The official scanned my passport and looked at me quizzically.
“Long Term Pass, no need, lah!” I could have gone through automated immigration.
My Singapore pass was still valid, a pleasant surprise.
I fortunately had the chance to stop by Singapore on a connecting flight on my way to Chennai. Even though time was short I managed to see some friends on short notice.
I came to Chennai to supplement my summer work assignment and to complete a 10-day Vipassana course before my return home after a year in Asia. This is the second time I attended a silent meditation retreat; the last one I completed almost three years ago in Northern California after a similar transitional period in my life.
The only major difference between the two retreats was that the facilities in Chennai were simpler, but aside from this the course layout was how I remember it:
You are awoken at 4:30 AM to start meditation
Breakfast at 6:30 AM
Group meditation from 8-9 AM
Lunch at 11 AM
Group meditation from 2:30-3:30 PM
Snack for new students and lemon water for old students at 5 PM
Group meditation from 6-7 PM
Meditation video lecture from 7-8:30 PM
You take rest at 9:30 PM
During these 10 days, your electronic devices, reading and writing materials, and valuables are locked away so that you can devote your focus on both observing your breath and being mindful of sensations on the body. You can consider it a mental detox for a mind that is distracted by external stimuli or reacts in ways that we no longer become aware of. To aid in this, everything is taken care of for you, from the cooking to the provided accommodations.
Each meditation session was an hour in length and in many of them, keeping myself still was very hard. The numbness I felt sitting cross-legged caused me to move my legs and subsequently lose my focus. There were also those distracting thoughts that would surface. However over time, rather than reacting, I got better at observing the thoughts and sensations.
By the middle of the course, I fell into a routine and spent a lot of my time in between meditation either resting or trying to increase my awareness of what I was doing at the present moment. Mostly these were mundane tasks like showering, brushing my teeth, or eating. When my mind would drift towards dwelling about the past or thinking about the future, I would remind myself of where I was and what I was doing. This is not to say that I was always so successful, but in those periods where I failed to keep myself in the present, I tried not to judge myself for doing so.
By the tenth day, we were allowed to speak and I found it interesting to hear the different reasons why my co-meditators signed up for the course. One of them, a young man close to my age, tried to find better clarity and calmness for himself. He was suffering from anguish over being born into a conservative Hindu Brahmin family but losing his attachment to his faith while having a German girlfriend that he had met while working overseas. Another man, a California native who left the United States 20 years ago after he found a spiritual calling in India, was interested in exploring more of the intersections between the various Indian schools of meditation to benefit his own meditation practice.
Part of the appeal of the Vipassana courses I have taken are that they are: strictly donation based; claim to not engage in any religious rites or rituals; designed for a regular person who does not want to become a monk or nun. In the video lecture, S.N. Goenka does discuss the concept of reincarnation as reality but aside from this point, I would say the course does not stray far from its claim of being free of religious dogma.
My key takeaways from the course were:
- Life is a constant struggle to avoid both craving and aversion. We try to cast judgment on events as either good or bad for us and subsequently crave good events to happen and bad events not to happen instead of looking at them as just is.
- You are the sole creator of your own happiness or misery.
- There are direct benefits from being removed from external distractions for a set period of time. This includes clearer thinking that is less cluttered from things that you realize are not important.
As I left the meditation center, I made a commitment to myself that regardless of how busy I may get, given the benefits I observed, I would prioritize at least some time during each day to meditating.