Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Vipassana Meditation Retreat Course - My 10 days of Experience in Silence

Four years back when my sister did her 10-day Vipassana course, I looked at her with disdain and thought how could she waste her 10 days doing nothing but meditating. I told her if I ever were to get these many days, I would rather go on a trek than spend time on Vipassana in silence and isolation.

Fast forward to November 2017, I have now completed my 10-day Vipassana course and I can’t help but chuckle at the idea of saying ‘no’ to anything else in life. For those of you who don’t know what this is;  it’s 10 days of meditation close to 11 hours a day, and one is not allowed to speak, make eye contact, read, write, listen to music, sing, exercise, or indulge in any form of entertainment  (no phones,book,diary etc). Women and men are segregated and first meditation begins at 4.30 in morning! I am sure many of you will be like..no way! I too was few years back until I decided to go. Hope my experience will give you an insight and information about Vipassana Meditation Course.

Reaching the centre
As I left the Vipassana center at Dharamkot (Dharamshala, India) on the morning of Nov. 12th, Gautam (my husband) was walking up the mountain trail to receive me. His eyes lit up as he came closer to welcome me back in the real world and as we walked back to where he was staying, I felt as if I was shuttling between 2 worlds. Back in the balcony of our room overlooking the valley and McLeod Ganj, we sipped hot tea and he asked me about my last 11 days. And so it began..

The centre

Due to my avid love for mountains, I always wanted to do Vipassana at the Dharamkot center. Since I had already done my Buddhism course at Tushita Center at Dharamkot last year in 2016, I knew the area. Since the course gets booked in advance, I remember staying awake until 12 one night in early September to reserve my seat in the course. In fact, I had registered for the course last year also, which I couldn’t attend somehow. That’s why everyone expected me to bail this year as well. But little did I know what lay ahead.

The 10-day Course is an introductory course to Vipassana Meditation, which is 10 full days of meditation ending the morning of the 11th day by 7:30 am.

Vipassana means to see things as they really are. An insight into the true nature of reality. It is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.

Why I went for Vipassana
Somewhere in life, all of us lose touch with reality and become robotic beings going about our daily lives. I know I did. Anger, happiness, joy, sadness all sit huddled next to each other and we are always ready to react quickly at the slightest of things in life. It’s as if you lose touch with your real self. That’s how it came to pass for me as I found myself at the crossroads of my life with overwhelming emotions, anger, and I realized that something had to change in my life. Although I had taken a few other meditation courses, I had always been intrigued by Vipassana. It seemed more like a challenge that I wanted to face. I knew that it was unlike mountaineering and had its own challenges. Merely sitting for hours at a stretch and meditating was something that had been alien to me. But before I signed up, I knew I could do it. I would be able to last 11 days of intense meditation, silence and come out with a better understanding of myself. At the end of the course, by digging into my psyche, I was able to realize that joy that we feel in our daily lives is impermanent. True happiness waits further away along the shores of our soul’s realm. It could never be purchased, but only be experienced through self inquiry and awareness.

Journey through the course

Day 0: The overnight bus from Delhi got me into McLeod Ganj early morning around 6 am. Upon reaching, I caught a ride on a rickshaw to Dharamkot where I had breakfast and tea. After whiling away some time, I entered the Vipassana center around 11 am where men and women were segregated. We were then led to our meditation rooms, which seemed more like a cell with only a bed and a table. After putting away my luggage, I wandered around Dharamkot and returned back to the Center at 2 pm for registration and to check in any belongings that were not allowed inside the center. I said goodbye to my phone, food items, diary, books etc. for the next 11 days. For me personally, food was going to be the biggest challenge considering the limited meal options available during the course. The volunteers who help organize the course seemed friendly and so did the other female course mates with whom I interacted. The meditation room, which would be my home for next 11 days made me slightly claustrophobic at first. In evening, we were briefed on rules and regulations and on the principle of noble silence. All who attend Vipassana course must conscientiously undertake the following five precepts for the duration of the course:
  • to abstain from killing any being;
  • to abstain from stealing;
  • to abstain from all sexual activity;
  • to abstain from telling lies;
  • to abstain from all intoxicants.

The Code of Discipline

The foundation of the practice is sīla — moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight. Noble silence was to be strictly followed and no interaction with anyone was allowed. After 8 pm, the noble silence began and we were to observe it for the entire duration of the course. After having khichdi for dinner, we all retired to our rooms. From 4.30 am the next day, the meditation regime would begin.

Daily Schedule

Day 1-10
This was to be our daily schedule from day 1-10. The toughest thing was to get up at 4 in the morning. You can’t escape the loud gong, which is rung and after that all sevaks (volunteers) come at your doorstep and keep ringing the bell until you wake up. First morning meditation happens from 4.30 to 6.30 am. Designated places in the meditation hall are allotted to all students with males and females segregated. Dharamkot Vipassana Center is surrounded by pine and Deodar (Cedar) trees and sun intermittently shines flirtatiously through the leaves. Since it was early November and beginning of winter, there was slight nip in the air and we would reach the meditation hall bundled in our warm shawls.
My small room
Dharamkot center has lot of monkeys and one girl was bitten by a monkey and I was forced to break my silence to allow the Doctor in me take charge and give her appropriate vaccination.

Lunch is served at 11 am and consists of Rice, Roti, vegetables, daal mildly spiced without onion and garlic. There is no dinner, but puffed rice and tea are given at 5 pm. For old meditators, only lemon water is provided at 5 pm. I thought I wouldn’t be able to manage without regular meals, but as the course progressed, I realized that I did not need that much food. During rarely available free time, I would watch the monkeys create havoc, Sun playing hide and seek, listen to rustling leaves and heaving winds. Since it was chilly in November, we were in our woolens. Laundry facility is also available at nominal charge. If you have any special food requirements, it is not provided. One lady in our batch was pregnant and adequate meals were provided for her. All our meditation and other sessions was started with the sound of the gong, which directed our day instead of our watches. By 9.30 pm, everyone was in their bed.
The first three days of meditation are Anapana Meditation, which means mindfulness of breathing followed by observing sensations around and below the nose area. From 6.30 am until 8 am, I had free time. During this time, I would have breakfast followed by shower. Breakfast used to be wholesome with tea, cereal, fruits, etc. We were supposed to wash our utensils after each meal. It was quite striking to see such a large group of people (meditators) dining together without a word or gesture being exchanged with anyone. Vipassana meditation is free for all and in the end you may make a donation. I earnestly appreciated the selfless service of volunteers during the course.

On some days, the long hours of meditation really become tedious. I wish there was Yoga or some sort of physical exercise available for our aching bodies from long hours of sitting and meditation. I used to really look forward to SN Goenka’s teaching in evenings as it was a welcome detour from long hours of meditation. I used to listen to discourses in English as I found it hard to follow the ones in Hindi. Goenka Ji’s discourses are always focused on having realization through direct experience and not at intellectual level.

For the first three days of the course, I had zillion thoughts buzzing through my head refusing to go, but the best thing was to watch your thoughts come and go and concentrate on your breath. Around 10-12 hours of meditation happens each day and at times, it becomes very hard to sit in the same posture for extended periods of time. Each minute feels like an hour. Chairs and backrests are provided for people who need them. Personally, I wanted to run away and leave the course on the third day as the long hours of meditation seem to never end and the endless thoughts frustrate you. In hindsight, I’m glad that I endeavored to persevere and successfully finished the course. Around 6-7 female students left the course midway. On day 4, I started reading the labels on my shampoo bottles and collecting pebbles. I had read instructions and details outside meditation hall a million times. My mind begged for intellectual stimulation.

From fourth day onwards, one is taught Vipassana meditation, in which one experiences and observes bodily sensations, both good and bad and merely observes them without having aversion or craving. It focuses on maintaining an equanimous state of mind and observing life unfold as a detached self. It puts great emphasis on having an inner discourse devoid of rituals and mantras. It talks about having deep compassion for all beings and understanding the nature of misery, which is attachment. Anicca or impermanence means that everything shall pass and nothing remains forever. By watching our gross and subtle sensations come and go, we delve deeper into the phenomenon of anicca and can incorporate it in our daily lives. During long hours of meditation, my whole life flashed in front of me. I relived all moments of anger, tears, frustration, loss, happiness, hidden fears, aspirations, and dreams. And yet as I finished my course, I found this deep sense of calmness, that indescribable happiness, that quiet mind and overflowing joy and abundance. Vipassana starts with observing sensations in each body part and as you progress, you do multiple body scans and observe different sensations as detached self with equanimous state of mind.

Day 11 : Metta day
This is last day of meditation and the day to meet and greet. Morning meditation happens as usual followed by Metta meditation from 9-10.15 am and after that the noble silence ends. Joyful faces are all around, chatting and sharing their experiences. We got all our stuff back except for mobile phones which we received at 4 pm. I was ecstatic to get back my diary and write about my experiences. One can make voluntary donation of whatever amount one wants or feels. Then special lunch is served followed by meditation and metta chanting “sabka mangal ho”, a prayer for wellness of all beings. At the end of meditation, I was all in tears and left the place with more compassion, awareness and peace, realizing that bitterness towards people, situations would only make me bitter and embracing life without judgement will help me grow as a person. We all chatted till late night and we were full of contentment our faces were brimming with the radiance of inner joy. I slept with sheer joy and gratitude.
Fellow meditators

On morning of
day 12, I left to face the real world and seeing my husband waiting at gate smiling made me realize how his absence made me aware of his everlasting presence. Because without his support and encouragement, I would have pushed it to some other year. We sat on a bench in solitude and I shared my experiences with him after which we went to our favourite cafe in Mcleod Ganj to savour some hot tea and homemade bread.

What worked for me
  • We are slaves of our mind and like a computer program, our reactions are preset.
  • Vipassana taught me to observe as detached self and with equanimous state and then how so ever will I react will not be an unconscious predetermined response. 
  • Happiness is not outside. 
  • There is no end to craving and the real journey is within. 
  • Helped me in quieting my inner turbulence and anger.
  • No one else could do it for me. I had to make efforts. Not to forget the body aches and numbness. 
  • This too shall pass, the bad and the good.
  • Enjoy every moment in the fact that it is ephemeral. Love without attachments and clinging.
  • I could sit through traffic and honking without excessive cursing. 
  • Take what works for you.

                    What did not work for me

                    • There is no emphasis on posture or breathing.
                    • We are asked to stop taking all non prescription medicine and stop any previous spiritual practices during the course.
                    • I felt drowsy, bored and lethargic due to long hours of meditation.
                    • The course did not include any physical yoga.
                    • Not allowing assimilation of other practices, rituals or mantras.
                    • Teachers are not equipped enough to clear doubts.
                    • After sometime, lectures become tedious and repetitive with over emphasis on the fact that Vipassana is the best technique. 
                    • Ending of course was too abrupt. Not a word from teacher on course completion. Only relying on Goenka’s lectures.
                    • Not exactly non-sectarian as claimed during the course. There is a lot of Buddhist influence in techniques. 
                    • I didn't like complete segregation of men and women.

                    Leaving the Centre after completing course

                    Before leaving the centre
                    After all these days of meditation, I realized that sitting silently and doing nothing is not quite easy as it might seem. I would invest time in adjusting my pillow’s position to make it comfortable. Yet, as mind quietened towards the end, I enjoyed it and no longer waited for it to end. I sobbed, cried and deep catharsis took place inside me during the course and I realized the art of living. It is not easy because for the first time, you come face to face with reality and are witness to bitter truths of your life, which you always evaded.

                    Be well and thanks for reading.

                    Tuesday, November 28, 2017

                    Kailash Manasarovar Yatra via Lipulekh Pass (PART 10)

                    August 4, 2016 (Day 14) - Rest day at Taklakot

                    I woke up early in the morning all weary and tired from loose motions since the previous night. I was devoid of energy and medicines were more or less not working. In none of my treks, had I been this sick. I looked at the beautiful morning and found strength in sunshine. After having covered so many miles from Dharchula, I wasn't going to give up at this stage. I had barely eaten anything apart from bananas and ORS. Being a doctor myself, I was able to judge my condition, but despite that the fighter in me did not want to give up. A lot of fellow Yatris also came forward to motivate me. I was crying in a corner thinking about my father and asking him to give me courage to complete the yatra on foot, which would be a homage to him. Perhaps it was destined for me to go through this suffering as part of a cleansing process before proceeding further towards the sacred land of Kailash. I called my husband and my mother who all encouraged and prayed for me. My situation did not improve the entire day, however, by night time my loose motions were contained and I felt better.

                    First view of South face of Mount Kailash from Darchen after clouds cleared

                    Hotel at Darchen

                    Streets of Darchen

                    Moment at Rakshastaal

                    Beautiful landscape

                    As we waited for darshan of Mount Kailash

                    You need to pay China Visa fees on this day, which was USD $901 for us. Different committees like food, luggage, medical, bhajan were formed. I obviously was in the medical committee. Little did I know, I would be treating case of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) in coming days of Kailash Parikrama.

                    Everyone suggested that I take a pony for my Kailash parikrama but I was adamant to go on foot, so I refused. I slept with a prayer on my lips and harnessing my inner Chi in order to complete my Kailash parikrama on foot.

                    • Do not drink the local water and buy Bottled water instead. I had loose motions after drinking the local water. 
                    • Keep your torch and headlamp handy.
                    • Carry light baggage because after crossing Lipulekh pass, you need to carry your luggage until you board the bus to Taklakot.
                    • Always keep your medicine bag with you preferably on pony of liaison officer. 
                    • As China time is 2.30 hrs ahead of IST, you may want to adjust your watch.
                    • Drink adequate water and do not take AMS lightly.
                    • There is patchy WiFi available at Taklakot, so you may call your friends and family using WhatsApp or other services. 
                    August 5, 2016 (Day 15) - Taklakot to Darchen via Rakshastaal and Lake Manasarovar

                    Got up at 5am in the morning and thankfully had no loose motions at night. I awoke feeling weak and exhausted as we were already at the altitude of around 13500 ft. Had 2 bananas for breakfast and someone came and put bhasm (holy ash) on my forehead. At that moment, I knew that divine masters were with me and I would be able to complete my Kailash parikrama on foot. We all sang the Om Managalam bhajan and left in bus at 10.30 am CST (China time) and reached Darchen at 1.30 pm. In bus, I was all exhausted and had little energy to even take out my camera. Darchen is at the altitude of around 15000 ft. It started to rain midway and upon reaching Darchen it felt as if rain gods would never leave us. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful, dry, barren and enthralling. The cloud patterns, azure blue sky, wild horses and expansive landscapes. At that point, you really wish that time would stand still so you could continue gazing. Enrote I saw Rakshastaal and I was spellbound. It was huge and had little islands in between in hue of vibrant blue. We stopped here for 20 mins. It was bright and sunny as we roamed around.
                    First View of Rakshastaal from Bus

                    Rakshastaal means "lake of the demon". It is also known as Ravana Tal, as it is considered to be the place of severe penance by Ravana. In Buddhism, Lake Manasarovar, which is round like the sun, and Rakshastal, shaped as a crescent, are respectively regarded as "brightness" and "darkness". There are four islands in Rakshastal, named Topserma (Dose), Dola (the two biggest), Lachato (Nadzhado), and Dosharba. The islands are used by local people as winter pastures for their yaks. Rakshastaal covers a total area of 250 square kilometres (97 sq mi), at an altitude of 4,575 metres (15,010 ft).

                    Our next stop was Lake Manasarovar. My first glance at Manasarovar transported me to another world and all my illness vanished after washing my face with the holy water. Suddenly the weather deteriorated and our buses took us back to Darchen. We would later spend 2 nights on banks of Mansarovar at Qugu after completing our Kailash parikrama. Finally, we reached Darchen and my room mate was Vaijyanti Aunty. The south face of Mount Kailash is visible from Darchen, but due to cloudy conditions, we couldn't have that glimpse upon reaching. Soon clouds gave way to clear skies and we had our first darshan of the south face of Mount Kailash. That moment can not be described in words, but only experienced.
                    First view of Lake Mansarovar

                    Later in the day, there were arguments and more arguments between guides, yatris and our liaison officer. Our guide was extremely rude and he was forcing that the kitchen staff be taken as porters for the parikrama. All your luggage stays at Darchen until parikrama is finished and you are only allowed to take luggage up to 6 kgs with you. Porters would refuse to carry any excess baggage. Hence, I had to leave my tripod behind at Darchen. We had to pay our guide to pay our porters. Since my bag exceeded 6 kgs, I carried camera and some other supplies with myself and gave some rest to my  porter. Tomorrow, our Kailash Parikrama would start and I hope my preparation and determination would carry me forward and help me complete it. 

                    • Never take kitchen staff as your porter even if they speak Hindi because they will abandon you mid-way and move on to reach the campsite towards end to cook food, which would leave you without your luggage and supplies towards the end.
                    • Most of the porters assigned are Tibetan who speak neither Hindi or English, so most of the communication is done in sign language. Make sure your luggage does not exceed 6-7 kgs at the most and tell them to walk with you.
                    • Take plastic bottles to carry Manasarovar jal and take M-Seal and tape/adhesive with you to secure the bottle cap.
                    • Female porters are more kind and considerate and would walk along with you.Dont forget to tip your porters adequately as they help you in such adverse conditions.
                    • For your parikrama lasting 3 days, do not forget to carry energy bars, medicines, warm clothes, rain gear in your day pack.
                    Next part of blog will be about Kailash Parikrama.

                    IMPORTANT ADVICE: We should be blessed that we are chosen for this yatra and it is our responsibility to not litter and keep Devbhoomi clean. Carry your plastic wraps that you use with you and dispose them later. Try to clean the trail. Tell your porter not to litter. Gutka and chips packets lie everywhere. Particularly distressing was to see shores of Manasarovar littered with used underwear packets, ghee packets, used sanitary napkins etc. It was distressing and abominable. A place, which is so pious to us must be respected by all of us and deserves a conscious effort by all yatris to lead a cleaning drive as and when possible. Don't forget to do your bit, even if others are not doing it. 

                    To be continued..
                    Click here to read previous part of Yatra