Sunday, June 10, 2007

Our planned week-long stint of silent meditation at Panditarama Lumbini International Vipassana Meditation Center, as mentioned before, ended up only lasting for 3 days, technically a bit over 48 hours. Anderson wrote a few "journal" entries to keep himself sane during that time, so this post first features those thoughts, slightly adapted for the digital world, and then concludes with a little post-silence analysis of the experience. I/We are not trying to directly encourage/discourage anyone from trying Vipassana meditation, whether in Lumbini, Nepal or elsewhere (ie Myanmar), I/we are just trying to share our opinions, as well as the reality of silent meditation, to hopefully better inform anyone whom is remotely interested. To be honest, and this will probably be reiterated further later, it is such a unique experience that it must really be tried to be fully understood/appreciated. Enough of a "make myself feel better, or something" disclaimer, here's the goods:

(One final note: phrases in "quotes" are merely designated as such to indicate Vipassana vocabulary)


Daily Schedule (as posted):

04:00 Wake Up

04:30 - 05:00 Walking Meditation

05:00 - 06:00 Sitting Meditation

06:00 - 07:00 Breakfast

07:00 - 08:00 Sitting Meditation

08:00 - 09:00 Walking Meditation

09:00 - 10:00 Sitting Meditation

10:00 - 11:00 Walking Meditation

11:00 - 12:00 Lunch

12:00 - 12:30 Rest

12:30 - 13:00 Walking Meditation

13:00 - 14:00 Sitting Meditation

14:00 - 15:00 Walking Meditation

15:00 - 16:30 Sitting Meditation

16:30 - 17:30 Walking Meditation

17:30 - 19:00 Dhamma Talk

19:00 - 20:00 Juice & Walking

20:00 - 21:00 Sitting Meditation

21:00 - 22:00 Walking Meditation

Interviews Will Be Conducted

Sun - Fri 08:00 - 11:00


Thoughts Day One (10:15 pm):

Even though it was only a half-day of meditation, since we didn't start meditating until after noon, it was definitely still long and tiring. Don't want to say boring, but certainly not thrilling. Alternating seated and walking meditation (hourly) is great, the variety helps, but still were thinking about personal physical minutiae for an hour straight while doing a repetitive activity. As explained in the audio tapes, which we listened to for about an hour or so this morning upon our 9 am arrival, Vipassana meditation practice follows strict guidelines of "labelling" ones activities. Thus, sitting is focused on one's breathing: "rising" and "falling" should be sole thoughts, and that's what one should always return to when the inevitable frequent distractions occur. Distractions should also be labelled, like "itching," "thinking," "seeing," etc., since they are not inherently bad, merely logical interference when one begins meditating. Walking meditation, while undoubtedly easier, has a slightly more complex thought process, first alternating "left" and "right," while taking larger steps for the first 20 minutes (of each hour), then progressing to "raising" and "lowering" or something similar, for each step. Key focus in general is on being slow, and of slowing down everything one does. A fellow meditator from Austria has it down, a bit funny to watch, the slow-motion facial itch!

Seated meditation is tough: sitting cross-legged and unmoving hurts, pretty quickly, never mind while keeping perfect posture, being silent, and focusing on my breathing. Fortunately we are all on our own, so you can stretch, switch positions, or even do walking meditation as needed. It's very odd having a group of individual silent meditators though. Myself, Liz, Austria man, Japan man, and Nepali guy, plus a nun from Myanmar (?), all follow the same schedule, but we cannot communicate at all, so we effectively act as though no one else exists. An odd path to enlightenment...!

The 2 nuns who run the center can talk, and do so outside the main area; I really thought that they would be silent, too, except when duty calls. Meals are low-key, and low-volume obviously, but lunch was very good, white rice with boiled cabbage, plus okra, and some other vegetable (potato?). Plus veg momos, which were very good, and bananas, watermelon, and cucumber for dessert. "Juice" wasn't really that - since no solid food is allowed after noon - but it's totally imported mango-flavored imitation Tang.

During last seated meditation, power cuts prevented fans from saving us from an inferno, as though things weren't tough enough already. Monsoon better be soon, animals must think so, dogs and cats were howling/meowling tonight (we later determined some/all of cat noises must have been birds...).

Dhamma talk is nice because you can sit comfortably, but the CD recording was hard to hear, vocals were recorded low so CD is unintelligible at times. Never mind the subject matter (its taped talks from before, so you can hear the audience at times), topic equals needing a mediator for meditating, like a villager would need one to see a king. Power cut out, so no conclusion, instead more walking meditation.

Alive and well, but weary. Six hours of sleep maximum is allowed, going to get all I can. See how first full day goes starting at 4 am! Three cats roam the compound (fourth is currently injured and locked up), one is totally blind, and another has only partial vision I think. Have own room and bathroom, by a serene pond full of frogs and lily pads, a bit away from the main compound, so that is very nice, and Liz lives across the small pond. Very modern building, with low intensity lights, Western toilet, tile floor, bed looks solid yet comfortable. Checking into that now.

Thoughts Day Two (10:00 pm):

First full day, obviously, watch alarm beat gong alarm by just a few minutes. Getting up not really too difficult, fortunately. Definitely rained during the night, collected quite a bit of mud walking over to the center, very slowly, in the dark around 4:20 or so. There are 3 types of housing available; dorms located in the actual center, conveniently located but quite communal (toilet is for all to use); 3 sets of triples are a little down a stone path; our individual rooms, 6 in total, are a further ways away. Privacy is well-worth the short walk, as is the personal shower and toilet!

Both forms of mediation are slowly getting easier, takes time to properly take things so slowly, and to get used to observing yourself via repetitive mental labelling. Walking is still definitely preferred, though the progress with seated meditation, both comfort and focus alike, is more noticeable. Early morning walking and seated flew by, breakfast truly seems like the first event of the day, though we were awake for about 2 hours by then. Simple food, of course, primarily cereals and fruits, toughed it out through a muesli/cornflake mix, dry of course, with apple slices on top. My disgust with milk on cereal can be a bit inconveniencing at times!

After more meditation alternation, had first interview, simultaneously with Liz (which seemed a little odd) around 10:15. Talk was very down-to-earth, mostly discussed meditation, but Burma/Myanmar came up as well. Reading the LP guidebook that the center has now, semi on the sly (?). Interview lasted almost an hour, which was unexpected since 20 minutes was the allotted time, but worked well since segued right into lunch. Food was actually better than the first day, a trio of tasty beg dishes accompanied by rice, with the apparently daily soup.

Afternoon went by reasonably quick, though diarrhea interrupted one walking session, which thus partially became a scurrying session!

Dhamma talk was about obstructions while meditating, far from riveting, the speaker talks in circles, with minimal substance hidden beneath the pauses, Pali-language words (from Buddha's time), and thesaurus-esque over-interpretation/explanation. At least it's right before juice time, so there's a metaphorical carrot waiting at the end of the talks. The concept is good, I guess, just the delivery is a bit drawn out, to say the least. Last seated session hard to concentrate during, hot, tired, and itchy, from needing a shower, is a bad combination. But the shower was worth the anguish, great to be clean to pass out. 5.5 hours of sleep upcoming, and too rapidly decreasing...

Thoughts Day Three (8:15 am):

Today is rough going, as though the extreme ridiculousness of this is setting in more. It practically seems anti-Buddhist to be so radical - what type of middle way is silently meditating and moving as slowly as possible? I feel so out of touch with reality, pretending as though there is nothing else in existence. Thus, this seems rather indulgent, egotistical, and self-centered, to focus solely on my own personally-experienced minutiae: the raising and lowering of my feet, "lifting," "leading," and "placing;" the "rising" and "falling" of each breath I take. Meditation is certainly relaxing, and there are probably (hopefully) some physical benefits from my feeble/awkward attempts at extended cross legged-ness, and walking for hours on end is clearly beneficial, but it seems yoga would be more beneficial for my physical and mental well-being, and that anything from reading to playing video games could assist my power of concentration. Plus, this whole silent group of individuals is definitely a bit uncanny. It feels like I'm experiencing a zombie-world, post-human eradication, so now we zombies just amble about slowly and intently, but we lack tangible goals (or the ability, apparently, to realize them), and we must be dependent on an unknown source for daily nourishment, since supplies of human flesh are unobtainable!

It just makes me question things, since if this is truly the path to enlightenment, is this really what I want? Buddha himself spent 29 years in one posh extreme, then a stint at the other end of the spectrum, before deciding neither was right and that balance should be sought. This all seems a bit disproportionate, and utterly imbalanced, with a day consisting, silently, of alternating sitting and walking, both with a total de-emphasis on motion, with breaks solely for nourishment. Vipassana is definitely a far-out approach to existence...

(11:40 am)

Just had lunch, which was again tasty, unusual highlight being seaweed omelets. Preceded by interview, which was in turn preceded by a mostly ineffective seated meditation session. Partially, probably, due to a rule-breaking chat with Liz, while getting my weekly malaria pill, she read my previous writing from this morning, and agreed whole-heartedly. Maybe this just isn't for us?

Mindfulness can be equated as constantly labelling every physical activity, rendering one's mind devoid of free thought. It's like being trapped in your own mind, but only being able to describe/comprehend physical actions. Right now I should constantly be thinking "writing" until such labels drive out the thought/desire to actually write, thus enabling myself to get back to basics: the "rising" and "falling" of my breathing. Eating, in a way an exception, should primarily be labelled as "chewing," and "drinking," although I'm sure "scooping" with the spoon ought to factor in at least a little bit.
Apparently free will/thought is then lost to one's physical digressions, and even those need to be simplified to a mere handful of activities, as previously outlined. Constant repetitive thought, physically-based, is done in order to drown out any alternate mental tasks. Multi-tasking is obviously completely out of the question, as is this very writing...
It seems intriguing that this meditation technique originates in Myanmar, infamous for its highly repressive regime. To be a touch facetious: who needs a military junta when one can ruthlessly oppress one's own mind and thoughts, in the quest to enlightenment?
Now I'm paradoxically feeling bad for breaking these rules I've voluntarily subjected myself to, while also being overwhelmed by the futility of this - it feels like a psychological experiment, albeit self induced, but while I am intrigued by the technique and the actual meditation, I cannot help feeling that I am utterly wasting my time. But, as was said at today's interview, that's just because I'm currently losing the internal struggle with doubt. Right?

(2:15 pm):

Going to depart soon, I know that Vipassana is not for me, and it would be unfair to the center for me to remain, taking advantage of their generosity towards practitioners. Awaiting Liz's arrival, to see what she wants to do. Will stay in Lumbini tonight, and presumably leave Nepal tomorrow. Last meditation session technically not that at all, couldn't stop my mind from thinking, and know now that my heart is no longer in this. Glad for the experience, definitely have an interest in continuing meditation, I've just never been a fan of extreme sports :-). Am I just a weak, foolish American (insert other derogatory phrases here)? I don't know, but I'm alright with that.


I did not mention in my writings anything specific about the eight precepts that a meditator must abide by, so here those are, a bit simplified:
No killing, no stealing, no sex, no lying, no drugs, no food after midday, no music or ornamentation, no high seats or beds.

What do I think of Vipassana meditation now, several days later? I don't regret doing it, but I feel that a little goes a long way. I haven't yet meditated, though I have been busy traveling, but will probably do so soon, since Varanasi is a high-intensity town! I believe that the meditation was highly beneficial, the noble silence a bit less so, but that moderation is the key. Watching television all day, a very Western activity, is none too healthy, is mentally watching one's breathing merely the Eastern alternative? If so, at least it is remarkably less commercialized!
I've concluded that while 3 days was not a waste, spending the entire planned week there would have been, at least for me personally. No way of knowing, obviously, maybe if I had more perseverance I would currently be achieving the initial stages of enlightenment, but I think that is a rather silly delusion. After all, people come for 30 or 60 day retreats at the center, and while they probably reach a higher level of meditatory concentration than I did - I think once or twice I truly got in the zone for any extended (and therefore unknown) stint of time - one must question to what extent that really is true. Hard to be scientific about something so unscientific... and like any religion or philosophy, however one defines those terms, Vipassana requires a leap of faith, from sceptic over to believer. Clearly the nuns there long ago made that choice, but currently I guess I'm just not ready!
If you've never thought about meditation, being silent will probably be a bit overboard for you as well, I would presume. However, for me the duration of time was the biggest hindrance; I felt a small sample of Vipassana highly informative, and even enjoyable, but as hours dragged on to days, increasingly I couldn't help illicitly thinking about the other subcontinental adventures I could be on. After all, one can silently meditate anywhere, you don't need to be at the birthplace of Buddha to do so, although being able to stay at a silence-observing center was clearly beneficial, and there was a wonderful existing infrastructure to support and nurture meditators. Being able to live on a low-Western-cost donation (we gave 1000 NRs, around $15, for our 2 nights of lodging and our 5 meals) is obviously a nice perk, but we weren't there for financial benefits, were hoping for spiritual ones. Not that I didn't find any, certainly being so relaxed for so many hours was very helpful, and like all religions/dogmas, there are certainly valuable insights to be gained and learned. But our mid-week "weekend retreat" felt like the right amount of time, and if I ever desire to continue Vipassana practice, I know have the know-how to do properly do so. And I guess you as a reader do to, although having the daily interview definitely was helpful both for information/correction and moral support. To conclude, for me it wasn't bad, but it wasn't amazing either, but I am still glad that we decided to give Vipassana an earnest try, regardless of the fact that our 3rd day felt at times like we were giving the proverbial "college try" :-)

1 comment:

Iain said...

Excuse the garbled message left previously, on your Varanasi entry. Are you still there? And for how long? (Is what I meant to ask).

I'm reading your blog in reverse. Enjoyed this entry; and I can imagine Claire and I will find the experience much the same - alhough we'll be there post monsoon. Reading the garbled words on your first morning, I really felt as though you were waking up. And loved the comments about what you could hear i.e. the 'cats'.

I think silence must add to contemplative serenity. Meditation just wouldn't be the same if you managed to focus and could then hear traffic and people haggling outside the window.

Perhaps Rishikesh will be better?