My father’s younger brother, MP Parameswaran Nair, died a few years ago, having lived as a schizophrenic for at least the last 30 years of his life. For the most part of that period, he hung around the tea shop abutting the main road or smoked beedis in a room in the house at Pulluvazhi in Kerala. He had studied engineering at Benaras Hindu University, and later, at Patrick Lumumba University in Moscow. He was also in the Army for a short while, recruited out of turn for his knowledge of Russian. He was well travelled, intelligent and productive till he gradually lost control over his mind. I remember the fragment of a conversation with him:
He: “I am going to Delhi.”
He: “To meet the director of the CIA”
I: “Who is the director of the CIA?”
He then laughed in short bursts, the sound breaking out in wayward snatches, and went back to those worlds which existed within him. I am yet to figure out whether he actually believed in what he’d said, or was making a joke. Or, perhaps both.
Unlike my uncle who died of a heart attack, Chandramohan died after being run over by a truck in Dahisar, a northern suburb in the far reaches of Mumbai. Before he died, his body was going into pieces. We used to see him sitting in the parapet of a bus depot for hours on end staring at particularly nothing. He was usually very clean, always coming early in the morning, his hair slicked back, which meant that he had had a bath or at least washed it. He wore a denim jacket over his shirt and jeans. He said he was a poet and constantly kept writing on pieces of paper. I looked at it once or twice and one line has stayed with me. It went like this: ‘The whole U in your eyes.’ There was a circle on the U to signify, if I remember correctly, the Universe.
The first sign of Chandramohan’s disintegration came when he lost three of his front teeth; I forget how. Somehow, with three teeth missing, that elegance of the eccentric poet was over. Then his denim jacket went missing and his hearing slowly faded. He refused the idea of ear plugs. Maybe he just liked the silence. One day, when we were sitting at the depot, a friend came and said that Chandramohan had died. He had not heard the truck coming behind him. No one missed him, no one cried. The world into which he had retreated died along with him, unsung like the poetry he never wrote.
When I knew them both, my uncle and Chandramohan, I did not comprehend what it meant to be not in control of reality. I know different now. If madness is absence of control, then I got a first class look into it after going to a meditation course for the second time in my life.
The first time I went for the 10 day course was in July 2002, at a place called Igatpuri on the Mumbai-Nashik route. It was a Buddhist meditation technique called Vipassana. For 10 days, all you do there is meditate. You can’t speak, read, write, watch TV, communicate using signs, or anything. You can only meditate. The first time, I had no extraordinary experiences, but at the conclusion of it, felt a serenity which was obviously due to the complete insulation of the senses.
For the first three-and-a-half days, from 4 am to 9 pm, you observe the breath, without trying to control it. Then on, till the end of the tenth day, you observe sensations in the body. A sensation is defined as anything that is present at a particular spot of the body. It could be heat, cold, heaviness, dryness, etcetera—whatever you feel is sensation. By the end of the tenth day, your mind becomes so sharp that
you feel it all over the body. But the rule is to observe it without becoming happy at a pleasurable sensation or sad at a painful one. Your sensations are the tool using which you cultivate detachment. This, in brief, is Vipassana meditation.
The next August, I went expecting a better experience. By the end of the fifth day, my mind was at war with me, churning out terrifying thoughts. It came to a stage that it was not the thought or thoughts that terrified me, but the fear that a fearful thought or thoughts would arise. Which was a surefire way for the mind to get directed to those thought(s). See how convoluted it becomes. The trick is to bypass thought altogether and focus on the tool given to you, namely, sensations. According to the technique, every aversion (and fear is, of course, one) you harbour will then make itself apparent as an unpleasant sensation or sensations. On the sixth day, I developed the toothache of the century.
I was told, repeatedly and repeatedly, that the most important thing in meditation is to remain equanimous, no matter how pleasant or painful the sensation. The toothache buried my equanimity well and good. Through the comforting veil of time, I know it to be a trifle. But in that enforced silence, there is nobody there except you and the toothache. It is the only thing that exists and there is no ailment in the world I did not associate with it. For the rest of my time there, all I was doing was imagining diseases and anticipating treatments. After I returned… aching, I went to a bewildered dentist who was kind enough to take Rs 300 and do some cleaning. It didn’t help. As time passed and the mind returned to its ordinary pattern with the usual contents that fill it, the toothache gradually passed away.
I was not the first to go through such experiences. SN Goenka, an industrialist from Burma who taught and popularised Vipassana meditation in India, was ready to run away the second day of his first meditation course because he was not seeing a light shooting within his closed eyes. He had thought that that was the reward of meditation and when he didn’t get it, a fear took over that there is no redemption for the rich. But he hung on and it seems to have worked for him, given that a) he is still meditating b) millions of others across are also doing so, taking him for his word.
I did the 10 day retreat a few times after that. And always, at some point, anxieties have come raging on and I have done battle with it. The fact is that these anxieties (and ecstasies too) are always there buried within all of us, waiting for the moment to surface. Meditation is a glimpse into the chaos that is your mind. It shows you how the mind runs on its own steam with little contribution from that part called ‘me’. If you want scientific corroboration on this, let me point you to a study by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Participants were asked to press a button with their right or left hand. All they had to do was remember the moment of their decision. Using brain scanners, the researchers were able to predict which button the participant would choose seven seconds before the participant himself decided. The brain had already made up its mind and the person who was pressing the button thought he was making a choice!
Quite possibly, we are all a programme living an illusion. When the programme decides that you don’t even need an illusion, you have people like my uncle and Chandramohan, who merge into the chaos. When we try to change the programme, it starts to complain. And the mind has enough ammunition to make a loud complaint because nothing you have done, thought, seen, heard, desired, abhorred, craved, etcetera, from your mother’s womb to the present second, is hidden from it. It knows it all.
And yet, it is possible to beat the illusion. That, according to the Buddha, is done using a whole new language for the brain to relate to the world, a language designed to circumvent thought and mind altogether. As you advance in Vipassana meditation, you condition yourself to observe everything through sensations. If you feel anger, you forswear the thought and search for the corresponding sensation. If you feel lust, greed, fear, depression, you search for the corresponding sensation again. And then you wait for the sensation to subside, taking along with it the emotion. When you thus liberate yourself from thought and replace it by pure observation, then, goes the theory, truth reveals itself. The only problem is we really don’t know if it works. It would take a lifetime to find out, and, at the end of it, what if it is all one magnificent delusion?