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 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.
Just finished my first 10 day Vipassana retreat 2 weeks ago. It was by far the single most profound experience of my life. I focused and worked hard, and it was extremely challenging. Day 3, Day 6, and Day 7 were absolute hell for me. I had gotten dropped off and did not have a vehicle or I might have left. Being so long inside of your own mind is a challenging experience, not to be taken lightly.
I think being able to stick through it has less to do with your experience with meditation and more to do with your internal fortitude. Meditating for 8-10 hours a day is so far beyond what even a regular meditator does that it is a whole new level of experience. It reminds when I talk to people about skydiving and they say, "Oh I can't do that. I'm scared of heights." My response is that it has nothing to do with heights. When you are flying in a plane 10,000 feet above the ground and someone opens the door and tells you to get out, it has NOTHING to do with a fear of heights! Its about a fear of DEATH! There is something carnal that screams out from deep within your psyche, NOOO!!!
10 hours a day deeply inside your own mind for 10 days is EXCRUCIATING!!! Making excuses of why one chooses to push through or not push through serves no purpose. It is hard. We had two out of 30 or so male students bail, and I don't blame them.
I experienced bouts of EXTREME pain, tiredness, boredom, restlessness, lust, craving, animosity, love, peace, joy, and an assortment of other emotions without talking to anyone or having any interaction with the outside world. In complete isolation your mind still lives a very interactive life all within itself. I came to terms with the idea that my mind is completely INSANE. It was by far the most intense mental work I have ever done in my life. I have focused on my personal growth for my entire adult life with books, audio, and different types of retreats, and I have never experienced such a deep journey into my own psyche and subconscious.
Let me say also, that the whole retreat has a very strong feel of Indian culture. The chanting also freaked me out initially. I actually wasn't comfortable with it until I learned some of what he was saying. He teaches you some of what he chants in the later days. Also, the first night the assistant teachers were wearing all white and sitting in elevated chairs that had flowing white sheets covering them on an all white marble elevated stage. My guru/spiritual crap meter was pinging out. But as I judged the teaching and the technique from what was actually presented and not from my cultural bias, then I felt much better about it. There is no test of faith. There is nothing to believe in as with standard religious gatherings. There is no god or God or spirituality or guru in the teachings. There is a little more about reincarnation than I would prefer but he puts a disclaimer out there that there is no need to believe in that either.
As the Buddha taught, so did Goenka (the main teacher). He said test it. Don't take someone's word for it. Try it, test it out, and decide for yourself. And my inner scientist really appreciates that. Yes, there is a certain, VERY specific way they want you to try it out. They are extremely defined in what to do and what not to do in order to work the technique properly, but the self-analyzing, self-deciding factor in its usefulness is left completely up to you. There is no preacher telling you what to believe. No priest walking the road for you. No one is wooing you here. Its all work, and its all you. You must work out your own salvation on this one, and he's very clear about that.
What did I get out of it so far? Many things, but the most significant so far is a very profound understanding of happiness.
Happiness does not come from having the things you want (girls, frigs in the RV, sex, drugs, rock n roll, good food, close family ties, obedient children, love, responsible living, fast cars, big houses, full bank accounts, etc). Happiness does not come from not having the things you don't want either (pain, disease, death, hunger, heartache, bankruptcy, lack, loss, crappy cars, bad food). True happiness, lasting happiness is independent of ALL external circumstances and situations. It is an internal development. It is an internal expression. It is born and raised inside of your own heart and/or mind and nowhere else. Its developing a perspective that no matter where I'm at (whether its in a meditation retreat center or at Samovar Tea Lounge), no matter what I'm experiencing (whether its a perfect parking spot at Alamo Square or doubt and uncertainty at North Fork), I can have happiness and peace. I can be balanced and equanimous with myself, with my life, with my family, and with my universe.
it's only been a month since I finished Vipassana, and I have to say there are huge benefits : for one, it's been a month since my husband and I have had fights. This is THE biggest benefit for me, since these days when I feel the urge to fight, I meditate. And then the sensation dissipates.
I did the course in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. There, for some weird reason, I was really grossed out by the insects in the bathroom, and I thought about it day and night, fighting against the urge to crush them with my suitcase or something. I've never had this strong a reaction before! By the end of the course, whenever I saw these creatures, and my heart still thumped, I kept chanting, "May you not harm me, may I not harm you." This probably seems like a silly thing to say to a cockroach, but it helps you appreciate the practice better.
I can't say I have been faithful in doing the one hour of meditation in the morning and evening each. But, when I find I am going through some internal struggle, even if I am standing in a mall, I take a minute to acknowledge the sensation or to watch my breathing. Or sometimes, because by the time one finishes the course, all one hears is "anicha," I keep repeating that word in my head. The word means, impermanence. And when I couldn't at times feel like I could do the 10 days, that it was too much for me, I thought of this word, that these 10 days too shall pass. For me, the 2nd day was the hardest, as was the 10th! The 10th because, you're so close to the finish, and yet the experience is not over. Because on that day, they let you break your silence and yet, the people you really want to speak to are not around. That day really tested my ability to remain equanimous.
I think one of the important lessons I learnt at the end of the 10 days is that life is impermanent. Whenever something feels like it's too much to handle, that simple truth puts life into perspective.
Well, it looks as I am not the only one I know that left the course half
way...I went there, everything was fine, I mean, difficult in the sense
that the long meditation hours were demanding, but I was really ready
for it and happy to do it. Waking up at 4:00, was not problem, in fact,
it really surprised me how easy it was...
The problems started by the end of 3er day, begining of 4th. A serious lower back pain, which would not easy with rest, started to develop. At first I just ignored it and kept doing the practices and join the groups sessions. But the pain came to a point when I could not even sleep! This really worried me, the night of the 3rd day I did not sleep at all! Next day, I discussed the issue with the master and other teachers. They were helpful and understanding and even called a western doctor who also practice Vipassana.
She did a urine test and my sugar levels where high. She therefore recommended for me to discontinue the course and seek further medical investigations...
Was all this a barrier within me to fully inmmerse myself in the technique? Am I runing from my own dark side? The pain was virtually gone by the time I came back home back I also stopped siting which it may explain why the pain is gone.
I am very sad somewhere inside me cause I did not achieve the goal and complete the course, I had good experiences such as an occasion when I did STOP the mind for a full 2 seconds! It was great cause I knew everything stopped, but once I realize it, I was thinking again and the magic of such moment was gone. I aslo experienced may flash backs from my life, things that I have long forgotten came back from nowhere. It was, as the video tapes of the master said, like opening a wound and allowing all the pus to come out.
I would like anyone here to give me their honest opinion on what happened to me.
Many thanks for been here! Namaste!
No wonder you didn't reap the benefits of Vipassana, the first 3.5 days are just concentration exercises to prepare you for the actual meditation.
One of the main benefits of the actual meditation is that you learn to just observe things that are happening rather than react to them - become equinamous.
You say you are relaxed and happy, which is great, but your life sounds pretty good at the moment. The true test of how much meditation can help you is the extent to which you react to the negative things in your life. If you lose a lot of money do you dwell on the fact or do you accept it and move on quickly? It is easy to be equinomous when things are going well.
I hope you try it again sometime, as there are a lot of benefits to be had from completing the course.
For the people that say this is brainwashing or a cult: the people who operate it are a charity, they don't charge and you can easily go there and stay for free. They are run off donations from people who have done the course and derived benefit.
I was concerned about the vulnerability of the position I was in at times (not preparing my own meals etc.) but there was never any hint of conversion or trying to get money out of me. They just want people to give the technique a fair trial. I did donate in the end because I found it enormously beneficial and wanted to pay for someone else to have the same experience.
I meditated over 60 days straight.
First 30 days for 30 minutes. Then second month, I extended my meditation session to one hour.
I hardly noticed any improvement in my life except that I was able to achieve my physical goals (gaining weight). Quite unrelated to meditating.
Vipassana isn't for the weak of will. I'd recommend doing a 10 day program for anyone, if for nothing else, to develop the capacity of exercising your will to achieving a goal.
I did a 10 day Vipassana in NH about 18 months ago. My practice since then has been less than up to par, but I definitely experienced a lot of positive change from the course. The most salient benefits:
-More control over pain in the body. I'm not as quick to bail out on runs because anything telling me to stop is just a negative perception of the feelings in my body. It's a conscious decision to label pain as "bad," and a decision I need not make.
-Looking at things in context and being satisfied with and dealing with things I have no control of.
-Less time wasted online/TV/reading news etc.
-Able to step back and really perceive emotions.
I'd love to answer any questions people have regarding the practice/retreat. Took me a while to give it a shot.
bradvansky at gmail dot com
Take care all,
Dude, you seem to be dismissing meditation as hippy BS because of unproven spiritual benefits while ignoring the proven psychological and physiological benefits. Some of which are mentioned in the wiki link you provided.
Meditation makes you calmer and happier. Its a fact.
You don't need to be a genius to derive the practical benefits of meditation while avoiding any cultish or religious aspects.
@ Tynan. Well done. You've done three days more at a retreat than I have. I would suggest that you start with 5 minutes of meditation and work your way up from there as you find your ability to concentrate improving. 5 minutes of concentrated effort is far more beneficial than 20 minutes of wasted time. Good luck!
Interesting article...my very westernized and biased view on mediation is that it's largely a waste of time. Relaxing and taking mental breaks has quite a bit of value in productivity, but enlightenment, higher consciousness, awareness, etc...is mostly hippy BS and isn't born out in any studies than have been done on it.
I don't blame you for walking out. Reading it reminded me a bit of when I tried the Landmark Forum. Gave it my best effort for 3 days, but ultimately didn't get much out of it and left convinced it was a cult luring people into a false sense of getting something out it that they couldn't articulate. I also felt like I was "ahead" of most of the people there, and asked for a full refund at the end of it (which they gave me, to their credit). Walking away from people who make huge unfounded promises of benefits and then don't deliver is not weak minded, it's remaining objective and rational.
I'd be suspicious of anyone who says "you have to FULLY commit and give yourself to this up front before you can get the benefit of it" because it's an excuse they use later to keep the believers hooked..."they weren't strong enough, but YOU are". Has been a tool of religion for ages.
Anyway, thanks for writing it up...always interesting to see your experiments!
The thing that really scares me is spontaneous personal expression. For example, I can actually freestyle pretty well, but I've only done it for an audience a handful of times. Doing it for one person is even scarier. Rapping someone else's lyrics for any audience doesn't raise my pulse at all, but having people hear what I come up with in the moment is oddly terrifying.
Last night was my friend Luke's birthday party. Before the complete production, which is like the parties I've seen in movies, but better, he hosted a small dinner and meditation session for half a dozen of us. I went because I've met awesome new friends every time I've gone to one of his dinner parties, and despite hearing about how much it's improved everyone's lives, I've just never really understood meditation.
We all sat on cushions on the top floor of his house. We would be doing pair meditation, Luke explained. We were to sit and ping-pong back and forth offering one word descriptions of what's going on in our bodies and minds. He and his partner went back and forth to demonstrate:
(This is the second post of a series on meditation)