Buddha was born in Nepal–the phrase is emblazoned across windscreens, handpainted onto trucks and on hats and t-shirts of any colour you’d like. Nepal is rightly proud of its connection to Siddartha Gautama, the prince who became the first enlightened person, the Buddha. After rejecting his inherited wealth and status in favour of life as a wanderer, dependent on the kindness of strangers, Siddartha found enlightenment through Vipassana–or, silent meditation.
So, what better place to take a vow of silence and abstinence for ten days and find your own dhamma–-pathway to enlightenment–than Nepal? I joined a course in Birgunj, southern Nepal.
The idea of ten days’ deprivation doesn’t sound pleasant. At first, it isn’t. Participants are woken at 4am by a gong and start meditation at 4.30, then sit for ten hours of meditation (or attempt to!) and eat at set times. Food is provided. It’s enough food, but highlights our daily habits of gluttony. Your passport and valuables are kept in a safe. The only thing I needed to worry about breaking into my room was a monkey or a snake. (Fortunately, neither made an appearance).
Vipassana meditation doesn’t ask you to focus on a figure, a statue, a mantra or a colour. It requires you to think only about the sensations within your own body. If you’ve ever wondered what the instep of your left foot feels like, or maybe the place just behind your right ear, then sign yourself up immediately. The idea is that we only truly know what we feel in our own bodies. We can guess at other people’s feeling and intentions, but the only real truth is what we experience.
Vipassana meditation doesn’t ask you to focus on a figure, a statue, a mantra or a colour. It requires you to think only about the sensations within your own body.
For the first three days you focus on the breath moving past your nostrils. On day four, the teacher announces that you will now learn Vipassana. There was stunned silence (I imagined it was stunned) as we students tried to figure out what we’d been doing for the last three days if it wasn’t Vipassana.
A friend gave me one simple piece of advice before the course: surrender to the instruction given, just go with it. There isn’t much instruction though, and I spent a lot of the time trying to figure out what it all meant. While doing so, I was told off for walking on the grass (you cannot see the small creatures living there and may harm them), and for sitting in the wrong seat in the dining hall. I also had to discretely raise the alarm when I broke the cistern in my bathroom. It wasn’t until day four that I managed to not say anything at all.
This course is founded on something that the Buddha did and taught: silent contemplation of the self with the aim of finding peace. There are no religious teachings, no expectation of or requirement to worship a deity, a cloud, or anything external. Vipassana doesn’t even tell you to worship yourself. It just asks you to notice what it happening.
There is lot more I could go into about cravings, attachments and aversions, ancient languages that sound like drunken singing, and how this course is free of charge, the world over. But Vipassana is all about your own experience – that’s the only truth you’ll know. So if you’re curious, go and find out at one of Nepal’s eight Vipassana centres.
Article by Helen Josephine.
Top image by Cheryl Marland/Flickr.