By Manu Moudgil
anu Moudgil attends a Vipassana retreat that helps him sort out his life and emotions, making him freer and more balanced in the process
I attended a week-long Vipassana retreat recently at the beautiful Thai Monastery in Sarnath. Yes, the same Vipassana you might have heard people boast about, especially its stories of hardships.
Thankfully, my experience was neither hard, nor something to brag about. I didn’t get any great revelations of how the outer or inner world works. And it was not difficult to keep mum. Partly, it was because of the flexible format of this retreat which was very unlike the famous Goenka-style Vipassana. The latter, I am told, involves silent sitting for 10 days and is a very strict practice involving the need to focus on your bodily sensations.
The retreat I went for is conducted by Christopher Titmuss, a 72-year-old spiritual teacher from UK who used to be a Buddhist monk, living in forests and caves of India, Thailand and other Asian countries. But most notable aspect of his personality is his great sense of humour which made the whole experience a lot of fun.
We had silent sittings, but time was also given for walking meditation, which was very refreshing; discourses on Buddha’s teachings were conducted too, and we were also allowed to have one-to-one interviews with the teachers, if needed (besides Christopher we had Zohar, who has been on the Buddhist Dharma path for the past 20 years).
Sarnath is a satellite town near Varanasi but thankfully it is not as crowded and noisy as the latter. The wide roads are adorned with big neem and peepal trees with the ancient Buddhist stupas and beautiful monasteries adding to the balmy landscape.
Sitting on the gardens of the Thai Monastery before entering its secluded Vipassana grounds, I was wondering why am I here? What do I need from this? No answer came except the desire to explore the unknown, within and without through meditation.
The dread to be cut off from the world for a whole week rushed in and remained there for a couple of days. The organisers recommend that we give in our gadgets at the start of the retreat to be kept in a trunk, which Christopher calls ‘The Coffin’. Many still didn’t surrender. My roommate, a teacher from the US, kept his Kindle. This, he said, was for the days he has to be confined to the room due to chest congestion so that he can read something, instead of brooding over the level of phlegm.
Our days would start at 05.45 am with a very energetic yoga session that made me fall in love with my body. A sitting followed by breakfast and some ‘Karma Work’ time to kick-start the rhythm of the day. It was quite enchanting to see so many people (around 40) together in one small campus, eating, walking and doing the chores together without sharing a word. It might have even left the birds wondering.
I started getting into ‘the mode’, as they call it, only on the third day. By increasing focus on the present, away from happy memories and fearful future, there was the live moment to experience, for far longer time than in the outside world.
Without engaging with any gadget or entertainment source, I went within and despite the effort to remain in the present, certain things came rushing in with great force. This is how I guess Vipassana works. During daily instructions in the morning, teachers told us not to reject anything that comes by. The time of feeling intense love and loss, identity crisis and the need to indulge in frivolities came and went by.
Self-pity was a major emotion that overwhelmed me. In routine life, I seldom experience the ‘victim mode’ but it was surely lying deep within, waiting to surface; else it would not have thrown me off balance for so long. Finally, it was a walk in the thriving gardens of the monastery that made me get over it. The trees, sparrows and the sky made me realise the web I had woven around myself, forgetting the small identity I have in this big, beautiful world. The need for supremacy, to dominate through acquisitions of wealth and relations is the bane of human society.
Things got better soon after. Zohar introduced us to the states of ‘Chitta’ or ‘Chit’ (heart-mind) as we call it in Hindi. She listed the unwholesome states and how we need to move from them to wholesome states. I had a specific problem with ‘desire’ being listed as one of the unwholesome states. Zohar later explained that desire can lead to love but only if we know how to play with it. For instance, the desire to do good may turn harmful for us if overdone or if we get attached to the pride that comes from doing a good deed. So, watching yourself and achieving that balance was important.
Another useful tip was to recognise the contraction in body or heart while doing something or being with someone. Our nature is to expand. Being limited to your space or feeling suffocated/contracted means you need to move out or work on it through patience, empathy and other positive feelings of wholesome chitta.
The energy at Sarnath was comforting. It was not a peaceful time though. And I got to know later that everyone was on a similar roller coaster. But all of us were glad to have touched those raw nerves. As it happened, I was reading Jiddu Krishnamurti’s ‘The World in Crisis’ on the train to and from Varanasi and his talks somehow helped in putting together all pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.
I guess the real impact of Vipassana manifests after some time. It's almost two months now and I feel emotionally stronger and get ‘in the moment’ more often. I am also more willing to take risk whether it’s leaving a regular contract to explore more exciting and independent work options or conveying my feelings to others. Earlier, these painful emotions would remain buried inside, accumulating strength, only to come out through an angry outburst, causing more harm and guilt.
I have also gone on a mission to ‘declutter’. Work that no longer inspires has been dropped, personal possessions I don’t need anymore have been given away, and friendships that have become more of a burden are being recalibrated to see if they still stand a chance to bloom. I wish everyone could spend time with oneself to gain the clarity and responsibility I got from ‘Vipassana’.
Christopher comes to India around this time every year. The man is very political and I loved it. He has campaigned against landmines, environment destruction and also genetically modified food. During one of the sessions, we sent ‘Meta’ (goodwill) to the Muslims from middle east and African countries facing war at home and hate abroad (at that time, thousands were stranded on US airports). "May they be safe," is all we could wish.
The retreat works on gift economy thus emphasising upon ‘Dana’ (donation through generosity), another aspect of Buddhism. We donated not just for the experience we had but also for the future retreats where others can benefit.
Here is to hoping for more of quality ‘me time’ for everyone!
Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist based in Chandigarh
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