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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Indlovukazi, or YAASSS QUEEN

I’ve written many times here about how confusing the siSwati language can be. This post isn’t entirely about that. (I should note that my students frequently remind me that English is extremely difficult, and I agree.) One example of siSwati’s confusion is any number of ways to refer to males and females. Umfana (pronounced oom-fa-nah) and lijaha (pronounced lee-jah-ha) both refer to an individual boy. Bhuti wami (pronounced boo-tee wah-me) and mnaketfu (pronounced oom-nah-gate-foo) both mean “my brother”. Make (pronounced mah-gay) means “mother”, but it’s also used at times to mean “woman”. Umfati (pronounced oom-fah-tee) means “wife”, but is also used to mean “woman” at times. Dzadzewetfu (pronounced zah-zay-wait-foo) and sisi wami (pronounced see-see wah-me) both mean “my sister”.

On my homestead, my host family consists of my host mother and sister. Others may come back at certain times of the year. One of the people who comes back often is my host brother, who lives and works in South Africa. He speaks many languages including Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. Sometimes, I understand the Zulu and very small pieces of Sesotho. When my brother speaks to our little sister, I try to follow the conversation. Luckily, most times it’s siSwati or Zulu. I noticed that whenever he addressed her, he always started “Indlovukazi…”. That’s not her given name (which no one uses) or her nickname (which everyone, including our make, uses). I kept hearing it.

Indlovukazi, ufunani kudla (what do you want to eat)?

Indlovukazi, ufundze njani (how was school)?

Indlovukazi…

Indlovukazi…

One day, I decided to ask him what Indlovukazi meant. He chuckled, and explained that Indlovukazi (pronounced en-jlo-voo-gah-zee) means “queen” in Zulu. (In siSwati, it’s Indlovukati). He went on to explain that he wants her to grow up knowing that she’s a queen and demand to be treated accordingly. He explained that it’s his responsibility as an older brother to demonstrate how the world should regard her. It’s true. Our little sister might have a few names and be called many things in her lifetime. I can only hope that she remembers she is Indlovukazi.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – I would like to publicly thank my students who make sure I rise to the challenge of learning and speaking siSwati.

Getting naked in Cape Town (SFW)

It was Sunday evening. I had returned to Swaziland to attend training. I was on cloud nine after having the most amazing weekend in Cape Town. I had started the weekend with two goals. Eat great food and ride bikes while naked. Cape Town is known for some exquisite cuisine. The World Naked Bike Ride happened to be on the same weekend. Both of my goals were exceedingly accomplished! I ate amazing Thai food and sushi. Other PCVs at the training commented on how refreshed I looked as I shared highlights of the weekend. I smiled. I was extremely rejuvenated. 

One PCV friend asked when I would be writing about this experience on my blog. I responded that I wouldn’t be writing about the naked bike ride weekend. I had reasoned that the weekend was not related to my Peace Corps service, and that this blog was singularly about my service. I had reasoned that I wanted to be a “good” volunteer, and not attract bad publicity or attention to the Peace Corps. 

The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) is a clothing optional bike ride that takes place in more than 70 cities around the world. People from all walks of life join in to celebrate people powered transportation. Most ride bikes. Some ride longboards. Some participate in roller skates. Others choose to run. 

The reasons that people choose to participate, like the participants themselves, are diverse. Some people want to bring attention to our global dependence on non-renewable energy. Others want to highlight the vulnerability of cyclists and remind motorists to share the road. There are naturists, and naturism activists, who use the ride to promote a clothes-free lifestyle and remind the world that nakedness does not equal sex or lewd behavior. 

My first WNBR was 2012 in Philadelphia. A big reason for my participation, at the time, was to be part of an exciting counter-culture. It was thrilling to be around 2500 people in various states of undress. 

To date, I have done the WNBR in six cities on three continents. While it’s still exciting to be naked and ride bikes through the city, I have added to the reasons that I ride. Having struggled with body image issues at various points in my life, I try to fully embrace body positivity, both in practice and thinking. People with all kinds of body types participate in the ride, and all are welcomed and embraced by fellow ride participants and most onlookers. Cape Town was no different. As we rode through the city, people lined the streets to cheer for us. The smiles were plenty. The weather was perfect. I was even gifted some delicious pizza after the 7.5 km ride. I even posed for pictures, and completed some interviews (one of which ended up on Japanese news). Body shaming has been normalized and is commonplace in far too many places. Simply stated, I ride because I refuse to embrace a culture of shame. 

After much internal debate on whether or not I should write about my experience at the Cape Town WNBR, I decided that it was necessary. Yes, this is a blog about my Peace Corps experience. However, that experience isn’t limited to teaching classes, building gardens, and writing grants. Also, I believe in the importance of fully representing the great expanse known as the US of A. Some day, someone will read this while wondering if there is space in Peace Corps for them with all of their unique intricacies. Let this post be a resounding yes! 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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