On a beach in Koh Tao one hot April afternoon, Chris turned to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Honestly, it sounded too long-haired hippie for my liking and while I’d heard 80% of successful people meditate regularly (thank you Tim Ferriss), I didn’t know how or why people did it.
And then Chris told me it was free.
What? Ten days of no spending and complete budget relief?
We signed up immediately.
Chris and I had a combined zero hours of meditation practice when we applied to the Dhamma Abha Vipassana Meditation Center in Phitsanulok, Thailand. We decided the meditation center at random, with no knowledge of the numerous varieties of meditation out there. As it turns out we chose Vipassana mediation (whatever that meant).
We knew very little.
We did know that males and females were separated, only two vegetarian meals provided a day (no eating after 12PM -Chris would surely die), and complete silence to be observed. Electronics would be confiscated and we’d be shut off from the outside (and material) world.
Yes, we were scared shitless.
Driven by pure fear and uncertainty of how we’d survive those ten days in July we started preparing in May, which is where the experience really began.
In order to properly understand the transformation here’s some personal disclosure about where Chris and I were at this point in our trip…
Like any relationship, we have our ups and downs and spending every moment together has its obvious challenges. Four months into the trip, we reached a breaking point. Everything Chris did annoyed me (and it showed). My obvious distaste was frustrating and Chris grew resentful. It was a recipe for disaster. Issues continued to compound and before we knew it the tension was boiling over- we needed an outlet to cool us down. We spent an evening in Indonesia “hashing” it out (I’ll spare you the details) and then decided to start implementing meditation into our routine the next morning.
Since that night in Indonesia, we’ve had zero conflicts (trust me, Ive been tracking these figures meticulously in my daily journal). Of course we still disagree and bicker, but there’s no underlying anger or resentment and issues are resolved almost immediately with no baggage. I can’t say for certain whether it was the hash out or the meditation that did it, but I’m leaning towards the latter.
Meditation is an outlet. It’s a time to just sit and be.
“Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits” -Quote on wooden board somewhere…
Whether you realize it or not, we all need a break from the ceaseless madness of this roller coaster called life. Schedules are hectic and people can be downright frustrating. Meditation is a short, yet powerful respite to that daily life.
There’s so much to say about the benefit but this post is already long winded, so let me get into the heart of the matter – The 10-Day Retreat.
As I said, we had no idea what to expect. Even with meager attempts at preparation (which included meditating when we had time, a book on meditation, and trying but failing to eat less) nothing could have prepped us for the next ten days.
From my psychology perspective, I like to describe Vipassana as intensive cognitive behavioral therapy with happiness as the hopeful objective. The unfortunate fact for most of humanity is that we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves. Even in the most fortunate of lives, we all experience agitation, irritation and disharmony. If you think about it, these things don’t exist in and of themselves; they only exist because humans create them in their own mind.
Unwanted things happen, and wanted things don’t happen. But if you look at any event from a purely objective perspective, it is neither good nor bad. It just…is. For example, if you get a flat tire, the truth isn’t that this event is bad; the negative feelings would only be an emotion concocted in your mind and not true reality. The true reality of the moment is that a metal object punctured the rubber of your tire and the air once held inside is now leaking out. It’s not a good thing, or a bad thing. It just…is.
So when we face these situations, we allow these negative emotions (agitation, irritation and disharmony) to arise in our mind and in turn generate misery. And this is unfortunately not just limited to our own brains – these feelings of misery are easily passed to others, spreading misery like a contagious disease. Vipassana doesn’t just expose and explain what’s going on, it offers help in overcoming this misery through daily practice.
The path isn’t easy, but you have to start somewhere.
Each day we followed a strict schedule that included at least eleven hours of sitting meditation.
It was a mental and physical battle. Cockamamie thoughts cloud the mind while shooting pains and numbness throughout the back and legs create a torturous prison. Silence forbids the chance to find solace with others making the first three days full of hopelessness and despair. It’s hard to fully describe how desperate you feel when, after 5 hours of painful meditation on Day 2, you realize that you have 6 more hours that day and 8 more full days after that.
Can I really take this much misery?
Then something extroadinary happens. The pain turns into progress and all the sudden the “why” of your participation in such a masochistic program begins to make sense.
But before I get into this realization, this would be a good time to provide a quick history of the practice. Vipassana is, in short, the original teaching of Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as Buddha. In the 2,500 years since he lived his teachings have been altered in ways that, according to mentors of Vipassana, have diluted their intended meanings.
These alterations include the current religion of Buddhism which again, according to Vipassana, has been inundated with pointless worship of idols and adherence to scripture. Buddha’s original teaching was simple and involved observing your own body’s sensations without reacting (achieved through meditation) and living a life free of unwholesome acts (which are pretty universal; don’t kill, don’t speak poorly of others, etc); that’s it.
So while the ‘altered’ versions of his teachings spread around the world, the ‘original’ teachings of Buddha stayed alive with a line of monks located in Burma (also known as Myanmar). At the end of this line lies our teacher, the humble yet charismatic S.N. Goenka, the antecedent curator of Vipassana before its proliferation throughout the world (it is now taught in hundreds of countries).
He passed away several years ago but as his teachings were recorded, and because every 10-day Vipassana is designed to be exactly the same, we were able to enjoy the course just as if he were sitting at the front of the room.
Which brings me back to the turning point in the course. The aforementioned clarity of “why” we were there began to manifest during the one hour video discourse Goenka presented each evening. It was during this time that he first acknowledged the difficulty we were all experiencing, because until then I was convinced there was something horribly wrong with my practice – no one could possibly experience this much pain. This worry was extinguished.
Next, in his trademark storyteller manner, he explained to us the rational behind the activities of the day; why we did them and how they would move us closer to the goals of the practice. It seemed that each day there was a profound teaching, but there were definitely a couple that stood out.
I’ll start with mastery of the mind. Dale Carnegie, author of the timeless classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, summed it up perfectly when he said, “Everyone in the world is seeking happiness – and there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts. Happiness doesn’t depend on outward conditions. It depends on inner conditions.” In Vipassana’s cognitive behavioral ways, this strengthening reveals itself as you slowly improve in bringing your monkey mind (a phrase often used to describe a restless mind) back to focus while also reacting less to the pains of constant sitting.
In the first few days I couldn’t imagine sitting still for an entire hour. It was impossible and I was certain that my foot was going to fall off from lack of circulation (I was eager to look up the rate of amputations from meditation accidents, but it was impossible given the circumstances). But alas, by the end of the week I could sit for an hour or even longer. Of course, the pains were still there but I was less reactive to these pains, a developed skill.
Another core teaching of the course is equanimity. Equanimity (a term I had never heard until Vipassana and have since adopted into my daily vocabulary) is “mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium”.
Being able to maintain equanimity in practice (particularly when your mind is running like a chicken with it’s head cut off and you feel like someone is stabbing you in the back with a knife) will directly influence the way you react to tense situations in the real world. While we all are faced with daily challenges where anger is unavoidable, the only one who truly suffers from feeling anger is yourself. Mastering equanimity will not eradicate situations which used to cause anger from your life (these things will always happen) but it will give you a tool to minimize the time you spend dwelling on it. You eventually are able to acknowledge what happened (remember the flat tire?) without succumbing to emotion and move on in the most productive way possible instead of letting that anger consume you, cloud your thoughts and lead you down a path of ineffectiveness.
Over the course of the ten day meditation I developed a more complete understanding of what’s important in life; what warrants anger and what does not. I’ve drastically cut the time I spend obsessing over those who have in some way made me angry leaving more time to be productive and happy each day.
And it’s not just about feelings of anger. Equanimity helps with feelings of anxiousness, impatience, depression, isolation, and heaps of other characteristics of suffering.
The final of the teachings I’ll mention is the idea of impermanence. Everything changes whether we like it or not and this can be a constant source of tension in our lives. We all have or will undoubtedly need to one day maneuver through the challenges of losing a loved one. We’ll have to combat change in appearance as wrinkles grow and muscle turns into fat. Technology changes the way we communicate with one another and makes life both easier and harder for us. We resist these changes rather than accepting their inevitability. The Pali word for this is anicca, which translates to “inconstant”.
This understanding has drastically improved the way I handle countless scenarios in my life. It helps to differentiate dilemmas that matter most. As I think back to my schooling and the infinite number of tests that I drove myself mad over, it all seems a bit silly. Do those tests matter today? Of course not. Will this post (a source of anxiety for me) matter next year? Nope. It wont matter within ten minutes after its completed.
So why do we insist on making ourselves miserable in any given moment?
Aside from the personal gains that influence me on a daily basis, the environment within the walls of the meditation center is indescribable. There is a genuine desire to relieve humanity’s suffering. Each video lecture ends with Goenka’s memorable (yet indecipherable) Pali serenade, an authentic smile, and the parting words “May All Beings Be Happy”.
The fact that the retreats are free is completely telling of its motivations. Each center works off of donations and they ask (continuously) that you only give within your means and to NOT give if you gained little or nothing from the ten days.
Everyone working is a volunteer (a fellow Vipassana meditator) and they serve with wholehearted passion. I spent ten days in silence with 100 Thai strangers, but if you saw us on the last day you would’ve thought we were old friends. Even with the language barrier, hugs and well wishes were exchanged before leaving.
It says a lot about the bond that’s built in such a reflective space.
That same bond carried over into my relationship with Chris. I wish we had a video of our greeting on the last day when we were permitted to speak. We looked like two over-sized kindergartens (him more than me) talking to their crush for the first time. We forgot how to talk, and words had escaped us anyway. We’d just gotten back from a hellish journey of self discovery on steroids, no words were necessary.
I am grateful to have traversed such a intense experience with him there with me, though not there with me; we both went on individual journeys and our relationship emerged immeasurably better for it. Now each day we work, as a team, towards the ideals we learned during the retreat and provide constant, compassionate support along the way.
When I start to lose sight of these ideals, I have my own Goenka staring me in the face. It’s a much taller, more Americanized Goenka, but he gets the job done.
As I begin to stew in utter anxiety about things like job applications, money, insurance and even the outcome of how this post will be received (will anyone even read it?), Chris looks at me and with his best (and accurate) Goenka accent says, Anicca.
Believe it or not, it’s a cure all.
Looking back I’m ashamed that free food and accommodation were the motivating factors in accepting this challenge, but I can only be grateful; it ended up being the most profound journey thus far.
If you’re interested in experiencing Vipassana for yourself, there are tons of resources and retreat centers all over the world!
Start your exploration by visiting Dhamma.org
If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge into a full retreat but are interested in meditation, I suggest reading the book Where Ever You Go, There You Are.
It’s a great starter for learning the ins and outs of meditation.
May All Beings Be Happy 🙂