I had been impressed with the teaching methods thus far: explaining theory after self-observed experimentation, progressive learning, preparing the mind for complex tasks through acceleration of mental faculties, the totally immersive nature of the program, among various other subtle aspects like the unidirectional, clock-wise garden walks to avoid eye contact with other students. This impression led me to trust that there must be some deep rationale for surprising us with having to make a determination to achieve a fairly audacious and seemingly impossible goal. If I had known something like this would be expected of us by this stage in the program, I would have built up my resolve by achieving a smaller goal like sitting in the same position for at least half an hour in previous days.
Thus far, I had been averaging some major bodily movement (adjusting the hands or legs and opening my eyes to check the time) three to four times per hourly sitting. If I was to not do any of these things, and that too all of a sudden, for a full hour, I was pretty sure my back and right knee (which had suffered sports injuries and needed chronic maintenance and pain alleviation) would certainly give way. And I had decided earlier in the program not to ask for back support either against a wall or in a chair. I determined what had to be done had to be done and closed my eyelids as the instructions in English ended.
The first 15 minutes, or so I estimated because there was no way to check the time with my eyes closed, were a breeze. That’s when the knee I was concerned about started throbbing with pain. I reminded myself that even pain was impermanent (or so I hoped) and persisted for another five minutes. While sitting cross-legged can be a fairly comfortable seating posture for those who are accustomed to it, to stay frozen in that exact same position for an entire hour can be extremely taxing. Not that I had tried it, but I was fairly certain that sitting still (and just observing breathing or bodily sensations) in any position continuously for an hour, let alone in a cross-legged posture, was virtually impossible for most people without significant practice. This was certainly so for someone like me who was not used to sitting idle even for a few minutes at a time.
I found it very difficult to actually focus on meditating in this session because my mind was fixated on the excruciating pain I was experiencing in my right knee, and increasingly through the entire base of my lower back. My lower right leg started feeling numb as it was bearing the full weight of the left one because of the way I had crossed my legs. I would have given anything to get up and stretch my legs even as I estimated it must have been less than 30 minutes since the session began. Out of sheer peer pressure, I knew I wasn’t going to be the first one to throw in the towel during our first sitting of strong determination.
I tried not to think about the fact that we had also been instructed that we were to be in adhiṭṭhāna during each of the three group meditation sessions every day for the rest of the course.
Encouragingly, Goenkaji had indicated that we would arrive at a stage in our sādhna (meditation practice) when we would be able to sit comfortably for an hour at a time, several times in a day, and even with the same leg as the weight-bearing one. With the deepest respect for our teacher, I thought that at least in my case that stage simply wouldn’t be possible without some divine intervention.
I knew from experience that almost any new skill (a sport, a foreign language etc.) could be mastered through continuous practice. I had learned the basics of juggling at a company training program once within a week, which we were being taught to drive home the very same point. But surely one couldn’t reverse feeling intense chronic pain simply through practice. Finally, I thought I had found an inconsistency, a flaw, in the logic behind Vipassana meditation which had thus far seemed fairly sound, and counted down the minutes and seconds for the hour to be over. We would know that relief was imminent when the anicca chant would commence at the 55-minute mark.
Running out of energy to keep thinking about where and how much pain I was experiencing, I considered the idea of actually trying to meditate for the rest of the time. This turned out to be a decent thought because once completely numbed with the painful sensations in the back and right knee, my mind found it refreshing to explore other parts of the body that were witnessing various other forms of activity like palpitation, itching, excessive heat, stretching and some other sensations that were hard to easily classify or characterize.
I felt a twitch on my right hand and surmised that one of the mosquitoes, which had otherwise left me alone thus far in the session, had rightfully emboldened to take a shot at me while I was playing the hour-long game of statue. Luckily for the mosquito, not only could I not move while in adhiṭṭhāna, I couldn’t have hurt it anyway because of the oath of kindness towards all living beings that we had taken at the very beginning of the course. I tried to pry loose my right pinky and make it go away but not before it had done its work and pricked me for a few nanoliters of warm blood. I now had another sensation, a mosquito bite, to contend with!
The last ten minutes or so probably felt like another hour and I started wondering if the conducting teacher had forgotten that the full hour had already passed while we continued to be tortured in our meditation spots. Finally, the recognizable sound of the play button in the 1980s-era cassette player being pressed down to start the anicca chant heralded that relief was only minutes away. Getting up from the hour-long sitting felt nothing short of prison-break for an innocent, wrongly convicted inmate.
It was a big milestone to have come through the other end of a full one-hour continuous sitting without any forewarning or adequate preparation. I hadn’t realized that despite years and years of restless activity, I still had enough patience and tolerance for pain and discomfort, and the absolute mental will and discipline to not stir even once in a full hour.
I now appreciated the instruction methods even more. Achieving this seemingly impossible goal through a surprising resolve had turned out to be a huge boost for my self-confidence, especially because my preparation wasn’t complete, or so I had thought. I also appreciated why sitting in one position was important—I had noticed that the slightest move (e.g., when I tried to flick away the mosquito with my little finger) diminished my meditative concentration as a result.