Vipassana in the time of Corona
A personal message that isolation and silence need not be a challenge.
The question in the minds of many is how to weather a long lockdown. I have an elaborate answer for it, shortened in the above headline through a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic Love In The Time of Cholera. But the answer had nothing to do with this stellar work of fiction.
I write this as someone who is locked down practically alone on a large campus. And, yet, I look forward to it.
Ask me why. The answer lies in something I tried to get myself to focus on decades ago. Not once but four times in life till date. You, too, can try it once the coronavirus storm blows over, as it almost certainly will.
Let me come to the point, bringing the journalistic inverted pyramid into the picture even as I write a feature.
The answer – in one word – is Vipassana. It’s a Buddhist meditation technique brought to India and then transported to the world, by the late SN Goenka, a Myanmar industrialist who conquered recurrent migraines through it and made spreading it his life mission.
I heard about Vipassana in the early 1990s from my elder brother, who took to it as a B Tech student of IIT Bombay. It fascinated me as a student of a nondescript college in Rajasthan, studying history in the time of engineering. But I just heard about it and let it pass.
Then I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University as an MA student in 1997. JNU was a challenge in its ways: our professors ‘tortured’ us so much with work that studies in history acquired hideous wings. Just imagine having to submit an assignment of 2000 handwritten words every 10-15 days, with a reading list of anything between three and six books, written by intellectuals who used writing as a form of quarantine against easy access.
Coming from a college that valued human freedoms more than knowledge, I was all at sea. And with no island in sight. I finished the first semester like a wounded – and ready to retreat – warrior. I went home for the winter break in 1997, with the air of a rebel who would have none of this. I had to read about 20 terse books in the three months preceding the resolve, write assignments on what they said or concealed and why I agreed or disagreed with them, defend my half-baked views before my classmates in a presentation overseen by professors who were often public intellectuals, and also attend classes between 9 am and 5 pm to ensure I found the clue to understanding readings that deliberately concealed more than they revealed. Language was their weapon to accomplish the task.
That attendance wasn’t compulsory was just a trap.
Back home after the first semester, I announced to my parents: I want to quit JNU. They left it to me, trying to calm me down. But my Vipassana-exposed brother told me on the landline a day later: “What all in life will you escape? Go for Vipassana.”
I agreed instantly. I was in Jaipur for the break. The city had a very good Vipassana centre tucked away in the hills near the Galta temple.
I arrived for the residential course on December 22, 1997. The course manager – surprised that a boy wanted quick access to wisdom -- asked me whether I was sure I wanted to undergo this. I nodded, prepared for and looking forward to the worst.
Then it all began. Our ‘noble silence’ – as it is called -- began that night and we were allotted small rooms on a sprawling campus surrounded by hills. It seemed exciting as I took the oath to take shelter in the Buddha and Dhamma – the law of nature that, I was told, permeates each atom and molecule and the whole universe. I took five solemn oaths, which included complete silence of the mind for 10 days and nights. It meant no talking, gesturing, reading, or writing.
The next day, I got up at 4 am, hoping that 12 hours of silent meditation a day – interspersed by recorded instructions by the founder and a few breaks in the day – would be a fun encounter with the self.
We could not eat after noon throughout the course. And we could not have tea or any intoxicant. So, some prospect of deprivation came as part of the package.
But the struggle I was preparing for crashed on me by the end of day one. Aching joints and a wandering mind that I had to get to focus on my incoming and outgoing breath like a conscientious watchman weighed heavily on me.
For the first three days, I was supposed to observe my breath for hours on end. And from day four, I was trained to observe each part of my body, bit by bit and sequentially. And this was to be done by shutting down thoughts, pains, and pleasant sensations by just observing them like an indifferent yet curious outsider.
In the evenings, as I took a stroll during rest hours, I looked at the hills, sometimes thinking I should run away that very night, and at other times recalling how Jawaharlal Nehru described the Himalayas as an inspiration in jail. It was a frenzied, cacophonic, dialogue with the self, particularly during hours of rest.
For days, I rode the wave of internal turmoil. My unconscious mind raced to break the leash of my conscious self, but my conscious mind reined it in each time. During the lunch breaks, I would think of the past, present, and future, despite instructions to live in the present. I would look at chirping birds in silence, envying them. I would steal glances at co-meditators strolling around, seeking to somehow penetrate their minds to sense if they also felt the way I did.
One day, I saw a young couple from Europe looking at each other with untold grief from a distance during the lunch break. One was sitting on the men’s side of the mess and the other, a young woman, across on the women’s side, perhaps 20 metres apart. Both just looked at each other with sad eyes in complete silence. I looked at them, conjuring up their imaginary stories in my mind.
Each day was full of moments to be encountered and defeated. By the power of effort and discipline. And through noble silence. The body aches disappeared in four days flat – I was just 21 – but the mind kept wandering. Our schedule was from 4 am to 9 pm, and there were times when I felt aware and empowered, and other times when I thought about my family, about long-forgotten friends, and fought a tear or two in silence.
Days passed by. My self-awareness grew. I began to get up at 4 without an alarm, acutely aware even during a refreshing, sound, sleep.
From day eight, the pressure eased. I kept reminding myself that this too shall pass; my mind was sharpened like a pin. From day six we had to sit in Adhishthan (firm determination) for more than once a day. The deal: don’t move your arms or legs – if the pain becomes intolerable, observe it without reacting and break the chain of karma – and see, without attachment or revulsion, how each sensation is impermanent.
I could do this only once in 10 days. In one particular sitting for an hour, I did not move. My legs in padmasana position seemed ready to break to pieces, but my mind did not break the resolve, just observing an ever-increasing pain. And the pain indeed disappeared suddenly after about 50 minutes, with the blood perhaps finding a way to break the curfew imposed by the legs locked in a yoga pose.
On the 10th day, with each day a struggle in itself, the noble silence ended. As I walked out of the meditation hall, I was trying to observe rather than react to my excitement. I had conquered isolation, fears, pain, and hunger – I did not even feel hunger much – for 10 days and nights. A few minutes later, I came face-to-face with a co-meditator, whom I had observed stealthily, among many, and who perhaps did the same. The moment our eyes met, we smiled with the unfettered ease of infants, saying nothing but reading in each other’s eyes an expression of restrained triumph -- if only for 10 days -- over the self.
The next day I left for home and withstood the second semester in JNU like a rock, attending each class, retiring at 9.30 in the night and getting up at 4.30 am almost mechanically.
The semester was a cakewalk in terms of stress and allowed me to engage with ideas rather than my hitherto disturbed self.
As I lock myself down amid a national shutdown, I remember Vipassana. It seems that it has come to me without my choosing to do a course. I have done four full courses and some short courses – permitted only to those who have done a full course – in the last 23 years. I lose practice each time and wonder if I am meant for it.
But I realise now that it builds reserves of patience and strength to fight isolation.
I am prepared. I look forward to observing my fears and boredom until they lose interest in me.