What I learnt on my first ten day Vipassana
Updated: Oct 5, 2018
In my last post I talked about the five myths I was intent on busting on my first foray into the world of Vipassana. I'll start this post by saying that I, as have many, foolishly referred to this ten day experience as a "retreat". I was wrong. It is not a retreat. I repeat, it is not a retreat. It is a gruelling intensive residential course that compresses into ten days the discovery and journey that took Prince Siddhartha seven weeks to accomplish before he became Buddha. It dictates one must walk the path to learn the way to enlightenment rather than just read a nice story about it. This is a big ask. It's like asking a person to hang out with some prostitutes and lepers, walk on water and then turn it into wine before they can enter the Christian faith. In theory, if you do enough Vipassana, you too can become Buddha.
The format over the course is very low fidelity. Each day, everyone is awoken by the sound of gong at 4am and your meditation practice commences at 4.30am either in the large meditation hall or in your room. In the evening, there is a video of Goenka played in the hall. This video has all the cinematography of a home video shot with a thirty year old handy cam. That's because it was. The videos were filmed in 1991 and simply capture a portrait shot of Goenka as he addresses his students. You can hear the students in the background laughing, coughing, sneezing, shifting in their meditation cushions - like I said, low fidelity. But after a few days of nothing but your own thoughts, these one hour dhamma talks are like having a full blown IMAX cinema experience. Listening to Goenka's wisdom, philosophy and analogies of how life plays out for those who are on the path vs those who are not was the highlight of my day.
The ten hour daily meditation practice is broken up into one to three hour chunks of time where your intent is to focus on being aware of sensations but not reacting to them. Be aware of your breath, but don't force it. Be aware of an itch, but don't scratch it. Be aware of your numb leg, but don't move it. Be still. Be non-reactive. Be equanimous. Equanimous AF.
While all this equanimity is going on, your brain learns to calm the f#@k down. It is like mental boot-camp. You do about 1000 mental sit-ups for the first three days in the form of focussing on the sensation of your natural steady breath going in and out of your nostrils.
Then, you narrow in down to the area just below your nose - the Hitler moustache area - and focus on the sensation of the breath on this area. This trains your brain to have absolute focus on a very specific area. On Day 4, the focus widens and you become aware of sensations on your whole body but without any reaction. By the time Day 8 rolls around, you're so tuned into your own experience you can sit through a one hour meditation without moving an inch.
This mental boot-camp is like giving glasses to a near sighted person for the first time. You can see with absolute clarity what is real and what is a complete fabrication of something you've created in your mind to make yourself comfortable. What's worse is that you discover you're so attached to that fabrication and the more you attach, the more you suffer.
Here's a working example adapted from one of Goenka's stories:
I have a fancy watch. One day, I drop the watch and it breaks. I know I can't get parts for it in Australia so it will have to be sent to Switzerland to be repaired and will cost $1500. I start crying.
My friend has the exact same watch. He drops it and it breaks. He knows he can't get parts for it in Australia so it will have to be sent to Switzerland to be repaired and will cost $1500. In this case, I don't cry. It was the exact same watch, exact same circumstance but it affected me in a totally different way. That's because I'm not attached to my friend's watch. I'm attached to my watch. I have created a huge story about what this watch means. It gives me a great sense of fulfilment and happiness when someone notices and admires it. Those people make huge stories about who I must be to own such a fancy watch. This feeds my ego and makes me feel like I am successful, erudite, wealthy, <insert other ego driven adjectives>, so when that is taken away from me it's like I have lost a part of my identity because I fabricated a magical story about how this small mechanical amalgam of metal and leather made me superhuman and I got attached to that vision of myself. When the watch broke, I cried not for the watch but for the identity crisis that I would now have to face as I didn't have my magical feel-good object to power me through life anymore. I would have to feel good on my own. That is how attachment leads to suffering. We make up stories and when things don't go our way we are devastated because rather than being in the moment and experiencing life as it happens, we attach ourselves to versions of our past, future or perceived self that are not real and not current.
This is not to say that we can't have hopes and dreams for the future. It just means that when things don't go to plan, you don't get upset about it. The formula for not getting upset is to understand that everything passes. Everything. You may feel pain one day but that pain passes. You may get an itch but that itch will go away without you scratching it. Your leg may go numb but the feeling will return to it after a little while. Experience life. Control your reactions. This is what Vipassana teaches you.
So, my five myths either debunked or confirmed after having experienced it for myself follow.
Myth 1 - You go crazy: Confirmed
On the afternoon of Day 1, as we all sat in the meditation hall wrapped in our blankets for the seventh sitting that day, I decided to lower my gaze instead of closing my eyes to meditate. In the past I have found this technique stops my racing thoughts and because I was so pumped on Day 1, I was meditating like I was the gold medal favourite in the Meditation Olympics. As I looked down and focussed on one spot on my blanket I suddenly noticed a very ornate pattern embossed on the blanket. It was symmetrical and intricate and there was an equally intricate border pattern that framed the edge of the blanket. I couldn't believe that I didn't notice the pattern when I grabbed the blanket off the shelf and that I managed to score the only intricately embossed blanket out of all the identical blankets on the shelf. Yay me!
You know why I didn't notice that pattern? Because the pattern was in my head. Yes, I was tripping. I had a hunch it might just be some eye trickery and when I noticed a small outline of an anime style character on the blanket I knew I was tripping because this happened to me on an acid trip a few years back.
People definitely go a bit mad but there is support built into the program. Our beautiful Assistant Teacher, Sheela, was available every day for private counselling. Sheela looked like an Indian kewpie doll perched on a small elevated platform. She was the cutest thing ever and the warmth and compassion emanating from her was something I aspire to have one day.
So yep - craziness is a by-product but, like everything, it is temporary.
Myth 2 - The pain is excruciating: Confirmed
From about Day 4, the practice of "Strong Determination" is introduced which involves a one hour sitting without moving a muscle. You must not open your eyes, shift your legs, move your hands - nuthin! For one hour. ONE HOUR!
Perhaps I was still coming down from my self generated acid trip but I mindlessly sat in half lotus at the start of one of these one hour sittings not realising until two minutes into it that I had inadvertently committed to staying locked in half lotus for the next 58 minutes. My sit bones cauterised any blood flow down my legs and they went to sleep within five minutes. I got intense pins and needles through my feet and calves and then they went completely numb. I could feel fascia deep in my hip sockets that I don't think has been worked since I was a teenager. I had no idea how long I had been sitting there and I wasn't able to open my eyes to check. I breathed. I breathed. I repeated 'everything passes' in my head like it was a 1000 year old Buddhist mantra. I breathed some more. Towards the end of that sitting I almost started to cry. And then it was over.
When I slowly and carefully folded my legs back together and got some blood flowing I was afraid I wouldn't be able to walk again but as I left the hall and walked towards my room I realised in just one hour I had unlocked years of tension in my hips. There was not an iota of stiffness there. Extreme Yin Yoga. Miracle.
My back suffered though. There were some moments over these ten days where I thought my upper back would collapse onto itself. If I do this thing again I will remember to take my back-knobber and a couple of lacrosse balls. Towards the end of the ten days, I had to lay face up on the floor boards in my room just to get some relief. You need a strong core to do this stuff.
Myth 3 - You'll starve: Debunked
It is impossible to starve on Vipassana. There is so much food. And there were leftovers after every meal. The food is simple vegetarian: porridge, toast, fruit, muesli, rice, some toppings like oatbran, sunflower kernels, coconut and sesame for breakfast and then a hot lunch with a few vegetable and salad options at lunch.
I decided to eat very mindfully - which is easy when you have a whole hour to eat and no one to talk to and no devices to distract you - and discovered (something I have known all along) that I eat waaaaaay too much food. I've realised that much of my food consumption is driven by boredom and I would bet that I am far from alone in doing this.
When you live in a world of privilege, consumerism and abundance, food becomes entertainment rather than fuel. That's not a bad thing. Food is great. Gastronomy is great. Food triggers all types of pleasure hormones that make you feel good. It's great! But we have normalised those phenomenally entertaining meals to the point where we eat them at every meal. Eating a quarter cup of brown rice and a couple of steamed broccoli florets is enough to make us think we are going through some kind of personal famine. We're not. I was not. I was fully satiated. And I was fully conscious of every mouthful and I enjoyed it immensely.
Myth 4 - It's a cult: Undecided
There are many "cult like" aspects to Vipassana, no doubt. Men and women are segregated, there is no talking, eye contact or gestures, your phones and valuables are confiscated upon registration, there is a dress code, our every move - wake up, dining, meditation, bedtime - is prompted by the sound of a gong, we assemble every evening to listen to the stories of a dead guy. It sounds culty, right?
I must admit, watching us walk slowly around the grounds like the undead, I did at times think, "This is a cult". It was like next level rehab. And yes, if the definition of a cult is that a group of people shut themselves off from the world and devote themselves to a particular dharma then DING DING DING! WE HAVE A WINNER!
However, unlike many failed (and successful) cults throughout history, there is nothing evil about Vipassana. The teachings, inner reflection, technique (though gruelling), environment, guides, are all really really really rewarding. There was not a single day that passed where I did not strike absolute gold. Yes, it was hard, really effing hard, but in order to get to the summit, you gotta climb the mountain.
Plus, it's only for 10 days. No one is expected to hand over their life savings to blindly devote themselves to a sect until they die. No one is harmed. No one is made to stay against their will.
And with all that peacefulness throughout the day, when it came time for lights out I slept like I was under general anaesthetic.
Myth 5 - You will become at one with the universe and all your problems will dissolve: Confirmed
The best thing about not engaging with people is NOT ENGAGING WITH PEOPLE! WOOOOO! Having permission to not talk, not look at people, not communicate was something I was really comfortable with. This is not how human beings work. It is part of the human psyche to connect and it's why our very sophisticated communication mechanism, ie: speech, is much more evolved than that of other species on the planet.
When engagement is removed for a period of time it forces you to look inside rather than compare. We spend so much of our time talking shit and (in many cases) it's a tactic used to bury something our unconscious mind doesn't want to share. Although we don't know it - or we do know it deep down but we don't want to admit it - most of our suffering is self created. Vipassana is just one way of helping you understand and reconcile that. It is not a silver bullet or a ten day cure; it's an introduction to a mindset that, given some dedication, can lead to a way of life that frees you from a lot of misery.
I did think this myth was a load of shit but I'm convinced it's absolutely true. If you keep at it, you will definitely get there eventually.
May all beings be happy.
Stay well, sleep well.