Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why I sit....

Part II (Reasons)

Before going on to my experiences of the second course I took, I pause to reflect on what got me on to this path in the first place...why did I have this compelling need to do this course? I have often been asked this question.

When I look probably began sometime after my sister died in a fire accident at home. The saddest days of my life..beginning 16th of August 1980. I was about 17 years old and she 25. We were chatting on the terrace in our home in Secunderabad, India, when suddenly she said she could smell gas (cooking gas). She said she will go down to the kitchen to check and as she was going, she turned around and asked me to come too. My parents were sitting on the other side of the terrace and asked me why we were going down. I told them that Jaishri suspected a gas leak, and I hurried behind her. As she opened the kitchen door, we saw to our horror the gas tube had come out of the stove and the room was stinking with gas. She quickly went over and closed the gas cylinder, while asking me to open the windows to let the gas escape.

How did it not occur to us that there was a lamp burning right there in the altar at one corner of the room? So many times I have tormented myself over this question. Why did I listen to her suggestion to open the windows before putting out the burning lamp? Why didn't I think that if I opened the window, the fresh air would cause the flame to be ignited and there would be an explosion of fire? How many times have I replayed this in my mind, wishing I had acted differently, wishing I had prevented the accident, wishing she hadn't suffered burns, death..

She died on 19th August 1980 a day after her birthday. She lived exactly 25 years. A life snuffed out so suddenly so tragically and right there in front of me..

That huge loss, painful blow, forced me to wonder why we are born, why we die, the transiency of life, the suffering therein. There were no answers... The guilt, the shame, the torture that I went through were unimaginable. I tried reading a number of books to find answers, from J Krishnamurthy, to religious texts, to listening to discourses by Swami Chinmayananda, Psychology, Philosophy, whatever I could. I am not sure if they helped, but what stood out was one story in the life of The Buddha. The story of Kisa Gotami.

This lady had lost her young son and was so overcome with grief that she wouldn't allow him to be cremated, insisting that he was only sleeping. When people saw her plight, someone suggested that she go to The Buddha and maybe he could revive the child. She went to him eagerly, carrying the child and told her story. The Buddha asked her to get a spoonful of mustard seeds and he would revive the child. However, he said he wanted her to get it from a household where no death has ever occurred. On the face of it, it was a simple task and the lady happily hurried away. After going round her village she could easily get mustard seeds, but the second requirement--that it should be from a house where no one has died could not be met. She finally was able to awaken to the reality of the situation--that her child had died and nothing could bring him back to life.

She went on to become a disciple of The Buddha and is said to have become fully enlightened.

This story provided some kind of solace to me and along with it a curiosity about meditation...what was this practice about? It seems to have provided answers to so many people, made them peaceful and enlightened--maybe it could give me answers to my questions too?

However, it was only about 10 years later, a marriage and two children, that I finally got to do a course in meditation. Those 10 years had a mixture of highs and lows, stresses and tensions which only strengthened my resolve to attend a course.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why I sit....(with apologies to Paul Fleischman, who wrote an essay with this title)

Part I (How it all started)

It's been 15 years of practice of Vipassana meditation as taught by Goenkaji. I have been taking a course almost every year or every other year. With every course there has been a significant gain, valuable insights and a gradual change in me as a person. In these posts I wish to record some of my experiences in each of the courses that I took. In this particular post I write about my very first course.

I clearly remember the day when I set out for my first 10 day course in Hyderabad. It was the 6th of October,1995. I was a lecturer in Psychology in St. Ann's College, Mehdipatnam, Hyderabad and we had a one week break for Dashera. This, I thought was the best time to do the course as I would only have to take 2 additional days of leave, the course ended on 16th of October. My children were 8years and 3years and I planned to leave them with my parents who were taking care of them when I went to work.

However, it wasn't as simple as I thought. My parents were horrified. Why would I want to leave my young family and go for a course in meditation? I was very determined--there was such a compelling pull towards attending the course. But it was painful to go against the wishes of my parents. At the suggestion of my friend, Sudha, I contacted Sabrina, a senior meditator and she invited me to join her as she was leaving for the Vipassana center to help in the registration of new students for the course.

Meeting Sabrina was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. It was a joy to be in her company, and she allayed my fears, misgivings and doubts about attending the course--with simple straightforward answers to my questions. The most significant thing that she shared with me on that memorable drive to the Vipassana center was: " Whatever arises, is bound to pass away" and " When you have set out to do something good, nothing bad will ever come out of it". She had ( and still has) a presence in which I felt comforted.

Later that evening at the center she gave a group of us a preview of what we were to experience in the 10 day course---and I was and still am so grateful for that. She explained the 3 major steps --sila, samadhi and panya and gave us a heads up on important milestones we were to experience in the 10 days. Not only did I feel reassured by her explanations, I was quite sure that this was the path I was looking for.

The first course was difficult and I struggled through it. The first difficulty was maintaining silence--physical silence was not too difficult but silencing the mind was. In addition, we were asked not to maintain eye contact with anyone and walk with eyes downcast. However, I had come with the firm conviction that this was the path I really wanted to follow, braved all the displeasure of my parents, I had to make it good!

Somewhere on the 7th or 8th day I started wondering whether life had to be take so seriously? Till then I went about living life in the way I best understood, not really mindful of my actions, emotions or interactions with people. The daily routines of the meditation course--early morning rise at 4 am, meditating for about 10 hours a day--forced me to confront my life. I wasn't mindful before--but now I was given the opportunity to experience for myself what living mindfully, could result in. More over, I was forced to experience suffering and look at it as it was! Not escaping from it, not avoiding it but for the first time observing it objectively, dispassionately and probably with equanimity. Of course, I wasn't always successful, but traces of this (objectivity/equanimity)started penetrating my consciousness.

I hadn't yet grasped it fully but the possibility of getting different results from life was dawning on me. And it was precisely because I was unhappy with my experience of life thus far that I joined the course in the first place!

The few moments when I could clearly understand and follow the instructions, the few moments I could stay with my breath with undivided attention, the few moments that I could observe my sensations with equanimity, resulted in so many insights, so much of peace and tranquility and above all a joy of realizing that there is another way of living my life which held a promise of greater happiness and satisfaction.

The final day, Day 10, was Metta Day and it was a wonderful way of bringing a closure to what I had gone through the previous 9 days. These 9 days made me realize the suffering I was carrying with me so far was the reason for my rudeness and anger towards some people in my life. I learned now how to deal with this internal suffering and transform it and to the extent I was successful in doing it, I was freed from those toxic negative feelings and emotions that would earlier engulf me and almost consume me.

With this awareness (whatever, little it was in that first course) I could radiate happiness, peace and harmony towards all beings.

(I will be continuing on this theme, and discuss my progress in each of the subsequent courses that I took.)