And then there was that time you sat in silence for 10 days straight. You meditated for 10 hours each day with 100 other people. Your mind became quite. Your awareness was heightened and your perception of yourself and the world was shifted profoundly. You looked at the world with fresh eyes and began to experience your unconscious reactions to it. You saw that “you” were not exactly who you thought you were. It became apparent that many of the “choices” you made throughout your life were merely reactions based on your past experiences. Although I am certainly not enlightened, a 10 day Vipassana Course put meditation and the spiritual path into a brand new light. It feels as if I have been standing at the starting line for the past 3 years and this course allowed me to take my first real steps. It also made me rethink my whole idea of spirituality. This name is very misleading and turns many people away from practices like meditation and yoga because it sounds foreign and weird. We should rebrand it humanality, because spiritual practices show you who you are and allow you to work more honestly with your experience of yourself and the world around you.
After struggling with meditation for about 3 years, this Vipassana Course showed me why I have been determined to learn this art. Over just ten days my ability to empathize with others and see the world from multiple perspectives was radically increased. My mind is steadier and although I hesitate to write this due to “new-agey sounding bullshit,” I have felt extremely centered ever since. (It’s been over two months now) I’m sure these feelings will fade over the next few months, but it is wonderful to see a teeny, tiny glimpse of the potential of the human brain and how much control you have over your state of mind. I felt like nothing could rock me when I returned home and I’ll highlight this with an experience that occurred about a week after the course.
I had been struggling with Lyme disease for a month before the course began and I needed a second round of antibiotics (which I started the first day of the course) to fully rid myself of this disease. The symptoms finally faded during the last 4 days of my retreat with about 2 weeks left on the antibiotics. Then, a week after the retreat ended, my symptoms began to return despite the fact that I still had a week left on the medication. Post treatment Lyme disease (aka Chronic Lyme) is no joke. I immediately saw my normal worried state of mind begin to act up. “What if I have Lyme for the rest of my life?! How can I deal with these constant headaches, aches, pain and fatigue? How much worse will this get?” Almost immediately, I began to see these thoughts for what they were. Thoughts. Nothing more, nothing less. A feeling of calm descended upon me and instead of freaking out I decided to call the doctors, setup an appointment and meditate on the pain in my head. I watched the pain come and go and after an inconclusive trip to the hospital I had no real options but to hang out with these symptoms. Low and behold, after a week of meditating on these symptoms I watched them diminish all on their own. What interested me the most about this situation was not that I didn’t worry, because I did. The difference this time, however, was that there was a separation between the worry and my reaction to it. This separation prevented my mind from jumping around like a monkey in a tree. It was more like “Oh, I’m worried… cool. Let’s see how long this lasts.” It was never very long. Instead of letting circumstance ruin my day, I realized I had the power to choose how I wanted to react and feel. So what happened during 10 days to cause such a simple, but profound shift to my normal worrisome nature?
Vipassana Meditation Courses have become very popular over the past 20 years and after going through one I see why. Vipassana means to see things as they are. This technique is a way to purify your mind so you can see reality as it is, not as you want it to be. You are able to untie the knots of your past reactions so that you may react clearly to whatever the world throws at you. You can still use your experiences from the past to help guide your actions, but instead of blind reactions, you create a small gap between the sense experience coming in and your reaction to it. This gap allows you to respond with clarity and precision, rather than with rashness and haste. The idea is that each time you have an experience, either pleasant or unpleasant, your mind and body have a reaction to it. And I don’t mean this in some mystical way. I mean there is an actual physical sensation that you can feel somewhere on your body. As you build up your awareness you can hone in on these sensations. More importantly, you learn to watch them arise and then also pass away. Not by forcing them, of course, but letting them take their own course. This is helpful because if you, for instance, get angry, you may feel a sensation in your stomach and think to yourself “Woah, I’m getting angry… how should I proceed?” If you still want to rip that other person’s head off then so be it. At least you responded and didn’t just react.
As you continue to watch your mind you will see how, as humans, we love to cling to the positive sensations and avoid the negative. We unconsciously react with craving when we take a bite of that delicious pie and we immediately want more. Instead of thoroughly enjoying what we have, we get addicted to wanting more. On the other side of the coin, we unconsciously react with aversion when someone forces that disgusting health food upon us. We become addicted to craving the good and avoiding the bad. We continually strive for nothing but the “good” while avoiding the bad. We can easily understand intellectually that life will never be only good. Vipassana meditation, however, shows you this reality. You directly experience these reactions of craving and aversion. Instead of letting yourself react to them, however, you simply sit and watch. You practice staying in a state of equanimity and you take sensation as sensation because, no matter how good or how bad any one feeling is, it will eventually pass.
These courses are structured in a very regimented way to make your inner journey more fruitful. Men and women are separated and required to wear modest dress at all times. You are not allowed to talk, glance or gesture at anyone. Your phone and all valuables are taken and placed in storage for the duration of the stay and you are not allowed to read, write, listen to music or perform any spiritual disciplines or practices. If you take one of these courses the idea is to give this technique an honest effort all on its own. Welcome to meditation boot camp.
At first these rules seem strict and unnecessary. Each one, however, serves an excellent purpose. I can say that not having women around was a huge help to settling the mind. During our group meditations I would occasionally take a quick glance to the other side of the hall. If I was lucky, a shoulder or an upper arm would reveal itself. Scandalous! Equanimity immediately lost. Not talking, reading, writing, listening to music etc, keeps you focused on your direct experience of yourself, which is the whole purpose of these 10 days. Although these areas of the human experience have their merits, that is not the purpose of this course. After 3-5 days you will notice yourself settling down tremendously. You’re there to experience yourself and your reality as it is. There really was no need to taint it with anything else.
Many people would ask, “Did you ever try and talk to yourself to see if you could still talk?” All I wanted to say is “you are completely missing the point.” Very quickly into the course you realize that you are always talking to yourself. Whether verbally or mentally there is almost always the incessant chatter of your brain narrating your every action. To speak to yourself doesn’t really matter. You’re just here to disconnect from others and learn to get out of your head and into the direct experience of life. And by direct experience of life, I mean the direct experience of meditation, which is pretty much all you’ll be doing. Meditation begins at 4:30am and you are meditating on and off all day until 9:00pm with a 1 to 1.5 hour discourse given by Goenka (the man who started these courses) at 7:00 each night. I found myself looking forward to these daily Dhamma (path, truth) Discourses where Goenka would flavor deep insights with humor and refinements to the meditation technique.
So with all these “rules” in place, you are set to begin your course. You begin with a simple practice of breath awareness and after a few days of practice you move into body awareness. And as you read this you probably breezed over that sentence, but reread it. After 3 days of a simple practice of breath awareness… three days! 10 hours a day! And you’re doing nothing but following your breath going in and out of your nose. If you are actually putting forth an honest effort you will become acutely aware of sensation all along the inside of your nasal passages as well as the area above your upper lip and tip of your nose. It’s pretty incredible how refined your focus can become in such a short time!
Frustration comes of course, but you will progress. Like anything in life, when you first start you suck. That’s just how it is. It is frustrating when people say they can’t meditate. Of course you can’t! You have never tried it. It’s not like you are born with the ability to settle down and quiet your mind. It is a learned technique. Some of us have a more natural inclination to it for sure, but anyone will benefit and improve if they practice consistently. Saying your mind is too crazy for mediation is like saying you are too dirty to take a shower. If you’re mind is that crazy you need this practice and yes, you will get frustrated, but you will improve. But I digress… With this breath awareness mastered, you scan your body from head to feet, allowing your awareness to wash over each part of your body piece by piece. At first I felt almost nothing, but as time progressed I began to feel all sorts of sensations all over my body. Tingling, itching, heat, cold, sweat, pain, pleasure. You name it and you will eventually feel it. I’m sure you’ve heard some high person exclaim, “whoa, I think I can feel my hair growing, man.” Well after a certain amount of time you certainly feel something going on at the top of your head. Not sure if it was my hair growing, but rest assured, with enough practice you will be able to feel sensation on each and every part of the body.
I’m positive of this because of an experience I had on the second day. I was getting frustrated with all the pain in my legs and back. As you can imagine, sitting almost 10 hours a day cross-legged can lead to some less than desirable sensations throughout the body. I had 2 hours left until lunch and I told myself as I sat down that I had two options. “Alright Adam, you aren’t getting up until lunch starts or until you begin to cry.” Let the timer begin. 45 minutes of breath awareness later it feels like someone is continually stabbing me in the knees and dragging the knife down my legs. I hold strong knowing that it is only a sensation and it will pass. 5 minutes later it happens, two tears pop out of my eyes and suddenly a firework goes off in my chest. The shock-wave expands through my entire body and I can feel the sparkles settling from my head to my feet. As the sparkles continue to move through my body I notice that all the pain had vanished. Instantly. I didn’t believe it at first, but I began to scan my body (particularly my knees) and noticed there wasn’t a stitch of pain anywhere. The pain was replaced with an exquisitely pleasant buzzing and vibrating sensation. You know that old saying “mind over matter?” Apparently that shit’s real. This was day 2. What had I gotten myself into?
On day 4, Adhittanna meditations begin. This means strong determination. You sit for one hour, 3 times a day, and you have a strong determination not to move. Let the pain begin. Pain is a huge part of this technique because the goal is to learn how to keep your mind in a state of equanimity no matter the situation. The physical pain you experience in the laboratory of your body is the training ground for your life. After my experience on day 2, I knew that it was possible to stay calm because the pain is only a temporary sensation and you can move beyond it. It took me until the end of day 5 to realize that you can’t force this process and that when you move into the more pleasant sensations, these too will pass. Slowly I began to learn to just let the pain be pain and the pleasant be pleasant. Attaching yourself to either one is futile because you directly experience the impermanence of each. You see the profound simplicity of the technique. You are working to create more awareness of your body, as well as a more balanced state of mind that is not moved by the pleasant or unpleasant. This balanced state of mind has been labeled non-attachment.
Because I’ve been interested in meditation for years and have read extensively on this idea I know that it can seem very odd at first. I remember how I felt about it. It seemed like a state of unfeeling detachment. Who wants to become a dead-man-walking? This state of balance, however, is very different than not feeling. I have never felt stronger emotions than those I felt during this course. You still feel, and, at least for me, it was feeling at a much deeper level. The difference is that after you feel, you don’t blindly react. You just sit and let the feelings come and go. You truly experience your feelings without clouding these feelings with any action on your part. This state of non-attachment is something that is very difficult to comprehend if you have not experienced it directly, and intellectualizing it will only get you so far. This state must be experienced firsthand if it is to be understood, and there is no better way to do that then to meditate!
On day 7, shit got real. The more you settle down, the more your old patterns, habits, and emotions will make their way to the surface. In this practice, when these strong emotions come to the surface, they are called storms. Storms intensify the practice a great deal because they are much more intense than merely physical pain. One particular storm for me began as an intense tightness in the chest. Nothing serious at first, but over the course of this Addhittana meditation my mind started to get more and more scattered. I tried to hold my mind steady, but to no avail. The physical pain in my chest compounded with the emotional torment of dwelling on the impermanence of life began to take its toll.
I began to truly experience that everything that arises must pass away. That meant everything. The sensations I was feeling, yeah of course these would arise and pass away, but also, all life as we know it falls into that category. My world began to slip out from under my feet. “So everyone I knew was going to pass away, huh?” And of course, this also applied to me. As a rather introverted “thinker” these thoughts had come into my mind many times before, but never had I directly experienced them at the very core of my being. The storm raged on. For what felt like hours I watched as my mind raced and the pain in my chest radiated outwards through the rest of my body. It honestly felt like there was a black hole in the center of my chest. I was a dying star and my whole body was going to implode in on itself any minute. To say I was able to stay centered during this storm would be a boldfaced lie. Shit got heavy, and it got heavy fast. I did my best to stay with the sensations I was experiencing all throughout my body, but this was not a battle I was going to win over the course of 10 days. This experience, however, left me truly humbled. To lose everything and everyone you know, even if only in the deep recesses of you mind, really puts life back into perspective.
That job you didn’t get, that girlfriend or boyfriend you broke up with, that car you don’t own… that shit doesn’t matter at all. If you are reading this right now, that means you are ALIVE! That fact is so simple and so profound, but it is almost always overlooked. We have been given this insanely rare opportunity to explore the inner and outer worlds offered to us when we were born. We were literally given the most precious gift we will ever receive. So often in life we are blinded by the ideals of our materialistic society. We put all our energy on perfecting the external in our lives, when all we truly need to do is get our internal affairs in order. Although I can’t guarantee it, I am quite sure everything else will fall into place. Even if it doesn’t, however, your mind is so balanced you won’t mind one bit! To say this was a life-changer would be an understatement. Once your eyes have been opened, there really is no going back. Honestly, you don’t need to take my word for it. In fact, I would prefer you experience this on your own and express the truth you discover in your own words and in your own way. Now of course, meditation is not the only way to have these realizations, but it is a well tried technique that has worked for countless people throughout the ages.
So what did I gain from my 10 days away from the world? I gained a new set of eyes; eyes that see reality slightly more objectively. My mind still becomes scattered, but continued practice has kept me more emotionally balanced and has increased my overall concentration and happiness. It has helped me to empathize with others and expand my circle of compassion far beyond close friends and family. It has opened up a creativity I felt that I had lost since my childhood and has allowed me to appreciate both the pleasant and unpleasant experiences in my life. Knowing that both will pass creates an emotional state of balance I never thought could exist. My awareness of myself and the world around me has increased 10-fold and it showed me that I can literally create my own reality. We can make this life a heaven or a hell… It really is our choice.
Now all of this didn’t come from 10 days. I have been practicing meditation and yoga for a little over 3 years now and the consistent practice has been the real key to gaining deeper insights. This course did, however, allow me to take these practice so much deeper. I write this merely as inspiration, in hopes that you may want to embark on this inner quest yourself. From the little that I have experienced so far I can promise that it will not be easy. The infinite amount of work we must do on ourselves may be daunting, but is also the most rewarding. As I typed that last sentence, I spilled my glass of water directly into my bag with my clothes, books, and notebook for tomorrow’s yoga class. This surely would have lead to a string of curses and anger even a year ago. Today it resulted in a laugh and me mindfully laying out my clothes and books to dry. We have the chance to change the way we see the world and become more resilient, positive and emotionally balanced. We may as well take that chance.
Oh and if you were curious, yes, farts are still hilarious. Sitting in a room in absolute silence with 100 other people is bound to create more than a few interesting sounds from the human body. I feel that even for an enlightened being, farts will still bring a smile to their face (they certainly did for me). And let’s be honest, if they can’t, then what’s the point? I wish you nothing but success on your journey to self-discovery and maybe we will meet along the way and walk the path together for a bit.
All the best,