Bag of Bubbles
McLeod Ganj Travel Blog› entry 5 of 37 › view all entries
11/1/07 - 11/12/07
On November 1, per a last minute decision, I abandoned my plans to attend the Tushita meditation retreat, in favor of a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Mcleod Ganj. My decision was based on my determination to do soul searching, which was further buttressed by the recommendation of a fellow Universal Yoga student and Amir, a religiously "charas" smoking Israeli, who allegedly spent 6 years studying and meditating with Buddhist Monks in Mcleod. Over his deep exhale of sweet smoke while we ate in a restaurant, he explained the life changing benefits of Vipassana. Granted, his incredulous demeanor gave me pause, but even a chance of the promise was worth it.
Once there, I was assigned to my room, where I met my roommate Aman, an aspiring filmmaker from Chandigarh, and his friend Anupam, a self-proclaimed 21 year-old writer who has read more books than anyone I know.
But back to Vipassana - our initial meeting was merely small talk before our light dinner of toasted dry puffed rice, peppered with peanuts and herbal tea.
Men and women were separated at all times, and, though we shared a meditation hall, I was too far away to even see the girls - thus no distractions.
4:00 a.m. - Wake up bell (which was a loud deep resonating bell that shook me out of bed, followed by a hand-held bell that was carried around by the volunteers to ensure I was not late)
4:30 - 6:30 - meditation
6:30 - 8:30 - breakfast of simple porridge and a piece of fruit
8:00 - 9:00 - 1 hour meditation - try not to move at all
9:00 - 11:00 - meditation (squirm like hell while trying to meditate for another 2 hours)
11:00 - 12:00 - lunch (rice, dahl, vegetables, and soup)
12:00 - 1:00 - rest (find a patch of sun and hope the monkeys are playing)
1:00 - 2:30 - meditation
2:30 - 3:30 - 1 hour meditation (try not to move or adjust)
3:30 - 5:00 - meditate again.
5:00 - 6:00 - tea break (puffed rice with nuts)
6:00 - 7:00 - 1 hour try not to move meditation
7:00 - 8:30- Video discourse on Vipassana teachings (aka movie time with Goenka - the video teacher)
8:30- 9:00 - meditate again
9:00 - 9:30 - If you have a question that the teach won't answer, you can try to ask.
9:30 - sleep and lights out.
My room for this schedule was four posts surrounded by a burlap sack wall with a tin roof. The monkeys, deciding this was too lavish, tore out a huge gaping rip at the base of the room, which tore from post to post. My bed was like a board and I was too small, so I cold barely lay prone. As I shivered to sleep with the Himalayas in the distance, I tried to remind myself how "exotic" it was.
The basis of Vipassana teaching is a form of meditation taught by the Buddha to see things as they really are, its a process of self-observation. It seeks to eliminate the 3 cases of all unhappiness: craving, aversion, and ignorance, thereby freeing one from reacting in unbalanced ways to pleasant and unpleasant situations. With this freedom, one develops positive creative energy for the betterment of the individual and society ~ or so the theory goes. But the reality that was hammered in, is that one should observe his/her "sensations" without craving pleasant sensations or developing aversions to unpleasant ones - remain equanimous, and not react to the searing, throbbing, stabbing, tearing sensations that develop after prolonged sitting, because all "sensations" have the same characteristic, they arise and pass, are impermanent, and therefore no reaction is necessary.
The meditation practice itself allowed me to begin to experience the actual "sensations" on the body. Basically, I was taught that my body is always feeling things, and I began to tune into those sensations, which felt like the tingle of my foot when it fell asleep, but instead all over. In spite of my regular ashtanga yoga practice, I had never sat or meditated for any length of time.
The second time i spoke to the teacher, I told him the pain was unbearable and asked what to do. In his shaky ancient voice he said, "You are a bag of bubbles, don't react." (hmmmm helpful)
By day 3, I thought I was going to burst my bag of bubbles and I wasn't sitting any longer. So I asked for permission to sit against the wall to support my back. To this he replied, "You will never be free from your pain if you do." Somehow these words impacted me, and I renewed my determination to sit through the course.
For escape during our long days, we walked a small dirt path. It took me 246 steps to complete the circle (I counted on day 1). We were prohibited from doing yoga, tai chi, or any other formal practice. So these short walks became my only source of exercise. Averting eye contact, we passed each other like ghosts lost in our own life illusion. But still, over time, I began to impose personalities on these voiceless cohabitants. Another source of joy was watching the monkeys. The troop of between 20 to 40 brown monkeys crossed the Vipassana center at least 2-3 times per day. When lucky, I would catch them during our lunch break or after dinner - chasing each other over precarious branches, smashing hard landings onto tin roofs, and taunting each other with unprovoked attacks.
Otherwise, focus was within, as I slowly deconstructed my sources of "misery." Vivid dreams awoke me each morning before the 4:00 a.m. wake-up bell. Distant memories flooded me with what I thought were long forgotten memories of embarrassment, loss, failures, and each one sent reverberations through my physical body. I began to see how my reactions to unpleasantness shaped my being, defined my living strategy, and confined my grasp of "satisfaction." In that space, I became an independent witness to myself, my recent decisions, and the unfolding my once so complacent and comfortable life - the impetus that flung me from San Francisco into the vacuum of India with a change of clothes, but without a clue.
As the days passed, I wondered whether it would ever get better. Anichya (equanimous/impermanent) I repeated to myself. Though the meditation was exhausting and relentless, the calm and insight was invaluable. Unfortunately, the days have somewhat blended together as I sit here to write the events of some 5 days ago. So much happens, and the details are washed away by new encounters of wonder and beauty. Suffice it to say that day 8 and 9 were the most difficult. I was meditated-out and tired. I lost concentration, and endured the days as they passed - finding amusement and laughter in the little things (a stick arrow on the dirt path that someone made as a joke; a rock-tower built during a break; a sign scratched on a rock reading "no one gets out alive" and a toilet sign reading "Please put only water down the toilet (???))
On day 10, silence was broken and instantly i returned to a world of interactions. We all shared experiences and what brought us to the foot of the Himalayas on the eve of winter to take a vow of silence ~ Divorce, break-ups, dissatisfaction at work, need to get away, part of a regular practice. To me, everyone appeared very grounded in one thing - turning inward for sustenance, and not to the outside world for validation or escape.
I have seen the Vipassana crowd around Mcleod for dinner and in passing. I hope to see some again in Pushkar in a few days - but who knows what India has planned for me...