10 Days Spiritual ‘Quarantine’
Did you ever wonder what Buddha was thinking about all those years while he sat under the Bodhi tree in India? His nose! It’s true. Focusing on the tip of the nose is the first stage of the meditation method he discovered and taught to millions in northeastern India around 400 BCE. It is called Vipassana, which means insight into the true nature of reality. The method is now being taught at Vipassana centers around the world.
Last week I participated in the 10 day introductory course in Jaipur, along with approximately 250 other students – a mixture of natives and foreigners. I’m happy to report that people from every culture struggle with controlling and taming their minds – not just Americans! I wasn’t overly confident as I walked through the big gate after signing an agreement that I would remain completely silent, and stay for the entire program “no matter what”. “What what?” is what I was thinking. I craved a clue about this mysterious “what” that I’d fully accepted with my signature, and resignation of my cell phone and packet of cookies I’d smuggled in after reading they would only serve two meals daily. It turns out they weren’t being cryptic with the contract, they just weren’t able to define the what in a two page document.
I’ve been meditating for about five years. I started with candle gazing, and then moved into a lovely method I discovered in Robert Thurman’s book, The Jewel Tree of Tibet. I remember the first time I was successful at a lengthy meditation during a difficult time of my life, how I floated through the house afterward with a light heart and mind, feeling optimistic and blissful. While learning the Vipassana method, I realized that the jewel tree meditation is similar to the first stage of Vipassana in that to truly meditate; you must start with a calm mind. This is easier said than done. The other difficult truth to face is that no one can teach meditation. I had come to Jaipur for an education, but instead I found the best environment to teach myself.
The program is a simple one: 10 hours on the meditation cushion, 8 hours for meals, laundry and study, 6 hours sleep. The first meditation session is from 4:30 – 6:00. During the first few days it was mostly used as a time to clear a night’s accumulation of mucus and gas. Having lived here nearly a year, you would think I’ve grown accustomed to the cultural acceptance (and maybe ayurvedic encouragement) to release whatever pent up elements inside ones skin in a public setting. But 250 expectorators became the kind of symphony even the gang of monkeys on the roof couldn’t resist celebrating. Without anything else to thinking about, I counted the sniffs and snorts just in the women’s section for an hour and lost track after one thousand. By day three I was writing this blog in bullet point thank you notes a la Jimmy Fallon:
- Thank you Dadi (grandma) for spooning me from behind and belching the Hindi alphabet in my ear – very impressive.
- Thank you Uncle for sneezing like Kermit the frog – the comic relief was appreciated by all.
- Thank you, young girl, for wearing all your bridal jewelry to Vipassana. I especially appreciated the anklets with big bells when you arrive 10 minutes late to every session. They gave me the opportunity to put some rhythm to the Indian Shuffle.
- Thank you to the two Russian girls who wore full Gortex ski garments to a silent meditation retreat. Every move you made sounded like a wind farm.
By day four, looking around the room at silent meditators, I gave up the fight with my brain. It was like my puppy Shusheela, running around the yard sniffing everything instead of sitting nicely on the mat. Goenka, the head teacher, delivered discourses nightly via audio tape designed to advance our scientific understanding of the method, and the psychological circumstances under which we had placed ourselves. Even his vivid encouragement that everyone in the room was “opening wounds and pulling out puss filled obstacles”, didn’t prevent me from thinking I was a lost cause – that Vipassana would work on everyone but me and I should just hand over the leash to Shusheela and she can drag my puss filled brain around the yard to her heart’s content. At least I will leave Vipassana with the new skill of being able to sleep sitting up in Lotus position; and I’m considering belching once in public just for the thrill of it.
That night I didn’t sleep at all – not one minute. I didn’t meditate, or think, cry….nothing. The night disappeared in a flash and I was on the mat again at 4:30 a.m. listening to the same mucus symphony. Then Goenka’s words finally started to sink in, and push up to the surface a lifetime of self-imposed suffering, and the consequences of not dealing with reality and truth. There were women around me in tears, others laughing, still others sleeping. We were all on the path to understanding how, without knowing it, we had shared our suffering with others, and thereby compounded it. And as women, we were beginning to realize how a lifetime of caring for others had given us the perfect opportunity to avoid sitting and meditating toward a healthy mind, negating the deep scars that result from untended wounds. We were guilty of masking our pain and that of others, but not eliminating it entirely.
The source of suffering lies within each of us. We must first understand our own reality, before we can recognize the solution to the problem of suffering. And is this possible – to eliminate suffering from wrong deeds and sad memories? Is it possible to remove emotional barriers at a quantum level, and never be hindered by them again? Is it possible to clear the mind enough to see only truth, and live a life of morality and good will? Buddha believed it is and he ventured inward to the junction between our spirit, and our senses to refine a technique to ease the interaction between them. He taught us to be observers in our life, not always reactors, because the only place to make change is from a place in reality. If we are always reacting to everything, we are always in a state of agitation and illusion, unable to make the best change possible. He did this to eliminate sankaras (imprints left on the subconscious mind by experience in this or previous lives), and prevent the formation of new ones.
I didn’t expect to become a Buddha (enlightened being) in 10 days, nor even a lifetime. But I did notice the symphony of noises around me pull away as I went inward and discovered a through line of good will running throughout the meditation hall and campus – a stream of reality ever present and objective. When we were allowed to speak again I sat down with some of the women and shared thoughts about our experience. They too had struggled, and were humbled, frustrated, excited, glowing, and overall – anxious to get back to the meditation when they returned home. I’m home again at the ashram. My meditation room is prepared, and we are creating several more meditation rooms around the ashram campus for visitors so they too can discover a calm and clear mind. For more information about Vipassana or to find a center near you: www.dhamma.org/en. And to read more about meditation from Shri Surajnath Siddh, spiritual leader of Shri Jasnath Asan in Rajasthan, see http://www.shrijasnathasan.org/suraj-darshan/