Vipassana Meditation : Suffering in Silence
Dehradun Travel Blog› entry 229 of 268 › view all entries
November 25th, 2009 – by: Stevie_Wes
The Sound and the Fury
Attempting to sum up any place in a single adjective, but especially India is of course as absurd as it is impossible. Which would you choose? Delightful, dirty, tasty, pitiful, poor, big, ugly, beautiful, bureaucratic, moronic, slow, fast, fascinating, chaotic, crowded, corrupt or colourful? It is all of these and so many more. But spend enough time around the towns and cities and my guess, the one that will stick in your memory the longest is 'NOISY!'
India is a very loud country.
Noise breeds noise like violence breeds violence. And I often now think of India's cities as unwittingly fostering a culture of audio violence. Try to imagine a single note distilled from the sound of a thousand cats trapped in a bag with a thousand dogs; all of them wielding chainsaws and claxons and claws and that note being drawn out in one long crescendo from dawn until dusk and beyond - and you may get some conception of the cacophony.
The worst offenders are the screeching squall of India's mechanised ( mostly male) menagerie of drivers. Be it rickshaws, cycles, mopeds or motorbikes, bus or lorry drivers. The only rule of the road is the law of the horn. GET OUT OF MY WAY!!! Indian drivers will bloody-mindedly batter away at their little Horns of Jericho, even if there's no need, until your ears bleed and the walls of your sanity come tumbling down at their sound.
And I've had enough! India is the land of Gandhisian ahimsa. Non-violence. I propose India now needs audio-ahimsa! Either way, I need a change of scene. Something more serene. I need an escape to an oasis of quiet and calm. So when in Simla my travel pal Yiftach first mentioned the enforced silence and solitude of the Vipassana Meditation program and then a week later in Dharamsala Jantine was signed up to do it too, I thought 'Why not! Let's give it a go.
Sound and Vision
So what's it all about? Well, here follows a hopelessly narrow and incoherent overview of the philosophy of Vipassana Meditation. Let's see how it goes shall we? :
One of many schools of meditation, the Vipassana technique is the one that claims most direct lineage from the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama, the prince who would eventually attain enlightenment under the Bodi tree and become the first Buddha two and a half millennia ago.
This path to enlightenment ( the path of dhamma or magga ) is achieved by breaking down through your mind's considerations of 'superficial, apparent reality', to the deeper subconscious (which are also conscious) levels of the mind-body framework and into the realm of sensations. Be they physical sensations (pain, heat, itching) or psychological (desire, joy, anger) the goal is to recognise all such sensations as equal in both the scale of their import, which is nil and therein their irrelevance, isolate them and accept them all as ultimately ephemeral. Things that will pass away as surely as they have arisen. Manifestations of miseries surfacing and dissipating. This process known as anicca.
A new 'mind-habit pattern' must be cultivated that enables you to become equanimous to all sensations.
"Phewf!" Did ya get all that? Nah? Oh well.
So what does this all mean in practical terms for my fellow Vipassanistas and I over the next 10 or 11 days? No talking. No eye contact. No interactions of any kind. Segregation of the sexes. No reading. No writing ( I will singularly fail on this point). No physical exercise ( 'Yey!'). No intoxicants ( 'Boo!'). No sexual misconduct ( 'Double boo!' ). No killing or harming of life (darn, you mean I really have to give up this habit of a lifetime too?!). Up at 4.00am every day. Only two meals and 10 - 11 hours of meditation a day. Yep! You read that right.
Piece of cake right?
Well, not exactly. As a child of 'MTV Broadband-glee Modernity' the problem is concentration. Trying to find that inner calm; to dam the flow of past memories, current thoughts and future hopes and dreams; mulling over possible travel itineraries; attempting, and failing, to cease mind meanderings; to stop frequenting the internal cinemas, libraries, art galleries, comic book stores, juke boxes, theatres (and porno sections) of my mind for the next 10 days will prove hard. It in fact proved impossible for me for anything longer than a few minutes at a stretch. No matter how hard I tried. And no, I did not spend most of my time in the porno section! Okay!
Even in the weeks ahead of the Meditation course, my brain having cottoned on to the torment I intended to imminently put it through, started to amass a psychological smorgasboard of the musical, colourful, comical, curious and the surreal with which to distract me like an annoying younger sibling determined not to let me focus on my book the entire time.
And those images too! The madness of Mowgli and the monkeys and Baloo the bear swingin' his hula skirt hips and jiving with his coconut lips in drag. It's almost impossible to concentrate... ‘And be just like the other men, I'm tired of monkeyin' around...' and in fact, sitting writing this now two months on, IT'S BACK! And I can't get the flippin' tune outta my brain and I'm not entirely sure I'll be able to concentrate on writing thi... ‘Ohh, oobie-do, (Bop-do-wee) I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo...’
Insanity lies in trying to calm and clear one's mind.
No Pain, No Gain?
'Now here's your part of the deal, cuz, lay the secret on me of man's red fire...'
So here's the drill soul slackers! Up at about 4.00am to 4.15am, roused by a gong and then a series of bell jingles to start your first two hour meditation session at 4.
Okay, first and foremost, on this initial foray into the world of Vipassana and speaking for myself - Vipassana is a world of pain! To be more specific, and literal, it is a pain in the arse! I am not kidding you. Forget the most uncomfortable bus, train, rickshaw you ever rode on or cinema seat you ever had to endure. Excluding possibly a life sentence sharing a prison cell with a very large man who calls himself Angel and you 'Darling', Vipassana is the least favourable thing you can ever do to your bottom!
Sat in the cold and dark, cross-legged hour after agonising hour. Legs screaming at you. Butt muscles cramping up. Trying not to pussy out and shift posture. Your spine wilting to breaking point.
‘I wanna be like you (Hum dee oobee-do-ba) I wanna walk like you (Tee) Talk like you (Too) Too-hoo-hoo...’
Our proxy teacher, or guru, I name MC Spool as I don’t know his name, and his task does not extend much beyond pressing ‘play’ and ‘stop’ on the cassette player from which Goenkaji’s odd, rumbling, gelatinous voice is unleashed periodically to remind us to pursue our goal “paaaaatiently and persistantly, aaaaarduously and diligently” and to deliver most torturous and distracting ancient Buddhist chants.
The Sounds of Silence
So what are the sounds of silence? The noises that define the 10 days of ’Noble Silence’ that so many signs around the compound implore us to respect.
Forty odd people in a room barely or not at all introduced to one another. First thing in the morning, in the cold, chattering teeth, bodies rubbing themselves for warmth. Shawls being flung over shoulders and wrapped about. The Coughers. The Sniffers and Sneezers. The Handkerchief Rustlers. The Tummy Rumblers. The Fumblers. There’s the Indian lady somewhere near the front of the women’s side of the hall who often burps with wonderful abandon and disregard for western gender-based behavioural assumptions.
Of course the constant fear - I make a puerile assumption here - in many people’s minds is the danger of ‘letting one rip’ to use the common parlance.
And on the seventh afternoon that’s precisely what we get. Solitary confinement. The silent treatment. All of us ushered out of the communal meditation hall to take up occupation in private ‘cells’ inside the Vipassana compound’s pagoda building. Stevie to be confined to Cell 17. Unfortunately the ‘pagoda instructions’ we’re urged to read state that if you ‘are suffering from cold, cough or gas problems one should not enter the cell!’ This immediately sets me and Brendan-whose-name-I-do-not-know-yet chuckling violently.
'With a reep-bon-naza! ( Eh ba-daba doy ) Well-a-la-ba zini ( War-la-bop, boor-la-bop)...
I dash to Cell 17! But am unable to stifle my immature giggles. 'See-ble-bop, dooney ( Ooh, ooh, ooh!)’. The thought of a contraband fart now we‘re totally cut off from one another is even more hilarious to my mind. ( A mind clearly regressing to childhood as a consequence of my meditative state? ‘Freud, Jung, anyone, help?’ ). A good old grunt in this echoing 360 degree echoing oubliette of a building would really bring the house down! ( “Was it a boy? Was it a girl? The man next door or the chap round the corner in Cell 34? Who dunnit?!” ).
'With a huh, huh, huh, huh! ( 'Rrrawr, rrrawr' ) Get mad, baby! ( 'Hada-lada hada-lada' With a hada-lada hadoo-doo ( Oodle-loodle-oodle-loodle ) ...
The rest periods are odd affairs. No interaction or physical exertion permitted. We all drift from our dank, dark rooms to the bright outside and back again. Killing time like so many listless phantoms haunting the pleasant grassy, tree-cluttered compound. Happy to sit in the sun after the morning’s chill and quietly appreciate the soft subtleties of nature’s noises, these being only occasionally punctured by some far distant horn tooting, engine growling or music.
We all amble around.
...and then all of a sudden, after lord knows how many hours of meditation and pain, right at the very last hurdle and the beginning of one of our final sessions of meditation (my grin widening by the minute) the walls of silence so meticulously constructed by forty (semi) focussed minds over the last ten days are brought crashing down! Ripped apart - and not by a fart - but by the rushing in of sound and fury.
A middle aged Swiss-French lady called Christine storms in and to the front of the hall and launches a verbal tirade against MC Spool.
... and proving it’s never over - the fun, the fury and the farce - until the Fat Lady sings (and she’s not allowed to, so we’re all in trouble!) there's one more eruption in store. As if a day of ill omens, later on it is only three hours after I eject a small, black, vicious looking scorpion from my bedroom into the night air that venom returns to my door, banging violently to rouse me at midnight from my final slumber in confinement. Upon groggily opening my door, my Indian 'neighbour' and fellow Vipassanista paces back and forth screaming and shouting at me in a schizophrenic whirlwind of strange and marvellous accusations, threats and invitations to violence.
‘I wanna walk like you, talk like you...’
So why do we do it? These endless forays into what in my more cynical moods would be labelled the Realm of Mumbo Jumbo. Pursuing multiform hopes for spiritual evolution the determination of our physical future long since having been ceded to plastic surgeons, geneticists and diet-induced ruination. Have we now at the start of the 21st Century reached a collective realisation that we've become a species that's if not an evolutionary full stop, then a grammatical error perhaps? The only thing left to do being to consume our products, our environment, our world and ultimately ourselves, throw bombs at one another and attend Vipassana meditation courses as the only means to alleviate the boredom and despair that such a realisation of evolutionary obsolescence potentially engenders. Having long since understood and harnessed the mass-destructive capabilities of 'man's red fire' we've reached the top, and now we've stopped, and that's what's bothersome see.
My personal response? This may sound a little unusual but I am always a little wary of the pursuit of unalloyed happiness as the be all and end all of a life, though it's worthy and understandable enough and I've seen the worst of what unalleviated sadness can do. I am warier still of those who claim to 'know' and to pedal 'the way', their way to said happiness. Spiritual pathfinders. Often religious proselytisers and (other) cranks. It's all very well practicing emotional objectivity but happiness after all is entirely subjective and possessed of infinite forms and route maps. A French traveller once quoted for me that 'A happy man is a man with no history' and I tend to agree with the sentiment this encompasses. Who wants to be a blank slate? Yes, we do all have little pieces of pain inside. Small shards of psychological dark matter. Some of which we might be better off without. But these are deep and difficult treasures that I for one fear to throw away too lightly. 'Negative' emotions and memories are part of the palette; the rich deep colours that paint the picture of the person I am and will become. They can stir positive creative responses. Consideration of which may be necessary and therapeutic.
So I am uncomfortable with the counter-creative, or anti-imagination stances that Vipassana and other forms of meditation often logically entail. A life without a certain measure of sadness considered, a pinch or two of anger therein and a smattering of the fantastical is for me little of a life at all. I am not convinced of how cultivating indifference to sensation and strong feeling is of lasting benefit to the individual. I certainly don't see how such a philosophy, in practice, extrapolates to make the wider world a better place in practical, tangible ways that alleviate social inequity and collective suffering. This has always been a stumbling block for Buddhism in my mind, a religion I otherwise have a lot of time for. I see this as a path leading away from the art of living and of better understanding one another rather than towards it. A minor lobotomy of the human spirit. I like my Reality with a little more humanity. It's a noisy one. But it's all we've got and I guess it's time I got back to it.
And what did I actually achieve with these 10 days of patience and pain, and suffering in silence? Not a lot really. A refill for my stock of cynicism and fuel for some lame jokes. A silent comedy. Much as I'd like to say I've attained a fuller, deeper knowledge and appreciation of Buddhist philosophy and an understanding of the universal law of nature as one of inconstancy... I haven't really. This despite my new personal mantra 'My ass is impermanent. My ass is impermanent.'
I suppose I have honed the will power; the mental and physical stamina required to sit on my bum for hours on end, with an empty head and doing not much more than not a lot... but I'm pretty certain I did that very same thing every day at work for six and half years and was paid for the privilege. If I don't appear to be taking this awfully seriously, it's to be expected. Despite innumerable archaeological expeditions down into the dirt-layered strata of my psyche over the years, I'm yet to excavate a single spiritual bone from my body. But I'll keep on trying I guess. It's messy work, but it's fun!
Aside from family trauma and the stress of my university finals, in many ways the Vipassana Meditation course is the hardest thing I've ever had to endure and come through. And adversity is often a positive once through with. That old crucible effect. Most Vipassanistas (as I dub members of our rump-toughened international tribe of soul survivors), myself included, forever after baffle people with such contradictory summaries as 'it's the best worst hardest most interesting boring painful stupid and maybe necessary thing I've ever done. I think it was great!.. I just hated every minute of it at the time.' Strangely and part contradictarily, I would recommed you try it if you get the chance. It's an Experience with a capital 'E'. There are not always many of these in life. Even when globe-trotting.
I can't deny it's been an important 10 days for me in ways I don't yet fully comprehend; nor can I explain. The process was not without reward for me. Emotionally. Creatively. With so much calm time (to stop moving!) I was able to explore important thoughts, feelings and memories. And to begin to write about them. Many’s the time I sat cross-legged in pain and cried as much as laughed. All of which acts are contrary to the successful practice of Vipassana Meditation. But I don't care. I kinda hoped and expected it would work out like that. And I'm glad it did. You see, I'd failed before I even arrived!
Yep, I tried but failed. I may have survived but, I suspect only to come out near bottom of the class. Expending far too much mental energy upon praying for somebody to ‘let off a Big One’ rather than on sila, samadhi, anicca, dhamma and nibbana. Oh well, there's always next time. Yes, there may be a next time. But not for a long time. Meditation undoubtedly has its physiological benefits. Psychological ones too, though evidently with risks to the contrary. But either way, for now, for me, it's 'for the birds'.
'Zee-dee-dee bop-bop-botta doodle-dat un-dat un-dat un-dat un-dat un-dat... Maaaaaan, that iiiis a stone groove!'
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