allotted pagoda cells and we could go meditate there in the allotted time. I was happy. I really wanted to use this structure and now was allowed to. The excitement of doing something new cured the dip in my mood.
The inside of pagoda was a series of doors arranged in a circular fashion leading to tiny cells (shunya ghar) for individual practise. Every cell had a small window at the top for ventilation. I could hear birds and animal noises and rustling of trees. I had a very good meditation session the first time I was in the pagoda. Just being in the pagoda seemed to have helped raise the level.
I discussed it with Guruji in the next question hour. He said the raison d’être of the pagoda was to help improve the meditation experience. He said, “When we are in a group, sometimes we are shy and can’t let our body be free. A student once asked me if he can do upside down meditation. I replied, ‘Why not? Try it! No one is watching you in your shunya ghar’.” That got me excited. When I had entered my cell for the first time, I had thought of all the possibilities of what I could do there. But then I had demurred, thinking, “This is a meditation cell – I should be proper”. After this little anecdote narrated to me by Guruji, I felt like I had carte blanche to try things. So the next time I went to my cell, I lay on the cushion and raised my legs against the wall and did my version of comfy upside-down meditation. It went really well. My vibrations were higher in the pagoda. I took it to be a good sign. (Better than thinking I had corona!)
Each of the first-timers was allotted two time-slots to meditate in the pagoda. One of my time-slots was at four-thirty every morning – completely quiet except for the rustling of the trees or howling of the wind, pitch dark and very cold. It reads like a scene out of a horror movie but I found it very peaceful and conducive to practise. I was able to do the meditation to my satisfaction with plenty of time to spare – which I used to comfortably snuggle in a corner with my blanket and experience the silence. Then 1.5 hours into the session, Goenkaji’s voice would start booming from the speakers, singing bhajans in Hindi and Pali. It was a beautiful way to start the morning. There was a benevolence in his voice that was very comforting.
DAYS 7,8 – The dancing images
On either day 7 or 8, I was resting in my room after snack break in the evening and I could suddenly see images infront of my eyes. It freaked me out. The images were fluorescent. They were blinking and dancing. I could see images of phalli and cones. Every where I moved my head, the images were there. I tried to rush to my classroom but the images followed me all the way there. I could even see them in the dim glow of Dhamma hall, all the way till I closed my eyes for meditation. What did they mean? What was happening? My knowledge from watching too many TV shows was saying that my experience was akin to hallucinations after a drug-binge. Again, I had to wait till noon the next day to ask about it.
As I told Guruji about the freaky occurrence , he told me not to pay any attention to the images. “Another experience in the journey. Some people get very excited when they have visions, like they have received the fruits of their meditation. But it is not so. Goenkaji will answer your question properly in a future discourse”. This was the second time that an occurrence I found alarming was perceived as a good omen by other people.
Guruji addressed visions in his penultimate sermon. He mentioned how people see images of Gods and temples – basically whatever they already believe in. These visions had no meaning since they don’t add anything to the practise. He said that people see what they want to see. That weirded me out. I wanted to see phalli and cones? I didn’t think so. I wasn’t majorly into any God or temple imagery and what did phalli and cones signify anyway? I tried tenuous explanations like maybe it had something to do with lust rising in me at many points during the retreat. Maybe I was mistaken and had actually seen bananas. I did feel like having an extra banana the other day, so maybe my brain manifested bananas! But then what were the cones for? I was grasping in the dark. (Apart from anger , lust was a prominent emotion that I felt at multiple times while meditating. Guruji , during his discourses had mentioned that lust could arise along with other emotions, and not to get disturbed by it).
The mystery of my visions remains unsolved. But on the positive side, I experienced the whole range of tricks that the mind plays when you try to train it!
DAYS 9,10,11 – Wrapping up
The last two full days of meditation were happy days as the finish line was in sight.
On the last full day, after we were released from our silence by assistant Guruji, all the women gathered in the courtyard and hugged and talked to each other for the first time. It was beautiful to get to know the widely varying life journeys that brought this diverse group of women to this retreat. Many were experienced practitioners , here to sharpen their mind-training skills.
On the tenth day, we were allowed to use our phones. As we switched on our phones, the disaster unfolding in the outside world started seeping in. When I had entered the retreat, there were a couple of corona cases in Delhi and it seemed to be under control. By the time we switched on our phones again after ten days, it was everywhere. To think, my only questions for my mom after ten days were about how the family had spent Holi sans me and how her much-awaited kitty party had turned out!
We all joked that our training in equanimity was being put to test immediately.
The last day was also when we could give daana (donation) for the course. There was no pressure or expectation of the amount from the centre. One could give as much or as less as one wanted. I was delighted by the fact that despite voluntary contributions, this program had gone from strength to strength. I was happy to contribute and do my part.
Finishing the retreat was a sense of accomplishment – abiding by the ethics, keeping total silence (arya maun) and not missing the four-thirty morning meditation for the entire retreat. I felt like I had finally found a meditation exercise that suited my temperament – something dynamic and challenging; even though my mind was clearly not too fond of it!