Monday in a Picture – Vipassana

1st September 2018 – Quick Thoughts Before the Course

I have made it to the meditation centre. It’s located in a village in Goa. Upon arrival, I was directed to a space where lunch was being served. Lunch was a delicious veggie thali, with refills! The more and more I sit here waiting for registration, the more nervous I become. What have I signed myself up for? Why did I sign up? I’ve never done meditation. What even is meditation really? How will I make it these ten days? After lunch, I spoke with a man who introduced himself. He’s done the vipassana course twice already. He’s back for a third time. His only advice: “don’t quit/leave/give up”. This is the advice that I’ve heard echoed in blogs and other online forums about the course.

12th September 2018 – The Aftermath

So I just finished the ten day Vipassana meditation course. I had no prior experience meditating. I learned of ashrams earlier this year, and after talking to folks and reading various material, my interest was piqued. Why not try it? At best, I’m a better, changed person. At worst, I lose ten days of my life and whatever financial investment is involved. After searching the internets looking for places to do silent meditation courses in India, I came across this site.

I had no idea what Vipassana was. I briefly read some material, and started applying to do a course. The base course is ten days (you arrive on day 0, and leave on day 11 for a total of twelve days). I learned that the course was donation based. All I had to do was be accepted and actually show up. A course in Goa accepted me. I reluctantly showed up. Wild thoughts second guessing myself ran rampant. I kept reminding myself that if I can do Peace Corps, I can do anything.

When checking in, I had to submit my passport and other valuables for safe keeping. Everyone is also asked to submit their mobile phones, reading and writing material, religious items and any intoxicant. I everything was locked away for safe keeping and I was given a room number. No key. Just a room number. I go to the room. My roommate is already there. It’s a basic room. Two twin beds with sleeping pads and linen. A ceiling fan. A wash room (sectioned off by a curtain) with a sink, and separated squat toilet and shower.

I greet my roommate. For the next ten days, we won’t allowed to communicate with each other. During the course, participants are asked to maintain complete silence. No talking. No gestures. No glances. This is especially true for other meditation students. You are allowed to talk to the meditation teacher. Students are also asked to observe other guidelines including no lying, no stealing, no physical contact, no intoxicants, and no sexual activity.

After a light dinner, we’re shown an introductory video in English and Hindi (the languages this course will be taught in). Afterwards, we are separated by gender and assigned a cushion in the meditation hall. Using separate entrances, men and women are seated on opposite sides of the hall. We sat in silence for a while before the assistant teacher played chanting over loud speakers. We went to bed around 2100.

The first day (and every day thereafter) started around 0400 with a morning wake up bell. Meditation started promptly in the hall at 0430, and lasted until 0630. Breakfast was served from 0630 until 0715. We were given a “break” until 0800 to rest and bathe. The first official sitting of the day was from 0800-0900. Afterwards we’d get a short break before continuing to practice meditation until 1100. Lunch (usually a delicious veggie thali) was served until 1145. After lunch, we had a break until 1300 when we would resume practice. The next official sitting was from 1430-1530, followed by another short break. Following this break, there was more practice until 1700. This is when a snack (of a popcorn/peanut mixture and fruit) was served until 1730. There was another break until 1800, which was the last official sitting of the day until 1900. At this time, we split into groups (for language purposes) groups for the day’s discourse via video from S.N Goenka. The discourses typically lasted about an hour, after which there was another short break. Lastly, we’d come back together to practice until 2100. I typically went to bed at this point, but lights out wasn’t until 2130 with the teacher staying behind to answer personal questions about meditation and practice.

The first three days of meditation were doing using a technique called Anapana, during which the mediator observes their own natural breath as it is. While it sounded straightforward and simple at first, I often found my mind wandering. Bring it back. It goes off again. This process was, and still is, continuous. On the fourth day, the technique of Vipassana is introduced. The technique asks the mediator to focus on their own body’s sensations experienced as they are.

It’s difficult for me to explain. The purpose of all of this, as explained by Goenka, is to free oneself from the cycle of misery in life. Misery comes from craving and abhortion. Something pleasurable in life, but can’t have it now? Most of us crave it. Something unpalatable in life, but can’t stop it now? Most of us abhor it. The technique is meant to relieve one of their own craving and abhortion, and ultimately their own misery. This is supposed to lead to enlightenment, which is what Bhudda reached after he did Vipassana 2500 years ago.

As honest as I’m willing to be in a public forum within my own integrity, it was extremely hard. My mind wandered to many places. My childhood. College. Younger adulthood. My teenage years. Other places I won’t discuss. I realized some of things leading to my own misery/unhappiness/displeasure/whatever. That craving. Whew! The craving. I’m a meat eater. All meals served were strictly vegetarian. I didn’t crave meat as much as I thought I would. One day, I thought about how nice it would be to have a piece of fried chicken. The thought dissipated rather quickly. During the post lunch break on several days, I laid in my bed and thought about how much better things would be if I just had my cell phone. Then I just wanted to listen to some music. I just wanted to read the newspaper. Mind you, I rarely (almost never) seek out newspapers. I just wanted to shake someone’s hand, pat someone’s back, or hug someone. This doesn’t even get into the physical pain of sitting on the ground cross legged trying to stay still for an hour. There were many times that I had to remind myself: progress, not perfection. I understand the technique. I found benefit in the practice. Even absent of benefit from the actual technique, I found tremendous value in being with myself, in silence for ten days. There were definitely things that had been suppressed. I’m trying, even as I write this, to not intellectualize this as I’ve find myself doing with many things. Intellectual thought and theory is great for some things. It’s totally useless in others. Practical things need practice. The plan is to do that.

If you’re interested in taking the course yourself (or learning more), you can search for centres and courses near you. The courses are donation based, so no financial contribution is required or expected. But there is work to be done.

The picture is of the empty meditation hall. It was about 0415, so I guess it can be considered the calm before the other calms.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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In the lonely hour

​On one of my first runs in my community, I was greeted by several people who were out completing morning tasks. I stopped to exchange pleasantries in siSwati before continuing with the run. Some of the community members wanted to know who I was, and what I was doing in their community. This included a group of men hanging out at the local store.

As I ran past the store, one man yelled, “Uyagijima!”, which means “You are running!” I decided that I would stop to introduce myself to the group. Because my community is on the border with South Africa, it’s not uncommon for people to have business in both Swaziland and South Africa. I explained that I’m from the Washington, DC in the US, and that I’m a Peace Corps volunteer. We discussed my adjustment to the community and Swaziland, and how I was settling in.

After a few minutes of pleasantries, one of the men asked if I had a girlfriend or wife here. I informed them that I did not. They inquired as to why I hadn’t found a wife or girlfriend here. I told them that I wanted to get to know the community and focus on that. One of the men objected saying that I could not spend my time here alone. He explained that I needed the company of a woman at least a few times a month, and that he could assist me with finding a woman. I laughed, and restated that I wanted to focus on the community. Another man asked if the Peace Corps was a Christian organization, and if that was the reason I declined the gracious offer. I told them that the Peace Corps is not a religious organization, and that I really wanted to focus on getting to know the community.

In contrast to that conversation, I’ve found that my time in the community can be isolating. There’s quite a bit of time to be with yourself. There is time to think. There is time to ponder. After the encounter with the gentlemen at the store, I thought it would be nice to have some company. However, it’s also nice to discover new things in my community while meeting new people. I’m also thankful to have the support and friendship of other volunteers and others in Swaziland, and abroad.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.