There was a book on the mountain Arunachala I read while I was a school student. I was enamoured by its description, history and Ramana Maharishi. I did my first Vipassana course about 5 years back at Dhamma Setu, Chennai. I wanted to do it at Dhamma Arunachala (Tiruvannamalai) this time, for the sheer magic of the mountain and the Maharishi, I have so read about. Last month I looked up at my kids school holidays and told myself if there was a 10 day program around this time, I would definitely go. I checked online and bingo, there it was, perfectly matching those dates. So I applied about 20 days earlier. However, I got no official confirmation until the evening of the previous day the program was to start.
The experience :
There are 5 basic precepts one needs to follow strictly during the course – no speaking lies, abstain from killing, no sexual contact, no intoxicants, no taking whats not given. This is quite the easy part. There is no communication allowed, through the course. Mobile phones are switched off and handed over in the beginning. No eye contact or communication is encouraged with fellow students. Men and women quarters and dining area is separate. For old students (those who have taken a 10 day course atleast once before ) 3 additional precepts to be followed – no meals after 11 am in the morning, no bodily decorations, ornaments etc and no luxurious or high beds . The last meal at 11 am was one thing I was a bit skeptical about handling, but I set in comfortably from day 1 to this new routine.
The first three days Aana Paana meditation is taught, as a precursor, to help focus and set the base before Vipassana technique begins. During this time, there is more clarity as well as ups and downs. Every emotion sort of overplays until the mind settles down. I witnessed significant reduction in thoughts (from say trillion to million may be 🙂 ) as days progressed. Vipassana starts on day 4. As Goenkaji explains, it is like doing a surgical operation of your mind. As you go deeper and deeper you cut across more and more layers.
This time my experience was different from the last. I kept witnessing images of random people and creatures from time to time. I tried to not get involved with any of these, except a golden snake I saw on day 2 that seemed to tell that it wasn’t going to harm me. Somehow couldn’t shrug that image easily and it kept crossing my mind every now and then. The teacher , Ruth (foreigner) rightly pointed out the idea should simply be to watch whatever comes up and not get involved. Watching the various sensations equanimously is pretty much the gist. Sensation like ants crawling over different parts was new to me this time and kept showing up often.
By day 7 practice became intense . I witnessed free flow every now and then in certain parts but never as a whole. That did not bother me. I clearly felt much lighter from the 6th day. 9th day however, I was more looking forward to getting back and did not focus. 10th day was breezy. Noble silence rule was broken and we could talk in the quarters. On the 10th day night I experienced a very strong high and happy feeling like I was almost floating. It felt wonderful. Apart from the first 2 days I did not sleep well any other day. Even during the breaks I barely rested. However, I never felt sleepy nor tired.
On day 11 after breakfast I made my way back home with a fellow Vipassana student who generously offered to give me a ride.
So am back now lighter, better and determined to practice regularly.
For those considering to do this program, one must understand it is not a retreat. By far, it might be one of the most challenging acts, you might have encountered. To constantly watch one’s mind also means to deal with the monsters we have created in our minds. At the end of the program one will experience a certain relief, restoration and feel purified, but all of this only if one put’s in determined efforts. There are bound to be times, when we feel like running away, but the secret is to hold on.
The day schedule starts at 4 am and is packed till 9.30 pm. Two breaks in between for breakfast and lunch and 5 to 10 minute break between sessions. Sitting through atleast 10 hours a day will be challenging but possible. One can ask for extra cushions or chairs if there is heavy discomfort. Goenkaji’s discourses in the evening will be a treat to hear. One may agree or disagree, either way, its absolutely fine. One may consult the teacher about any questions on the technique during scheduled hours. Also there are Dhamma Sevaks (volunteers) whom one can talk to for any help in terms of facilities.
To know about what is Vipassana and how to apply, please refer this site : dhamma.org
I boarded a Super Deluxe point to point bus from Chennai to Tiruvannamalai from CMBT. Travel time was exactly 4 hours . (There are barely any AC buses from chennai ). Ideal to leave early morning. Got down at Periyar Padhai (Tiruvannamalai bus stand is still further away and no need to travel all the way there and return) and took an auto to Ramanashram. Being a week day, it was quiet and I did a soulful meditation for a brief while, then looked around the place, enjoyed the sight of a posing peacock on top of His Samadhi room.
There are just two buses – Surya and Krishna buses one can board outside Ramanashram to Kizh Vanagambadi where the center is located. They are not very frequent. I enquired at a tender coconut shop across the road and they asked me to wait for one hour. As I made myself comfortable, I was approached by another person who apparently was from Bengaluru and travelling to the same place. He wanted to know if we could share an auto to the place. So enjoyed a chatty auto ride for about 8 to 9 kms until we reached the venue.
About the centre – Dhamma Arunachala :
This is a recent center. So its work in progress in some ways. It is created in a eco sustainable kind of environment, with bio gas, solar panels, water purifiers, etc. One is expected to take back any plastics we may bring, like bottles and not leave them there. I understand car parking facility is available in the premise towards the male quarters.
Food is one significant aspect. It is fully vegan and millet and whole grains based foods. More like a typical village diet. It was challenging for me, as no comfort food like idli, dosa, roti, white rice, curd etc was in sight all through the program. But it is definitely a healthy sattvic spread.
The center is quite touched by nature with variety of birds , butterflies, insects and many other creatures. The pagoda cells are quite large and comfortable. The meditation hall and the room does feel warm. The mosquito net in the room, especially prevents free air flow. The quarter has decent basic facilities. Room is on sharing basis, depending on the number of registrants. This applies to old students as well.
Things to carry : Clothes, 2 bedsheets, pillow covers, torch, anti bite cream (if you are sensitive), umbrella, flipflops, Id proof, photograph, toothbrush, paste, soap, washing detergent.
Personally, I felt handheld right from the time I left my home till I got back. It is an experience am happy to have invested in and will cherish forever.