Vipassana is a meditation technique discovered by Buddha centered around observing sensation. It’s partly famous for its 10 day silent retreats where people who want to learn or practice the technique spend 10 hours meditating every day. I had heard about Vipassana years back but didn’t know anyone who had tried it until 18 months ago when my friend, Mo, did it in Vancouver. It changed his life. He liked it so much that now he volunteers his time to help facilitate retreats for others. This is called “serving” in the Vipassana world.
I came to India for two reasons: to do yoga and to meditate. Within a week of getting to the country I went to the yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh. I met a girl there, Pamela who is now my girlfriend, who also did a Vipassana retreat in Kathmandu and she found it transformative. A few days later I started a 3 week yoga teacher training course and soon after became a “certified” yoga teacher. The course I took was awful and I don’t feel qualified to teach but hey, I got the certificate. Yoga check. While I was doing the course Pamela and I spent a lot of time together and I decided to sign up for a Vipassana retreat before we went to Bali together.
The retreat was in a city called Jaipur in central India. Check in started at 2pm and began by handing in my passport and filling in some paperwork. Next we had to go to the male dining hall to have a consultation, get our room assignment and get a laundry token. Genders are kept strictly segregated throughout the retreat to keep distractions to a minimum. Similarly, students pledge to a Noble Silence for the entire retreat and we later learn this is to help prevent us from getting distracted by the experiences of others. The line for the consultation took me nearly an hour which I thought was fitting. This is a meditation retreat and the first thing we do is a test of our patience. I could see lots of people waiting in line were antsy and squirming. I laugh and take it in stride and I think I did pretty well. Finally I get to the front of the line and I’m asked three question: what do I know about the course?, do I know it’s painful?, do I know that students who use intoxicants generally find it more painful?. I answer, get my laundry token and room assignment and find out the schedule:
4:00am – wake up bell
4:30-6:30am – solo meditation
6:30-8:00am – breakfast and rest
8:00-9:00am – group meditation in the hall (mandatory)
9:00-11:00am – solo meditation
11:00-1:00pm – lunch and rest
12:30-1:00pm – interviews with teachers
1:00-2:30pm – solo meditation
2:30-3:30pm – group meditation in the hall (mandatory)
3:30-5:00pm – solo meditation
5:00-6:00pm – dinner and rest
6:00-7:00pm – group meditation in the hall (mandatory)
7:00-8:30pm – teachers discourse
8:30-9:00pm – group meditation in the hall (mandatory)
9:00pm – lights out
Whoa. Ok. I go and claim a bed in my room, hand in my valuables then grab dinner and wait outside the Dhamma hall to get my seat assignment for the group meditations. I get J13 which is all the way in the back. We do all of our meditations sitting on the ground with a cushion. We have our opening meditation session which lasts about an hour. First we go over our pledges again: not kill, not steal, not perform sexual misconduct, not lie, and few other things I don’t remember. Then we’re instructed to just observer our breath. My mind raced almost endlessly. I have been practicing about 10 minutes of daily meditation since January 2018 but that doesn’t prepare you for an hour long meditation session. I have no idea what I thought about but I was surprised at how out of control my mind was. Finally the meditation session ended and we’re allowed go ask our meditation teachers questions. I go and ask what to do about the pain in my legs – I don’t spend time sitting on the ground in my daily life and have lots of mobility problems like tight hips and quadriceps. John tells to get some more cushions to support my legs. I go to bed and have an awful night of rest and wake up delirious a few times.
The bell went off at 4am. I hadn’t woken up this early in a very long time. The beds at the center are thin pieces of foam on hard wooden surfaces. I barely slept and didn’t feel rested. I got up and sat for the 2 hour morning solo meditation in the Dhamma hall. I managed to keep my eyes closed the whole time but squirmed on my cushion. Coming out of the meditation I think to myself “if I can do this I can do all of it”. I somehow didn’t realize that the afternoon is four hours of meditation with two five-minute breaks. I ate too much food at breakfast and made it through the morning group meditation. I go to my room for all of the remaining solo meditations and sleep during most of them. I slept through the beginning of the afternoon group meditation and one of the servers had to come get me. Oops. I ate too much food at lunch. During the interview time I asked my teacher two questions:
What are the most common mistakes beginners make?
I practice meditation at home, do you find that affects students during retreats?
I’m told that having expectation is the most common mistake and that the home meditation isn’t a problem if you leave it at home and only practice Vipassana while at the retreat. Discourse the first night is filled with religion. I don’t remember what was said except that students tend to find day 2 and day 6 the hardest. I sleep better that night but still not great.
Day 2 started and I meditated for the entire opening solo meditation in the Dhamma hall. During the morning group meditation session we were told to now focus on the triangular area from the upper lip to the top of the nose between the eyes. Focus on the breath there. I ate too much food during the meals the day before and that made meditation more difficult than it needed to be. I learned my lesson and ate less today. Meditation was similar to yesterday. My mind raced but it was slower, calmer and more methodical. Again I went to ask questions during the lunch interview but the only question I remember asking is whether counting your breath is a good way to stay focused and the answer is a simple no. Just focus on the breath.
Again, the discourse at the end of the night is filled with religion. The discourse is done through video recordings of the creator of these retreats, Goenka. I think he’s dead now and I think the recordings were done in the 80s or 90s. I don’t remember exactly what but sometime during the first three days Goenka tells us that Buddha meditated and found that all matter is made of these tiny subatomic particles called Kalapas. Kalapas are made of 8 parts: each of the 4 elements (earth, air, fire and water) and 4 complements to the base elements. Kalapas vibrate at trillions of times per second. Buddha felt all this. Then Goenka went on to tell us that a scientist at Berkley did an experiment and found that some subatomic particle vibrated at 10^22 times per second. He seemed to think this validated Buddhas discovery but I’m not sure Goenka understands large numbers. A trillion is 10^12 which is not at all close to 10^22. During these discourses Goenka keeps telling us that Vipassana is not dogmatic yet it claims to have a Universal Truth and all these Laws of Nature. He also talks about how it’s non-sectarian and oh so scientific. I totally disagree. I don’t see any science (though maybe my understanding of science is flawed) and I see lots of religion in the teachings.
We were told on day 1 that day 2 is typical overwhelming but that wasn’t my experience. It was mildly more difficult than day 1. I slept a bit better than the night before but had lots of trouble falling asleep. My mind raced in bed and I noticed that I couldn’t fall asleep because I was thinking and I remembered a technique Viktor Frankl suggested in Mans Search For Meaning
. His technique is a sort of reverse psychology. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, try to stay awake. I noticed I was having trouble falling asleep because I was thinking so I tried to think as hard as I could and I ended up listing all the things I missed: friends, family, chocolate, the internet, reading, writing, my routine, Pamela, having my own schedule, etc…. It worked, my mind slowed down and I got some sleep.
I started getting lazy on day 3. I woke up for the morning meditation but only stayed for the first hour then went back to bed to get more sleep before breakfast. After the morning group meditation I sleep even more. I estimate that I’m meditating about 6 hours per day considering how much I’m resting and sleeping during the solo meditations. My mind is much calmer today compared to yesterday. I’m seeing progress. I’m thinking about more meaningful things: people in my life, work, relationships, my plans, my values. On day 3 we were instructed to narrow the area of focus to just the mustache area on the upper lip. We were told not to focus on the nose at all anymore. I was getting better at keeping my attention and at pulling it back once it’s lost. Again the discourse at the end of the night is filled with religion. I wish I could remember what Goenka taught each night but one of the rules of the retreat is to not keep any writing materials either so I had no way of recording my daily life. The night of day 3 I get the best sleep I’ve had so far and while I fell asleep I thought a lot about the people I care about. Mom, dad, Nikon I love y’all and if you ever need my help just let me know. I have your backs. Finally this course starts to feel useful. Day 3 was harder than day 2.
I woke up for morning meditation again on day 4 but went back to bed after about an hour. I slept more today during the solo meditations and finally feel rested for the first time. During the morning group meditation we’re told that there’s a slight change of schedule. The afternoon group meditation will begin at 2 so that from 3 to 5 we can learn the Vipassana technique. We had been doing Anapurna meditation this whole time. We’re also told that there won’t be a question and answer period with the teachers at 12:30. Ok cool, I come up with a plan. Meditate in the hall from 12:00 to 12:30, take a break, meditate again from 1:00 to 1:30 and then show up for the group meditation at 2. I start meditating in the hall at noon and I’m told by one of the servers that I’m not allowed to meditate now and I have to take rest because I might fall asleep during later meditations. I don’t know how anyone could fall asleep meditating while sitting. It’s such an engaging activity for me. Ok fine, I go to my room and rest. Oops, I fall asleep and miss part of the afternoon group meditation again. A server had to come find me and I was 20 minutes late. Ok, no big deal. Honest mistake. I go and sit for the group meditation and then Vipassana teaching starts. Holy shit. Sitting for nearly 3 hours straight hurts my back so much. My muscles ache from keeping my spine straight and my ass hurts from sitting on the same cushions for so long.
The core of the Vipassana technique is this: start at the top of your head and try to feel any sensation, tickling, itching, heat, cold, expansion, compression, anything. Once you do, move on from the top of your head to your scalp and feel any sensation. Then move to your face. Then right shoulder. Then right arm. And so. Move through your body part by part trying to feel any sensation and as you do this stay equanimous (stay calm and keep your mental composure). Don’t be averse to any sensation and don’t crave any sensation. All of the teachings are done through recordings of Goenka. He was an amazing orator. He had this incredible cadence to his speech. He repeated himself a lot. He had this way of drawing you in and convincing you to do what he wanted. It felt like he was trying to convince me of something I don’t want to be convinced of, like a dictator or snake oil salesman. I have no idea why but he reminded me of Mussolini. I’ve never heard Mussolini talk but I assume he also was a great orator because, well, he’s a famous politician. Finally we finish learning Vipassana and go eat dinner.
Every group meditation starts with chanting followed by instructions. Every group meditation also ends in chanting. The evening of day four we were told that from now on to practice Vipassana and that during every subsequent group meditation we will also have Strong Determination. That means we won’t change posture, open our eyes or move our hands for the entire hour, 3 times a day. Whoa. That’s scary. Prior to this I would change posture six or so times every hour but after Goenka lay that challenge I managed to immediately bring down my posture switches to 3 times per hour. I already didn’t have problems with opening my eyes or moving my hands. We were told to not move our hands because sometimes you’re tempted to itch an itch or satisfy a tickle while meditating.
The discourse that night is again filled with religion but I don’t remember what. During the closing meditation of the day I realize what this course is all about for me: climbing my Mountain of Pain. Sitting for an hour with crossed legs is excruciating. The night meditations are only 15 minutes long (even though the schedule says they’re 30 minutes). That night I switched postures 3 times in 15 minutes which is way worse than the evening group meditation. It’s ok, I have a plan. I can’t climb my mountain in a day so I’ll train for it. I’ll start by sitting in postures for 30 minutes + 20 minutes + 10 minutes and slowly extend the time of the first two postures until I only have two switches per hour. Eventually I’ll only have one posture for the hour. Incremental progress is a powerful tool.
My mind races that night and the discomfort of the bed is getting to me. I’m used to sleeping on my side and that’s hard to do when the bed is a thin piece of foam on wood. My shoulders always hurt and I always wake up sore. I took a sleeping pill, diphenhydramine, that night. Somehow I can feel some of the people reading this judging me, across space and time.
I woke up for the 4:30am meditation session and decided to sit as long as I can in one posture then go back to sleep. I managed to sit for 35 minutes. Whoa, that’s awesome. I congratulated myself and went back to my room to try to sleep. The morning group meditation goes worse. I only hold my first posture for 20 minutes and then I’m in a terrible mental state because I failed. I try to tell myself it’s ok and that it takes time to get better. Sometimes you go backwards. After the morning group meditation we had our third check in. Check ins happen every odd day in groups of 10 with the teacher. Today John asks us if we’re able to feel sensations throughout our body and if we can hold the posture for the entire hour. Everyone could feel sensations but only one person, Mattia, managed to hold a posture for an hour. The rest of us were changing postures between 3 and 6 times an hour. Hearing Mattia succeed motivated me. There’s this story that once upon a time people thought that running a mile in 4 minutes was impossible. Then one day it was broken and with months of that a cascade of others broke it too. It’s as if there’s a group psychological barrier and that once one person can do something others suddenly find they can do it too. I think that happened here.
My afternoon group meditation went slightly better than the morning. I had a much more difficult time. My breath was short and stressed. My mind was assaulting itself. Somehow I managed to perform better even though my mental state was worse. After it I went to John to ask him some questions:
Q: I find I’m looking at the clock to benchmark my progress. Should I do that?
A:No, just think, the chanting hasn’t started so I’ll do another round.
Q: I find that sometimes I try to control my stress levels by controlling my breath. Should I do that?
A: No, just focus on the sensations let the breathing be natural.
Q: I give myself words of encouragement. Should I do that?
A: Yes and no, you want positive motivation but you don’t want to get attached. Just keeping scanning the body and stop doing that.
I can’t explain exactly why but John had this calming effect on me. During the evening group meditation I managed to stay calm the whole time. I slowed down the speed of my body scans and went back to 35-15-10 for my postures but with less stress. Day 5 was the first night with, in my opinion, useful discourse. Goenka taught us the fundamental observation of Buddha. I don’t remember all of the details and all of the complexity of it but here’s what I took away from it. Desire causes misery because desire results in attachment. We become miserable because everything is impermanent and anything we’re attached to is bound to change. If I’m attached to a cell phone and it gets lost, I’ll be miserable. If I’m attached to life and I see death coming, I’ll be miserable. If I’m attached to sugar highs then I’ll be miserable when the high fades. It’s from this observation that we reach reincarnation. The logic goes something like: when we’re attached to things we generate sankaras, when we die, all of our sankaras a released and enter a new consciousness, when the new consciousness is born it’s has sensory doors (eyes, ears, nose, etc…), when these doors feel something the mind reacts and generates new sanakaras and the cycle continues. Buddha found that in order to break this cycle we should eliminate desire and that is what Vipassana is meant to do. You observe body sensations and try to not desire the bad sensations away or to desire the good sensations stay. Just observe. This seemed quite reasonable and I subscribed to it.
I went to bed and had a hard time sleeping. My mind was thinking and I stumbled on an idea. Not all desire causes attachment. If that was the case then everyone would be near-infinitely miserable because people have near-infinite desires. For example, I desire to have an extra dollar but I’m not attached to it. Same with two dollars. Three. Four. Etc…. Some of you may object to me using money to illustrate this idea so let me also illustrate by asking: would you like one person at random to be lifted out of misery? I bet yes, but I also bet you’re not attached to this idea and don’t get miserable if it doesn’t happen. Would you like two people at random to be lifted out of misery? Three? And so on. I propose that people have a near infinite (maybe actually infinite) number of subconscious desires, many (or all?) of which they’re not attached to. I don’t think misery is the opportunity cost of unfilled desire. What really causes misery, I think, is attachment. Sure, if you get rid of all desire you’ll get rid of all attachment and will never be miserable again. I think that’s using a saw where a scalpel will do. I don’t find an answer for getting rid of attachment. I start to doubt Buddhism and the core philosophy it’s built on. I take a sleeping pill and try to sleep.
I wake up sore, again. The bed is killing me. I can’t wait to sleep in a proper bed with a blanket and air conditioning. I’ve been using my rain jacket as a makeshift blanket. Blankets give me a lot of comfort while I sleep. I spent half an hour in the morning meditation perfectly still then went back to bed. After breakfast I went back to bed. Suddenly I started having a mild anxiety attack. I can’t recall ever having one of those before. I didn’t know what was happening but my mind was spiraling downwards. I was scared of the pain of meditation. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt like a prisoner of my own mind. I don’t know what word to use other than depressed. I was really really sad. All of this happened in about 15 minutes. I started worrying about being depressed for years on end and that this course was making me unhealthy. Suddenly the bell for the morning group meditation rang and I knew I had to get up and go meditate. I don’t know how or why but I managed to climb my mountain. I kept a single posture for the whole hour. I climbed the mountain that was taunting me and didn’t feel special. It wasn’t even that hard. I just sat there and scanned my body. There was pain but it wasn’t unbearable. After the meditation ended I went to talk to John.
Paymahn: There’s good news and bad news. Good news and bad news. The good news is that I did it. I sat for an hour. The bad news is that I felt awful this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything near depression or anxiety but I felt that this morning. If I try to evaluate my mental health now against the day I came here, it’s gotten worse. I know I shouldn’t give up right now. What’s going on?
John: You’re on the right path, you’re on the right track. In order to get better you first have to get worse by pulling up all of these deep rooted miseries of craving and aversion and delusion. The only way to get them out is to pull them to the surface. Imagine a bucket of water with some dirt settles on the bottom. You take a ladle and scoop out some dirt and you disturb the dirt and it makes the water cloudy. That’s what we’re doing, scooping out the dirt. The cloudy water is your complexes coming to the surface.
Paymahn: So to take this metaphor further, if I quit now the dirt will settle and everything will be alright? (I could tell he didn’t see this coming)
John: yes but you’ll be going out into the world with cloudy water and that’s not good.
I still don’t buy it. If you’re ladling out dirt even on the last day the water will still be cloudy unless you let it settle or use a different tool like a sieve to clear the water. I went to rest in my room then ate lunch and climbed my mountain again during the afternoon group meditation session. This time the pain attacked me. I was going crazy trying to stay calm under the pressure of the pain in my legs. I sweat profusely. Somehow I managed to do it. Again I went to ask John some questions.
Paymahn: It seems like there’s a mountain we have to climb and sometimes it’s cloudy at the top, sometimes it’s sunny and sometimes it’s stormy. But the weather at the top isn’t what matters, it’s the journey getting up there. Is that right?
John: Yes and no that’s kind of it but what we’re trying to do is be equanimous to all sensation. This is equanimity training.
Paymahn: Does all desire cause attachment?
John: I don’t really know about that word but no, not all desire causes attachment. If something doesn’t go your way, accept it and move on. If your ice cream is salty, don’t throw and tantrum. Accept that you won’t have ice cream today.
John validated my idea that it’s attachment that’s problematic, not desire. I went to my room and started thinking. Hold on, we were told to be equanimous and not be attached but here I am, attached to the outcome of each meditation session and in general attached to the outcome of the retreat in general. There’s this meta-attachment, attachment to attachment. I don’t know how to capture in words the profundity of this realization. I felt enlightened when I stumbled on this. Not enlightened in the absolute sense but in a relative sense. I found some truth for myself. I felt unreasonably happy, similar to the feeling I had last year when I finally learned to fully accept my body while I was on DMT. I think the deeper lesson here is: don’t be attached to anything. A weight was lifted off my chest and my shoulders. I moved on from the depression and anxiety. In the morning I was thinking things like: “ok fine, I can handle depression and anxiety but what if I have them for 10 years?”. I was in a really bad place. Not even 12 hours later they’re gone. Completely gone. I decided I’m no longer going to bust my ass to sit in a single position for an hour. I’ll do my best and the outcome will be whatever it is. The future is as it will be. There’s one version of the story of Buddha, I think I read it in the Way of Zen
by Alan Watts, where Buddha was trying to find enlightenment for years and all he could find was his own effort. One day he sat down under a tree to meditate and gave up trying and within 24 hours found Complete Unexcelled Awakening. He found nirvana after he didn’t want it anymore. I felt like I had a mini-Buddha event.
I ate dinner then came back to my room to wait for the evening meditation session. The bell rang and I went outside to walk some laps around the campus before we having to sit down and everyones face was somber. Nobody was smiling and here I was basking my realization. I’m smiling, laughing a bit to myself. Everyone’s preparing to climb their mountain again and I’m gonna go walk up my mountain until I’m tired then set up camp, make a fire, roast some marshmallows, maybe take a shit and smoke a joint. I’m gonna do what I think is fun and makes for a good life. We all sat down to meditate, the chanting starts and during the session I start to laugh at the noises that people are making. Burps and farts and sighs and the birds going crazy (they always do at sunset and sunrise) and the guy to my left, Sasha, starts chuckling too. I know he’s going through a tough time, I can sense it, but somehow I think I lightened the mood for him.
Again the discourse at night was full of religion. I’ve started to not pay attention to what’s said during the discourse. At some point in the day I realized that this campus is the Buddhist version of church. Again I take a sleeping pill and try to sleep on this horrible bed.
I skipped morning meditation. I didn’t care so much anymore. I’ll show up and do my best, whatever that means and however that feels. The morning group meditation goes well. I’m still chuckling at people making noises and the person sitting to my right, Mattia, started chuckling too. There are only 4 white people in the sea of brown and we all sit at the back. At least 3 of us were laughing during the meditation. At least we were having a good time. After the morning meditation I go to my room and start talking to my GoPro to record my experience. I wish I had started earlier. There are so many details of the first few days that I’ve forgotten. Oh well. After lunch I do some yoga in my room which is against the rules. We’re not supposed to do anything that distracts other students and yoga is distracting. Thankfully I don’t have a roommate so it’s not a problem. I also start thinking more. Is attachment always bad? I’m kind of changing the question on the Buddhist belief. Sure, attachment causes misery but should misery be avoided at all cost? I think a mom caring about the safety of her child is fundamentally good (this can probably be debated but lets just assume it’s true for now). A mom who isn’t attached to the safety of her child might not try to find her child if it gets lost but a mom who is attached certainly will try to find her child. I suspect that attachment is what causes people to pursue their goals in the face of difficulty. If that’s the case, it’s not that attachment and misery are fundamentally bad but that too much of either is bad. Which isn’t that surprising since too much of anything is bad, by definition. Similarly, not enough is bad too. Finding the right amount of attachment I think is the real secret and I’m not sure there’s any way to answer that because everyone is different. That’s some wisdom I’ve been developing for the past five or so years and it still hasn’t stuck that deep in my mind. Everyone, I mean everyone, is different. No two people have the exact same value system and I think religion fails to account for that and tries to put everyone in the same box.
I stop practicing Vipassana during the meditation sessions and start to practice what I’ve been practicing at home. I don’t know if there’s a name for the technique. It’s a technique taught by Sam Harris in his app Waking Up. I try to find where thoughts come from. It’s funny, try to find the source of your thoughts. I think you’ll see that as soon as you examine a thought it disappears and your mind quiets. Somehow I managed to find mental silence for what felt like five minutes. Five minutes of bliss. It was incredible.
Again the discourse was filled with religion. I’m really starting to dislike hearing Goenka speak. I don’t trust what he says.
While falling asleep I noticed that there seems to be a lot of spiritual elitism with western people who stumble on Buddhism. I met this guy in Dharamshala, Alesh, who is really into western philosophies. Any time I tried to get him to explain his beliefs he would give non answers. He would say things like “I thought like you when I was younger” but couldn’t tell me how he had changed. He told me to re-read Ram Das’ books and when I asked why he didn’t give a reason at all, he looked at me a certain way and kind of shrugged his shoulders. I also discovered another philosophical realization. The founder of these courses, Goenka, keeps telling us in his lectures that experience is truth. Something about that seems funny, our experiences can be fooled quite easily with drugs, lack of sleep, certain foods, optical illusions, etc…. Some people really honestly have experienced the Christian God, does that make God real? Same with the Islamic God. Some schizophrenics (I’m way out of my depth here) experience multiple personalities, does that mean they have many souls? There’s a whole field of science dedicated to understanding how our behavior relates to our experience, behavioral psychology. Thinking Fast and Slow
is a classic book in the field and discusses about how easily we can be fooled.
Again I wake up sore. This bed is giving me mild PTSD. I can’t sleep well and it’s breaking me. I keep practicing Sam Harris’ meditation technique and it makes me way happier. I enjoy it more and find more bliss with it. After the morning group meditation I start thinking again and decide engliithtenment is a sham for a few reasons. First, I think the Christian Heaven and Hell are a sham and the Buddhist story is oddly similar. Life is misery and if you don’t Behave This Way you’ll be reborn into this misery. That sounds a lot like hell. But if you Behave This Way you’ll attain nirvana which is some type of eternal bliss. Sure sounds like heaven. Second, I would like to see an enlightened person withstand the most creative tortures people can come up with. Can they withstand weeks of light + sound + temperature torture while being sleep deprived and withdrawing from heroin? Can they stay equanimous if they’re forced to rape children because that’s a lesser evil than what would happen if they refuse to rape the child? I suspect not.
During the afternoon solo meditation there was an alarm going off somewhere on campus and it was making meditation difficult. I left the Dhamma hall to try and find the alarm but didn’t succeed so I found one of the severs and explained that I hear an alarm and would like him to find it and turn it off because it’s making meditation distracting. He told me he can’t give me meditation advice and that I needed to wait for the teacher to ask about the alarm. He thought I was hallucinating! I find this happens a lot in India, people tend not to listen to what you’re saying. I asked the server to come with me to the meditation hall and when I heard the alarm again I said stop! Listen! Do you hear it? Da-da-da, da-da-da. “Ooooh yes, I thought it was in your head. I’ll to take care of it.”
I did more yoga that afternoon and generally chilled on my own. Again the discourse was full of religion. I didn’t sleep well. Day 8 was the day I realized I love Pam. Not in the way a mom loves her child but in the way a boyfriend loves his girlfriend. Pam, you’re amazing. I want to make you happy and keep you safe and help you be whoever you want to be. I love you.
The meditation instructions for day 8 and 9 were to always be in a state of meditation. Always feel sensations, even when you’re not sitting down to meditate. During lunch, while you walk, etc. I ignored the instructions. I had emotionally checked out of this course. After the morning meditation we got another lecture about how to go to the next level of Vipassana. Once you feel a free flow of subtle sensations throughout the body on the surface, start paying attention inside the body. And once you feel a free flow on the inside, pay attention to the spinal cord. Once you feel a free flow of attention there too, you will have achieved full dissolution of your body. Sitting down and listening to him talk gives me a headache and keeping my cool while he talks is the biggest challenge of the course. I’m fine being averse to physical pain but the standard I hold myself too is that I should be able to manage mental pain more effectively.
I realized that truth, or its perception, has this funny property. If you hear something enough times with enough conviction you believe it to be true. Politics is built on that idea to some extent. Trump will Make America Great Again. That’s the Truth. That’s what was happening at this retreat. Life is misery. Life is misery. Life is misery. But wait, you can escape the misery if you follow these simple steps. And if you do, you’ll find eternal bliss. Nirvana. When Goenka talks he sings just a little bit and talks with just enough speed to pull you in but not give you time to evaluate what he’s saying. What he says must be truth. I found it infuriating. I also realized that Goenka keeps preaching the value of experiential wisdom and that experience is Truth. I suspected that if a Christian came to him and said “I experienced God” Goenka would tell him that his experience is great, but false.
The discourse talk was good. Goenka tied observing sensation to observing emotion. When you have an emotion two things happen: your breathing changes and some biochemical changes happen like heart beat or sweating. By observing sensations you can observe these physical changes and notice your altered state of mind and come out of it. Interesting. I wish this was taught earlier in the course. We’re told we need to practice an hour in the morning and an hour at night when we go home.
At the end of night meditation the teacher came on the microphone and says that if there aren’t questions we can go to bed. As soon as he’s done Mattia shouts across the room “can we use the pagoda tomorrow morning?”. Poor guy. The master says again, if there are no questions we can go to bed and Mattia shouts his question again and the master says please come up to the front and we can discuss your question. I went to bed. Again I didn’t sleep well.
I skipped morning meditation and we learned loving kindness meditation. After that Noble Silence was broken and people started talking. I spoke with Mattia and turns out the masters got quite upset with him which is against the whole teaching isn’t it? It was an honest mistake. The way Mattia described it made it sound like they didn’t maintain equanimity.
Everyone who I told that I didn’t like this course was surprised and few questioned it. Those who did seemed to get my point about religion. But many seemed to have fallen for what Goenka said. “But Goenka said this is non-sectarian!”. They couldn’t see the parallels to the christian heaven and hell.
I skipped the evening group meditation and instead wrote an outline of this essay. I’ll fill it in tomorrow.
Discourse was a review of what we’ve learned throughout the course so I left partway through.
We had a 4:30am lecture which I skipped and I left the campus around 7:30. I’m in an Uber right now going to a nearby city called Pushkar to meet up with Pam. I can’t wait to see her.
I think the Vipassana technique has real merit. It might be a nugget of gold but it was surrounded by shit and I couldn’t get to the nugget in 10 days. The shit smelt so bad that I gave up searching for the nugget. There are all sorts of ways to exercise the body and similarly there are all sorts of ways to exercise the mind. I don’t think Vipassana is The One True Way just like I don’t think power lifting is The One True Way. I also suspect that the Pareto Principle
applies to Vipassana. You can get most of the results with a fraction of the work. The religion of the course left a terrible taste in my mouth. I have a hard time imagining I would take another course anytime soon but who knows how the future will change me.I think everyone should form their own opinion but I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who has similar religious sensitivities
I’ve shared this with a few people and it seems y’all like it. Please leave comments and questions and call out any bullshit you read.
I forgot to include some of my thoughts in the original version of the article so I’m going to add them here in no particular order.
We were told over and over that Life is Misery. I’d bet that if you ask 100 people to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, the average and median scores would both be above 5. I don’t think most people perceive Life As Misery.
These meditation camps undeniably have powerful effects on people. I suspect that if I set up a 10-day silent prayer camp in the heartland of the US many people who attend those prayer camps would come away with similarly powerful experiences. These camps (meditation and prayer) self-select people who are in a bad place and are looking for answers. I’m not suggesting that the experience of the people at meditation camps are invalid but that some of the specialness is manufactured.
Much of this camp is oriented towards improving the mental states of those who attend. In his book, The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama says something like “if you have a problem and you can fix it, don’t worry. If you have a problem and you can’t fix it, don’t worry.” I don’t know exactly how to articulate why I think of this but his perspective seems closer to Universal Truth than the core Buddhist teachings.