If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.
– Anagarika Munindra
After fighting off an erratic crusade of both neurotic and exuberant thoughts during my first interminable meditation session, I laid down on my bed. Turning onto my side, I discovered ten lines depressed into the paint on the wall with what looked like a finger nail. I let loose an internal chuckle in response to the medieval dungeon vibe that a previous meditator had characterized by carving out their passing days. I then spotted another ten orderly grooves elsewhere on the wall. Those ones were far more interesting and a little less comical.
The following post is my illustration of a 10-day Vipassana course, which should be taken as an artistic interpretation of the practice. If you have any technical questions, may ye be warned that I will likely yield a heavily caveated response, paired with a loving suggestion for you to just do the damn course.
1. What is Vipassana?
From Pali, a native language of the Indian subcontinent, the word “Vipassana” roughly translates to “seeing deeply” or “to see things as they truly are”. It is a meditation practice that focuses on becoming more aware of your true subjective experience, while ridding your mind of suffering and all the delusional stories it tells itself throughout each moment.
This was the technique devised and disseminated by the Buddha before it became non-secularized into Buddhism. It is therefore a practice void of religious attachment and you needn’t embrace any mysterious, dogmatic beliefs to discover the liberating qualities it offers.
Vipassana meditation is comprised of 3 primary exercises:
- Observation of physical sensations.
- Acceptance of what you find during a non-biased observation of sensations.
- Impermanence recognition of every sensation.
The foundational theory and offering behind this type of arduous observation is as follows:
Here are some examples of what I mean by the different objects of craving and aversion:
- Physical: itches, cramps, nice shivers, painful pressure, etc.
- Mental: clinging to the past, yearning for a future, addictions, etc.
If you don’t think that you act with craving or aversion in almost every moment, I encourage you to attempt the next hour without relieving an itch or adjusting your seated body when faced with minor discomfort. Many of you are likely committing one if not both of these reactions as you read this sentence (I just rubbed my eye..).
On and off the cushion, there are a number of precepts that you are asked to follow. These are in place for your own benefit so that you get the most out of your 10 days. In addition to not communicating or making eye contact with other attendees, the 5 precepts are to abstain from the following:
- Killing any living creatures
- Sexual pleasures
- Consuming intoxicants
Now that the basics are covered, I’d like to navigate you through my experience of the course. Let’s start with quite possibly the most common query we ask ourselves.
2. Why Bother?
Well, why do anything? Without delving too deep into the meaning of existence, it seems that the only reason conscious creatures such as ourselves perform any premeditated action is to attempt an increase of well-being or a decrease of suffering in either ourselves or other conscious beings. What else is there to value? With that in mind, why do Vipassana meditation?
I signed up for the course after having an incredibly special evening sitting on my back deck in New Zealand. I had ingested a glass of water that contained a chemical recipe for my brain to concoct a 3 hour dish of increased Serotonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine transmission; I did a drug. I’d like to thoroughly cover the topic of drugs in another post, so for now I’ll spare all but the relevant details.
The profound compassion that blanketed my consciousness that evening opened my eyes to how beautifully one could experience the contents of their brain in a way that I had never witnessed before. In a suspiciously similar manner to the aftermath of the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris’ drug induced interest in meditation, I found myself wondering how to continuously cultivate such a desirable brain state. A constant uptake of that substance was clearly not the answer, as there are undesirable short (and possibly long) term side effects that would push my brain in the opposite direction from what I sought. Following the testimony of Sam Harris—as he spells out in his book “Waking Up”—I looked further into the practice of Vipassana. A few days later, I signed up for a course, timing it so that it would launch the 6 month vacation I had planned prior to this back deck evening of lucid profundity.
Aside from why I entered the game, this technique offers a number of lasting qualities that you’ll be able to carry with you into each moment of your life. These qualities include an increase in the following:
- Compassion for all conscious beings;
- Focus, both in endurance and intensity;
- Interoception (the ability to sense the internal status of your body); and
If you read these qualities and didn’t feel that an increase in them would bring you closer to the apogee of human experience you’ve been yearning for your entire life, I urge you to re-read that list and imagine how your work, personal, and love life would change if you could dial up just a 10% gain in each quality.
Becoming the master of your own mind—by calming the neurological storm that you identify as—isn’t actually the final goal of Vipassana meditation. Instead, it is an invaluable tool that one must develop to leverage states of intensive focus and conscious clarity. This is a recognizable game changing tool after only a handful of days spent practicing the technique. For this reason, meditation has surged into western culture, especially in areas like silicon valley where endurance in productivity and focus sit on the top shelf of valued brain states.
Complete mental liberation and enlightenment—whatever that means—is a long path to walk. Thankfully, many potent benefits can be discovered within each step forward.
3. My Experience
Even though I had some casual meditation practice before the course (which isn’t at all necessary), day 1 hit me hard. The somewhat unresponsive horse that I thought my brain was riding turned out to be a savage and spiteful bull. This harsh unveiling of a completely rampant mind is standard for the first day, and taming my mental faculties over the following 9 days was as rewarding as it was challenging.
On day 4, I found myself coming out of the meditation hall with a massive smile on my face; I had just unearthed a new realm of perceptible sensations.
During the 10 minute break before going back in for another sitting, I strolled along the forest trail with a deeply satisfying sense of tranquility. Permeating the woods, a gong ring signaled the remaining 5 minutes. I beamed back up at the sun and recalled how amazing the previous sit was. I now knew what was possible, and I was going to find that space again. The following hour and a half was a cacophony of delirium and frustration. What had I done wrong?!
Imagine that you’re rushing out of your house and you can’t find your phone. In a fiery panic, you begin tearing apart your living quarters in search of that beloved black screen of modernity. Your living partner then saunters into the room that you’re frantically maximizing entropy in, and calmly tells you that the only way you’ll find your phone is if you stop searching for it. Upon hearing this, you really do stop looking for your phone, but only to find a suitably dense object to hurl at their stupid face.
Though I had heard of this strange feature before entering the camp, I still managed to fall into the pit of attachment—craving the previously attained blissful sensations and finding only disorientating disappointment. Painful though it was, this served as a strong reminder that I was there to observe reality as it really is, not as how I wished it to be. This was an incredibly valuable lesson to learn first-hand.
After that session, I took seriously the practice of fully embracing whatever experience arose while meditating. Perhaps I’d be agitated, hungry, excited, tired, or dying to think about something or someone. If such constant distractions were making the equanimous observation of sensations difficult to do, that was just fine. There was no reason to react negatively or become disappointed, that was simply the reality of the moment. Patiently and persistently I would work to calm the mind until it was ready to observe sensations again.
I’d like to introduce the sensation scientist analogy, which helped me quite a lot. You—the conscious witness of certain brain activity—are the sensation scientist, your body is the lab in which you carry out your research, and physical sensations on your body—itches, cramps, tingles, etc.—are the phenomena which you observe in your lab: experiments.
A sensation scientist doesn’t hope to find specific sensations in her lab. Instead, she simply observes whatever sensations arise without recoiling or gravitating towards the results.
Just like a non-biased sensation scientist, we were asked to observe physical sensations objectively: “Hmm, would you look at that, there seems to be pain arising in the knee area” instead of, “HOLY SHIT MY KNEE IS KILLING ME I NEED TO MOVE IT NOW!!”
Initially, this seemed impossible since everything you experience is by definition subjective. After squandering some time brooding over this absurd paradox, I silenced my internal quibblings and gave it a shot. This was another important lesson that helped me progress through the practice. Although you needn’t completely shut down your skeptical faculties, it was really useful for me to attenuate any criticism that bubbled up while listening to instructions or evening discourses. To get the most out of your time, I believe it’s best to fully devote yourself to the practice for the duration of the course. Once the 10 days are up, check in with yourself and only then throw out any nonsense you still think remains.
From day 5 onward, physical pain was no longer an issue. My left knee had previously provided quite a lot of discomfort, and that discomfort would slowly transform into pulsating agony every time I approached an hour of motionless meditation. However, once I began to really concentrate on the focal point of pain—attempting to observe its nature objectively—the severity became strangely ambiguous; I wasn’t quite sure if it was acute pain or sparkling pleasure. I even found myself at times leaning into the formerly painful regions to increase the strength of this weird pain-pleasure dualism. After further focused observation, I could no longer feel any trace of distinct pain nor pleasure; all that remained was an undefined, lucid intensity.
High and low sessions continued to fluctuate right up until the final day, but my practice of detachment from these experiences led to the peeling away of disappointment. After my final sit down in the course, I even found immense joy in how terribly distracted I was. How beautiful it was to end 10 days of attempted equanimity with an hour of incessant neuroticism!
On day 10 at 9:30am, the forest erupted with the sounds of lovely human voices. Simply making eye contact with another human felt amazing, let alone plunging deep into a stimulating conversation about the illusion of the self. After communing with these people that I had lived in silence with, I found myself escaping into the forest and rediscovering the joy of whistling. I had never been so aware of how much facial muscle power it requires just to have a conversation with someone. The day was an earthquake of stimulation, and I the epicenter.
After many exchanges of details and loving goodbyes, I was once again singing and dancing in my car. My inflated equanimity remained strong and stable for around a week before settling into a space somewhere between my 1st and 10th day of the course. My interactions with other humans have become far more loving and patient, and I can only hope that I haven’t been making overly invasive eye contact with grocery store cashiers. I believe you’re living a fairly rich life when one of your main interpersonal concerns is that your effervescent positivity is becoming a conversational burden.
In addition to the increased equanimity, gratefulness, and compassion following the course, I’ve also been blessed with a greater quality of meditation. Now when I sit down to meditate for 5, 10, 30 or 60 minutes, I sink into a calmed state far more quickly and have a greater understanding of what I’m actually trying to do: trying not to try, still being the primary paradox.
However, by far the most important knowledge I gained was how potent and diverse the practice of impermanence recognition is. Previously, I had used this tool to leverage my way out of depressed mental states—telling myself that sadness comes and goes, and that just because I feel stuck in the trenches of negativity now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way—but never had I implemented this type of recognition during elevated, happy moments. This has turned out to be a surprising super power. Regardless of where in the vast spectrum of emotion my mind is situated, becoming aware that this moment is, by definition, fleeting and that in an instant, everything that is will be lost forever, produces a heightened sense of appreciation. Coming to terms with ephemerality in the best of times has consistently driven me deeper into cherishing the grandeur of both extraordinary and completely ordinary experience.
Even when you’re lying in bed, tortured by insecurity, despair or shame, and unable to find the energy to get up and face the world, this way of thinking is available. How lucky you are to even have a brain with such a range of complexity. You get to feel sad, how beautiful is that? One day you’ll be in bed, hazed over either by prescribed drugs or your own crumbling cognition, about to leave this world forever. But today your consciousness is vivid and the beauty of creation is at your doorstep, waiting patiently to be noticed.
I really cannot overstate how valuable an awareness of impermanence has been in my life since the meditation course.
I’d like to close this post with a bulleted summary to recapitulate some of the main points I’ve been blabbering on about.
You have been gifted with a likelihood of 30,000 days on Earth, and you will spend most if not all of those days perpetually and unwittingly captivated by the object of your attention. What’s 10 days to observe the captivated and possibly unlock a more focused, balanced and loving way to be in the world?
Honestly, just do it.
To read more about Vipassana meditation and to search for centers near you, click here.