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The video discourse stated promptly at 7:15 pm and I saw Goenkaji for the first time—a full head of white hair, calm face, looking like he was in his late sixties though I had heard that he was well over eighty years old now. He started with stating matter-of-factly that the first day of meditation was over, and there were nine more days left in the camp to learn the Vipassana technique. He then proceeded to provide explanations for everything we had experienced during the first day.
The rationale for observing our respiration to build mental concentration is that the process of breathing serves as a medium for our outer (conscious) mind to connect with the inner (deep-rooted) mind by focusing conscious attention on the respiratory process which is an unconscious, involuntary activity regulated by our autonomic nervous system. Breathing is also a natural, neutral, and ongoing process to focus the mind’s attention and is conveniently ever present. He rhetorically asked if we were finding the process to be difficult.
I first met Anitya Pal the monk on a summer afternoon at a small Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the town of Banepa, Nepal. Banepa is not a famous place--among travellers it is known mainly as a transit point and service centre for buses making their way along the Arniko highway to Tibet, which emerges from the Himalayas only a few hours away. Among Nepalis the town is recognized for its large number of schools, which serve the greater district of Kavre. Groups of smartly uniformed students are a common sight, making their way between the town and neighbouring villages. Banepa is also a destination for pilgrims, with the temple to the goddess Chandeshwori (Parvati) located on the banks of the Punya Mata river, just outside of town. Surrounded by the rolling hills and rice paddies of central Nepal, the feeling of Banepa remains deeply rural, deeply traditional–-with the exception, of course, of its main drag and bus station, which is a typical modern chaos of shouting, honking, and revving engines.
Having passed through Banepa many times before, I had decided, this day, to get off the bus and do a bit of exploring. I'd been wandering the side streets for some time, lost in thoughts, when I came across a dilapidated little temple complex, innocuously situated on the other side of a brick wall I had somehow found myself following. Rounding a corner, suddenly there was an archway and a signboard in Devanāgarī script: Banepa Theravāda Buddhist Vihāra. This one was not in the guidebooks.
There is no one like my wife to knock me off a cloud and cut through my bullshit. But we’ll get to that later.
As Spring 2020 approached, it had been a year and a half since I completed my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course and I felt ready to return. I searched for reasons to go. I asked my wife, “Do you want to come with me this time?” NO.
Going to multiple 10-day Vipassana courses is like intentionally throwing yourself into Groundhog Day except in the movie, Phil, a weatherman stuck living the same day repeatedly, occasionally had a lot of fun. Instead of a one-day loop, the course is a ten-day loop. The classes are taught by the same teacher via the same sequence of audio and video recordings regardless of the location and time of the year. But every course is different. We’re in a different place in life. The cast of characters is different. The weather and accommodations vary. Yet, like Phil, if we get it right this time, there might be some form of liberation.