I did a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat from November 7-18, 2018. Here are some thoughts regarding the experience.
Background re: Meditation:
First, I’ve been meditating on and off for the past four years, ever since I heard about Headspace. I actually discovered them while doing some branding research, and loved the strength of the corporate identity they put together – but that’s a different blog post.
Meditation has had two primary benefits for me. The first is increased concentration and focus. I find that I procrastinate far less on days when I’ve meditated, which means I’m working on tasks that will create the most benefit in my life, as opposed to smaller hygiene tasks. I’m also more efficient in those tasks and require fewer breaks.
Secondly, and more importantly, meditation greatly improves my temperament. A charitable way to describe my temperament is “passionate.” An uncharitable description might include a laundry list of undesirable qualities – at times overly sensitive, quick to take things personally, quick to anger, easily bothered by nitpicky issues, prone to holding grudges etc. My emotions and feelings can be volatile. In my twenties, I invested a lot of energy in building a calm veneer on top of a sometimes tumultuous temperament.
I’ve always admired people with even temperaments because I believe congeniality is even more of a success factor than intelligence. Success requires some measure of serenity with the world around you, especially in your relationships with others. If you’re brilliant, but socially isolated due to an unpleasant temperament, it’s unlikely you’ll be successful in anything that requires assistance from others or iterative collaboration with others. Leadership becomes almost impossible.
American President Franklin Roosevelt won four consecutive terms and maintained the broad political coalitions necessary for pulling the United States out of the Great Depression and win World War II because, in the opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes, he possessed a “second-rate intelligence, but a first-class temperament.”
Simply being aware of one’s shortcomings is helpful, but not as much as you’d think. I’ve found that becoming more intellectually/consciously aware of my shortcomings has moderated these tendencies only somewhat. If I’m able to maintain serenity at the surface, it’s been superficial. I’ve managed to catch the offending stimuli and secure them, avoiding knee-jerk reactions. But the tumult caused by the stimuli often remains, and can be subject to long, private internal ruminations.
My goal has been to develop an authentic temperament that is balanced and steady in the face of an unpredictable life. That means stable mood, stable confidence, consistent outlook, and consistent energy to apply towards my goals. A big ask for any intervention or practice.
The goal of Vipassana is to achieve a “mind like water.” Water’s characteristic is that it responds to forces acting on it in perfect proportion; drop a feather on a calm pond, and it will barely cause a ripple. Toss a stone in and it will be swallowed, the water effortlessly displacing itself at every level of depth, leaving only a beautiful circular pattern on the surface.
Water is also capable of tremendous force; earthquakes deep under the ocean floor have caused devastating tsunamis at the surface. But no matter what, water is incapable of reacting with anything other than perfect proportion to its inputs.
Vipassana meditation is thought to be closest to the technique taught by Gautama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The technique itself emphasizes an objective observation of reality as it is, not as we wish it to be.
As a result of this dedication to pure, objective observation, Vipassana dispenses with virtually all dogma on the front-end. This has special appeal to me as someone who has a gut-level aversion and instinctive allergy to unsubstantiated beliefs, especially those that rise to religious levels of conviction.
That said, “Buddhism” and its precepts (e.g. belief in reincarnation, karma etc.) is what is said to have emerged from the other side of Buddha’s meditative practice, as a result of his enlightenment. But you are never asked to accepts these concepts in order to practice Vipassana.
In its focus on objective observation, Vipassana dispenses with visualizations and mantras (which are self-created projections onto our perception of reality) in favor of observing normally-occurring and spontaneously arising body phenomena including breathing and sensations on and in the body.
From observing these phenomena as closely as one can, and choosing not to react with pleasure or displeasure to any of them, one can learn to be equanimous to all manner of inputs at a much deeper, subconscious and automatic level, rather than at a merely intellectual level.
Knowing that anger is unproductive on a conscious level doesn’t help much. Actually feeling less anger from the off is much more helpful.
The principle framing this approach is the “Law of impermanence.” On a macro level, everything changes – we grow up, we grow old. Death is inevitable for all living things. On a micro level, the same holds true. Pain fades, whether emotional or physical. Pleasure also fades – anyone who has experienced thirst on a hot day knows the first sip of a cold drink is always the best.
Equanimity is the only way to deal with this constant change. And the way we can generate more equanimity is to practice it in the course of our daily lives. That means responding proportionately and with a degree of stoicism to the vagaries of life. That means enjoying life’s pleasures but not allowing them to affect us to such a degree that our lives are dominated by chasing pleasure and avoiding pain. This leaves space for every individual to decide on life’s meaning for themselves, and imbue that meaning into their lives.
My Vipassana Experience:
I forget where I first learned about Vipassana, but I’d wanted to do it for a long time.
I’d always been interested in lasting behavioral change, and invested in a fair amount of productivity or “self-help” literature (Tim Ferriss, Guy Kawasaki, Dale Carnegie etc.) but engaged with all of it on an intellectual level. Even the “insights” that were non-obvious and/or immediately actionable required a fair amount of discipline to translate into my daily life, and at a certain point they would always fail. I tried Pomodoro timers, time-tracking apps such as Offtime, etc. to no avail. I even tried a little device called Pavlok that shocked me every time I opened Facebook or a sports website. In spite of that, I found I was becoming more and more entrenched in bad habits, such as addiction to my smartphone and social media.
A few things helped: meditation, exercise and sleep. Actually, on the days that I meditated, I felt that I could get away with less sleep and still be focused and effective. In this way, it became a “keystone habit” – a habit with non-linear returns, a habit that makes everything on top of it better.
In addition to learning the meditation technique, I thought ten days of silence on a Vipassana course away from my smartphone and out of my daily context would serve me well.
I had applied to a Vipassana retreat two years ago, but was turned down because I had reported feelings of depression after a difficult breakup with a particularly close ex-girlfriend. Vipassana is a very intense experience and the meditation centers are understandably wary of taking responsibility for individuals with serious psychological illnesses, especially those with previous psychotic episodes. I had neither a serious psychological illness nor had I experienced psychosis, but they insisted on a doctor’s note certifying my mental health. I found it too much work and declined.
But Vipassana kept coming up repeatedly in my life, not only in literature and podcasts I was consuming, but also in testimonials from friends who had gone on courses themselves.
One of the authors and thinkers I admire most, a skinny, gay, Israeli history professor named Yuval Noah Harari, is a keen Vipassana practitioner. His book “Sapiens” is the gift I give most to friends. It’s a fresh, objective and contrarian look at the history of mankind and the hidden systems and phenomena governing our physiological, psychological and economic development.
He’s such a dedicated practitioner that he was just beginning a 3-month Vipassana retreat on election day 2016 when everyone was certain Hillary Clinton would win, and didn’t come out until after Donald Trump was sworn in. He also dedicated “Homo Deus,” the sequel to “Sapiens,” to S.N. Goenka, the Burmese Vipassana teacher who first brought the technique and system to the west, under whom Harari studied directly.
So I gave Vipassana another shot. Apparently there is massive demand for Vipassana meditation retreats – the signup window for the meditation center in Germany opens at 9PM CET 3-4 months before the course is due to begin. The website for signing up is clunky, outdated and very unstable, so it often crashes due to the influx of traffic it gets (nerd-aside, have these dudes never heard of AWS?!). I was actually in Ibiza on signup day and had to find a cafe with free WiFi to sign up, and the site crashed and didn’t come back up until around 10PM.
The meditation center in Germany is on ~150 acres (60 hectares) of land at the top of a low mountain near the town of Triebel, at the border between Saxony, Bavaria and the Czech Republic. It’s comprised of several accommodation buildings, a large manor converted into dorms and a cafeteria, and a large meditation hall.
I arrived on a Wednesday evening, registered and surrendered my smartphone and books. After getting something to eat, I met my roommate and settled into the small, narrow but clean dorm room we shared. We only had a few minutes left to speak, so we talked logistics about when to keep the window open, room temperature etc.
Then began “Noble Silence,” a period of complete silence accompanied by a pledge to follow five precepts (Do not kill, lie, steal, drink alcohol, or engage in any sexual activity). One could speak to two course guides there to attend to any logistical matters, but only when necessary. There were also daily time slots with a Teacher, which you could sign up for in order to ask questions regarding the technique. I made good use of them to address both my intellectual curiosity as well as trepidation around practicing improperly.
This was our schedule for 9 days:
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
Essentially, early mornings, early evenings, blocks of meditation as long as three hours, and breaks to wander the grounds.
The whole experience was difficult, but first few days particularly so. The schedule took some getting used to (anyone who knows me knows how much I love to sleep in), but the mental adjustment was the main difficulty; in tech terms, all of your input/output interfaces with other people go quiet. Your connection with the world is entirely local in your mind, beyond taking in the flora and fauna of the compound.
Besides limited, necessary communication with your teacher and the guides, you can’t speak, make eye contact, write, or use hand motions to communicate – nothing. Additionally, beyond the evening discourses (one-hour-long videotaped lectures from Goenka-Ji), pre-taped instructions at the beginning of every session, and limited interactions with the teacher, there was complete silence.
The point is to use this time to focus the mind on objective observation rather than endless rumination. But, for the first few days, the mind is undisciplined and unfocused, and it wanders easily and frequently. I found my mind wandering numerous times during meditation sessions, and for quite long periods.
A major misconception about meditation is that the practice itself consists of sitting peacefully in perfect, uninterrupted focus for the duration of the session. That simply isn’t the case.
The actual work of meditation is when your mind wanders, and you catch it and gently bring it back to observing. As Dan Harris (and Tara Brach, Tim Ferriss) puts it, returning to focus is the “bicep curl” of meditation, the unit of work, the actual rep of the exercise.
Naturally, the frequency and duration of “unfocus” during the sessions decreased as the days went on. Sooner or later I would catch myself in these distracted states while meditating and return to focus. But the most difficult parts of the first few days were not the meditation sessions.
I think we all have major themes or ongoing topics in our lives that we don’t fully engage with – unresolved issues with family, friends, or ourselves, regrets we haven’t yet made peace with, or fantasies we haven’t fully indulged. When you’re thinking to yourself under a warm shower in the morning, you eventually have to get out and get on with your day. If a difficult though pops into your mind, you can always look down at your phone and find distraction in YouTube or the news.
But with Vipassana, those distractions and saving graces are removed. Between sessions, there is literally nothing to do but pace the grounds and observe your surroundings – or indulge your thoughts.
During my long walks, I thought a lot about my family. My living in Berlin was always a contentious topic for my family, one that I felt I had to manage. My parents always wanted me closer and wanted more time and attention. There were always feelings of guilt and responsibility as familial service has such an emphasis in their culture. These have only been exacerbated as my parents recently divorced, and their health issues make their mortality more apparent. But I find as I get older, I feel more of an internally-motivated desire to spend time with them.
Beyond that, my family has had its fair share of issues, and I haven’t always behaved in ways I’ve proud of in dealing with them.
That distraction-free time wandering the grounds between meditation sessions gave me wide berth to reflect on those issues and suppressed, artificially-truncated thoughts. And on more than a few occasions there were strong emotions and tears.
Actually, there were lots of emotions. It makes you realize just how emotional humans are – even in the most benign settings. Whatever capability for reason and logic we have, it is but a thin veneer on our deep animal nature, and that animal origin determines far more of our behavior than we think.
Speaking of emotions, after the first couple days, I was actually able to meditate with some fluency, experiencing extended periods of focus. But this fluency was interrupted by feelings of anger and irritation at others in the meditation hall.
Something like 115-120 people attend each Vipassana course, roughly an equal number of men and women. Men and women are separated the entire time to avoid distraction, except in the meditation hall. The meditation hall in Triebel is a large, simple building with a few rooms on the ground floor, and one large, airy, open room on the second. All 115 students as well as staff are there simultaneously.
That translates to a 115 potential sources of distraction. Initially, your body isn’t used to sitting for such an extended period of time, and you need to adjust to lessen the pain and soreness. You would be surprised how much noise switching your seating position on a cushion can create when everything around you is completely still. People would get up and add cushions, adjust them, some even creating elaborate nests to support their sore backs and limbs. Imagine these noises multiplied by 115 people in the same room.
On top of that, this course was in early-to-mid November, right as the seasons changed. Myriad people caught colds, and the meditation hall was full of coughs, sniffles and noses being blown.
Now imagine trying to meditate in this environment. I swear, there were moments when I wanted to let people have it – I imagined myself screaming, “You’re so inconsiderate! There are 114 other people in here, can’t you walk quieter? Why do you have to hammer your pillow into exactly that position?”
But then you realize that these things are within you rather than outside you. You yourself bring the seeds for these emotions to the table. The world is as the world is, and regardless of how you feel about it, people will continue to cough and sniffle. If it puts your nose out of place, it’s worth reflecting on why.
When I spoke to my teacher on my feelings, he said he noticed my intensity, and that irritability and judging others harshly are among my (many) weaknesses. Pretty on-point.
The Vipassana tradition posits that these weaknesses and behaviors are embedded deeply within one’s subconscious, and meditation helps us access them, work on them, and eventually resolve them.
These issues are accessed sequentially, and whatever surfaces is often accompanied by an emotional manifestation. In my case, my irritability was what I was meant to work on in that moment, and eventually I developed a measure of equanimity towards the external stimuli that perturbed me.
I’ll avoid saying much more about my personal experience and the emotional path I undertook because some of you readers may end up going on your own Vipassana course, and having your own experience. Everyone responds to these circumstances differently, depending on what they bring to the course with them. It would be a shame if my experience affected the experience one of you were meant to have.
For the first 3 days, you practice the foundational meditation technique, which is simply observing the sensation of breath in and around the nose. On the fourth day, you start practicing Vipassana, which is the meditative technique of examining your body piece by piece and observing the sensations there. You start with the top of the head and move down sequentially – the forehead, the eyes and brow, the ears, the cheeks, and so on until you arrive at the tips of your toes. Then you reverse and examine your body from your toes upward. The isolation and silence and foundational meditation sessions prepare your mind to be especially sensitive to your bodily sensations, and some people eventually experience full-body buzzing sensations after a period of practice.
On the 10th day, we were able to speak with one another again. It was incredible to once again look people in the eye, smile at them, experience their personalities, and generally interact with the world outside of your own head. It felt like a party, like a graduation of sorts. There was still further meditation to be done, but it was light, with a feeling of accomplishment.
It’s hard to express the change you feel in yourself afterward. It’s subtle, but still profound. For me, as someone who can be quick to anger and frustration and judgment, to feel less of those things was markedly noticeable.
Berlin can be a notoriously cold place to live, and I don’t mean the temperature. There isn’t much warmth in everyday interactions and a lot of fodder for the easily perturbed. Despite being thrust back into that environment, I felt greater calmness and equanimity.
To my recollection, I felt fewer negative emotions after my Vipassana course, and when I did experience them, they were of lesser intensity and noticeably shorter duration. I definitely had less anxiety and was much more comfortable simply “being.” After all, that was all I had done for 10 days.
Fast forward to today – I’m finishing this post in a cafe in Bangkok some 2 months after finishing my course (I procrastinated, naturally ;), and it’s hard to get back into that exact emotional state.
In order to maintain that level of sensitivity and continue building on the foundation laid in the course, we were advised to meditate two hours daily – one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening – and abandon alcohol completely. I’ve done neither.
I still meditate most mornings for 30-45 minutes, and my days are much better for it. When I don’t meditate, I notice a marked drop-off in focus, productivity, mood, and emotional resilience.
Since completing the course, several things in my personal and professional life have tested my (easily perturbed) equanimity, and I firmly believe my Vipassana course and daily meditation have helped me respond in ways I’m more comfortable with – that feel more aligned with who I want to be and how I want to orient myself with others and this world.
Mostly, though, I realize that life is short and everything in life is impermanent. Life will move forward in one way or another, and in some ways, at some points, I will have to make my peace with things I don’t like – big or small. The more I can depend on being in control of my emotional variance – how I respond to the vagaries of life and the world – the better my life will be, and the further I can develop a permanent inner calm to retreat to. Meditation has been a phenomenal tool for that and I’m looking forward to continuing this path.