Saisuresh Sivaswamy went for a 10-day vipassana course expecting a quasi-religious experience and came back with a spiritual one.
There are practices and there are practices, and then there is Vipassana.
When you listen to others talk about their Vipassana course, you think the toughest part is to sit cross-legged for hours in a day.
And when you brave it, finish the 10-day course and come out, you realise that the easiest bit was the long sessions of sitting cross-legged.
You go in thinking it's more about physical endurance, and come out knowing that it is actually about mental endurance.
Before you went in, what were the daunting facts about doing the course, apart from the lotus seat? The silence, for one. Not simple silence where you don't talk, but arya maun or noble silence where you control all the noises you make. Like during walking. Or during meditation, when you don't fidget, or snap your knuckles etc.
The food, for another, from what others have said. It's not about the quantity, really, or the quantity, but about the timings. Breakfast at 6.30 am, lunch at 11 am, and some kurmur at 5 pm not really what we follow in our routine, but then Vipassana is about breaking the patterns of one's life. The physical patterns, we realise, are easiest to break.
In some centres, there is also the added point of sharing a room with another, which has its own tension points. This was not the case at the Gorai centre (on the outskirts of Mumbai) that I went to.
Thankfully, as a yoga practitioner I had little cause to worry.
I may not sit cross-legged for hours, but I do sit cross-legged every day for some time at least and knew I could always do it.
The silence bit too didn't really bother me, since I am usually reticent. The boss and missus both say I don't speak much at work or home.
The food timings too didn't worry me; anyway I eat just two meals a day, a la the ashram tradition.
Naturally, I walked in with a spring in my step and in the brief 'interview' that followed I declared my frame of mind to be 'happy, positive, curious and excited'. Later on, I realised that many of the inductees come there when facing the crossroads of life, professionally, romantically, emotionally. No wonder I was told that, although I may be aware of the Vipassana regimen, I could always access the assistant teachers if I felt the need to
Soon after, the 10 days went by in a blur, too quickly to capture, or savour, the moment. There are no 'notes' handed over to you for reference, or any other aid for the future. No chanting, praying, just meditation. You go in expecting a quasi-religious experience, and come back with a spiritual one. Inspired by Gautama the Buddha, a mortal, the practice shies away from making a god out of him.
The Buddha, from what one remembers of early history lessons, was in essence a Hindu reformer who didn't set out to reform the faith but offered a user-friendly path to salvation that did away with the middle men, the priests. He didn't found a religion or ism, his followers did so after him. And so popular was this egalitarian interpretation of the dominant faith of the day rather like another prophet's in the Hijaz 1200 years later that it swept aside everything before it.
Adi Sankara is credited with pushing back the boundaries of this new religion, restoring the subcontinent to Hinduism. And so strong was this movement that Buddhism which had taken on the very facets Gautama preached against, like idol worship remains deracinated from the land of its origin.
If ancient India used Adi Sankara's dialectics, contemporary India went one better. I remember reacting with disbelief on discovering in Mumbai that the Buddha had been coopted as the 9th avatar of Vishnu; he clearly was not part of the 10 I had learnt of as a child in Chennai. This was a smart move: Make the Buddha a Hindu god, and Buddhism itself becomes Hindu. Never mind that Gautama had no time for traditional religion, nor did he claim to be a godhead.
But since Vipassana is Buddha preaching in its pristine form, you won't find a figurehead of Gautama anywhere at the centre. But he is present every bit in the teaching, as it has been handed down and presented over 25 centuries in Myanmar before finding its shaky way into India. Learning from the past, too, the Vipassana-ites insist the non-sectarian nature of the practice that doesn't entail conversion from one's faith. That way all clergy is left untouched, unlike 2,500 years ago when their wrath cost the young faith dear.
Looking back at my 10 days of bliss, what were the toughest? Days 2 and 6. And it was not because guru S N Goenka said it was so. After breezing through Day One and wondering if this was all there was to it and what the fuss was about, Day Two came down like a thunderbolt. Day Six was worse, but there was no way to find out if others felt the same.
Unaccustomed to Goenkaji's lead-ins and sign-offs, you find his act grating initially but as you near the end of the course you actually start to mentally repeat stuff after him! Incredible, what the mind can do.
But then, it's all about the mind, the mind, the mind. You realise that all the chatter you do, the various activities you undertake, are all mufflers on the ever-present mind. At Vipassana, in the verbal silence enforced and the mental solitude it creates, there's just you and the mind. You see the mind in its vishwaroopa, and realise that's what you really are. Distilled. To the core.
You also realise that the mind is not a friend, but an enemy on the path you are walking. Like the villain's appendages in Spider-man 2, it has developed a life independent of you, and it's you who is the controlled. You realise in the 10 days that any notion you may entertain of the mind being subservient, is just a fantasy. You think you are the boss, and the mind is happy to let you fool yourself.
Like the demon who sprouts heads the more you chop them off, the more you control the mind the more animated it becomes. Our gods, the legends tell us, often employed stratagems to eliminate the latest threat to the established order. Treat the legends as an allegory, rather than a true-to-life narration, and the answers become evident.
Unlike other meditation techniques I have been exposed to, which speak of coaxing the mind as if leading the horse to water, or controlling the mind, etc, Vipassana does nothing with the mind. The focus, you are told, is on the breath. When you are able to do that successfully, in two days' time, you realise that the mind has automatically taken a backseat. Its chatter has ceased.
Now that I have been back in the chaos, where the mind has had its chance to run amok as always, do I look at Vipassana the same way I did when I was at the centre? Yes, of course. It's all that you realised inside and more. Naturally I will practice it.
If there's anything indigestible for me, it's not to do with the practice per se but the belief systems that surround it whereby it is touted as the "best, guaranteed, simple" path to Nibbana or salvation. I am not disputing where the path leads or whether it does; I am merely uncomfortable with the tag of it being the only path.
India's beauty, India's soul, to me, is its acceptance of all streams of thought without claiming any one to be superior. This path is there, that path is also there, there are many paths, try what suits you, it doesn't matter, the final goal is the same. That is the ethos, to me, of this ancient land. Which is why many influences have found refuge here, flourished here. There is no one single path to salvation. Nor is there a short cut. This is also what I believe in at the core of my being.
Vipassana will surely take you to your destination; but it is not going to take you any sooner than the other paths you have chosen. Like Bhakti, devotion, the most common path, which I found being given a short shrift. The important thing, according to me, is to get on the path, not which road you are on. Some may be four-lane, some could be potholed, but either way you are not going to get anywhere unless you pay your karmic toll.
So, even as I practice Vipassana and go back for more shibirs, it won't be the only thing I do. What to do, I am like that only :D.
Image: The Vipassana centre in Gorai, just outside Mumbai, with the pagoda forming the backdrop. Photograph: Saisuresh Sivaswamy