Wednesday, June 30, 2004

In the Shadow of the Mountain: Complete Series

Another journey

In the Shadow of the Mountain I: A silent beginning,

In the Shadow of the Mountain II: The Hunter's Dance,

In the shadow of the mountain: Mastering Anicca

In the shadow of the mountain IV: The Mountain Stares Back

In the shadow of the mountain V: It takes all kinds...

In the Shadow of the Mountain V: It takes all kinds

Continued from In the Shadow of the Mountain I: A silent beginning,
In the Shadow of the Mountain II: The Hunter's Dance,
In the shadow of the mountain: Mastering Anicca
In the shadow of the mountain IV: The Mountain Stares Back

On the tenth day, noble silence gave way to ignoble chatter.

All through the ten days, a secret fear lurked in everyone's mind, 'Will we forgot the sound of our voice?' Or worse still, 'Will we lose interest in it?'

But that fear was unfounded. On Day 10, I tried several times to get hold of the single STD line at the centre to wish my mum for her birthday. But the sheer length of the queue and the unhurried pace at which it proceeded thwarted me each time. Jaws hadn't lost their elasticity after all.

Still, the words rolling off one's tongue felt uncommonly good. And the facial contortions which accompanied them seemed comfortingly familiar. Exuberant smiles and nods replaced averted gazes. And a trickle of conversation soon became a torrent. The huge group scattered into little chatty clusters, the ice-breaker being, 'How was it for you?'

Despite the no-eye contact rule, there were certain faces that had piqued my curiosity. And I wandered among the clusters looking for them. One of them was Rukmabai Bansod.

Rukmabai sat next to me in the Meditation Hall. Slightly stooped, she seemed over 50 years. She was one of the few who wore her sari the traditional way (between the legs and tucked in at the back). She was probably hard of hearing, because I had to discreetly nudge her each time her name was called for the interview with the teacher. And from the bemused way she looked at her nametag, seemed unlettered as well. But it was the unexpectedly loud growls from her stomach which got my attention. Initially, they kept me awake, and later, when I was deep in concentration, they made me jump. But I noticed something else about Rukmabai. Despite her age and the swelling in her knee which she massaged constantly, she never missed a single session. Towards the end, participants would leave the Hall before the gong was struck, but not Rukmabai.

It took me a while but I finally spotted her in the Tower of Babble. She seemed delighted that I was enquiring about her and grasped my hand, holding on to it for the length of the conversation. I learned that she was a tribal woman, whose family followed Buddhism and who eked out an existence doing menial jobs. But that hadn't prevented them from going to Sarnath twice and to Nagpur every year, for the Buddhists annual gathering. I was intrigued by her faith and wanted to inquire further but my rusty Marathi put paid to that desire.

Another person I found fascinating was a nun, whose saffron robes contrasted sharply with her olive skin and whose shaven head drew a lot of curious stares. But it was her eyes, which exuded a serenity that seemed other-worldly. The name she had adopted was Shramneri and she lived in a monastery in an unfamiliar sounding town. How did you become a nun, I asked. Her response seemed to come from deep within, 'Pehle se hi man me shraddha thi'. (loose translation: I've always had a deep devotion) The curiosity of a few other women was kindled as well. 'What was your name before you became a nun?', 'Do you meet your family now?', they asked. She coloured under the scrutiny but answered with humility, 'My earlier name is of no relevance anymore. And the people I work with have become my family.' She seemed to be in her early 20s but her wisdom and humility belied that.

The dining hall, which had hitherto only heard the clatter of utensils and shuffling of unshod feet, now revelled in the conversation and laughter. Between mouthfulls of kheer, everyone was asking everyone, 'Kaisa laga aapko' and some woes poured out and some epiphanies.

'It's too long,' one woman moaned to the assistants, 'It shouldn't be longer than 5 or 6 days, don't you think?" The assistant merely smiled. She herself had done three 10-day courses over 2 years and this was the first time as a volunteer.

Three! I was awestruck. Until I met a participant who was doing it for the 14th time. And for those who think a 10-day course is the ultimate in self-flagellation, consider this: There are 20 and 30-day courses as well. And a new facility to offer 45 and 90-day courses is being constructed. Enlightenment in this lifetime, anyone?

As the day wore on, people began easing back into the groove they'd momentarily renounced. Cell phones made their incongruous appearance. Numbers were exchanged and plans to meet in Mumbai were made. My pen was back in my grasp.

As I packed my bags that night, there was a sense of relief and apprehension. It had been an incredible experience, but would it go to nought in the 'real world'? Would chaos usurp clarity? Would good intentions lose the battle with inertia?

Before leaving in the morning, I took one last look at the mountain. The peaks were clear of mists and bright, irrepressible green blotted out the brown earth beneath. In that moment, I knew I had my answers.

(A small note: The experiences I've described are my own and hence purely subjective. My intention was only to share a little about my experience, so I haven't covered the Vipassana technique in detail. I hope I haven't coloured anyone's perspectives by describing the rigours of the course. If you have any questions or would like to clarity on some aspect I've mentioned here, feel free to mail me -

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

In the shadow of the mountain IV: The Mountain Stares Back

Continued from In the Shadow of the Mountain I: A silent beginning,
In the Shadow of the Mountain II: The Hunter's Dance and
In the shadow of the mountain: Mastering Anicca

It’s the silence. Always, the silence.

The first thing people want to know is, how DID you handle the 10-day silence?

Were you able to keep quiet for that long? Did you miss talking? Did you feel like banging your head against the wall? Did you whisper to the trees when no one was looking?

What’s the most intimidating aspect about silence, I’ve asked these last few days? The bewildering unfamiliarity? The exacerbation of loneliness? The fear of losing one’s identity? Or confronting the demons within?

Its answers to these that I sought. My enduring quest has been to uncover what lies beneath. I admit too that I’m not the garrulous sorts. Sentences flow only when a comfort zone has been reached. So being among 300 women without having to strike up a conversation was a bit of a reprieve.

Still, I wasn’t in want of company.

Stepping out of the Meditation Hall one morning, I was jolted out of my stupor by a mesmerizing sight. A majestic peak towered from the periphery of the Institute. And clinging to the crest was a dense swathe of mist. The mist writhed languorously and dreamily, sometimes revealing a wee bit of the crag beneath, sometimes closing in. I don’t recall how long I stood there, but I only remember the mountain forming in my throat. There were no words to filter the moment. None were required.

From then on it became a daily ritual. During breaks, before sessions, during the afternoon walk. I’d stop by my perch in the shadow of the mountain and gaze. Strands of thoughts, tangled hopelessly over the years, would effortlessly unravel. And the clarity was so astounding that a thought could be plucked from the bottom, read, and if it was no good, pitched into the distance.

One morning, while we were deep in contemplation of Anicca, a storm raged outside. Thunder roared, wind gusted and rain fell pell-mell. A momentary yearning to see the mountain rose and subsided. There would be time later.

On the last day, when I stopped to look, the craggy, red brown face was enveloped with green.

Part V - It takes all kinds...

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

In the Shadow of the Mountain III: Mastering Anicca

Continued from In the Shadow of the Mountain I: A silent beginning and
In the Shadow of the Mountain II: The Hunter's Dance

Ever ‘observed’ a cramp? Or a mosquito bite? Or a body turn liquid?

Vipassana literally means ‘to observe clearly’. To observe the Anicca (pronounced a-NICH-a) - the ever-changing, impermanent reality about the universe. Since things are constantly in a state of flux, cultivating cravings or aversions are pointless. In fact, they only bring misery. So, through an understanding of Anicca, one learns to develop equanimity.

Impeccable logic, this. But Vipassana asks you NOT TO believe any of it.

Each person is encouraged to experience the truth within and only if it rings true, should one accept it. Vipassana eschews hand-me-down beliefs, mere intellectualization.

So with legs crossed and eyes closed, we began observing Anicca within the physical self. The laser-like mind was focused from head to toe, observing sensations without reacting to them.

Buoyed by the wee bit of success in reining the unruly mind, I was almost disappointed at how easy this seemed. And then the teacher mentioned Aditthana...

Until that point nothing fazed me – not the silence, not the peculiar food timings, not the 4 a.m. wake up bells. At Aditthana, I had the fiercest urge to dash to the nearest exit. Aditthana is Pali for ‘strong determination’. Strong determination to sit for one whole hour without movement.

I could not sit cross-legged for long because my feet got easily cramped. In fact, I changed my posture approximately every 10 minutes. On the first day, I had passed up the offer of a backrest and now I bitterly rued it. Aditthana wasn’t a rule, but since I was committed to the letter and spirit of Vipassana, I had no option.

A few minutes later, the desire to bolt passed. (Anicca?) And the challenge of Aditthana began to appeal. I chose the least distressing pose and closed my eyes.

10 minutes. The right leg began to cramp. I ignored it. The spine leaped up in protest, unused as it was to being ramrod straight. Like a diligent researcher, I made a note of the sensations and moved on to the next area.

20 minutes. The right leg was numb and weighed thrice as much as the left.

30 minutes. Detachment wasn’t working. I was ready to accept defeat. But wait a minute, was that my imagination or was it sensation returning to my right leg?

Mental high-five. Yesss! Anicca works!

45 minutes. I was gasping. The cramp had returned with three times the intensity. My knee was being sawed off. And I was sitting on molten lava.

Outside, I was a picture of serene contemplation. Inside, I was half-delirious with pain.

‘What if I get paralysed?’

Anicca… Anicca….

‘Will they carry me out on a stretcher?’

Anicca… Anicca…

‘Did I pay medical insurance this year?’


Anicca-Shmanicca, said the once-more mutinous mind, you call THIS pain an illusion???

Any moment now… (gasp) Any moment now… (gnnnhhh)


It was the barely audible click of the tape recorder, which signaled the beginning of the minute-long Pali chants and the end of agony. The excruciating pain was suddenly endurable. And when the hour was up, the leg I thought I’d lost forever, moved smoothly and uncomplainingly.

Leela: 1, Mind: 0

There were 3 sessions of Aditthana each day. And each time the battle was fierce. Sometimes, I couldn’t sit beyond 35 minutes. Sometimes 53 minutes. On Day 6, I flopped on the bed, sore and aching. And it struck me, the last time I ached so much was when I was training for the Marathon.

But I got better at ‘observing’ the sensations, even the intense ones. And the results of Aditthana ceased to matter. What mattered was maintaining perfect equanimity at the end of the hour.

Let me reassure horrified readers, it’s not just about painful sensations. There comes a moment when the body is awash with very pleasant vibrations. Wave after soothing wave of it. However, the trained mind learns to recognize it as just another Anicca sensation. Sometimes a rare moment comes along when even the final illusion dissolves. The body is experienced as nothing but a mass of vibrations. And pure consciousness. It’s liberating, exhilarating… and unfortunately, all too fleeting.

During one session, I experienced such a moment. The cramp ceased to bother me. The pleasant vibrations didn’t seduce me. The mind was as calm and clear as a lake. And then, an incy wincy spider scuttled across my neck. With my heightened sensitivity, I could feel each of its furry legs brush against my skin. Frantic neck-slapping, hair-shaking and heart thudding followed. I glanced at my watch. Three minutes to the hour. There was nothing to do but close my eyes again and concentrate.

It was going to be a long road to Nirvana.

Part IV – The Mountain Stares Back

Sunday, June 20, 2004

In the Shadow of the Mountain II: The Hunter's Dance

Continued from In the Shadow of the Mountain I: A silent beginning

No thuds on the door. No jangling alarm clocks. We woke up at 4 a.m. the first morning to the tinkling of bells.

The assistants went around all the rooms and dormitories ringing tiny bells. Lights came on one by one. And somnolent women in trailing nightgowns spilled out of their rooms. As I stumbled down the dimly lit path to the Meditation Hall, there was that familiar feeling of anticipation and apprehension which precedes an adventure. I couldn’t wait to begin.

I went to my cushioned seat, closed my eyes and as per instructions began to ‘observe my breathing’. As if on cue, thoughts of yesterday and the day before stormed in, stomping out any effort to even locate the breath. ‘This is going to be tough,’ I thought. And in the next few minutes that changed to, ‘this is going to be impossible’. My mind had worked out the equation: eyes closed = sleep. So when I wasn’t staving off the mutinous flow of thought, I was embarrassedly shaking myself awake.

This Rip Van Winkle effect continued through the morning and into the afternoon. If this continued, I thought, I was going to be VERY relaxed at the end of the course and not one bit enlightened. I spoke to the teacher hoping for some tips to stay awake. She calmly said, ‘It’s your first day and in a new environment. You’ll be fine tomorrow.” She sounded more certain than I felt, so I relaxed.

By the end of the day, I was deeply mortified. One WHOLE day of observing the breath and I was no closer to gaining any control over this openly rebellious mind. One moment I was observing my breath and the next moment I was replaying an old conversation or writing a blog or humming an obstinate tune. I laughed bitterly at all the times I thought I had a mind of my own. Hah! My mind had me. My thoughts were thinking me.

Day 2 was no different. But I stopped battling this willful creature that was my mind. It wasn’t a match of equals anyway. Again and again, I simply drew it back to the breath. Sometimes it took a few seconds, sometimes minutes ticked by.

Towards evening of Day 2, I began enjoying the chase. After a day and a half of stalking, the ‘observer’ had grown stronger. Instead of catching up with its quarry at Thought No. 10, the observer grabbed its coattails at No. 5. The quarry continued to dodge, but now the crosshairs were trained on it.

By Day 3 we had progressively narrowed the ‘observed’ area from the entire nasal passage to just the entrance of the nostrils. I could now tell exactly where the slightest breath made contact with the skin and could feel the slight flaring of the nostril with each exhalation. But those were the external sensations. The prolonged observing drew my attention to subtle vibrations under the skin. I felt the tip of my nose quivering each time I focused on it. Like a bunny rabbit, said the incorrigible mind .

Now, with this newly sharpened mind, we were ready for Vipassana.

Part III – Mastering Anicca

Friday, June 18, 2004

In the shadow of the mountain I: A silent beginning

I read all the ads pasted in the compartment 6 times. Leftover thoughts from yesterday and the day before, played over and over again of their own volition. The landscape hurtling by was bland and uninspiring. Half a day went by. My watch insisted only 45 minutes had passed. I craved for my usual distractions. But the cell phone was switched off. And I hadn't carried a book. (A first!) Even the few co-passengers provided no entertainment. Thoughts about unfinished tasks, minor woes and future plans continued to churn in the mental sludge. A sliver of anxiety curled into this mix. What did the next 10 days hold for me apart from solitude, silence and a boot camp schedule? The 2 1/2 hour train ride to Igatpuri was slow torture.

I got off the train and onto the congested road adjacent to the station. I dodged cow patties and slushy puddles and stopped at the first tiny store manned by two teenaged boys.

"Which way to the Vipassana ashram," I asked.

"Straight ahead and left from the masjid," he answered and then jumped over the counter. "Come I'll show you where to take the turn."

I was struck by his helpfulness. The self-absorbed thoughts stopped momentarily while I considered his spontaneity. I quickened my step to keep pace with him.

After he left, I walked on for about 10 minutes casually observing small town life. And then the giant pagoda hove into view. I didn't know what to make of this incongruous structure. Perhaps I had expected an ashram with thatched roofs and somehow this gilded, carved edifice jarred. I stepped inside the gates and walked up a winding, foliage-lined path. The air was fresh and earthy, unseen birds called out mellifluously. "Not bad... not bad," my until-recently-jangled nerves declared.

With defences suitably lowered, I walked smack into the bedlam that was the registration counter. Had I taken the turn which said 'Kumbh Mela' by any chance? There were hordes of people. Luggage of every shape and size was strewn around. A serpentine queue wound its way to the registration desk. The crowd was predominantly middle aged and middle to lower-middle class, drawn from Mumbai and surrounding districts of Maharashtra. The prospect of the 10-day silence must have weighed on everyone's mind because they seemed determined to compensate beforehand.

'How many people will there be at this course?' I asked the girl who handed me the registration form.

'Around 300 in the men's course and an equal number in the women's batch', she said, laughing at my incredulous eyebrows.

'Describe your mental state right now' - was one of the questions in the registration form. As I queued up to submit my form, I got a peek at some of the women's responses. 'Stable', said one. 'Good' said another. Jeez, I thought, was I the ONLY one who's mind was 'restless' and 'looking for answers'?

Next, I queued up to hand over my 'valuables'. I handed over my wallet and cell phone, when the girl at the counter said, 'You can hand over your pen also. You won't be needing it.' I recoiled. NO pen! No PEN! Old Advertising conditioning - ALWAYS keep a pen handy in case an idea strikes. Over the years, it had become the 11th finger. And now I was severing it and handing it over along with my other 'valuables'. Now, I felt truly alone.

I completed the formalities and headed to my room. My room mate was a simple Maharashtrian woman from Mumbai who's daughter had done the course the year before. We chatted for a bit and then headed over to the dining hall at 5 for 'supper'. A short initiation followed along with an introduction to the code of discipline:
- strict segregation of the sexes
- noble silence
- discontinuation of any other form of prayer or worship for the next 10 days.

The assistants then led us to the Meditation Hall where we would assemble for group sessions. We pinned our name tags on our cushions, sat in prayerful silence for a while and received our instructions for the next day. At 9.00 p.m. we went back to our rooms.

My room mate didn't look up when I entered. I unpacked, got ready for bed and turned out the lights.

The Noble Silence had begun...

Part II - The Hunter's Dance

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Am back

Am back and simply waiting to share my experience of the last 10 days. It was extraordinary and want to do justice to it with a series of posts. Will post in a day or two. Thanks for watching over my blog all of you.

P.S. Thank you PR twins for entertaining people around here. Smiley, you surprise me. An attack of conscience??

P.S. Pardon these multiple posts. I think it should be sorted out now.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Another journey

I’m back, but only to pack my bags once more. I’m headed off tomorrow for another couple of weeks. This time for a course in Vipassana meditation. It’s an ancient technique of meditation, one that requires almost complete withdrawal from the surroundings.

What attracted me to it was the prospect of complete silence for 10 days. Simply because I’d never done it before. The thought of taming a wild colt of a mind was equally appealing. And something I've wanted to do for a long time.

The schedule for the 10 days seems daunting with almost 11 hours of meditation. But who knows, the journey may be interesting.

The course timetable

4:00 a.m.----------------------Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m.---------------Meditate in the hall or your own room
6:30-8:00 a.m.---------------Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m.---------------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
9:00-11:00 a.m.-------------Meditate in the hall or your own room
11:00-12:00 noon------------Lunch break
12noon-1:00 p.m.------------Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 p.m.----------------Meditate in the hall or your own room
2:30-3:30 p.m.----------------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
3:30-5:00 p.m.----------------Meditate in the hall or your own room
5:00-6:00 p.m.----------------Tea break
6:00-7:00 p.m.----------------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
7:00-8:15 p.m.----------------Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 p.m.----------------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
9:00-9:30 p.m.----------------Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m.-----------------------Retire to your own room--Lights out

I will be back on June 13. And will resume the blog, as before. Thanks for your vigil :-)

P.S. XXX, Khotta and the others please note, I've kept my date with 'early June'.

P.S. The self-appointed PR duo of Smiley :-) and Grumpy :-I will be slugging it out in my comment box, I expect. Don’t mind them. The doctors at the asylum say they need to be kept busy...