Reflections and Impressions from a 10-Day Meditation Course

It was during the 8-9 PM meditation session on the 8th Day — by then I was 80 hours into the 10 day, 100 hour meditation course — when I experienced something remarkable. I was partially kneeling and partially sitting on a small bench in the meditation hall with about 45 other meditators, doing breathing techniques (anapana) and scanning my body for sensations (vipassana). Shortly after starting the session, my mind became as sharp as I’ve ever felt it in my life. I was in complete control of a lucid, concentrated mind.

I became meta aware of this mental clarity. It’s how I imagine it feels to “wake up” in the middle of your dreams and control them. I directed my attention away from my body to a random thought. And then brought it right back. Then away. Then back. All by choice. It was a striking difference from what often happened during my meditation sits (and during life in general): the mind inviting hundreds of random thoughts to derail a moment of concentration. To top it off, during the sit, I visualized a glass window in my mind and in my mind’s eye focused on it and it cracked the window, as if just thinking about the window produced the sort of cracks you see when a bullet strikes bulletproof glass. When the chanting began playing on the hall audio speakers to signal the end of the session, I felt sad. Now in most of the other sits I greeted the sound of the glorious final chanting with relief, signaling as it did the imminent end to 60 minutes in a frozen posture, knees throbbing, back aching. But that night, I was thriving, my mind was as sharp as freshly sharpened hunting spear, and I felt totally and completely relaxed.

With that as the highlight, let me back up and recap the experience from beginning, since it was considerably more challenging than one excellent meditation session. And I’ll add the proviso that I just got home a couple days ago, so I am still absorbing all that happened.

To start, there are many different types of meditation. There are also many types of courses / retreats. So when someone tells you they “meditate” or “attended a meditation retreat” that doesn’t tell you the full story. Myself, I attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Northern California, organized by the Dhamma Manda center and taught via video and audio by S.N. Goenka (of India) and in-person by assistant teachers carrying out his vision of Vipassana. Some of the key characteristics of my course:

  • In order to help achieve mental silence, the course is conducted in an atmosphere of silence. No talking, eye contact, or physical gestures are allowed between any of the students. You are to work in total silence 24/7. You are, however, allowed to speak with the management or teachers as necessary.
  • No writing, reading, technology, extra food, or sexual activity allowed during the course.
  • Complete, 100% gender segregation, including in the dining halls. Zero sexual tension or distractions.
  • The whole day is scheduled and structured from 4 AM to 9 PM, including two vegetarian meals at 6:30 AM and 11 AM. About 10 hours per day is dedicated to sitting meditation.
  • The course taught Vipassana meditation specifically, which seeks insight through observing reality as it is. Within Vipassana, there are variations. S.N. Goenka’s approach is considered, I found out while there, a comparatively pure conveyance of what the Buddha actually said–which makes it stricter and arguably harder for beginners to learns. Analogize it to a Great Books model of education or an originalism interpretation of the Constitution. On the flip side, Goenka’s tradition is easier for secular people to pick up in that it wipes out any classically “religious” components (no incents or chants or statues or gods) and other potentially alienating, non-universal norms.
  • The course was totally free — which includes 11 nights of lodging and meals. Only those who have completed a course can donate money to the Center. Every course and every center — there are dozens around the world — rely exclusively on donations from former students, which is pretty remarkable. (Other retreats usually start at $150/day and go up from there.) This economic dynamic affects the content and structure of the course itself: since you’re not paying anything, you can’t complain about lodging or food. You accept gratefully what’s given. It also means the teachers can be as strict as they want to — there’s no pressure to ease up on students who complain about pain, say, in the way they might feel they ought to if someone were dropping a thousand plus dollars on the adventure.

I had no formal background in meditation. I’ve been meditating sporadically and informally for about a decade, originally as an attempt to reduce stress. In 2006 I spent a day at the SF Zen Center. I’ve been talking about going on a silent retreat since 2009 to try to help make it a daily habit. So I really went into last week’s course knowing very little about what I was getting myself into but very motivated to learn more. As it turned out, most of the other “new students” may have been new to Vipassana, but had experience at other sorts of retreats; most were deeply spiritual already. (Other than this uniting factor of previous experience, it was a very diverse mix of people age and race-wise.) So, as far as I was concerned, I was learning to swim in the deep end of the pool.

At the first night’s orientation, before silence became the law of the land, the manager made some general announcements. She concluded, “We hope you have a productive and successful time here.” This took me by surprise — the goal was to be “productive and successful”? The course content reinforced this theme repeatedly. Goenka, the main teacher via video/audiotape, said repeatedly, “Work diligently, work ardently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently, and you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.” The assistant teachers would release us to meditate in our residences with the final words: “Keep working, continue to work.” Was this a meditation retreat or an ass-kicking business seminar? By the end it was clear: the philosphical belief of Goenka and Buddhism is that salvation comes from self-mastery; to do so requires extreme discipline and focus and training of the mind. Then, you have a shot at success, which is defined as liberation from suffering and living a life, as Goenka put it, of “true peace, true harmony, true happiness.” It’s a definition of success considerably loftier than the one that actually brought me to the Dhamma Manda; my aim was merely to concentrate my mind, kickstart a daily habit, and achieve a difficult goal I could fail at.

The next morning, after sleeping in a shared dormitory, the gong rang at 4 AM and the course officially began. What began for me, though, was less about meditation and Buddhism and more about struggling to position my body on a meditation cushion on the floor. The bigger you physically are the harder it is to sit on the floor for 10+ hours a day. There was essentially no instruction or discussion of the various cushions, benches, pads available to use–it was up to me to grab cushions and figure out how to lock in a position. The first day I tried crosslegged sitting all day. The second day I woke up with severe nerve pain up and down the entire right side of my body.

The “official” view on pain from the instructors was complicated. On the one hand, Goenka says explicitly that you’re not here to torture yourself, so do what you need to do (i.e. sit in a chair if absolutely necessary). On the other hand, managing pain — observing the pain sensations with equanimity — is part of the mental mastery process. Moreover, there’s the view that the pain represents some of the negative emotions in your life that are poisoning your unconscious — connect those thoughts to the physical sensations on your body, and observe them essentially leave your body.

To me, the physical pain in the early days overwhelmed the other things I was trying to focus on, like my breathing. It was like trying to observe subtle breath and subtle sensations while a bullhorn blasted in your ear. The nerve pain on the right side of my body was so sharp that at the end of Day 2 I began to seriously contemplate leaving the course. I crafted a narrative in my head to explain to people back home about the pain and how I would practice sitting on my own and return and finish the course later. Three male students had already dropped out by this point.

But in that evening’s discourse — at the end of each day and on the final morning Goenka delivered a 75 minute video lecture, which meant we watched almost 14 hours of lectures — Goenka specifically addressed the pain point and said you may want to leave because of it, telling yourself you’ll come back another time, but don’t listen to yourself — have a strong determination to continue with the course. He also said that you may think the other students are working swimmingly and only you are suffering, but think again — they’re in pain, too. It was true, I learned later — even though 70% of the other students seemed very athletic and in good shape (the guy meditating next to me did an Ironman last year), everyone was in pain. This convinced to stay through to Day 3.

By Day 4 and 5, I had finally figured out a physical position that was relatively comfortable to me — kneeling and semi-sitting on a bench. While I rarely made it the full 60 minutes without throbbing in my knees, I was able to go a good 45 minutes feeling like I was in a steady posture and able to focus on my respiration and bodily sensations.

The next challenge to face was mental and emotional: the overall isolation. If you asked me about my favorite things, I would answer, “Reading, writing, conversations with people, technology/internet.” It felt utterly strange and lonely to go cold turkey on all of the above — spending hours staring at trees or the ceiling above my bed or the wall in front of my face as I ate meals in the dining hall. There were a couple designated walking areas on the property and most students including me walked in circles around the paths, over and over. It occurred to me — and Goenka even mentioned it jokingly in a discourse — that it was my first roundabout with prison: strict rules and schedule, an exercise yard with marked areas, no tools allowed, no communication with the outside world. When I stared out at the highway beyond and saw cars, I thought to myself, “That’s freedom. Those cars have freedom. I do not have freedom.”

The Noble Silence though did make it easier to meditate. Now that I’m back connected to reality, I appreciate how recent emails or recent songs that get stuck in your head distract from the task of meditation. What silence also does in group settings is eliminate any anxieties of people judging you. Much of our fear of being judged has to do with two or more people chatting and criticizing you — with each other. E.g. “Did you see the way he was sitting? Or did hear his burping? Yuck.” Those kind of things. But with total silence, you knew no one was chortling over dinner.

Turning off the spicket of new inbound information and conversation meant my mind had to plunge through my personal past to generate thoughts as I walked or ate or rested or (regrettably) mediated. Memories surfaced from every part of my life and from every period of time. It was certainly interesting to observe which memories came to mind, though I did not have any profound realizations about life in the process.

All that silence and lack of socializing meant no laughter, no humor, no smiling. On Day 5 or 6, I ended up having “humor day” and spent hours recounting in my mind various Seinfeld episodes and Curb Your Enthusiasm bloopers. I played the Liam Neeson / Ricky Gervais skit in my head about three times. The Alec Baldwin Always Be Closing scene. Etc.

By the final third of the course, doubt and anxiety about leaving had passed (home stretch!), the physical pain had subsided (alternating between bench and chair), my growling stomach had come to terms with the dramatic drop in daily caloric intake, and I was able to focus more deeply in the actual meditation practice.

I was able to focus my attention on respiration. My in breath, my out breath. I was able to feel sensation in a focused area just above the upper lip and to the top of the nostril. I acquired tools and exercises that bring the mind to the present moment that I have taken home with me and already deployed in day to day life. Doing the actual Vipassana technique, however — observing the physical sensations on your body — was harder. I could feel itches and observe them rather than react (i.e. notice the itch without scratching it). I could feel blood pumping and pinpoint its precise location on my body. But I rarely felt anything subtler, and I certainly didn’t feel vibrations from head to toe–which masters of the craft supposedly feel.

I was of mixed minds about the broader Buddhist philosophy that Goenka taught in the course. On the one hand, there was much wisdom in the Buddha’s views he relayed to us: Misery is all around us. We get stuck on the hedonic treadmill. Material acquisition and money won’t make us happy (Goenka himself was a successful businessman before turning his focus to meditation, so he spoke credibly about how he and his rich friends were not happy.) I loved the emphasis on looking inward to liberate yourself rather than appealing to a god or guru — the absolutely secular, universal nature of the practice appealed to me. More love and compassion in yourself — observing anger within and not acting on it — it’s a good thing. And experiencing the present moment, finding peace and joy in the present, is something I can and should do more of (and the course helps with that).

But it seems too strong to start a philosophy from the premise “life is suffering.” I also don’t think non-attachment is a viable philosophy if you harbor ambition. If you have a goal and want to achieve it, you have to be at least somewhat attached to the outcome. And reincarnation is a bit cra cra even if there’s fundamental truth (which I realized in the retreat) in the idea that your forefathers shaped your chances and you seriously shape the chances of your offspring.

#

So….

To answer my prior post about trying something I could fail at, did I fail at this meditation course? No. I think I succeded in two respects. First, I stayed the full 10 days, despite badly wanting to leave. Second, I do think I acquired skills that put me on the path to having a more disciplined mind and perhaps a more compassionate heart. I’m on the Path.

I don’t often say it and I frankly don’t often feel it, but: I’m proud of myself. I adapted. I survived 10 days of isolation and faced new physical and mental challenges. I’m occasionally reminded of the sheer resiliency of the human being. I’ve been to places where my first thought upon arrival is, “Get me out of here.” From the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador, to the poor Costa Rican family I stayed with for a week near the ocean who didn’t have hot water, to my first rickshaw ride India — in all I had a knee jerk reaction, airlift me out! Yet, by the time I was scheduled to leave, I adjusted just fine. I underestimated myself–which, as we write in the Risk chapter of The Start-Up of You, is a function of the negativity bias in all of us.

Going forward, the question I’m asking is, how can I develop meditation as a daily habit? The minutes of sheer mental clarity and control I experienced on Day 8 and recapped at the outset were amazing and I want to have that more regularly. I think being able to turn on focus and calm and discipline can contribute to a professional / career advantage. It will happen if I practice every day. Although Goenka advised two one hour sits a day, I’m going to start with one 45 minute sit a day. I think I can do that. In my calendar, I’m going to label the entry, “Train the mind” to make it seem less miss-able.

As I finish this post, the words of Goenka — who uttered the only words I heard orally for more than a week — are echoing in my head. Work diligently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently…and you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.

There’s wisdom there.

58 Responses to Reflections and Impressions from a 10-Day Meditation Course

  1. Dan Grossman says:

    Fantastic post – I’ve been looking forward to your thoughts on this. Quite a demonstration of resolve and character, IMO. Thanks for the write up. (And separately, sorry I missed you in SF. Will let you know the next time I’m in town.)

  2. hunter walk says:

    Last summer I spent 7 days in silent meditation at Spirit Rock in Marin (after not doing much meditation at all previously). Like you, I found it to be an amazing experience. One thing struck me in your write-up though – you speak of success in being able to “control” your mind. For me, control was elusive and false. It was only when I let go of the notion of control that i was able to achieve any of the stillness.

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Good point, Hunter. They reminded us of this point — the paradox of achieving control and stillness and the indirect route to getting there. I need to work on this. :)

      • Jeff Huber says:

        I think this is true of life.

        As a general rule — You must be willing to give something up before you can truly attain it. This goes for happiness, wealth, power, and I would say even knowledge.

  3. Erick Widman says:

    Ben – I’ve been reading your blog for years and I always appreciate your desire to try new things and go deep analyzing them. This was a fascinating experience and thanks for sharing.

    I’m currently reading Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” where meditation is upheld as an essential pursuit for the mind and spirit. I recommend this book to you if you haven’t read it yet.

  4. Ah.

    This post is more shockingly metaphysical than I would have expected from the Ben Casnocha.

    “It felt utterly strange and lonely to go cold turkey on all of the above — spending hours staring at trees or the ceiling above my bed or the wall in front of my face as I ate meals in the dining hall.”

    I’ve spent a great deal of my life staring mindlessly at trees, ocean, sky. After all these years consensual reality is very sparkly, walls breathe, and the white porcelain toilet bowl is colorful and spins when I take a leak, but it’s beautiful.

    My work is my meditation. I summon ecstasy at will with music and dance.

    I doubt Goenka would approve, but I suggest that smoking some good purple bud might save you a lot of discomfort and be more congenial to your lifestyle.;-)

  5. Andy McKenzie says:

    Very inspirational. You doing 45 minutes makes me want to work my way up to 15 (from my current 3).

    I agree that there are fundamental tensions between Buddhism and daily living for people with any semblance of ambition: http://andymckenzie.blogspot.com/2007/06/is-buddhism-only-for-very-rich-and.html.

    My question, in 2007 as in 2012, remains “is Buddhism still a viable way of living even if you cannot completely follow its tenants? Is it an all or nothing thing, or can you follow most of the basic ideas while still having a little bit of ambition and still consider yourself a Buddhist?”

    Also heartily second Erick’s recommendation of the GBG, which Tyler also recommends. However, I haven’t read enough books to really make a weighty recommendation, so chew on that rec with a dollop of salt.

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Fun – I had forgotten about your 2007 post. I asked the teacher during office hours about goals and Buddhism. He said, “Of course you’re going to have goals. But there’s a way to strive toward goals without being attached in an unhelpful way to the outcome.” Some other businesspeople I know apparently balance this okay — I’m looking into it.

  6. greg says:

    Amazing, Ben!

    Really love the “I’m on the path.” We have to remember life is all about one foot in front of the other. Keep training the mind and the views ahead will be incredible.

  7. Chris Yeh says:

    I’m glad you did this and brought back your experiences. Especially because I can’t imagine doing this myself.

  8. carl says:

    This is incredibly inspirational.

    I’ve always found it difficult to calm my mind. I feel like I have a brain that, like a shell-shocked dog, jumps at every single thought and stimulus. This way of living has helped me as much as it has hurt an I’m looking to find a way to better understand and manage it.

    I am now seriously considering and looking into doing a meditation retreat in the near future.

    Thanks for providing the impetus, Ben!

    Carl

  9. TJIC says:

    Fascinating.

    This is far from anything I’d want to do, but it’s always interesting to read about new experiences.

    I’d be curious to hear from you in a week, or a month, to see if the focus and clarity that you experienced is something that you can recreate and use further down the line. I know that in intense experiences (meditation, retreats, activities that use the pressure/release cycle, etc.) there is often a high at the end, and a belief that “this changes EVERYTHING”. I believe that to some degree this is a fleeting subjective feeling caused by the pressure and the release…but to some degree it’s also true. In this case, I’d love to hear a follow-up later on with your thoughts once the emotional intensity of the experience is further in your past.

    Thanks!

    • Pat OBrien says:

      Good point. Every music festival I go to everybody is always talking about how cool everything and everyone is. It becomes infectious. I love it and it is true but I think a lot of it is that people get away from the reality and pressures of the everyday life with all of its humdrum demands.

      Now I realize that the meditation may have a release from daily cares, but that it also entails more work and a deeper experience, yet there is still that component that insists that life will be different from this point hence. But we can’t rely on past experience and the further we get from it the quieter it becomes.

      I guess that’s why continual daily meditation is stressed cuz even yesterday’s manna lacks any permanence even in the memory.

  10. Aleksandra says:

    Great post Ben. For years I’ve been thinking about attending one of these, and your post reminded me that I need to make it a priority. Thanks for your insightful analysis.

  11. Hailey says:

    “I’ve been to places where my first thought upon arrival is, “Get me out of here.””
    It seems as though our culture has decided that reacting on impulse is the only possible option. Thank you for sharing this story of your journey, and acknowledging your negative feelings/impulses and not becoming a slave to them. Great post!

  12. I just found your site through Karen Anderson and loved the serendipity of finding this great post, especially because I just wrote about my meditation practise on my Traveling Light blog yesterday.

    I did this same retreat (in Merritt, BC, Canada). I also published an article about it that I thought you might find interesting. Apparently we had some pretty similar reactions!

    This is the link to the story: http://www.colleenfriesen.com/Documents/BreathingSilence.pdf

    As you can see, that article was published in 2004. I believe I was actually on the retreat the fall before that, so it’s been a good long time. You were wondering how this might look in the long-term so I thought I’d weigh in and share my post-retreat experience.

    Prior to this bootcamp immersion, I had never meditated or sat still! It was quite a shock to the system but I’m so glad I did it.

    I continue to meditate for 30-minutes each (and almost) every day. There are ridiculous amounts of studies that tell us how wonderful meditation is for our health, both physical and mental (as if the two can ever be separated) but I can only attest for my improved well-being as a result.

    It is a welcome respite from the constant randomness of stimuli, both internal and external.

    Thanks again for a great post and I wish you true ‘success’ in your meditation practise.

  13. Stephen Dodson says:

    Great post, and it’s not something I’ve read a lot about in other places. Thanks for writing this up so thoughtfully.

    As a side note, I wonder how big an impact committing yourself to friends and readers ahead of time had in your perseverance. If I had tried this, I would have been much more tempted to give myself an out if I knew no one would find out.

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Pre-committing and publicly committing I think play a huge role in actually following through….in anything.

  14. Joel Kehle says:

    Ben,

    Brad Feld pointed me to this marvelous post. Thank you for writing it.

    Another post Brad pointed me to has given me the tools to successfully mediate each day: http://zenhabits.net/meditate/ . The beauty of the Zen Habit’s technique is that even when my schedule gets fubar’d, I can still find two minutes to sit on the cushion. In my own practice I am sitting 15 minutes twice daily for several months. You have inspired me to move this to 20 and beyond!

    This is also the second post I have come across regarding the vipassana 10 day meditation experience. I was worried that such a long period of meditation would be too much of a mental strain or that the vipassana people were cultish. Reading your post leaves me reassured on both counts.

    Thank you again for sharing your experience.

    Joel

  15. Ben says:

    Ben,

    First post I’ve read (linked from Feld Thoughts) and it was fantastic. Already subscribed.

    I’m 22 and looking into phasing in meditation to my daily routine- from your experience, does starting this early amplify the positive effect? I’m curious if any of the people at the retreat were near my age.

    Thanks,

    B

  16. Clement says:

    Hello there, I’m new on the web and would like to share ideas about meditation and the teachings of the Buddha. If I may, with Metta, first I think we should not tell anyone but your teacher and spiritual friends about your experiences. Clearly, you’re acting like a child that has been away from home without his toys and candy, jumping back behind it..
    But I want you to encourage to do more. I think it is important for everybody to know that experiences differ from person to person. And to describe what happened you need to choose words and then the self, I, gets involved… In a 10-day retreat it is impossible to do vipassana, but Goenka teaches a course for the mass. And that is good, so anyone can start learning about mindfulness, their inner speech and the inner silence. Image what it will be like to do anapanasati for months.. Not scanning your body for sensations, everything will be experienced in the centre of your mind. The flow of breath in and out your skull is your only business. There is no control only awareness and letting go of anything other then your primary object. Try staying with the monks in seclusion,
    with Metta, Clement.

  17. Dawn says:

    Thanks Ben, also came here on Brad Feld’s suggestion–I have been toying with an intro to meditation course at Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate NY which sounds somewhat similar to your experience–this post does nothing to ally my anxiety and apprehension. But the quote from Goenka, “Work diligently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently . . .,” struck home for me. Although I’ve had a sporadic meditation practice for 20+ years, I have not been working patiently and persistently. This lesson applies to so many other things as well, thanks for the post.

  18. Congratulations Ben. You indeed have completed something you can be proud of, and you were right to have that premonition that it could be something you could have failed.

    I have done 2 10-day Vipassanas and I know very well the challenges they can bring, especially those first few days. I’m no stranger to meditation, and I think your conclusion— how to bring it into your daily life— is a very common one after such an experience.

    The word meditation comes from the pre-Indo European root, Med- which has evolved into a number of interesting cognates in English and other languages (medicine, measure, mind, rule, moderate— http://bit.ly/N2Xvrq). I always associate meditation most strongly with medicine. As an analogy, to stay healthy, you can take daily vitamins, exercise, and have a healthy diet (because of course food is medicine, too), and you can also have deep surgeries, which is how I view these 10-day meditation courses. Daily practice and deeper retreat practices both have an impact and they are different, yet each can be very powerful over time.

    The point I’m reaching towards is ‘daily practice’ and as someone who has wavered a bit, the strongest advice I can give you is make it regular, make it everyday. 45 minutes sounds smart to me as a starting point. 2 hours is such a high bar for anyone that has a typical modern life. I tried it and got discouraged. I did an hour for a year, and felt the benefits. I find regular time now and still enjoy the peace. So, if 45 minutes starts becoming too much and you start missing it, taper it down, but try to keep it going on a daily basis. Once it becomes a strong habit, you’re set and you’ll really miss it anytime you can’t find the time as you’re travelling or something else unexpectedly gets in the way!

    I wish you the best on your journey, and look forward to further reflections on the blog of this nature and of the more entrepreneurial kind as well. Lastly, like others, I’ve arrived via Brad Feld’s blog and am glad I stopped by.

    Best from Paris, Brad

  19. David says:

    Hi Ben
    I very rarely respond to blogs or anything on the net but felt inclined to do so to your blog. I want to encourage you on your path, I believe the call to Meditate is Divine Grace at work, and for me, my Meditation practice is a spiritual exercise. I have been practicing Meditation for nearly 20 years and my aim is twice a day for half an hour. The morning is solid but evening sometimes gets lost. My teacher for 10 years was a Christian who had a Guru in India that he visited every year. We read The Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and the Bible. My teacher these days is Fr Laurence Freeman ( http://www.wccm.org ) who bases is teaching on Fr John Main (its a long story). If you go to You Tube and search Fr Laurence Freeman you will find some great teachings.

    The message that I wanted to share was what my original teacher shared with us: “If anything happens in Meditation, ignore it, if nothing happens, even better”. When something special happens, you will look for something special next time, and the next time, and when nothing happens disappointment can arise. The gifts in Meditation is the dew of grace and happen in Gods times.

    pax

  20. Michael Poffenberger says:

    Thanks, Ben. I appreciated the honest reflection.

    I’d be most interested in any follow-up reflections on the tension you identified between detachment and ambition. The few “mystics” I have read from both western (eg Merton) and eastern traditions place a high value on detachment — to be able to appreciate that which simply is, without the projections of the ego. To not make all pursuits about “winning.”

    But like you I struggle to find a practical way to integrate this idea. A detached person to me seems almost the same as a lazy or complacent one. My work is focused on atrocity prevention, and I would think that people who are enormously attached to the outcomes of their work is an enormous asset. If we are pursuing outcomes that we believe are inherently valuable, to an end that goes beyond social advancement of oneself, shouldn’t we use every tool at our disposal with passion and intensity?

  21. hbunny says:

    Really interesting post. I’ve always been curious about these kinds of retreats and whether it might be something I’d like to try. I have a similar perspective in meditation and mindfulness and found this book to be useful and informative:

    http://www.amazon.com/Buddhism-Without-Beliefs-Contemporary-Awakening/dp/1573226564/

  22. BobR says:

    So, how’s the practice going, Ben? Ive done about 8 of these retreats, and I always fall off the wagon at a certain point from the daily practice. Part of the problem is the noise of real life makes the sessions much harder once you leave the retreat. I think technology makes it especially difficult (and important) to switch off.

    Regarding the ambition discussion, I dont think this is about ambition really. I think its about balance, and intention. If the way you accomplish your goals is ugly and full of bad intention, you will have an ugly life, no matter what you ‘accomplish’. The Buddha was very ambitious, he was determined to find enlightenment, then he was driven to spread his wisdom until he died. But it wasn’t maniacal, and it was driven by good intention.

    The reason I like this philosophy is that it says find your own way. It is possible to be ambitious and balanced. But it takes work. Have a look at writings by Chogyam Trungpa. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%B6gyam_Trungpa. He is a little less idealist than Goenka-ji.

  23. Win says:

    Ben, I’m doing this in exactly 2 weeks in Merritt, Canada. Thanks for the headsup – though I’m not sure if it’s good to be reading the “reviews” before hand in this situation. A comparative post from me is in order!

  24. Tiffany says:

    I have been thinking of doing this Vipassana for a few years. This is the first detailed account I have ever read. I never considered the pain. I am sure that would be a huge obstacle for me. I do plan to take the course some day. I will be sure and practice long sittings and dieting before I go. Thank you for this.

  25. Kathrin says:

    Thanks, I am glad that I’ve noticed your article and read it. Great feedback.
    If you would have this experience before your book and start-ups, do you think your entrepreneurial journey would be any different?

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Perhaps — probably would have been less driven, and more compassionate. :)

      • Kathrin says:

        I registered myself with their UK branch for the next available 10 days course. At this moment I still would like to keep my driven side and increase compassion. ‘The idea of being in absolute control of our conscious and even preconscious and shift them whenever we want’ is something I would like to experience. Well, it’s just a thought:-) Anyway, thanks for sharing. I hope my experience will be as pleasant as yours.

  26. Tini says:

    Thanks, Ben, for that post. I did Vipassana about 5 years ago and I still do have Geonkaji’s words in my mind and in hard times on my cushion, I still think of them.

    Your post is written in a wonderful way, telling all the personal but also universal stories on the path.

    “May all beings be happy” ;)

  27. Meditation often involves an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way and can help in clearing the mind and ease many health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression. I really like you thoughts.

  28. Frances says:

    Is it possible to gain mental clarity/focus without going through that ordeal (experience)?

  29. Ravie says:

    Inspirational post, Ben!
    I completed the 10 days course in Feb 12 & attending again starting from day after tomorrow!
    The problem last year was, I could not continue the meditation every day. Started with a great enthusiasm but faded after 3-4 months. I want to be more disciplined this year. As this is the second time for me, there’s no fear, there are no questions or curiosity. It’s more excitement to join that atmosphere of Silence…and peace!

  30. Excellent post, Ben. Though I had read previously about Goenka style retreats, this post felt like real-time reporting.

    I think there is a conflict between the way ordinary lives are lived and ways of Buddhism. There are ideas such as rebirth and (simplistic view of) Karma (Karma as a complex system of consequentiality has merit, IMHO, though) that conflict with secular thoughts. I haven’t gone forth for any serious meditation, but I feel that meditation and self mastery are very valuable in stress filled modern life.

    A while ago I was reading “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor and it struck me that there could be a direct explanation for the experiences, after all. May be, just may be, calming the “left brain” chatter (in her case, it happened when she had a stroke in left hemisphere) liberates the “right brain” to experience the one-ness experience with the universe.

    Just wondering how your follow ups go.

  31. Hi Ben,

    I very much enjoyed reading this. I did my first course of Vipassana in Nepal a year ago. After that I had the fortune to meet Goenka personnally in Mumbai and got to ask him the questions that were still unclear to me. On this trip through India and Nepal I had an Idea for a startup, which I am pursuing since then. First mentally, now the phase of realization has begun. I am building a social art market, connecting artists, galleries and collectors around the world, with a much larger vision in the long run. (called globalcanvas.com) At the beginning of this year, I travelled to San Francisco and the silicon valley, smelling the startup air for two months. I did another Vipassana course in the Nothern cali center. I also read your latest book and greatly enjoyed it. Thanks for promoting awareness in this field. Now I am at a stage where experienced advise would help us a lot- if you want to answer a few of our questions, please mail me at arjan@globalcanvas.com

    Thanks and best wishes.
    arjan

  32. Hi Ben! My friend just shared this post with me as I’ve also done a 10-day Vipassana. I enjoyed reading your article, and can definitely relate to a lot of what you experienced! I thought I’d share with you my blog, also, summing up my own experience http://www.rebeccabeaton.com/my-10-day-vipassana-meditation-experience/. I’m curious to know if you are still doing your 45-minute sit per day?

  33. Enrique says:

    Interesante! Realmente la meditación nos permite conectar con nuestro Ser Interior. Yo he practicado la meditación por años y he obtenido innumerables beneficios en todos los sentidos. Creo que si la mayoría de las personas meditaran aunque sólo fuera unos cuantos minutos cada día, viviríamos en un mundo muy diferente, un mundo lleno de paz, de armonía, justicia y plenitud abundante. http://www.creatuvidaya.net/

  34. JZ says:

    Zero sexual tension? So what, there weren’t any LGBT people in the course? That’s what I don’t understand about the need to separate genders.

  35. Nafiz says:

    Our Silent Meditation Retreats for the Awakening of the Spiritual Heart are a unique opportunity to bring more Happiness, Peace, Joy and Love into your life and get a deeper understanding of your real nature. Meditation Retreat!

  36. sejan says:

    Experience a unique immersion into your real and essential nature, the supreme and divine Self, through an artful integration of meditation and yoga techniques. Hridaya Yoga invites everyone to live with an open heart and discover the true potential of human life.

  37. Gita says:

    Global Retreat Centre at Nuneham House (administered by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University UK) has welcomed thousands of people from across the world. They come to restore balance and focus to their life through solitude, silence and the study of spiritual values.

  38. Pat OBrien says:

    Super good post Ben. Appreciated your wit, candor and insights. I am signed up for a ten-day in March and was most concerned with the physical pain versus my resolve, but you have helped me. When I hurt and think about quitting I will remember that everybody is thinking the same thing and that it is normal, almost a right of passage, to debate quitting. I wonder if it is the self’s fight or flight response battling with itself as it keeps changing sides, but whatever it is I want to bookmark your post.

    Also enjoy the thoughts about ambition and detachment. Even my hero Thoreau was entrepreneurial about his writings and I must remember that Walden was just research to write a book. Ya know, kinda like a travel blog.

    thanks for the inspiration,

    Pat Out

  39. ned says:

    Ben – great post, thanks. Regarding ambition, i recall a meditation that states the goal is to “live life like you have ambition, but live without ambition.” I struggle with figuring out what that really means and the closest i have come is to focus on the process in achieving your goals without being attached to the outcomes. I would appreciate your thoughts…. thanks, ned

  40. Happy to see vipassana helping out so many others in this world including me.
    Everyone should give it a try.

  41. Dan Bartlett says:

    Great report! You might like http://opensit.com – a free community to share and develop your meditation practice :)

  42. Jk Rao says:

    Hi! Friends,
    What I read & understand here in these forums/discussions is all about the experiences during the course. These experiences are found in abundance across the net.
    My questions & curiosity are of the following.
    1. What is the take away from the course?
    2. What happens after the course if you don’t practice or repeat the course latter?
    3. What benefits does one experiences after say few days / weeks / months / years after completion of the course? The learning & experiences are only profound during & immediately after the course only. What after that? What happens to one’s awareness, understanding & controls of the conscious & subconscious mind during the latter life after the course?
    4. Individual Personal experiences on what life style changes did one experience in terms of habits, thought process, better self controls, channelizing the energies / thoughts, did it really change ones insight / outlook towards life, was it a life changing experience, life style changes, etc
    This will be a very great help to me, kindly share your experiences.
    Best Regards
    Jk Rao
    PS. I’ll be glad to receive your replies. Pls also email me your replies to GetJKRao@gmail.com

  43. khan says:

    wow….useful tips for me because I’m not so able to do make up! :) you’re so precious!
    Lovely Read!
    New Blog Pages>> http://relationship-blog.blogspot.com/
    http://beauty2beautytips.blogspot.com/

  44. partha says:

    hello sir‚ in anapana meditation do I have to watch my breath‚ do I have to concentrate‚ do I have to focus? I am practicing meditation and willing to undergo vipassana course. but the problem is if I intentionally want to watch my breath I begin to manipulate‚ sometimes I breathe fast sometimes slow and hence feel uneasy. but if I have no intention to watch‚ just sit down and do nothing‚ then sometime as a consequence I can feel my breath. what I do is just relax‚ just wait‚ feel deeply try to stay at present just no thinking‚ no watching nothing‚ just waiting – for 1 hour. sometimes for a moment or two I can feel my breath again thoughts carry me away. am I wrong‚ pl help.

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