What I would easily consider as the worst ten days of my life ended up also being the best.
I recently completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. For anyone that doesn’t know what it is, it is an intensive, mostly oversubscribed course in which attendees learn this specific ancient Buddhist meditation technique. Courses are paid by donation from students that complete the course, and is the only form of financial backing that the Vipassana centers around the world receive. I had heard of a few friends and public figures that I follow had done this course, and the consensus was that it was a wonderful experience, and everyone gave positive recommendations for it. As a result I decided to do it – I had a free ten days in my calendar, and I thought it would be a good idea to learn to meditate properly. However, I was under no illusion that it would be difficult. In fact I can say it turned out to be the most difficult thing I have ever done. I had only started meditating about three months prior, using the Headspace app on my phone and sitting through very short guided meditations. As the course started I calculated I had probably completed less than three hours of meditation in my lifetime, yet I was just about to add a whopping 110 hours to that tally. Not that I was counting or anything…
The course information I read when I signed up on the website stated that there would be prohibitions. Students were not allowed to speak (or any form of communication), steal, kill any living being (or even physically touch anyone), or partake in any sexual activities. There was no reading, no writing, no cell phones, no contact to the outside world. It’s funny how so many people (most of whom have never done the course) call this kind of thing a “retreat”, as if it would be a relaxing 10 days filled with peace and tranquility. It couldn’t be further from the truth. S. N. Goenka – the late Burmese gentleman who teaches the course over audio and videotapes – describes it as “a surgical operation of the mind”. Another man I spoke to after the course said it was an experience “somewhere between Christmas and being buried alive”, while one of the ladies I shared a ride with who had been to several courses worded it as an “ordeal” while in the car on the way to the course. And she was right. If I had to describe it in a nutshell, I would say it was the best worst ten days of my life. While the ten days felt torturous, the lessons that I learned have led to a positive transformation in myself. Here are some ideas and conclusions I made during the ten days.
Misery comes from too much craving or aversion, and a thing called equanimity is the answer.
I came into the Vipassana course coming from what I thought was a good, happy mindset. I had just completed a volunteering trip in the Dominican Republic which was wonderful, and had also finished a grueling six-month door-to-door sales season in Canada in which I felt had developed me personally to a much greater level. I had also done some cool experiences in the recent months like going to watch Conor McGregor fight in the UFC in Las Vegas, doing a three week road trip of Western Canada, going to an NHL game and various other pleasurable and novel activities. In the recent weeks however, from reading the famous self-help book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” I had discovered that my character had a few ‘minor’ flaws. Of all the types of centers the author describes in the book, I identified most with the self-centered type. It made sense and it was a little jab to my awareness that made me start to ponder a little. And also I realized that I was a tad egotistical. But we’ll get to that part later.
During the Vipassana course, Goenka teaches that the state of misery that most people feel is from the result of craving something and subsequently not getting it. Equally, misery can be elicited from any aversion to unpleasant situations and feelings too. He declared that by practicing a mindset termed “equanimity”, the technique of Vipassana can absolve us from all suffering and misery. Equanimity means to observe things objectively – not wanting pleasant sensations to continue, while not wanting unpleasant sensations to stop. That’s a rather bold claim. As I started to ruminate on this theory, I started to pick holes in it. What if you crave something and you do get it, surely that results in joy? Isn’t aversion a good thing so that we can avoid ending up in nasty situations like homelessness, breakdowns in relationships or injury-inducing activities? And if everyone remained equanimous all the time, then how would anyone ever get anything done in the world? The whole of civilization would cease to advance and we would die off as a species, especially if no sex was permitted. I came up with several other arguments as to why this was bullshit. But as the course continued, I started to deepen and clarify the understanding of this concept. I started to think of situations where I did experience misery or sadness during the last 12 months and beyond, and I could identify that it was an imbalance of the mind, the lack of equanimity when dealing with certain emotions or situations that arose. I could also identify in other people when this occurred. Subsequently, I could dream up activities in my daily life that if I dealt with more equanimously, I could achieve greater success and happiness. In work, in relationships, in sport and life as a whole. I would not be surprised to see athletes incorporating mindfulness practice into their training, while Silicon Valley CEOs like Jack Dorsey have completed Vipassana courses in the recent past. Finishing the course, the concept of equanimity will be a big part of the solutions to any challenges that I will face.
The ego is cunning, reactive and wild. Practicing Vipassana diminishes the ego and leads to a less selfish worldview.
Like I mentioned in the introduction, I came into the course with my ego inflated. But while I knew this, I was sort of okay with it. Ego made me feel good. So when Goenka and his teachings spoke of eradicating ego and living an egoless life, my mind started to attack his ideas. As with the concept of equanimity earlier described, with all concepts of Vipassana teaching I was extremely skeptical of the practice. I now realize that this was the result of the ego. My inflated ego knew that if I completed the course, it would be severely reduced and maybe even eradicated. As with most living creatures, when it becomes threatened is when it unleashes most of its power, like when someone comes between a mother bear and her cubs. So my ego started to reject the teachings, coming up with its own evidence of why Vipassana was not good for me. The longer the course went on and the more the teachings made logical sense, the more desperate I could observe my ego becoming. It was coming up with more and more absurd ideas and theories of why I should leave. This is a cult, they won’t let you leave after ten days, they are using your credit card details while you are here, this is all a set-up, this is a form of torture, you’re in a prison, these people are weirdos, they’re brainwashing you. It was fascinating realizing that my monkey mind was more active than I thought.
During the meditation sessions, my mind would often wander. In the early days of the course, it would constantly be on things that I would do once I go out of the course that would provide me pleasure – sexual fantasies, which foods I would eat, which pleasurable activities I would partake in. As the days went on and my ego began to lose power, the focus switched. Instead of having ideas of how I can make myself look and feel good, it became about how I can serve other people selflessly, and how I can give to the community, how I can have a positive impact on the world. A prime example is that in the early days I had the idea of making a presentation in front of my company in the future. I was dreaming up all the slides, and jokes I would tell, and ways I would talk about myself and so on. As the ego began to diminish my outlook on the idea of the presentation changed. I still wanted to do it, and the slides might even be exactly the same, but the ‘volition’ (intention) had changed. Instead of doing it for egotistical and self-indulgent purposes, I realized that I should have the mindset of how I can provide the most value to the audience, whether it makes me look good or not. One of the most profound impacts of the course for me was the reduction in self-centeredness and ego.
Vipassana meditation can alleviate psychosomatic disorders such as eczema.
One of the most tangible positive benefits I took from the Vipassana course was a reduction in symptoms of a disease I have suffered from for my whole life – eczema. The conditions for the course, including all vegetarian meals conducive to good gut health, to the sittings of strong determination where posture and movement is restricted, all helped to contain the deleterious behavior of scratching the skin. One of the main processes associated with Vipassana meditation is of breaking old habit patterns of the mind. In other words, the practice would help remove destructive behavior patterns that had been learned throughout life. Each time I remained equanimous and non-reactive to certain sensations like itchiness, I knew I was rewriting the programming in my unconscious mind. After day 1 or 2, I barely scratched my skin, and became much more aware of dryness associated with itching. Only on Day 10 did I let it slip and scratched a little in my sleep, but my new learning of equanimity allowed to see the reality of it instead of feeling disempowered.
Physical pain doesn’t have to result in mental pain. Vipassana meditation increases pain tolerance and management.
In the first few days the pain of sitting still in a cross-legged position often became excruciating. My face would wince, and I would feel like screaming out into the silent meditation room or to sigh loudly after each meditation session. Many times during the first few days, I would describe the course as a form of torture, and that I wouldn’t even wish this on my worst enemy, that I would never donate any money to this horrendous organization. During one of the evening discourses, Goenka stated that physical pain doesn’t have to mean mental pain too. Once I practiced this, and remained equanimous with my pain of sitting, the level of perceived pain dramatically reduced. That understanding as well as the reduction of the ego to see myself and my pain objectively and impermanently allowed me to meditate better. Of course pain can be a very useful signal for tissue damage, but more and more people in this day and age suffer from disorders leading to chronic pain, which I am sure that Vipassana meditation can help to alleviate.
Boredom leads to creativity, and there should be no aversion to it.
One of the things I prided myself upon before the course that I very rarely felt boredom. There was always something useful or entertaining that I could be doing, and I was happy to lead an ‘interesting’ life. However, I had also noticed that I was particularly pleasure-centered and all these activities I had been partaking had increased my tolerance for pleasure. I had to keep doing crazier and crazier activities to get my daily fix of dopamine. Not only does that sound unhealthy, it also created a lot of pressure on my bank account. The course and its facilities are devoid of stimulation. There are no strong scents, no interesting artwork, and the landscape of the area was monotonous. Of course without the constant stimulation of blue screens, the mind was craving something to play with. So with no external stimuli, the brain has to create its own entertainment. One man said he played old western movies in his mind throughout the course, while another said that he had solved all the world’s problems in his head within the ten days (with the exception of who should replace Trump as President of the United States). Personally, I had an experience similar to the latter. I had had created whole PowerPoint presentations and websites in my head, as well as designing intricate biological experiments that I could test on myself. I found whenever I did accidentally mutter to myself, I would always do it in a foreign language, whether it were Spanish, Russian or Cantonese. Random songs would play in my head. It turns out boredom is not all bad, it can be very resourceful, and we should be equanimous to this particular state of mind.
Vipassana meditation increased my awareness and sensitivity of my body’s sensations.
The act of Vipassana meditation is to simply scan the body from head to toe and vice versa, and to observe objectively the sensations that would arise, and pass away. Spending so much time on this led me to increase my sensitivity to my body. I could now feel a brush of moving air past my ear, or feel the sebum being secreted out of a pore in my face. I could contemplate the physiological process that would be associated with a particular feeling in any area of my body. I even considered with concepts of brain plasticity that the physical structure and connections within my brain and its sensory mapping may have changed. With so much time spent with our eyes closed, I wondered whether neuron connections of the vision systems in the brain weakened, while those of the somatosensory sections increased in strength.
The male millennial generation is soft.
The Vipassana course elicits a lot of painful sensations in the body and the mind. It is for sure the hardest thing I have personally done in my life, but I am so glad I completed it and saw the positive effects that it is supposed to have. However, I do feel for the people who left midway through the course. While not many of the female contingent left the course, around half of all the men did, including my roommate. That was the one and only time that I wanted to break my silence was when he was walking out of the door. The large majority of people leaving the course after it had started were young males. This probably is not an anomaly and it certainly made me think that young males in today’s society are certainly averse to doing difficult, painful things.
Learning through experience trumps learning through intellect.
The Vipassana course prides itself on being a practical course, leading to learning through one’s own experience. That is the exact reason we were required to remain silent, as well as not being able to read or write. Too much of the world are learning theories intellectually without knowing what it is really like to experience what they are studying. Experiential learning leads to greater understanding of concepts and should be a reminder for those like myself that indulge in self-help and psychology books, learn the theory, but never take action in the real world. Learning is a lot tougher if only done at the intellectual level. One analogy is trying to learn to swim without touching water, it would be a miracle to see that happen.
Western scientific language cannot always explain something that is real, so therefore many eastern beliefs are unfairly pre-judged as incorrect.
I had so many experiences during the course that I could at least partially match up through using existing scientific and psychological models as references. Models such as Pavlov’s classical conditioning dog experiment to explain my behavior re-patterning for eczema, or Professor Steve Peter’s “Chimp Paradox” model to explain the crazy actions of our ego. However, the human experience is so complex that Western science doesn’t know all the answers yet. And just because scientists can’t explain something yet doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
During the course on the third day, I started experimenting with the Anapana (breathing) meditation. The focus was to focus on the sensation inside the nostrils and on the upper lip, just a small part of the body. I already knew from speaking to another friend that there were sessions where it was required that the body remain completely still. So what I did was I tried to remain completely still for two hours while conducting Anapana meditation. About 80% of the way through, I could feel my legs and body starting to go numb. I just felt like a massive, floating face. What happened next surely would be considered psychedelic. As I moved to straighten my neck, the lights in the ceiling felt like they pierced deep into my mind. I felt a huge pressure between my eyes in what some people call the brow chakra area (also known as the third eye), and I felt like my face started floating away towards the ceiling. It was alarming to say the least! The sensation lasted a few seconds and I snapped out of it. One of the people I spoke to after the course told me it is quite a common experience during deep meditation and is related to theta waves in the brain. Neuroscience is such a complicated study, yet it is amazing how humans from ancient times already had so much wisdom and insight. They just had their own metaphors and terminology to explain the laws of nature.
Overall, I would recommend almost anybody to attend a 10-day course in Vipassana if they can. They are heavily oversubscribed, especially on the women’s side and I feel very lucky to have completed one. There are more and more studies published in scientific journals outlining the positive effects on health, well-being and general quality of life of people who engage in meditation.
Goenka teaches that after the course, the student should practice twice a day for one hour each, and the practice is as important as eating, sleeping and brushing teeth. It should be considered as imperative as these other daily activities because it is simply good for the meditator and everyone around them. Overall it has taught me to just try to be a more compassionate, better person.
I would love to know the biggest takeaways of anyone who has completed a Vipassana course, and would appreciate comments on this post!