In June 2018, I found myself fidgeting on a cushion in Jaipur’s Dhamma Thalli Centre, where I sat with eyes closed and legs crossed, in a room with fifty other silent female meditators. Having just returned from three months of solo backpacking, gone through a tough breakup, and found out I was moving to New York City soon, I figured stillness was exactly what I needed to recenter myself. So I signed up a meditation course a friend had told me about called Vipassana, and thought I knew what I was getting into.
I’d familiarised myself online with the strict skeleton of rules that the 10-day intensive course was built on. You must not leave the centre. You must maintain noble silence the entire time, which means you can’t talk to, touch, or even make eye contact with anyone. You must eat simple vegetarian meals the centre provides, where dinner is not usually part of the menu. You must wake up at 4:00 am and meditate for 10+ hours a day, with only a few breaks, before lights-out at 9:30 pm. Most importantly, you must not read, write, sing, dance, or access any form of technology.
That means you get no Email, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. for 10 days. Does this sound like torture? Then why is it that lately, Vipassana courses are seeing a sharp increase in applications from young Indians?
“When I began meditating 21 years ago, I was the youngest in the course,” explains Anil Mehta, a Vipassana meditator and server since 1997. “Today, at 47, I am the oldest meditator in the hall. In the past five years, the whole demographic profile of people interested in Vipassana has dramatically altered. It’s spreading like wildfire in the age group of 18-30 years.”
In fact, young Indians are so inclined towards the course, a 7-day course format was introduced in 2004 for teenagers aged 15-19. These courses fill up months ahead of time.
Pranshul Gupta, a 20-year-old student, completed one such teenager course last year and has since been practicing Vipassana regularly. “The best thing about Vipassana is that everything is so logical,” he explains. “I understand it as a scientific concept. You don’t have to follow any rites, rituals, or person.”
Vipassana is a Pali word that literally means “to see things as they really are.” It explores how mind and matter affect each other by helping you focus on the sensations in your body. As you sit still and cross-legged, perhaps your back spasms. A breeze cools your left cheek. Maybe your legs fall asleep. Vipassana urges you to observe these sensations without attachments, and then to make this understanding of the law of impermanence a foundation in your daily life.
“I think the course really helps people with mental health issues, and while I was warned that it might be particularly tough for me because I have had depressive episodes in the past, the course did me a lot of good,” says Manideepa Choudhary, a fellow young meditator from my cohort. “There were a few traumatic incidents in my life, and a lot of that trauma is slowly being released now.”
Choudhary explains that although rules such as maintaining noble silence or sticking to meal and bed timings were difficult to follow, overall, “the course makes us more sensitive towards ourselves and others, which is something we really need right now.”
In fact, many students find that Vipassana helped them feel more compassionate towards others. At 21, Shreya Boolchandani has already done six courses and tries to serve at them when she finds free time. She says, “I recommend Vipassana to as many friends as I can because I want them all to be happy.”
“The younger the student, the easier it is to change their habit patterns,” explains Neeru Jain, a meditator for 20 years and teacher since 2015. “In my experience, the younger ones don’t usually leave the course halfway. In fact, they’re resilient and flexible and they want to tackle personal challenges now so they can live a good life later.”
In my case, she’s absolutely right. Believe it or not, following the strict rules was actually the easiest part of the course. As someone that treats anxiety and depression with Netflix and medication, on the sixth day of the course, I had a terrible panic attack. During this episode, my teacher meditated next to me and didn’t allow me to fidget or wipe my tears. I was to simply observe the sensations in my body, till they built on themselves and eventually faded. Vipassana played a crucial role in getting rid of this pain by helping me face it rather than turning to distractions.
Similarly, Koustubh Muktibodh has completed four 10-day courses in his life. He is only 24 years old and learned about Vipassana when he was preparing for IITJEE. “During my first course, 10 days felt like a year,” he says. “But after the course, I was not willing to re-enter society.” So, he took the course again to try and understand this reluctance at a deeper level. He realized he feared he could not achieve in life despite his hard work. Being able to move forward upon this realization, he now recommends Vipassana to fellow IT Professionals.
“Few are taking the course because they are searching for the meaning of life,” explains Rajeev Choudhary, a recovered addict and Vipassana teacher from Indore. He finds that young students are instead searching for ways to counter the everyday stress in life.
In fact, Anil Mehta backs up this claim. He lists that today’s youngster has to “cope with studies, temptations (like alcohol, tobacco, drugs, games and pornography), relationships, and round-the-clock-incessant-slew-of-mobile-data.” According to him, Vipassana application forms show rising cases of addiction and psychological ills.
Competition is also a major motive. Neeru Jain finds that India’s success-driven education and career system pressures students to always be at the top. She also often gets asked the question of eliminating desires. Youngsters wonder if Vipassana will make them passive, less creative, and indifferent to the joys of life. I asked Mrs. Jain this myself, to which she replied, “You should definitely have desires and goals, just don’t get attached to them.”
It’s not easy to overcome attachments. To break the habits of craving and aversion. To neutrally observe all sensations, emotions, and experiences. Yet, Vipassana taught me that if you do the internal work and get through the 10 days, the results are obvious. Anil Mehta gave me an example of a boy in a recent course who ran away without permission, unable to cope with withdrawal symptoms from the past use of drugs. Another boy requested to leave, promising to come back when he felt ready for the experience and the sincerity it entailed. Those that receive plenty of counselling from older meditators, and are mentally prepared to face reality when there are no distractions, are the ones that benefit most from Vipassana.
Upon my return from the course, people kept asking me how my meditation retreat went, and I quickly corrected them. It was by no means a “retreat.” It was more like a boot camp. Yet, my skin was glowing, I spoke calmly, and most shocking of all, my resting-bitch-face was dead. I finally understood what the German girl on the train had tried explaining to me: Vipassana won’t fix all your problems or grant you instant enlightenment, but it does makes you more aware and accepting of yourself and your habits. In this fast-paced, stress-ridden and competitive world, Vipassana helps you live more intentionally. So far since the course, I have been.
More information about the 10-day course, as well as a list of worldwide locations and Vipassana applications can be found here.
Features illustration by Nidhi Iyer for Homegrown.
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