I first heard about Vipassana from Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer for Weezer. He was explaining that despite being a rock star, he was celibate because of Vipassana. Powerful stuff, I guess. He raved about the benefits of it, although I don't remember exactly what he said anymore. It stuck in my mind, and over the years I thought about signing up, but something always seemed to be in the way of me leaving society for ten days to learn how to meditate.
The idea is simple and extreme, both of which appealed to me. You go to a meditation center in the middle of nowhere, agree to be silent and without any contact with the other world for ten days. Then, on a donation only basis, they teach you how to meditate, which you do for ten hours each day.
Finally, after knowing about it for five years, I signed up and went to a course. No notepads were allowed in, so this is reconstructed pretty faithfully from memory.
4:30 PM I'm pulling up a dusty dirt road to the Vipassana center of California in North Fork. I signed up mainly because they allow no talking / technology / contact with the outside world for ten days. I also like that they wake up at 4am every day. Not sure what I want to get out of meditation, but it seems like a universally good thing to do.
4:45 PM I'm filling out a questionnaire. All of the questions are normal except for a giant space on the back for a "short biography". This is a small warning sign for me. Why do they need to know? I write about being a gambler and pickup artist, and then include that I'm close with my family to counterbalance the weirdness. Ninety percent of the space is left blank.
4:55 PM I'm once again asked to confirm that I will indeed stay for ten days. I start getting the impression that this might not be as easy as I thought it would be. I worry about my $5 bet with Annie. She thinks it will be harder than expected.
5:01 PM Off to a bad start. I'm assigned to bunk 12, which doesn't exist. One of my dorm mates breaks the code of silence and asks what I'm looking for. Dammit. I don't want to break the code of silence, but don't want to be rude. I mumble "Bunk 12", trying to break the code by as little as possible. He can't find it either, since it doesn't exist. I round down and put my stuff on bunk "11B".
5:04 PM Hmm. There's nothing to do here. Dinner is at six, so I emulate my dorm mates and lie awake in bed staring at the ceiling.
6:02 PM Dinner is surprisingly good. Salad with lots of good things like seeds and nutritional yeast, brown rice, and fruit.
6:31 PM Still nothing to do. I get back in bed to wait for orientation.
6:55 PM Just broke a rule by accident. A mosquito was biting me and I killed it.
7:01 PM Wow. The meditation room is really nice. Big and clean with pleasant dim lighting. Older students use pillows and weird little benches, but us new students just sit on the little pads.
7:05 PM Uh oh. We're chanting in Buddha's language, which is called Pali. Chanting freaks me out. We're chanting affirmations that we will stay for ten days and not kill things or masturbate (technically it's to be TOTALLY celibate, but we're segregated by sex, so I read between the lines).
8:00 PM Now we're meditating. Exciting! We're told to become aware of the breath in our nostrils. The taped instructor says nostrils frequently and pronounces it funny. Nose-trills.
8:01 PM It's really hard to focus on my nose-trills.
8:02 PM My forehead is itchy. Oops, I should be thinking about nose-trills.
8:09 PM How is my back sore already? I wonder if I should have better posture in general. I slouch a lot. It was awesome back when I had an Aeron chair. I should get another one. Maybe I could remove the top part of my chair in the RV and replace it with an Aeron. That would be awesome. Oh right... nose-trills.
9:00 PM Finally we get to sleep. In the last hour I spent about five minutes thinking about my nostrils and fifty five thinking about other things.
4:02 AM Hey, waking up at four a.m. isn't bad at all. I didn't hear my watch go off, but the shaved head manager guy keeps ringing that gong.
4:30 AM Morning meditation. No instructions. No instructors, actually. I wonder if they're sleeping? I guess we're supposed to keep doing what we did last night.
6:02 AM Breakfast time. Breakfast is really good, too. Oatmeal, raisins, prunes, other fruits.
6:21 AM I'm quickly learning that any free time is nap time.
8:00 AM Back for more meditation. Now they're playing the guy chanting on the speakers. Why does chanting annoy me so much? How am I supposed to focus on my breathing with this chanting?
8:05 AM Eyes cracked open. No one else seems to be bothered by the chanting. Now he's stopped chanting and told us again to be aware of the "respiration in your nose-trills". He tells us that we may breath through the left, the right, or sometimes even both nose-trills. The way he says it is very reassuring. If we are uncomfortable we can lie down and rest for five minutes, but no more.
9:01 AM Time to meditate in our dorms now. Stopping and starting makes it seem easier, but I can't stay focused. I've noticed that when my mind wanders, ninety percent of it is about two topics in about equal parts: girls and my new RV refrigerator. I don't actually think about either topic very much in real life.
9:04 AM Man, once I get that fridge I can start cooking again. TEMPEH! I should start cooking tempeh. What a great protein source. I need to look into coconut oil when I get back. Man, that will be delicious.
9:06 AM Respiration. How many breaths can I focus for? One. Two. Three. I think my new fridge is smaller than the other one. I wonder what I should do with the extra space. Maybe I could make a spice rack! Or maybe I could fit a water heater back there if it's shallower. What a smart design. I can't believe it works on an angle. Why am I thinking about my fridge again? Back to breathing...
9:11 AM I should take one of those five minute rests. My back is sore and my two roommates are both taking rests. I think they might have fallen asleep.
9:55 AM Oops. I fell asleep too. Roommates still asleep. Okay, back to respiration.
10:10 AM I just can't stay focused on respiration. I wonder if this is hard for other people. My roommates are still sleeping. I'll take another five minute rest to refocus.
11:00 AM Time for lunch. I'm not sure how much of the last hour I slept sleeping and how much I spent meditating. Does this even count as meditating? When I'm awake, I mean. Sleeping seems so fun in comparison.
11:21 AM Lunch is good again. I like eating in silence. I shouldn't have bet Annie $5 that this would be easy. Or at the very least, I shouldn't have insisted that we bet Americabucks. At this point there's no way I can reasonably claim that it was easy.
5:00 PM I've skipped the whole day because it was basically me struggling to meditate. My back is really sore now,sitting up properly is the hardest part. I can tell other people are having an easier time sitting because no one else has adopted my knees up / elbows on knees / head sideways on forearm posture. Oh yeah, I forgot that they don't serve dinner. Just fruit and tea, which is pretty good. I'll eat two oranges.
6:15 PM This meditation is killing me. I've got to get out of here. Why did I want to sign up for this again? Did I have a reason besides wanting to not talk for ten days? Owen was telling me that I don't need to meditate because I'm already relaxed. Maybe he was right.
7:20 PM Wow, a video discourse. It's filmed in 1991, but the quality is good. The chanting is less annoying now that I see the guy doing it. He's pretty charismatic.
7:45 PM Now he's talking about how hard day one is. He says everyone wants to quit on day two and day six, and calls quitters weak minded. He also says "ten days" so much that it feels like brainwashing. Mostly he talks about how our backs probably hurt and chuckles about it. That makes me feel better about the whole thing.
8:15 PM No new instructions, unfortunately. I was really hoping we'd get to do something other than think about respiration. At least we only have forty five minutes of meditation tonight. It's funny how that seems like a really short time now.
9:00 PM Time to sleep. I did a bit better on that last meditation.
4:00 AM Bam. I'm awake. Don't even worry about it.
4:30 AM In the meditation hall, feeling pretty good about everything.
5:10 AM Wow. I made it forty minutes without changing positions! One of the reasons I came to this thing was because I wanted to do daily 15-20 minute meditations but couldn't sit still long enough. No problem now.
5:34 AM Damn. How did only twenty four minutes just pass? That felt like forever. I can't wait for breakfast. Maybe I should make oatmeal in my RV when I leave here. It's such a good breakfast food. How can I do that without making a huge mess? Why do I keep thinking about my RV?
10:00 AM I'm seriously getting sick of thinking about respiration. When will we do something new?
1:45 PM I'm barely hanging in here. This is so tedious. I keep shifting positions every couple minutes. I'm now using an extra cushion and a wooden bench thing. Not sure if they help or not. Is it really this hard to sit comfortably? I didn't think so...
7:00 PM The whole day passed in a blur of struggling to meditate and naps. Finally the discourse. I've been looking forward to the charismatic Indian man all day. Maybe he'll give us new instructions. They play recordings of him before a lot of the meditations, and I'm always hoping for new instructions.
7:09 PM "Your mind is full of misery." What? No it's not! My mind is full of happiness. Why would he make such a blanket statement like that?
7:11 PM This discourse is getting worse. He keeps talking about how enlightened he is and how much misery we have. He categorizes our distracting thoughts into four categories, bad and good, future and past. Mine are all good-past and good-future. I like those thoughts and think they motivate me. I don't want to get rid of them.
7:14 PM He outlines the "wholesome life" we can lead once we master the technique in ten days and then practice for some time on our own. It involves doing work that benefits others, eating vegetarian, not using intoxicants, and not being angry. I ALREADY DO ALL THAT. Why am I subjecting myself to this? I want to quit.
7:45 PM New instructions! Now instead of just focusing on the respiration, we should also focus on the sensations in the nose-trills. He lists many sensations we might feel. This sounds fun.
8:20 PM New problem. Now it's too easy. I can focus indefinitely on these sensations without getting distracted. Now it's more boring because the only challenge is remaining comfortable.
9:00 PM Time to sleep. I want to leave. I'll wait until tomorrow to make sure I think it through. I wish I didn't sign something saying I'd stay for ten days.
4:00 AM I'm getting used to this early waking thing. Not bad at all.
4:30 AM Ready to rock. I still want to leave, but I'll give it one more chance.
4:40 AM Already bored of focusing on the sensations. How can I do this for ten hours today? Why is no one here? At least half of the students didn't show up this morning.
4:50 AM Okay, I'm done with nose-trill sensations. I'm going to start doing mental math to kill the time. What's 199 * 18? 3582. Let's calculate it again to make sure.
4:52 AM Am I seriously doing mental math to amuse myself?
4:55 AM Okay, either I'm going to push through for ten days or leave now. No point in doing anything else. What are the pros for staying? I'll have a cool blog article to write. Maybe I will actually learn something useful. What? I have no idea. Free food. I don't like quitting things.
What about leaving? Well, I can get back to real life, don't have to subject myself to this, and can continue meditating for a few minutes every day if I want. I don't think I really want the promised outcome of the course, though.
5:30 AM I've thought about it for half an hour. I'm leaving. Interestingly, wake up times, technology, or communication had nothing to do with the decision. I opened my eyes and noticed that a ton of people have left the hall. That hasn't happened until today.
5:50 AM My bag is packed and I'm walking towards the RV. I looked for a manager to tell them I was leaving, but didn't see anyone. I don't want to cause a scene or demoralize others, so I guess I'll just slip out.
4:39 PM, Samovar Tea Lounge, San Francisco
So that's that. I came back and got a perfect parking spot right next to Alamo Square park. I'm at my favorite place in SF (so far), Samovar tea lounge, being productive.
Vipassana wasn't for me, but don't take my aborted attempt as an indication of what the course is about or what it will do for you. The staff of the meditation center are all volunteers who clearly have benefitted from it and are genuinely interested in helping others.
I learn poorly in classroom environments, and get restless easily. It's hard to articulate this without sounding arrogant, but I think I'm probably too close to the end goal of the class to be properly invested. A starving guy will do anything for a sandwich. A guy who has three fourths of a sandwich won't do much for the sandwich.
This is also an incomplete view of the class. Maybe day three brings huge breakthroughs to those who stick through. Maybe I would have eliminated my positive self talk, gotten a quieter mind, and wished I had done it years before. I'm definitely interested in hearing from past Vipassana students.
My one tinge of hesitation in saying I'm glad I bailed is that I think that something is gained whenever you do something difficult. But ultimately, there are a lot of hard things to do, and the increased character alone isn't enough justification.
And last, here's what I got out of the class that I'm thankful for:
- I learned that late night computer usage makes waking up early difficult. I may make a no-computer-after-11pm rule.
- Waking up early is easy when you don't have a computer.
- I can now meditate for twenty minutes in a sitting. I might do this once a day for a month and see how I like it.
I also have a lot of respect for anyone who goes through with the whole course. Even if I had been overly motivated (win $1 million for sticking with it!), it still would have been a very difficult process.