Nandini Naik, 21, is a religious studies major at Colby College, Maine. Her spiritual quest has led her to Zen meditation, Reiki, and most recently, a 10-day Vipassana retreat in her native India. In a recent interview, she described what it was like to spend over a week in silent meditation and self-observation.

What was your childhood religious background?

I was raised as a Hindu, but my parents were very liberal and they never forced religion upon me.

What motivated you to do Vipassana?

When I heard of Vipassana, it appealed to me because I love talking and it seemed like a challenge to not talk for ten days. I also liked the fact that Vipassana does not stress a particular religion or sect - it envelops and accepts all. I was also smoking and drinking more than I would have liked and thought that Vipassana would be a good detoxification - physically, emotionally and mentally.

How were you taught?

The main professor was Shri Goenkaji, who came to India from Burma in 1969 to reintroduce Vipassana to the land of its origin. We would have discourses for about an hour and a half on what practical work we had done during the day. And during the lectures, Guruji often added funny and meaningful stories. Besides Guruji, there were numerous assistant teachers.

What was an average day like?

Here's our timetable: 4 am Morning wakeup bell
4.30 - 6.30 am        Meditation in hall or residence
6.30 - 8.00 am     Breakfast Break
8.00 - 9.00 am     Group Meditation in hall
9.00 - 11.00 am     Meditate in hall or residence
11.00 - 12.00     Lunch
12.00 - 1.00 pm     Rest
1.00 - 2.30 pm     Meditation in hall or residence
2.30 - 3.30 pm     Group Meditation in hall
3.30 - 5.00 pm     Meditate in hall or residence as per instructions of the teacher
5.00 - 6.00 pm     Tea Break
6.00 - 7.00 pm     Group Meditation in hall
7.00 - 8.30 pm     Teacher's discourse in hall
8.30 - 9.00 pm     Group Meditation in hall
9.00 - 9.30 pm     Question time in hall
9.30 pm     Retire to own room. Lights out. The food was pure vegetarian and one could have as much as one wanted. The emphasis was on eating slowly, chewing well and enjoying each morsel by concentrating on the food. Breakfast would be light and nourishing. Lunch was lentils, chapatti (Indian bread), two vegetables, one green, rice, always something with curds. Tea-time was milk or tea and fruits and snacks.

What did you discover?

One of the main concepts of Vipassana is that of impermanence, so when I felt sad, I knew it would pass. Emotions came and went: happiness, agitation, sometimes frustration, satisfaction, gratitude... I cried a lot, sometimes from joy.

You cried from joy?

Well, I asked the teaching assistant a question about the technique and she said, "Agitations arise only to pass." And I thought that apt and I cried... I was happy and I wanted to be happy but I cried because I knew, like all emotions, it would pass, as would my tears. It made me feel strange and confused and exhilarated. It made me feel gloriously unconnected, sort of freed me from responsibility and expectations. How did you manage to keep silent for ten days?

Day one was hard, day two easier, day three I cried and wanted to leave.

Guruji said Vipassana was like surgery of the brain, and one can't leave surgery midway, now can they? At first, I though it would never be over; but as time passed and I got closer to my goal, my apprehensions became less. On day four, we stopped learning ana pana (meditation on your natural breath, without verbalization or visualization) and began on Vipassana, an exhausting task. We had to observe our body, part by part, working head to toe. We noticed different sensations in different parts of our body - scratchiness, pulsations, pain, vibrations, heat, cold and observed them as objectively as possible, keeping in mind the universal law of impermanence. One of the aims was to be aware and to have equanimity to all sensations that arose, knowing that the characteristic they shared was the ability to rise and pass. Day six I felt a little of "bhang" -- a free flow of subtle vibrations throughout the body; subtle because it was under all the gross sensation I felt.as in the pain or scratchiness. The "bhang" feeling was then followed by a deep-rooted awareness of my own aversions - like wearing make-up, or technology or capitalism. I tried to extend that objectivity not only to the sensations and ambivalent emotions that arose in my body, but also to their source - i.e., my own cravings and aversions, trying to realize that they too are impermanent. The rest of the day, I felt lazy. Day seven I remember Guruji telling us that every substance is substanceless and I was sad and cried again. Day eight and nine, we were told to meditate while doing everything -- walking, packing. On day nine, I also thought a lot of my mom and dad and my grandmother for a while and cried because of gratitude towards them - memories of childhood became clearer.

Day ten we broke our silence, and talked.

What was the first word you said?

After it was over and after all that silence and contemplation, I was not really ready to talk. Words seemed symbolically shallow - emphasizing the fleeting nature of life. I think a girl began a conversation with me. I believe the first word I said was "hi." And then, once I spoke, suddenly it was not that hard anymore.

Emotionally, what changes did you notice in yourself?

Emotions were sometimes very strong at some moments, less strong in others. Towards the end, I was thinking less, being aware of my present moment more. And at those points, emotions were the moment and that moment only so I could see them as transient and they were not that strong.

And physically?

Sounds were much clearer . the sound of sweeping outside, the crickets at night, burps, farts, sneezes, people scratching during meditation. I like to think I became more tolerant. We used to meditate on individual mats and keep our eyes closed. Some times I had flies on me that I did not shoo off; sometimes mosquitoes bit me and I still did not move my position.

I like to think I keep my back straighter than I used to. I also feel I eat a little slower, chew my food more and try to fold my clothes and be neater. My mom loves that.

What have you gained from it?

I would hope the 'twerleddd' - an abbreviation taught to us by Guruji for Truth, Tolerance, Wisdom, Effort, Renunciation, Love, Equanimity, Discipline, Determination, Donation.

Guruji said that the next time we come to Vipassana, we should all have added some drops of substance into the pots of 'twerleddd.'

Would you do it again?

Yes, you're supposed to do it once every year.

Do you feel more spiritually connected?

To what? To whom? No, I don't... I do have more faith in the universal law of dhamma, as Buddha teaches it. I feel that if you expend positive energy, it comes back to you - maybe not immediately, but in time. I do not, however, consider myself a Buddhist - I am still too extreme for moderation - but one day, perhaps, I could take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha (people who have accepted the teachings of the Buddha as supreme). At this point, I am not sure I will be able to lead such a pure and ascetic life - but one day, maybe.

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