Four Aspects of a Great Life

While on a silent meditation retreat in October, I spent some (non-sitting) time pondering what a “great life” consists of, if broken down to its most essential qualities. Obviously, different people have different values and therefore different aspirations for their lives. But I wanted to distill this down to the basics. I wanted to try to determine what the core components of such a life would be, such that a life without any one of them could not constitute what most would consider a “great” life. This was not simply an intellectual exercise; I wanted to essentially figure out what matters most and see if I could more closely align my own life accordingly.

First, a Definition

In his Questions of Value course, philosophy professor Patrick Grim has a lecture entitled “Lives to Envy, Lives to Admire”.  He distinguishes between these two categories, explaining that some people’s lives are “enviable” from the outside for (what we imagine to be) the subjective experience of living them, while others may live “admirable” lives, lives that we admire from afar but wouldn’t necessarily wish to experience for ourselves due to their inherent hardship or high degree of unpleasantness.

By way of example, he cites Benjamin Franklin as a candidate for a life to envy: a life filled with accomplishments across a wide spectrum of fields, a well-rounded and likely enjoyable life filled with great impact and, we imagine, satisfaction. And he offers up Abraham Lincoln’s life as an example of one to admire: his also marked by great achievement, but with a seemingly far greater deal of personal struggles and suffering.

Of course, these two categories of hypothetical lives need not be mutually exclusive; a life can be both enviable and admirable. In fact he concludes, drawing upon the works of Plato and Aristotle, that a genuinely good life must have elements of both “the enviable” and “the admirable”. The question that arises in his lecture becomes one of establishing what constitutes a perfect balance between the two, so as to maximize the “goodness” of a life lived.

For the purposes of this modest blog post, I will define a “great life” as simply one that would be both desirable and admirable, a life most of us would quite willingly choose to live for its intrinsic satisfaction and positive effects. (I prefer the word “desirable” rather than “enviable”, as the latter word connotes the inducement of jealousy whereas the former focuses just on being appealing). Most of us wish to both enjoy our lives and feel they have been useful in contributing something of genuine value to others.

A Working Model

What I submit to you here is my working model of “Four Aspects of a Great Life”. By my own definition and estimation, a life missing any one of these key components would be incomplete. And, if I did my work properly, I would not have left out anything essential.

I am not suggesting that what I am offering up here is “capital-T Truth”. It is a working model, and is meant to provide food for thought and reflection. Perhaps it will be a catalyst for ongoing conversation, hopefully one leading to greater discernment rather than vicious arguments. 😉  I welcome any and all constructive feedback so that this model might be improved upon.

That said, here is what I came up with while strolling silently on the walking path at the Southern California Vipassana Center.

Four Aspects of a Great Life

Aspect #1: Health.

Feeling good and being well much more often than not is an essential part of a great life (think of the “desirable” part of the above definition). Without reasonable – if not good or excellent – health, the other aspects are rendered practically irrelevant. Obviously, one’s health is not a static condition, and for many or most of us it can become increasingly compromised as we age, so I am referring to the overall health and vitality experienced during one’s lifetime.

Of course, there are (overlapping) sub-categories to health, all of which are essential to one’s overall well-being. We’re talking about a functioning, physically healthy body with which one can experience enjoyment and accomplish things in the physical world. A healthy mind so that we can thoughtfully contemplate things (such as what’s involved in living a great life!), problem solve, make good decisions, and use our creativity. Emotional health, so that we can both honor our feelings and not be overwhelmed to the point of debilitation or self-sabotage by them (aka emotional self-regulation). And, finally, spiritual health, which I’ll broadly define as a sense of connection to something(s) outside of oneself, such as other beings, the natural world, a cause affecting other’s lives as well as one’s own, and a respect for the mystery of existence – in whatever shape or form that may take, religious or otherwise.

Since health is so essential to thriving, we must do that which we can to achieve, maintain, and/or improve it. We don’t have complete control over it (as if that weren’t obvious), and part of being healthy resides in acceptance of this fact. But a significant part of honoring our health is being proactive about it, and claiming agency when/where we have it, as best we can determine.

Aspect #2: Relationships.

We humans are social animals. No person flourishes without supportive relationships. In a practical sense, others provide us with love, care, companionship, nurturance, assistance, knowledge, other perspectives, and a host of other things. They give our lives meaning and, often, purpose. They allow us to cultivate qualities like empathy and compassion. Who are the people we are doing the things we do for? Is it really just ourselves? If it is, I would argue that this does not make for a great life, as self-interest (while, of course, necessary) is not in and of itself particularly “admirable”. And think about this: how satisfying is even a great personal achievement without someone with whom to share, at the very least, news of it?

Be it friends, life partners/spouses, co-workers, neighbors, family members, “adopted” family members, pets, even strangers – relationships with others are how we forge our way in the world and shape our identities. They give our lives definition; we only are the things we are – a friend, co-worker, family member, or anything else – in relation to others. Think about any role you might play, and ask yourself if you would still be that thing were it not for others who are either also that thing, are not that thing, or perhaps are on the receiving end of that thing (every musician needs a listener, every teacher a student, business owner a customer or client, teammate another teammate, etc.).

Seeing as how relationships are so fundamental, in terms of both our survival and our prospering, it is perhaps worth paying attention to the people and creatures that currently populate our lives and doing what we can to improve these connections. Relationships are not all “sunshine and roses”, of course – they can at times be challenging or even cause great suffering. In some cases, improving our relationship lives might mean withdrawing from or dropping certain connections altogether. It might mean solidifying some, working to improve others that we have neglected but are worth tending, seeking out new ones, or simply making a point of appreciating and nurturing the good ones we are currently fortunate enough to have.

Positive relationships (for our purposes, let’s define these as mutually supportive ones) are essential to our overall health, and so Aspect #2 dovetails nicely with Aspect #1. The two aspects also have some commonalities: they are both always in flux, and we do not have complete control over the state of either of them (others have to agree to be in relationship with us), but we can at least assume responsibility for our end of things.

I might also point out that our relationships with ourselves can be insidiously easy to overlook, and paying attention to our health is one key way to develop, or improve, this one. Along these same lines, it might also behoove us to cultivate our relationship with a higher power, however we understand that, or more generally with Life itself.

Aspect #3: Contribution.

A third key component to a great life, by my estimation, is some form(s) of contribution, of leaving the world a better place for your having been around. Contribution entails doing what you can to improve others’ lives (and is therefore inextricably tied to Aspect #2). Contributions great and small provide not only something of value to the recipients (the “admirable” piece), but also to the contributor (the “desirable” piece). To contribute is to feel that you are putting your life to some worthwhile use. The more you are employing your skills, talents, and abilities (whatever they may be) to the benefit of others, especially in the service of your own deeply held values, the better it feels. To make a positive difference is perhaps the most gratifying thing a person can experience. Therefore, a “great” life would be incomplete without this component.

Okay, so what if you lived a life where you had excellent health, were blessed with supportive relationships, and were both able and willing to genuinely contribute to improving the lives of others? Would this constitute a great life? It’d be pretty good, for sure. But in my view there would still be one key thing missing:

Aspect #4: Appreciation.

I first considered calling this category “enjoyment”, because if you haven’t enjoyed your life, how can it have been a great one? (It might be admirable, but not desirable.) Pleasure/fun/enjoyment seem necessary to any reasonable definition of a great life. Without these things, what’s the point?

But upon deeper reflection it seems to me that whereas enjoyment is fairly reflexive, appreciating things is actually a skill of sorts: something that can be deepened, cultivated, developed. The ability to enjoy things, to appreciate them, is more important even than the actual object(s) of enjoyment. After all, you can be granted every privilege or luxury available on earth and not necessarily enjoy them.

Speaking for myself, I find my ability to get a genuine kick out of things to be one of my saving graces. Imagine being blasé about anything and everything. What good are delicious foods, incredible art, exotic travels, natural beauty, and experience itself without the ability to appreciate them?

Appreciation, while it includes enjoyment, goes deeper. It incorporates things like wonder, awe, curiosity, and respect, and perhaps even some level of understanding (appreciating what went into the making or preparation of something, for example).

Most importantly, the word “appreciation” also means gratitude. If we simply take all of the blessings of our lives for granted, then we are missing something fundamental to a life well-lived. Gratitude is a felt acknowledgment. Within that acknowledgment is at least some understanding of the ways in which we are or have been fortunate and privileged, where we might just as easily have not been. It is a felt sense that our lives have been a gift, something to be treasured. If we don’t treasure our own life, in its complete mix and mess of things, then how can it be considered “great”?

So, there you have it – a great life (defined as one that is both desirable and admirable) must include a (preferably high) degree of health, positive/supportive/loving relationships, contribution to others, and appreciation (both in the “enjoyment” and “gratitude” senses of the word). A life without one or more of these components still might be desirable or admirable, but I believe all four elements are needed for it to be both.

Have I Missed Something?

These were the four aspects I came up with while away on retreat.

I now realize I might have included a fifth, seemingly unlikely, aspect. And that would be: (a certain degree of) hardship. How to quantify the amount? Just enough to appreciate having good health, good relationships, and the effort involved in making a real contribution. After all, if all of this came easily, would it really mean anything?

However, I think the above insight is actually already included within Aspect #4. A certain amount of difficulty and hardship is probably necessary in order to experience true appreciation. We have to know what illness is like to fully appreciate good health; what loneliness, rejection, and not being treated well are like to fully appreciate supportive relationships; and what sacrifice is like to fully appreciate the value of contribution.

So, I stand by my original four aspects. 😄

I have looked for potential holes in this model. One is this: that which is considered desirable or admirable might be seen as a subjective thing. Perhaps not everyone agrees on what things or qualities fall into these categories.

But the purpose of having a model like this, of course, is to reflect on how one might live an even better (i.e., both more desirable and more admirable) life. On the cusp of a brand new calendar year, and decade, it seems fitting to consider this question. And if this model is helpful in that regard (if only for getting you to consider in what ways it is flawed, and then modify it and act accordingly in your own life), then it has served its purpose!

Speaking for myself, I will look at these four aspects and ask myself in what ways I can be intentional about cultivating and improving my own health, relationships, contributions, and appreciation moving forward.

If you feel I have missed something important, or would suggest an improvement to this model, please let me know in the comments below.

Here’s wishing you a both desirable and admirable life in 2020 and beyond!

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Nine Takeaways from a Ten-Day Meditation Retreat

This is the fifth and final installment of a series of posts about a ten-day Vipassana meditation course I completed a month ago.

The first of these posts explains how and why I decided to do this:

Sitting Down and Shutting Up for Ten Days Straight. By Choice.

I intended to write a single post detailing my actual experiences on the retreat, but this ended up stretching into three:

My Vipassana Course Experience (Part One)

My Vipassana Course Experience (Part Two)

My Vipassana Course Experience (Part Three)

Obviously, I had a lot to say about it. Even while editing it down and omitting things!

This last post works as a stand-alone, if you do not wish to read any of those linked to above and just want to know what I learned from the experience.

What follows is not a list of the key lessons built into the course’s instruction, per se, but rather what were, for me, the key takeaways from the overall experience:

1. Environment is Stronger than Discipline.

This is a concept that was first made explicit to me at a Steve Pavlina workshop I attended back in 2010 (just before launching this blog).

We, especially here in the West, like to think we are such individuals and that we are, for the most part, self-determined and immune to outside influences.

HA!  (I guess advertisers are simply naïve for spending as much as they do?)

Our environments affect us tremendously. In a very literal sense, “the environment” is what supports all life on Earth. As it changes, it becomes more hospitable to some life forms and less so to others. (Humans, despite our arrogance and ignorance, are not immune to this phenomenon.)

Our environment determines the parameters of our options. It may support certain activities and thwart others (as weather often does). It may reward certain behaviors and punish others (as laws do). It may encourage certain inclinations and discourage others (as all parents do, for better and/or worse). This is not to say that one can never overcome its influence, but its influence is vast and often beyond the reach of our awareness.

Bringing this back to the retreat, I was amazed by how incredibly intentional the environment was at the Southern California Vipassana Center. Both in terms of the physical environment and the established rules we had to agree to, everything was carefully designed to be maximally supportive of and conducive to our study and practice of Vipassana. The tranquility of the setting was ideal for meditation. Our rooms were equipped with all we would need to sleep and meditate, but nothing more. The daily schedule was highly regimented and, though it did provide rest periods and hours where meditation was “unenforced”, there was so little else to do that one might choose to meditate anyway (my friend Matt, the impetus behind my going, referred to this aspect as “evil genius”). By prohibiting all means of contacting people outside of the course borders (exceptions made only for emergencies), communication with our fellow participants, gadgets, books, “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll”, etc., pretty much any and all distractions from meditation were effectively removed.

Make no mistake about it, this was a highly controlled and atypical environment. While this initially activated suspicion and even fear on my part (see My Vipassana Course Experience (Part One)), I came to see this, over time, not as harsh and oppressive but rather as quite protective and supportive. (Of course, one could argue that if this were a cult and I had been effectively brainwashed, I would feel the same way about it! 😉)

I will say that without the natural beauty of the location, it would have felt a lot like prison. But this choice was also very deliberate.

The required group sits in the meditation hall ensured at least a minimum number of hours of meditation each day, and that we would receive all of the instruction as it gradually unfolded over the course of the ten days. It also provided much-needed and very effective social support (and accountability) for extended sitting.

I mentioned in My Vipassana Course Experience (Part Two) that I meditated around five to six hours a day throughout the course’s ten days. While this may sound on the low end given that the schedule provides the potential to meditate upwards of ten hours a day(!), for me the amount I did was astounding. There is practically no other way I possibly could or would have meditated that many hours a day for ten straight days. This was all facilitated by the environment.

Funny side note:

I tried to think of a time when I had experienced such a carefully constructed environment in the past – one that was so consciously designed to bring about such specific behavior. The only one that came to mind was The Strip in Las Vegas. Instead of eliciting monastic behavior, of course, Vegas supports indulgence in any and every vice under the sun, within the (outer) limits of the law. The environment there is all about celebrating distraction and encouraging unconscious and self-destructive behavior (all in the name of separating you from your money). It is the polar opposite of the environment at the SCVC. Ironically enough, the Vegas strip happened to be where the aforementioned Steve Pavlina workshop (entitled “Conscious Growth Workshop”) took place!

2. I Eat Too Much, and for Reasons Other than Hunger.

At home it is all too easy to turn to food for reasons other than sustenance: pleasure, to numb oneself or suppress unwanted feelings, etc. To eat way more calories than necessary, and at inadvisable times of day or night.

I knew this, of course, but it was made apparent to the point of being a revelation to me on the retreat.

The course schedule, standard to Vipassana retreats worldwide, called for breakfast being served at 6:30am and lunch at 11:00am. There is no “dinner”. At 5:00pm, tea is served (along with fruit, if you’re a newbie; returning students are instructed to do without the fruit).

That’s it.

No outside food of any kind is to be brought in. You are only able to eat what is served (all vegetarian meals), when it is served. What’s more, Goenka recommended in one of the evening discourses that you not stuff yourself during lunch, but rather always leave your stomach “one-quarter empty”, as it is more difficult to meditate on a full stomach.

One of my concerns going into this was that I would become uncomfortably hungry (say, in the evening), and have no choice but to suffer through it. To my surprise, however, it was really a non-issue. In fact, there were unexpected benefits to the eating schedule.

In “normal life” I often suffer from indigestion and will reach for an antacid before bed, in the middle of the night, and/or upon getting up. With the eating regimen on the retreat, I experienced no indigestion at all. There could be several reasons for this, but no doubt one of them was not eating anything close to bedtime.

With no access to food after the fruit option at 5:00pm, snacking was not a possibility. (At home, it is always a possibility.) Refraining from eating in this way is something I doubtfully ever would have done, or even thought to do, on my own.

Having the option of snacking taken away from me gave me insights into my eating habits I likely wouldn’t have come to otherwise (certainly not by, say, just reading about best eating practices). I learned I could eat less and be fine.

I actually lost ten pounds over the course of the ten days. No joke. (This brought me back into healthy BMI range). I’ve mostly kept this weight off, too, so far, though I have no illusions about the challenge of keeping it off long-term. The pull of my “normal” environment is strong! However, I have been significantly more mindful about my eating and about “portion control” since I’ve been back (e.g., not eating food simply because it’s there, making an effort not to continue eating beyond the feeling of being full, etc.).

Which brings me to my next powerful insight:

3. Restrictions (Can) Actually Equal Freedom.

The food restriction mentioned above was just one example of this. By not having the option to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I didn’t. And so I freed myself from the need for antacids, and from ten unwanted pounds.

Having no access to my phone for close to eleven full days was wonderful! Just being freed from compulsively checking the news – that alone made the whole experience worthwhile. I honestly did not miss the Internet. I would step outside in the morning, notice the world was still there, and figure nothing too bad could have happened. I needn’t be burdened by a million horrors I could do nothing about, and this freed up my mental energy (and probably lifted it).

Instead of being a slave to the endless supply of distractions available to us 24/7 in the “first world”, I was freed from all of them. There is a certain tyranny to the sheer number of entertainment options available at our fingertips each day, not to mention the endless temptation to succumb to them. However high in quality many of these offerings may be, it is all too easy to use them to avoid feeling our feelings or attending to matters or tasks that, although important to us, require effort, concentration, and/or initiative. I experienced a palpable relief from being unburdened, for a time, by the world of ever-present content competing for my attention. I was freed to reflect on my life, and life itself, and to notice and feel whatever it was I happened to be feeling.

By being restricted from speaking, we were freed to hone our powers of observation. The lack of talking (and noise from others talking) not only prompted us to pay closer attention to our inner experience, but steered us towards paying much closer attention to our natural environs (which so often go unnoticed in our day-to-day lives). We could also simply “be” without having to concern ourselves with even the most trivial of social niceties or expectations. Freedom!

4. Being Here Now is Extremely Difficult. 

Even in an environment ideally suited for meditation and contemplation, free from practically every imaginable distraction, it is still challenging to sustain present-moment awareness. It takes near-constant concerted and sustained efforts. Goenka time and time again throughout the course advised us to “work diligently, ardently, patiently and persistently, continuously, continuously, continuously…”

It is endlessly impressive how distractible the human mind is!

5. Attitude is Kinda Everything.

The same experience can be torturous or pleasant, depending on how much we resist or accept it. I gave an example in My Vipassana Course Experience (Part Two) of how torturous one particular meditation session was for me, and how the next was dramatically less so (if at all) by a simple adjustment in my approach to it.

We humans have an incredible capacity to both make the best of a difficult situation and the worst of one that is not so difficult. We are impressive. 😏

6. You Never Know for Sure What’s Going on with Another Person, or What Suffering They May Be Privately Enduring.

After nine days of hanging out in silence with the same group of guys (men and women are separated in this course), you come up with all sorts of stories and ideas about who your fellow students are, and what they might be like. You can’t help but do this. We humans come up with snap judgments all the time of people we simply pass on the street, let alone those we share an intimate space and unusual experience with for nine full days. We form impressions all the time based on very limited information. And, yet, we believe them.

When Day Ten arrived, and I had the chance to speak with my fellow meditators for the first time (there were maybe three with whom I spoke at dinner on Day Zero before the noble silence began), none of them were anything like I had guessed. This was most striking, perhaps, simply hearing how many different accents came out of people’s mouths: Russian, British, Finnish, South African(-ish?), and so on. Why did I expect all of their accents to be American? My most basic assumption, unconscious as it was, was shattered instantly.

I had presumptions or expectations about people’s personalities, based on…what? What they looked like or how they dressed? How they moved/carried themselves? My impressions were generally totally off the mark. People’s stories somehow always surprised me.

I spoke with one guy who revealed to me he had been suffering from severe sciatica pain going into the retreat. He had tried just about everything he could think of to heal it  (from traditional doctors to all kinds of alternative medicine modalities), all without success. This retreat was the last thing on his list he figured he would try (it didn’t work).

He told me he was in such excruciating pain sitting on the floor in the meditation hall on Day Two that he thought he was going to cry or puke (or both).

I had observed him numerous times throughout the course. He seemed totally fine to me. I would never have had a clue what he was going through, and honestly have no idea, having found this out, how he was able to tolerate all of the sitting for all of those consecutive days, given his condition. (He did move from his initial seating assignment, and ended up sitting in the back of the hall against the wall for back support, but this was not uncommon. Reasonable accommodations were made for people who needed to change how they sat.)

His case was just one of several examples that showed me how little I knew about what anyone else had been going through, let alone what their personalities or life stories were like.

This really isn’t nearly as surprising as the fact that we somehow think we actually do know these things!

The truth is, even people we see and interact with every day carry all kinds of personal struggles and pain unbeknownst to us. It can be shocking sometimes to learn about something they are going through, or have lived through, if we have known them a fair amount of time or longer, because it shatters the illusion that we know what they’re all about.

7. Reactivity Tends to Run the Show that is Our Lives. Meditation Can Help with This.

If you read the posts detailing my experiences on the retreat, you will know about the two major reactive episodes that nearly derailed me from completing the course.

But the fact is, we are in reaction mode much of the time in our daily lives. The degree to which we are subject to unconscious, habitual reactions was highlighted and brought home to me in a unique way in this ten-day course.

Goenka used the Buddhist term sankhara (usually in the plural) to describe our default, conditioned ways of reacting to pleasant sensations (with craving) and unpleasant sensations (with aversion). Until we subvert these unconscious reactions of craving and aversion, he relayed, we are essentially prisoners of them.

Goenka told us that by observing our body sensations up close and keeping our attention focused on them in an equanimous, non-reactive way until they disappear, we are effectively “eradicating old sankharas” (old habit patterns) and “purifying the mind”, which ultimately (capital-U ultimately here, as in after lifetimes of practice) means liberation from suffering.

When I returned from the retreat and explained this concept to my wife, Samantha, she came up with what I found to be a much more palatable, modern-day translation of this idea:

By meditating you’re creating new neural pathways in the brain that, if strengthened through enough practice, may override some of the old habitual reaction patterns.

The goal here, then, is to learn to not be so reactive, and to cultivate equanimity in the face of whatever life throws at us, so that we can live better (more peacefully, more at ease) and deal with challenges more effectively. Who can argue with that?

Of course, Goenka makes his case for Vipassana specifically, and why he feels it is is the best of all meditation techniques. But I suppose even he wasn’t immune to bias. 😉

I, for one, believe that many types of meditation can be beneficial, and perhaps these are all needed now more than ever, given the circumstances of modern life and the unprecedented degree to which our attention is deliberately and continuously hijacked.

The Dalai Lama once famously said: “If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”

Even if this statement sounds absurd to you, imagine how beneficial it might be if, from a young age, we were taught simple techniques for: focusing our attention, building concentration, increasing self-awareness, becoming more relaxed and calm, being less reactive, and extending compassion to ourselves and others. Maybe it would reduce violence, even a little bit. Wouldn’t it be great to give it a try and find out?

8. Insights Gleaned from Experience are Much More Powerful than Those Derived from Intellect Alone.

Some, or all, of these takeaways probably sound trite. We pretty much know these things already, but having them brought to life in real-time adds a much greater depth of understanding. It’s the difference between knowledge that is sitting in your brain and knowledge that is coursing through your veins.

Knowledge that is coursing through your veins is much more likely to be acted upon.

9. Facing Fears/Taking “Intelligent” Risks Facilitates Growth.

Facing fears for a good reason (e.g., to explore something that might improve your own life and/or someone else’s) usually ends up being beneficial, in my experience.

In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of an example from my life where I faced a fear and regretted it. In some cases, a fear faced proved to be life-changing in an obvious, dramatic, and positive way (putting on a large, unwieldy pack and taking the first few steps on my first-ever backpacking trip led to a whole new way of experiencing and appreciating the outdoors; going into the ocean and swimming out to the first buoy in my first-ever triathlon led to more than a decade of satisfying training and racing experiences and the eventual completion of an Ironman; getting past a fear of needles to donate blood led to becoming a regular donor and potentially helping to save someone’s life; getting over a fear of hospitals and seriously ill patients led to amazing moments of playing music for people in their hospital rooms, lifting their spirits and mine). There were times when I’ve faced a fear and didn’t get the hoped for result (asking someone out on a date and enduring the sting of rejection or unreturned feelings). But even then, I could take solace in the fact that I now knew what was on the other side of my fear and was not relegated to wondering “what if?” for the rest of my life. Plus, every fear faced builds the courage muscle and opens the door to greater possibilities.

Going on this ten-day (nine of those days silent) meditation retreat was, for me, facing a big fear (or collection of fears, as explained in Sitting Down and Shutting Up for Ten Days Straight. By Choice.). I’m so glad I did it, both for once again exercising the courage muscle, and also for giving myself what turned out to be a rich, worthwhile, and fascinating experience (that has taken me five blog posts to attempt to do justice to).

The real question with fear facing, I suppose, is what constitutes “intelligent” risk? We can’t always know, or figure it out, ahead of time. Hopefully our discernment abilities improve over time and with experience (though, of course, this is never a guarantee!).

While I am all for well-thought-out, selective risk-taking, I am also of the opinion that not taking any risks is the greatest risk of all in life, because that is taking the risk of dying with a huge pile of regrets…of leaving what may be your only life “unlived”.

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My Vipassana Course Experience (Part Three)

Day Nine, being our last day of noble silence, had a different flavor to it, a sort of “last day of summer camp” feel. The last day of anything feels different, if you happen to know in advance that it will be the last day of that thing.

Goenka had told us that this would be the last day of serious work in the course. Once we opened our mouths on Day Ten and words fell out, well…all bets were off. (His language was we would switch from “noble silence” to “noble chattering”.)

So, even though it was serious work that was soon coming to an end and I was relieved about that, I also felt a heightened sense of urgency to do my best. After all, it would be my last opportunity to build upon all of these consecutive days of immersive meditation and soak in this unusual experience.

It would also be the last day of eating together in silence, of sharing the walking path in silence, of having moments of observing nature (and observing each other observing nature!) in silence.

Slowing down in this way and, importantly, having all distractions removed (including conversation), naturally led to paying closer attention to the natural world around us. The grounds of the Southern California Vipassana Center (and, I would imagine, the other Vipassana center locations worldwide) are by design situated in a beautiful and tranquil natural setting. It was not uncommon to stop and give sustained attention to something we would likely have ignored in our “householder” lives: the bustling activity in and around an anthill; a rabbit feeding on some leaves; the changing light in the sky, over the horizon, or on the surrounding landscape; or even a perfectly still cactus specimen. I loved having these opportunities, as well as watching my fellow students indulging in them.

Closer observation of the natural world, in an atmosphere of silence, also seemed to highlight the parallels between our internal and external worlds. Careful inspection of a cholla cactus, with its incredible proliferation of sharp, protective spines, reminded me of a particularly defended person I know (and, of course, my own self-protective tendencies). The ever-changing light in the sky reflected back that same aspect of my own body sensations, moods, and emotions.

At the same time, the pull to wander away from the present moment was still strong, even while I was acutely aware of its impermanence. There was still curiosity, for instance, about what the next day would be like, when we could finally speak to each other, and this conflicted with my attempts to maximize appreciation for this last day in silence.

“Being here now”? Turns out: not so easy. It takes practice!

At last, Day Ten arrived. It was also known as “Metta Day”, in reference to another meditation technique we would be adding to our practice for the course’s grand finale.

I was already quite familiar with Metta (aka, Lovingkindness) – in fact, I dedicated a whole post to it here.

It is among the most beautiful practices I know of. It can be profoundly moving, cleansing, and heart-opening. It can bring about feelings of warmth and connectedness towards oneself and one’s fellow beings everywhere. I was anticipating it might be especially powerful following nine days of intense silent meditation!

And, I must admit, the thought occurred to my cynical side that it might also be a smart way of ending the retreat on a high-note and putting people in a very “giving” (as in “donating”) frame of mind.

Speaking of money, you might be wondering what all of this costs? This ten-day retreat, on beautiful and carefully maintained grounds, complete with healthy meals, lodging, and guided instruction? Turns out there is no cost at all. It is entirely donation-based. What’s more, they only accept donations from people who have completed a course. They will receive donations (according to your own “means and volition”) on the last day of the course or any time thereafter. And this is their entire source of funding!

If you think about it, it is quite an impressive business model. Imagine the confidence a company must have in its product or service for its stance to be: Try it out first. Then, only if you feel it is of value to you, pay us whatever you feel like. You can keep it regardless. How many businesses would survive like that?

Honestly, I don’t know how they make it work, but there are centers worldwide (they each operate independently even though they follow the same structure and all use Goenka’s recordings) and it seems like demand for and interest in courses is only increasing (the SCVC has an expansion/construction plan already in place that will double the capacity of students it can hold at any given time; the current capacity is 35 men and 35 women).

I thought for sure there would be a hard push for donations on the last day, complete with lots of guilt-tripping and in-your-face “requests”. But, as with so many other aspects of the course, my expectations were upended. They made it known where and when we could donate. In this area, there were some brochures and some literature about Vipassana, and a modest trade show-style display showcasing programs, other retreats, and the expansion plan for this particular center. There was a single volunteer on hand at a table (one on the men’s side, one on the women’s side) to take donations. But there was no pressure whatsoever to donate, nor even as much as a suggested amount mentioned by anyone. I was very pleasantly surprised. I actually thought they could have done at least a little more promotion than they did. (How refreshing is that?!)

Back to the Metta.

Again, I was surprised by what I felt was an opportunity missed.

Goenka’s instructions for and delivery of the guided Metta practice (via audio only) were, to my ears, seriously lacking. Granted, his presentation style on the audio-only recordings took some getting used to. His voice (as I have previously described) could sound downright sinister at times.

Here, as he spoke of radiating out love and goodwill towards all living creatures, his voice sounded utterly ghastly. Imagine someone on his deathbed, with hardly any life left in him, slowly sounding out the following words in as dreary, bloodless, lackluster, and gravelly a manner as you can imagine: “Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaappppppppppppyyyyyyyyyyyy.”

I’m not kidding.

He took what has, in my experience, been a deeply moving practice (I was expecting us all to be reduced to tears of compassionate joy) and utterly sucked all of the beauty and heart out of it, eliciting not a trace of lovingkindness or any other feeling out of me, other than boredom. (I would refer you instead to Jack Kornfield’s guided audio recording of this meditation [he calls it Lovingkindness] for a dramatically different, much more impactful and beautiful rendering. Then again, I would refer you to almost any other guided version you might find anywhere!)

Anyway, once our morning group sit, and instructional session in Metta (as it was) had officially ended, we left the meditation hall, where a sign on display informed us that the noble silence had been lifted, and (outside of and away from the vicinity of the hall, please) we were now free to speak with one another!

Needless to say, this changed everything. We introduced ourselves, congregated and conversed in small groups, and smiled and laughed a lot.

People were generally nothing like the versions of themselves I had imagined in my head. All kinds of unexpected accents emerged from people’s mouths! Who knew this guy was British? Or that one was from Finland? NEVER would have guessed that! There were plenty of southern Californians, yes, but also many others from all over the world. And, of course, through conversation, people revealed all kinds of things that seemed to counter whatever impressions I had generated from observing them over the previous nine days.

Fascinating.

There would still be more meditation sessions to follow (and these would require silence), but in between them the conversation flowed freely, and the atmosphere was markedly different. It felt like a completely different version of the same place. We were even served dinner! 😊

Day Eleven

The course does not actually conclude until the following morning. There was a very early group session (I believe we had to be in the hall by 4:45am) consisting of some extended Goenka chanting and a final video discourse from the man himself to send us off back into the world. He recapped all that we had covered and practiced in the previous ten days, and encouraged us to incorporate the practice in our everyday lives.

The most meaningful thing, to me, in this last lecture was his plea for us to not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. He clearly believed in the benefits of Vipassana practice, and sincerely wished for others to experience these. “If you heard something during the course of these lectures that you did not like or agree with,” he told us, “that’s fine. Just discard it.” But he urged us not to dismiss the entire practice because of this. His message was that Vipassana could still be immensely helpful in cultivating equanimity in everyday life, if we practiced studiously.

Postscript

It made sense to me that it had been a fellow Appalachian Trail hiker that had planted the seed for my doing this retreat, as I mentioned in the first post of this series. While the two experiences (long-distance backpacking and an intensive meditation retreat) were very different, there were certainly some parallels:

  • Both entail taking a temporary break from the rat race and living a much more simplified lifestyle (although by no means one devoid of hard work).
  • Both involve eschewing electronic devices to a significant extent (although nowadays there is probably a proliferation of cell phones on the AT as opposed to when I did it back in 2002; whether or not reception is available for them is another story).
  • Both experiences highlight the interconnectedness of body and mind. While hiking long distances with a heavy pack through a variety of terrain and weather is a significant physical challenge, there is also a huge mental component to getting through it. Similarly, meditating for hours on end, though most obviously a challenge for the mind, also has a significant physical aspect to it (namely, tolerating prolonged sitting, especially when one is practicing “strong determination” to sit perfectly still, or is experiencing significant pain or discomfort).
  • Both offer opportunities for self-reflection, as well as observation of the natural world. The combination of these two things is a significant feature of both experiences, and makes apparent the ways in which the processes and states of internal and external world phenomena are analogous (e.g., changes in “weather” and “perspective”).
  • Both inevitably force you to confront, and learn things about, yourself.
  • Both are undertakings that are essentially independent ones, but not completely. They also include crucially important support from others, in one form or another (be it the phenomenon of “trail angels” [Google it] or silent solidarity).
  • Both can feel at times like heaven or hell. They can be invigorating or torturous. And one’s mindset plays a big part in creating either of these experiences. In short, they both entail successful management of your own morale.
  • Both, for me, were profound and rewarding experiences that will stay with me for as long as I am alive and have a functioning mind.

In the next post, the last one of this series, I will highlight what, for me, were the significant takeaways from my retreat: the lessons learned and insights gleaned.

Stay tuned!

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My Vipassana Course Experience (Part Two)

Day Five proved to be another pivotal one, although I wouldn’t find this out until it was nearly over.

I was doing pretty well. The acute anxiety I experienced on Day Two had thankfully not returned. That episode, in actuality, had been pretty short-lived (in line with the “law of impermanence” that was continually emphasized throughout the course).

The routine had been established by this point. I was sleeping pretty well (once I respected my own biorhythms and stopped even attempting to meditate in the early hours before breakfast), and I was relishing the enjoyable aspects of this simplified lifestyle.

I was also giving the meditation my best efforts: following the instructions to a tee, trusting the process, “showing up” for it. (The fact that there really wasn’t much else to do meant I might as well.)

I would estimate that I averaged 5-6 hours of meditation per day; not the maximum, but I was consistent. I imagined that those who were somehow able to do more than this were probably, for the most part, “old students” (those who had taken a course before, of which there was a good number), but this was just conjecture on my part. No talking or communicating, so who knows?

The fact that there were a number of repeat students was impressive, and even reassuring, to me. There must be something to this, I thought, if people actually decide to come back, and many of those who do so come back as “servers”. In fact, the entire staff (I’m pretty sure) consisted of volunteers. We’re talking: the assistant teachers (one male, one female), the course managers (one male, one female), the entire kitchen staff, the maintenance staff, etc. Amazing. And everything was impeccably run. They had it down.

I was gaining more confidence that I would make it through to the end.

And then came the evening discourse for Day Five.

It focused on suffering. I had no problem with the topic, but I did have some problems with the teachings and some of their implications.

I should preface this by saying that overall I loved Goenka’s evening discourses. I considered them to be a real treat, and a “reward” for getting though each day’s meditation sessions. They were filled with wisdom, depth, wonderful stories and analogies to illustrate points, and doses of humor. In each one, he spoke to some degree to that particular day’s place in the overall course. He often satisfied my need to understand the purpose of certain instructions we had been given and/or the rules that had been established for us to follow throughout. In fact, as the course progressed, I realized increasingly that these rules were not meant to be harsh or punitive, but were actually in place to create an ideal environment for us to practice in, so as to maximize the benefits we might receive. Rules such as not speaking or communicating with each other were not there out of a pretense of being “spiritual”, either, but rather were there for highly practical reasons. For instance, by not having the option of sharing our personal experiences of meditation with each other, we would not be distracted by the expectations arising from comparing others’ experiences to our own. The rules were there to be helpful, and demonstrated a keen and nuanced understanding of human nature.

Make no mistake about it, though: the teachings throughout this course are Buddhist teachings (or, perhaps more accurately, the Buddha’s teachings). But one of the appealing things about Goenka, for me, was his consistent critiquing of organized religion and all of the hypocrisies within (including the varying sects within Buddhism). He commented a number of times on how, for example, the practicing of rites and rituals is meaningless if one does not embody the actual values put forth by a religion’s teachings. And that doing the latter without the former (that is, living the teachings and not necessarily practicing all the rituals) is indicative of much greater integrity than vice versa. He emphasized that no teachings in this course should be accepted by us blindly, regardless of their source, but should be accepted only if they align with our own lived experience. And he stated throughout that these teachings (the Dhamma) are universal laws, that they are true regardless of one’s religion, and one can benefit from them within or completely outside of the confines of any religion.

A personal disclosure (as if this whole post, or whole blog, weren’t?): Though I have encountered what I consider to be beautiful practices and some wonderful teachings and insights contained within a number of religions, I have never been able to fully subscribe to any of them. They all, to me, are inherently (often deeply) problematic. If there is any –ism I feel aligned with, it is probably secular humanism.

So, while some may have been offended by his take on organized religion, this for sure wasn’t me.

However, and perhaps it was my understanding of the message that was at fault (or its translation over 2,500 years), there were aspects of these teachings that I found very difficult to accept. While I could see the sense of aspiring to avoid “clinging”, for example (so as to minimize one’s suffering, since anything and everything we cling to is subject to the “law of impermanence”), the Buddhist ideal of non-attachment strikes me as extreme and antithetical to a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human.

I, for one, see it as an act of courage and beauty to fully love another person (and in doing so, how can you not form an attachment?), very much because of the fact that this person may be taken from you at any time. And that, for another example, one cannot deal with the grief of a tremendous personal loss – such as the loss of a person one has deeply loved – by simply striving to avoid “craving” for that person to still be around, or to transcend one’s “aversion” to their absence. Grief is a fundamental human experience that must be felt and moved through, on one’s own timeline, ideally with plenty of support from others. After all, we are humans, not Vulcans.

Also, there was some messaging from Goenka that suggested that the sole value of a human life was, essentially, to get to a point where one transcended human existence altogether (though this could not be achieved by suicide, or even natural death, he was sure to point out). He stated that every moment of a human life is precious, but the implication was this was not for its own sake or for having the privilege of finite human experience. Rather, each moment is precious because it is an opportunity to “purify the mind” (as one purportedly does in the practice of Vipassana) so that one might (in this lifetime or, most likely, after many multiple lifetimes of practice) finally reach the point of being released from the cycle of death and rebirth altogether, and hence be liberated from suffering.

Again, maybe my understanding is what was off here, but this did not sit well with my fundamental outlook towards life (not to mention the conflicts with what is scientifically provable). I have no idea whether or not we have past or future lives. Maybe we do. But (as of this writing) it’s not a known, indisputable, scientifically verifiable fact. And Goenka emphasized repeatedly that the Vipassana technique is completely aligned with science.

The lecture (or, more accurately, my strong visceral reaction to some of its content) actually had me, for the second time, reconsidering if I should or even could stay for the remainder of the course. My trust in this process – in the value of Vipassana, and in the philosophy behind the teachings – had taken a hit. I don’t know if this makes any sense at all to the reader as I’ve just attempted to describe it. Perhaps it sounds as if I were making a big deal out of nothing, just some philosophical differences of opinion. But I was so disturbed by what I took in, or how I took it in, that this actually prompted another moment of crisis for me.

“We are so attached to our opinions, to our beliefs,” he had said at one point, suggesting that this caused us serious difficulties (aka, suffering!). And though I nodded in agreement when I heard him say this, it was very much applicable to my own case right now!

I knew I needed an intervention, a self-intervention, to convince me to see the second half of the course through. Just as I had successfully attended to myself during my moment of crisis on Day Two and staved off the impulse to up and leave, I similarly needed to do so now, on the evening of Day Five. (Ironically, it was the evening discourse that had been my salve on Day Two, whereas on Day Five it had instigated my troubles!)

And I knew exactly what I needed to do to in order to give myself the best shot of working through this. It would entail breaking one of the rules we were asked to follow for the full ten days.

While I had, as instructed, not brought a journal, notebook, or any paper along with me, I had packed a pen. And I also now had a small square napkin from the dining hall at my disposal, as well. Knowing this was precisely what I needed, I began making a list (yes, writing!) of reasons to stay despite my strong “aversion” to some of the ideas laid out in that evening’s discourse. The list ended up including ten other ways I might benefit from staying, even if I didn’t fully buy into the practice, or aspects of the teachings:

  • opportunity to work on awareness practice (being here now).
  • opportunity to work on concentration practice (possibly even experience one or more of the “jhānas” I had heard about in a concentration practices course I had previously taken).
  • the “weight loss program” aspect! (I had noticeably begun to lose some weight from eating less, and was experiencing the benefits of portion control, a function of only having access to the food provided and at the times it was provided).
  • the unique experience of prolonged quiet time (one of the main reasons I had come here in the first place). I could continue to “see what comes up” with continued silence and lack of distractions. I had already benefited from the plentiful amount of reflection time this routine offered, and might benefit from more still.
  • I really was enjoying the meals, the daily walks, the simplicity.
  • the “win” of seeing this through to completion.
  • experiencing what the last day will be like, when the noble silence is lifted and I’d actually be able to speak with these guys I’ve been hanging out with, but not at all communicating with, all this time!
  • remain unplugged for 5 more days (detoxing from the news alone had been so wonderful!)
  • the practice still could be helpful for dealing with “non-tragedies”, the regular stressors of everyday life.
  • it would be putting into practice observing, rather than reacting (one of the cornerstones of this technique!).

Getting these down on paper (or napkin, as it were) was immensely helpful to me.  Whereas the videotaped rendering of Goenka had convinced me to stay after my moment of crisis on Day Two, I was able to convince myself to stay after this “moment” on Day Five…

Halfway through. Five more days to go!

On Day Six, armed with my list of convincing reasons to stay, I continued on with the daily routine.

But not everyone did.

At one point mid-day I was meditating in my room, when I heard a strange but familiar sound coming from outside my window. Voices!

I got up off my cushion to have a look. Two people were talking. It was one of the students (a kind of edgy looking older fellow with a longish beard and plenty of tattoos) and the course manager. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but clearly something was up.

After a bit, I went and sat back down to resume meditating. Then, a little while later I heard just a single voice talking.

I got up and looked out the window again. It was the same student….talking into a cell phone this time!!! WHAT?!?! Again, I couldn’t make out the exact words, but it sounded as if he were making plans for his departure, perhaps arranging for someone to come pick him up.

After that, I never saw him again.

In addition, there was another guy I noticed missing at the 2:30pm group sit (it was obvious because we had assigned spots, and his was just in front of my spot and to my right). This guy, to me, had seemed totally into it. He looked like an experienced meditator just from the manner in which way he arranged himself each time he sat.

But, as with the bearded guy, this guy also never returned.

What happened?!?

I felt sad, disappointed. I was so sure he’d make it (based on….nothing?). There was a certain amount of “we’re in this together” feeling, at least that I felt, and when one in the tribe vanished, you not only couldn’t help but notice it, but you felt a certain sense of loss. One of your peeps (whom you’ve never actually shared a word with) didn’t make it. And odds are you’d never find out why.

It just goes to show you that you really have no idea what’s going on with another person. You never know what someone else might be struggling through (unless they happen to share it with you, or maybe it’s written all over their face, but often it’s not). Somehow this obvious lesson, which bears so much repeating in life for us to really get, was especially poignant in this context.

Let’s face it, this was an unusual experience, and it was a shared one. We hung out most of the day together. Meditating, eating, sipping tea, seeing each other on the walking path or elsewhere on the grounds (even if we weren’t allowed to make eye contact or gestures or what have you, we still noticed and observed each other). The same group of guys. All going through this together. Each of us there for our own reason(s). Fate had assembled us all together at this particular time, and at this particular place. And now we were three less (that I was aware of) than when we started.

Interestingly, Goenka himself admitted in that evening’s discourse that the previous night’s talk was difficult for a lot of people. In fact, right off the bat in the first evening’s discourse he told us that Day Two and Day Six were commonly difficult ones for people, and my own experiences (as well as the attrition within our group) seemed to bear this out.

That evening’s group sit at 6pm (which took place just before the evening discourse) was, for me, probably the most difficult one of the whole retreat. I had noticed a pattern: my resolve in meditation tended to be strongest in the morning, when I was fresh, and weakest in the evening, when said resolve was depleted. But even that being as it may, this particular sit was hard.

The hour was just interminable. I had scanned my body every which way, seemingly a thousand times, per the latest instructions we had been given. I kept telling myself: this has GOT to be over soon, any moment now. And each time I told myself this, it turned out I was dead wrong. I got increasingly agitated with reality, and railed against it (um, guess who always wins those battles?). My concentration was wrecked and my experience was one of boredom and restlessness. In other words, of suffering.

Finally, inevitably, even if it seemed far too late to arrive, the most musical sound this side of Mozart reached my ears: “ah-NEEEEEETCH-chaaa!” Goenka’s voice bellowing the Pali word for “impermanence” [annica] announced the meditation’s closing, and he proceeded with his ritualistic chanting. The immensity of relief I felt at that moment was beyond the capability of any words in the history of human language to convey (and, I have no doubt, this feeling was shared by many – all? – of my fellow meditators, if to varying degrees).

This trial, however, paved the way for one of my most powerful experiential insights of the entire ten days. On Day Seven, with the previous night’s painful session very much alive in my memory, I entered our group sit with an entirely different mindset. I went in expecting this hour to be a long one, and decided there was absolutely no point in fighting it. My experience would be much more pleasant if I didn’t resist it. In other words, even if I scanned the entirety of my body a million times, in all of the variety of ways explained to us, if the full hour had not yet elapsed I was to continue scanning (or switching back to observing the breath, but to continue meditating). This, as opposed to defiantly quitting the practice at some point and just sitting there stewing in my thoughts about the whole thing.

Acceptance makes for a much more pleasant experience than resistance. Particularly when it means accepting that which one has no control over (and isn’t that, in the end, most things and situations?). It reduces one’s suffering immensely to do this. And, indeed, the difference in reduced suffering between this sit and the previous one was striking (far beyond however much “easier” morning sits tended to be for me vs. evening ones).

This is not always the easiest lesson to employ, and might sound rather obvious to the reader, but when one experiences it firsthand in a manner such as this, it resonates on an entirely different level.

Early on in our afternoon sit that day, one of the guys left the room (it is very apparent when this happens because, even with your eyes closed, it is an intrusion on the silence). The male manager, always on alert, soon after followed him out. He did this (as did the female manager on her side of the room) anytime anyone left the hall during a group sit. In one sense it was kind of creepy that we would be monitored with such vigilance (you mustn’t leave!). But, over time, it appeared that this was done more out of concern (to make sure the person was okay) than anything else. Neither the student nor the course manager did return that hour, and I empathetically hoped the guy was alright.

At the evening sit, I noticed with some relief (both for him and myself!) that the student who had left was back again. His return actually reinforced the notion, in my mind, that the manager was there to support us. Those running this show wanted us to succeed, I reckoned.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the Vipassana technique, for me, was the focus on body sensations, as opposed to observation of one’s thoughts. So many of us (myself a prime example) are lost in our thoughts and utterly overtaken by our minds so much of the time. How often do we actually pay attention – let alone really close and sustained attention – to what’s going on with, inside, or on the surface of our bodies?

The technique is about surveying the landscape of the body, not the mind. You do this in a variety of ways. Sometimes very slowly, homing in on one very tiny area of the body at a time, and working your way down from head to toe. (At first we kept doing it head to feet over and over again, then a day or so later were instructed to do head to feet, followed by feet to head, and would repeat THAT in a continuous loop over and over.) As the course progressed, the instructions we were given were refined or changed. Next, we would scan our bodies symmetrically (both sides at once) so our attention, in effect, became more diffuse. We would scan our bodies at various speeds depending on the nature of the sensations we were experiencing.

This was both more interesting than it sounds and more tedious than it sounds. Goenka explained to us that, whether we happen to be aware of it or not, there are always sensations happening, all the time, in every part of the body. “Wherever there is life, there is sensation.”

Even with such concentrated attention, though, I often found it challenging to tune in and really become aware of sensations going on in lots of areas of my body. The so-called “gross sensations” were, by definition, obvious. An itch, for example. Or a feeling of pressure, or warmth, or coolness. Whereas the “subtle sensations” (again, obviously) were far more difficult to detect.

But whatever the sensation, gross or subtle, pleasant or unpleasant, our task was simply to observe it and not “react” to it. We were to notice it, and either move on to the next area, or stop and sit with it for a while until it changed, dissipated, and eventually disappeared, and then move on.

The whole point was to cultivate two things: awareness of sensations and equanimity towards them. In a nutshell, that’s Vipassana.

Why do this?

To practice this on a daily basis is to build the muscle of learning to be calm and centered, rather than reactive, in response to whatever life happens to bring our way. To not be so mindlessly ruled by the pull of our feelings (physical, or emotional) all the time. To not be such a prisoner of them.

One idea I found fascinating and worth contemplating was Goenka’s claim that, while we believe we are always reacting to things happening in the outside world (e.g., what someone said, what someone did, what happened that we didn’t want, what didn’t happen that we wanted), when you drill it down to its absolute core what we are actually reacting to are physical sensations in the body (be they pleasant or unpleasant).

Obviously, the mind and the body have huge impacts on each other. But when something upsetting happens, it’s an interesting notion (and, for me, a counterintuitive one) to check in with your body and observe the sensations you’re experiencing rather than your thoughts or the emotion itself. Perhaps we have a better chance of working successfully with our physical sensations than with our emotions if we want to not be overwhelmed or overtaken by them.

An example he offers is dealing with a most troublesome emotion: anger. He suggests that rather than suppressing the emotion (not good for one’s health in the long run) or expressing the emotion (often not a good idea in the short run!), there is a third option, and that is observing the physical sensations attached to the emotion. And, presumably, to watch as those sensations, as all sensations do, eventually disappear.

Simple, but not easy!

Hence, the need for regular practice.

On Day Eight, the guy who had apparently been having difficulties the day before (the one who had left the hall during one sit, but was back for the next one) was gone, and gone for good.

On Day Eight!!!

I could only imagine how much the poor dude must have been suffering (perhaps for multiple days, not just the one) to leave on DAY EIGHT!!! SO CLOSE to the end. SO CLOSE to the lifting of the noble silence and getting to speak with his fellow “prisoners”! How could his curiosity about that alone not have been greater than whatever unpleasantness he was experiencing? To me, this was a testament to some serious suffering.

I, for one, was brimming with curiosity about what Day Ten would be like, and felt pretty sure that I would absolutely see it through at this point. Although I kept in the back of my mind an appreciation for the unpredictability of what a given day could bring. Witnessing another departure, especially this late in the game, was a reminder that some humility was in order for unforeseen hardships that could potentially derail me, as well.

Alright, apparently I am going to be a tease. This will be continued in a third and final installment, coming soon! 😊

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My Vipassana Course Experience (Part One)

In the previous post I described my process of making the decision to do a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, and shared my curiosities – and fears – about taking it on. The truth is I had to summon up quite a bit of courage to actually go through with it. In a lot of ways, as with so many undertakings, the hardest part is just physically getting yourself there. Once you’re there, you’re in motion and you just continue tackling the next immediate task at hand.

In this post and the next one (turns out it’s going to be a two-parter!), I will give you a detailed account of what the experience was like for me. Understand that participant experience is bound to vary. I have no doubt that each of us there had our own unique experience, complete with our own personal challenges to overcome. After all, on a silent retreat, you are spending the majority of the time with yourself.

“Spoiler alert”: If you are considering doing a Vipassana retreat yourself, you might want to read this, but you also might not. A good argument for not reading this ahead of time is that it might be best to go in with as few preconceptions and expectations as possible. In these two posts, in addition to my own subjective experiences, I will reveal things about the content of the instruction and about what happens on particular days of what is a very precisely structured course. If you’d rather not have this information rolling around in your head going in, then consider waiting until you’ve done your own retreat before reading this.

After these posts are finished, I will create another post that will highlight what the key takeaways were for me: the lessons learned and insights gleaned. Once that is ready, I will link to it here, in case you would rather read that instead of this “day-by-day/play-by-play” account. (Then again, you might not want to read that in advance, either. Entirely your call!)

All of that said, if you’re still game, here we go…

Day Zero (arrival day)

Did I mention I was nervous about this?

Upon arrival at the site (I took the course here), I was guided in my car onto a wooden ramp to get onto the grounds (hmmm…was this to make sure I couldn’t leave early without risking damage to my vehicle?). Registration/check-in was from 2:00pm to 5:00pm. Even though we had already done so online, we each had to sign a physical form agreeing to all of the rules and regulations – the strict Code of Discipline that was elucidated on the website and application – including agreeing to stay for the entire duration of the course. This was the one part I had trouble with. How can I agree to stay when I don’t even fully know what I’m signing on for? It’s one thing to accept that there will be difficult moments and plenty of discomfort, and to intend to persevere through those. But if I got a super creepy vibe or found the experience to be nightmarish and beyond the limits of what I found acceptable, I would be out of there (tire/undercarriage damage or not!). I checked the “Yes, I agree” box and signed my name, but silently resolved that they couldn’t force me to stay against my will, and I would leave if I had to. Privately giving myself this out was the only way I could agree to be on board.

Rather than surrender my valuables “for safe keeping” under their lock and key, I opted to keep my wallet and car key on me, and left my cell phone in my car rather than in their closet. I was kind of surprised anyone else wouldn’t do the same. I texted my wife one last time before locking the car (with the phone inside), and then accepted a ride from a volunteer in a golf cart to take me and my belongings to my quarters, as it was a bit of a haul from the parking area to the campus proper and the men’s lodging area. I chatted with the driver of the cart on the way – a young woman who told me she had been volunteering there since May, but was leaving town the following day. I asked if she had any tips for me, to which she replied simply: “Finish the course.”

I settled in to my bare bones room, equipped only with what was functionally necessary: a twin bed and mattress, a nightstand with an alarm clock and desk lamp, some means of temperature control (an A/C and heating unit, as well as a ceiling fan), some hangers, a box of tissues and a trash can. I was grateful that I had the good fortune of being assigned a single room as opposed to a dorm-style room with a roommate, as I am a light sleeper who sometimes suffers bouts of insomnia, and this would at least improve my chances of getting decent sleep.

There was a bathroom I would share with another guy, and it was situated in between our respective rooms – we each had a separate door through which to enter it, as well as a light switch that lit up to alert us if the other was in there. I introduced myself to this neighbor briefly, and we spoke vaguely about when we each might be taking showers, but nothing was firmly decided on in advance.

We were served a light dinner (the food was tastier than expected) in the dining hall before the orientation was given, and then our “noble silence” officially took effect, not to be lifted until the morning of Day Ten. I returned to my room and went to bed early, having no idea what I was in for, but congratulating myself for having gotten myself to this point, and hoping for the best.

Day One

The group sessions in the meditation hall each began and ended with audio recordings of the teacher, Goenka (now deceased), chanting. Fortunately, we had been “warned” about this in advance via a notice posted on a common-area bulletin board. It informed us that chanting in response and/or bowing at the end was entirely optional, a tradition for some folks from the East, but not at all necessary.

Goenka’s voice was, in a word, weird. The chanting (in Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha) sounded like complete gibberish to my unschooled ear, and his delivery was dreary and at times seemed to be deliberately awful-sounding (he regularly ended phrases with what I can only describe as something resembling a gargling, gurgling death rattle). There was hardly any intonation to speak of; he made Bob Dylan’s singing voice sound angelic and downright melodious (nothing against Bob, just sayin’). This Goenka guy wasn’t gonna win a Grammy anytime soon, I thought. (Then again: who knows? It’s been so long since I’ve watched the Grammys, maybe this stuff was all the rage now?).

My fellow students sat on the floor in an impressive variety of ways, employing all kinds of pillow, cushion, bench and back support configurations. I had opted, right off the bat, for sitting in a chair (which was allowed), figuring that if I were to have any shot of getting through this, no other means of sitting position would be possible for me to sustain for hours, let alone days, on end.

After the chanting, Goenka spoke, providing clear instructions for how we were to meditate. His voice would not return until the end of the hour with some closing chanting, and then the assistant teacher (the live person) would give us further instructions.

Sure, I was humbled by the utter chaos of my monkey mind while meditating, but this was not a new experience for me. (If you’ve never meditated before, the gist is that you close your eyes and focus your attention on something simple, like the breath, and see how long you can keep it there. Before you know it, your attention will have been hijacked by an incessant stream of thoughts about anything and everything, akin to a monkey leaping manically from branch to branch, hence the term “monkey mind”. This can go on for an impressive amount of time before you’ve realized what has happened, at which point you gently bring your attention back to the breath and continue.)

Things went very smoothly throughout the day, all according to the outlined schedule.

Lunch was very satisfying, the noble silence was not at all difficult to maintain, I didn’t go to bed feeling especially hungry despite having had only tea and fruit for “dinner”, and I enjoyed hearing Goenka give the evening discourse, via video recording this time. It was striking to me how much different (softer, warmer, and better – way better!) he came across on video versus strictly audio.

When the day was done, I felt optimistic.  I can do this!  It’s not so bad…

Day Two started off much the same.

Meditating in my room at 4:30am proved challenging. I found myself less able to concentrate on my own as compared to during the group sittings, and eventually gave in to getting some more shut-eye before breakfast at 6:30am.

But the group sit at 8:00am went fine, and the day’s schedule continued on.

Lunch was delicious!

The 2:30pm group sit also went fine, even if all we were doing (still) was concentrating on observing the sensation of the breath moving in and out of our nostrils. It took patience and effort, for sure, but it’s not like I had anything else to do…

We came back into the hall after a short break to await our afternoon instructions.

Once we were all settled back in, I heard Goenka’s voice re-emerge from the speakers, commanding me to: “Staaaaaaaaart agaaaaaaaain! Staaaaaaaaaaart again!”

OMG. Are you kidding me? Another ninety or so minutes of the exact same thing before dinner – excuse me, tea break – at 5:00pm?!?

I was experiencing a high degree of cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile the fact that this disembodied voice on the audio, low in tone and truly menacing sounding, belonged to the same individual who, on video, was warm, teacherly, wise and even humorous at times. In my mind, I pictured a completely different person when I heard the voice alone.

Staaaaaaaaaaart agaaaaaaaaain! Keeeep your attention on the breath as it moves through the nohhh-strils.”

I was seized by a sudden pang of anxiety, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced in many years, the kind that completely overtakes you with its urgency. There are no words to adequately describe it, other than to say that it’s a mixture of profound dread and deep fear, and it feels like you will soon be on the verge of uncontrollable panic if it doesn’t go away. Nothing matters in that moment except the desire to be rid of that feeling and feel “normal” again.

The spoken instructions from the audio recording ended, and the (live) assistant teacher announced, “You may continue to practice here in the hall, or do so in your own residential quarters. Continue practicing diligently.”

We were free to go.  And not a moment too soon.

I exited the hall and headed for the men’s walking path, trying to calm the storm of panicky thoughts. Should I inform the (assistant) teacher? No, not yet. Let’s try to calm down first and see if this passes. Certainly, if it keeps up, or keeps returning, I will eventually have no choice but to say something. But first let’s see if we can get it under control.

Thoughts of leaving were very soon at the forefront of my mind: There’s no way I can endure this if this feeling continues. Ten days of these kinds of ultra-tedious orders to follow, while sitting still? Is this designed to break us down? To reduce us to some kind of infantile state where our resolve is crushed and they can somehow take advantage of our vulnerability? (My thoughts weren’t actually as coherent as this, but I suspect these were along the lines of what I was fearing.)

My paranoid fantasies were stoked by a couple of things I was actually consciously aware of, but still (obviously) affected by:

  1. I was a horror movie fanatic as a youngster, and I was reminded of a particularly creepy movie I saw on TV when I was quite young called The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, wherein a family arrives in  a peaceful, bucolic community that on the surface appears benevolent, but within which (of course) very sinister stuff is actually going down. The main characters ultimately face a fate wherein they cannot leave and/or are forever changed by some irreversible damage done to or performed on them. This movie took up permanent residence somewhere deep in my nervous system.
  2. I am a believer in the idea of “inherited trauma”. That is, that trauma is transmitted down from generation to generation, genetically and otherwise. And that deep within our unconscious lurks, in some form or another, traces of the traumas suffered by our parents, their parents, etc. (in addition to whatever traumas we may have experienced ourselves directly). Being of Eastern European Jewish descent means that in the not-so-distant past those close to my bloodline experienced the horrors of the Holocaust (not to mention all kinds of persecution experienced by ancestors prior to that) and that this likely plays some part in informing my disposition, including perhaps a certain amount of anxiousness and paranoia. Not that Jews have a monopoly on justified skittishness, mind you. All beings are subject to and influenced by the experiences of past beings and, perhaps, what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious. I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t a soldier or something in a past life (if there are past lives) who needed to remain vigilant overnight, and that this might explain my being such a ridiculously light and easily disturbed sleeper who startles easily.

In any event, let’s face it, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they aren’t really out to get you. 🙂

A certain amount of paranoia, as far as I was concerned, was healthy and rational in this situation, given the fact that I was having to trust people, and an organization, I did not know and whose mercy I was completely dependent upon. After all, there was no access to the outside world or outside contacts, and I was completely dependent on my hosts, for example, for any and all food I would be availed of for ten days.

On the other hand, also thinking rationally, I knew several people personally who had taken this course (and others who knew people that had), and they all seemed perfectly fine, were living normal lives, etc. I trusted them, so why not trust that there was nothing to be worried about here? Also: if this organization had done “unkosher” things and been up to anything diabolical, surely they would have been shut down or there would have at least been much publicity about it, right?

Still, I couldn’t completely help myself in the paranoia department.

I did, though, have the presence of mind to remember words of advice someone had given me just a day or two before I left LA: “If you reach a point where you really want to leave, wait. Give yourself till the following day, and if you are still dead set on leaving, do it then. But make it a thought-out decision, rather than just an impulsive thing you might regret.” I was, after all, doing this for a reason. I wanted to have the experience, and see if there was something of value in it for me.

After walking a bit longer, I returned to my room and lay down on my back on the twin bed. I put both of my hands over my heart and offered myself thoughts of self-compassion. I calmed down some, thankfully.

I spent pretty much the entirety of the 6:00pm group sit talking myself into remaining calm and assuring myself that everything would be alright. I also wanted to see that evening’s discourse, and I dialogued internally with the dead man himself who would be giving it: “Alright, Goenka. Before I blaze on out of here, I’m gonna hear you out tonight. Convince me to stay.”

One of the things I appreciated about the evening discourses was that Goenka would typically explain the purpose of whatever we had just been doing all day long. Rules to follow blindly that don’t have any apparent logic or reason to them I have a hard time with. But rules that serve a purpose that I can understand and that make sense I am perfectly fine with. His explanations in general I found very helpful and, on this particular night, were exactly what I needed to convince me to stay.

Day Three

I heard the bathroom sharer using the shower in the morning, so I headed out for a walk on the men’s walking path. The setting of the Southern California Vipassana Center is quite beautiful and peaceful, and I relished my walks each day, especially those in which I got to enjoy the beautiful changing light as the sun rose in the morning, and again at twilight as it began to set. Utterly gorgeous. The desert scenery (with which I was quite familiar, having spent a significant amount of time at nearby Joshua Tree National Park) is, to me, breathtakingly beautiful, and the quietude always super restorative.

The lunches were a real treat, both healthy (vegetarian, always with vegan options) and surprisingly tasty. I felt nourished, even cared for, receiving them. Here were cooked meals that simply appeared each day at 11:00am, prepared for us without any of us having to lift a finger.

Of course, my paranoid side told me this was simply a way of gaining our confidence so it could then be exploited, but on Day Three I began to relax into trusting my “captors” and feeling more assured that this was, indeed, a safe place to be.

Again, perhaps I should never have doubted this given the fact that people I knew and trusted had taken the course (at other locations, and in some cases long ago). But, clearly, this was something that “came up” for me, was part of my experience, and was something I needed to move through. Fortunately, I did.

When I returned to my room after lunch and entered the bathroom, I noticed that the bathroom sharer’s towel and toiletry bag were missing. Hmmm….weird.

When I entered the bathroom again later in the day, they were still gone. I bent down and peeked through the bottom of the bathroom door leading to his room, and saw nothing on the floor other than the floor mat. Uh-oh. Not a good sign. I realized I hadn’t seen him all day, either.

I knocked on the door and, after hearing nothing, carefully opened it. Sure enough, the bed had been stripped, and the room looked much like mine did when I first arrived. He and all of his belongings were gone. He had gotten out of dodge!

I was a little surprised, and felt bad for him. It didn’t flare up my own fears so much, but rather confirmed that I apparently wasn’t the only one who was having issues or difficulties of some kind. I wouldn’t have pegged him for one to leave so soon, based on the short conversation we had prior to the start of the noble silence. But so it was.

I genuinely felt for him, but was simultaneously grateful that I now had both a private room and bathroom, meaning I didn’t have to worry about someone else’s timetable ever conflicting with mine for the remainder of the course. One more “luxury” for me; one less thing to worry about.

Day Four was the day we finally learned the Vipassana technique, and this not until mid-afternoon (from 3:00pm to 5:00pm, after our 2:00pm group sit; the schedule changed a bit for this day, but was posted as such).

Up until now we had been focusing exclusively on the breath moving through our nostrils, then gradually on to the sensations of the breath moving through our nostrils (inside our nostrils and also on the area just below them), then for a good long while on any and all sensations in the triangular area encompassing the insides of our nostrils as well as the space below them and above our upper lip. Then, after a day or so of that, just the sensations below our nostrils and above our upper lip (but not inside the nostrils). Exciting stuff, right? This was a technique known as Anapana, designed to concentrate our minds so that we would be ready to practice Vipassana.

In other words, everything up until now, for the past three and a half days, was merely preparation. Now came the much-anticipated teaching wherein we would finally learn the actual Vipassana technique. Talk about a build-up!

Two hours of careful, meticulous, often repetitious instruction later, we had finally learned the Vipassana technique.

After all of that, I felt a bit deflated. “You mean, it’s just a body scan?”

I was quite familiar with body scan meditations, having been introduced to them literally twenty years ago, back in 1999, when I first took an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course in a suburb of Philly. In that class, we learned the technique of focusing our attention systematically on each part of the body, one at a time, simply noticing whatever sensations happened to be there (or not), and then moving slowly onward to the next body part. We practiced this at home using an audio recording on cassette (remember those?) of MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn guiding listeners in a gentle manner through the technique. It was 45 minutes long, and could render you very relaxed by the end of it (sometimes people would fall asleep in class doing it). The only real difference I could discern between the technique I had just learned and Kabat-Zinn’s body scan was that you did the latter lying down, as opposed to in a seated position.

What a letdown!

But I also realized that my reaction was in line with the whole premise of what we were learning here – namely, the essential Buddhist teaching that all suffering is caused by craving, aversion, or ignorance (of our well-established, conditioned reactions of either craving or aversion). When things are not as we want them to be (because we either want pleasant feelings to arise, continue, or heighten, and so we cling to them; or we want unpleasant feelings to go away and so we resist them), we suffer. Things were not as I wanted them to be (“that’s all there is to this technique?!”) and hence I was suffering.

After tea break and at the beginning of our 6:00pm group sit, it was casually revealed to us that from here on in we were to practice something called adhiṭṭhāna (“strong determination”) during our thrice daily hour-long group sits, beginning now with this one. This meant doing our best to not change our posture at all for the full hour. Specifically, it meant not opening our mouths, hands, or legs from whatever position we began with. Yikes!

I should note, though, that this was to be an aspiration, not something we would be penalized for in any way should we not succeed. The general idea was, for example, that if you found that you moved four times during a particular adhiṭṭhāna sit, you should aim for only three the next time.

Okay then?

To be continued in the next post…⁸

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Sitting Down and Shutting Up for Ten Days Straight. By Choice.

Earlier this year I reconnected in person with a friend I hadn’t seen in seventeen years. He was a guy I met on the Appalachian Trail back in 2002 (he ended up hiking about half the distance of the 2,168-mile trail with his then girlfriend, while I completed about a quarter of the whole thing, hiking solo). Our paths crossed on the trail, and we hiked together for a time as is par for the course on the AT.

When we got together this past summer, we chatted about all sorts of things: reminiscing about our time on the Trail, reflecting on how the world has changed since, and catching up on each other’s lives.

At one point he mentioned having done a ten-day silent meditation retreat about a year before. Naturally curious, I asked him a ton of questions about it. He gladly humored me, and after a while he said something along the lines of: “You know, I wouldn’t recommend this to just anyone. It’s not for everyone. However, I would say that if you find yourself thinking about it a lot…you probably should do it!”

(Perhaps you can see where this is going? 😉)

The retreat, I learned, isn’t so much a “retreat” as it is a training, a serious introductory course in an ancient Indian meditation technique known as Vipassana. There are very strict rules to adhere to for the duration of the ten days. Among them: no contact with anyone in the outside world; separation of men and women; no physical contact with anyone on the premises; no drugs, alcohol, or intoxicants of any kind; no outside food is to be brought in or consumed; no music or musical instruments allowed; no reading(!); no writing(!); and you must maintain “noble silence” for the first nine days, meaning not only no speaking (the only exceptions being to ask questions of the teacher during designated times, or to address a concern with the course manager), but also refraining from any non-verbal communication with any of your fellow participants, as well. All this, plus a seemingly brutal regimen of meditating (up to ten hours a day!).

The daily schedule (taken directly from the course website, here) is:

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12 noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out

As with a number of other endeavors I have pursued over the course of my life, it’s the kind of undertaking about which you might initially ask (as I – or a part of me – certainly did): “Why would anyone voluntarily do such a thing?  It sounds like torture!”

Yet…it also sounded intriguing. The idea of taking a dramatic hiatus from the daily routine/sleepwalk, of interrupting business-as-usual, of taking a deliberate pause in one’s life to quiet down long enough to actually be able to hear and listen to what’s going on deep inside, of detoxing from modern life and all of its requisite gadgetry (none of which is allowed on the premises during the ten days, needless to say), of observing the mind up close in a sustained way (and perhaps better understanding it as a result?)…these things held great appeal to me. Also: the silence. I love peace and quiet. What a luxury to bask in so much of it! How often (if ever) does one get – or seize – an opportunity to experience all of the above?

Perhaps most intriguing of all: what would happen if I simply faced myself – and my own mind – head-on, unfiltered, with no distractions whatsoever to turn to (for comfort, escape, or to delay dealing with something) for ten days straight?! What would come up? Would I gain some sort of clarity or insight (that might not even be accessible any other way)? Would I benefit in some other way(s) I couldn’t possibly foresee?

To be sure, I also had plenty of fears about all of this – some more concerning than others, but all demanding consideration – such as:

  • Would I be able to tolerate the physical discomfort from prolonged sitting for hour after hour, day after day?
  • Would I be able to tolerate the difficulty of being still for that long?
  • Would I be able to tolerate the potentially unbearable boredom?
  • Would I be able to tolerate facing my own thoughts and mind, relentlessly, for ten days straight without any distraction to turn to?
  • Would I be uncomfortably hungry given that there’s really no dinner each night, just “tea and fruit” served at 5pm?
  • Would I sleep poorly (already a vulnerability of mine), creating that much more anxiety and lack of reprieve from my own “monkey mind”?

In short: would this feel like torture?

I called Matt (my AT friend) and spoke with him on the phone a couple of times to ask him more questions, mostly about how he handled the things I was concerned about. I was still intrigued, and still apprehensive, but at least a bit more informed about what I’d be getting myself into should I actually go through with it. He assured me that, with the exception of some of the reverence held for the teacher (the course is taught completely by a deceased fellow by the name of S.N. Goenka via audio and video recordings; the live “assistant teachers” serve more as facilitators), he did not get a “culty” vibe at all.

I took the initial steps of choosing a time-frame that would work for me, completing an application for those dates as soon as they opened up (slots fill up quickly, months in advance!), and returning a follow-up questionnaire that was sent to me in response to my application.

I was accepted.

I requested the time off from work, and got it approved.

I did some online research, but kept this to a minimum. There are numerous blogs out there on which people write about their personal experiences of Vipassana retreats, and/or give tips on how to prepare for (or “survive”) one.

Fortunately, early on I read a tip advising not to read too much of this stuff in advance. I’m the kind of guy who likes to know as little about a film as possible before going to see it, so this advice resonated with me. While I may check to see the “scores” of a particular film from both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, I never read the reviews in advance, as they inevitably give away key plot points. I like to have a film wash over me, and to experience my own impressions and reactions to it as it unfolds. For me, knowing what’s going to happen in advance takes a lot of the pleasure out of the experience (unless, of course, it’s a film I’ve seen before). Similarly, I didn’t want to know all of the details about what happens on each of the ten days, or have too many preconceived notions about what my own experience would be like. I wanted to know just enough to make me aware of what I was signing up for, and to be reassured (given the strict rules and emphasis on obeying them) that it wasn’t anything resembling a cult. 🤨👽😲😧

I was quite busy at work for many weeks leading up to the date of departure, but as it got closer I found myself getting pretty nervous about it. In fact, I don’t recall the last time I felt such acute anxiety about something I had elected to do with my free time. Most likely, it was the anticipation leading up to racing in an Ironman. A key difference, though: I had spent months, even years, preparing and training for the Ironman, and I had done a decent number of other challenging endurance races prior to it (including triathlons of shorter distances), so I had some sense of what it would be like. While I have pretty much always found meditation to be beneficial whenever I have done it, I have been very erratic in actually doing it. And the times I have practiced with any degree of consistency have been admittedly few and far between. My most successful stint of consistent meditation practice was five years ago, during a stint of unemployment. And even then, I was typically meditating for around 30 minutes a day, maybe 45 minutes on some occasions. How many times had I ever even meditated for a full hour at once? As for meditating multiple hours in a single day, I had only done this a handful of times in my life, at one-off events and with generous breaks in between sessions.

What I was facing now was not just one day filled with numerous hours of meditation, but TEN SUCH DAYS IN A ROW.

To be clear, what I was not interested in was doing this simply to test my ability to suffer through and endure something (doesn’t life already provide ample opportunities for this?). What I was interested in were the potential benefits of such a unique and new-to-me exploration and experience.

In the end, there was no way to know ahead of time if I would find this worthwhile, or to what degree I would find it torturous. Would it be a profound experience, or a waste of time? (Or a profound waste of time??? 🤣)

The only way to find out would be to go and do it!

My greatest fear, really, was that I would end up leaving early out of an inability to stick it out. Not the end of the world, but nevertheless something I really wanted to avoid and something I was very concerned about. This was not a lark; it was something to be taken seriously. How could I hope to benefit from it if I didn’t see it through?

I realized that, if nothing else, this was an opportunity to courageously face my fears (and myself). If I could do that, it would be a big personal “win” on that metric alone, whether or not I even gained anything else out of going.

Facing fears arbitrarily, as far as I am concerned, serves no real purpose. Some fears are there for good reason and are quite healthy. (Fear of playing Russian roulette? Perfectly good fear; keep that one!)

But when it’s a fear that’s stopping you from pursuing something you are genuinely interested in, and for which there are potentially significant rewards (especially personal growth-related ones), it’s very likely a fear worth facing. It was obvious to me, then, because of my fears about it, that this was something important to me to explore, and that it was, in fact, the Next Right Thing for me to do.

As if to validate this conclusion, this post arrived in my email Inbox just two days prior to my departure (I believe I got around to reading it the day before), from one of my favorite bloggers of all-time, David Cain, on his brilliant Raptitude blog.

My own blog also indicated to me that this path was very right for me. After all, a ten-day meditation retreat would be a perfect opportunity for me to practice three huge long-standing areas of challenge for me, as I expressed in this post:

1) Patience.

2) Detachment from results.

3) TRUST…in life, myself, the Universe, what have you.

The claims/promises of Vipassana, as described on the retreat website’s Q&A page – “Someone who really practices Vipassana learns to be happy and balanced in all circumstances.” “Vipassana teaches you to be aware and equanimous, that is, balanced, despite all the ups and downs of life.” – match well with my own previously elucidated wish (see “My Answer to the Super Power Question”) in this post.

And so, I went.

***

Note: I plan on publishing two follow-up posts to this one, once they are ready. One will be a detailed (day-by-day) account of my personal experiences during the course. The other will be more of a “lessons learned/insights gleaned” post, highlighting what, for me, were the takeaways. Read one, both, or neither, depending on your interest, as well as what you feel may serve you should you be considering taking a Vipassana course yourself.

The surest way to receive these, as well as future posts (I do not post all that frequently), would be to subscribe to my blog, which you can do by entering your email address in the appropriate box, which I believe appears on any/every page. You can, of course, choose to unsubscribe at any time.

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Pura Vida: Highlights from a Costa Rican Adventure

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At Mistico Hanging Bridges Park in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

From Vision to Reality

Costa Rica had been on my shortlist of places I wanted to visit for some time, mostly due to photos I had seen of its wildlife, its reputation for natural beauty and scenic hikes, and the universal raves from pretty much anyone I had ever talked to who had been there.   When I suggested to Samantha that we go for our next vacation, she was all in.  “But,” she said, “you’ll have to do all of the planning.”  (She being in the midst of an 8-month-long online certification program on top of an already hugely demanding new full-time position at work.)

And so it began.

I had only been out of the country three previous times in my life, and had never actually planned an international trip myself (or taken one with Samantha alone, just the two of us, for that matter).  And I knew next to nothing about Costa Rica or the spots within we might most enjoy visiting, save for a few recommendations from my dental hygienist who had lived there for a time.  So I hopped onto the Internet and proceeded to become…overwhelmed.  Whereas only a couple of decades ago planning an international trip would have been intimidating for entirely opposite reasons, I now found myself inundated by more information than I could ever hope to absorb, a veritable rabbit hole of websites and blogs chock-full of thoughts, opinions, and information readily available at my fingertips – and all in English, needless to say.

So I started off by reading articles and posts that came up in my searches in a somewhat random and haphazard fashion, taking notes and bookmarking pages I thought I would want to refer back to, and continuing for as long as I could at a spell until fatigue set in.  Planning a trip is a process (and voyage of discovery!) in and of itself, and it mirrors the experience of actual travel in the quantity of decisions, large and small, to be made.

When all was said and done, it was a mere two websites that proved the most consistently helpful to me: a blog called MyTanFeet, and the ever stalwart TripAdvisor.

After confirming we each could get the time off from our respective jobs, Samantha and I planned for an 11-day round-trip vacation (10 nights/9 full days in Costa Rica, bookended by air travel).  After extensive reading, I settled on three main destinations – La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio – that we would cover as a loop, flying in and out of the San Jose airport (SJO) and renting a car to get to them:

map of CR

Pura Vida

“Pura vida [pronounced poor-uh vee-duh],” our driver who shuttled us from the airport to the rental car office explained to us in Spanish, “doesn’t just mean one thing.” It is an idiom that is used throughout Costa Rica: as a greeting/salutation, a reply when asked how someone is doing, an expression of thanks, or a response to nearly anything.  Yet, despite its pervasiveness, it’s somehow not generic or empty of meaning.  Quite the contrary – it adds a positive tint to almost any life experience, and reflects both the good-natured vibe and underlying resilience of Ticos (Costa Ricans).

Generally, you could say it equates to “It’s all good.”  But, depending on the context, it could just as easily mean “such is life” or “so it goes”.  It’s a declaration of optimism, a decision to maintain perspective and have a positive attitude towards life.  It’s hard to get too upset when saying it or hearing it.  It can defuse your own irritability or help you forge an instantaneous bond with a stranger.  Talk about a useful two words: “Pura vida!”

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Gerald, behind the counter at Yellow Bark – the restaurant he opened with his chef sister in downtown La Fortuna just five weeks before our visit (highly recommended!)

Go with a Guide

In addition to our own explorations, we booked guided tours with several different professional outfits (we used Pura Vida Tours for the Mistico Hanging Bridges in Arenal, Jacamar Naturalist Tours for their “Pure Nature Safari Float” on the Rio Frio, and Costa Rica Jade Tours for Manuel Antonio National Park).  We also booked a guided Night Tour at Curi-Cancha Reserve in Monteverde, after having done a self-guided walk there earlier the same day.  All of the tours were excellent.

The difference between going with a qualified/certified guide versus going on your own is dramatic.  Each of our guides was incredibly knowledgeable about the flora and fauna, ridiculously adept at spotting wildlife invisible to most tourists’ naked eyes, super friendly and engaging, and exceedingly generous about helping everyone get photos and/or videos (often with the assistance of their own spotting scopes).  Whenever possible and practical, I recommend going with a professional guide.

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Our guide Carlos, with Pura Vida Tours, pulls the proverbial rabbit out of a hat for us (or, in this case, a tarantula out of an unassuming hole we never would have given a second look to)

A Few Raves

Samantha and I enjoyed all of the places we visited and all of our activities in Costa Rica, planned and unplanned, guided and on our own.  But I’d like to sing the praises of a few places that, in my opinion, richly deserve it:

Hotel El Silencio Del Campo (La Fortuna): We stayed three nights, and I can’t say enough good things about our experience there.  The employees were among the friendliest and most professional we experienced in Costa Rica, we loved our accommodations, and the grounds are magnificent and beautifully maintained.  It was a real pleasure to come back to our hotel at the end of a full day and enjoy the hot springs pools (there are several right on the premises) and magnificent restaurant without having to venture out again.  Their breakfasts were among the best we had (and are included), and always provided great birdwatching opportunities.  If you’re looking for a place that isn’t simply somewhere to rest your head, this hotel will add some relaxation to and greatly heighten your time in La Fortuna.

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Our cabin at Hotel El Silencio Del Campo, La Fortuna

Bogarin Trail (La Fortuna): This is an experience not to be missed, and MUST be done with a guide to get the full effect.  The Bogarin Trail has a refreshingly non-commercial feel to it despite being in one of the most touristic areas in all of Costa Rica, and it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it or don’t know about it, even though it’s not far off the main road into town.  If at all possible, book a tour led by Giovanni (Bogarin, the trail’s namesake).  Some eighteen years ago, it was all swamp land, but Giovanni (with no money) convinced the owner of the land to let him take a machete to it, plant some trees, and build a trail/natural sanctuary on it, which he has worked on and maintained ever since.  He takes great pride in his work, and will regale you with tales about it.  He also knows every inch of it and will reveal amazing wildlife lurking within, at times like a magician.  On top of that, he is perhaps the most colorful character we encountered on our trip and a natural-born entertainer (though this may surprise you when you first meet him).  If you want to see a guy completely in his element, sharing his love and knowledge of the natural world joyfully, by all means take a tour with him!

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Giovanni Bogarin in his natural habitat

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A chestnut-mandibled toucan – one of the many delights we saw on the Bogarin Trail

Monteverde Inn (Monteverde): This place is a major find, and an incredible deal.  We paid only $100/night (a breakfast buffet is included, and the restaurant on the premises is surprisingly good – try their pizza!). The accommodations are simple, but do the job.  But the property on which they are located is a stunning nature preserve (Valle Escondido), and is filled with treats for nature lovers.  Like a lot of places in Costa Rica, they are very eco-conscious, and have sustainable environmental practices that much of the “developed” world could learn from.

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Samantha outside the hotel reception area of the Monteverde Inn

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A scenic viewpoint from the perimeter trail on the Valle Escondido Preserve, accessible from our room

Also: if you visit Monteverde, book a guided Night Walk. We did ours at Curi-Cancha Reserve (our guide, Jorge, was stellar!), but these are also offered at Valle Escondido, the renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, and elsewhere in town.  It’s a unique experience, and one you’ll definitely want an expert guide for.

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Tarantula seen on our Night Walk at Curi-Cancha Reserve

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Scorpion seen with the help of our guide Jorge’s blacklight

The People

One of my favorite parts of the travel experience is the people you encounter you otherwise would never meet, and this trip was no exception in that regard.  Be it fellow travelers from all over the world, tour guides and others in the hospitality industry, or locals – the conversations had with such a wide variety of people outside of my usual circle was, for me, a big highlight of the overall experience.

While it’s generally very easy to get around in Costa Rica as an English-speaker (the tourism industry is a major part of their economy, and caters to a majority of visitors from the U.S. and Canada), I never felt so grateful for my high school Spanish teacher (muchas gracias a Señor Sauber!).  While not highly proficient, I can speak Spanish well enough to get by, which gave me a degree of confidence I absolutely would not have had traveling on our own in a country where I spoke nary a word of the native tongue.  Being able to practice my Spanish constantly (however imperfectly), and actually accomplishing things at times solely relying on doing so, was immensely satisfying.

As was, of course, seeing:

The Monkeys!

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Spider monkey sighting at Mistico Hanging Bridges Park

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A howler monkey (guess which sex?) at Manuel Antonio National Park

A few from a troop of capuchin (aka “white-faced”) monkeys we followed right to our room at the Monteverde Inn:

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And some additional animal photos to close out the post:

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Iguana

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Motmot

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Keel-billed toucan

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Sleeping red-eyed tree frog

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Crocodiles seen from the Tarcoles Bridge

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Three-toed sloth (in motion!)

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Common basilisk, aka “Jesus Christ lizard” (for its ability to run on the surface of water)

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Two-toed sloth

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Three-toed sloth

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Blogger (at rest)

Credits/thanks:

The people of Costa Rica – warm, gracious, sincere, hospitable, kind, and helpful – for showing us around and making us feel welcome.

Samantha: for being my lovely wife, traveling companion, and best friend, and for taking most of the photos included here.

Eric (yours truly): for driving the two of us back in our rental car to the San Jose airport for our return flight, without working WiFi and in morning rush hour traffic – a more adrenaline-pumping adventure than ziplining, rappelling down canyons, bungee jumping, or white-water rafting could ever hope to be.

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