Last day before departure into ten day oblivion. We’re starting to be somewhat nervous. Living as a monk for ten days, not speaking, reading, writing, no cell phone, e-mail, texting - only your own thoughts and mind for a company… what will come up from the unconscious? Will it help attaining ‘Freedom from the Ego Self’? And: do I *want* to be free from my ego? Will not life be boring with all longing taken out? Perhaps I’m missing the point of it. We pack and prepare; a flashlight, some bed sheets, a padlock. Let’s see.
Departure Day - or arrival, depending on perspective. We have to take the metro line all the long way south, and for the first time we experience how huge New Delhi is. Our entire country is almost the size of this city! At the final metro station we are to catch the free bus taking us to the meditation centre. It will leave at pillar 57. Where? Pillar 57. Let’s see. We’re at pillar 31. Which way is it? No one knows. A boy sends us off in the wrong direction. Following our instinct we turn the other way. As the station seems to have already ended some time ago, the pillars - on which the metro rests - continue. The metro line is being extended southwards; Delhi is still growing, as is the rest of India. Fifteen minutes navigating through non stophonking traffic later we reach a not so quiet spot between two roads. Already there are some fifteen people whom we will not really meet in the following ten days, as speaking, and all other communication, is prohibited. No point in getting to know each other. We are being asked to read the code of conduct: no talking! Ten days! No communication. Do we understand? Yes sir we do.
On the ride with the old school bus we just sit in silence. The bumpy road shakes our spinal column, and forces us to stand up for every large pothole we hit so our legs can take the blow. In the meanwhile we see some of more rural India, for the first time. Delhi is just crazy; this looks more‘normal’, like parts of Africa or other developing nations, perhaps a bit more dirty, but still somewhat familiar.
Almost two hours of bone-shaking bring us toward the ‘DhammaSotta’ meditation centre. Nichon and I will have to part for ten days, strangely so close and at the same time far apart.
The intake. Is this a prison? We are forced to hand over passports, sign all kinds of documents, including one declaring we will abstain from killing, stealing talking, reading, drinking alcohol or coffee, sexual misconduct. Noble Silence it will be. The first two seem not too difficult (until you meet the mosquitos in your living quarters!). A man with a stern wise smile sets his lively eyes upon us, examining us; did we understand? Will we read the code of conduct again? No no, I think I’ve got it. You think? To my best knowledge, sir.He lets me go. We will not see him again, strangely.
We do not pay anything; all is paid for by donations, and you can only donate if you successfully sat through one of the ten-day courses.
All material possessions are taken. No money, cell phones, books, computers, radios, alarm clocks… only a watch you can bring - but I don’t have one. Then men and women are separated. See you in ten days...
We sleep in cells, like monks and prisoners. A sturdy bed, a chair, a bathroom with a toilet and cold water. I sleep in the ‘A-block’, next to the personnel’s quarters, although we will see very few of them. Walking up to my cell I meet the monkeys, kept on a line attached to some trees. They will prove to be my main distraction for these ten days. They sit just as we do, sometimes. Just sitting, still, like in stern meditation. Mostly they eat seeds or hang in trees, though.
It’s late afternoon. We get dinner. The dining hall is not a social place. We all have our own plate and utensils, numbered as our cells are. I have number M-08.
We sit in designated places, again according to cell numbers. We sit in rows, all facing the same wall. The food is Indian, plain and simple; some vegetables, a curry, rice and the rotis, a pancake shaped flat bread. In the morning there is tea. For dinner there will just be tea and a light snack. Everybody eats in just fifteen minutes. Then we wash our own utensils, and the next days we’ll take a nap as soon as possible afterwards.
Now it’s a 15-minute break.The centre has a beautiful pagoda, and I slip in quickly to see the inside.
The interior is as bare as the outside is splendid; meditation cells, just big enough to sit alone. As it turns out, we are not yet allowed to enter the pagoda. I feel a bit guilty about sneaking in. Just a little.
After the break wereturn to the dining hall, about to receive instructions. Women sit on the left, men on the right. A man steps up with a CD player. He says nothing. The CD player’s power cord doesn’t reach the outlet. Another man tries to move a table. It is too heavy. Nobody laughs about this slapstick! A chair is put next to the wall. Now the power cord fits.
Play. A stern voice.First some twenty minutes Hindi.Then in English.The code of conduct, again. No killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, no talking, no intoxicants; just noble silence, and keep to the tight time schedule. Get up at 4.00am, only tea for dinner. And: we must stay for ten days. Did we understand? If you don’t want to comply, then go now. Otherwise, you will have to stay. The ‘introduction’ lasts an hour. After the tape a man steps forward, issuing some inaudible commands. I follow my fellow meditators to a new place: the main meditation hall.
Our first meditation sitting starts. Each of us has a designated place in the “Dhamma Hall”. We will not see the inside of the pagoda before day seven. For now we sit and focus on our breathing. Sounds simple. But only just to sit! I myself never sit on the floor. Not for more than one minute. After two minutes my legs ache, I reposition. How do they do it, keep their backs straight and their legs folded for more then ten breaths? But it’s breathing. Just focus. Focus. A cracking, low pitched voice from the loudspeakers. Again a man sits in front, two women next to him, and the only thing he does is pressing play. Ten days of taped meditation guidance now seems so dull to me. I sit differently again. And again.And again. The hour ends at last. As all hours will, eventually.
Nichon has sent me some candles. I have sent her half of our communal tube of toothpaste; not being together requires different logistics. The packages are delivered to our cells. It feels like war time, a little; sending secret packages through unknown messengers. My night time ritual: light a candle, put the match on the window pane to count the days, hang the mosquito net, brush my teeth, blow the candle and fall asleep. Or: listen to the traffic in the street next to my cell and try not to be annoyed, and eventually fall asleep.
3/4 - 12/4
The first days we are asked to focus on our breath; just the breath, as you feel it coming through your nostrils. Seems incredibly dull. But then so much happened.
During the ten Vipassana meditation days we are not allowed to keep a diary. It seems that all input - or output - of the conscious mind is to be avoided. As we focus on breath and try to let our minds become still, no thoughts, one by one thoughts keep popping up. At first the day to day, trivial questions. Who are those other meditators? How to sit for so long? What will we eat? Will I handle the four o’clock in the morning wakeup calls? How to get the most out of this week? Who is the man talking on the tape? Why are there no mosquitos or flies in here? Who are those people working in the garden? After each and every thought I try to get my mind to concentrate on my breath again. Then there are strings of thought. They are harder to stop. My mind wanders, after some time further and further away in my past. Lost friends come across my mind, and I keep recalling good and bad times, only to catch my mind much later and bring back the attention to my breath.
Days pass like this. At 4:30 the first two-hour meditation. During these two hours the peacocks will wake up - the national symbol of India makes a lot of noise at this early time of day! 6:30 breakfast.The schedule is relentless.
On the fourth day the meditation technique is extended; we focus on more than just our breath.
Day six is difficult; our mission is to sit still during the one hour group sittings, three times a day. On hour of not moving is hard. Especially if your legs are crossed and everything starts to hurt. Then you still have half an hour to go. Most of the pains pass. You start realizing that pain comes and goes away. This is a central teaching of Vipassana; whatever happens in life - including your life itself - it arises and passes away. It is not being taught by theory, but by letting you experience it, in your body. So sitting still means experiencing some pain, and then just observing that, and letting it pass away eventually. Not always a pleasant, but certainly interesting experience; just try to keep an equanimous mind, just observing your discomfort.
Each night, before going to bed, the teacher of the course delivers a lecture - also on video. The Buddhist teachings say that old pains get eradicated through feeling the pain but not reacting to it; old cravings or aversions sort of nest themselves in the body. By just observing your sensations those old problems dissolve. I’m not sure whether that happened with me. I write this some weeks later. I still meditate almost daily, and feel each time my mind is somewhat more peaceful than it was before. Also I think I’m a bit more focused on other people, however this is difficult to say myself. Many people say that after meditation they feel calmer and are more effective in their daily lives. It is a bit too early to say for me. Now I only observe the dreams I got during the meditation; again of old friends, dreams of my parents’ house collapsing. Meaningful, vivid dreams.My unconsciousness awakening?
After day six I start longing for the end of it. The mornings are not so difficult, but the afternoon sittings become very boring. I try just to observe also this restlessness, but it keeps coming back. I still sleep after each meal. The daily schedule of sitting eating sleeping, sitting eating sleeping becomes so predictable. It is the first time since kindergarten that my days are so much planned out for me.
But it is a unique experience, and certainly it is learning by doing. Even the seemingly simple ‘focus on your breath’ we practiced for about four days. Four days with ten full hours of focussing on breath! But it helps. It works. Eventually my mind gets calmer, I get fewer and fewer distracting thoughts, and there are moments that I only focus on my bodily sensations, without much thinking, for maybe half an hour. But it is hard work! They joke on that in the lectures. The courses are free of charge, including food and lodging. India is a poor country.
Don’t people come just for free food? No! Why not? Because you have to work from four in the morning until nine at night!
The hard work also means the end is blissful. I feel proud and fulfilled that I made it, sat through all those hours of meditation and didn’t quit half way. On day ten we can finally speak again. I can actually talk to my neighbour! He appears to be a yoga teacher from South Korea, his name is Sunghun Lee. We have dinner and can actually have a conversation. It is strange and difficult even physically to speak. My voice seems asleep and it sounds soft and hoarse. I also feel I want to come back from my inner world slowly. Especially here in India, where the streets are busier than you can imagine. So on day ten we speak with each other and spend one more night in our cells.
On day eleven, somewhere in the morning, we find ourselves, dropped by the old schoolbus, back at Pillar 57. But now we do speak with the people who went with us. Most of them turned out to be really different from what they seemed without speaking to them. And of course, we had had quite an experience to share.