Something was terribly wrong with me lately. I used to feel much “alive” when I travel on the road, but returning to days of monotony confined in Jakarta apartment always brought depression to me. It’s ironic to feel lonely amidst a busy and noisy apartment block inhabited by thousands of people.
I was sure, my depression had something to do with my family problems. Since I lost my mother five years ago, sadness and fear slowly grew inside me. Three years after that, my father passed away. Year after year, I could not handle this loneliness anymore. I felt more and more insecure. Every quiet night I go to bed alone, I was bombarded by frustrating thoughts. Am I still needed in this world? For the sake of whom do I still need to continue my life? Even worse, I have depression and anxiety at the same time. As the negativity piled up, once in a while, I even contemplated of doing something very, very stupid to end my life.
Until then, a friend suggested me to try Vipassana meditation. He himself had attended the course, and called the experience ‘life changing’.
I have known earlier that much of our suffering is due to our mind, and the key to get rid of it is to be master of our own mind. Meditation is the solution. But it was not easy, as I had tried. I was hardly able to pass successfully even three minutes of total silence; my anxious mind would not allow that.
Vipassana is known as among the most difficult and most demanding techniques of meditation. But I decided to give it a try. There are free, worldwide Vipassana courses offered by dhamma.org. The closest one from Jakarta is in Bogor, about an hour journey of at least two buses and one motorcycle taxi trip, set in the beautiful cool hills of Puncak which is popular locations for many yoga and meditation centers. Students may apply online according to the available schedules. All “new students” are required to commit for the whole 10-day course (which is practically 12 days including the days of arrival and departure). The one and only activity during the course is meditation, a confident ten and half hours per day. If it sounds too much, there are dozens of strict rules you need to adhere, including: no talking, no discussion, no eye contact, no physical contact, no sex, no reading, no writing, no photography, no mobile phone, no internet, no TV, no movies, no money, no religious rituals, no meat eating allowed during the whole course. All students are reminded to this by capital letters visible everywhere in the meditation center: NOBLE SILENCE.
On the day of arrival (Day 0), the “Noble Silence” was not immediately started. You would enter a hall—which later became the dining hall—where about sixty students gathered to do registration. The hall was divided into two. Men on one side, women at the other side. I saw the women were about double the number of men. And it was anything but silence. Everybody was busy to introduce themselves, to make friends, to listen to stories, to produce a never-ending buzz noise as if they were ridiculing the “Noble Silence” warnings.
Even this is Indonesia, the Indonesians were minority. Most of the faces you saw here were foreigners, and the common language was English. There were Argentinian movie maker, Mexican student majoring Sundanese music, German globetrotters, Dutch backpackers, Spanish eccentric hitchhiker, Indian writers, Indian proud to be American, Singaporean moviemaker, Chinese yoga teachers, and of course a few Indonesians sharing their anxiety of living without mobile phone for the next ten enigmatic days.
The bell rang at eight, we formally entered the ‘Noble Silence’ period. All of sudden, the noise became mute. An awkward mute. We suddenly had to avoid each other’s eye sight, shut up tight our mouths no matter how much feeling we would love to express with words. We were directed to the dim-lit main hall, to attend our first session of meditation. I was sitting cross-legged on my cushion, while my eyes were busy scanning the halls which would be our “home” for the next ten days. Rows after rows of cushions were laid in the vast halls, for men on the left side, for women on the right. It seemed everybody but me came in quiet controlled move, sat peacefully on their own designated cushions, closed their eyes. Some even looked like “professional meditators”. The Buddhist nun in robe sitting in the first row of the women’s quarter must be one. Some people sat in perfect lotus position, which I tried to imitate but always failed to maintain. It seemed everybody was focus in their meditation, and it was only me who was busy of observing others.
This hall resembled a worship altar in a Buddhist temple, but it had no altar, no statues, no pictures nor symbols of God, gods or goddesses. There was a raised platform on the front—the seat of the ‘Teacher’. Our ‘Teacher’ was a blond American lady, but she barely talked. She just sat there, turned on her iPad which was connected to the sound system, and then we all listened to the pre-recorded voice of our real Guru.
The man’s voice was deep, full of power that may cause vibration of my body. He was chanting in Pali—an ancient language commonly used in Buddhist rituals. Based on this voice, I imagined the “Guru” as an eccentric Indian holy man with dreaded hair and big beard. But later as I saw in his discourse videos, he looked just like an ordinary middle-aged man, with a clean-shaved face and well-trimmed hair, with a very calm expression and possessing the aura of compassion. His name is S.N Goenka; he was an Indian businessman born in Myanmar (Burma), learned the meditation technique in Myanmar, then reintroduced it to India and spread it worldwide through this Dhamma movement.
His voice requested us to close our eyes, to observe our breath. Just the normal breath, no need to regulate it. It was supposed as an objective observation, whether your breath comes through the left nostril or the right nostril or both nostrils, whether it goes out through the left nostril or the right nostril or both nostrils. If it is shallow, it is shallow. If it is deep, it is deep. No need to change anything, no need to make judgment on anything.
During the whole process, we are not allowed to read any mantra, or to visualize any god or goddesses, or calling the name of any god or any religious leaders. Nothing but pure observation to breath, the real breath.
Later, through the discourse, we learned the reason behind this. “The real Truth should be universal,” said him, “no matter of what religion you are, what nation you are, the Truth is the same Truth.” When you use any visualization or verbalization based on belief or religion, you already make a sectarianism of the Truth. The breath, like the Truth, is something universal, nothing sectarian about it—there is no Indian breath, or English breath, or Hindu breath, or Muslim breath; the breath is the same breath for everybody.
The Buddhist chanting he was doing was nothing religious, he said. The meditation technique was introduced by Buddha 25 centuries ago, the chanting was part of the teaching. But the meditators were not expected to believe in Buddhism, not even expected to reply the mantra Bhavatu sabba mangalam (“May All Beings be Happy”) if they don’t want to. So this is the pure universal teaching of Buddha, minus the worship rituals and traditions of Buddhism as an organized religion. The dhamma (“teaching”) to reach ultimate happiness is for everyone, regardless one’s religion or tradition.
The other reason is, when you use verbalization or visualization or using the aid of prayer beads, it is indeed much easier to concentrate, but this is not the main purpose of this meditation technique. Vipassana (which literally means “in-sight”) is to observe the Truth moment to moment, while your breath is one of your reality from moment to moment. When you use the help of verbalization or visualization, your mind will focus on those verbalization or visualization, and you will forget about the breath altogether.
Fair enough. Now time to try. The next day, the Day 1 of our course, we were awaken from our dormitories by ringing of bell at 4 a.m. Despite there were dozens of people here, you heard almost no noise. The air was cold, the frogs were singing, I crossed my legs, took a deep breath, closed my eyes.
Breath in… breath out… My mind started the verbalization, helping me to focus on my breaths. But it did not last very long. My mind started to wander wildly. Is this really the solution of my sadness? Where is the bliss of it? … I felt nothing but painful. Now bored. Oh, am I doing it right? I opened my eyes. It was not more than five minutes. Well, improvement from my three minutes. But how I would endure the two hour sitting before breakfast? Breath in … breath out… No visualization! No verbalization… breath in… I fell asleep.
After the breakfast was another two and half hour sitting before lunch. I managed painfully passed the first hour (with so much sleeping during the sitting). The Teacher then let the new students to continue meditating in their rooms. I went happily to my room, laid my stiff back on my bed (what else the purpose of bed if not for sleeping?), to practice what Goenka said: “You can meditate in any position: sitting, standing, or laying down”). Only five minutes, I heard snoring of my reclining and muted German roommate. Not more than ten minutes, I fell asleep as well. Probably snoring, too.
I woke up when the bell rang. Lunch time! What a fast way to pass the half of the first enduring day of doing nothing but observing breath!
We had to pass another three hour of sitting before afternoon tea time. My angered mind started to curse everything. Cursing the never-ending noise of the motorcycles from the nearby road. Why on earth they built a meditation center next to a busy road? Cursing the kids of one nearby mosque (there are 3 mosques around the Center) who played with the mosque’s microphone to practice singing, and had their out tuned voice to be broadcasted for hours by the mosque’s loudspeakers. Who on earth are their parents? Cursing myself for sacrificing the precious ten days of my life for this boring breath observation….
Suddenly, I felt a strange vibration on the skin area exactly on the corner of my upper lips. First the right side, then the left side, both sides were now vibrating. Harder and harder. I could not stop the vibration, and instead the vibration of that part of my face forced me stretch out my lips. It forced me to smile.
Smile! I suddenly felt much relaxed with my lips smiling. I suddenly realized, how the last months of my life (or maybe even years) have passed with I kept my lips in miserable serious mode, angered and stressed face, with both corner of lips facing down. Now, with a smiling face, it was much easier to focus my mind to my breath.
Is this the first miracle of breath observation? Breath in… breath out…The bell rang. It was somehow a little bit too soon.
(To be continued)
Disclaimer: This is my personal experience of taking Vipassana meditation. Meditation is personal, and everybody’s experience should be different. Please don’t take my experience as guide or reference when you take your own meditation. If you are interested to start your Vipassana meditation, you may check dhamma.org for worldwide free 10-day courses. Enjoy your own journey and be happy!