A small collection of low buildings shoved into the forest edge…a dry river bed snaking its way down the green and orange hills…bird song and whooping monkeys all around me, but not a soul to be seen.
The cab reversed its way back to the dust track road, and I watched it drive across the long bridge and vanish into the afternoon haze.
I had come to Dhamma Salila, Village Jantanwala, Dehradun, for a 10 day Vipassna course. It was going to be the first time, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew the rule for silence, the simple meals and the gender segregation( it was mentioned on the website), but my doubts and confusion were rising with every quiet second.
Soon enough, a smiling man appeared and directed me to the dining hall for a simple lunch of rice and vegetable curry. After that, it was time to register for the course..give up the worldly paraphernalia of books, pens, mobile, snacks, combiflam tablets…pick up a blanket and bed linen set…and walk across to the female enclosure, which would be home for the next ten days.
The centre was a compact and neat square of 15 double rooms around a courtyard Simple, basic accommodation with a notice board. There were notices about keeping the room clean, switching off lights, keeping noble silence and the time-table..No pictures of serene, smiling saints..no banners or posters about religion, God and the rest of the spiritual realm.
50 steps, between two mango trees and one banyan tree ( all fertile and green and laden with fruit) led to the dining hall.
60 steps from the room, past 7 silver oak trees and 1jackfruit tree ( high on some ovulation inducing drug), and I would be in the mediation hall, where I would be spending 12 hours every day, learning the technique of connecting with the mind and the rest of its ocean.
I would get to walk and exercise my legs within this boundary of 110 steps. There would be bird song, and the swinging antics of a langur pack who would whoop and whirl from the mango trees, long jump on to the tin roofs and check out our amazed expressions. There would also be rain and thunder and cool winds, and the jewel lights of Mussourie, strung out in the black sky.
We were a motley group of 20 women, ranging from a school girl to young foreigners to young women and some older women. The silence code started before we could introduce ourselves or share our stories.
The course guidelines were explained to us…thrice…with a lot of emphasis on gender segregation, noble silence and no killing or stealing. Noble silence is silence with no gestures, eye-contact, signals and signs—as if one is all alone in the course. The deliberate emphasis on silence and acceptance of rules seemed repetitive, but it took just 2 days to realise ( and appreciate) that every aspect of the course was deliberate, well planned and designed to be effective. Every evening, I would have a Eureka moment, when one more aspect would begin to make sense..for example, how can one lie to others when speech is forbidden?!
For the next ten days, we lived like silent monks…a gong woke us up at 4 am, and by 4.30 am, we would be sitting in the hall and working on our minds. With two breaks for breakfast ( 6 am) and lunch ( 11 am), a couple of hours for rest and a very light supper ( if one cup of puffed rice and tea can be termed supper) at 5 pm, we had to put in 12 hours of silent, serious work. It was all about observing the “mad monkey”within—one’s mind—and being taken for long rides, memory trips, future fantasia, and so much more. Since one does not speak or share anything with anybody, it was 10 days of being with one’s best friend or worst enemy, and having no place to hide…
Every evening, there would be a 90 minute taped discourse by the Founder of the Vipassna Course in India, Mr S N Goenka. A genial looking man, who seemed to be talking directly to me, who seemed to know every doubt or question which emerged from my mind, he would explain the scientific basis behind every instruction given to me. With no mumbo-jumbo, no vague diktats or demigods, with nothing other than clear simple sentences, he would energise, inspire and direct me. He also made me realise that my assumption of being spectacularly special was only my ego at work. Each one of us is so similar, so predictable, so very human—how else could the same discourse be effective and intimate and appropriate for every listener in every centre of the world? That too, after Mr Goenka has passed away, leaving his recorded words to guide so many people?
10 days did not fly past…they went past one hour after another hour, with aching backs and knees, with quiet meals and walks, with superb quips erupting in my head and no one to share them with. It was a 10 day holiday with my mind, my determination, my excuses and myself.
An experience which I plan to repeat as often as I can.
An ongoing lesson which I plan to work on regularly.
A learning which I will support others to gain, by doing “seva” and being there for other novices who don’t know what they are going to receive in this course.
On the 10th day, silence was swept away as we were all directed to begin talking again. After the initial reluctance to break the silence, after the collective gratitude shared with the course “sevikaas” ( servers), after the hesitant smiles and introductions, it was time to share and laugh and question each other. The 18 of us ( two course members had left on the third day) shared a bond for life. We had been in this life-changing experience together, and no one could forget that. Some of us may practice regularly, some of us may sigh with relief and get back to social media, some of us may be planning their next course…but that magical evening of the 10th day will remain with us.
Any reader can get this life changing experience. I have deliberately avoided discussing the details of the technique and learning, since its something which one has to experience themselves. No words can do justice to these 10 days..but yes, I came home to the dogs and to the knitters and to this little hill town with only one strong emotion—regret. Regret that I didn’t do this course earlier and save myself and my world from so much of misery.
There is also joy, gratitude and compassion with me…some lard has melted away and some tons of emotional baggage, memories and issues, have been thrown out on that dry river bed snaking its way down the green and orange hills.