Beneath the mist: Vipassana meditation retreat

On a clear day when the fickle mist lifts, you may catch a glimpse of the true face of the mountain. There will be countless green trees, heavy, moss covered rocks, tiny creatures and mounds and mounds of dirt. And if you are absolutely noiseless, you may hear even the gentlest rustle created by wind and manifested through things substantial and not. This is what my imaginary critic would call a passable simile to the discovery that awaits when you take charge of your erratic mind and set out to explore its contents.

For 10 days (technically 12 days), I learnt the technique of Vipassana at the Dhamma Kuta Vipassana centre in Mhakanda, Kandy (http://www.kuta.dhamma.org/). It was not only one of the toughest tasks I have ever lived through but also the most valuable journey of my life so far. This is a recount of certain aspects of the said journey.

Vipassana

According to popular belief Gautama Buddha rediscovered the technique of Vipassana around 2500 years ago. Following his hard-earned discovery about ‘Dhamma’ (law of nature) and the Four Noble truths at the age of 35, the Buddha continued to teach this non-sectarian and practical approach to discovering the truth within oneself to countless individuals throughout ancient India for the next 45 years until his passing away.

S N Goenka

A Burmese national of Indian descent, S N Goenka began teaching Vipassana meditation in 1969 in India and attracted hundreds and thousands of people. He adopted a non-sectarian approach to training and taught people from various backgrounds around the globe. Even after his passing away in 2013, the meditation centres that commenced with his guidance continue to help thousands of people around the world.

Weird and anxious warnings (and lessons in kindness)

Though I kept my decision to go on a meditation retreat private as much as possible, I had to let the cat out of the bag to a few people and lying was out of the question. While most of the responses were encouraging, I did meet some resistance.

First instance

“I’ve read in the papers, some women go off to meditation and then get sucked into it. They stop caring about family life. Your poor husband. Just go this once but not again. He won’t stop you but this is not the way.”

And in the same breath they continue (only figuratively).

“You don’t even perform any ‘Pooja’. You don’t offer flowers or light a lamp to the Buddha statue. So and so does every morning and evening. And it is a good practice to adopt in a ‘Buddhist’ household. Otherwise you are not a real Buddhist.”

However, this person swallowed their entirely legitimate misgivings and did all that was in their power to help me get to the retreat.

Lessons learnt – 1 A lesson in mere kindness. 2 My, what a hindrance unchecked cultural religion can be to real progress

Second instance

“There is a greater agenda around the world to push religion on people. If one wants to collect ones thoughts, one should go on a holiday.”

This person drove me all the up a steep hill on a road filled with potholes to the meditation retreat in spite of their own misgivings and warnings.

Lessons learnt – 1 A lesson in truly unselfish kindness. 2 My, what a hindrance unchecked atheism can be to real progress

Uphill work

At the orientation on day 0, all participants took a vow of noble silence and agreed to keep the five precepts in order to develop the necessary grounds to practice meditation from a place of discipline and morality.

On the next day we began our grueling schedule of meditating (following instructions given by S N Goenka) from 4 30am to 9 30pm with 5 to 10 minute breaks every hour or one and a half hour in addition to longer breaks for meals. We survived on two unexpectedly delicious vegetarian meals a day plus evening tea along with a banana and cream cracker biscuits. I found the fare satisfying and it kept me going swimmingly throughout the day.

Each evening, after the day’s long hours of meditation was done and dusted, we listened to a discourse by our teacher S N Goenka. His discourses were apt for each day and each day we discovered that he had pretty good grasp of our daily experiences.

I made the first ego-shattering discovery when I realized what a wild animal my mind truly was. We spent the first three days, trying to watch and concentrate on our natural breath and the mind kept taking me on wild trips into the past and the future. The body reacted in kind with searing to dull pains occurring all over its corporal being.

While S N Goenka is the main instructor and guide, we were assigned assistant teachers to guide our individual practice. I was blessed with a wise and a compassionate teacher who had the uncanny ability to pick on both my strong and weak points at exactly the right moments. Without her help, I would have lost my bearings on the 4th day itself.

They teach Vipassana technique on the fourth day. That is a bridge each of us can only cross in solitude with the compassionate voice of our teachers shouting instructions from the shore. It is narrow bridge and balance is of utmost importance.

Revelations

Vipassana is a deep technique and 10 days is not enough to reap full benefits. But the intensity of practice coupled with guidance can make one discover certain truths in all their actuality. Each meditation sitting was different and after a few days one stops having any expectations and accept each moment as it is. One is bound to stumble upon the inevitable truth (in varying degrees) that true equanimity is the only liberating attitude towards mediation and life itself. If accepted, adopted and practiced unceasingly, equanimity will usher in compassion, kindness and sympathetic joy (again in varying degrees depending in one’s own mindset). That is the wonder of the technique and the brilliance of this particular teaching method, meticulously broken into phases within 10 days.

Harmonious existence

At the retreat, we lived in close quarters with strangers from all over the world. While Dhamma Kuta had provided all the necessary comforts including hot water, I expected at least some friction to manifest in the air. But I was pleasantly surprised (a perk of being uncertain). Everyday someone would use their breakfast break to clean the bathrooms and the toilets in the block and sometimes you catch the sight of a kind soul sweeping the corridor. One rainy afternoon, I went back to the block a little concerned about my clothes which I had hung out in the sun, only to find out that a kind stranger had already hung them to dry within the safety of the corridor. To this day I haven’t the faintest clue as to who the kind stranger was. Whenever, our paths crossed, each and every one stepped aside to let the other person pass. This invariably created a few funny moments in which we had to break our oath of noble silence and chuckle.

There two days when our block and the one below ran out of running water. But the girls bore this particular difficulty without a single complaint and shared what little water was available. Later we learnt that wild boars had come up with this clever plan to attack the pipes up the hill to teach us a valuable lesson in equanimity.

Throughout the 12 days we spent together I don’t recall a single incident that resulted in pettiness, jealousy or fierce ‘othering’.

Gratitude

Today, I am filled with gratitude towards Buddha for rediscovering this technique and S N Goenka for building such a strong foundation to practice. I am grateful to my husband who remains a constant inspiration and a motivator and drove all the way on day 12 after a going through a rough week of his own to pick me up from the retreat. I am grateful to all the people in my life who continue to extend their unconditional love and support. I am grateful to the teachers, ‘Dhamma Servers’, administrative staff and the kitchen staff of Dhamma Kuta for their extraordinary kindness. I am grateful to my fellow meditators. I am even grateful to the wild boars for their timely lesson.

Vipassana Meditation Centre – Dhamma Kuta (http://www.kuta.dhamma.org/) is managed entirely on donations given by meditators who have completed at least one 10 day course.

"Life is a strange abiding

A place to live, grow and thrive

(And aspire for dispassion)

A glimpse of victory

A glimpse of failure

A drought wrought in a dust cloud

Followed by a rain soaked breeze"

Some of the mediators on the last day Meditators

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