Bag of Bubbles

McLeod Ganj Travel Blog

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My meal with Amir before heading up to Vipassana.

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.

Monkeys on the way to the Vipassana Center.
  With one days notice, I hiked the windy broken road, through trees and errant monkeys, to the gate of Himachal Vipassan Center.  I was wait-listed, and sat there quietly with Dominic to see if there was room.  Dominic is a another friend from yoga who plans raft a 1000 kilometers down a river for 40 days with a collapsible boat and no rafting experience.  I told him he had a big heart and bigger balls...  I was elated when I was accepted, I filled out the forms, then ran back to Mcleod to grab my bag and say farewell to Dan and Melinda.  After an urgent goodbye Skype call, I was in a taxi racing to my 10 days of silence, meditation, and self-discovery.


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.

My lovely room with AC!
  Aman and Anupam have become my good friends since Vipassana.  They are opposites to the extent that Aman is quiet, relaxed, and perfectly balanced in his demeanor ~ he fits in everywhere with his easy personality, but stands out with his long  black hair and bushy goatee; Anupam is wiry, with a magnetic kinesthetic personality that strobes as he passionately discusses literature, movies, music, love and lust with everyone he meets.  Both are driven by artistic inspiration, young, intelligent, and full of life.  I have no doubt they will exceed their own high expectations and leave a lasting mark in this life. 


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.

  Then a brief orientation, and with that the vow of silence began.  10 days, no writing, reading, talking, or in any other way communicating with others.  I could only talk with the assistant teacher for a few moments between 12 -1 and after 9:00 p.m.  Additionally, there were 5 precepts I had to take: Abstain from 1. Killing; 2. Stealing; 3. All sexual activities; 4. Telling lies; and 5. All intoxicants.  (All the fun stuff...)


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. 


The schedule:

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.

From the outside.

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.

My bed at the Vipassana Center


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.

Front door.
  At times I felt like I was playing a game of solitary bloody knuckles.  If you can avoid reacting to your own pain, then when outside pain occurs, you won't react either.  This way the mind purifies itself and one always realizes that unpleasant and pleasant are equally impermanent.  Once freed from this cycle of misery, one can begin to act with love, compassion, and goodwill.  So I'm trying it to see what happens.


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.

  My knees and back were not prepared for sitting cross-legged.  My major achievement on day 1 was sitting still for 15 minutes, before I gave into pain.  Not much changed between day 2 and 3.  On day 3 we took a vow to be determined to still for 1 hour without moving 3 times per day.  I repeatedly complained to the teacher, and asked for some posture advice  The teacher was a 74 year-old man with a long white beard, deep wrinkles, and an ancient voice.  He reminded me of a cross between Miracle Max from Princess Bride and a Kiebler Elf.  He spoke limited English and interrupted my questions to give answers to unposed questions.  Since I was desperate to find a comfortable seated position, I started accumulating pillows - until I had 4 pillows and my pad looked like a love seat.
  The only way I could sit was with my back bowed and knees supported by pillows.  By the end of day 3, my back joined my legs in shooting daggers into my conscious mind. 


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.

  Ultimately, on day 5, the pain subsided, only to be replaced by new pain in my right leg.  I'm not reacting...


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.

  The newbies riding on their mothers back, or from underneath were so cute, and the death defying leaps between trees all helped passed the time. 


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.

Meal at Carpe Diem
  For all the cravings - money, status, attention, meaningfulness; and aversions to sadness, loneliness, complacency, I saw how I began to spin in the giant wheel of consumerism - always looking for escape, but rarely living the present moment.  Moreover, I was permitting the outside world to rule my inside reality - much like astrology - letting the position of each orbiting object direct and define my future.  Laying in the sun for a short rest, I saw it all so clearly, felt it all, a whole life defined by others, that left me wondering "Who am I?"


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... 

Paisaroundeworld says:
tough !
Posted on: Feb 09, 2010
lstaplinger says:
Beautifully, beautifully written - poor knees!!! Take care of them, dont over do it...sound like someone I know? ;)

Miss you!!!
Posted on: Nov 20, 2007
mmanzone says:
Monkeys are always a great addition to any trip. I guess Baboon calls were not allowed there. I am having some similar experiences here except I have been aware the sensations and reactions. It is never easy to rise above, but easier now that I am regularly meditating. AND for some reason, I do not have any pain during hour mediations.

Your writing is extremely engaging. You should definitely work at publishing this all when it is over.
Posted on: Nov 19, 2007
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My meal with Amir before heading u…
My meal with Amir before heading …
Monkeys on the way to the Vipassan…
Monkeys on the way to the Vipassa…
My lovely room with AC!
My lovely room with AC!
From the outside.
From the outside.
My bed at the Vipassana Center
My bed at the Vipassana Center
Front door.
Front door.
Meal at Carpe Diem
Meal at Carpe Diem
McLeod Ganj
photo by: Stevie_Wes