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