About six months ago, I completed a Goenka 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat.
With some distance, I can say that completing the 10 days of “Buddha bootcamp” has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. From my current vantage point, when I think about spending 10 days with no speaking, writing, or reading, and huge amounts of physical pain on a twice-daily vegetarian diet – it seems utterly incompatible with my day to day chaotic and stressful life, and therefore all the more special.
What’s more, most every important accomplishment in life involves allies. Life’s a team sport. I love that. Yet, while my network no doubt fortified me with a base of essential emotional sustenance, that retreat more than anything I’ve done depended on my own physical and mental resolve; as a result, the experience feels singularly personal and intimate. And it fills me with a unique feeling of pride.
Now, while completing a 10 day can be seen as an accomplishment in and of itself, the real point of the course is to train you and motivate you to begin a daily practice. As we were reminded of constantly during the course, it’s not the 10 day course that matters—it’s what you do when you finish the course. It’s only with daily practice over many years that you free yourself from suffering and achieve nirvanic bliss…or something like that.
Upon returning, my more skeptical friends have been asking me, “What’s been the lasting effect? And have you even been able to keep meditating when not in the pristine silence of a retreat?”
For about a decade prior to the 10 day I tried and failed to meditate regularly. But in the last six months, since returning from the course, I have meditated almost every day. I’ve missed about 15 days over six months. In all, I’ve sat for about 140 hours. That’s a lot of hours. Anytime someone tells me they’re started spending time on a new thing, I always ask where the time came from—what tradeoff they made with time. For me, these hours mostly came from physical exercise – my physical workouts have gotten shorter as a result of adding in mental workouts.
It’s not that all the hours have been “successful,” of course. I’ve had countless bad sits, where rather than be in control of the moment I feel like a pinball in a machine, thoughts bouncing against mental walls erratically. I’ve done a bunch of 5 minute sits, even though 45 minutes daily sits was my stated goal upon returning.
No matter. I’ve realized what’s most important at this stage is to simply to inculcate the habit. Since I expect to be meditating for the rest of my life — an expectation that could change, certainly, but for now feels right based on results to date — I have plenty of tries left to increase the quality. What I’m trying to do now is just to make sure I get in the habit of sitting. And to facilitate the daily habit, I’ve done things to reduce friction, increase sunk costs, and increase peer pressure – i.e., stuff I think will help me produce the behavior change I desire.
I purchased a custom made bench to sit on that better fits my athletic body. The bench is the most comfortable position for me, and its custom build doesn’t allow me to cite size as an excuse. Rather than use an office chair, which I sit in for other purposes, I only use the bench to meditate — so it helps me get in the right mental zone faster.
I downloaded the app Insight Timer to track all my sits and to chime pleasant bells when time’s up. Thanks to the “presets” feature, in two clicks I can be underway. Since I always have my phone, I’m always two clicks away from sitting—I can’t cite the excuse of not having a special alarm clock handy when on the road. Further, I encouraged a few fellow meditators I’m friends with to use Insight Timer and I see when they’ve done sessions and vice versa – it introduces light accountability.
Finally, because nothing re-charges the battery like a structured course, I did a one-day course at the South Bay Vipassana Center the other week. I plan to do a 3-day more official silent course in the next couple months.
As I’ve built up the meditation habit, I’ve relaxed my energy spent on other habits. For example, I’m no longer taking fish oil at every meal. I still believe in fish oil, but I’m preserving the willpower and decision making cycles for meditation right now.
Here and now benefit
Even though I’m playing the long game, and even though I know you’re doomed if you try to track your progress on a daily basis, if I hadn’t been feeling any immediate benefit over the past six months, I would have given up by now. But I have been feeling benefit in two respects.
Physically first. Just as in the retreat, no matter how active my mind may have been during the sit, when I open my eyes at the end, I feel physically calm. I’ve even found a way to discover this place of calm even when I’m not meditating. When I clasp my hands together in the position I have them in when meditating, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, I quickly feel calmer. The muscle memory associated with that hand position releases calm feelings. Finally, I am more aware – and thus more in control – of the physical sensations on my body because of the Vipassana practice. I possess a subtler understanding of my breath. I know the breaths I take when I’m falling asleep, versus the breaths I take when tired, versus the breaths I take when awake but anxious, versus the breaths I take when I’m feeling cool, calm, and collected.
Mentally/spiritually, I have not become a Buddhist. I don’t think my practice has yet made me more compassionate or alleviated fundamental existential anxieties. Nor has daily meditation made me materially more focused and clear thinking during business meetings or when working on projects. But what it has done is made me slightly less obsessive about my own micro-regrets and slightly more inclined to observe myself and the world around with me with greater equanimity.
Goenka’s voice echoes: Observe the reality as it is. As it is. Observe the reality as it is, not as you wish it to be. Perhaps your breath is deep. Perhaps your breath is shallow. Perhaps you breathed in through the left nostril. Perhaps you breathed in through the right nostril. It makes no difference.
To be sure, I do not want to live my whole life in an indifferent trance. I end my first book with this Joan Didion quote:
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
That (still) resonates deeply. But having a bit more of the countervailing Buddhist instinct of observation over judgment, observation over action, being more at peace with not always getting the picture–that would be good for me.
Where from here
I am going to stick with Goenka’s Vipassana for now. Give it at least a year of daily practice. And then try other forms of meditation. I did do a group Zen sit last weekend — there are some differences among the traditions, and exploring them each is a main goal over the next 6-18 months.