Tuesday, June 18, 2019

iPause: Meeting Myself At A 10 Day Vipassana Meditation Course.

At Peace - Global Vipassana Pagoda, Gorai Mumbai

It was the greatest sensation of existence: not to trust but to know.
~Ayn Rand.

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It was the second day of the course, evening session after the tea.

Guruji, (late) S. N. Goenka, had just finished speaking into the intercom sitting us through the instructions for the session.

Breathe in, breathe out. Just observe your breath. Natural breath.
Where does it touch inside the nostrils? Can you feel it?

Be aware of every breath, as it comes in, as it goes out. Naturally.

The emphasis was on the word – naturally.

For, this wasn’t any exercise. This wasn’t Pranayam, there weren’t any specifics on regulating the breath in any way. Just an observation, of the respiration, as it is, in a bid to sharpen the senses using the faculty of the mind and the breath as a tool.

A few minutes into the meditation, and a tear rolled down my eyes, taking me by surprise.

And then, one more. Before I knew, a stream was flowing down my face.

It was the first time after about 2 days of back aching meditation, that I had been able to go a bit deeper and establish a loose connect with my own breath.

It was also the first time when I did not want to move.

I just wanted to be – with my own breath.

My own breath… so soft, so delicate, so pure… bereft of any judgments, any blemishes, any dents of life, any criticisms, any shoulds, dos, don’ts or fears.

When was the last time I had met myself like this?

My thick crust of resistance succumbed as my thoughts plummeted to a bare minimum. I kept my focus intently on the flowing breath, eventually sinking into a place of infinite surrender.

Where was I?

More importantly, who was I?

I had melted, into a space beyond words – into a vacuum, a space of nothingness. 

Something had moved, and it had shifted to a place I had never explored before.

Like a weary traveler long looking for shade, I rested there not knowing till when this meeting would last or where my next stop in the journey would be.

It all sounds a bit dramatic now, I know, but I guess… it really was. This moment in the journey of Vipassana and like this, a few more. More of it was however - anguish at first— agonizing and frustrating, most of the times.



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Just Before Stepping Into the Noble Silence … Day Zero!


Day zero starts on a note of chit chatter.

I cut a pretty happy picture, for all the people, my co-students, who are meeting me at the venue for the very first time today. What contributes to my happiness is the fact that I am finally here, that I have had the courage to look my fear straight in the eye and take this step of getting admitted in the 10 day residential course despite being terrified at the initial thoughts of doing it.

Most of the students are old timers, having attended the course earlier many from their headquarters at the Igatpuri center. A very few however, are like me - novice and eager to learn.

Quiz the old timers if the course is tough, and they all have their own sweet counsel for a rookie like me.

But, it’s Vani Karra’s words that resonate deep within me.

Is there anything at all I should remember while doing the course – I ask her. And, pat comes the reply – Don’t listen to any advices. Be open to the technique and follow Guruji’s instructions only, very attentively. Come what may. Do not leave the course.

Working in an IT company at a senior position, she has come all the way from Chennai along with her husband by taking leave from her office to attend her nth course. It’s their annual ritual, she says with a beatific smile, to go underground for 10 days in a year – one that she has been practicing since the first time she attended the course in 1996.

Hah! I brush her words off, my confidence beaming high; I have not come all the way till here only to leave it midway. Don’t worry.

After the first few hours of the total 100 odd hours (10 hours per day for 10 days) in the meditation hall that I am going to face, I understand what she means: My mind, though keen to comprehend, is already fighting for life. Life, that is beyond the placid confines of a soft square cushion and a strict set of explicitly laid out rules: No writing, no  talking, no reading, no music, no communication, no eye contact and a 4 a.m. wake-up bell!

Mission Mediation Begins!


I am fidgety, restless one moment, squirmy the other. For someone who’s had no experience in meditation before, there is a strong urge to open my eyes owing to the built up pressure in the third eye forehead area which I successfully resist with every ounce of determination I have which lasts for about 10 minutes, sometimes 20 and at other times it could be even less than a minute.

Instead of concentrating on something as insubstantial as the breath, all the mind wants to do is meander, snoop and wander.

So that’s what I do: Open my eyes, and steal some glances in the room.

To the left is my neighbor, 38 year old Aditi, fidgety as well, offering me some sort of noble consolation!

This languidness of mine, however, receives a kick the moment I sweep my attention to the right where I spot Vani Karra sitting on a chair towards the fag end of the hall. Her eyes are closed and she has a relaxed angelic aura all over her.

Vipassana Meditation Hall, Gorai Pagoda, Mumbai
The hall where we meditated - men seated on one side and women on the other.
(Picture credit: Kavita Sajnani)

SO MANY Questions!


For the first three days, we are practicing Ana Pana Meditation which means to concentrate the mind by the observation of the breath. By observing the breath, we are sharpening our mind to switch off from the outside world and go within.

As simple and straightforward as it may sound, it’s a process that can’t be rushed.

I open my eyes, stretch my legs and twist my back at regular intervals as advised by Guruji who says the idea is not to torture your self but to train the mind and since such a training is out of the mind’s comfort zone, at first it’s bound to revolt.

"You’re trying to use the mind to SEE the breath", says my teacher, Mrs. Madhuben Mehta, a thin, white haired lady, of around sixty five, dressed in scrupulous neatness, seated on a chair, in a loosely fitted salwar kameez, "you only have to feel it, beta" - there comes my huge a-ha! moment in the journey, the antidote to the pressure felt in the forehead area.

By the third day, a surge of students have taken the helping of wooden L-shaped recliner to sustain their back during the meditation. I’m myself contemplating of asking for one:

I really want to do Ana Pana Meditation but I’m wondering what to do about my back; teacher, it’s breaking. As soon as I try to concentrate on my breath, the persistent biting in the back calls for immediate attention – due to which concentrating on the Ana Pana meditation becomes agonizingly difficult.

"The back pain is there – okay but don’t give it any importance instead try to bring your attention back on what you’re asked to do", she says, her voice warm, soft yet firm.

My attempt at Vipassana is a sincere one. I am here to learn, to grasp, to open up to new ideas and thoughts and ways of life and living.

But --

How do you overlook something that constantly asks for your attention?

How do you live with a pain point and yet focus on what is happening in the now?

How much of what I am experiencing in this moment is a figment of my imagnation and how much of it is rooted in reality?

My curiosity is full throttle even in the pin drop noble silence.

Bit by bit, part by part, my curiosity is satisfied, amazingly, by The Man himself – Guruji, S.N.Goenkaji… who in his hour long discourses in the evening delves deeper and talks on the initial difficulties in pursuing the noble eight fold path and the reason for the difficulties, the purpose of the meditation, the nature of the mind, and how by making our way through the illusionary suffering, we can penetrate through the apparent reality:

Everyone knows that the entire universe is constantly changing, but mere intellectual understanding of this reality will not help; one must experience it within oneself. Perhaps a traumatic event, such as the death of someone near or dear, forces one to face the hard fact of impermanence, and one starts to develop wisdom, to see the futility of striving after worldly goods and quarrelling with others. But soon the old habit of egotism reasserts itself, and the wisdom fades, because it was not based on direct, personal experience. One has not experienced the reality of impermanence within oneself.
Everything is ephemeral, arising and passing away every moment — anicca; but the rapidity and continuity of the process create the illusion of permanence. The flame of a candle and the light of an electric lamp are both changing constantly. If by one's senses one can detect the process of change, as is possible in the case of the candle flame, then one can emerge from the illusion. But when, as in the case of the electric light, the change is so rapid and continuous that one's senses cannot detect it, then the illusion is far more difficult to break.
One may be able to detect the constant change in a flowing river, but how is one to understand that the man who bathes in that river is also changing every moment? The only way to break the illusion is to learn to explore within oneself, and to experience the reality of one's own physical and mental structure. This is what Siddhartha Gotama did to become a Buddha. 

Guruji’s discourses played on a projector are among one of my favorite times of the time table: Not only does he shed light on many an unresolved questions that swirl in the mind of his students, his uncanny mix of wit and humor makes the sessions pretty enjoyable as well.

Global Vipassana Pagoda as seen from Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Meditation center, Gorai Mumbai
Strolling in the garden was another favorite activity of mine -
Every day, three times after the meal, I would look at the Golden Pagoda, overlooking our residential quarters
and pray for the strength to continue for the day.

Among the many things I learn is also the reason why I ain’t getting any sleep at night for the past three days – No, it’s not homesickness nor some meditation induced insomnia as my mind has apparently led me to believe (and worry about!) but rather it is because the mind is receiving the rest it needs by remaining aware and equanimous through the day -- meditation is the best form of sleep!

Phew!

The riches of Vipassana!


After the first three days of Ana Pana meditation, where we train the mind to remain focused and reflect on the peacefulness of the surrendered breath, on the fourth day, we start taking dips in the Ganga of Dhamma within by exploring the truth about our own self at the level of bodily sensations.  

To all the students who survive to see the fourth day at the center, are bestowed with the riches of Vipassana, where one is required to observe the sensations that arise in the entire body (both pleasant as well as unpleasant) in a particular order, such that one becomes aware of all the sensations, from moment to moment, but does not react, does not tie new knots of craving or aversion, does not create misery for oneself.

Guruji in his day 4 discourse explains the technique further:

It is a choiceless observation. Never try to select sensations; instead, accept whatever arises naturally. If you start looking for something in particular, something extraordinary, you will create difficulties for yourself, and will not be able to progress on the path. The technique is not to experience something special, but rather to remain equanimous in the face of any sensation.
In the past you had similar sensations in your body, but you were not aware of them consciously, and you reacted to them. Now you are learning to be aware and not to react, to feel whatever is happening at the physical level and to maintain equanimity. If you work in this way, gradually the entire law of nature will become clear to you. This is what Dhamma means: nature, law, truth. To understand truth at the experiential level, one must investigate it within the framework of the body.
By working in this manner, one begins with gross, apparent truth, and by remaining equanimous, gradually one penetrates to subtler truths, to the ultimate truths of mind, of matter, of the mental factors and finally to the ultimate truth which is beyond mind and matter.

Dhamma at the Global Vipassana Pagoda, Gorai Mumbai


So while just observing by doing nothing and exploring the entire body, from head to toe and toe to head repeatedly, for around 10 hours a day on a soft cushion in an AC hall, sounds splendid, like stepping into a vast ocean and riding a powerful wave to a life of tranquil freedom, there are great undercurrents hustling to take me down under the swell.

One gross sensation, my burning back pain that I could easily observe for the past couple of days and which died down miraculously by the end of the third day - now gives way to a few new gross sensations, equally intense and excruciating, for my mind to toy with - throat pain, nasal blockage and mild fever.

A lot of the times, I feel exhausted by these gross sensations which seem to easily overpower any other sensation there could possibly be but I am still determined in my practice and intrigued to investigate this phenomenon of Vipassana.

My control puts up the greatest fight of all on the fourth and fifth day; resisting, from time to time, my sincere attempt at this kind of awareness with everything it has – constant thoughts about my niggling throat pain, and nasal blockage, constant worries about the future of a looming high fever, oh, the woes and the misery, and the pains and the melancholy — it’s only a matter of a few minutes that it encompasses my mind, and gives it countless convincing reasons as to why it is imperative to focus on so many other important matters that are at hand than simply do nothing except observe what’s going on in the body.

Guruji’s words comes to the rescue again – you have to work yourself; no one else can work for you. It is good that you have taken the first step on the path; now keep walking, step by step, work very patiently, work very diligently, work very attentively – you’re bound to be successful, bound to be successful.

There is a wave, yes but there is no need to ride it – only to create space for it and surrender.

And so I do, by continuously bringing my mind back on the moving breath in between the explorations and in surrendering to it, shifting to a place where there is indeed nothing to do, just observe and so much to discover and learn!

Adhitthana – Sitting of Strong Determination.


It’s during Adhitthana – sitting of strong determination for three times during a day - that my patience, perseverance and diligence are severely tested. Basically, it’s in these one hour sittings that we don't move, not even an inch, nor do we give any kind of reaction, even while being fully aware of the sensations – Annica, says Guruji, rest in the knowledge of their impermanence.

Endless minutes which seem like hours, sitting still, with eyes closed and back straight leads me to confront another stark reality of my technology laced existence – I feel a strong desire to move my body and do something, anything (distractions, anyone?), accompanied with abrupt bouts of laziness and boredom.

"Did you move during Adhitthana?", the teacher quizzes on the first day we practice Adhitthana and I sheepishly answer yes, "twice I think – too much pain and pressure in the leg."

Try to do it without moving, it’s possible – you can do it!

I never again move from that session onwards, such is the magic of motivation and determination.

Single meditation cell, Global Vipassana Gorai Pagoda, Mumbai
Each student is allotted a small meditation cell on the sixth day, where one can practice alone.

Performing Surgery on The Mind.


Once I start watching closely, the sensations constantly rise and die, weave and reweave their energies into a rich sparkling net of potential, every moment becomes a revelation.

There is this sensation this moment, and there is an awareness of the sensation, and then there is no sensation the next moment, but there is still an awareness of the no sensation this moment – this makes for an experience, an experience unique to the framework of mind and matter field.

What or how do I feel during these times?

Adhitthana is challenging but an uninterrupted, undisturbed stretch of 1 hour of reflection is highly rewarding. The sensations I feel are not always easy to define and neither is it expected of us – just an awareness is enough and then we move on, just like life itself, recognizing how the entire mind matter constitution are in constant movement, change and transformation.

It’s a mystery, this connection, this energy, the dynamicity of it, difficult to be put into words. Some show me every ounce of pain in the world, and since the technique goes against any reaction, my mind is left with no choice but to counter these through the eyes of boundless love while some others ignite incalculable nerves of my being.

Stepping beyond the veil of words, thoughts and language, in a long long time, I am face to face with an emptiness that initially charms my attention, eventually throwing me off into a different world. Here, silence is personified and a doorway of communion to an unknown world.

It’s a communion to something that is at a level far deeper – the (subconscious) mind.

It’s a communion with the nakedness of my being, the reality that I’ve feared, which is neither a matter of terror, nor of control or fear or shame, but of peace and stillness.

Guruji explains this communion in the best way possible:

Vipassana is a deep surgical operation of the mind, to remove its impurities. One has to face this process bravely. It can be painful to remove pus from a wound, but the pus has to be taken out.

The pus referred here being, aversion and craving. It is what it is, and by observing their impermanence, you sit with the truth… the truth that nothing is good or bad except the perspective you take of it and such a truth is very powerful.

You just know the sensation and work accordingly – dhamma doesn’t teach you to get depressed, to complain, to worry, to obsess, to crave, to detest – but just to know and move forward, move beyond our conditioned perspectives of shoulds and coulds, turn them upside down and ACT in life with awareness and knowledge — in every given moment.

I try to understand and apply this lesson simplistically at the time: So, my throat pain is not my throat pain but just simply throat pain. I am getting all panicky and worried about a looming fever but this is not dhamma rather to know and act in a manner that relives throat pain is what dhamma is. There is no I, my, mine in this form of communion  – for beyond the screen of drama, is where the truth, the action lies, it is where we see the reality, we meet the truth, our own Self!

That very evening, I request the teacher if I can have (against the timetable rules) a glass of hot turmeric milk before retiring for the night as a curative measure to the throat pain. My request is amiably accepted. I never spend a moment worrying about the throat pain again.

Garden Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Meditation center, Global Vipassana Pagoda, Mumbai
The trail and the reflections when walking with nature: A perfect reminder that everything is ephemeral.

Back To The Noisy World.


On the tenth and the final day, we break the noble silence by embarking on a new level of the meditation technique – Metta Bhavna which is a balm for the deep operative surgery of Vipassana to heal ourselves and consequently others. This technique enables smooth stepping over into the material world by free flow sharing of love, peace, happiness and compassion we accumulated within ourselves for the past nine days out of our beings to those around us and all over the world.

Before breaking my vow of silence, for one last time, I go back to my room. There is a commotion brewing outside in the main hall where people have assembled to take their deposited things back from the management.

I detest the noise, this commotion, the chit chatter on the outside; the silence, the stillness on the other hand I experience within is enticing.

Laying there all alone and still on the cot, I wonder if I am slowly getting back in the endless worldly pit of craving and aversion yet again?

I wonder if there will ever be salvation for people like me who have never known a different way than find their abode in the written word.

A few moments later, I am saying my hellos to my fellow Vipassana mates, sharing my saga of the ten days gone by, and listening to theirs. Vani Karra is nowhere to be seen - she had to leave the course midway due to some personal reasons. Only her words remain - It's by the grace of God that we have come here - to Vipassana.

Come the last day, and it’s time to go home. As I make my way back through the Gorai creek, I beheld the calmness of the waters; so much going on beneath and above the surface of the waters, but on the surface, only a calmness. Peace. I take a deep breath and with it, the big question homes in on me – now that I have successfully packed in so much during the course of Vipassana, how do I seamlessly integrate the technique with the demands of the existent (social) world?

How do I open my heart and mind to know the sensations that are rising all around me every moment even as I speak?

And make something (meaningful) of this life?

The profundity of my questions keep getting denser as the golden protruding thumb of The Pagoda keeps getting fainter in the distance.

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It’s been exactly around 3 months... since the Vipassana course allowed me to complete it… and all I have with me today is this faint vision of the home, the final destination of my becoming.

On and off; I keep going back to the practice, reaching out to the me who lies underneath all the many layers for I know the power is always there, waiting to be unleashed.

In between, I continue to experience all that the universe has to offer with the hope that someday, I'll meet myself again, somewhere in the middle.

Till the time we meet to never part again... I keep walking, step by step, patiently, diligently, attentively, carrying the resonance of the worldly sensations on the nib of my pen and resting in the dappled shades of My Yatra Diary.

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Some FAQ's for the Vipassana Meditation Course:


How are the facilities provided at the Vipassana Meditation Center?

The rooms allotted at the Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Center at the Global Pagoda in Gorai are single and come with bathrooms and AC attached. Read all about it here.

How much does the course cost?

The courses are absolutely free - there are no charges for rooms or food, and certainly none for the teaching. When one is there, one lives on the charity of the others and what one donates after finishing the course is of benefit to some other unknown person.

Does a Vipassana Meditation help? Should I do it?

The question I really want to ask you is 'Do you want to do the course?'

If no, then wait for the time. I did the course at a time when I was at a crossroad, when I really wanted to do the course, I was eager to know more, looking forward to it and not because of someone else's should randomly thrown up at me. The experience, though challenging, will make you sit face to face with your own self in a way probably you've never known before. Just remember, that if you want to do it, you CAN and you WILL do it!

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My 10 day Vipassana Meditation Experience

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I attended the Vipassana meditation course from 6th March to 16th March 2019 in Mumbai. Since I hadn't taken my phone or camera along during the course, all the pictures that you see in this series are from my subsequent visits to the center or as specified. You can read the complete Pagoda Vipassana Meditation blogpost series by clicking on the following links:

10 things You Must Pack For Vipassana Meditation: A Checklist!How to Reach the Global Vipassana Pagoda From Gorai Khadi in Borivli, Mumbai.



Friday, June 14, 2019

Visit Austria - The land of Mozart and Waltz.

Austria can quite literally ‘awe’ you!

Oh yes! Don't you believe this? Well, you’re not to be blamed as the world mostly raves about a few famous destinations. However, visit Austria once, and you’ll delightfully waltz in exploring its natural beauty and cultural charm!

Austria
(Image source: Pixabay)

A landlocked country in Central Europe, Austria has a melange of majestic mountains and hills, gleaming alpine lakes, beautiful vineyards and so much more. Add to this its culture, architecture, music,and dance, and you have a perfect place to lose yourself and enjoy to the fullest!

If the wanderer in you is looking for just the right escape, then Austria can be an excellent place to visit. To travel to this heartening place, you’ll first need a Schengen Visa. Moreover, you could also buy an online Schengen travel insurance plan to ensure that any unexpected travel-related challenges do not dampen your spirits by causing you significant loss.

So, before you visit Austria, get a glimpse of all that it has in store for you - 

1. Soak in The Cultural Vibes.

Austria abounds with regal elegances that include baroque architectures, splendid museums,and colorful medieval buildings. Salzburg’s old town is one of the most beautiful in Central Europe. This old town has preserved its old-world charm so well that it is named as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Also, Vienna, the capital city of Austria, has many imperial palaces and unique sites like ‘Funeral Museum,’ and ‘Hofburg’ along with many cathedrals and opera houses. The state of Innsbruck also has many grand buildings that will give you a glimpse of Austria’s rich cultural roots.

In addition, a visit to Linz will leave you in awe, as it has architectures from across the ages that still sits there beautifully amidst the natural beauty. One of Austria’s finest museums of modern art, the ‘Lentos Museum’ is also located in Liz and is a must-see place.

2. Bask in Its Natural Beauty.

Bestowed with picturesque landscapes, Austria is a feast for any nature-lover. From the vineyards of Vienna; mountains of Innsbruck to many other sights and attractions, you’ll find yourself beguiled seeing them all.

Another way to witness Austria’s breathtaking beauty is to take the ‘Wachau World Heritage trail.’To catch one of the gorgeous mountain views, you can even head to ‘Zwolferkopf Mountains,’ where you can have some fun while skiing.

The ‘Bathing House’ around Lake Constance is another gem that Austria proudly owns to its credit. If you like the idea of exploring charming, quaint little villages, then plan a day out to ‘Hallstatt,’ situated in the ‘Salzkammergut’ region. The list can go on and on, after all, Austria is endowed with an abundance of beauty all over.

3. Enjoy the Adventurous Thrills.

If your idea of traveling not just entails appreciating beauty and culture, but also having a great adventure, then Austria won’t disappoint you one bit. There are plenty of options here which include everything from hiking, skiing, parasailing, surfing, and sailing.

Lake Attersee, one of the largest lakes in Austria, is a hotspot for indulging in windsurfing, sailing and other water sports. Hiking up to the mountains of Innsbruck, you can also witness alluring Alpine views. For a lifetime experience, you should try snowboarding and skiing over the mighty Alps. Tyrol, the Alpine zoo in Innsbruck also offers visitors a chance to experience hiking or skiing over the glaciers.

4. Lose Yourself in Myriad of Other Experiences.

Austria, the land of music is famed for giving the world many renowned musicians and artists like Wolfgang Mozart, Johann Strauss, and many other names. It also gave the world the beautiful waltz dance. So, as expected, Austrians celebrate music, dance, and art with great enthusiasm. You can witness all these either at the opera houses that are forever pulsating with such performances or catch folk songs, country dances and carols which are celebrated in its vibrant streets.

Not only this, you can visit ‘Cheese Street’ in Vorarlberg to taste 40 varieties of cheese and go to ‘Cafe Central’ to experience authentic cafe culture famous in Vienna. When in Austria, you can enjoy gondola rides atop the mountains, and the Ferris wheel rides on the Vienna Prater among several other immersive experiences that await you there.

Be Safe and Secure When You Travel

The best time to travel Austria is mid-March to May and October to November. So, it’ll be best if you plan your trip around this time. Also, to ensure that you can have maximum fun while you’re traveling, consider buying an online Schengen travel insurance to cover yourself against any unexpected contingencies. Especially because Europe is an expensive place, therefore, even a small expenditure can cause you significant loss.

The Schengen travel insurance plan will provide you medical cover against illnesses or injuries that you may sustain while on your trip, ensuring that the substantial costs do not fall on you. Also, the policy will compensate you for loss of checked-in baggage, trip cancellation, or missed connection. Moreover, the plan will also take care that if something happens to your house in your absence, then you’re covered against those expenses too.

So, before you fly to Austria, purchase a travel insurance plan, and enjoy your trip without any worries! 

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About the Author: Meera Dewaan is an aspiring writer, literature geek and author. She has several journals, articles and papers to her name. Writing is her passion. She writes about mostly all genres.