Travel: Bad karma in Kathmandu
Aching knees, heavy breathing, odious gases and a 12-day vow of silence did nothing to help Suzanne Fisher reach a state of enlightenment. All she got was a tingling scalp
Sunday 21 February 1999
Although enlightenment had not been my immediate goal when I reached Nepal, I became interested after meeting a particularly mellow Norwegian couple hiking the Annapurna Circuit. The couple, who had been on four or five Vipassana courses, convinced me that it was what I really needed. They told me Buddhism had "fundamentally changed our approach to life".
Wary of such grandiose claims, I decided to sign up for a course anyway. After all, this was not about freaking out on drugs or sitting about trying to get in touch with cosmic energy - it sounded like it was going to be bloody hard work. Any experience which did not allow me to make eye contact, interact with the opposite sex or even speak for 10 days demanded that it be taken seriously. My latent puritan work ethic rejoiced at the thought of meditating in the non-profit-making Vipassana centre for 11 hours a day without the aid of beer, dope or cigarettes.
The day before the meditation and silence began we were taken by bus to the Vipassana centre on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Outside the bus, the streets were in their usual state of chaos; by contrast, the half- Nepali, half-Western group inside the bus was subdued.
On arrival at the centre, one Israeli woman immediately became agitated when asked to hand over her passport to ensure she did not try to leave the site once meditation had begun. The Vipassana teachers argue that once the meditation process is underway it is important not to interrupt the experience by abruptly returning to the outside world. I was thankful I had been warned in advance about these strictures, and handed my passport over without a murmur.
The courses are focused on what is allegedly the meditation technique used by the Buddha, passed down from him through generations of teachers. After an introductory speech discussing the general rules of the centre, we watched the first of 12 pre-recorded video Dharma teachings from S N Goenka, the head teacher of the Vipassana technique, who originally learned it in Burma.
The basic message presented in the combined 12 Dharma sessions is that the mind consists of four processes: consciousness, perception, sensation and reaction. When the senses receive an input, the four mental processes occur and eventually the sensation becomes labelled by the mind as pleasant or unpleasant. The Buddha argued that if all reactions to a sensation cease, then there is no more suffering. By merely acknowledging positive and negative stimuli (rather than reacting to them), one is getting to the root of the main source of unhappiness. Easy enough for me to understand during the Dharma lesson, but a little tougher to work out in practice.
During the first night we were told that during days one and two, meditators were to focus their minds on observing their breathing. It seemed like such a simple task, with enlightenment just around the next corner. I was woken the next day at 4am from a heavy sleep by a clanging bell. I had just enough time to roll out of bed and wash my bleary face and eyes with cold water before heading into the main hall for meditation.
It was dark and totally silent. My eyelids fluttered desperately to remain open and I rearranged my frozen and numb limbs countless times, vainly seeking a comfortable sitting position. Goenka's deep voice chanting Pali texts during parts of the meditation session only helped to lull me further to sleep. For the next two hours before breakfast I continued to nod off while the various assistants would wake me up with a tap on the shoulder.
Returning from breakfast I noticed that the Israeli woman had already quit and gone home. I headed back to the hall for another three hours of observing my breath passing in and out of my nostrils and my knees aching to be released from their cross-legged position. My original goal of enlightenment had been exchanged for making it to lunch.
After a meal of lentils and rice and an hour's break we returned to the hall for another five hours of meditation. We had five-minute breaks every hour and a half. During this afternoon session I had my first revelation on the subject of gas - people have lots of it. Stuck together in a large hall we were forced to share our bodily expulsions and odours. Embarrassed individuals could be heard tittering in reaction to a particularly loud fart or burp. Many people, including myself, felt nauseous for the first five or six days due to our unusually stationary positions and the resulting build-up of gas in our systems.
We ate dinner between 5pm and 6pm and then watched our second Dharma video session. Goenka's round and beaming face peered down at us and, as he ended his lesson with his closing statement, "May all beings be happy!", the obvious contradiction of this with my present state of my mind stung rather deeply. I tottered off to bed.
On day two, Goenka described the human mind as a rampaging elephant whose power needs to be tamed in order to serve society in constructive ways. After drifting off into daydreams countless times without even realising that I had stopped concentrating on my breathing process, I realised how little mental control I had.
I became determined to note where my thoughts had wandered off in order to learn more about what subjects most occupied my mind when I lost concentration on my breathing. I wanted to form a pattern of the objects my brain craved and rejected. Expecting deep psychological truths to emerge from my unconscious through this analytical process, I was forced to admit a far more humbling truth; that my frivolous mind was generally completely absorbed with two rather banal subjects - men and sex.
Days passed. On day four, I suddenly burst out into hysterical tears and had to be led outside the meditation hall. The teachers were thrilled at my progress, as they felt that the tears were a sign that the deep psychological impurities in my mind were coming out. I thought that my tears were also caused by hunger, boredom and feelings of frustration with my slow progress (I was not the only one to break down over the 10 days and I noticed that many men had left the course by day 10).
After day four we began to observe bodily sensations by scanning or sweeping our bodies with our minds. As my mind became more attuned to various sensations all over my body, it became aware of my leg pains, the smallest tickling sensations on my scalp, and my general discomfort. When the course was over I swapped experiences with various other participants; one or two said they had felt their bodies dissolving into billions of sub-atomic particles on the last few days of the course. I resolved to keep my tingling scalp to myself.
I may not have made such smashing progress with my meditation, but at least the course had led me to try to control and monitor my mental state. It also made me realise how much I enjoyed tranquillity and silence. Not speaking for 10 days was an absolute pleasure - every night before dinner I would stand with a group of women on the verandah of our residence, located on a hill overlooking Kathmandu, watching the sunset. As I watched the lights in the valley I did not have to search for words to explain a thought, I just absorbed the clear air and the view below. Talking would have shattered that nightly experience.
My strongest criticism of the course was that it claimed to be non-denominational, attempting to remove defilements of the mind regardless of your religious affiliations. But the Dharma sessions were clearly based on a belief in Buddhist reincarnation.
If, however, you are one of the mad few for whom the idea of 11-hour meditation sessions and a monastic lifestyle appeal, then a Vipassana course may still be right for you. You may not find true enlightenment, but you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about Buddhist meditation techniques.
Return flights to Kathmandu, via Doha, are available through Far East Airfares (tel: 0171-491 8118) on Qatar Airlines for about pounds 440 per person, for travel from May through the summer.
All the Vipassana meditation centres have a policy of not charging students for their two weeks of instruction, board and food. Once students have completed the course, they can make a donation if they want.
The Nepal Vipassana Centre - known as Dharmashringa - is located in the village of Budha Nilakanth, at the north end of the Kathmandu valley. The full address is Muhan Pokhari, Budha Nilakanth, Kathmandu, Nepal. The north side of the Vipassana Centre is bordered by the forested Shivapuri Wildlife Reserve.
In the UK, the Vipassana Centre is called Dhamma Dipa (Island of Dhamma). The full address is Harewood End, Hereford, HR2 8J5 (tel: 01989 730234, fax: 01989 730450).
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