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Meditation Study in India

Vipassana Courses Are Taxing But rewarding

I arrived at the Dhamma Thali meditation center knowing only that Vipassana is supposed to be the form of meditation taught by the Buddha, lost to India for many years, and then reintroduced from Myanmar.

I was also aware that I was signing up for a regime of abstention. Agreeing not to kill or steal was easy enough, and the segregation of male and female students didn’t seem too bad. But 10 days of silence sounded daunting. Students are expected not even to gesture to each other, much less speak; the only communication allowed is a few words with the assistant teachers as they check your progress each day.

On arrival we were asked to hand over any books we had brought, since reading and writing are also prohibited. We were then shown to our room. It was hardly luxurious, but then payment for the course was entirely by donation. The room had its own bathroom, although hot water proved to be available only sporadically and a bucket was provided in lieu of a shower.

An introductory talk on the first afternoon outlined what would happen over the next 10 days. An assistant teacher reminded us of the rules and explained the timetable. This was followed by our first meal. The simple vegetarian fare served at Dhamma Thali tends toward bland, but nobody had expected a memorable gastronomic experience.

The first morning’s meditation began at 4:30. A member of staff walked around the site ringing a bell to summon the students. It did not take long to fall into the highly structured daily rhythm.

The group meditated together in a large hall, the only time at which male and female students came into anything like close proximity. Around two-thirds of the hundred or so participants were Indian; the rest of us came from around the globe. A few students had attended such courses before and were expected to follow an even more strict regime, which included missing the evening meal.

The first three and a half days were spent honing our concentration by observing the flow of breath—not regulating it, simply observing it. One of the key words in Vipassana is anicca, which means “impermanent” in Pali, the language of many Buddhist scriptures. Vipassana teaches that all physical sensations are fleeting and therefore of no consequence.

On the fourth day we began to move our attention around our bodies, feeling the sensations in each part and trying not to consider them as good or bad. An incredible ten hours of cross-legged meditation was packed into each day. The 1-hour sessions were most difficult: we were encouraged not to move a muscle for the entire period. During the longer sessions we were allowed to move occasionally, and I was not the only one who sometimes had to take a break mid-session.

So much introspection was mentally taxing as well. Talking to other foreign students after the course I found that almost every one of us had considered leaving at one point or another. In my own case, I had taken Vipassana’s claim of being non-sectarian at face value and had been surprised by the very Buddhist slant of some of the teaching. I felt that I was being asked to believe a number of things about which I had reservations.

For an hour each evening we watched a series of discourses on video, linking the meditation technique to Buddhist concepts such as karma, reincarnation, and nirvana. It was explained that the aim of Vipassana is for the practitioner to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.

My concerns were enhanced by the methods of teaching, which rely a great deal upon recorded material. (The technique of Vipassana was brought back to India by S.N. Goenka, and he is effectively the only one who teaches it in the form I learned.) The assistant teachers were able to answer simple questions about technique, but there was no room for a discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of Vipassana.

I decided in the end that I could put these concerns to one side and simply learn the technique. By the end of the 10 days I was able to move my attention up and down my body, noting the sensations along the way. More advanced meditators were encouraged to pass their attention through their bodies rather than over the surface.

On the last day we learned a new meditation that directed our attention outward, indicating a desire to share our purity with the world around us. As we silently declared our wish for all beings to be happy, I was surprised to feel a flow of energy emanating from my body. It felt like being on fire, a remarkable experience for someone who is at heart sceptical about “alternative” practices.

Returning to Jaipur after the course I was struck by the feeling of calm which 10 days of Vipassana had given me. Jaipur is a noisy city full of rickshaw wallahs and shopkeepers touting for a tourist’s business. After my lessons at Dhamma Thali I found myself calm and able to deal with everything that India could throw at me.

For More Info

Vipassana is taught throughout the world in various forms. Further information on the form taught by G.N. Goenka is available at www.dhamma.org. It is important to read the rules of the course before signing up. The web site includes a list of centers, and places can be booked online. Payment is by donation at the end of the course

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