It was 1ST February 2007, when I first wrote this article. Fifteen days after, when my supposed vow of silence ended. That was my maiden spiritual experience of living with myself confined in a room. I was younger, attentive, perceptive, and found myself aware of observing the observer in moments of light while co-existing with other seekers. I had barely crossed my teenage. It certainly was a tender time.
Even after one and a half decade today, that experience of being; learning to breathe knowingly lingers somewhere in my mind. Even today Whenever I find myself weak, my days unproductive, out of sync, sometimes purposeless or even when my food cycle goes awry I still find myself pulling back to the time and food cycle of my Vipassana time.
I had lost this document a long time ago but it resurfaced. Perhaps there is something to learn still that I hadn’t. To understand the intricacies of a process that started then, the subtle nature of a flow that all along kept becoming thicker like fading away each passing day. My understanding of time since then, of physical space and virtual did see a change. I couldn’t have gathered it while it was happening. Even though it became a game, an adventure by the time my Vipassana was ending. As it also was the start of my travelling career, but what Vipassana did was that it deposited itself deeper in every cell of my body. Vipassana was one journey that took me within before I took any other journey on any road and which unconsciously yet undoubtedly elevated my understanding of time. Or so I felt later. It paved a way, my way like mountains do to rivers; Vipassana did to my understanding of Life in the way of Prana- the life force. Even though at the time of its happening it became a play for the person I was ought to become.
It all started when my friend, Joshi persuaded me to come along with him on a 10-day meditation course. I don’t remember now if I was readily interested but I was curious.
Joshi’s parents drove to drop us to the Vipassana centre that was in a far off village outside Delhi. It was a pleasant drive on a January afternoon passing through fields of mustard and rice, I remember the long line of eucalyptus trees standing that had arrived just after we had crossed Delhi, like we were receiving a guard of honour. Ancient hills, the Aravallis seemed to have crowned us from all directions. We lowered our window to let the cool winds in. As our hair played among selves in the village wind, when the fragrance of paddy and wheat mixed with the smell of water buffalos and cows dung drying on the roadside entered our nostrils, we knew we were nearing. And found ourselves already at peace. It was also the peace of leaving family behind. The centre had arrived.
In a matter of an hour, all seekers gathered in the main dhamma- the meditation hall. We were welcomed with tea and snacks. And with it started our only advisory.
There was no introduction apart from the caretakers:
“Vipassana means to see things as they really are”, The Teacher stood in the middle and started the lecture. It is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for all ills. It aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and results in attaining the highest happiness on the path to full liberation.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by giving disciplined attention to ones breath.
Since the time of Buddha, Vipassana has been handed down, to the present day, by an unbroken chain of teachers. The current teacher in this tradition when we were there was appointed by the late Mr. S.N. Goenka, a super teacher whom I sincerely loved. I still remember his ever smiling face, his ever so compassionate presence, his way of speaking and giving examples. Mr. Goenka was an Indian by descent but was born and raised in Burma(Myanmar). While living there, he had the good fortune to learn Vipassana from his teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who was at the time a high Government official. After receiving training from his teacher for fourteen years, Mr. Goenka settled in India and was authorised by Sayagyi to begin teaching Vipassana in 1969. It was only my fortune that he was present at the day when we had arrived.
As we finished our Tea, we were told to take some more as this was the only thing we are going to get till the morning snack at 6:30 tomorrow. More than 12 hours later. Hearing this everybody went for the second round of Tea and Biscuits. The caretaker continued:
From now on you are not going to speak. Not with anyone, and abstaining even talking anything to yourself for next 10 days to come. The course requires hard serious work. You will abstain from killing any insect and will always walk looking down at your feet or on the path ahead of you. You will not steal. And you will abstain from any sexual activity and taking any intoxicant throughout your time here. You will not read anything, write or talk using your hand. There is no allowance for you to connect or seek anybody’s attention. If there is any need that may arise like a soap or tooth brush, you may ask for a paper and a pencil to write it and give it back.Your caretaker will receive it.
This simple code of moral conduct is important and serves to calm the mind, which otherwise would be too agitated to perform the task of self-observation. The next step is to develop some mastery over the mind by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever changing flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.
He became quiet and looked at everyone. I hope you will follow the tradition and disciple of the center. Your time starts now on. Please quietly go back to your rooms. You will be woken up at 4 A.M
As I was soaking in the vows I just heard entering my room, Joshi arrived from behind and whispered, Nara.. Nara don’t even think that I will be speaking to you for next ten days…. Silence…. He reiterated, we are not going to speak and we are not going to look at each other okay! Okay! He kept waiting for an answer, he was standing. I continued unpacking my luggage. But in all seriousness, I had already vowed to myself, I had made my mind to be quiet, to not speak. To try not seeking any other thing apart from my breath for the next 10 days. The silence that started inevitably got passed on to Joshi. He left hurriedly without saying a bye.
The evening arrived and so did the birds. It was a beautiful centre in the foothills of the Aravallis. Filled with many trees and a garden that sat in front of every room. The last bit of rays were falling on my door where Joshi stood a while earlier. The whole complex echoed with the sound of home coming birds. Place vibrated with liveliness. Never before I had felt this happiness just to sit and absorb. Just absorb what was happening and I had to do nothing. I was told to do nothing. And nothing else was required but to observe it in its wholeness.
The night arrived and I was now alone in my room. My room! It had a single bed, and one wooden chair. Nothing else. The Walls were old, bare and cracking. There was one thing that really fascinated me throughout ten days. The amount of witnessing and evidence on the walls in my room cried out of people’s struggle of living here each day. What might have they thought? That they will leave the world- come here, eat, sleep, sit and go home. My room walls were filled with daily traces of ‘time’ passing by. Men before me who had occupied this bed, this room were all or mostly drawing a line a day and crossing it as each day passed. Some had written dates of their arrival and leaving. Some had written numbers in ascending order and few in descending. Some had etched para’s of what would they do once they’ll be free. It was a spectacle, a canvas of sorts that became my room. Very close to a prison! Yes I have been to a prison too but that’s another story for some other time. And In the nights that I came to sleep day after day, it was only these by-gone memories in my room that made me remember my choice of freedom. Because what I realised is that freedom is limitless when you live in discipline.
The place was huge and had many quarters. A huge kitchen where we all ate together, the main dhamma or meditation hall made of wood, wide lanes to walk. Garden, plants and trees, At every corner and curve of the walking path there were boards telling us “to be disciplined and observe silence”, “One must walk alone”, “do not hurt any insect” along with the arrows directing us for the places we needed to go. There was a field in front of every quarter blossoming with flowers, shoots, plants and trees. But it was strictly just to see; we were asked not to go there, touch or lie down on the grass or in shade hiding ourselves. Also because it were the home and playground for thousands of insects and birds that chirped all day long and thus were the only testimonial that we were still on earth.
Gradually, the first thing I got to know was the phases of the day that came and pass by us in a day, better. Awake, I was realising what living in a day meant, and how supposedly it should be. Living with awareness and with a sense of bringing all our sensibilities together in semblance with nature outside of us and within, without showing it, without screaming for it or making yourself bigger than anything. And more so at a time when the eyes were not used to think of and look at phones all the time.
And slowly these phases started turning into days. The first day was the hardest. Why? Because it felt one long nothing. I particularly did not find any rasa* in the voice they played in the background as we sat ‘meditating’. Imagine, sitting for twelve hours in a dark room, listening to a sound, which felt neither music nor vocals, an unending loop of ever descending energy. Consciously choking ones imagination. Yet I largely kept my focus in check. Stayed rooted in my unknown quest at par with all the accomplished wannabe saints sitting there in the hall with me. It felt hard for the first three days to be precise; not the mute part but the getting up at four AM part and how. Mine was the first room just next door to the caretaker. He had to get up the earliest to wake everybody up with the loudest brass bell one could hear in the middle (for us) of a January night. And it was me who was his first audience. He used to keep beating the bell until I opened the door and showed my wide angry eyes that said ‘stop’; I am up for god’s sake! All I wanted was he could start from the farthest room and come to me the last but it was not to happen at least for five more days.
As things were settling in, I started making sense of my world there. People I was surrounded with, seeing their activity in inactivity was a learning, the quest of each one was similar but different in its journey. I had also started identifying with the centre’s discipline and the food. The most delicious, and I still remember the feeling. They never repeated the same thing twice or mostly but sadly it was never enough and even lesser it was for my friend Joshi, who used to sit beside me or in front quietly salvaging every morsel of energy. The three hours after food i.e. from 11 to 2 was the siesta time. Many slept wherever the sunlight fell; on the way, or around the fields, in front of their room and some inside their rooms. While I took to walking and walked round and round observing, watching; and befriended many a squirrel and birds for whom I had started saving a fruit or a chapati from my thali*. That quiet time also trained my visual understanding of the sun, shade and light. And sometimes I came back to the prettiest window in my room with a view of faraway mustard and rice fields. Many a times In the afternoon I sat for hours watching cows and bulls grazing in the fields far. And In the night various village sounds used to come and were only superseded by the sound of a lone radio that played local folk songs till late in the night. Those songs itself became my pillar, my thread on which I was hanging out. It were like lullaby’s falling in my ears from the sky. It comforted and lifted me in those dark cold January nights. Some nights when the sleep came late and deep; caretaker devil with the bell of his used to arrive uninvited and make me mad. Time always passed fast in the night. And somehow I used to wake myself up and reach the meditation hall like a sloth bear with quilt of the night all over me. But day after day I started realising that that time of the morning hour was the finest to sit quiet, that it was nothing short of bliss. The energy of the silence of that time was otherworldly. Even though many used to snore, sitting sleeping when the same caretaker present in the hall watching over the sleepy ones used to come and nudge them again from their slumber. But I wholly enjoyed the morning magic in the hall, as it was also the time when some looked their most pristine self and some just not up to it. The difference of intention had slowly started seeping in.
Amongst all this, some things were about to change.
There were few villagers, farmers, truck drivers who had enrolled in the course. But by the 5th day they had started cursing themselves loudly, making fun and visibly made noises out of irritation and limitation of all sensory kind. What had they thought? They must have imagined a feast for free, good food, sleep and a quiet life away from home but neither sleep happened, food was meagre and above all they were not even allowed to speak. They could not handle the torture and found each other as company to grin and grim over their holy unholy situation. I imagine they were relieved the next day. This ruckus also gave Joshi some strength.
Unable to bear it any longer, and seeing the farmers protest, Joshi my friend came running to my room after lunch one afternoon, kicking away every rule in the book, huffing, he arrived at my door, I was sitting looking away from my window when I heard a thud of my door and him whispering from behind; Nara, How are you? Without me saying anything he continued, why aren’t you speaking to me? Did you know Pakistan won the Chennai test match!
As I write this today I feel that I could have kept mum that day and let him know my intent of keeping quiet as a vow. Things I assume, and life possibly could have taken a different rather more serious route from that moment but perhaps without thinking about it too much I flowed as is my nature and uttered my first words in six days, what! India lost the match! How’s it possible? And from then onwards the remaining four days changed not just the coarse of Vipassna but will make me understand much more about the choice or the trajectory of my career and what I am doing today. Living there became an adventure and every night a festival as from that day onwards Joshi and me were secretly planning things.
Joshi could not bear hunger, as food was only served once a day at 11 A.M. He used to save some food for the night and had kept every fruit or sweet that we had gotten since the first day for the night. He had stolen all the candles he found in the common room and the kitchen to light his room for the night. I found a pen and started writing stories on tissue paper and any other thing we found and planned from then onwards to approach every seeker from to invite them in my room for an interview. It was hard but it felt important. There were quite a few whom we wanted to speak to and there were even some that we despised.
The mystery of the Bell Beater
The Bell beater and I had grown apart from each other. We had started behaving like enemies. Last few days had me hating him most as he had started coming earlier. It could be his ploy, ringing that as big as a temple bell until he saw my angry face. And I seeing his little red nose through the early morning fog. There were times in the day when our eyes used to meet and it never felt like a well-wishers eye. I had asked for a cloth washing soap couple of times and strangely I was told he forgot ‘in writing’. But we know things don’t remain same with flower like Kids as we were.
One day I was walking through the alley on the other side of the garden. I was passing through empty rooms, which were once occupied by the farmers a day ago. And as I passed by this room, I was taken aback by the strong smell of bidi* in he air. It cannot happen. Any intoxicant was banned. Vipassana was like the father of rehab. Inquisitive, I started following the smell and went inside a room which was half closed. I entered and what I saw at the back side of the door was that same bell beater guy sitting on his haunches and smoking a bidi, wow! I gave him a look of his lifetime, made the best eye contact he must have gotten on Vipassana and left that room in a hurry. The game had changed and now I was in the driving seat. Strangely I was feeling better and happier. I was only about to reach my room when he came walking so fast following me like he was hiding his run. The look of apology and asking for sympathy on his face. His palms almost joining in as if I am now the judge of his life. But I held my mood and my nerve. I was quite till the moment he at last spoke, “please don’t tell it to anyone”, whatever you ask I will provide, but don’t tell anyone!
The Saints We Could Not Call Home
A lot of preparation was needed before we had to start approaching seekers in our room. The bell beater now was in our team and Joshi had already a plan in order. He lifted many a mugs of different colours from the bathroom, he stole and collected about two dozen candles from the kitchen store. We had plenty of fruits, dry fruits and sweets that we had saved from our daily eating quota, to offer our would be guests. And including that day we were only left with three days and hence before we had to decide upon whom to invite we discussed in length whom we are not going to invite.
There was an old monk with yellow robes who looked lost all the time; he was all over the place, lazy and it looked as if he had not done any hard work in his life. I don’t think if he had ever looked up at the sky, forget me. He used to lay flat anywhere he wished, like literally on the path where all walked. He ate like apes with food falling from his fingers; he carried one deep copper utensil in which the server (Mr. Arya) used to pour milk first, then rice, salad, then vegetables, and lastly dal one over the other with all love and compassion. The old monk with yellow robes then used to walk at a far away corner to sit. He then used to mix all of it together to eat and chew with mouth open. I didn’t have a good time watching him eat. It was sure that he was not to be invited.
Then there were people from other fields.
There was a boy named Sanjay. He was a professional farter and thus was named paadu* by us. He was so huge that whenever he tried to sit on the asana*, he naturally used to roll back first and later with the motion used to come back to his posture of sitting position. It didn’t look if he was even comfortable in his walk. He walked like a pendulum; like he needed good two feet each side complete empty to walk or else he would push people away. He looked dark and his beard made him look he is very happy not washing himself ever since. Certainly he hadn’t bothered to get wet even once in days we were there. With the same shirt, pant and that unfortunate, unlucky blanket which hugged him for all 240 hours. Yes, 240 HOURS!! Probably he must have been faithful to him even while attending the nature’s call as well. But still he had the most horrible crown-winning fart, which we had to hear between four thirty to six almost every morning. We were amazed where is he getting to eat if he is still farting on an empty stomach. And I know him so well because Joshi used to sit right behind him. In his words “the smell was unbearable”.
Then there was a 6 feet 5inches tall swamiji as people called him. I always saw him wearing clean white clothes, white socks, white shoes. He looked like a white soul draped in white moving fast at any time of the day but it was in the early morning hours, through the dense fog where he looked like someone flowing 10 feet above the ground. His aura was too good to be disturbed perhaps I don’t even remember ever seeing his face. Walking up to him to propose for a night conversation was out of question.
But there were two foreigners. Whom we used to sit together to hear Mr. S.N Goenka speak in English every night for an hour. One was Mr Margret Desilva, who looked like an Afghan. His broad built, slow but precise movements. He had an icy burnt face like a man who lives in snow but his trimmed beard made him look groomed and stylish. He used to wear pathani kurtas* daily and kept a round Himachali cap on his head. He had a strong built and a proud head with ever straight looking eyes. He walked like a king. I noticed him as one of those who sat for hours in one posture without any movement, which was impossible for me to earn as of then. And it was this attraction of knowing him better even after this course was over had us thinking of calling him. But strangely it was not us who initiated. One night after the video discourse, we were on way back to our rooms, Margaret came closer and asked me “kya aap kullu se hain”, Are you from Kullu? I was dumbfounded. “You can talk in Hindi!” I excitedly whispered back, not paying any heed to my question he told me that he lives in keylong, the other side of Manali valley in Himachal, which has an extreme climate. At that time I was hearing about Keylong the first time. He was a Brazilian, he said and had been watching me wearing many a colourful Himachali socks that made him ask. Joshi must have smelled this conversation because in no time and out of nowhere he joined us. Margret told us he was researching on Buddhism for past few years and that this was his 19th visit to Vipassna. As we had forgotten the world, someone came angrily and scolded us for disturbing the peace. The Brazilian was living in India for past 6 years, it was astonishing for me how a foreigner has devoted his life to live here and learn from what he is believing is right. Joshi and I felt he is the best person to invite as anyways he spoke first. Yet as life is, it was the last time we were speaking with him. Only that was the night, and we never saw him again. He left me with so many questions lingering in my mind. For many a days even after Vipassana ended, and I was home- it were not the teachings or that strange sound that inspired me to be but it was his image that came to me every time I closed my eyes. I remembered how he sat, how gracefully he walked. It was not just about him being like a king. But somewhere more about the integrity with which he carried himself.
The One Who Came Home
It was the second foreigner in the course, Yong Ho Cho, a South Korean. A curious man who wanted to know about everything. And I knew him well as I had the honour of sitting beside him in the meditation hall. We used sit in the last column. And it had given me an eagle’s eye view of observing everyone. Yet Strangely I never had an urge to speak with Mr Cho. That there is any need to hinder his flow of practicing thoughtlessness. I simply enjoyed observing him, even unknowingly. I noticed him on the first day when after the morning meditation all others were walking towards breakfast, he alone started jumping with his hands moving up and down like butterfly wings and went for one garden round jog. He did that everyday without caring about anyone. He stretched, squatted morning and evening. He exercised each day before and after he meditated. And looked like a 25-year young boy who must have come here to travel and know more about India or so I thought.
One day while on a walk, taking rounds of the garden after lunch I saw him sitting at a corner, looking at something intently. I moved on. On the second round when I came back I found him sitting and looking exactly how he was a round ago. But when I saw him sitting still the third time I went near him and saw that he was watching a line of ants. Watching them walking, strolling, fighting, building, working, and doing everything. I started seeing them too and after a while, perhaps naturally I uttered “its so good to watch them”. Silent for as long as it took. He finally spoke, “it does.” And it was that time when I asked him to come for the conversation on the last day of the course.
Joshi and I had decorated our room well. I had asked the bell beater to get my room washed. It was done as told by the time we arrived in the night. We placed and filled just enough water in the mugs and lit candles in them. The room looked inviting.
Mr Cho arrived and was astonished to see how beautiful it looked. He settled down and asked our names and out of nowhere and to our surprise asked if by the way we have anything to smoke? To his double surprise we had. How? The bell beater, ever since was caught worked as our man and brought anything Joshi and I needed. And apart from bidi we had asked for pen and paper, which as you see, has helped me today sharing this memory with you all. Delighted, Mr Cho took all his time to lit the bidi – he took a deep puff as if his life was depended on it and said something which we could have never thought and may not even forget ever. He revealed that he would be turning 50 in couple of days. He took a puff again. We were literally stunned. Fifty!! Joshi and I looked at each other. He looked in his early twenties! He overheard our remarks and continued while leaving smoke out to wander in the candlelight; nothing has been this blissful a birthday gift as this on-going night with us. Such a surprise! Before that he never thought Indians could be this daring and creative. When we asked about his journey, he talked about his indifferences with his wife that led him to Vipassana. He was a schoolteacher and his wife a fashion designer. And it was their ideologies, which were making their life miserable together. And hence they were travelling separately.
He later told us that he never takes sugar. And spoke highly of patience. He narrated a beautiful tale that I still remember of how compassion and teachings in forgiveness can change the lives of young children. You need to have patience like trees with children while letting them play with and all around you. We talked all night even after the candles went off. He looked simple and truthful and had a zest of going to new places and learning new things. In an answer to a question that what would he be doing from now as an average life of a person is 70 or 80? He said he is not going to die until he turns 125. Today I exactly don’t remember how that night ended but conversing with him opened in me a fresh outlook towards living.
But there was still something that was waiting to happen the next
The shortest love story
There were women and girls who were staying in different blocks. We barely saw them as eating desk was at the far end of the hall and that’s about it. It really never occurred to me that they were with us. But when the discourse concluded and the speaking ban was lifted on the last day, we were all asked to have our breakfast together and from there onwards we will be free to call our people. It was in the final hour, meetings and greetings were taking place when I went to call my mother. Joshi arrived a minute later and in that minute a girl had come to stand behind me. But as we stood there waiting it looked that she was in hurry to call. When my turn came I simply stepped aside and let her go ahead saying, ‘after you’. It came as natural as anything but I imagine it was this that must have made her feel important after 10 days of no attention. Joshi was infuriated, may be even jealous.
She smiled, called, spoke and very sweetly thanked me before walking away.
I remember her white ambassador car, which came within a minute or two. She sat and walked in slow motion or so I thought from the side we were standing and as she passed, kept looking for as long was possible.
Later I went to the bell beater, we sat and laughed over tea, exchanged numbers, promises of meeting soon.
And within a blink 10 days were over.
Those 10 days in Vipassana proved to be something much more than I had ever received from my two decades on earth then. It helped me in giving a wider vision, in choosing my path of life. Vipassana gave me strength and showed by example how we can use our hours better. It recharged and purified my mind and made me focused towards the things I needed to do to excel in. and above all it gave me strength to sit still. Stillness that is so very hard, so priceless that I never saw it coming in the times that we live in today. In fifteen years the world has changed to almost upside down and it is today that I know what surrendering to a discipline like that meant for me. Even though I broke vows for an adventure but trust me if I have to advice anyone or if ever I will go back again, I know I will do it with my complete focus and awareness to learn more things about myself.
Breath does that. As outside we are made to think we are losing time and potential if we cannot hustle. But it isn’t true. Money has made us think all sorts of things we are actually not.
Those 10 days proved metal and even gave us strength, even after whatever we did in last three days. We were proud that we did not quit like so many others. It made Joshi and I come closer as friends and as individuals. I loved each moment then and remember it fondly even now because I had someone to live it with. He was the one who introduced me to Vipassana.
Vipassana was not as known and many a times I was asked, that how were the experience?
To me, and I still believe, it was callous, it was inflexible but it was purifying.
: ँ :
If today is the first time you have arrived on The Road to Nara, you are heartily welcome ~ Namaste
Like this post? Please Sign up or subscribe to email. You’ll not like to miss any Road to Nara post.
If you follow Road to Nara and love what you read here, your contribution will more than help me to be on the road.
If you have anything to share, or feel like saying a hello, feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
: ँ :
I will take this opportunity to introduce you to About me and importantly;
As a co-traveller, my Ten Learnings from several years on the road, before you coarse on your own Road to Nara.
: ँ :
: ँ :
To visit other long-term photographic works, please visit here.
: ँ :
Rasa – in straight words it will translate to juice but metaphorically it will be ‘Joy’Thali – a plate (for food)
Paadu – Hindi for the one who farts
Aasana – a mat
Bidi – Rural Indian Cigarette made of dry leaf
Pathani Kurtha – A traditional Indian subcontinent outfit