Go For: Quieting your mind while serving others
Although I live outside India, a long time ago I had decided that whenever I will give a Dhamma service, I will give it at Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri, India.
There were two reasons behind this.
- I had done all my 5 meditation courses at Dhammagiri.
- Dhammagiri in Igatpuri is a large centre. Therefore at times, the number of meditators can go up as high as 200, which means I will get to serve a large number of meditators.
If you have done a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation by S N Goenka, you know that giving a service is one of the ten parmitas. Service is also a prerequisite should you decide to embark upon 20-day or 30-day course in Vipassana meditation. My intention was simple. I wanted to serve because I also was served before.
So I looked up at the website, http://www.Dhamma.org/en/schedules/schgiri and applied to serve in a 10-day course in August. Although it is called a 10-day course, the course begins in the evening on day zero and ends on day 11 in the early morning. The centre wants you to reach there at least one day before the course commences, so that you get accustomed to the geography of the place and orient yourself towards the service by watching a specially prepared video clip on how to serve. Also, Dhammgiri is nestled among mountains, so expect that centre terrain has some slopes. So if you want to provide a service you must have 13 days at your disposal.
The actual 10 day course begins at 6 pm on day zero when for the first time the meditators are gathered together for their first briefing. Until then, the work as a server is not so official. So if you like, you can rest or help the centre office. There are many jobs the centre office handles prior to the commencement of the course; such as handling enquiry, helping meditators fill in their forms, checking in their forms, assigning rooms and providing laundry tokens. I helped fill in forms for three ladies and helped in maintaining a queue. At 1 pm, all the Dhamma servers had their meeting with the course director. The course director had done 1 service and 1 10 day-course before. During the first meeting, the course director was helped by Mrs Veena, a very experienced lady from the office to designate each of us our duties.
The work during meditation period is divided into Dhamma hall duty, compounding, and dining. There are two shifts in duty. The first shift duty is from 3:45 am to 11 am. The second shift is from 7: 45 am to 10 pm. Second shift people get an hour of rest and two hours of meditation in between. There were 17 of us. Considering the sprawled geography of hilly Dhammagiri, the ideal number of servers is 25. We realised that many of us will have to do double duties. Servers from 1st shift were given additional duties. Also, a few of them also had difficulty in sitting down on the floor and walking quickly. So they were given mostly stationary jobs: in the dining and in compounding. I was assigned Dhamma hall duty front side in the second shift which implied that I will serve as an assistant to Dhamma teachers. Each of us was given a time table on a printed paper.
As I finished our first meeting by 2 pm, a sweet lady, Mrs Ashatai from the office asked if I would take up some office work. The Meditators are advised to deposit money and mobile phones in the office prior to the commencement of course. Depositing of writing materials is also encouraged since it is one of the regulations that meditators should not engage in any writing or reading during the 10 days. She asked me to note down and take custody of meditators’ valuables, which would eventually go into the safe deposit vault for 10 days.
My duty as a server began at 7 pm on day zero. My seat was at about 10 feet distance away from the teachers I was going to assist. I was seated perpendicular to teachers as well as meditators. This duty required me to be alert during the meditation sessions and also be mindful that any time the teachers might signal me with their eye contact. It is obvious that neither I will not be waiting for teachers to signal me nor I will always have my eyes kept open. This duty was a perfect opportunity for me to practice meditation with complete awareness or mindfulness. For this duty, teachers generally look for someone who already has served before. This is because it is not possible for teachers to explain things during meditations if a server does not understand what is expected. Knowing that it was my first instance as a server, teachers were a bit hesitant initially. But soon that hesitation wore off.
On day zero at about 7 pm meditators settled in the Dhamma hall on their seats. To begin, meditators undertook 5 precepts they would follow for the next 10 days. After that, they formally requested teachers to teach them anapana meditation as directed by Guruji Goenka’s audio instructions. Next, Guruji (late S N Goenka) instructed how to do anapana meditation through audio recordings. After the instructions, the meditation session continued for about an hour until 9 pm.
There were total 4 Dhamma teachers. Each teacher was assigned a group of meditators. Each teacher approximately had about 35-40 meditators with them. As a Dhamma server, my job involved making sure that mediators do not sit for meditations with glasses on. Secondly, they should not stretch their legs in the direction of Dhamma seats. Should they need to stretch, they should angle their legs sideways. This work of minding meditators had to be done in uttermost silence and without using words. The Dhamma server video says that the whenever there is an instance where a meditator needs to be approached, the servers must humbly put her palms together and request the meditators without eye contact with non-verbal communication as much as possible. Even if there is a repeat of similar incidences any number of times, every time the servers must approach the meditators with her palms clasped together. The meditators will understand why the server has approached them. Every day from day 0 to day 9, meditators could meet up teachers at 9 pm and between 12 to 1 pm. On day zero, at 9 pm meeting time, most of the requests from meditators were about dinner. The afternoon tea is available only to new mediators and dinner is not available to any unless there is a request on the grounds of health. My job was to see that a queue is silently maintained while the meditators are speaking to teachers. A rule of thumb is no one should speak with the teachers standing. So a seat has to be placed in front of teachers where a meditator can seat and speak with the teacher. For elderly, a chair is offered should they have difficulty with the floor seat. If someone is on medication, then that part is also discussed during these one-to-one meeting. In most of the cases related to the request of food or milk, the requests were easily granted. The teachers wrote down the permission on a chit of paper. The meditators handed over these chit to the dining hall Dhamma servers.
After these meeting at about 9: 30 pm, every day the Dhamma hall doors were closed and it was time for Dhamma servers and teachers. First, we had 10 minutes of Metta Bhavana audio instruction session with Guruji. It was followed by a meeting with the teachers to discuss the problems and issues of the day. For this meeting, the chairs were laid out for the teachers as teachers do not sit on their Dhamma seats during those meetings. Here the teachers corrected us when something was not rightly done and also gave directions for the next days. We were strictly told not to engage in any kind of verbal interaction or argument over any issues with the meditators. Should such a need arise; we should direct it to the teachers.
From day 1 to day 10 my duties began at 7: 40 am and ended at 10 pm. I also had 1 hour of rest period when I could rest in my room. The teachers wanted that every Dhamma server gets at least three hours of meditation time. However owing to fewer servers I got two hours of meditation time when I could sit at the back of Dhamma hall on my seat and meditate.
During the first three days, there were many requests from meditators about changing their floor seat to chair/chowki (means four legs low height seating) or have a back rest. It was an interesting sight to see many women as young as in their early twenties needing back rest and many women in their late forties were seating cross-legged on their floor seats. When a request to change a floor seat to a chowki would come from a young woman, teachers generally dissuaded them in the first instance. Arranging and setting up the chowkies and chairs was also my part of duty. Occasionally unusual things would crop up. A lady was challenged for hearing. So a separate standing speaker was set for her.
A ubiquitous scene in Dhamma hall is that everyone is meditating with their eyes closed that include teachers and servers too — a rule the teachers enforce. In between meditation, teachers would open their eyes and throw a glance at the students. Normally my eyes also were closed as I would also meditate. But I needed to be very aware of my surroundings. I would also open my eyes in between and throw a glance at the students as well as teachers. Quite a few meditators would often doze off to sleep at times. Some meditators would slouch so much that their faces could not be seen. As long as the teacher is in Dhamma hall, I would always need an instruction from her or permission from her to approach a meditator. If she feels a meditator needs to be reminded of something, she would signal me with eye contact or ask me to go to the meditator. The second rule of thumb is not to have any physical touch with meditators. So in such case, I would shake their seat little bit to wake them up. It was interesting that the meditator would know why her seat is shaken. They would immediately straighten themselves and then continue meditating.
Day 4 was particularly important when Guruji taught Vipassana meditation. Once again meditators had to formally request the teachers to teach them this technique. The instruction continued for two straight hours and no one was allowed to enter the hall or leave the hall during this session. According to Guruji, this technique is to get rid of old sankaras. Vipassana meditation is a meditation for liberation. During this session, all servers were asked to be present in the hall. It was very intense session. Taking a cue from past experiences, lemonade and blankets were kept ready and all Dhamma servers were asked to keep their eyes open in case some meditator starts feeling giddy or unwell.
Checking is another important aspect where servers play an important role. In checking, teachers invite meditators in a group of 4-8. As teachers announced names, I had to go around the meditators to repeat the names. Also, my job was to make the seats ready in front of the teachers. Teachers checked on each meditator about their practice and removed any doubts they had. After this, this group of meditators meditated with the teacher for 5 to 10 minutes. This checking was done once during the anapana mediation and twice during Vipassana meditation.
There were many requests that cropped up for a change of room from meditators over the course of 10 days. Some meditators were not comfortable with their room partners, whereas some other were not comfortable in single seated rooms. In such cases, I coordinated with the office for the new rooms and updated their new room information on their seats in the Dhamma hall. Another job was to check on absentees during the group seating. There was three group seating every day. If someone was absent, I would first check on their seat for her room number and coordinate with the fellow servers to go to their rooms and know the reasons for their absentees. If they were ill, they were taken to the office for preliminary medications and accordingly teachers were informed about it.
7 pm every day is the time for Guruji’s discourse. The discourse is available in many Indian and foreign languages. A DVD player and TV set up were made ready with the help of central office. The discourse in English was at Guruji’s residence. Meditators preferring English language gathered there every day after their evening group meditation. My job was to start and end the English discourse every day and make sure that meditators observe etiquettes about seating and not indulge in talks with fellow meditators.
I must have got up from my seat every day at least 40 -50 times for various reasons and tasks. I was surprised at myself that I could do it without any complaint of aches. A couple of times I got weary of doing same things over and over again. When I confessed it to the teachers they too shared their experiences and said it is not unnatural. I felt that teachers were the most motivating part in conducting the service.
Each meditator was different; in her devotion, in her belief, in her spirituality, in her socio-economic status. Many meditators looked towards this meditation for finding answers to their problems: some had issues related to jobs, for someone it was about dealing with loss of husband at a young age, some were suffering from chronic depression, some has behavioral problems, for some it was about parents having less emotional quotient, and someone else was going through a divorce. Observing teachers how patiently and compassionately they work with each meditator in the framework of mind and body, whatever their problem may be was very satisfying.
At the end of noble silence which was on day 10, many meditators approached me. Some apologized for their in-disciplinary behaviours, some felt motivated by the service whereas some confessed they were very much distracted to focus but promised to come the second time. Many thanked us too. And we were all in smiles!