I arrived at the Gaya airport after a short flight from Dehli. The airport reminded me of the airport in Key West: very small and very old. Few flights come in and out of this airport daily, but it is heavily used by those seeking to visit Bodh Gaya and attend Vipassana at the nearby campus.
Walking into the airport I was greeted by a huge statue of a golden buddha. (If this were the Key West airport, anything this large wearing gold would have many more sequins and beads, but that is another story for another blog.) I thought what a wonderful greeting this one. I think most people who think of Buddha think of words such as “peaceful, calm, meditative” This is a great mood to set when entering an airport. There was only one baggage belt, so my luggage was very easy to find. After retrieving both pieces, I headed over to find a taxi driver. I was eager to try out my broken hindi. “Namaste. Aap kaise hain? Mujhe taiksee chaahie. Kitane ka hai?” (Hello. How are you? I need a taxi. How much is it?”) I was prepared to barter him down, as it is well known that usually the first price quoted is 3x higher than the going price. I knew the price should be 700 rupee. I was shocked when he said “700!” This was starting off very well.
We proceeded to his taxi and began what turned out to be a knuckle popping ride. I knew that the driving in India was wild, but I was not prepared for this! The road between Gaya and the Vipassana Centre was a very narrow dirt road, filled with bumps and holes. It was all farm land in this area of Bihar. Along the road were a few small stands selling chai and snacks, but mostly there were tents and small huts and houses lining the sides of the street. The same driving style that i was familiar with from Delhi held true here, except the road was much, much narrower. My driver mostly drove on the wrong side of the road, against approaching traffic to pass vehicles in front of us, then would quickly veer back into our lane in just the nick of time. I couldn’t watch what was going on outside of the windshield, so I rolled down my window and turned on my camera hoping for some good shots. At one point i glanced back up front and my driver was TEXTING while driving and there were cars coming right at us! It was a very short drive, and I must hand it to him he certainly could handle his taxi.
We arrived at Dhamma Bodhi and the taxi pulled up to the tall, white, arched entrance. No cars were allowed inside the gates, so the driver helped me with my luggage and i said “Alavida!” (goodbye.) I walked past the gates and immediately was stopped by a guard who had me sign a giant ledger with name, phone, date, purpose, and signature. They keep tight reins on the campus as it is completely surrounded by farms and open fields on all sides. I was one of the last to arrive, and went through the sign in process, checked all my valuables, got my room key and had a quick meal. We had a short orientation, were taken to the meditation hall and assigned our mats for the next 10 days. We had an hour meditation and then went to our rooms, with lights out sharply at 9:30 for a 4:00 am wake up gong the next day.
Day 1: Today was mostly all about getting used to sitting still for long periods of time, quieting our minds, and focusing on our breath. We got up at 4:00, had to be at the meditation hall by 4:30 and then mediated until 6:30. Breakfast followed, with a short rest. Then we had a group one hour meditation, followed by two one hour meditations. Then we had lunch, followed by a rest period. Group meditation again, two more one hour meditations, tea and a short rest. Then two more meditation sessions, one more group meditation, a one and a half hour dharma discourse ( a recording of S. N. Goenka) another meditation and then at 9 o’clock we went to our rooms. Noble silence was strictly enforced at all times. This meant NO talking, no eye contact, no writing or reading, no hand gestures or communication of any kind. We were allowed to meet privately with the instructor and ask any questions that arose.
Day 2: I went to bed the following night and woke up with lots and lots of pain in my legs. Every muscle in my body ached, but especially my knees, legs and back. Mid way through the second day, in the middle of a meditation session i started having hot and cold sweats simultaneously. I began getting very dizzy and felt like the room was closing in around me. I seriously came very close to standing up and leaving the room and saying I needed to see a doctor, but I knew if I stood up I would fall right over. I kept breathing deeply and shifted my leg positions again and again and fought through the pain. I made it until the end of the day. (interesting enough on the last day when noble silence was lifted I was chatting with another guy and he had the exact same experience as this, but on day 3.)
Day 3: More and more pain. Extreme pain. I began to question if I was going to be able to make it through all the sessions. My legs and back and knees had never hurt so much. I was having a lot of difficulty remaining seated with my legs in one position and hands not moving, eyes closed. During the group meditation sessions, and at the beginning and end of all the other sessions Goenka would recite Buddha’s original sutras in his original language: Pali. As I listened to the sutras being read, I began to imagine that I was back sitting with Gautama Buddha, listening to him speak under a tree just a short distance from where I was now seated today. I thought of what an incredible experience I was being given, being here at such a sacred space. I then went back to focusing on my breathing, trying to settle my mind and the running thoughts that were in my head. Again and again I would catch my mind running, and I would recognize the thought, then come back to the breathing. Again and again and again. That night I had the most vivid dreams I have had in a very long time.
Day 4: Today the practice of Vipassana started. The first three days were focused on getting us in touch with our breathing, and narrowing the place that we felt the breath exhaling. The idea was to continue to narrow and focus of the breath to a smaller and smaller area. Today we began to expand that focus area to include all parts of our body. We began to try and feel the sensations on the body area by area, starting at the top of the head and working our way down, then back up. Again and again and again. We would do this from now on for every meditation session we had, moving up and down, up and down. We continued working on keeping one position held, backs straight, eyes closed with a concentrated mind. Goenka would always repeat again and again, at the start of every session to remain focused, to work hard and diligently and stay equanimous to every sensation. This applied to pleasant sensations as well as adverse sensations. The idea was to equalize them: to give no more attention or concern to pain as to the pleasant sensations. This would eliminate the craving for pleasant sensations and the aversion to the pain. It would also help us manage the pain by not giving it undue attention and making the pain worse and prolonged. The pain continued in my back, legs and knees. I was able to sit for a longer period without shifting my leg position but I was still really struggling. Just sitting still and breathing doesn’t sound like it would be very difficult, but trust me it is much, much harder than it sounds. I would crawl into my sleeping bag at night knowing that the morning gong would be coming very soon.
Day 5: Our group meditation sessions were now deemed “Strong determination” sessions. Just to be clear: all of the meditation sessions were in our group, but the designated “group sessions” had more recorded teaching instructions from S N Goenka than the other sessions. Again we were told to be objective to the pain, and not react strongly to it. We were to give equal time to pleasant and unpleasant sensations. All the sensations were transitory and would rise and pass away, again and again and again. Our bodies were made up of energy that was continually replacing itself, over and over again. So reacting to the pain was not necessary as it would rise and pass away, and would not hang around for long. Only by concentrating on the pain would it intensify and remain strong. This was a continued struggle as the pain in my legs and back and knees was still very strong. I can describe it as running a marathon, only in the mind. A very rough and long marathon. The coughing and sneezing and hacking was getting more and more pronounced in the group. The women and men were separated in the room, the women on the far right with men on the left. I was pretty close to the right side of the room and it seemed that many of the women had very severe coughs and colds. It was becoming a major distraction in trying to concentrate. The reason the men and women were separated was to avoid any distractions between the sexes. Since we were not allowed to open our eyes, I could not see what the women who were hacking and sneezing and coughing the loudest looked like, but I couldn’t imagine that even If i were not a homosexual male, that I would not be sexually distracted by a woman who sounded like a combination of Fred Sanford and Buddy Hackett.
Sankaras are created in our body when we create new cravings or aversions. So, everything we concentrate on the pain in our body, new Sankaras are created. The idea is to eliminate all sankaras, thus freeing us from cravings and aversions. Once the sankaras are eliminated, then we are able to slowly release the deep rooted sankaras in our bodies and getting one step closer to enlightenment. This is a very quick and easy explanation of the process, but it hopefully illustrates what the end goal was in addressing sensations on the body. By not attaching adversive thought or avoidance to pain and not clinging to good feelings, we are eliminating misery from our lives.
Day 6: This was a very tough day. I continued working on not developing more sankaras by trying not to focus on developing aversive thoughts to my pain. I was still struggling with pain a lot. It was hard to concentrate on the subtle sensations on the body when I was continually being drawn back to areas of pain. We were reminded to not have any “me, my or mine” in relation to our sensations. They were merely temporary feelings that would arise and pass away, only to be replaced by new sensations, again and again and again. If we could eliminate this thought process, we could distance ourselves from the sensations and be equanimous to all the sensations, with pure objectivity. Clinging to pleasant sensations was the reason for all addictions in our lives, feelings and activities and thought processes that we would continually be seeking out thinking that they would make us happy. It was all a delusion, because as soon as we got the pleasant sensation it would pass away, only leaving us to cling and look for another, and another and another. This only leads to suffering and misery.
Day 7: I woke up to the loud sounds of laughing jackals in the farm fields outside my bedroom window. I had never heard a pack of wild jackals howling before. They truly do sound like human laughter. Today i FINALLY achieved a breakthrough. I was able to begin to concentrate most of the day and not be consumed by the pain. I was now being able to remain equanimous to both the pleasant and unpleasant sensations. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to finally have reached this plateau. Goenka regularly encouraged us and repeated again and again that if we remained equanimous to the sensations, and remained diligent and worked hard, we would succeed. We were reminded today that one of the reasons we were not allowed to talk amongst ourselves was that comparing my experience to someone else’s would only create feelings of cravings for the good sensations they perhaps were having, or not having as much pain and wanting their experience. We are all totally unique individuals, each entering the course at different levels and histories, so no two experiences would ever be the same. This was an individual effort and our own achievement and progress and setbacks were all important and unique to us. Also, we were reminded to not put any more emphasis on pleasant and unpleasant sensations, and to remember that ONLY today and what was happening now was what was important. We might progress one day, and have a setback the next day. But each day and each new sensation, and how we reacted to that sensation was what was important. I noticed that my mind had calmed significantly down. The analogy that comes to mind is that when I entered the course, my mind was as if it was speeding along on a Dallas, Texas interstate during rush hour. Now, it was more like a lone ice skater on a pond in the moonlight. My thoughts were much less about what had happened, or would happen, or might happen, and just about being in the moment and the stillness of now. I was feeling much less pain, was able to hold my position for the hour sessions, and keep a straight back. I noticed that I was meditating with a smile on my face and was very calm.
Day 8: A very interesting point was brought up today: that devotion should be towards the characteristics of whatever deity or Saint or Prophet one “worships” and not towards the figure itself. It was suggested that perhaps instead of creating man in Gods image, that in fact man created the version of God that he wanted. Buddha adamantly and continuously cautioned his students to not worship him, and to question everything he said, only accepting it and applying it when it made sense to the person. This certainly runs against for example the Catholic faith. Since this was how I was raised, it is what I can speak to. We were always told not to question what the church taught, to just accept it as truth and to worship Christ. Many of the other faiths, Hinduism especially focuses on a lot of idol worship and rituals as well. This is where religion falls short and fails for many people, as they just go through the motions and don’t really see the results of actually living the practices in their daily lives. And they continue to look outside for answers and fulfillment when that all comes from within, and learning to control one’s cravings and aversions. Again we were reminded to not create new sankaras by not remaining objective to pleasant and unpleasant sensations, and that by not creating new sankaras we would then be able to begin to eliminate old sankaras. I continued to sustain equanimity and kept a calm and focused mind. My thoughts had really slowed down now. My mind was more at peace and calmer than I can ever remember. This was really happening! During our last 5 minute break session of the evening, I was sitting outside watching everyone walk around the paths. It really looked like something out of a mental institution. People wandered around not looking at anyone directly, some very slow and deliberate. No one talking. Eyes down. And then i laughed to myself and thought, but this is a mental institution! For the mind. A a very good one. I wondered what would happen if more mental health institutions and prisons in the states would initiate Vipassana meditation courses instead of prescribing drugs and locking people up and ignoring them. I looked out my window that night to the full moon shining down on the farmland. In the distance I could see a group of colorful tents where the farmers had retired for the evening.
Day 9: When we ate in the dining hall, everyone had an assigned space that we chose on day 1. Mine was at a table that faced a blank wall. There was nothing in front of me but a wall of white. This sounds strange perhaps, but I never tasted food better or enjoyed it more in my life. I was truly able to concentrate on nothing but what I was doing: eating. I had absolutely nothing to distract me. The beautiful thing about not talking is that you never have feelings of obligations or feelings of wanting to talk to someone who perhaps doesn’t want to talk to you, or vice versa. It is such a peaceful way to eat. I thought of when I was home at Foster Road, all the distractions that I had, totally self inflicted: eating in front of the TV or the computer, watching what was happening outside, being distracted constantly with Etter wanting more attention. We were told that these ten days were really about being a monk for all those days. Being dependent on the charity of others of what we were provided to eat, not being distracted with any outside diversions. I was amazed that I was not at all hungry from eating just two meals a day, and found the meals very delicious and satisfying. I never woke up tired with just 6 1/2 hours sleep and started my day with no caffeine, and did not seem to miss it at all. Even the tepid water showers were not an issue. There was a real sense of support in a shared space. Remember those pear lime jello salads we would all find at church dinners and school lunches and family reunions? That is what it felt like. We were all separate individuals, like the pears, supported by the jello (which for me was the space we all inhabited in the the meditation hall. The energy was palpable and I can’t help but think this was because of where we were: so close to where Buddha had attained his enlightenment using this very same technique that we were all practicing now.
Day 10: Everything continued as before, except that noble silence was lifted at 9 am and we were allowed to share our experiences and talk with other participants, but only on our short breaks, and walking to and from meditation. Since I didn’t have a roomate, I didn’t have the temptation to talk to a roommate, but it was great to finally be able to see how others were doing and what they were experiencing and feeling. We were reminded not to compare experiences and apply them to our own, to remain objective and just share what was happening in our own journey. It was a very different environment once the silence was broken, as just the short talks brought up scattered thoughts and new diversions, and the meditation sessions didn’t seem as intense and focused somehow as before. Goenka said that this would happen, but when I heard it I didn’t really think it would have the effect that it did (breaking noble silence.)
I want to emphasize that this was just MY experience and in no way represents what anyone else went through or possibly will or would go through should they choose to take a course. I would highly recommend that everyone who has the opportunity to do so seriously think about doing a course. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done, and there were times that I didn’t think I would be able to complete the course. The positives far, far outweigh any of the negative things that rose up for me. If the only thing I took away from this course was the much calmer mind that I still have as I write this, I would be a very happy man. But i intend to continue the daily practice of Vipassana in my life tomorrow and going forward. I am going to up my 45 minute morning session that I was doing before I came to 1 hour, and add an additional evening session before bed. I am going to try and have just 2 meals a day, and continue eating my vegetarian diet as I have since last March. And, continually remind myself that our lives are made up of seconds of time, that everything rises and passes away, and that we should not react strongly to outside forces but remain focused on the sensations that rise and let them pass, reacting less and less to each one, eliminating cravings and aversions and concentrate on love and compassion and gratitude.