If you’ve already read the somewhat light hearted account of my experience in the 10-day Vipassana Meditation Course in Bodhgaya, India, then I’m here to warn you that this one is nothing like that. This time I’m willing to bare my soul and reveal the way in which the technique and the experience opened my eyes and allowed me to look at life in a different light.
A bit of background
Speaking with one of the fellow meditators after the course, she said to me: “I heard that many things have to align themselves in your life for you to get to this point” – the ‘point’ in question being participation in a course – and I think she was spot on.
Losing both my parents at the respective ages of 11 and 22 had taken a toll on me in ways that I wasn’t willing to recognise. I kept up all traces of normality; finished school and then university, worked while I studied and managed some small-time travel in summer holidays. I was happy enough, but I always felt that something was missing.
I was hoping that in the midsts of my travels through Asia I would come across something that clicked into place. Something that would really resonate with me, and while I wasn’t really searching for something to fill the gap I was really just hoping to find some inspiration, and motivation, for living life again instead of just letting it gently push me along.
Before arriving to Bodhgaya and surrendering myself to the technique, I had been travelling around India for 5 months – if you’ve experienced India as a backpacker this is no mean feat – and, quite honestly, it was making me mental. India made me realise I have next to no tolerance for people. Let me rephrase that; I can’t stand people that can’t see past themselves. But, while this may not sound so abnormal, I had reached the point where the tiniest things would anger me – like people cutting me off on the street, because they don’t look before they step out – and I would wallow and drown in this anger for hours. Is nobody else in the world aware of their surroundings like I am? This thought would fester in my mind. Why did I spend so much time thinking about the consequences of my actions – even the smallest ones – when nobody else seemed to give a shit. It was unhealthy. It was making me miserable, and I didn’t even realise how bad it had gotten.
The philosophy of Vipassana meditation can be long and complex or short and simple. For the sake of blog-length and also because after just a mere 10 days I cannot claim to be even modestly established in this technique, I am going to stick to the basic ideas.
We all have misery in our lives. It may be due to the death of a loved one, a bad relationship with a neighbour, or someone ate your sandwich that you were really looking forward to eating for lunch. Misery in this sense is universal. Everybody has it in some quantity, and it’s not worth sizing it up next to somebody elses. Goenkaji explains that misery is like a seed. If you plant one seed, it grows into a big tree with a million seeds. These seeds are capable of growing into a million trees with a million more seeds, and so on and so forth. So, the only way to get rid of the tree, before it can seed, is to pull it out by the roots.
As I mentioned in the other post, misery comes forth out of craving or aversion. In order to eradicate misery we need only to eradicate these feelings. This is where the meditation technique comes in. Spending hours in the same sitting position is likely to cause great discomfort, but to observe this discomfort objectively is to not let this discomfort manifest itself into emotions. You have to train your mind, and body, to observe the pain and not wish it to go away. After all, as a law of nature, everything changes and so too will your discomfort. Similarly, those fleeting moments of pleasant sensations won’t last either so it’s best not to get to attached to them, or worse, crave them when they are gone.
Merely observing the sensations of the body seems an odd way to rid yourself of misery but there is a very important reason for it. The sensations represent the mental impurity in the subconscious mind. If not dealt with properly, negativity can be pushed from the conscious mind into the subconscious mind. The way to deal with the anger is not to think about the object which causes it – which will only increase the negative feelings – but instead to concentrate and observe the sensations that arise; a racing heart and harder breathing, which upon observation will lose strength and diminish. Goenkaji explains this much better here.
It is said that Day 2 and Day 6 are the hardest and despite my determination to not become a statistic I will admit that I cried on both these days.
Day 2 was like many other days to come, only at this early stage I was ill-equipped to dealing with my emotions in accordance with the technique. It started with the usual inability to concentrate, or, in fact, even stay awake that haunted me every day in those early two-hour pre-breakfast sessions. The habitual morning sounds of snoring, farting, and shuffling were in the air and I could feel the frustration of these disturbances brewing inside me. The group session after breakfast brought no new instructions to the table so I was left concentrating on my breathing for another whole day – something so mind-numbingly boring I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever begin to actually enjoy the monotony of it.
It was the combination of too many gaseous releases a lady seated two rows ahead of me that would bring me to my own demise. Clearly unaware of how much the swish of her sari and the slow, painful squeak of the door disrupted many of us in the room, she was constantly coming in and out of the hall. As much as this annoyed me, it was actually the fact that she would never close the door behind her that got to me. I had to sit, directly in line with the door which meant blinding light would stream in and patterns of light would dance across my face. As I wasn’t allowed to talk to her I tried sending her dirty looks in the hope she would recognise her lack of consideration. She didn’t. I had to get up many times to close that fucking door. I sat down again after a number of times getting up to this chore and felt that floodgate slowly give way under the immense pressure of my anger. I covered my head with my scarf and silently burst into tears.
Don’t they realise they are making sounds? Are they seriously so self absorbed that they don’t notice? Do they not use doors in India?
Every day was a mixture of emotions. Feelings of elation at having managed to concentrate for what seems like a significant amount of time, to soul crushing disappointment at having not even managed to succeed for a minute. No whole day was a success, nor was it ever a total failure.
My revelation came on Day 6, and consequently this meant it was the hardest day. I battled with the regular frustrations: my room-mate waking me up early; Indians that can’t control their bodily functions; a lady that can’t even use a door properly. It was all too much. I vowed to tell anyone and everyone interested in this course not to do it in India. My frustration and anger got so much that I couldn’t concentrate even for a minute in a single session that day. I was sitting outside during my free time when I came to thinking about myself. When did I become so bitter and twisted? How does a single ignorant act get played over and over in my head and blown so out of proportion that I actually end up hating someone – just because they left a door open? When was the last time I was really,truly happy? I couldn’t remember, and the realisation hit me like a tonne of bricks.
I started to think about what makes people judgemental and mean. People tend to say it’s because they have problems accepting themselves, or they have issues with their own lives. That was it. I don’t really like myself. I don’t mean it in a suicidal sense, but more so in the sense that I feel constantly disappointed with myself and my laziness. For a long time I haven’t strived to achieve something. I’m not passionate about anything anymore. I sacrifice my own feelings so that others won’t be uncomfortable. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to work hard – and I mean really hard – for anything.
But here’s the real clinker. On both these days where I struggled, I was thrown a liferope in the form of the nightly video. The course is such that many people must experience real hard hitting realisations at similar times because it was these two nights where Goenkaji told me exactly what I needed to hear. On Day 2 he talked about tolerance towards others, about people not understanding that they are affecting you and, therefore, why focus on your feelings of hate because they affect no one else but you. They don’t feel it – they don’t even know they’ve done anything – so why go on hurting yourself? On Day 6 he talked about how we have to work hard in life. The path to Dhamma cannot be undertaken by someone else on your behalf. You have to take the steps, you have to put in the hard work. Stop praying to Gods and Goddesses or anyone else to grant you a break – they don’t owe you anything.
The thing is I must have heard this a million times so why did it take until now to register with me? I guess that’s what the girl was meaning when she said that certain things must align correctly. I just wasn’t willing to accept the truth until now. I wasn’t willing to make a change. But, I have to work hard for my own success, and I have to start today. I have to observe and accept. That was just the kick up the butt that I needed.
If you are interested in reading more about the philosophies and teachings of Vipassana or want to check out a course near you, visit here.