Four years ago, in April 2015, I found myself swiftly marching towards a mental breakdown. I had just finished writing the first draft of my debut novel, draining that last ounce of energy and emotion in me.
Writing is a lonely, consuming exercise that leaves you hollow. I’d always imagined that, at the end of it, I would treat myself to a few straight days of undisturbed sleep, catch up on meeting anyone and everyone, watch mindless television for hours. Basically, not stick to a routine.
When the moment came, though, I surprised myself—and everyone else—by doing something more challenging: enrolling for a Vipassana programme.
This involves meditating for around ten hours a day, with few breaks. Predictably, all outside communication is barred, and you can’t even make eye contact with, let alone speak to, another soul. Reading and writing are not encouraged. After a frugal snack served at 5pm, you are not allowed to eat anything.
All this may sound punishing, but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
This form of meditation is believed to be over 2,500 years old, first mastered by Buddha.
However, over time it disappeared from the land of its origin—along with the decline of Buddhism. Vipassana was brought back to India only a little over four decades ago.
SN Goenka, an Indian industrialist whose family was based in neighbouring Burma (now Myanmar), was struggling with acute migraine attacks. After trying several schools of medication, he sought help from Sayagya U Ba Khin, a government official and a Vipassana teacher.
In his teachings, Goenka often spoke about how he benefited immensely for fourteen years as Khin’s disciple. Then, he headed to India in 1969 to spread the teachings.
In the 1980s he began appointing his disciples as teachers. While Goenka is no more, the primary Vipassana teachings are still conducted via his recorded video and audio clips from years ago. The teachers themselves only act as guides. This ensures uniformity across centres from Queensland in Australia to Gujarat in India.
The teachings and courses are free. Those who enrol are not charged even for boarding and food. However, one can donate to ensure that more people can avail the course.
Let’s be clear at the outset. The ten-day programme doesn’t take away griefs and sorrows. Diseases are not suddenly cured and you don’t walk out with a halo of transcendental knowledge.
Vipassana literally means “to see things as they really are” and that is what it teaches. This technique of self-observation makes you acutely aware, letting you get in better touch with your surroundings and yourself. This helps you process a situation and emotions better.
The theory may sound simple, but is exceptionally difficult. It is believed to have been discovered through sheer hard work and that is what it remains. From waking up way before dawn to sitting undisturbed for hours in one position, Vipassana is not a relaxing getaway.
However, when you walk out after ten days, you are likely to feel more rested and calm than ever before.
My first day was not bad, given the excitement of learning something new. However, one thing became clear quickly: The moment you are told not to move, your body finds over a hundred reasons to not stay still. This taming of the mind was the toughest part and later emerged the biggest gain.
By day two, I thought I had learned everything after trying to meditate for a good part of day one and I wanted a break. My fingers tingled for my phone, to refresh Twitter and check WhatsApp. The body, though, refused to co-operate. All sorts of leg cramps and back pains surfaced. Complaining was not an option as we were asked to sit through it.
Day three saw me contemplating an escape. I kept telling myself there was no shame in accepting defeat and that Vipassana was probably not for me. At one point, amidst the pristine silence in the dhamma or meditation hall, all I wanted to do was let out a piercing scream—I must have been silent and cut off for close to 72-hours by then. Since I had forgotten to wear my wrist watch, I had begun to lose sense of the time.
Yet, a strange sense of calm had begun to overcome me by day four. On day seven, the Bodh Gaya Vipassana centre in Bihar, where I was taking my course, was jolted by an earthquake a little after noon. It was not destructive, but was strong enough to rattle the furniture in the room. Most pupils were inside their rooms, resting briefly.
Yet, there was no panic. We had quietly walked out of our rooms, without making eye contact, and assembled in the open field. Such had been the transformation.
On the last day, I was sad it was all ending. Nothing else could come close to the serenity I’d felt during those ten days.
Chatter about Vipassana picked up last year after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said he attended the 10-day course.
A large number of working professionals are increasingly feeling this need to get off the grid and practice self-awareness. And it is not just the office-goers. Teenagers and college students, too, can often be found pursuing these life skills.
In India, Kiran Bedi, a retired police officer and now a politician, introduced Vipassana to the inmates of south Asia’s largest prison complex, in Delhi.
Most people who emerge out of those dhamma centres agree it is tough, but every bit worth it.
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