Ten day… ahem, month… vipassana

Nestled in a shallow, forested valley on the outskirts of Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, the Dhamma Thali center is a haven for those looking for peace, reflection, and spiritual guidance. As my auto ascended the narrow, circuitous road to the center, I traded in the frenetic energy of traffic jams, construction of the new metro, samosa and sugarcane juice carts, and sari shops of the pink city for the tranquility of cobble-stone walkways, electric blue peacocks, lime green parakeets, brindled monkeys, and the enchanting Burmese-style golden pagoda of the Dhamma center. I had arrived to participate in a ten-day residential Vipassana course, a kind of meditation boot camp that, to some, would be considered the definition of a nightmare and, to others, an invaluable opportunity to transform one’s way of living. I renounced pen and paper, phone, books, ipod, and computer – reminders of and life lines to the outside world, and embraced the monastic lifestyle of eating what is given, being with my thoughts, and learning, through what would be over 100 hours of meditation, punctuated by tears, pain, sweat, and satisfaction, about what is most important: myself.

Vipassana – meaning to come inward and see things as they really are – has its roots in Buddhism, but transcends creed, culture, ethnicity and religion, enabling people from all walks of life to learn and experience the benefits of this technique. Developed by Gautama Buddha over 2,500 years ago, this form of meditation facilitates self-purification through self-observation. It allows one to develop – through personal experience and not mere intellectual acceptance — an understanding of the reactive nature of the mind, which gives rise to craving and aversion, the twin causes of misery. By understanding the mind-matter relationship, one can retrain the mind to observe whatever sensations and emotions arise – pain, pleasure, anger, happiness, insecurity, passion – so that, depending on your level of practice, you can manage them in a calm and balanced manner, prevent their translation into cravings and aversion, and eventually, experience no misery at all.

I entered the course without expecting profound transformation yet optimistic that exploring my mind’s behavior patterns would at the very least bolster my mindfulness. I had witnessed subtle changes in the tranquility, rootedness, and thoughtfulness of my boyfriend, who had taken a vipassana course in Dharamsala one month ago, so I was curious if I too would share his lightness of being. Because India is replete with wandering souls blinding accepting any doctrine to serve as the silver bullet for their woes, sahdus professing easy roads to salvation, and spiritual gimmicks, I have developed a healthy dose of skepticism towards any practice that makes big claims like eradicating all misery and securing liberation. Right from the beginning, however, it is made clear that the vipassana path is long and arduous, requires enormous amounts of discipline and determination, and should only be accepted and practiced if one experiences its benefits firsthand. The merits of other types of meditation, such as relaxing and concentrating the mind, are openly acknowledged, but it is made clear that these practices are affecting the superficial level of the mind and do not provide the tools to actualize vipassana’s agenda: to purify the mind by engaging the deepest level – the subconscious – where the roots of misery have a stranglehold.

I was ready for some mind purification, but thankfully didn’t anticipate the degree of mental and physical work that I would have to invest in order to experience mere glimpses of it: Each day started at 4am with the droning of a gong. About 80 women and 100 men would arise from their separate living quarters, descend the green carpeted tunnels into the belly of the Dhamma Hall through separate entrances, assume cross-legged positions on individual 2 x 2, green cloth covered mats (men on the left and women on the right, all facing towards the front of the room), and begin a day of 10 plus hours of meditation, organized in one or two hour sessions, which usually began and ended with a couple minutes of tape recorded chanting. This rigorous meditation schedule was broken up by breakfast at 6:30am, lunch at 11am, and tea at 5pm, again with men and women using separate dining halls, and a one hour video discourse at the end of the day. The video discourse is given by S.N. Goenka, a pleasantly rotund and positively joyful Burmese man who revitalized the practice after it was lost following the Buddha’s death. Through the discourse, he explains the theory behind the technique, which helped quell my doubts about why experiencing the most excruciating pain, intense mental concentration, and frustrating monotony were crucial elements to the process.

On the first day, we pledged to adopt of a code of morality, sila (no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, or use of intoxicants) so as to abstain from any action, physical or vocal, which disturbs the peace and harmony of others. This also included the observance of noble silence, which prohibits all forms of communication – speaking, eye contact, and touch, and no fraternizing between sexes. During the first three days, we were oriented towards developing mastery of the mind, samadhi, by remaining aware of the natural pace of respiration through the nasal passage and any sensation in the triangular area of the nose and upper lip. Focusing on such a small area intended to help us sharpen our minds in preparation for when we would actually begin the practice of vipassana meditation. On the first day of this exercise, I felt like I had discovered undiagnosed schizophrenia as my thoughts oscillated from one idea to the next, making up stories, conjuring faces of people whom I had never seen before, distracted by the shrill honking of peacocks, going from past to future and back again. As Goenka described, I have a monkey mind, swinging from one branch to the next. By the third day, I felt like I should’ve won a trophy for succeeding in settling my mind more easily and focusing on my breathing without as much cognitive interruption. When I learned that on day four we would begin learning the technique of vipassana, I was eager to move beyond my nose and become inducted into what I envisioned as a community of blissful, all knowing people. I had no idea knew how much harder it was going to get before the faintest notions of bliss and omniscience even seemed plausible.

On the “vipassana day” we were asked to begin scanning our bodies from head to toe then toe to head, focusing on any sensation experienced by each part of my body. Unlike the previously three days, we were instructed not to move, which would interrupt the natural progression of sensation, aka PAIN. And boy did I feel pain. However, the entire point is to observe sensations without cultivating aversion (to pain) or craving (for relief/pleasure), and to recognize their impermanent nature, anitcha. Over the next five days, I struggled to overcome the hardwired biological reflex to avoid or alleviate pain, barely making it past 45 minutes without throwing in the proverbial towel to shift or stretch. Instead of relishing the relief, I tried to follow the instructions to acknowledge that this too would pass and eventually I’d be right back in the suffering where I started. Throughout the ten days, I observed feelings in most parts of my body – the subtle trickling of sweat behind my left ear, tickling of the wind on my neck, vibrations in my forearms, and gross numbness and pain in both my legs – which evolved, to some extent, each day. On the seventh day, when I heard the much awaited click of the tape recorder to commence the end of session chanting, I remember feeling surprised that I hadn’t felt as intense numbness and gnawing agony. Was it because my body was adapting to the cross-legged position or because my mind was slowly learning how to be less of the monkey and more of the ringmaster? I’d like to think it was both.

Even though I was experiencing changes and believed that the vipassana would deliver – on some level – what it alleged, I continued to harbor a feeling of guardedness throughout the first week. When I finally confronted this feeling and allowed myself to question where it stemmed from, I realized that I felt like I had been doing an extended vipassana ever since I arrived in India. Similarly to Goenka asking us to surrender to the vipassana, India had been demanding rather unforgivingly that I acquiesce to her ever since our reunion in September. In response, I had both unknowingly and purposefully been trying to:

Not blindly react to injustices – wives relegated to lives of servitude to their husband and his family after virilocal marriage; women unable to make decisions about when to have children; girls’ basic needs dismissed in favor of boys’ prosperity; government health officials who care more about making a buck than saving a life…

Let go of negative emotions – outraged by constantly getting cheated; distraught from hearing about women dying in ARTH’s field area because they do not follow advice to seek health care; disappointed by the slow progress of forming groups of women and men for my project…

Find balance – amidst the myriad contradictions and contrasts of this environment. For example, learning how to negotiate between adapting to an incredibly different and unfamiliar culture without compromising my core values, beliefs, and my own cultural idiosyncracies. This has been incredibly challenging considering there are elements of Indian culture which I will never be able to relate to, and likewise, parts of my American heritage that leave Indians incredulous. I simultaneously feel like I have become more flexible, tolerant, and adaptable, while also more resolved in my own convictions about, for instance, the undeniable right of women to make decisions about their fertility. I can learn to understand that, in rural Rajasthan, women my age have typically completed their families because having children is a crucial part of a newlywed woman’s identity. I can also grow to respect that women are more accountable to the desires of her family in comparison to women in the US. But, I cannot and will not accept women not having any ability to negotiate when to have a child or choice in which family planning method to use to prevent pregnancy.

Dissolve my ego – learning something every single day, often from people with significantly less qualification than I – women who don’t know their age, how to read a clock, and attended school only through 8th grade… A Wesleyan degree, experience at a high profile international health NGO, sophisticated research methodology, and any other bonafides mean next to nothing when I’m trying to facilitate discussion about the benefits of contraception among a group of women who normally do not have the opportunity to express their opinions; get a government health worker to open up about the deleterious impact of sterilization targets, a highly controversial subject; or motivate women to address their health problems not just through divine intervention or traditional methods. Instead, jettisoning the offered chair for sitting cross-legged on the ground, learning about and not dismissing their current practices, making small talk about how many brothers and sisters each of us has, singing songs and trying raabri or chai have been the crucial ingredients for me to connect and build partnerships with women from extremely different contexts. In distilling our common denominator – humanness; our shared need for shelter, food, love, and family – I have been able to bridge what often feels like an irreconcilable cultural, educational, and economic divide. And, to counteract the common patronizing nature of development workers, particularly foreigners, my modus operandi has been to come in with the approach that these women are the experts and I am the student and that if given the opportunity, they are capable of prioritizing and acting on their needs…

Nonattachment to the comforts which I had previously relied on and taken for granted – potable, running water, available and/or clean toilets, consistent electricity, refrigerator, washing machine, air conditioning, privacy, silence, space…

Noble silence – not making eye contact or saying hello to unknown men to avoid eliciting unwanted attention or interpretation that I am interested in them sexually; the language barrier prohibiting more substantive, meaningful conversation, thus starving me from feeling connection and intimacy…

Accept reality for what it is not what it should be or what I want it to be – patriarchal structure; caste system; plans rarely starting on schedule…

Develop compassion and gratitude – for the welcoming, supportive, and tirelessly hardworking staff at ARTH, especially Pallavi, Himani, Dr. Sharad and Kirti Iyengar, Colonel Sharma, Dr. Swati, Swapna, Kailesh, all the VHWs, Rekha, Vikrim, Dolaram, Avi, Shibumi, the helpline staff. I have had the privilege of working with most of ARTH’s staff, and have been blown away by their long hours (Monday through Saturday, even some Sundays! from 9am until evening), physical exertion (walking on rocky footpaths in 120 degree heat to reach distant hamlets; driving over 4 hours in one day to deliver services to people who otherwise would have no access to basic medical care) and, after all the acclaim it has received, unbelievable degree of humility…

So, I questioned why I needed ten additional days of incessant meditation, unbearable pain, inescapable and suffocating heat, solitude, and meals of porridge to reinforce the practices and principles that I had been working on for what felt like an eternity. The full force of fatigue from dealing with harsh realities, unwanted turns of events, not understanding nor being understood by others, and trying my best to navigate an incredibly different culture manifested. However, my exhaustion was buoyed by what ended up being a false sense of confidence in my ability to deal with these exigencies – I wondered, did I really need this?

On the seventh day, I had two unextraordinary experiences that humbled me, led me to abandon my feeling of guardedness, and ultimately captured the extraordinary value of the vipassana technique. First, I had a breakdown. These are rare for me, but when they come there is nothing that I or anyone can do it hold it back. As I tried to settle into the fifth sitting of the day, I couldn’t stop mulling over the challenges of my “extended vipassana.” I quickly felt the telltale signs of a breakdown bubble up from deep within me, so I hastily exited the Dhamma hall and saught refuge under a Pepal tree. Tears rolled down my cheeks, my body trembled, and I cursed observation and invited emotional, cathartic release. Later, I had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation that left me unrecognizable to myself. I had been waiting for what seemed like ages to fill my water bottle from the filter water station outside the Dhamma hall, eagerly anticipating the ice-cold water to quench my thirst and replenish the liters of water I sweated out during the sitting. As I was about to put my bottle under the spigot, an Indian woman cut me off and started filling her bottle. Immediately, an all-consuming hatred was spawned. I wanted to shove the woman out of the way, berating her for her complete lack of consideration for the time I had been waiting. I wanted her to feel badly, really badly about her transgression.

My breakdown and two-minute bitch wrath gave me fresh perspective about the value and relevance of practicing vipassana. First, what I thought I had been doing, and doing rather well, was letting go of my negative sensations, emotions, and judgments. I realized that, instead, I had been repressing some of them, allowing them to fester and manifest more robustly and uncontrollably later on. Second, the instantaneousness and intensity of my anger towards the water-hijaker caught me completely off guard. I was totally disarmed of any ability to remain equanimous. Ha, what ego I had! For me to have been so affected by such a trivial exchange with a woman whom I didn’t even know revealed how naïve and delusional I had been about my so-called ability to not react. I realized that I had been giving far too much credit to rationality, to being able to reason my way out of being victim of my emotions. Sure, reasoning is your first line of defense, and a very important one, but there is no negotiating impulse. Vipassana was trying to teach me how to retrain my mind so that its behavior changed before impulse. I have a long way to go.

There is a subtle yet powerful difference between reaction and pro-action, which I feel is core to the vipassana practice. It is not advocating for practitioners to become listless observers, merely floating through life without acting on what you believe in. Instead, Goenka encourages you to fulfill your responsibilities and take a strong stand to support what you care about, so long as these actions are done with compassion, morality, and nonattachment. In the days following the vipassana, I felt this “proactiveness” in the sense that I had a heightened awareness of my thoughts and surroundings down to the most trivial of experiences, and therefore felt more intentional about my actions. I felt good – calm, unshakable, and fully present. I continue to see the applicability of the vipassana teachings every day – whether it’s me learning to be more compassionate towards the bus driver whom I catch overcharging me for my bus fare, not fussing over the 130 degree temperatures, and working diligently towards expanding reproductive choice for a small group of women, while allowing the things which I cannot control to consume – as much – mental space. Now, I feel a greater sense of ownership over my happiness, which is simultaneously scary and empowering to know that, ultimately, it all starts and ends with my mind. The old Christian parable no longer holds; there is only one set of footprints in the sand – mine.

When I initially started this blog, the title, “In the Pursuit of…” came to me without much thought. Granted it was a cop-out for not having something pithier, but it was also an acknowledgement of my eagerness to learn and search without knowing, at the time, for what. I realize that, as selfish as this sounds, my time here has been about me. It has been about me trying to get a little closer to making sense of myself and how I fit into the small and grand schemes of what we know as life. India has given me the space to explore, question, redefine, and embrace myself – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The vipassana certainly reinforced that, as meditation is described as a method through which our true self is revealed to us, and additionally, given me some tools to work on how I see and interact with the world. I feel incredibly blessed to have people in my life who have supported me in this pursuit, and, at the tail end of this experience, to have been able to take the time to slow down and turn inward. If we don’t understand ourselves, than how can we figure out anything else? In American culture, extroversion is valued over introversion. This is evident in so many dimensions – throughout our education, grades are given for how well you can perform in public speaking and debate; extracurriculars typically involve sports, theater, clubs – group activities; even art, which is inherently a personal and individual process, is oriented towards sharing it with the outside world, being scrutinized for its technique and emotional inspiration. Assertiveness, interpersonal communication, and self-expression are unquestionably important skills to develop, and necessary to living a happy and fulfilling life in our society, but, again, balance is key – giving ourselves regular space to be with ourselves, reevaluate how we are contributing to and detracting from our wellbeing, would have dramatically positive implications on our happiness, and as an extension, the happiness of others.

With less than three weeks before I return to the US, my mind, body, and soul are charged with anticipation to reunite with family, friends, green pastures, exposed knees, cold microbrews, leavened bread, and cheddar cheese. However, it is a bitter sweet departure because I have found a home at ARTH – I cherish the personal and professional relationships I have developed with staff through spending time both in and outside of the office. I feel wholly inspired by their model of strengthening the skills of lower and mid-level providers (not doctors) to deliver quality and rights-based community-level services in areas with no other outlet to medical care. This has been a transformative experience from many angles, and I hope that in my future pursuits as a doctor, friend, girlfriend, sister, daughter, colleague, American, and woman, I can carry forward the mindfulness, humility, and determination that I have witnessed and experienced during my time here.

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