Monday, January 17, 2005

5th January 2005

Day 2 cycling: Shahapur to Igatpuri: . 51.06km. Cycling time: 4hrs 20 min (but really, from 9am to about 2.30pm). AVS = 12.15 (poor, but a fairly hilly ride, mostly uphill…). MAX = 41.6 km/hr i.e. hills

Vipassana International Academy (VIA)
The VIA was an impressive campus, spread over many hectares (?18). Over 400 meditators, male and female in roughly equal numbers, were there to do the 10-day course, male & female – there were perhaps 20 or so Westerners. Scores of others were there as volunteers to help run the course – cooking, cleaning up, organizing and doing all the other tasks required to run such a large course. Many others were there doing long courses of between 20 and 60 days. Given the numbers, everything ran exceedingly smoothly.

The course involves the practice of certain Buddhist meditation techniques, including the observation of bodily sensations with equanimity – tough when your legs are unwinding from having cycled 150km in the preceding 2 days. Each day involves about 12 hours of sitting on a mat from between 4am and 9pm, with breaks in between. To minimize any distractions (there are enough mental and physical ones from just sitting on the mat), there is a requirement that no communication, either verbal or non-verbal, takes place between meditators, or that any reading or writing materials be used, and the cooking and cleaning-up is done by volunteers.

I was very fortunate in being given my own room, with fan, shower (cold), bucket hot water, loo – many others, particularly first-timers, had to live in dormitories or share toilet and bathing facilities. I was certainly glad no-one could see me in my shower cap with a bucket of cold water at 4 am (the bucket hot water did not come on until 6.30am each day, for about an hour). Furthermore, as an “old student” (this of course refers to having done a course before and nothing to do with age), I also had a cell in the pagoda, which could be used to meditate in for much of the time. The cell was a small room about the size of a small WC, which allowed you at various times to meditate away from the distractions of others (and there were many: the sounds of 399 other meditators shuffling, belching and farting away is awesome, and very disturbing at times)

Each day started at 4am, after the ringing of the gong and various other bells, followed by an explosion of sounds as people in surrounding rooms cleared their nasal and other passages – coughing, grunting, hawking, gobbing, spluttering, snorting ... Some people managed to make sounds that I am sure I could not replicate if I tried. There were many other strange noises during the course - thumps, grindings, half-caught singing from the nearby township – and no-one to ask what the hell they were.

We were given heaps of numbers for the course. Mine were: Reg Number: 0004; room: D-15; meditation mat: 12; pagoda cell: 125; Valuables pouch: 64; Group: 33; Laundry 133… all my undies, shirts, pants now sport the number “133” in indelible ink.

My first 2 days were torment, with my right leg being slightly swollen from cycling - within minutes it became totally numb every time I sat to meditate. While the experience of pain is a ‘given’ on this sort of course, this did not feel good. Luckily a rather stern and seemingly humourless doctor at the general office gave me a tube of “Enac Gel”, which saved the day. What great stuff – as it says on the tube, it’s an “anti-inflammatory analgesic” - I’ll be taking some with me when I cycle from now on.

I was allocated a seat in the front row on the far left, which was quite good, as I had no one sitting in front of or alongside me on the left other than a single column of Buddhist monks hard alongside the left wall of the hall. The guy on the right was quite distracting at times – he specialised in these initially very low, rumbling and then finally extremely loud and reverberating belches. As we were not supposed to communicate there was of course no way for me to tell him to knock it off. Meditation instructions were given in both Hindi and English, and occasionally we English- speaking folk trooped off to another hall to hear things in English.

The food was excellent and a good re-introduction to Indian food, although after a while I did begin to wish for something like cornflakes rather than the savoury food dished up at breakfast time – e.g. rice, idliis, various sauces. I did however come to love, even crave, the glass of warm, sweetened milk available at this time, followed by a good strong cup of chai.

Most of the Indians ate with their right hands, whereas I tended to use the supplied spoon. It’s interesting to notice my conditioning, I guess from an early age, when you’re trained to use cutlery and told to stop playing with your food when you used your hands. I must admit to a slight feeling of distaste when I see Indian folk digging in, with rice up to their knuckles, or when I try myself as I did yesterday when I went to a Thali restaurant. What’s this about? Similarly, I much prefer loo paper than left hand. Curious that we in the west invented toilet paper and cutlery, to put a distance between our hands and these basic functions.

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