Camp dates: 23/12/2017 - 03/01/2018
Not because I had something (serious) to fix in my mental or physical health, but for the sake of experience, I wanted to attend a 10 day Vipassana camp. Essentially, what I am saying is that if my wife did not find me at home before 11 days, I would have considered that as a big success. I start with sharing my expectations upfront because after attending the camp I realized that what people got from the camp was influenced by their expectations from it. Thanks to my ardent reading habits, I didn't even bother to google it once :) I feel in a way it is a good to just go for it sans any expectations.
Since this post is not (primarily) about what Vipassana (as a concept) is and the blah-blahs about it (which you can find here and here), I shall skip that. Although to give a context, wherever needed I'll briefly try to describe the process involved. Also, this post is not about `hey Vipassana is awesome, go do it', in fact I genuinely feel, I barely know it. I write this post to just share some of my experiences in the camp and how seemingly small / trivial / nuanced things in life started appearing like deep rooted habits to me and, I felt that maybe a lot of what I think I do in life is happening unconsciously. The problem isn't that it happens unconsciously, but the fact that I do not acknowledge or even realize that I have no control over so many things. Anyways, lets quickly get to the point.
I reach the Dhamma Thali Vipassana center located in the outskirts of Jaipur city, pretty much a forest with lots of peacocks and birds, and occasional monkeys jumping here and there. I went straight to the registration desk, and the volunteer sitting there asked me to read a 4-page pamphlet, basically the conditions with which one should agree to stay in the campus. I said I have read it twice. Maybe my bulky specs made him feel that I enjoy reading a lot, he insisted me to please read it once more and in front of him :D. Well, it felt a bit strange. I have travelled for so many hours to come to do Vipassana in Jaipur, I am not going to say now, “Oh! since I cannot guarantee that I won’t kill a living being (one of the precepts to attend the camp), I am going back home.” After reading it for the third time, I proceeded to the next steps of in the registration process, and found a person asking me tons of question to make sure I had enough determination to pursue the full course and would not leave the course in between. I was slightly doubtful at this point if I had missed reading something important about this whole camp. I mean come on! it didn’t sound that hard when my wife explained it to me. Or maybe, she wanted to teach me a lesson and had not shared the hardest bit of the camp :)
Let me try to summarize the structure of the camp to give a context. You stay in the Vipassana camp for 10 full days, you have a shared room, you are provided with meals, you are asked to strictly adhere to the noble silence (i.e. not doing any conversation with the fellow attendees, either through speech or with signs etc etc), follow 5 precepts (like not killing someone, not telling lie, following celibacy etc etc). On the surface, I felt that maybe three things might be challenging for me: waking up early, not speaking for so many days, and of course, the fact that the last meal (a very light supper) is served at 5 PM. I was super excited, it’s going to be a chilled-out time, essentially doing nothing for the entire day and feeling relaxed... let me also give a hint of the schedule that is followed: 4:00 am – Get up; 4:30-6:30 am – Meditation; 8:00-11:00 am – Meditation; 13:00-1700 pm – Meditation; 18:00-21:00 pm - Meditation + Discourse (1.5 hrs) and in the remaining of the slots doing the daily essentials and thinking. I swear I do not watch big boss, really, but somehow looking at these people sitting alone on seats, looking at the trees, walking in all possible speeds one can imagine made me feel several times like a big boss episode is being recorded….
The first day starts, I woke up at sharp 4:00 am, I was in the hall by 4:20 to meditate. The task broadly was to just observe your breath and that's it. Just keep doing it for the entire day. Super cool, OK, let me just nail it and feel peaceful. I started doing it, and within few seconds I realized that I could barely remember 10-15 seconds of it, and then without exceptions found myself either sleeping, or to feel less embarrassed, delved in some thought either about the past or the future. I literally consoled myself that dude its 4:30 am, what do you expect on the very first day, lets relax and try again. The same thing kept happening till 6:30 am. Breakfast time! I took one full glass of tea to wake myself, sat down again to meditate at 8:00 am, and yeah, this time it was different. I could now stretch it to roughly 20-30 seconds at max :P. Unbelievable. Even though it seems trivial now, but it was an important realization for me. How hard it is to shut / control my thoughts and observe a phenomenon (breathing) that has been happening continuously ever since I am born. Its super obvious that concentrating isn't easy, but then when you have literally the entire day (~8-10 hrs.) to do just one thing, no other work, no distraction, you can't blame it to any external factor, or that given enough time I can easily do it types. Well, my mind wasn't completely (or even significantly) in my conscious control even after trying for an entire day, on your face, not a good feeling to have, but nearly everyone in the camp shared it. It’s worth mentioning an equally big challenge, sitting on the ground for 10-11 hrs. My knee and back was hurting like hell, burning sensation and what not. At the end of the day the fact that I hadn’t spoken with anyone and that the last heavy meal I had was at 11:00 am was not even on my mind. I slept like a baby on literally one of the hardest beds I have ever slept on.
Second day starts. The task keeps getting more and more nuanced as we progress through the camp. Today it was about observing the breath together with where the air touches either the nostrils or the area around the moustache. OK, let’s try it again. Same story, 30-40 seconds at max and then lost in some thought about the past or the future. However, today, the frequency with which I was realizing I am lost in thoughts had increased significantly. At least some improvement. But the situation with my back and my knees was still terrible. I went to the teacher and requested him to allow me to use a back support (which the centre provides). He said and I kid you not, “These are your old Vikārs (in a way the result of your old bad deeds or habits) and it’s good that they are now coming out, revealing themselves, it means you are moving in the right direction.” Just wait and watch for some days, and see if the pain gets terrible, then I will ask the volunteers to provide you with the back support.” I didn’t know how to react, I thanked him and came back. Man, I have a dislocated L5 (vertebra) since my childhood, I have had a knee injury and that’s why it hurts and you are asking me to wait and observe for a few more days. Why not just give me a back support that could help me focus on my meditation, something that is the primary focus of the camp, isn't it? I agreed to give it a few more days. The story remained almost the same for the next 2 days, slight improvement in the focus and terrible knee and back pain.
On the fourth day attendees are introduced to the actual process of Vipassana. In simple words (describing quite crudely), it is about observing all the sensations happening in one's body, being aware of them, and most importantly, not feeling either aversion or desire for any of them. The whole point was that since nothing stays forever (including sensations) what’s the point of feeling aversion or creating desires. I guess the expectation is that through this concrete realization we start applying the same principle in our day to day life, and not feel too attached with "things", since sooner or later they are going to change / disappear or we will die. So basically, no attachment + reduced desired for stuff = reduced sadness and misery in life. Plus, if we are super aware of the sensations in our body all the time, we know how the external stimulations have changed our physical state, so now our sub(un)conscious reactions on the situations become more conscious. These are all my interpretations of what they were saying. Anyways, philosophy apart, but it’s certainly not something that I can discount so easily. It has a fair bit of rationality in it, let’s experience and take the call. One of the most interesting things for me in this whole soup was to observe the unconscious behaviour of my body, and since by now I had experienced myself that what I do in life involves a significant component of my unconscious mind, it was like... let’s see what influences my behaviour (which I always believed that I control).
The fifth day was super interesting for me. After the first few sessions I went to the teacher and shared that I can't sit anymore without any support on the ground, I know my body and I haven't been able to do it since the last 15 years. He insisted again to observe the pain for another day. He advised me to focus on the pain, make sure I do not have any aversion for that sensation (pain) and try to spot the exact point from where its emerging. To be completely true, it sounded a bit absurd, but I had no other choice. Although the teacher was very sensitive to such situations, he asked me if the pain is uncontrollable and something too serious, and I was like, well, I can live with it, but I have come to meditate and it has now become the main hurdle, I have spent 4 days with it already. What I never got in these first 4-5 days was why the heck do they advise to not take support when it can help. Anyways, I started following the process he suggested. Slowly trying to spot the exact vertebra from where I sense the pain and the muscle in my knee where I feel the most pain etc etc... I tried hard to look at this whole thing very objectively without a lot of emotion. By the end of the day, I was surprised to see that the pain was reduced to being bearable now. I know it sounds a little ridiculous, and to experience it first hand was even more so. So, what do I feel now, how do I explain myself why the heck it happened. I still do not understand this part. To add to it, a similar thing happened with so many (I should say majority) of the students at some point or the other (which I came to know about only after we broke the ‘noble silence’ on the very last day of the camp). Cool, this got me interested. There are so many more things which I have no idea about and they are happening right inside my body, damn! I am sure whoever is reading this can think of 10 different reasons explaining why would the pain disappear like... oh maybe the body got used to it and blah blah. I believe that there would be a very solid scientific reason behind this, but the point is I didn't and still do not know it. Anyways, this is not the core issue. I just left thinking about this thing accepting that there are tons of things I have absolutely no idea about otherwise too.
On the sixth day, the instructions for observing the sensations in the body asked for more intense awareness / focus. After a few more sessions the pain was almost gone. I could finally meditate without any pain, yay!. I felt I am going to kill it now, I was already feeling the throbbing in my hands, the vibrations on my face, subtle involuntary muscle movements, the gentle touch of my breath on the nostrils etc etc etc, it was only my pain that stopped me from finishing completely an hour-long session. It's exactly the same feeling that I get a number of times every day, that if there are no highly painful (basically uncontrollable, external) things / circumstances there is no big hurdle in doing things the most perfect way possible. I very soon realized that it was not the case. Even after the pain subsided I could only do the meditation for at max 30 mins, and if I stretch it, max to max 40 mins. I wondered, “What is happening now?” There was no pain, I was focussed, all the sensations, no rush, no work to finish (in fact its more boring if you are not meditating and just sitting in there), then why did my body (or I) want to come out of it, while my rational mind said I should be completing one hour of mediation, after completing I will feel more confident and have a sense of achieving something. It was probably my impatience. Impatience for me has always been rushing up some "task" and moving to the next "task". In a way if we look at it, typically in our day to day lives if we finish up something quickly (while maintaining the quality of the work reasonably well) it’s a good thing, we have more time for other stuff to do in the day. I felt that I have never realized that impatience in me is at such an unconscious level deep inside my body. Impatience always appeared like a conscious decision that I made, to rush up stuff. So, my body somehow doesn't want to stay in the same state for a long time, even if there is no rational motivation / reason for going one way or the other (in fact cognitively there was enough motivation to remain in the same state, but even then, it didn’t).
After the pain disappeared and the body felt relaxed, the next thing started, I couldn't sleep well in the night. Lack of sleep wasn't a big issue, I had 4:30-6:30 session to recuperate :P but what was amazing was that all my old memories started surfacing up, things which I thought I have forgotten long back. I consider my memory to be really bad, I usually forget names of several of my relatives :| But I realized that I have preserved so many memories, and that to with a great detail, maybe they are just dormant. Trivial feelings from my childhood, people who I have met in different places I have lived and experiences and what not came running to my thoughts. Surprisingly, these memories kind of came back in batches, as if it’s a year by year layer, maybe the chained retrieval made them appear in that sequence. Of course, I have done many things in my life that I am not exactly proud of, and I was reminded of both the good and the bad times, the guilty and the proud moments. It was nice to be visiting old stuff :) Anyways moving on to the remaining days...I realize that the post has already become quite long, so let me summarize it briefly now, I had no plans to write a long one, plus I feel it has also started sounding dramatic, but it is what it is. Rest of the days were also good. For a couple of days, I had troubles with my eyes, somehow involuntarily my right face muscle started feeling a bit tight. Sometimes the amplitude of the vibrations became quite intense, to an extent that it got quite chaotic. For one full day I couldn't concentrate because as soon as I closed my eyes I felt intense vibrations in the body, especially on the face. It was also weird that if I was feeling chaotic then why was the mind still calm to feel the sensations on the first place. No idea. Maybe the way I was sensing if my mind has calmed down wasn’t the right indicator. When I sensed high frequency for the first time, intense vibrations, my first thought was how the hell are vibrations of this frequency generated in the body! There are two strong frequencies normally, one from the respirations and another one from the heart beat. Sometimes I clearly could sense the time difference between the throbbing in the hand and that on my leg, maybe these vibrations are like beat frequencies or something, one cannot be sure.
So many more things, but I feel the point is conveyed, which is essentially that I am super amazed to see how little I know about myself and my body... I think this stuff is worth experiencing once, but maybe without any expectations at all (if that's possible). Also, I have not gone over all the things in a detailed way, there are sessions like discourse in the evening which are highly repetitive (potentially at times a bit irritating for many people), but considering that the same material is fed to literally all types of human beings on earth, I can understand the limitations of the process, I tried to remain calm no matter what is happening :) Anyways, I won’t forget these three words ever "Bhavatu Sabb Mangalan". If you ever attend a camp, you will know why!