Last year at this time, I was waiting for an ‘admit’. Very hastily I’d filled out an online application, praying and hoping that they’d let me in despite the short notice. Thankfully, I got in and brought in the New Year at a 10-day Vipassana meditation camp in Nagpur. I’d wanted to do this for a long, long time but I never got to it. But here’s the thing, this isn’t the kind of thing you ‘get to’, there comes a time when you just ‘have to’. This isn’t a trek or a movie you’ve been meaning to go for, it’s more like an exigency that needs immediate attending to – though the intensity of it is sometimes woefully less apparent.
Well, my time I suppose had arrived so I booked my tickets and got to Nagpur on 29th December. The day I was supposed to leave, I had a long, intense team meeting from 9 AM to 8 PM, about eight of us were huddled in a meeting room discussing our program strategy for the new academic year. Next morning, from 8 AM onward until we checked in, I was working on submitting an application (and it’s umpteen attachments) for a teacher development grant awarded globally to programs working with the public education system. I’d stationed myself next to a plug point at the Vipassana office in Dhantoli, Nagpur and finally managed to hit ‘send’ at about 1 PM in the afternoon. My brain was as frenzied as it possibly could have been. I didn’t know if meditation would have helped me or in what way this 10 day course would benefit me, but I sure as hell was looking forward to switching completely off for next 10 days. I was also worried if I’ll be able make it through these ten days because I’d heard that many people do leave midway. Thankfully, I was assigned a single room – not a dorm or a shared accommodation.
At the ashram/center, which was about 20 kms away from Nagpur city, we checked in our phones, laptops, books, diaries, pens – basically anything at all that could engage your mind. People at the reception were handing out little bags for everyone to deposit their phones and as I pulled out my laptop, they gave me an exasperated look. “I’d boarded the bus right after office so…”…I mumbled with a sheepish look on my face as I held up my laptop. There was no bag that big, so they deposited my backpack as a whole.
‘Noble Silence’ was the norm for the next 10 days. Noble silence meant not just being silent, it meant not even making eye contact with any individual over the next ten days. I always thought this was going to be the hardest part – not being able to talk but at the end of those 10 days, this is the part that I missed the most. Though people who know me will have a hard time believing this but I could probably have gone another ten days without talking. Food was another aspect that takes getting used to – there was no dinner at night and the other two meals of the day were simple, small-sized and very light. This entire camp was an exercise in strengthening of self-control.
Oh by the way, in these 10 days, did I break the ‘Noble Silence’ ever? Yes, once. One unfortunate night, just before the discourse was to start, I quickly walked back to my room to get my shawl because as I learnt the hard way, Nagpur winters are pretty severe. This whole ashram was basically in the middle of a forest and there was very little lighting all around. I got to my cottage and just as I was about to unlock the door, I saw a giant lizard on the door knob. I let out the most involuntarily loud scream, which sadly pierced through the quiet and calm of the ashram. You see, if I hadn’t spotted the lizard in time I would have probably put my hand on it. Just that thought shook me to my very core. Lizards are…I can’t even begin to explain the horror I feel each time I see one. Even now, just writing about this incident is giving me goosebumps. Anyway, so some of the volunteers came running to see what had happened and when I explained the situation, they were – much to my annoyance – amused by the situation. Putting that aside, I requested them to scan my room just to ensure that the blessed lizard hadn’t entered by any chance. I’m certain that I would have died of a cardiac arrest if I had discovered this unwanted, undesirable roommate somewhere in the middle of the night. Usually, I put my head to the pillow and I’m asleep. That night it took me a couple of minutes to calm my nerves and put myself to sleep.
Of all the things, the aspect that I found incredibly hard was waking up at 4 AM and meditating for 10.5 hours each day. I became aware of my astonishingly frail capacity for stillness as I went through these ten days. You realize that your mind is like a little, unruly monkey – jumping incessantly from one thought branch to another. While meditating, I was basically chasing this little monkey all the time – trying desperately, begging and pleading with it to stay still for at least one whole minute.
It was quite amusing, the whole process, for the first few days. As we went through guided meditation exercises, I found myself scolding my mind at times, reasoning with it, bribing it, begging it to concentrate on the technique that had been taught – to stay focused on breathing for even a few minutes. I failed miserably through the first few days and even in the later days, I have to admit I didn’t have much success. It was frustratingly hard.
In all of this, I must say I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the evening discourses. Those two hours of discourse (available in Hindi & English both) weren’t philosophical/spiritual sermons – they were conversations about real stuff, funny in parts and in some parts, thought provoking. The most interesting part about Vipassana (and the major reason I signed up for this and not any other meditation course) was that it has no religious undertones to it – there is no deity, no rituals, there is no chanting, nor religious imagery of any kind. It’s simply about mindfulness – about focusing on your mind and body. After four days of silence and meditation, I thought I would explode if I didn’t get a piece of paper and pen to write…..to simply just write down everything that was churning in my head. I requested for special permission to speak with the teacher to ask if I could have a pen and paper. They flatly refused. Through the next few days thankfully I didn’t explode, but came dangerously close to it. They say that clarity doesn’t provide answers. It dissolves questions. Does it? I thought in spite of all the churning – everything does get mixed up but more or less remains where it was. Maybe it was supposed to be that way. There was no great moment of epiphany or enlightenment during or after but the whole experience was calming in its own, very unique way.
I really don’t know what I had gone looking for and to be very honest, I’m not sure what I came away with. We have a tendency in our lives to put away the stuff we don’t want to deal with. There are uncomfortable truths locked away in little cookie jars, we seal them shut and stack them on a neat little shelf. And in our day to day lives, it’s very convenient to forget about your neatly organized, far-away shelf of jars. There are a thousand distractions (work, daily chores, books, phones, sitcoms, people etc etc), hundreds of little to-do lists that your bury yourself in while assuring yourself that you are too occupied right now to think about anything else. But when you are at a place like this, where every single possible distraction is ruthlessly cut out, you are left alone in the company of your mind. When that happens, this cautious game of avoidance unfortunately doesn’t work anymore or at least not as effectively. So one by one, the jars start unlocking themselves and then there’s only one thing left to do – sit amidst the contents and deal with it. You may still choose not to but having seen it all out there, you can no longer plead ignorance. That’s one of the major differences between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the Vipassana camp for me.
At the end of the course, you can donate whatever you wish to. There’s no fixed amount. You are not expected to pay anything when you sign up and it’s perfectly fine by them, if you don’t pay anything at all. Their idea is simple – pay if forward.
On my way back, I got dropped off at the airport very early in the morning. My flight back to Pune was at night. I spent the whole day at Nagpur airport reading a book that had held way too many boarding passes without making any real progress on the number of pages read.
Looking back at this year, I now have some sense of what I may have got from those ten days, though it’s still almost impossible to articulate clearly. All I can say with certainty is that I’m so very glad that I brought in 2016 the way I did. Here’s a link to the website, my tip would be to book at least two months in advance so you can get a center nearer to you. And please carry a mosquito repellent. I’m hoping to go back once before August next year. Let’s see how that works out.