Every year in India, thousands of students learn the technique of Vipassana Meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka and his authorized assistants. Thousands more learn the method in Indian prisons, where it has gained favor as a useful adjunct to prison reform.
In Vipassana centers around the world, such as Vipassana Mexico, near Cuernavaca, Mexico, those who are willing and able to commit ten days to the course are fed and housed, at no cost, so that they may concentrate on learning the technique, which was rediscovered by Guatama Buddha 25 centuries ago.
In my case, a midlife crisis led me to Vipassana. Friends who were aware of my distress after a bout of radiation treatments and the breakup of a relationship quietly suggested that I investigate the practice that had catalyzed positive change in their own lives, and I said, "What have I got to lose?" I was also attracted to the fact that the course was free, leaving it up to me in the end to make a contribution or not. As it turned out, the ten days were no picnic, but the teaching "took," and I now sit in silence twice daily, enjoying the tranquility and the mental purification that result.
Vipassana Mexico will soon be building a meditation center near Valle del Bravo, an easy drive from Mexico City. In the meantime, the group conducts ten day retreats in rented quarters. My course was at Quinta Tonantzín, a Catholic retreat center in Tepoztlan, Morelos, near Cuernavaca. The setting is spectacular cliffs and jungle vegetation but we were to view it only from afar.
I arrived early at Quinta Tonantzin, and dropped off my bags before walking back toward town on a quiet lane, enjoying the surroundings and looking for a tienda where I could sneak a final Pepsi and some potato chips before settling into the healthy vegetarian regime at the course.
That first day, as part of the enrollment process, we received three chances to answer "No" to the question, "Do you feel that you can commit to spending the next ten days, in their entirety, at this center?" As far as I know, everybody said yes, but one woman who had pre-enrolled failed to show up. After an introduction about the aims of the course and what was expected from us as students, men and women participants were segregated into different areas with their own dining halls, and Noble Silence began with a meditation session.
During Noble Silence, which lasts for nine days, students may not talk to each other, make eye contact or communicate even by gesture. Students are allowed to ask the teacher, appointed by S.N. Goenka, questions about the technique. They may also confer at any time with the male or female manager, volunteers who have already completed one or more courses, regarding material comforts (food, candles, toilet paper, aspirin, etc.).
There were approximately 45 students present from throughout Mexico and all around the world. Fully half of these had taken a previous course. At 55 years of age, I was the second oldest.
On Day One, when that first gong went off at 4 a.m., I groaned. But gong it did at that hour daily for ten days, and I quickly learned to dress and stagger into the meditation hall. As it turned out, we spent about 12 hours a day meditating, with and without supervision, and with audio instructions in English by S. N. Goenka (translated also into Spanish).
Students eat twice a day, with some fruit and tea in the afternoon for new students. Experienced students take no food after noon. The meals are vegetarian, and tasty -- sometimes quite hearty, and often truly inspired. Food is prepared and served by volunteers. The diet is designed with meditation in mind, and though new students occasionally find it difficult to sleep on an "empty" stomach, they find their dreams intensified and their meditation facilitated by the dietary restrictions. For several days I endured Technicolor nightmares, but my sleep became calmer as the course progressed.
Each evening we enjoyed a video discourse in English by the main teacher, Goenka, a brilliant and vital man whose mission is to share the method which brought about so much positive change in his own life. We learned that ten days is often the maximum time a homeowner or worker can spend away from the home or family, and the minimum time in which to learn the technique of Vipassana meditation. Each night we received a preview of the next days lesson, and each day we put into practice another level of the Vipassana technique.
Though the accommodations are hardly Spartan, and the food varied and delicious, we still suffered a bit. Without caffeine, and obliged as we were to sit on cushions on the floor for a dozen hours per day, many of us became constipated, in spite of the vegetarian fare. This was countered by the application of ground flaxseed to our food, and largely cleared up before the end of the course. As well, the sitting posture took its toll on our hips and spines, and we each invented grotesque stretches for relief.
Still, Vipassana meditation does not hurt, and students must be comfortable in order to practice. The teacher and managers made it their business to see that each of us was comfortable in the meditation hall. Some students ended sitting in chairs, and others, like myself, leaned against the wall. But even seasoned meditators are challenged by the long hours spent sitting with eyes closed.
We first learned to concentrate our minds with Anapanna meditation, focussing our attention on the breath and the touch of the breath, both inside and outside the nose and on the area between the nose and upper lip. Initially it was impossible to maintain this concentration for more than a few seconds without the mind interrupting with an alien thought. By the time we learned to focus entirely on the tiny area between nose and lip, we could also concentrate without interruption for many minutes at a time.
On the fourth day, after much practice, students are led into Vipassana, and taught to concentrate on the eyes-closed, objective observation of physical sensation, unaccompanied by thoughts of craving or aversion. This is the method that has led to such remarkable change in the lives of serious Vipassana meditators. Without going into great detail, the process works as follows: maestro Goenka asserts that Buddha discovered that the observation of bodily sensations without judging them just allowing them to happen breaks down the physical and mental complexes that lead to the accumulation of such sensations. This leads to physical and emotional changes that greatly improve the lives of meditators.
We maintained the rigorous schedule for nine days, filling our spare moments by gaping at the view of the ever-changing mountainside, sometimes surrounded by swirling mists and at others parching in the unmitigated sunlight. Up close, since we couldnt read, write or talk, I watched the ladybugs eat the aphids off the rosebushes.
On the tenth day, we broke Noble Silence. How I had ached to say goodnight to my roommate, or to ask if there was anything I could do for the woman with the muscle spasms. But when the time came to talk, I was at first shy, and wandered out to the playing field to gather my courage to speak. "Gracias, Trini," were my initial words. I was grateful to my roommate for having observed the rules so scrupulously.
As a new meditator, I can hardly claim to understand the process, but I am aware of the resulting change. I have noticed, for instance, that I no longer choose the "adrenaline route." Since taking the course, my responses to everyday provocations (the doctor is late, theres a traffic jam, I forgot my checkbook, etc.) are based on equanimity. I stay cool and even find humor in situations that formerly had the power to upset me and make me sweat. Also, Ive ceased to jump to conclusions, and now I allow situations to unfold themselves, unhindered by my expectations. And though my day still contains 24 hours, I have the time to meditate, and the time to wait.
Returning to my noisy house, where my dogs met me with obstreperous glee, was a bit of a shock, but after 24 hours or so I got back into the normal rhythm of things. My hips hurt from sitting so much, and my back remained stiff for a bit. I had to dedicate myself to "re-entry."
This was aided by nice, sweet e-mails from fellow students. We had all noticed something special about each other during those ten days, it turned out. And, as I began to practice my meditation at home, I became aware that I was genuinely happy to see people strangers and friends alike as we went about the daily business of life. I also began to sense that my ten days had already made a big difference in my approach to life.
Now I am glad to go about the mundane requirements of living, and to meet people on the street and greet them with genuine enthusiasm, whether or not we were previously acquainted. My glass is at least half full, and my previous, well-practiced prejudices and judgements are suspended. I presume the best instead of the worst, and my gossip has lost its nasty barb. These changes feel good, solid and legitimate. (Similar results in Indian prisons mean that those who take the course are much less likely to return to jail.)
Ive signed up for another course, and I look forward to the opportunity to serve new students afterward. Im also taking a fatter cushion, an extra nightgown, and warmer socks.
Gracias, Vipassana Mexico.