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About Vipassana


Note that I am a beginner, and not quite sure if I understand everything. But as I started to write about my personal experience, I also feel like sharing my understanding of the philosophy behind Vipassana.

It is a technique that was practiced by Siddhartha Gautama to attain enlightenment. He is known as ‘Buddha’ because the word ‘Buddha’ means the enlightened one. So in reality anyone who attains enlightenment is a ‘Buddha’. As to what is enlightenment, I don’t yet know for sure. However, I do believe that we are made up of more than mind and matter. When one stops identifying oneself with the body or the mind, and instead with what lies beyond it, then one is enlightened. There are things about enlightenment that either I do not fully comprehend or agree with. A separate note on that.

Some of the practical aspects of the technique first.

The meditation technique teaches you to separate mind and body. The first part focuses on ignoring thought. The more you try to ignore it, the more you hear your thoughts. The mind hates to not be in-charge. At some point you realize that your mind is controlling you, and not the other way round. The mind only knows two types of thoughts. These are ‘thoughts of craving’ ( wanting something) or ‘thoughts of aversion’ ( not wanting something). You also learn how even if you think a particular thought a thousand times, it does go away and is replaced by another thought. By nature, they are impermanent.

The second part of the course teaches you to observe the body but not react to it. This means sitting for an hour at a time without movement, no matter how painful it gets. You also learn to observe the sensations in the body in a specific disciplined way. The goal is to observe the sensation of pain ( or pleasure) only as a sensation of the body and separate it from the ‘thought of pain’ ( or pleasure). Here again, after a while, you start to notice that whatever the body is feeling goes away if you don’t react to it for long enough.

So the entire technique is built first on on separating mind and body. Second, on understanding that the mind or the body sensation actually goes away, even if you don’t react to it. Third, that the body sensation always precedes mental thought. Fourth, that while we cannot control the body sensation, we can control the thought that follows the sensation, (i.e. if we can first recognize the sensation). And last, to experience this phenomenon in our own bodies enough times, and not just understand it intellectually. (which will sort of defeat the purpose :).

The technique forces to not use any sort of mantra or visualization to meditate and to stay focused in reality. i.e. only pay attention to reality as it is happening with in the body. The mind or thought has no place in reality.

The philosophy behind the technique.

For simplification, I will refer to enlightenment as ‘peace of mind’, which is as far as my understanding goes of the term.

When Siddhartha Gautama ( Buddha) attained peace of mind, he only attained it for himself. He did not attain it for the rest of mankind. He has only told other people how he got there ( i.e. by using the above technique). So if another person wants to attain it, they have to do the work of getting there themselves.

When people say ‘take refuge in Buddha’, it simply means to take refuge in enlightenment. i.e. to take refuge in ‘peace of mind’ and to take refuge in ‘peace of mind’ simply means to understand that all thoughts and body sensations eventually go away and that nothing is permanent. Understanding that nothing is permanent gives ‘peace of mind.’ And that is the full circle.

I also understand the term ‘the middle path‘ a little better. I have been accustomed to seeing very extreme Buddhists i.e. those who choose not to eat anything but fruit, those who put themselves through extreme physical pain etc. I had the misunderstanding that these people had got ‘the middle path’ quite wrong. But I get it now.

The point of the ‘middle path’ philosophy is not about action at all. Any person is free to perform any action at all and very often actions have to be performed due to consequences. Life just happens. The ‘middle path’ is about ‘mind control’ and not ‘action control’. So If I choose to not eat sugar all year ( heaven forbid) or for some reason cannot get sugar, then the action of not eating sugar might be considered a bit extreme. However if I remain calm while doing it ( neither too happy or too sad), then I am following ‘the middle path’. This offers peace of mind and there you go again..

God has not created man in his own image, but rather man has created God in his. Buddha’s original teachings have little to do with Buddhism.

Things I do NOT agree with.

A large part of the discourse focused on our karma. Every action has a consequence. That the universe is balanced. That our actions can have consequences from a past life in to a future life. This means that some sad, cruel person died and his bad karma has flown itself in to a new life being born. This new born will now suffer the consequence of the actions of the sad, cruel person. You could get lucky and get the actions of a good kind person but either way I do NOT think this makes the universe balanced. Just the opposite.

I see a lot of poor men working in the heat of 48 degrees, making Dubai livable these days. Even if their previous lives had been spent killing and hurting thousands, I do not want them to suffer in the heat in this life, because of it. This is little to do with compassion. It has more to do with reason. THIS person has no knowledge of his past deeds ( if at all there were past deeds), so why should he pay for it in this life? How does this balance the universe???

To be modern, the teacher said on the tape, that if we do not believe in past and future lives, we can just use the karma philosophy over ‘one life’. Which I can sort of accept..but I’d still rather be good for the sake of being good, and not out of fear that some bad thing will happen if I am not good.

But what is good…..next 😉

Website for Vipassana: http://www.dhamma.org/

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My experience with silence


Between July 7th and July 17th, I attended a meditation course in Hereford, UK. The technique being taught there is called Vipassana. Although I had heard of it before, my interest in going there had little to do with Buddhism or Vipassana as such. I just wanted to go some place silent. And this, the camp offered in abundance.

For a period of ten days, one had to take a vow of silence of body and speech i.e. no talking by words, eye contact, gestures etc, no reading, writing, Internet, TV, phone etc. I was so drawn to the idea of getting away to some place quiet that I honestly didn’t question what I would be doing if I weren’t talking..

The first day


I was a bit late in getting there and when I arrived the practice of noble silence had already begun. I was shown to my room quietly, when my roommate walked in. I opened my mouth but she made a quietening gesture.. so I shup up. I hadn’t realized that I would be sharing a room with a girl.I didn’t know her name or anything else about her. It DID feel strange, but in an amusing way.

Five minutes in to the course, I was already sitting the meditation hall in my assigned spot. I tried to copy the others with their folded legs and serious straight backs and tried hard not to make eye contact with the 130 others in the hall. Half or them women, the other men. The men and women areas were completely segregated except for the meditation hall ( where they sat on one side and the women on the other). I was quite nervous the first day and happy not to talk. We were given instructions on exactly where to focus our attentions while meditating and I did my best to concentrate on that..and waited for five pm. Five pm was dinner time, where new students could get a fruit. Even though that fruit would be the last meal of the day, I wasn’t waiting for the gong to ring because I was hungry, it was just that my back couldn’t take all that sitting on the the ground like that. I did have a cushion but still…

Next

Over the course of the next five days, I settled into the routine. I was waking up at 0400, getting in to the meditation hall by 0430 ( which honestly, I only managed to do once) and then on it was just more meditation through out the day. There was a simple vegetarian breakfast at 0630 and a lunch at 1100, cooked by old student volunteers. The only voice we heard were from the teacher ‘Mr Goenka’ from Burma on tape, giving instructions during the day and explaining the philosophy behind Vipassana for an hour each evening. I was really getting in the discourses, it wasn’t so hard to ignore the others and my back was getting stronger. Hours and days were melting in to one.

I had read that the first few days are the hardest, so I was surprised to see that I was doing okay. There was a small forest area ( segregated of-course) with neat signs saying things like ‘ female course boundary ends here’. It made me smile and reminded me of my school in Abu Dhabi, which was the last place where boys and girls were segregated as such.

I don’t know if I can explain the mediation technique philosophy properly – but suffice to say, it did me good. It didn’t include any visualizations or mantras. It wasn’t Buddhist, but taught the meditation as per his teachings. It was a very simple method on how to observe the body and ignore the mind for 11 hours each day. (I do intend to write more on this later, when I find the words for it.)

There were things that I did find hard of-course. And I found them much harder as days went by. My mind which I was supposed to ignore, did not want to be ignored.There were thoughts there that were insane, stupid, silly, non sequential.. I wasn’t hungry, but I would think of a Deli Luca calzone in detail, and suddenly switch to mobile widgets, to the state of world refugees, to the itch on my foot, to where my next job would be and of-course I just couldn’t stop thinking about sex. 🙂

A few days in, the images in mind, which also I was supposed to ignore, were so sharp they were real. I made paintings in my head. I wrote songs. I also, am embarrassed to say, surfed in my head. I literally typed out URL’s and went on imaginary websites. I learnt my mind is really quite wasted. I spoke with others after the course was over and they had similar thoughts and sensations at different times. Those into music had constant tunes and songs playing in their heads at the strangest times.

However, the deeper I went into the meditation, the worse things got. Day seven onwards was hell.I am glad I did it. I wouldn’t want to be without the simple truths I learnt of myself during the meditation. But it was no longer easy to reign in my mind. It just felt as though it was attacking me from within. I also had severe chest pains. They would go away eventually when I would stop meditating or thinking about them. But they were there lurking below. I was also finding it hard to entertain myself in the five minute breaks. It rained constantly, so it wasn’t possible to walk in the forest the same way. I felt things should be getting easier.. yet here I was. The course was almost over, and instead of me finding lightness and joy, all I felt was pain and desperation and loneliness. Its only now, when the course is over, that I can appreciate what I learnt hiding underneath all of those surface feelings.

I learnt that I could withstand the bad stuff on my own with a calmness of mind and spirit quite unknown to myself.

Some other stuff

The banana story

So as I said above, we would all be able to get a fruit at five. There were apples, pears, oranges or bananas. Choosing which fruit I would have for dinner was one of most exciting moments of my day! I bet it was the same for others. So anyway, a few days in, I really wanted a banana. No more apples, oranges or pears. Just one decent looking banana. Like really!

Unfortunately there were fewer bananas and they would be the first to disappear. Every day I would wait in line for my turn. By the time I reached the fruit basket, they were gone. 😦

Then one day, my turn came and there WAS one last banana in front of me! I COULD take it. As I had been observing my body in meditation all day, I cold sense how much it wanted it. But then I looked at the long line of girls behind me, and I couldn’t help but think that if I wanted it so badly, someone else probably did as well. If I take this banana, someone else won’t get it.

It seems absurd now, but it was such a momentous decision. My mind was furious with myself, but I didn’t take it. I couldn’t. I didn’t see who did take it either. It was just one of those moments that was so trivial but I don’t think I will be forgetting it anytime soon:)

My roomie

I had a lovely roommate. As I had come late, and the silence had already begun, we didn’t get the chance to introduce ourselves. She was young, pretty, white, smiled even though she wasn’t supposed to smile at me, was the only well dressed person at the camp and had a jar of face cream with Russian letters at the night stand. That’s all I knew for the ten days. It was hard not to speak when we were alone, but really, we didn’t break the rules at all.

Of course I wondered who she was. I pictured her as a shy, meek, eastern European girl. I mean she had a cream with Russian looking letters. And she was smiling shyly all the time. Plus she was quite feminine, and that’s how I separate western Europe from eastern in my mind.

The thing that really warmed me to her, was on day seven I had eaten lunch quite quickly and gone back to my room to sleep. My chest hurt like a mad persons, I couldn’t talk about it and the only thing that helped was to keep it pressed hard. My roommate came by to get something from the room, saw me asleep, and figured there was no way I had eaten yet. So she brought some lunch in to the room, and quietly left.

I could hear she had come in and gone, and I could smell food. I saw that a food plate had been placed on my side of the nightstand and she was nowhere. I ‘assumed’ she brought it for me, but how could I know? I was very amused:). I went in to the forest to look for her. She saw me walk towards her and could see I was about to open my mouth. Then suddenly both of grinned so widely, it was all understood!

I returned the uneaten plate to the canteen and we went on being quiet until the last day.

She turned out to be a not so shy, full of life girl from Sydney who made music for a living! She had assumed I was Brazilian 🙂

We talked non stop, all the way to London.

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Sometimes


I don’t quite know why I am doing this.

Okay, so I know why, but I am not sure how the next 10 days will impact me, or if they will have any impact at all. All I know is that when I was 20, my mom and I visited a Vipassana meditation center. We looked around and asked a few questions and I knew I wanted to spend 10 days there almost instantly. But I did not.

10 years later, I have finally signed up for it. It starts tomorrow. I am in a strange way, really looking forward to the silence it promises to offer.