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