By Vinaya Kurtkoti May. 10, 2017
I spent 10 days at a vipassana centre, only to find out that I am a wannabe spiritualist. The path to equanimity, I soon discovered, is riddled with disappointment.
Hi, my name is Vinaya, and I’m a wannabe spiritualist.
I spend 10 days at S N Goenka’s vipassana centre, hoping to acquire the wisdom and equanimity of those who meditate regularly, only to realise that the road to equanimity is paved with disappointment, frustration, irascibility, and the inability to reign in your subconscious mind.
On day one, I notice Ms Ideal Spiritualist. The ideal “vipassi sadhak” walks slowly, covers her top half with a stole, avoids eye contact, breathes softly, does not gulp loudly, and attempts to awaken her kundalini (a vital force activated by yoga). This sadhak has eliminated all suffering: Craving, aversion, and ignorance. She doesn’t kill or steal, she abstains from sexual activity and intoxicants, she doesn’t lie. I’m assuming she also doesn’t read, write, or listen to music.
So what does she do? The ideal vipassi wakes up at 4 am when the gong echoes through the corridor, and is not immediately flooded by homicidal thoughts. Fresh as a daisy, she gets dressed after her daily ablutions, heads to the vipassana hall at 4.25 am, and is seated on her assigned cushion at 4.30 am to start her fruitful day of meditation.
Between meditation sessions, I look for my peeps – the fellow wannabe spiritualists. When we started the course, we were told to follow the instructions to a T, or “just submit”. Ideal students submit. Wannabe spiritualists want to submit, but aren’t quite there yet. Their minds wander, their feet itch. The harder they try, the worse it gets.
Ms Ideal, on the other hand, ignores the snorers around her, drowns out the sound of the woman scratching herself. “Maybe she has a medical condition that turned her into a chicken,” she considers, when Ms Noisy Tongue touches her wet tongue to the roof of her mouth. All her burping is involuntary, Ms Ideal reminds herself, as her neighbour proceeds to pass gas. “Must she breathe this loudly?” is a thought she does not think, because she could never have a thought so nasty. As her neighbour fidgets and continues to make guttural sounds, Ms Ideal Spiritualist focuses on meditation. She is the master of her mind. She controls her wandering thoughts. Thoughts have to fill out an entrance form (in triplicate) to get a visa in order to enter her mind.
Ms Fundamentalist appears a lot like Ms Ideal, but seems to not be able to draw the line between following instructions and abandoning all common sense.
She concentrates on her breath on day one, on the rectangular area around her philtrum on day two, on the area where her breathing hits the roof of her nose on day three, and on the remaining days on the various sensations she feels in her body. She ignores the pain in her knees and back when she sits for the adhisthana, the sitting of strong determination, which means not moving a single muscle for an hour – no switching legs, no opening your eyes, and no moving hands.
The Ideal Spiritualist loses her vipassana virginity when she feels a full-body tingling sensation… dhaara pravah, dhaara pravah. But she does not scream in orgasmic joy when this happens. She bears witness to this happy moment, but does not crave it. She does not boast about a tingling sensation to her friends after the course. In fact, she does not daydream at all. She does not think about men, or sex, or frenemies, because she focuses entirely on acquiring the vidya of meditation that made Gautam Buddha a star. As she walks, she feels the sensation of dry leaves crumbling under her feet; as she eats, she perceives the sensation of the food touching her lips.
When S N Goenka sings “Bha… Vaa… Tu…. Saa… Bba… Mangala… m” she mouths “sadhu-sadhu-sadhu” after the third time, but not loud enough to disturb her neighbours, of course, and not gleefully enough to betray her delight at the fact that she can finally move. She gets up slowly, moves carefully and deliberately, mindful to avoid physical contact with her fellow vipassi sadhaks.
It is important that we do not confuse Ms Ideal with her evil twin, Ms Spiritual Fundamentalist. Ms Fundamentalist appears a lot like Ms Ideal, but seems to not be able to draw the line between following instructions and abandoning all common sense. If for example, someone were to faint while meditating, Ms Ideal would take some action, abandon her practice for a few minutes to get some help. Ms Fundamentalist, on the other hand, would continue to meditate. There could be an avalanche at the vipassana centre, but Ms Fundamentalist would continue to meditate.
So obsessed is Ms Fundamentalist with excelling at vipassana that she does exactly what she is not supposed to do: Treat it like an exam. Once the vow of silence is lifted, she goes around asking everyone if they did better than her, if they felt stronger or more sensations than she did, while giving a condescending smile to Ms Noisy Tongue and her ilk. She deifies Gautam Buddha, and on the way back home, she buys Buddha statues. She doesn’t care about the fact that Buddha was against idol worship – that rule applies to other idols, not Buddha.
As Ms Wannabe, I try very hard to feel empathy toward the noise-makers in the meditation hall. At the end of the course, I decide that I am not as composed as I originally believed myself to be.
A month later, I’ve continue to meditate occasionally. I consider myself a wannabe spiritualist, though. I hope that if I try hard enough, I too can lose my vipassana virginity and be as committed as Ms Ideal Spiritualist.
Vinaya Kurtkoti is anti-mohmaya, except when shopping online for tribal jewellery. And books. And glittery art supplies. To prove her true blue anti-mohmaya credentials, she now wanders from village to village listening to people's stories. She considers herself 'location independent'.