The bullshit and buzzkills of life NEVER end. We want them to go away. But they don’t. ‘Mind over matter’ is the mantra, right? In 1863, Sir Charles Lyle first used the phrase to describe the evolving human mind. He wrote that “sensation, instinct, the intelligence of the higher mammalia bordering on reason—and the improvable reason of man himself—presents us with a picture of the ever-increasing dominion of mind over matter.”
Okay. But how? Two and a half centuries before Sir Charles Lyle, Gautama Buddha, a scientist of sorts, had already discovered the answer. Meditation.
There’s tons of research supporting the benefits of meditation. In study after study, modern science has proven meditation clears the mind, reduces stress and builds patience. It even helps with immunity and pain control. Meditation is a way to master ‘mind over matter.’ After years of frustrating effort to reduce my own frustrating effort, I finally got it.
I’ve had a lot of profound experiences in my life. Today I can say that surviving a 10-day Vipassana meditation course shares a place at the top of the list. It was a ten day introspective circus of emotional, psychological and physical challenges. It was sometimes awful, other times sublime. Yes, sublime can be challenging. Through these challenges came insight, wisdom and strength—three things I desperately needed.
Why I chose a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course
I wanted to break myself down like they do in boot camp. Only I wasn’t interested in intense indoctrination. I was interested in intense un-indoctrination. My mind is like a coliseum. My thoughts are like an orgy of cocaine fueled monkeys and a raging bull, furious with their indiscretion. I’m somewhere in the middle of it all, always trying to tame the circus.
The tension in my life, or in my mind, has been there so long I’ve grown attached to it. But it feels miserable. I’ve asked doctors if there’s something wrong with my brain. I’ve read personal development books and philosophy. I even studied psychology and sociology in university. I’ve always tried to figure myself out from the outside in. I believed if I could adjust the outside, I’d feel happy inside.
Vipassana taught me how naive I was.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” It’s aim is to rid the mind of impurities—basically, to free negativity and delusion from the deepest levels of the subconscious. Vipassana meditation is taught at 10-day residential courses, which is the only way you can learn it. You must apply to the course and be accepted. Those with more severe psychological issues may not be accepted due to the nature of such deep subconscious work. Once accepted, students must commit to the full ten days and five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct and no intoxicants. And the most notable commitment is the vow of noble silence: no speaking, eye contact, reading or writing. Asking questions to the teacher is permitted at certain times. This is definitely not your every day retreat.
The daily schedule is full. Wake at 4:00 am. Bed at 9:30 pm. The first 90-minute session is at 4:30, which you can do in your room or the meditation hall. Throughout the day there are breaks for walks around the ponds and two and a half vegetarian meals. That’s about all that breaks up the 10+ hours of meditation. In the evening, the Vipassana technique is taught through video discourses by the late S. N. Goenka. He’s the wise (and hilarious) Indian grandpa figure I would have loved growing up. He’s full of insight, stories and examples.
“For real happiness, for real lasting stable happiness, one has to make a journey deep within oneself and see that one gets rid of all the unhappiness and misery stored in the deeper levels of the mind.” —S.N. Goenka
A brief summary of my experience at Dhamma Pakasa – the 10-day Vipassana center in Illinois.
There were about thirty of us. Men and women had separate living quarters and in the meditation hall were seated in opposite sides of the room. On day 1 we began with Anapana, which is focusing on the breath as it comes in and out of the nostrils. Three days of sitting and observing respiration for ten hours a day followed. In and out. In and out. That’s over thirty hours of focusing on inhalation and exhalation. It’s not easy. The mind wanders from the breath constantly and the body isn’t used to sitting so long.
Day 1 wasn’t so bad, but far from easy. By the end of day 2, the pain in my knees, hips and upper back was awful. I used a little kneeling bench to help with the pain in my lower body. Regardless, kneeling with my shoulders back in perfect posture pulled on the tight muscles deep in my neck. There’s one muscle called the sternocleidomastoid. I couldn’t help but focus on it as it stretched, nor could I stop repeating that word in my mind. Sternocleidomastoid. Sternocleidomastoid. Sternocleidomastoid. It became like the cartoons with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.
My inner naysayer said: “Fuck it, you weirdo, this is impossible for you. You can’t make it another week. Take your sternocleidomastoid and get the hell out. The pain will go away. You’ll be free to indulge in whatever you want.”
My inner reason said: “NO! You filthy, half-assed monkeys, stop with the lies!”
No longer would I be a prisoner of my half-assedness and bullshit justification. When I lost focus on the breath, I ended up in my to-do lists, ideas, relationships and work. After peeling away that layer, memories, possible scenarios and relentless fantasies flashed through my consciousness. The first day of fifth grade when I tried to be cool and wear my pants backwards like Kriss Kross—how embarrassing. My hot high school Spanish teacher—she was there. Naked, with lusty eyes. Telling off every asshole in my life—I did it with ease and wit. Stuffing my face with sushi as soon as I get out of this torture—I could almost taste it. Asking my boss for a raise—he was happy to agree. “Come on, Jesse. Think about how great this or that, or this or that would feel. You can have it. Just think about it and it’s yours!”
My inner bullshitter at its finest. Fantasyland.
During these inner slideshows, song choruses repeated in another part of my mind like a broken record. Annoying songs. Disney songs. Christmas songs. Pop songs. Why? If it wasn’t internal, it was coming from something outside of me, in the room. Meditators farting, stomachs grumbling, coughing, creaking doors and the geese. The damn geese, as lovely as they are, were hornier than my inner teenager. It was mating season and they weren’t fucking around. Well, actually they were. HONK, HONK, HONK… a dozen of them ready to nest near the pond, honking and chasing tail all day.
The essence of Vipassana is to remain equanimous—to experience without reaction—the fancy word for “it is what it is.” Our tendency, as Goenka teaches, is to react to feelings with craving or aversion. If it’s a form of pain, we react with aversion. If it’s a form of pleasure we react with craving. We develop a habit pattern of craving pleasure and aversion to pain. Obvious, right? Yet we blindly allow it to happen. We allow our own suffering without realizing.
On day 4 we began to explore that by learning Vipassana. Vipassana is applying the sharpened focus from Anapana to the physical sensations of the body. It is only after three days of building this focus that Vipassana is possible. This is where it gets hard to put into words because the focus I’d developed isn’t felt in daily life. Of course there’s pain and discomfort from sitting, but also subtle vibrations, prickling, waves and energy. Really, it’s like feeling the cells in your body doing what they do. I swore I could feel hair on my face growing. In Vipassana we also began “sittings of strong determination” three times per day. We had to sit for a full hour without changing positions, moving our hands or opening our eyes. Try that for ten minutes once.
Not only did my body object, the raging bull didn’t like what I was doing. It needed me to feed it thoughts, scenarios, reactions—wild monkeys to chase around. Vignettes of past embarrassment, sadness or anger showed up again and again.
Around the sixth day I recalled a shameful thing I did as a kid. The guilt was still there and I’d awakened it. Tears ran down my face for an hour. By the end of that hour I learned to forgive myself for my ignorance. With that, I learned to forgive others for their ignorance. Sometimes we just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t help it. We’re reacting blindly.
Another time there was so much pain in my legs they began to shake. It felt like the ground was shaking. I recalled my experience in the Nepal earthquake. With that sensation came fear—fear I had to overcome in that meditation hall—in my mind.
Equanimity. Strong determination. The concept of anicca (uh-nee-cha), meaning impermanence: the law of nature. Everything changes constantly. Bullshit and buzzkills change, so don’t get bent out of shape. If we do, it’s our fault that we feel the dissatisfaction that comes with that.
After each victory over thought, I often found myself back in fantasyland.
“Here’s that hot girl from high school you thought you forgot about. She would totally be into you now. She and the Spanish teacher. Imagine giving them ultimate pleasure, after which they’d argue over which one gets to…
“NO! Knock it off you stupid mind. This is a meditation hall! Breath in. Breath out. Breath in. Stop reacting. FOCUS.”
But the thing about the mind is it doesn’t want to let up. It wants to fantasize. The monkeys want to play. When you try to stop them, the raging bull comes out of the gate.
“Trying to focus, eh? Well, try not to FOCUS ON THE PAIN in your back!”
I’d open my eyes to a dimly lit room full of silent meditators. Statues. “Look at them, all perfect meditators. I can’t stop thinking for a minute.” Weird sequences of imagery went on: Sternocleidomastoid. Madonna. Chris Farley, dancing shirtless. Donald Trump’s hair blowing in the wind while watching Mexicans build the wall. BOW TO YOUR SENSEI!
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breath in.
This cycle was like a circus. For whatever reason, sexual fantasies, painful memories, fears and random human instinct came up. Or should I say I went deep to where they are stored. Sometimes I lost focus for nearly the entire hour. Sometimes I felt no sensations. I was certain I was doing it wrong or that I, my mind, was defective. When I ran into doubts, Goenka often addressed them in that particular day’s discourse.
“The mind spends most of the time lost in fantasies and illusions, reliving pleasant or unpleasant experiences and anticipating the future with eagerness or fear. While lost in such cravings or aversions, we are unaware of what is happening now, what we are doing now.”
As true as Goenka’s words was what I experienced meditating. While I could only intellectualize it before, I began to understand it from the inside out.
My focus grew little by little, day after day. It became easier to detach from thoughts and feelings and return to meditating “now.” When I observed pain without reacting, it soon faded. My sternocleidomastoid was all stretched out, my posture perfect. When fantasies or memories returned, I could acknowledge them, “I already thought of you. Be gone.” Away they went, like a dog with its tail between its legs. Well, not every time. Sometimes thoughts would come back hard, and it was really frustrating. But by mind was becoming it’s own monkey whisperer. I was learning mind over matter, a once impossible feat for me.
On the tenth day the noble silence was lifted. It became noble chatter. We all asked each other, “So how was your meditation?” We had similar experiences. Sexual fantasies. Weird vignettes. Long forgotten, random memories with absolutely no significance. My fellow meditators came from all walks of life. Many of us were first timers. Others were veterans. One guy, a cardiac anesthesiologist, had done ten courses prior to this one. That’s a thousand hours, plus the two hours a day he does at home. For another, a physical therapist, it was his seventh course. He and his wife had done a course in Thailand—when she was pregnant. Virgins and veterans, we all were very glad we pushed through the challenge did it.
I was proud of myself for not giving up in the face of such challenge. It was a big step for my life. This process of deep sub-conscious work and self-confrontation showed me who I am and what my ego looks like from the inside. I learned a lot of truth about my emotional maturity and my reaction to uncomfortable things. In ten days I gained insight I’d sought for over ten years. But this was just kindergarten. I’ve only begun the path.
Is Vipassana right for you?
This summary is only a fraction of what I experienced in ten days inside the depths of my mind. Vipassana is a serious and personal undertaking. It may sound intense, which it can be, but in a really good way. Your experience will differ from mine, but the law of nature is universal. Nothing is permanent. You can do it, and you will likely regret it at first. But soon it will likely become the most enlightening thing you ever did. The regret will melt away. My summary can only make sense if you experience Vipassana. If you overthink, get frustrated, worry or wonder… if you feel tense, angry or cheated… if you need peace of mind, try Vipassana. It’s free, run by volunteers who’ve completed at least one course, there’s great food and it will change your life. If I can do it, you can do it. With patience and persistence, you can tame the wild bull and get the monkeys in rehab.
Have you done a 10-day Vipassana course? Are you interested in taking one? Join the discussion! Leave a comment or question.