Life is one big series of decisions. Most are small and inconsequential, such as deciding what to have for breakfast or which Sunday night movie to watch, or have consequences that can not possibly be foreseen. Every now and again however, a turning point arises. A true life-changer that is not always easily recognised, for it is simply a choice between action and inaction or ‘staying the course.’ I made such a decision when I broke up with my long-term girlfriend in 2006. I made another when I decided to quit my job, fly myself and my bicycle to Malaysia and just start pedaling. And recently in Bhagsu, I opted for action that has changed my life.
Vipassana is a form of meditation discovered by Gotama Buddha 2,500 years ago in the north of India, where in his lifetime it would be practiced by thousands. For one reason or another though, it faded and was eventually lost for many centuries to all Buddhist nations except Burma, where in the mid-20th century, it was taught to one S.N. Goenka. In the 1960s, Goenka returned the technique to the motherland and once again, it grew and grew, inspiring him to spread dhamma throughout the world. Today there are vipassana centers in 76 nations across the globe, regularly conducting ten-day courses purely on a donation basis.
Upon registering for the course, I knew nothing of the technique or indeed, of meditation. I would claim that I meditated because I spent time alone in purposeful, conscious contemplation. I know now that this is just about the opposite of most forms of meditation, which aim to purify and clarify the mind. All I knew was that for ten days, meditators were required to remain at the centre, to refrain from speaking, reading, writing, contact with the opposite sex and intoxicants and to adhere to the course timetable, which looks something like this;
4:00am : Wake Up
4:30am – 6:30am : Meditate
6:30am – 8:00am : Breakfast
8:00am – 11:00am : Meditate
11:00am – 1:00pm : Lunch
1:00pm – 5:00pm : Meditate
5:00pm – 6:00pm : “Dinner”
6:00pm – 7:00pm : Meditate
7:00pm – 8:30pm : Discourse
8:30pm – 9:00pm : Meditate
The first question one might have is why. Why would anyone, let alone thousands from across the world each year, want to voluntarily imprison themselves and live such an intensely restrictive and demanding life for a week and a half?
I have known for some time now that there has to be more to this existence than that which is immediately apparent. We know that there are light waves we can not see, sounds we can not hear and scents we can not smell, detectable only with various devices. Similarly, there must be workings of our sixth sense, the mind, not apparent to us – some may refer to them as the subconscious. But what device could possibly detect such deep and mysterious workings? Surely only the mind itself. If the faculty of detection were to be developed and the mind was strongly concentrated in such a way, surely it could reveal a higher truth that transcends the ultimately unsatisfying sensual delights we spend our whole lives chasing and reveal the secrets of true happiness. I believed meditation to be the gateway to this truth.
Before leaving Bhagsu, I stripped myself of my jewellery as a symbol of renunciation of outward self-expression – for ten days my focus would be inwards. I left my money and valuables with friends as a symbol of renunciation of wealth. And I removed my watch as a symbol of renunciation of control – I would surrender myself to the gong and indeed, to the technique – awake by the gong, eat by the gong, meditate by the gong, sleep by the gong.
Dhamma Sikhara is set on a high ridge in the village of Dharamkot, between Bhagsu and McCleod Ganj. It is a cold place that sees just a couple of hours of sunlight per day due to its thick surrounding of pine trees that act to further isolate meditators from the outside world, as well as provide a habitat for the hordes of local monkeys. They would offer us hours of entertainment as they jumped from tin roof to tin roof and tree to tree, becoming embroiled in wild gang fights that would often see over one hundred monkeys stream across the property in either fear or aggression.
As a ‘new student,’ I was assigned to the dormitory that was nothing more than a long shed containing thin partitions dividing the room into areas of two beds each. After registering on the afternoon of day 0, settling in to our residences and having a strange meet and greet with all of the people that we were supposed to ignore for the next ten days, we were directed to the meditation hall, which was to become the centre of our universe – a place of pleasure and pain, where spirits would be lifted, broken and lifted once more. A place of extreme vision and total blindness. Of calms and storms. Of ignorance and insight.
Within were about sixty thick, square cushions, half on one side for the females and half for the males. Before us on raised platforms sat our respective teachers, our gurus, who would guide us through all of our doubts and clarify why we were doing what at times just felt plain wrong. As I sat on my assigned cushion, a wave of relief rushed through me. This was a veritable throne compared to the concrete verandah I had practiced sitting on for the four nights prior.
As with many new students, particularly stiff-bodied male westerners who have not sat cross-legged since kindergarten, this course was to be a huge physical challenge for me. In that first brief evening session, still unsure of what exactly I was supposed to be doing with my mind, I experienced a dreamlike sensation. At one point, I had to open my eyes just to make sure that I was still seated in the hall and not floating upside down through the forest outside. This was to be the last time I would experience something so surreal, for the forthcoming pain was to keep me well and truly grounded.
Goenka’s audio instructions, given in his calm, baritone, Barry White-esque voice, asked us to simply observe our respiration, not to attempt to regulate it in any way, just observe. It sounds simple enough, but one soon realises what a wandering, untamed mind one has. I would observe four breaths before my thoughts would go on a senseless rampage, one running into the next, encompassing everything and nothing at all. Ten minutes later I would catch a moment of clarity and say to myself, ‘Hey Damo, you’re in a meditation course. You’re meant to be observing your respiration.’
Oh right. Four breaths later…………….gone.
For three and a half days we were asked to do this, observing the touch of the breath on a smaller and smaller area so as to make our minds sharper and sharper. In that time, four consecutive breaths of concentration became five breaths, became ten breaths, became one hundred breaths. This was the first of many amazing revelations about the human mind; that we have the ability to train it to automatically concentrate on something as mundane and natural as breathing, a task we carry out unconsciously from the moment we are born until the moment we die.
By the start of day three, my first thought when I was awoken by the 4am gong was, ‘Which nostril am I breathing through?’
Sometimes I would be standing at the urinal, so engrossed in the now automatic observation of respiration that I would have to stop and remind myself, ‘Hey Damo, you’re meant to be taking a whiz.’
Such intensive concentration was preparation for day four; ‘Vipassana Day,’ the day that we would learn the technique that was to be Buddha’s greatest contribution to mankind and that would indeed, result in his becoming a Buddha. In his many years of practicing under a number of teachers, Siddhartha Gotama had found that while the various forms of samadhi, such as the anapana that we had been practicing, were very effective in concentrating and purifying the surface of the mind, they did not allow one to penetrate to the depths of the mind where the root causes of their miseries lie and could therefore never be liberated from them.
We were to move from the realm of concentration to the realm of wisdom.
We were asked to move our mind systematically throughout our body and to simply observe any sensations that we felt on each part. This is vipassana. This is the path to understanding the universal law of nature; the law of impermanence, at the experiential level.
Scientists have long since confirmed that there is no solidity in the material world. Everything, ourselves included, is made up of subatomic particles, rising and passing away with great rapidity. By understanding this at the intellectual level, one can see the absurdity in rolling in the sources of all of our miseries; craving and aversion, but one rolls and rolls regardless because their understanding is only an intellectual one. One must experience impermanence and this can only be done within the framework of the body, observing the interaction between mind and matter that is life.
It is the path to changing the habit pattern of the mind that is constantly reacting, reacting, reacting, either with craving or aversion, not to the objects of our senses as is outwardly apparent, but to the sensations produced on our body by our subconscious’ evaluations of such objects. This is what the Buddha discovered and he taught that by remaining equanimous regardless of their apparent nature, we are able to change this habit pattern, purify the mind and come out of our misery.
Following these instructions came the announcement that I somehow knew to be inevitable and had been quietly dreading.
Beginning the course, I was very relieved to find that Goenka was by no means the sitting nazi that I had believed him to be. While we were encouraged to meditate in the sitting position as much as possible, we were told that when it became too uncomfortable, we could change our posture. We could take a short walk outside the dhamma hall or if meditating in our residences, we could lie down for a while. Some people meditated in chairs, some leant against a wall and some sat on their knees.
I tried to sit as much as possible, but could never maintain the same posture for more than about thirty minutes before the pain in my legs became ‘unbearable’ – I did not know the meaning of the word.
Beginning on day five, three one-hour sessions per day were to become ‘Sittings of Strong Determination’ in which we were to make a strong determination to neither open our eyes nor change our posture for the entire hour. The remaining six days were to revolve around these sittings during which the parliament within my head would convene and the furious debates would begin.
As I psyched myself up for the first such session, a negative, less ambitious party was arguing, ‘Don’t worry about this session. You’ve still got 6 more days. Work your way into it.’
A second, more noble party knew that I had to make a resolve to achieve a one-hour sitting sooner or later and the sooner I did and realised that it was possible, the easier it would become to move beyond the pain barrier and find peace in my meditation. It was decided, I would sit for one hour.
During the first thirty minutes of the sitting, an evil foe had jammed a pole into my back, wrapped my nerves around its end and slowly twisted. Still I sat. A thorny-backed snake had crawled beneath my skin and was slowly wriggling its way up and down one side of my spine. Still I sat.
As always, any pain in my back or anywhere in my body was soon surpassed in magnitude and rendered insignificant by that which developed in my legs. My kneecaps became domes of concentrated pain, some of which oozed like hot, molten lava to my thighs and shins and some of which seeped into my veins to be distributed throughout the rest of my body. Still I sat. My mind violently shook inside my skull making it impossible to focus on any sensations anywhere on my body, including the pain.
Again the arguing parties within made it apparent why this is so difficult, ‘What are you doing Damo? Just stretch out your legs.’
I was in severe pain, as severe as I could remember ever experiencing and it was entirely self-induced. I had the power to relieve it and could do so with no consequences except my own sense of failure. Oh how strong is the will to succeed?
Obviously not strong enough on this occasion. I lifted my knees and placed my head on them in distress. It was for but ten seconds, but this provided me with the physical and mental relief to see out the final fifteen minutes.
I had failed, but remained determined and several hours later and with much the same experience, still I sat, still I sat, still I sat, for the entire hour. Feeling as though I had achieved the impossible, I expected at the very least a modest ceremony whereby I would be presented with a certificate confirming that, ‘Damo sat in the same posture for one hour.’ Perhaps also, a celebratory cake, a hot bath and a nice, long nap. Instead I was told to, “Take rest for five minutes and start again.”
Walking outside, I was in an elated state of shell shock – bug-eyed and teeth chattering. It had to get easier from here. It did…………..slightly.
As expected, maintaining ‘noble silence’ was not as difficult for me as some others. Watching two Punjabi men sitting nearby one another in the courtyard, both rubbing their oversized honkers in an attempt to conceal their moving mouths but being unable to conceal their uncontrollable head waggles, was hilarious. Such silence made for an eery atmosphere at times and floating softly through the forest with these other unnamed ghosts, one could not help but feel a member of a cult in some backwards part of the rural US. I wondered if I would taste the poison in the chai on day ten.
Strolling one day, I encountered a cat that looked like a leopard cub and he wrapped himself warmly around my legs as only a feline can. He must have liked my scent, for drifting off to sleep that night, I was surprised to feel a lump jump onto my bed and cuddle up to my legs. Night after night my bed buddy returned and we shared one another’s warmth. I had begun to understand the universal law of nature and nature was responding in kind. He even began to join me for my breakfast and lunch break siestas, which became a part of my daily routine and were essential in giving my body and mind a rest before tackling that next session, which was always just one dreaded gong stroke away.
Each morning, I awoke feeling like an arthritic old man, but took comfort in the fact that I was one night closer to earning my freedom. Vipassana courses are known for being intense experiences and are by no means ‘enjoyable.’ A purification process takes place and such process’ can never be pleasant because they require impurities to rise to the surface and they must be dealt with. In fact, this was the mentally and physically toughest thing I have ever endured, and I have been placing a fair number of mental and physical challenges in my life of late. Like everyone else, I was counting down the days, but unlike most others, not once did I feel like ‘running away’ due to the internal kick given by my impurities on their way out.
It is far easier to describe what was going on outside than the myriad of things taking place inside, but as the course progressed and my understanding developed and my meditation became stronger, enabling me to experience a subtler and subtler reality, I knew that I was being exposed to something life-changing.
Such understanding was developed through personal experience as well as Goenka’s evening discourses, which provided the bridge between teaching and practice. A master storyteller most adept in the use of metaphor, Goenka, with his pudgy face and calm manner, has a gift for explaining the teachings of the Buddha in a way that is simple, relevant and in my un-stimulated state, often verging on hilarious.
While I am in no position to delve in to the teachings here, they rang so true and made sense such as no life philosophy I have ever encountered. There are no rigid dogmas to be followed, no meaningless rites and rituals to be carried out and no leap of faith to be made – one only accepts that which they experience.
At some point in one’s life, one seeks a philosophy or set of guidelines by which to live, but in these times where pop culture is more pervasive than ever and seemingly pushing people further and further away from truth, where is one to look?
Religion? The Christian teachings I was raised on? They encompass all of the right things, as do those of any religion worthy of the title, but only on an intellectual level that fails to speak to the youth of today.
I was told to ‘be like Jesus,’ but how can one hope to emulate the son of God who was born of a virgin, walked on water, turned loaves into fishes and fishes into wine and if all that was not enough, rose from the dead. It was only relatively recently in my life that I learned that there was actually a person who walked this earth named Jesus. As a rational kid hearing these stories, I simply assumed him to be a mythical being. Is not being a truly saintly, enlightened, though very human, person enough to warrant devotion and emulation without having to be twisted into a myth? Surely Buddhism has shown that it is.
I was told to pray to God. To ask and thank Him for things. Was I to believe that there is actually a celestial being up in the clouds who has a hand in earthly matters? A being who, despite creating the universe and all living things and therefore knows why they do and do not have faith, was still so egotistical as to require his creations to praise his name? A being so vengeful and malicious that He felt it just to condemn them to an eternity in the hell fires if their praise was not forthcoming or indeed, for any act committed during their short time on this earth?
Such a God would never be worthy of my praise.
Perhaps reality TV had the answers I was looking for, but I never gave it a chance, so I was left to devise my own philosophies.
I once told myself that life is all about stimulation and passion. That there is only so much energy in this universe, created at the time of the big bang and one must harness as much of it as they can. Reflecting on this during the course, it made me laugh that I could not have devised a philosophy more diametrically opposed to that of the Buddha if I tried.
I had envisioned skydiving through life – being alive and feeling it!
I can not believe that I never saw one colossal flaw; one would constantly be craving greater and greater heights, never satisfied. Where would it end?
I see myself, my family and friends living in such a way; craving and satisfying only to crave again. We become addicted to our craving – if only I had a 72 inch flat screen tele instead of my piddly 60 inch…….If only I had a bigger zoom lens for my camera…….If only I had a sexy, black Lexus…….If only I earned as much as the Jones’…….If only I cycled the world…….then I’d be happy.
But where does it end? Sony will forever be making bigger TVs. Canon will forever be making zoomier zoom lenses. Lexus; sexier, blacker, penis extensions. There will always be more Jones’. And there will forever be a kilometre of road in some country that I have not pedaled along.
It’s a bottomless bucket people. It can not be filled.
Deep down we understand this and yet we try to fill it anyway because our understanding is merely an intellectual one. We look outside for sources of happiness, just as we see our sources of misery as originating outside. We never think to look within. Through meditation, one finds that nothing and nobody outside can make us either happy or miserable. That power lies within ourselves only.
In a society where belief is based either on blind faith or science, some of this may be hard for readers to accept. That’s fine. “Don’t accept it,” the Buddha said, “Experience it.”
I urge everyone I know to give themselves the chance to experience Truth, for I know not a single person who does not crave and cling to things which will ultimately pass away, who does not continuously roll in the past and future despite the only reality being in the present, who does not ignorantly plant seeds of tension inside themselves and then wonder why they are so miserable when harvest arrives.
Goenka reminds us that all saintly people throughout history have said, “Know thyself.” This technique teaches you to do just that – to look within and to uproot your plants of misery while being aware of the seeds that you are sowing so that the flowers that bloom may only be those of true happiness, true peace, true love, true compassion, true harmony.
These are universal qualities just as dhamma itself is universal.
One of the most dangerously restrictive things that we can do is to assign people to boxes of certain attributes because one inevitably places themselves in one box or another – I can’t listen to dance music, I’m a metalhead. I can’t appreciate art, I like footy and pies. I can’t drive a Ford, I’m a Holden man. I can’t meditate, I’m too old and too straight. I can’t learn the teachings of the Buddha, I’m a Christian.
Misery is universal and the Buddha understood this. His teachings are for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, men, women, rich, poor, black and white alike. They are not religion. They are not Buddhism. They are a universal ‘art of living.’ Experience them and change your life.
One philosophy of mine that still rings true is that while they may not be aware of it, everyone has an image of the person they want to become. They may not be able to describe this person’s attributes, but whether they recognise it or not, they know when they are moving towards this person and when they are moving away. Over those ten days, I took perhaps the biggest step I have ever taken towards the person I want to become and most importantly, I now have a clear path laid out before me that will enable me to keep moving ever closer. It is to be the journey of a lifetime this journey of Truth.