I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course at the end of August. It was such a profound experience that looking back, the complete lack of Internet access that I made a big deal about before I went was such a trivial side note.
The meditation technique has its roots in Buddhism. The founder of the course in its current format, S. N. Goenka, did a tremendous job teaching it in a way that is accessible to people with any religious background. Everyday we’d start practicing at 4:30am according to his instructions, and then listen to him explain the theory in the evening “discourse.” He explains the idea of Vipassana in a very logical manner, tells various stories from the time of Buddha with a great sense of humor, and actively encourages critical thinking.
I won’t go into the details of the theory here because merely understanding it on an intellectual level is not going to do much. It has to be accompanied by practicing the technique on the experiential level. Sitting on an uncomfortable meditation cushion for hours on end without moving—knowing perfectly clear why you’re doing this—and not communicating with fellow students through any means—we weren’t allowed to talk, gesture, write, or even have any eye contact the first 9 days—is what makes all the difference.
For the first two days, we started with observing our breathing—not controlling, just observing as it is. This turned out to be incredibly hard—the mind has a tendency to wander away and not stay in the moment. Lots of childhood moments that I didn’t know was still part of my memory would appear out of nowhere, and elaborate envisions of the future would occupy my mind. Still, we were supposed to recognize the fact that the mind likes to wander, not be frustrated, and calmly move our attention back to breathing when we realize it.
The third and fourth day, we observed sensations in the small area below the nostrils above the upper lip. At first, as expected, I felt nothing, and that was okay. We were not supposed to imagine any sensation or crave for any feeling. If there is no sensation, just accept it and keep observing. After a while, the mind became sharper, and I could feel dust particles in the air landing on my skin, creating a slight itching sensation. I could feel that the air coming into my nose and going out is of different temperatures. Occasionally I would feel the heartbeat creating a very weak pulsation in that small area under the nose.
It turned out all that was just preparing our mind. Starting the fifth day we were taught the actual Vipassana technique, which involved scanning the body from the top of the head to the tip of the toes and trying to feel sensation in every part of the body. At first, as expected, I felt nothing, and that was okay. We were supposed to stay on each body part for a minute, and if there’s no sensation, just calmly accept it and move on. After about a day, I would feel the same dust-induced itching sensation I had under the nose all over my face and on my hands. After another day, I could feel a bubbly sensation under the skin of my face and my legs, with other body parts like the chest and the back feeling much less. In the evening of the ninth day, I suddenly got bubbly feelings under my skin throughout the body, and wherever I moved my attention, the bubbles there would vibrate particularly strongly.
I’d be lying if I said that that wasn’t a great sensation. I had never felt anything like this before in my life. But enjoying this sensation is not the point of Vipassana; the point is to train your mind to be equanimous—no craving for pleasant sensations, and no aversion for unpleasant ones. It’s to realize that everything is impermanent—no matter how painful it is to sit for an hour without moving, that sensation too will subside. By observing the bodily sensations objectively and not reacting with craving and aversion, you break the old habit of the unconscious mind, and your slowly start to deal with people and events on a day-to-day basis with a peaceful mind.
After the “noble silence” ends on the tenth day, we talked and talked and talked, exactly how you’d imagine a group of people staying together for nine days without communicating would talk. Here are some random and interesting tidbits that I experienced during the course that other students echoed:
After not talking and not being on the Internet for a few days, I experienced a creative spike. I had all these interesting app/startup ideas that I’d never think of normally. We weren’t allowed to bring in any writing tool, so I tried really hard to not forget my ideas. Another student had all these wonderful ideas for poems, and he created a mnemonic device in his head so he could reproduce them when he’s out.
A lot of students, including me, had very wild and weird dreams. One that I remembered vividly involved someone asking me to kill someone. I agreed to it but couldn’t do it at the last moment. Another student also mentioned a “homicidal” dream.
It’s interesting to observe the train of thoughts. I’d be focusing on my breathing, and suddenly I realize I’m thinking about X. Then I realize I actually started thinking about A, and that led to B, which led to C, which finally led to X. Each thought only has a tiny connection with the previous, so X and A would appear to have no connection at all. And all this happens in a split of a second. I would then think about neurons and synapses and wonders of the human mind.
The beneficial effect of meditation on how we deal with “vicissitudes of life” is most strongly felt during the course on how we think about romantic relationships. I had a marked change in the way I felt about my ex. There is now not a single slice of ill will towards someone who might have hurt me. Various students in various stages of relationships all shared how they now had new understandings on whatever problems they were facing.
One normally thinks of not doing anything as being lazy. But during meditation, being lazy is to think about stuff. Getting the mind to not think about stuff requires incredible willpower and determination. No one I talked to claimed to have followed the timetable of the course and concentrated for all the time periods that we were supposed to be meditating. There were various sessions where I’d just give up and let the mind wander while I sat there, because I was so physically and mentally tired concentrating on breathing or sensations, that letting the mind wander felt so good. Since we all still got a lot out of the course, I guess that’s just part of the experience. It’ll get better with practice.
So overall it was an awesome experience. It wasn’t a vacation; it was very hard work. But I’m glad I did it at a stage in life where I can just disappear for ten days without too much responsibilities. Even though it’s going to be hard with all the distractions, I’m going to try and keep meditating everyday and see where it leads me.