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. Think of it like 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 philosophical 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.” Literally those words.
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. On the retreat itself, silence eliminated anxieties that people on the retreat were talking about you and judging you. Meals were silent affairs. No cliques and chortles over dinner.
Turning off the spigot of information and conversation meant my mind had to plunge through my personal past to generate thoughts as I walked or ate or rested or, yes, while I tried to meditate. 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 other than an important meta realization: our subconscious is informed by vast numbers of memories.
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. I laughed to myself, lying in bed.
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 I wonder about how to square ambition with the idea of non-attachment. If you have a goal and want to achieve it, you have to be at least somewhat attached to the outcome. And reincarnation isn’t my jam, 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.
To answer my prior post about trying something I could fail at, did I fail at this meditation course? No. I think I succeeded 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 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 built into us by natural selection.
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.
FOLLOW UP POSTS:
- Book review and notes from Waking Up by Sam Harris
- 6 Months Later (Report six months after the 10 day described above)
- 3 Day Silent Vipassana Retreat