Sometimes, there comes a stage in life, when one feels pushed against the wall, when the bulwark of faith , hope and optimism comes crumbling down, smothering you in the debris. Everything around you is dismally dark and it then seems that the tunnel will just go on and on, that the claustrophobia will only get worse and that there never will be even a glimmer of light at the end.
Why should this be happening to me? I never did intentionally harm anybody. These and a thousand other unanswered questions would constantly run around in my mind during that period of trauma that descended on us. It hit everyone concerned, in ways that I could never have imagined in my scariest nightmares and I began to sink under the huge, heavy boulder of guilt.
Sometimes, it is just when one is sinking, flailing about to clutch at the flimsiest of straws, that a huge wave lifts you high and sweeps you away to the most serene of shores.
That’s what happened to me. I was introduced to Vipassana meditation.
I had heard about it for the first time from what then appeared to me, a seemingly unlikely candidate to be venturing towards spirituality (a hugely prejudiced misconception on my part ). It was years ago, when during the course of a television interview, Madhu Sapre, the model, talked about a difficult spell in her life and how vipassana meditation had helped her get through that phase and restore her calm. Strangely, that is the only part of that interview which has remained in my memory. Later on, I heard of it again through a colleague and friend of mine, who had attended a ten-day vipassana course, along with her sister.
My mother prays five times a day. My father never did. He never did overtly question religion or its practices. He didn’t totally conform, that’s all and yet thinking back ( he died when he was just a year or two older than I am now), I know, that it had seemed to me even as a child, that he had all the qualities of a genuinely good human being. He was affectionate , he was generous, he was honest , but he didn’t go by the book. And by the book, he was slated for hell. That didn’t make sense to me.
My mother used to say, that when I was a kid, I would slip away whenever the old man with the long flowing white beard, who lived in our neighbourhood, went past our gate. I used to think that he was Allah and I was scared of him!
I cannot say when it was that I unconsciously started to militate against the idea of the kind of faith that was based on fear. And as I grew up and would see suffering all around and horrible tragedies happening to wonderfully gentle human beings, I found it harder and harder to reconcile myself with the idea of a compassionate God, particularly when I saw little children afflicted with sickness and pain and hunger. It made no sense to me. Most of all, I could not understand how one could arrive at the truth of one’s existence, when there were so many different contenders, each claiming to be the sole guardian of the knowledge about the hereafter.
So, without the terra-firma of faith under my feet, when I most needed it, I was at the risk of losing my balance and I could not afford to do that at that point of time. Well, in fact, may be, we can never afford to lose it , at any point of time.
I will always, always be indebted in a huge way to my friend who, gently but insistently, nudged me along to sit a ten-day vipassana meditation course. To me, it is the most precious gift, a lifeboat to hang on to, in the most turbulent of storms.
Vipassana meditation is the Buddha’s way to help us come out of our suffering. Yes, at first, his premise that all of life is suffering did not synchronise with what I perceived of life. The individual in me, who wanted to believe that life is filled with wondrous things, who revelled in the beauty of sunsets, who could sit and stare in awe at snow-clad mountains, who loved flowers and children, who loved to be surrounded with the warmth of affections, was the least inclined to go along with that. But at the end of the course, one began to realize what the Buddha meant.
The courses are held in centres that have been established in almost all the states of India and in several centres abroad. For the ten days that one stays at the centre and participates in the meditation course, one is required to maintain complete silence. The silence is not the main feature, but an important enabler for the practice of intensive meditation. Communication is allowed only with the Assistant Teachers, who conduct the course with the help of audio- cassettes containing the recorded instructions of Shri S.N.Goenka, the person who has been responsible for re-establishing this method of meditation in India after a very long interregnum. One can also speak, if necessary to the volunteers who serve on these courses and who are there to provide assistance.
Vipassana meditation is a totally non-sectarian method of looking inwards into oneself, to arrive at an understanding of the connection that exists between mind and matter and what happens when we defile our minds with negativities. (This is not to be confused with any ritualistic practice that is part of modern day Buddhism). Starting with learning to focus continuously on the incoming and outgoing breath, one gradually progresses to the stage of awareness of sensations, gross and subtle, that keep arising within our physical framework . One begins to understand that negativity in the mind, whether of anger or greed, jealousy or insecurity , desire or passion, fear or hatred, will always give rise to unpleasant sensations in the physical component of what we are constituted of and the mind in turn reacts with aversion to these unpleasant sensations, wanting them to disappear. In a broad sense, this is when we start feeling miserable.
And it is not just the aversion to the unpleasant sensations that is the cause of our grief. Every time we feel good, every time we feel pleasure, through our different senses, our physical being is loaded with pleasant sensations and our mind starts craving for more of them. The loss of pleasure or even the fear of losing it, for we know that nothing sustains permanently, makes us miserable again. We then fail to live fully in the present and are constantly regressing to our past or projecting our fears into the future.
At the peripheral level, it is only our intellect that can grasp these truths. All religions warn us against negative deeds and urge us to do that is which good and wholesome . All religions emphasise the value of detachment and, yet, with all our clinging and attachments to the things that are pleasant for us, detachment is the most difficult thing to practice in our daily lives.
We may argue over the different messages in the Gita or the Bible or the Koran and their authenticity. Belief in Heaven and hell is also a matter of faith. Whether there is one lifetime or many is beyond the grasp of our limited knowledge. But there cannot be any denying of a truth that we can come to understand at an experiential level and that is the law of cause and effect. The moment negativity arises in our mind, there is a resultant agitation, a disturbance, like the waters becoming muddy when stirred with a stick or by hurling a stone into it. Very often we manage to suppress it, and we think we have restored our calm, but the mud has merely settled down, not removed and the next time another stone is thrown, the sediments come rising up again.
Through vipassana meditation, one learns to observe the sensations that arise, with equanimity, both the pleasant and the unpleasant, with the awareness that nothing is permanent and that that which arises will pass away. Through continuous practice of this form of meditation, the residue that has been accumulated in our minds can be eradicated, making our minds clearer and calmer. We begin to get a glimpse of what our purer states must be like . Our minds which are accustomed to reacting with craving or aversion, all the time, learn instead to observe and remain calm, unperturbed. It helps us to remain in the present moment, more and more, not forever worrying about the future or burdened with the baggages of the past. We begin to be free.
The Buddha neither affirmed nor denied the existence of God. What he went about teaching till he breathed his last was the art of living this life in the here and now. Vipassana meditation is a wonderful way of achieving that; it is difficult, no doubt, but the results of which one can experience straightaway, without waiting to die.
What I found most striking about the whole thing was that in some way it makes us more empathetic. We begin to realize that even the person who we think as the most vile, as per our judgements and as per their actions, do deserve our compassion and not hatred. Just imagine how much of negativity a person must summon up in order to perpetuate a gross act like rape or killing for example. Would that just vanish away? For how long that must eat away at his inner self. When one becomes more aware of the turmoil, sometimes hidden so deep inside us, it begins to help us wish that such turmoil be wiped away from each and everyone who is suffering in the same way. Compassion is not just a word. It is a process of awareness and there is no way that one can intellectually learn it or make it part of ourselves, except by spending time in deeply looking into our own selves.
With time, I also got over the stumbling block of interpreting the word “detatchment “ as indifference or a deadening of our ability to take joy in anything around us. In fact it helps us better to appreciate the blessings and beauty of our existences, for we do not peg it to its permanence , but to its existence in the here and now.
A long way to go yet. But in many ways , through many days, I am getting better and better.:-)