As soon back as the 1970s, some doctors in the West were laughed out of the hospitals for suggesting that meditation could be a beneficial treatment when used alongside conventional Western medicine. Today neuroscience has finally recognised the benefits of the ancient practice to both mental and physical heath. Studies have shown that the brains of long-term meditators have changed for the better over time, resulting in an increase in cognitive function and efficiency, as well as a general increase in overall happiness and well-being. It’s for this reason I decided to give meditation a go while living in London last year and found it helped me cope a bit better with the stress of life in that city. It was the ‘mindfulness’ technique: a gentle, relaxed form where I didn’t sit for more than 20 minutes a day. The 10 day course I booked myself into (free of charge – you’re only expected to give whatever donation you can at the end) at the Vipassana centre outside Jaipur was to be an altogether different form of meditation and as I was to find out, a much more difficult one. ‘Vipassana’ means ‘Insight’ in the ancient Pali language and the technique, which is supposed to be the one truest to which the Buddha taught 2500 years ago, is intended to go deep below the surface of the mind and change the taught processes that solidified to create the familiar problems of habitual thinking. The meditation I practiced before only calmed the surface of the mind so this was to be a lot more challenging. I’d heard of many people not being able to complete the course, as it was just too intense for them. Although I was looking forward to finally getting peace and quiet, the reality hit home pretty soon when I moved into my room.
Set in beautiful, isolated grounds, the Vipassana centre (of which many exist in India and the world. More info here) is dominated by two golden pagodas surrounded by little buildings that can accommodate 100s of students. Peacocks and monkeys abound and when the ‘noble silence of the course begins, it’s mainly them that can be heard amongst other wildlife from the surrounding forested hills. Once the course starts, there are very little distractions but your own thoughts. No communication is allowed with the outside world or with fellow students. No phones, no music players, no talking, no gestures no books, not even writing materials. Men and women live in separate quarters. The only communication allowed is with the teacher or teacher’s assistants. There are around 70 other students taking the bilingual Hindi-English course, mostly middle-aged Indians with a handful of foreigners.
Day 1-2: 1000 Jacob Marleys
I never knew meditation could be such hard work. Settling the mind (which is the aim of the first few days) is a real challenge, both mentally and physically. During the group sittings, you’re expected to sit cross-legged on a cushion and let the mind settle on the breath during meditation. The mind will always wonder back to the past or to some imaginary future, either craving or averting something, but when you realise your thoughts have wondered, you’re to always bring it back to the breath. At the end of each day there is a video discourse in which students watch an hour and half talk by charismatic S.N. Goenka, the man who resurrected the Vipassana technique beyond its haven in Burma and set up Vipassana centres around the world. It’s after these videos that my mind is most active, just before I’m supposed to go to sleep. Old memories of people and places I hadn’t thought of in many years come randomly flooding back. As a fellow student remarked after the course, it’s like 1000 Jacob Marleys jangling and pulling you in different directions as you struggle to keep up with them and past ghosts.
Day 3-5: Pysical Exhaustion and Battling Illness
I wake at 1.30 am on Day 3 with a bad bout of diarrhea that continues sporadically till around 7 am. Alongside a fever, this ensures I spend most of the day in bed. On Day 4, I feel a bit better and make an effort to attend most of the group sessions but by the evening the fever has returned. I spend most of Day 5 in bed, lonely and feeling pretty sorry for myself, with the main rest-bite being visits from the teacher’s assistant, Tim, an affable German who does his best to lift my spirits and see I’m not dying.
Day 6-8: Hospitalisation
By Day 6 the fever and diarrhea has got worse and I’m feeling very weak, not having eaten anything in a couple of days. After a torturous walk to the centre’s office to collect some pills, I collapse in agony on my bed when I get back to my room. I lie there with serious abdominal pain, moaning for half an hour and unable to move, until Tim comes and tells me he’s going to organise a tuk-tuk into the city centre to see a doctor. The journey to the city is surreal, having been cocooned in the meditation centre for nearly a week; it’s like I’d forgotten I’m still in India. The doctor takes one look at my frame and exclaims, “oh, you’re very anemic”. He diagnoses severe dehydration and admits me to his small nearby hospital to be put on a saline drip for a couple of days. When I get there, I’m put in in a bed beside another student who I recognise from the course who was admitted a couple of days previously with a dangerous septic wound that had turned nasty after a viral infection. John from Dunbarton, Scotland is traveling with his Polish girlfriend (who’s also on the course) and this is his second Vipassana stint, the first one being in Nepal a few months ago. I’m mighty glad to have his company, especially as he’s from the same part of the world as myself (I haven’t met an Irish person in over 6 months…Scottish is the closest I’ve come) and we chat about the course, our travels and watch a few crappy movies on the TV to pass the time between recovering.
Day 9-10: Returning to finish the course
Having been discharged at the same time as John on the evening of the 8th Day, both of us still quite weak, get a tuk-tuk back to the Vipassana centre and watch the evening discourse. On Day 9, I spend most of the time in bed at the advice of the teacher, resting and regaining my strength. Again I manage to catch the evening discourse and on Day 10 I’m well enough to take part in the group sessions, one of which is a ‘meta-meditation’ session which blisses me out and brings some harmony back to my being. I don’t share the other student’s excitement over the end though, as the course for me ended when I went into hospital on Day 6. Still, I’m quite relieved it’s all over and after breakfast on the morning of Day 11, I go back to the city centre to rest in a cheap guesthouse, doing as little as possible to avoid the dangers of the 45 degree heat in Jaipur.
As crazy as it sounds, I’d definitely consider doing another Vipassana course. Even with the hell I went through at becoming ill on this one, I recognised the benefits the insight mediation provided to my mind, making it much clearer and settled. The path to clearing the mind of clumsy craving/aversion reactions and illusions and accepting reality as it is, is a long, difficult one, but ultimately one of sanity, peace and truth. To be in control of one’s own mind is such a rare quality; it’s a great thing to aspire to. I don’t want to sound corny and like a newly-converted Buddhist (I’m not) and I’m not even sure if I can walk this noble path but it’s one I know I’ll keep in mind and will always attempt to return to.