As of two weeks ago, I had never meditated more than 10 minutes in my entire life, and sitting still for even that long was like trying to teach calculus to an undisciplined, free-wheeling toddler — futile and utterly impossible.
So I have no idea what possessed me to start with Vipassana, one of the strictest and most intense meditation practices in existence, but my (former) fairyland ideas about meditation made it sound like a good time. 10 days in peace, learning to find my inner zen? Sounds just like what my lose-myself-in-India itinerary needs.
For starters, this brand of meditation is about anything but chasing feel-good sensations and basking in some readily available state of bliss. Vipassana courses for beginners are 240-hour long psychological boot camps full of intense physical and mental pain, which arise as suppressed anger, negativity, and agitation spring up from the subconscious. Students live in complete silence, eat only two meals a day, and meditate from 4am to 9pm.
During my retreat, I experienced everything from fits of rage to epiphanies about my purpose in life. I had sessions where I thought I would literally go insane from the hurricane-like force of my own thoughts, and I had sessions where I understood the beauty of life so profoundly that I broke down in tears.
S. N. Goenka, the Burmese man who revived this form of meditation as taught by Siddhartha Gautama approximately 2,500 years ago, describes the practice as conducting a deep brain surgery on oneself with the objective to purify, beautify, and master the mind and body. Participants spend 3 days learning to observe the breath and quiet the mind and 7 days understanding the technique of meticulous body scanning to remove sankara, our innate human tendency to react with craving or aversion to all bodily sensations.
Because all thoughts and actions, external or internal, trigger a physical sensation in our body, developing a hyper-sensitive awareness of these sensations and eliminating subsequent feelings of attachment or anger helps us to accept reality as it is, not as we want it to be, and thus eliminates some of the largest causes of human misery from within. By doing this, we also directly experience the truth of impermanence, which characterizes every living and non-living thing, through the body. With a firsthand understanding of the ever-changing nature of reality, we learn to treat all experiences with love, compassion, and equanimity.
Curious about what I went through during these 10 days? Read on to discover my top lessons learned (so you don’t have to spend a week and a half on a cushion in India if you don’t want to!).
1. If you want to get good at something, do it 12 hours a day for 10 days straight.
It took me 5 DAYS working from dawn to dusk just to find a position I could sit in for more than 15 minutes without pain or fidgeting. By the end of 10 days, I could sit for an entire day without moving so much as a finger. It’s remarkable what humans can learn to do when we approach a task with raw determination. Often times we don’t succeed at things because we simply don’t apply ourselves to the extreme necessary for excellence.
2. Sometimes you have to stop chasing after everything and let inspiration come to you.
We’re always moving, running from one thing or another in our lives, creating and craving change. Vipassana taught me that stillness — of the body and mind — is a wonderful tool. We live our lives under constant assault of external stimulation, but when we come to a full stop, a repressed flow of internal stimuli comes forth, resulting in ideas, inspiration, and profound clarity.
3. There’s a distinction between knowledge and truth. With matters of truth, you must learn to live with questions and allow answers to come from within.
For the most part, we’ve only worked with knowledge our whole lives: information and questions with more or less fixed responses. Society rewards us for memorizing the right answer (or finding an expert), so we haven’t been taught the value of living with uncertainty or examining ideas from within.
And so we confuse our methodologies for working with knowledge and with those for understanding truth. In matters of truth (“What is the right thing to do?” “What is my purpose in the world?” “Who do I love?” “How can I find compassion for a difficult person or situation?”), there is no final answer and there is no expert. We are both the teacher and the student, and our lives are lived in the spaces between the questions and the answers.
4. We must reduce our tendency to have fixed expectations.
I knew taking a Vipassana course in India would change my life, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know the schedule or the teachings or the history. I didn’t read about anyone else’s experiences. I didn’t even know what meditation was really all about. Because of this, I was open, grateful, and present to every moment of what I actually experienced.
Too often we taint the joy of reality with our expectations and desires, and we experience disappointment and anger when inevitably the actual situation doesn’t look like the alternate reality we had created in our mind. I’m convinced comparison, expectation, and projection into a fantastical future are the biggest causes of human misery.
5. Sometimes you need to have a breakdown to have a breakthrough.
Somewhere around Day 5, I collapsed on the floor in tears during a four-hour meditation session, suffering from excruciating physical pain and completely exasperated psychologically. I thought perhaps this was actually dangerous, facing so many internal demons at once, and considered marching straight out the front gate.
But going through that misery led to the revelations I had on Day 7, when I recognized my purpose in the world and cried tears of understanding and gratitude, followed by two more days of deep, inner calmness. I thought, “I needed to have broken down to have this.”
Next time you feel hopeless, defeated, and miserable, know that the pain is purifying you. A stronger you is being prepared for a better tomorrow.
6. You are the first and primary victim of your own negativity.
When we feel any form of anger, agitation, and misery, we are 100% at fault. It may appear that something outside caused those feelings, but WE generated the negative reaction. And when we experience negativity, we don’t stop at letting it pollute our internal environment — we throw those feelings out at others and pollute our external environment, too.
What we must do instead is stop reacting with negativity to anything at all, because everything is impermanent, and getting upset over something impermanent is a waste of time and energy. Instead, we can observe that the person or situation we are facing is difficult or unpleasant, but then choose to respond with equanimity and compassion.
7. It’s essential to master your own inner dialogue.
Each day of meditation was like a year in terms of learning about myself. I had gone 26 years without examining the automatic ways my mind had been trained to work without my conscious involvement. Through deep meditation, I was able to intervene when I discovered gaps between who I know I am and how my mind was running the place.
By the end of the course, the voice in my head changed, from the ego-driven voice who is anxious, defensive, self-absorbed, and always focused on the past or future, to the voice of my higher consciousness that spoke with calm, reason, patience, and love, a voice that was like the private secretary of my being, taking note of all my truest values and calling attention to where my mental activities and reactions were out of line.
We all need this. Choose your values, observe how your mind works, and know that YOU are not your mind. You are the observer, the eternal being behind it, the same essence of nature found in every living being. You have the power to re-design your inner dialogue with a purposeful vocabulary and become your own guru.
8. Our words, eyes, and even presence have an unthinkable power that we are completely oblivious to in our daily lives.
I’ll never forget the morning of Day 8, when I was sitting alone watching the sunrise and one of the other students came and sat near me, also relishing the flaming orange glow of the Indian countryside. She didn’t speak to me, look at me, touch me, or even sit directly next to me. But her presence was there, and I swear, just knowing I was sharing that exact same moment with another human being was even more powerful than touch.
Another morning, I accidentally broke a rule and smiled at the daughter of the Indian family who cooked for the Vipassana center, and she did the most remarkable thing in return: she locked her eyes on mine, smiled the most joyful smile, and radiated pure love in my direction. And I thought, “She just sent me love with her EYES! What power! We all have this power! Why don’t I use my eyes to do that more often?”
By not verbally or non-verbally communicating with another human being for 10 days, I became acutely aware of the force of what we convey to one another with and without words (and compounded by digital and social media interactions). When the vow of silence broke, I was overwhelmed and panicked by all the sensations, the confusion of the outside world re-entering my inner realm of peace. And I felt a burden of responsibility to minimize this confusion in others and support them with loving words, actions, and presence.
9. Being in touch with the physical sensations of our body provides a huge gateway to understanding ourselves.
The day after the course ended, I reluctantly turned on my phone after 10 days and received a job offer for an opportunity I had been ardently pursuing before coming to India. After such deep contemplation, I didn’t know if it was the right next step anymore.
Instead of making the decision on a purely intellectual level, I remembered what Vipassana taught me: to pay attention to my physical sensations and experience the world through my body. When I looked at the email, my stomach felt sick, my breath quickened, and I felt tension all over — so although the mind was confused, the body was giving a very clear answer. In the end, I turned down the offer and noticed how my body felt again: relaxed and light.
10. We are creatures of war or peace: which do you choose?
Some people spend their entire lives at war with themselves and the world.
I don’t know about you, but I want to live a life moving towards peace — peace in my actions, in my relationships, in my thoughts, in my career, even in the places I choose to live. I want to radiate peace from within and bring harmony to every inch of the Earth I touch.
11. The biggest thing we have to accept in life is a constant state of change and a constant state of challenge.
If you’re like me, you have a very long to-do list. You manage a steady stream of goals and obstacles, and have 62 ideas on how to improve life at any given moment. It’s clear that finishing that to-do list will be very rewarding, but why? What do you hope life will be like on the other side? Problem-free?
The only thing we can ever be sure about is constant change, the constant arising and passing away of sensations and situations. If we don’t have a problem in this moment, one will arise. If we have a problem in this moment, it will pass. As Buddha said, “We all have 88 problems, but you have 89. Your 89th problem is that you wish to have no problems at all.”
We must not live for the end-of-the-to-do-list scenario, but for the scenario we are presently in, which is tackling those goals and challenges. And we must recognize that every moment is change. So when everything is going perfectly well, the objective is to be the man smiling and say, “This will change. It is precious, so I smile.” When everything is going dead wrong, the objective is also to be the man smiling and say, “This too will change. It is temporary, so I smile.”
12. Our constant anticipation of the future is fundamentally a trust issue.
After 120 hours examining my mental landscape, I realized that almost all my thoughts could be graphed with 2 categories on the X axis, past and future, and 2 categories on the Y axis, pleasant and unpleasant. If you’re also human, you probably spend a good deal of time in the pleasant or unpleasant future quadrants — planning, anticipating, rehearsing, fantasizing, or dreading.
Witnessing my mind at work, I concluded that my obsessive anticipation of the future comes down to control, fear, and not trusting myself. I actually don’t believe that I’ll know what to do in a given situation, so I rehearse for it. The problem is, this kind of rehearsal teaches me to favor a course of action that was determined in an imaginary world, out of touch with the reality in which it will be implemented.
The solution? We have to spend time actively trusting ourselves, reminding ourselves that we know what to do today and we will know what to do tomorrow, but we can only solve a problem when the reality of it has arrived. Otherwise we’re solving fantasy problems in a fantasy world, which is a madness we can rise above.
13. By better understanding ourselves, we better understand others.
If you spend time understanding your behavior, values, motivations, and most deeply entrenched mental frameworks, you’ll likely discover that everything comes down to either love or fear. Take any two humans, and although their thoughts and actions and ways of expressing themselves may be different, the root of what’s driving them comes down to love and fear.
By witnessing this phenomena in yourself, you can observe it in everyone you encounter and act with compassion towards them, because on a biological AND psychological level, we are all basically the same.
14. There is a distinction between life, my life, and my life situation.
“Life” is the huge web of beauty and chaos and nature that surrounds — and completes — us in every molecule, in every being. “My life” is the permanent essence of my being, my physical and spiritual existence that is connected to the larger web of life. “My life situation” is what the ego usually confuses with my life: the impermanent “drama” of everyday life as it plays out with people, events, and problems that arise and pass away.
Your life situation may be unpleasant at times, but your life itself and life as a whole will always be pure, beautiful, and comforting. Your little corner of the web may be experiencing temporary difficulty, but the web as a universal whole maintains perfect balance.
15. I can choose humor instead of anger.
10 days in my own little world definitely brought me to the brink of crazy and back again, and I largely have my sense of humor to thank for my safe return. During the course, I learned that because we have this innate tendency to project into the future and create expectations, there is an inevitable gap between those expectations and reality. Most of the times, that gap creates disappointment and anger.
That gap, however, can also be very funny. Like the Indian guy in the back of the room who slept through every single 4am session, snoring loudly in the otherwise silent meditation hall. That would have really bent me out of shape in the past, but instead I used it as a challenge to deepen my own meditation and also laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I chose to find humor instead of fault, to laugh instead of blame.
16. Technology is a violent assault on our ability to think and feel.
10 days without unsolicited messages popping up, without the ability to Google every little thing my mind wondered about, without contacting people not in my present reality — all these things substantially strengthened my focus and attention span. My head was clear in large part because these other streams of inputs had ceased to flood in…until I turned that device back on and received an onslaught of unnecessary communication and information.
I suddenly saw all of these things for what they were: a constant interruption of my capacity to think and feel, the obstruction of my ability to descend deeper into my inner being and remain there without being called to the surface by a thousand different voices radiating out of a glowing, plastic square. And the first word that came to mind was: violence. It was madness, really.
Since meditation, I have become scrupulous about my exposure to technology, allowing myself just two 30-minute Internet/iPhone sessions per day — and the benefits are real and incredible!
17. We must battle to know our true selves.
We spend our entire lives allowing our minds to be developed by third parties (family, school, society, government, books, the media, technology, and friends), but we never really learn to master ourselves from the inside out. Our minds are out of control, responding to external stimuli like a dog itching its fleas, and the worst part is, we believe we ARE our minds!
Our truest inner Self must oust the ego from the driver’s seat and resume control of our being. It must calm the waves of reactionary thoughts and behavior and allow our essence — of love, goodness, and unity with all beings — to be captain of the ship. This is nothing less than a battle, against the confusion of the outside world and against the survival-oriented ego that we assume to be our Commander-in-Chief.
18. We only truly learn through direct experience, not intellectualizing.
We can understand on an intellectual level that we must live in the present moment, that all things are ever-changing, that reacting involuntarily to sensory stimuli destabilizes the mind and body, but until we EXPERIENCE these ideas, we really can’t fully understand them. That’s why people practice Vipassana meditation, to find a practical path to liberation through the body.
But this also applies to our careers, relationships, and other philosophical ideas — real learning only occurs through practice and firsthand experience. Don’t just philosophize about why you want to be teacher, offer a free class. Don’t just talk about the kind of man you want in your life, go out and start dating some of them. Don’t just research your target market, spend a week in their shoes.
19. We must be patient and persistent with ourselves in order to grow.
For a true practitioner of Vipassana, the 10-day course is only an introduction to the technique, which actually requires a lifetime of continuous implementation. Many type-A personalities get frustrated during the course, upset that they are not being “successful” enough at meditation. And yes, I was one of those people. For several days, I viewed meditation as just another game I could win, but I was “losing” terribly. I became upset, thinking, “All I have to do is sit still and be perfectly reasonable about everything I experience. Is it really that hard? How am I so incapable?”
Naturally, this inner dialogue was detrimental for learning. When we start something new, it takes a lot of time and self-discipline before we experience any kind of success. Finally I started telling myself, “I must be patient. I’ve just never done this before. I can start over as many times as I need to. With time and practice, I am bound to be successful.” And it worked!
The fact is, no one can teach us how to be ourselves, how to be in our own bodies, how to live in this moment, from moment to moment. We have to teach ourselves. For me, this course was only the beginning. I know I must continue to try to understand myself with patience and love, spending more time alone with my body and mind, like we’re dating.
And even if I can only take one step per day on the path of this spiritual journey, at least I know I’m on my way.
This article originally appeared on LifeBefore30.com and is republished here with permission.