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#1: Mind It
Coping with the pandemic and beyond with the help of Vipassanā.
“What’s the hardest thing about being a monk?” I asked the 24-year-old Buddhist monk sitting across me. He wore orange robes and seemed a little nervous about his English. We were in a small room that doubled up as an office in the morning and a ‘monk chat’ room in the afternoon at Wat Suan Dok (Buddhist temple) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The walls were laced with bookshelves and portraits of Venerable monks.
“Controlling one’s emotions — greed, anger, ego; being still; training oneself in detachment,” he replied.
“Is detachment more difficult while living a conventional life, compared to when you’re a monk and have renounced everything?”
He looked at me for a moment and smiled. “Yes, maybe. Most people are occupied with their family and livelihood. They are [living] amidst chaos all the time. If they can train themselves to be detached and equanimous while leading a conventional life, they are the truly enlightened ones! Meditation helps train the mind to observe situations with detachment and respond accordingly. Being a monk and living in a monastery where everyone is pursuing the same makes it easier to focus.”
Read the full conversation on my blog: Rendezvous With a Burmese Monk in Thailand.
I got another chance to have a one-on-one conversation with a Buddhist monk in Myanmar a few years later. I met him at a small monastery in Bagan in the presence of two cats, some older monks, and my local travel guide.
“Why did you choose to become a monk?” I asked him. His answer surprised me.
“I was 35, single, and alcoholic. I calculated how long I had left to live. Assuming I would live till I was 75 years or so, that’s about 40 years left. Out of this, I have maybe 15-20 healthy years to do good karma and serve society. So I decided to become a monk! It took 13 years of training. I am now 48.”
“What’s the hardest thing about being a monk? Have you ever considered quitting?”
“The hardest thing is concentration. Anyone can learn the scriptures if they go to school and put in the time and effort. But meditation is tough — I still struggle. But I have never considered quitting. Training as a monk has been the most fulfilling experience of my life.”
It was comforting to know that monks go through similar struggles as us. Our lifestyles are different, but the mind can be equally chaotic.
As children, we are taught to make daily efforts to take care of our body (from brushing our teeth to eating good food) but not the mind. Isn’t that odd?
About a decade ago, I was diagnosed with a hormonal disease caused by stress. I was 21 and didn’t know such a thing was even possible. The news set off alarm bells, and I incorporated a bunch of lifestyle changes to regain my balance. I started working out, eating better, and journaling. I returned to some of my favorite childhood hobbies like reading fiction, playing basketball, and painting. All of this made a difference, but I was keen to figure out a more comprehensive way to lead a stress-free life.
My interest in Buddhism began in college. The colorful prayer flags on rooftops and bridges in Tibetan neighborhoods and hill stations caught my attention. While I learned the meaning and significance of the inscribed prayer ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ much later, I liked the idea of good vibes blowing in the wind and hoped to learn more about Buddhist philosophy someday.
My interest deepened when I read an interesting book gifted by a friend: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s ‘What Makes You Not A Buddhist.’ It introduced me to the fundamental principles of Buddhism in simple language and left me eager to learn more, particularly about its practical application.
Around the same time, I started working at an organization where most of my colleagues either practiced Vipassanā meditation or had attended a ten-day introductory course (and decided it wasn’t for them). Office chats would take a philosophical turn and my curiosity piqued.
The opportunity to learn the technique came a few years later.
After an intense year of leading a women’s leadership program in rural Uttar Pradesh, I was burnt out. I quit my job and was unsure what I wanted to do next. I felt this was a perfect time to attend a ten-day Vipassanā course, as getting ten days of leave from work had been the main barrier all this while.
I had no set expectations; I wanted to experience Vipassanā the same way I wanted to try a new cuisine or visit a new place — with an open mind and for the joy of learning something new.
I booked a flight to Mumbai, took a train to Igatpuri the following day, and landed up at a Vipassanā meditation center in the middle of nowhere.
It was only when I entered the gate, deposited my phone at the reception, and settled into my bare room (it had just enough space for a single bed, a small attached bathroom, and a window) that it hit me. Ten days without any verbal communication. Waking up at 4 AM. Eating my last meal (a snack, not even dinner!) by 5 PM. No books, calls, texts, and Internet for ten days. Was I ready for this?
As it turns out, all of this was a breeze. The challenge was something else: keeping a tab on the gazillion thoughts and emotions buzzing in my mind.
Wait, what is Vipassanā?
Vipassanā in Pali means “insight” or “seeing deeply.” It is a meditation technique that involves training the mind to observe reality as it is and not as we would like it to be.
It was re-discovered by Siddhārtha Gautama 2500 years ago during his quest to overcome suffering. He is believed to have tested hundreds of techniques before concluding that Vipassanā was the most effective way to get to the root cause of suffering.
Until my first Vipassanā retreat, I was never drawn to any kind of meditation, so I was surprised that this particular form of meditation resonated with me so deeply.
While crowdsourcing ideas from my Instagram family on what they’d like to read in this newsletter, a few people asked me to write about mental health, how I’m coping with the pandemic, and staying sane in an age of division (check out Elif Shafak’s book on this). They are assuming I have something wise to say (social media perceptions, I tell you!), but I figured I could (at the very least) share what has helped me so far.
Breathe like the Buddha, my friend
Let’s play a quick game.
Go to a quiet corner of your room and sit down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and try to observe your natural breath.
Don’t force-breathe — we are not practicing pranayama or yoga. Don’t visualize God, any kind of symbol, or chant either. Just breathe normally and try to observe the air entering and exiting your nostrils.
If you’re unable to feel it, focus your attention on the tip of your nostrils from where the air enters your nose. It could take you a few seconds, a few minutes, an hour, or more. It doesn’t matter. Keep at it until you become conscious of your natural breath.
If your mind wanders, don’t beat yourself over it. Acknowledge that you got distracted (we all do, even monks) and bring your attention back to your natural breath.
I want you to experience the sensation of air entering and exiting your nostrils — at least once.
Where am I going with this?
Before you throw me a virtual punch (your screen will get damaged in the process, so don’t), let me explain where I’m going with this.
We’re so caught up in our thoughts, emotions, and external stimuli that we fail to notice something as integral to our life as our breath! Imagine what else we may be missing out on every second of our existence!
Here’s another game (bear with me, please).
Repeat the previous game. Keep at it for a little longer this time, let’s say 15 minutes (adjust the time based on how long the previous game took you, but remember, this is not a race).
Your mind will inevitably wander. It’s ok!
Acknowledge the wandering and bring your attention back to your natural breath. It gets easier when you stop feeling frustrated every time you realize your mind has wandered again.
If your thoughts aren’t distracting you, it could be a backache, shoulder pain, numb feet, or a splitting headache. Try not to react to the pain, which means: do not move.
Instead, focus on the pain. Observe it and accept it for what it is (if and when it arises)— and then shift your attention to another part of your body, such as your arms or legs.
The idea isn’t to undermine or ignore your pain — rather, it’s about being able to sit with it, observe it, and accept it.
You’ll notice that, sooner or later, the OG pain disappears. It may be replaced by pain in a different part of your body, but the OG pain is no longer there. (Side note: OG stands for Original Gangster in Internet slang.)
Alternatively, you may experience a pleasurable sensation — such as weightlessness. Whatever it is, do not react. Observe it and let it pass.
Moral of the story?
“The mind spends most of the time lost in fantasies and illusions, reliving pleasant or unpleasant experiences and anticipating the future with eagerness or fear. While lost in such cravings or aversions, we are unaware of what is happening now, what we are doing now.” – S. N. Goenka, my Vipassanā teacher and the person who brought this meditation technique back to India.
Observing our natural breath and learning to accept the temporary nature of all sensations connects us with the inner workings of our own body (imagine becoming conscious of the billions of atoms buzzing beneath our skin) and makes us more mindful of the present moment.
Every sensation that arises in the body is a manifestation of a sensation in the mind (like the negative emotions we carry). The only way to overcome our misery — which usually arises from either craving or aversion to something — is to, first, learn to observe it with equanimity.
This means you neither deny its existence nor obsess over it — you see it for what it is and respond in a meaningful way (rather than impulsively).
While other meditation techniques are effective in improving concentration and calming the mind, Vipassanā meditation allows you to get to the depths of the unconscious mind.
Read more about Vipassanā on my blog: Experience the Interaction of Mind and Matter Through Vipassanā.
This pandemic, too, shall pass.
Most of us are so occupied by the fear of death that we forget to master the art of living.
There are no easy ways to cope with a pandemic. It’s hard to see people suffering, losing loved ones, struggling to access healthcare, and feeling helpless that there’s only so much we can do — day in and day out. It doesn’t help when those in power don’t inspire trust either. In such circumstances, if you’re alive and safe, it’s important to take care of your mental health and somehow find strength within — to cope and heal, and help others to cope and heal.
Vipassanā trains the mind to experience reality with detachment and equanimity, enabling us to deal with circumstances better and not feel overwhelmed by what we cannot control.
It also allows us to understand ourselves better, as we observe our thoughts, emotions, and attachments — which then extends to the external world.
Having a healthy, balanced mind takes work, and like any other good habit, consistency is key and the benefits compound over time (read Atomic Habits by James Clear — an excellent guide for building good habits and getting rid of bad ones). You will not become a Buddha overnight, but each Vipassanā sitting makes the mind sharper.
I have not been as regular with my Vipassanā practice as I would like to be (I hope to change that soon). Still, I have observed that whenever I meditate (even if it’s just 2-3 times a week), there’s a significant improvement in my overall mental balance and resilience.
Before I sign off, please note that this is a very, very simplified version of all the Vipassanā concepts I have covered. If you’re interested in learning this form of meditation, please attend an introductory ten-day course at a Vipassanā center near you. Since it is not possible right now, I’ve tried my best to share a brief preview.
Some recommended reading:
What Makes You Not A Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thích Nhất Hạnh
Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thích Nhất Hạnh
Old Path White Clouds by Thích Nhất Hạnh
At Home in the World by Thích Nhất Hạnh
Listen to Pico Iyer’s TED talk on ‘The Art of Stillness’ (later published as a book):
Finally, here’s a graphic by Holstee that sums up what your daily ‘dose’ could look like:
Take care and be safe. See you next weekend!