Student Stories

I Am Awake

Welcome to the next installment in our Summer Postcards series! We’re asking our students what they’re up to and how they’re making the most of this summer. Today, we're hearing from rising fourth-year Nikhil Maddirala, who spent 12 days in Dharamsala, India, learning about the ancient practice ofVipassana meditation.

-Jessen O'Brien and Susie Allen

When the Buddha started to wander around India shortly after his enlightenment, he encountered several men who recognized him to be a very extraordinary being. They asked him: "Are you a god?" "No," he replied. "Are you a reincarnation of god?" "No," he replied."Are you a wizard, then?" "No." "Well, are you a man?" "No." "So what are you?" They asked, being very perplexed.  Buddha simply replied: "I am awake." Buddha means “the awakened one.” How to awaken is all he taught.

-Buddhist teaching

It was in search of this teaching that I traveled to the Himalayan Mountains this summer, nearly twenty-five centuries after Buddha’s enlightenment. It was the city of Dharamsala [sanctuary of Dharma], currently the home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government.

While there, I attended a twelve-day long meditation retreat in which I learned the technique of Vipassana meditation [insight-meditation] as taught by Mr. S. N. Goenka. Purportedly, this is nothing but the technique taught by Buddha himself, passed down from generation to generation by a select line of teachers who have preserved the teaching in its original, pristine form for nearly twenty-five centuries: the technique of awakening.

You may wonder, “Who needs to learn to be awake?  Surely, every morning I awaken from the previous night’s slumber!”  Yes, but are you really awake? Try this basic meditation exercise: sit in a relaxed position, close your eyes and observe your own breath. Try to be fully aware of every breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils for just fifteen minutes; don’t let a single breath pass by unnoticed. What is the result? I, like most people, found that for most of those fifteen minutes I wasn’t at all awake—rather, I was daydreaming. After observing a mere handful of breaths, the mind begins to wander. I would bring the mind back to my breath momentarily only to have it wander off again, and again and again.

Our physical body is with us but the mind has gone on holiday. This is an experience that is not unique to meditation practice but one that constantly occurs in our everyday lives. I often find myself reading a book only to discover that I’m not really reading but instead thinking about how interesting it would be to, say, write a dissertation on this book. Listening to an album but not really listening, watching a film but not really watching it…awake but not really awake and alive but not really alive. My mind abandons me and wanders away, straying into the realm of the past, the future and fantasy; in this state we are not really awake and we are not truly living.

To awaken is to learn the art of living; to master the mind and bring it back to the reality of the present moment; to unite mind, body and reality. To awaken is to bring the reality of the present moment to life; to be mindful and aware of the present moment, to truly live the present moment.

If you want to master your mind and think you’re up to a grueling task, take twelve days out of your life and attend a Vipassana meditation course. (It’s free!) But you work very hard: meditating daily from 4 a.m. till 9 p.m., maintaining a strict code of discipline and upholding the vow of Noble Silence (abstaining from all forms of communication with your fellow meditators and with the outside world).  Daunting as it may seem, the reward is exceedingly blissful—waking life.