We begin breathing exercises in earnest. We are told to focus on our own respiration, (through the nose only) following the in and out of each breath, and to stay concentrated on that alone. This sounds ridiculously easy. About 10 minutes later I am thinking, “How weak-minded am I“? I realize to my shock and horror that not a few minutes goes by before my mind automatically wanders from my breathing to subjects as diverse as what that spice was in the poha a week earlier to whether or not my car has been sold yet to Beyonce. As instructed, every time my mind wanders (which is VERY often) I direct it back to my breathing. This goes on throughout the day for a total of 10 hours, focused on my breathing, friends in California, my breathing, fabindia, my breathing, how awful the Indian Rail booking site is, and finally, my breathing.
During this first full day my back pain begins in earnest, so I take my problem to the teacher (we are allowed only to ask occastional questions of the teacher, and ONLY about the technique) who recommends waiting it out for 24 hours then deciding if I need to be seated against a wall, or on a stretcher. I agree reluctantly.
That evening we are introduced to a 10 part series on DVD entitled: “Vipassana 10 Day Meditation Course”. Our first 90 minute lecture is cleverly and surprisingly entitled “Vipassana 10 Day Meditation Course: Day 1” In these English language videos (there is a Hindi version for the majority of the students in another hall), S. N. Goenka (The father of the modern vipassana movement in India and around the world) expounds on the day’s activities and tries to prepare us for the horrors challenges that await the next day. I am comfoted that he seems to unerstand how difficult the first day is for some many students and speaks eloquently about our collective back spasms and the necessary “pus” (his word, I swear) that must come up when a deep operation to remove impurities is undertaken. He then ends the discussion with some sort of Pali / Hindi Buddhist chanting, which at first I find rather interesting to listen to, if not especially melodic.
I hobble back to my room in Cell Block ‘E’ and sleep fitfully.
Apparently the train that I catch from Mumbai at 6am is the meditation express. I catch or talk to at least 4 other people (all women, curiously) also on their way to Igatpuri. One of them in particular arrives with a HUGE bag and happens to be sharing my berth, leaving almost no room for my feet. I get a little huffy with her and she agrees to take the top bunk since she wants to grab a nap anyway and we prop up her bag on the seat so that there is room for my legs. I then think to myself, “What a great way to start 10 days of loving kindness, with a snotty attitude over nothing.” I am sure at this point that I am a hopeless bitch that no amount of meditative peace and harmony will cure. When she wakes up I apologize and we make introductions. Her name is Shumona and she is an independent filmmaker living in Mumbai with her husband for the last several years. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania but her family is originally from the north of India, not too far from where I attended my rural wedding.
After we arrive at Igatpuri, we go through the lengthy but well organized check in process. At the point they ask me to reread and agree to the code of conduct and surrender my passport, money and cellphone, I start to get a little panicky. Especially reviewing the part that says “you must agree to stay for the entire 10 days, no matter how difficult it may become.” I overcome it and in fact go out of my way to surrender my ipod, books, all writing materials, etc. Voila! I am an empty slate, stripped of all that defines me (materially at least), ready to have the eternal words of universal harmony inscribed on my being.
After getting checked in, I meet back up with my new pal Shumona and we have a great conversation, finding a lot of points in common. We then say our farewells and head off to our respective sections for orientation. Men and women are strictly segregated on the grounds of the center to avoid the temptation to commit “sexual misconduct”. They clearly haven’t considered gay people in this equation and I am horrified to discover a fair number of good looking men in our large group. I resolve to stare at the ground for the next 10 days.
I go to the basic orientation about the rules and we begin our 10 day “Noble Silence” and head off to bed. The schedule, we are informed, involves waking up at 4am, going to bed at 9:30pm, with 10 full hours of meditation each day, broken up slightly by breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea (no dinner), and video discourses from the master himself, Goenkaji.
As mentioned in previous posts, I decided to try a silent 10 day vipassana meditation. I had heard about it from various friends or read a little about it in books like “Holy Cow“, so I was intrigued.
I must admit to being not at all prepared for the physical (and to some extent mental) challenge this would turn out to be. The things I thought would be the most difficult turned out to be the easiest and vice versa. To say nothing of the things I didn’t expect at all.