It is early on Easter Sunday, gray, quiet except for the thrum of a light rain. It is the perfect time for meditation. Yogendra Mishra is on Zoom from India, a world away. He has been living in a single room beside a temple in the village where he grew up, meditating, preparing for the next phase of his life, for death perhaps.
Yogiji has been based in Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, for decades. The town has been a traditional centre for yogis and meditators for centuries. In recent times it has seen the effects of the commercialization of yoga.
We are on the third stage of the three steps of Vipassana meditation. These are based on Yogiji’s lessons with S.N. Goenka, a former businessman from Myanmar who played a key role in bringing meditation to the layperson without the trappings of religion. Yogiji brings many threads to his teachings, making everything his own.
These are the three steps of Vipassana meditation, he says, each conducted over two morning meditations:
Step one: ana pana vipassana: focus on the breath.
Step two: kaya vipassana: focus on the body.
Step three: chitta vipassana: fous on the mind, on awareness itself.
As we focus on chitta (the mind), Yogiji provides a running commentary that comes and goes throughout the meditation.
He explains that according to tradition, Vipassana meditation was invented by the Buddha on his path to enlightenment. There are various interpretations and techniques. The key is that this is a form of witnessing, of trying to see yourself and the world in an objective way. The goal is to see things as they really are and not clouded by your past impressions, your habitual ways of seeing and doing. To free yourself from karma, in other words.
Karma is a practical concept. It translates as “action.” When you act, or more generally, participate in life, you experience thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. This creates impressions that stay with you.
You become judgemental. You like some experiences and dislike others. You anticipate pleasure and pain. You lose your objectivity and the ability to see the world afresh. You experience the world through the filter of your own karma and that of the society in which you live. That is why travel can be so refreshing. The world seems new again.
“Witness your thoughts,” says Yogiji. “Your thoughts of the past that come and go. Observe your mind in silence. Become free from conditions. Let go of suppressed thoughts that come from the past. Clean the karmic sanskaric thoughts.” (Sanskars are impressions derived from past experience.)
“Seek that sense of balance where you have no reaction,” says Yogiji. “This can uproot karma and allow it to disappear. To get rid of suffering, the misery of the outer and inner life. To become untouched and liberated. To find balance for body, mind, and soul. To remain in the present moment.”
It sounds so simple, but as he reminds us, “this technique is hard.” It takes practice. He has been practicing it for 30 years. Here is the upside: this practice of witnessing can change your daily life. You can witness reactions like anger when they well up, then observe them silently and allow them to disappear.
“Seek equanimity, the point of no reaction,” says the yogi. “An isolated mind creates a higher awareness. In this way we reduce stress and save a lot of damage to our bodies.”
I hear the rain. Although the world is gray, it is spring. Nature is coming to life. I think of the song Rain by The Beatles, the droning theme that comes from Indian music, the circular melody and lyrics that mimic the rhythm of rain itself. It is considered the first psychedelic song.
“If the rain comes, they run and hide their heads,” sings John Lennon. “They might as well be dead. If the rain comes, if the rain comes… When the sun shines, when the sun shines. Rain, I don’t mind. Shine, the weather’s fine. I can show you that when it starts to rain, when the sun shines down. Everything’s the same…”
Meditation is a journey which allows you to celebrate inner happiness, says Yogiji.
He’s staying in a small room at a retreat beside the temple in the village where he grew up. “I have become too attached to this place,” he says. “I must leave. This is why monks would only stay three days in one place. Life is about movement.”
He is planning to move back to Rishikesh. This is where the Beatles stayed in India when they studied meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
I play Rain again on my computer. It is such a simple song, but rich in many ways. Outside the rain continues. The colours are greyish, muted. This sense of calm will stay with me for a few hours anyway.
Yogiji is about to break a nine-day fast of the Durga Puja festival. It gives the digestive system a break and is supposed to help purity the body, mind, and soul.
He will send photographs of the feast to come. Check your inbox, he says. The modern world.
A morning or two later it is sunny and bright.
He adds a fourth Vipassana Session: sunya. “The state of an empty bucket,” he says. “A vacuum, zero, nothing. Sit silently. Think of nothing. Do nothing.”
This is especially hard for westerners. We are all about movement, action, at least in our restless minds. I gradually feel a sense of calm.
I ask him a few questions afterwards. He is a man of the world who has studied and taught in Asia, Europe, and North America, although he is not worldly. He has a masters degree in philosophy and has studied science and taught physical education.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Yogendra Mishra
He is part of a long tradition. A man of his time and also outside of time. The traditions of yoga and Buddhism go far back into the past. The great masters have all been innovators in their own ways. Yogendra Mishra is one of them.
“I can show you that when it starts to rain, when the sun shines down. Everything’s the same…”
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