This is the first guest blogger featured by The Namaste Counsel. It was chosen because the author’s words are beautiful. Most important, her content is beautiful. Enjoy Pragya Bhagat’s essay on her 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in the Punjab region of northern India.
I just completed a 10 day Vipassana course in Dharamkot, near McLeodganj. In attempting to capture the experience in words I am going against the philosophy of dhamma that is practiced here – that everything is impermanent. What arises will also pass. Everything is changing all the time, only we are too distracted to notice it. I am attempting to immortalize an experience that began and now has ended. Nevertheless, the ego in me, the part that wants to be proud of what I have done, wants to acknowledge that accomplishment and capture it. This is no different from a photographer waiting patiently, persistently for that ‘perfect shot’ and achieving it. The moment of perfection will pass, but the image remains. This is my image.
Do I begin at the end, which is freshest in my mind, or do I start at the beginning? I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Beginning and end are just a matter of perspective. Day 1 of the course was the end of many things for me, just as it was the beginning for others. The same could be said for Day 10 and all the days in between.
I sit on a slab of stone, washed clean from a recent drizzle, dried by the sun. It shines clearly in a muted gray sky. It is not a downcast gray, even though the colour may evoke such an image. No, the sun is bright, the heat quick to warm. I see flakes of brown bark, layered on the trunk of a tree, blotches of green moss growing at its base. I am surrounded by majestic evergreens, whose needles branch out to create nets of shade. When these needles fall to the ground, they become brittle and turn yellow. The grass is littered with these sharp yellow splinters. Birds are chirping back and forth, in a flurry of conversation. Butterflies flap their wings rapidly, flitting from one plant to the next. The occasional monkey bounces from one branch down to another, shaking the tall tapering trunks it lands on. Whomever said nature was peaceful was not privy to the organized chaos this forest holds. It is similar to the cacophony of a city, with a few subtle differences. Instead of the honking of horns, I hear the flutter of wings. Instead of people chattering, apes howl. Instead of mothers scolding their children, monkeys pick ticks off of their babies’ fur. There are no calls of vendors here, only the chatter of birds, the latter as rhythmic and predictable as the former. I am here, in this moment.
Awareness of such proportions comes from 10 days of rigorous meditation, starting at 4:30 in the morning, ending at 9 at night. Eleven hours of knowing myself, my sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant, interrupted by breakfast, lunch, and a light snack at 5. All this was done in noble silence, which meant no communication of any kind.
As I write I am tempted to stay in this moment since that is what I have been practicing for more than a hundred hours. And yet I am unable to capture the turmoil in my mind. The excruciating length of Day 1, the relative ease of Day 2, only to be upheaved by the tears that came on Day 4, when I started practicing Vipassana meditation. I can not capture the violent crying which took place on Day 6, nor the throbbing headaches that I could not detach myself from till Day 8. All that arises must pass. The words are deceptively simple, the depth of practice extremely difficult.
For every painful memory, there are countless joyous ones. The moment I was able to quiet my mind from external thoughts – first for a few seconds, then a few minutes, and then almost an hour. The subtle vibrations I felt in each fiber of my being, what in Pali is known as ‘bhanga’. The sunshine of the mountains melting on my arms. The time I objectively observed the painful throbbing until it went away.
Impermanence is hard to accept, especially when I think about mortality. The passing of loved ones is a miserable thought. Nevertheless, these ten days have allowed me to experience impermanence firsthand which has better prepared me for handling death when it comes. Not if, but when.
I’ve built small habits that I’d like to sustain – maximizing my mornings, exercise, drinking bottle upon bottle of water, early meals…I have this habit of biting my nails. For reasons unknown to my conscious mind this has stopped altogether.
The unconscious has deeply rigid habits, developed over decades of conditioning. The real world is full of sensual experiences, most of which lead to either craving or aversion. The bridge between the conscious and unconscious is sensations, something one learns in Vipassana to observe and accept as they are. If I am able to observe my sensations objectively, then experiences of pain and pleasure can be viewed in the same light, slowly chipping away the layers of conditioning my mind has cultivated over a lifetime.
This experience reminded me of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. He discusses the value of extracting useful practices from religion and applying them to secular institutions. He cites the example of corporations. Inspired by the success of religion they similarly franchise the quality and consistency of their services. Vipassana has followed suit; the technique has been growing in popularity, with more than a hundred centers over all major continents. I would highly recommend this 10-day course to anyone and everyone. Age, sex, creed, caste, belief systems, none of it matters. One just needs to believe in morality, gaining mastery over one’s mind, and wisdom.
Like most experiences in Vipassana, I couldn’t identify the reasons for what was happening. Like when I first started speaking after nine days, everything seemed hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing. There was one thing, however, that I was able to understand.
In one of SN Goenka’s discourses, he gave an example of impermanence. A river is never the same river, for it is constantly changing. The water at a particular point is no longer the component of that point after a moment. Similarly, the self is constantly changing, always in flux. He gave this example to illustrate that one should weaken one’s ego, one’s strong sense of self. This led me to ask the inevitable question: Who am I, really? Is my ‘self’ so insignificant? On the 9th day, I had my answer. Just like the river is constantly changing but present I am a changing being whose body exists now, in this form. The form will change, but in this moment and the one after, I am Pragya.
About the author: Pragya Bhagat spent the first 15 years of her life bouncing from one country to the next. In these formative years, her first love was words. She continues to paint pictures with words and is inspired by the diversity of individual stories. With a Bachelor’s in Biology and a Master’s in Social Work, Pragya lives life one day at a time. Other than writing and reading everything under the sun, she is a fan of Bollywood, the violin, and cold milk. Read more about Pragya’s journeys at http://pragyabhagat.blogspot.in