Friday, January 25, 2013

Sound of Silence

Today I returned to Kathmandu after a 10 Day Vipassana meditation course in the hills of Shivapuri. During the course we had to follow 5 precepts (old students had to follow 8): not to kill (not even flies), not to steal, not to use intoxicants, not to engage in sexual misconduct and to observe noble silence. Noble silence was the most difficult of the 5, not only could we not speak for 10 days, but we couldn’t communicate, smile or make eye contact at all. The purpose is to feel like you are studying in isolation to decrease distractions. But after a while it doesn’t feel so good to ignore/be ignored, you forget the sound of your own voice and you begin to feel trapped inside your mind. The last day when we were able to break noble silence I don’t think anyone stopped talking for the rest of the day.
During the course I was prohibited from writing in my journal, so I don’t have a daily account of the course or my thoughts (though there were so many I couldn’t possibly remember them anyway). We weren’t allowed to write, read, listen to music, exercise, yoga, snack or pretty much anything to minimize distractions and thoughts. During the few break times the only options were to wash, do laundry, nap or walk around. It was quite strict, but I don’t think I would have had the results I did if I were allowed to play in between sittings.

Without getting into the technique or deep into the dicta of Dhama I’ll give you a little idea of what the 10 days were like. If you would like to talk philosophy I would be more than happy to pass on what I learned in a more personal way.

My 10 days at the Vipassana Center were like…

… being a nun.

When you are participating in a course you are more or less acting like a monk or nun. Upon arrival you are asked to give all your money, credit cards, passports, valuables etc… to the staff. If I hadn’t read up on the place first this would have been where I turned around. The first thing you learn about international travel is you NEVER give up your passport. But I did, and I got it back, so it’s fine. You give up all of your possessions and dress modestly. We were all in long pants, skirts, jackets and draped in several blankets.

 The men and women are separated throughout the entire course. There are two sections of the compound and there are no reasons for men to be on the women’s area or vice versa. Even in the meditation hall men file in first and get situated and close their eyes before the women enter.
During the entire course, students are on a nun’s schedule. Each time a session started or ended a gong was rung to signify it was time to move.  If anyone tried to skip a session or sleep an extra few minutes someone was in their space telling them to go to the sitting. The schedule was:

4:00: Wake up
4:30 Group meditation
6:30 Breakfast and Break
8:00 Group meditation
9:00 Meditation
11:00 Lunch and Break
1:00 Meditation
2:30 Group meditation
3:30 Meditation
5:00 Snack and Break
6:00 Group meditation
7:00 Dhamma Discourse
8:45 Meditation
9:00 Bed

 In order to sustain ourselves we have to rely on the donations of others. The entire center is funded on donations (it is against Dhamma to pay for a course or for food/lodging while you are there) so you are eating what previous students have paid for. Your food is made for you, and you eat whatever is put in your bowl and don’t complain. The sleeping area is minimal with a hard mattress (I have bruises on my hips from sleeping on my side) without heat or privacy. Like a nun, you give up your life and survive on the kindness of others.

… rehab.
As mentioned, one of the precepts is not using intoxicants during the course. But beyond that, a lot of the lectures talked about addictions and cravings and the danger they present to your happiness. The basis of Vipassana (and Buddhism) is that everything in this world is impermanent; life, thoughts, feelings, objects and cravings. If you train the mind to recognize when you are creating a craving/aversion you can teach it that this craving doesn't really exist and in all actuality doesn't mean anything to you. Intoxicants in particular are dangerous because they are cravings that cause mindlessness and while mindless you are more likely to participate in impure actions and create more cravings (sakara).

… Hogwarts under Dolores Umbridge.
The code of discipline was very strict during the 10 days. And since you can’t speak, and no one can speak to you, there are helpful reminders of all the countless rules around the compound. Each rule is written on its own sheet of paper and posted on the wall. It’s like the wall of decrees that Umbridge imposed on Hogwarts.

… a Vulcan school.
Vipassana and Dhamma focuses on purifying the mind and removing all sakaras from deep within. You should never feel agitation, anger, passion but you also should never feel pleasure as well. Both positive and negative sensations create reactions and feed the ego and personality. It reminded me of Vulcans. They do have emotions, but through discipline and training they are able to completely control their emotions and reactions through their mind. This is pretty much the crux of Vipassana meditation. Dhamma teaches that all things are impermanent, including emotions, so it is logical to not have emotions to stimuli that don’t exist.

… an advertisement for Valinor.
Through Vipassana you are meant to fully liberate your mind and reach enlightenment. Only an enlightened person can break the chains of samsara (birth, death, rebirth, death, rebirth, death…) and be free. It reminded me of Valinor. At the end of Lord of the Rings the elves leave Middle Earth to the west, to another world of peace. This is what enlightenment is like for me. But aren't we all a little sad when the elves leave? Couldn't they have more fun if they stayed?

… being in prison.
The first day of the course we were told about 5 times that this is a very serious undertaking and once we begin there is no way for us to leave. It is dangerous to the mind to leave in the middle without the final day. There were a few people that were overwhelmed by the course and had great difficulty either losing their freedom, being forced to be in isolation with their thoughts and mind or just didn’t find that it suited them. These people were not allowed to leave and were forced to attend all sittings. It was like a prison for them. And I don’t blame them. The first few days were absolutely miserable. It is incredibly difficult to sit in a cross legged position for 2 hours straight without moving. It’s scary to be left with your untamed mind with all the time in the world for it to run free. It’s isolating to be surrounded by people but being ignored by all of them. It’s frustrating when your mind won’t stop wandering and you feel like you’ll never make any progress. I felt the urge to run, too. But by the 10th day my legs stopped hurting, my mind stopped wandering and I found peace. It’s hard to lose your freedom, but by the end I understood why.

… finding my religion.
Vipassana is very firm that the goal is not to convert people from one organized religion to another. It is possible to practice Vipassana and not be Buddhist. But with this said, Vipassana is the meditation technique that Buddha used when he reached enlightenment and later taught to the world. The discourses explained the 4 Noble Truths and the 8 Fold Path and is based on Buddhism in its purest form. But I suppose, technically, Buddhism isn’t really a religion as there is no worship. It’s more of a philosophy. But it’s hard to think of as just a set of ideas and not as a religion.
About a year ago I started reading and studying Buddhism. The ideas made a lot of sense to me, and the philosophy seemed to be more applicable to the world than anything else I had ever learned. These 10 days were my trial run, in actually experiencing and practicing. It felt good, and it cleared my mind and brought me peace. Something religion has never done for me before. I am finding that spirituality works a lot better when it is something you discover and experience for yourself, not just something you’re told to believe in. I fully intend to continue my Vipassana practice, but maybe not taking it as seriously as a nun. The suggestion to develop Dhamma is to meditate an hour in the morning and the evening, which I think will be possible. Ask me again in 6 months if Vipassana is still a part of my life. We’ll see how it goes. 

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