Like most people, the idea of doing a Vipassana came to me after speaking to a friend who claimed it had been life changing.
Vipassana is a 10 day silent meditation which works on the basis of non reaction. As part of the process you try not to move at all during the meditation periods and in terms of the physical pain and mental discomfort this inevitably causes, you try to focus your attention in such a way and as taught on the course that you meet the pain with sanguinity thus teaching you to meet the ups and downs of life with sanguinity.
On reviewing the Vipassana website, it became clear that you could pretty much do a Vipassana wherever took your fancy.
One of the countries I had never been to at that point was India. As it was one of the major Vipassana destinations, it appeared an obvious choice – I could experience the Vipassana and India at the same time.
I duly consulted a friend who was an expert traveller and who I knew had also done a Vipassana. My suggestion that I do my Vipassana in India was met with a rather tepid response. He kindly and diplomatically suggested that perhaps for my first Vipassana, India might be a bit hardcore, particularly for someone who had never been to India before and had never done a Vipassana.
However, being stubborn, I decided to not only do my Vipassana in India but to also go straight to the mother source – the Dhama Giri Vipassana Centre in Igatpuri just outside Mumbai.
While descended from Buddhism, Vipassana courses are now secular in nature and the founder of these modern retreats is the late SN Goenka, whose instructional videos you are shown each night of the course. Dhamma Giri was Goenka’s first and main Vipassana Centre.
What happened next was a drama entirely of my own making, my tendency to play lose and fast with my travel plans finally catching up with me. For those experienced in travelling be prepared for much rolling of eyes and “is she actually serious” (I am).
The first massive mistake was my wardrobe. I decided to do my Vipassana in January – very zen it being new year, new me and all that. As I am based in Europe this meant flying to India from a European winter. I had also been listening perhaps a little bit too avidly to friends whose experience of India was restricted to travelling around yoga hotspots such as Goa and Rishikesh, all of whom assured me that the yoga scene in India was totally Westernised and so it was yoga pants and tees all the way.
Welll that may be the case in Goa and Rishikesh but it was certainly not the case at Dhamma Giri.
To add insult to injury, as I was not familiar with Mumbai airport, I thought I was being incredibly smart getting the hotel I planned to stay in for two days after the retreat to book me a taxi from the airport to Dhamma Giri. This would all have been fine if it wasn’t the case that I had decided to treat myself to two nights in the Taj Palace in Mumbai (see my Taj Palace post) with the result that my driver arrived at Mumbai airport resplendent in full white livery including cap and gloves and proceeded to ferry me to Dhama Giri in a massive 4×4.
So picture the scene if you will, I arrive with resplendent driver in my best yoga gear and winter coat because I have literally come from snow and to my shock, the Vipassana is not a nice little gathering of a couple of international yogi types, no it is 400 predominantly locals and yes I look like a complete idiot.
So I am in the middle of nowhere (the driver is now gone) and the locals are quite rightfully regarding me as a complete and utter object of ridicule. We are duly segregated, men in one Vipassana area entirely separate from the women’s area, with men and women not speaking again until the end of the Vipassana.
There were approximately 200 women in the women’s Vipassana area and then within that area there was a small group who were taking the Vipassana in English with the rest of the women’s group taking the Vipassana in Hindi.
So, the small group taking the Vipassana in English were kept together in a small group to the right of the Vipassana hall, which was helpful as special instructions and classes were given specifically to this group in English.
I have to say the Vipassana was absolutely superbly run and could not be faulted in this respect at all, which, bearing in mind that the whole Vipassana system is donation based is nothing short of incredible. The classes run like clock work and are incredibly efficiently organised and that includes the accommodation and food.
The Vipassana is certainly not however for the faint hearted. With strict 4.30 am starts and 9.30 pm finishes (the last few hours are taken up with lectures), the long days would be difficult at the best of times in your own space but when you are not familiar with the culture and Vipassana norms, you can feel yourself coming close to cracking quite quickly.
For example, not really realizing what I was in for, I didn’t do what the Vipassana old timers were savvy enough to do pretty much immediately and grab as many seating aids (cushions, blocks etc) as possible on my first arrival in the Vipassana Hall. I didn’t feel I needed them in the first few days, however after about three days you are expected to reduce your physical movements during the mediations to as little as possible, if at all. This I found ridiculously difficult (lets just say I am no natural yogi) and the first day of endeavouring to follow this practice was so tortuous it reduced me to tears. Unfortunately by the time I had figured out that I desperately needed seating aids to last the course of the retreat all the extra cushions, blocks etc. were long gone. I got around the issue by literally taking anything in my luggage that might double as an aid – a rolled up towel, cardigan etc. with me each morning to the Vipassana Hall.
The other massive issue for me was Vipassana etiquette. Please understand in this regard that I was tired. And hungry. I had taken a guess that traipsing into Mumbai in my yoga gear was a really bad idea when I was at Heathrow. As a result I had purloined one of the ridiculously thin flight blankets proffered by Jet airlines – cheerful that the basic nature of their blankets actually really suited me needs – in this instance to create very quickly a make shift skirt over my yoga pants (yes, I know).
So I am sitting there in the womens’ Vipassana Hall in my make shift blanket skirt which made me look like a total idiot as these beautiful Indian ladies were serenely walking past me looking just fabulous (even at 4.30 am) in their saris. I knew I looked ridiculous, but as I sat there with my make shift towel and cardigan aids looking I imagine quite pitiful, at least I am, I think to myself being culturally respectful – no yoga legging ass on show here people.
Yes, that’s right, culturally respectful. Well no actually. I was still in trouble. I couldn’t figure out why for ages. The group of two hundred women were extremely efficiently divided into small groups, each with their own mentor who would sit in front of the group and lead each Vipassana meditation and then take any questions the attendees had at the end of each session in specially allocated discussion times. As I mentioned, the smooth organisation simply could not be faulted.
Now bear in mind I was slightly in shock from being in meditation with no talking in a foreign county, however I kept having the feeling that the mentor assigned to the English speaking group was glaring at me. It took me a while to realise that I had managed to commit another Vipassana faux pas. What I had missed was that the mentors, even in their saris (all our mentors were women) would, after they had got into the easy pose or typical meditation seated position, then place a square scarf about the size of a pillow case across their lower body area. My “letting it all hang out” by just sitting in easy pose, was, it appeared, going down like a lead balloon with the mentor. This led to me trying to find yet another piece of my luggage eg a spare shawl or whatever to place just so over my crotch area. Between this and the self made seating aids I basically had most of my luggage on my mat with me at this stage and looked, yes, every inch the completely shell shocked newbie.
I must stress two things – the first is that the above was entirely my own fault because I had done basically no research into the ins and outs of a Vipassana and the second is that I have spoken to loads of people since my Vipassana and their experience was entirely different and much much more relaxed.
I also have to say that for me, the interesting thing was how the above really triggered the anti-establishment rebel in me, I really, really felt like I was at school wanting to stick my tongue out at the teacher when she wasn’t looking which is extremely funny to me now but most certainly was not at the time.
The other interesting thing for me, is that the above was the worst of it for me. I thought it would be the food, accommodation and not speaking that would kill me but not at all. First of all, I was far too exhausted and out of it from the whole experience to want to make small talk with anyone, least of all a group of people I didn’t know so I found the not speaking rule an absolute blessing. And I actually really enjoyed the food. For me as a first timer to India, I really got a kick out of eating local fare. The other thing I loved was that I could surreptitiously people watch and in particular how they ate their food – some used cutlery, some did not, some curled up in easy pose while eating. Hilariously (at least to me) I appeared to get the actual nature of the foods completely wrong and no-one could correct me because we couldn’t speak. Things I thought were mains or soups were actually dips, my food combinations appeared to be rather exotic. This appeared to bring great mirth to the other women in my group and I could certainly see the funny side of it as well.
I would love to say that I had some profound spiritual awakening on the Vipassana however that was not the case at all. Vipassana practice takes a certain amount which I just do not have at the moment – as they say it is just not my time.
However am I glad I did it? One hundred percent. Of course there are the basic (and not to be sniffed at, at least for me) improvements in terms of my meditation and yoga practice – there is no question that I find it much easier to just sit and be. I can certainly fall into that space much quicker and for longer periods, however that is not in fact the major achievement for me.
The major achievement for me is just actually having done it. Given the obstacles (which I cheerfully admit were utterly of my own making) I am proud of myself that I stuck to the course even if it involved cooking up some rather hilarious solutions.
The other thing I am so grateful for is I have now have an absolute respect for the Indian culture and in particular the Indian women who were on the course with me. The course as I mentioned, was donation based and as such was open to everyone regardless or income or means. Despite this the Indian women had such a grace and serenity and such a style, literally the sight of the Indian women gliding to their mats at 4.30am in the most fabulously coloured saris imaginable will stay with me. It really taught me that unlike we tend to be led to believe in the Western culture, grace, serenity and style are not necessarily attributes that can be bought.
Dhamma Giri Vipassana Site: here