“Vipassana,” in the Pali language means “clear seeing” or “seeing deeply.” My translation is more along the lines of “brain boot camp.” Each day of the Vipassana meditation retreat started with a gong at 04:00, followed by a smaller bell being tinkled outside of your room to ensure that you made it to the meditation hall for the 04:30 to 06:30 meditation session. 06:30 to 08:00 was breakfast and break time. After the first day, I settled into a routine of “eat quickly then pass out asap before the 08:00 meditation bell.” From the first bell at 04:00 to lights out at 22:00, each 18 hour Vipassana day entailed 10+ hours of seated meditation. About 1.5 hours of the remaining 8 were devoted to the nightly discourse teaching. Another 1.5 hours were devoted to meal times. I used at least another 2 for napping, leaving merely 3 hours for stretching, “exercising” (i.e. walking), ┬áteeth-brushing, showering, clipping toenails, watching monkeys and slugs, and dreading the toll of the meditation bell. It was intense. On one hand, I’m astounded that I devoted 10 days of my life to such rigorous introspection. One the other hand, not once did I consider leaving; despite (or maybe because of) the intensity of the challenge, I had no doubts about finishing.

When we were released from our self-imposed prisons, people kept asking me, “how was it!?” My response then was, “it was difficult and unpleasant, but I’m glad I did it.” I’m a six weeks out now, and my response to that question is more or less the same. The difference now is that I’ve begun to see how my post-Vipassana brain is different from my pre-Vipassana brain. Right after my release I mostly experienced emotional befuddlement. (This was unnerving because it reminded me of the highly confused and emotionally constipated teenager I used to be.) I knew I’d done something for myself in those 10 days, but I wasn’t sure what. The uncertainty triggered general anxiety, which I’ve battled before and which is the opposite of how I expected/wanted to feel after 10 days of meditation. Fortunately, that malaise has abated. Now I feel “normal,” but with a calmer emotional baseline. The change is subtle, yet distinct and enduring… so far. The experience is extremely difficult to explain, especially to anyone who hasn’t been through it. However, I want to attempt to share a glimpse of what this Vipassana meditation retreat was about, both in general and for me.

I’m not going to give a full historical background on Vipassana because I’m liable to get lost in details, but here is the gist:

Vipassana is the meditation technique taught by Gotama Buddha, “The Buddha”, who was in fact one of many Buddhas or “enlightened persons.” Gotama’s teachings are obviously the most persistent, given that a religion grew out of them (even though the man himself would not have wanted that). 2500 years ago, some Indian king thought that Buddha’s teachings were so great that they should be spread farther and wider than India, so he sent out pairs of teachers to enlighten the neighbors. What were intended to be secular teachings did spread, but for the most part the teachings became wrapped up into the mysticism and ritual of religion, and Buddhism as we know it today was born. However, one pair of teachers took Vipassana to modern day Burma, where it was passed on in its pure form from teacher to student, without acquiring any religious ritual or mysticism. The unbroken chain of teachings emerged from Burma in the 1970’s with a man named S. N. Goenka, who ultimately facilitated the spread of Vipassana all over the world. All Vipassana retreat teachings today are given by voice and video recordings of Goenka… I assume this is for quality control among hundreds of centers worldwide.

There are many ways I could try to introduce and discuss how Vipassana works and why it is a useful practice. However, I want to keep it simple, so here is a list of a few teachings from the retreat that stuck hardest in my brain:

1. Impermanence is inescapable. That is, for things to change is the law of nature. The law of nature in Pali is called “dhamma.”
2. Pain is intrinsic to the human experience. However, suffering is not. Suffering is when we hold onto (or worry about) pain that is not happening in the moment. (Example: Pain is when someone punches you in the nose. Suffering arises when you keep replaying that action in your head, cursing the person who delivered said punch, even though the action is over.)
3. Suffering is caused by craving (desire for something you don’t have) and aversion (desire to be rid of something you do have).
4. The practice of Vipassana is a path for individuals to free themselves from suffering.
5. At the root level, all cravings and aversions are linked to physical sensation. (Pain: “arg make it stop!” and pleasure: “oh let this never end!”)
6. If one can observe physical sensations equanimously (i.e. balanced; without craving or aversion), the instinctual response of the mind can be reprogrammed to neither crave nor avert.
7. For every physical sensation observed with equanimity, a small chunk of unhealthy habit pattern is erased from the mind. (Example: for every time I don’t swat the fly on my arm – choosing rather to observe his tickley feet with equanimity and the knowledge that he will eventually remove himself to find other victims – I can more easily remain equanimous toward subsequent flies.)
8. Goenka describes the 10 day Vipassana introduction as a “deep surgical operation of the mind” – it’s unpleasant, but necessary to remove the “impurities” (craving and aversion) that cause suffering. It’s a dramatic analogy, but one with which I would agree (especially considering the emotional hangover I had immediately following the retreat).

Hopefully that introduction informs without too much ambiguity or confusion. You all will have to let me know.

The main focus of the Vipassana retreat is to establish a practice of #6 above. Meditators are encouraged to save any extensive intellectual assessment/evauation for after the 10 days. The basic Vipassana technique is purely secular and purely individual. You are the only one who can observe and redirect your mind, and the retreat enables you to focus on this by removing distractions of the outside world and the people around you. (One of the rules to which we agreed was no communication, either verbal or non verbal, with any other meditators.)

The first 3.5 days of meditation were spent practicing “ahna pahna” meditation, that is to observe
A. the sensation of breath as it flows in and out of your nose and
B. the sensatons on triangle formed by the corners of your mouth and the bridge of your nose.

This task is meant to sharpen your awareness such that you can perform the “operation” of getting deeper into your mind (see #8 above) during the remainder of the retreat. This task is also very boring one. However, boredom is a type of craving, and as such is something that Vipassana tells you to observe with equanimity. If your instinctual brain says “I’m bored,” it is the task of the meditation brain to say “hmm, look at that, let’s see how long it lasts.” (Because boredom will not last forever; see #1 above). But I digress.

Speaking of digression, this is what the mind does for most of its life. The tendency for the mind to jump around amongst thought topics is known in the meditation world as “monkey mind.” If you’d like to observe this behavior, go set a timer for 2 minutes. Hit “start” and then focus all of your attention on the sensation of the breath as it passes into and out of your nostrils. Do not change your breathing pattern, just observe the sensation of the breath as it touches your nostrils. You will very likely notice that within seconds, your mind is off somewhere. Maybe it’s wondering what you’ll have for lunch, musing on how to reorganize your desk, or hoping your date from last night will text you today. “Woops!” you might think, “I was supposed to be focusing on my breath!” You’ll probably get another few mindful breaths in before monkey mind bounds off after some other thought bananas. Believe me, I know the feeling.

”[UNSET

After 10 days of 10+ hours of meditation per day, I can tell you that I’ve done a LOT of reminiscing and replaying the past and a LOT of planning and hoping (craving) for the future. The time that’s the most difficult for me (and most of us) to think about is the moment happing right now. And now. And now. This moment is pretty okay. I’m sitting in an MSR basecamp tent at the foot of the Mentok range in the Himalaya of northern India. It’s a bit hot (41C according to my Suunto watch) in this tent at this sunny almost-noon time, but I know the evening will be cool once again. Even now, a breeze coming through the tent has dropped the temperature to a comfortable level. This moment is devoid of worry, of pain. I could allow my mind to think about past or future events that are non-ideal or uncertain and therefore full of potential worry, but I won’t. Granted, I can’t always prevent that worry from arising, but even when it does, in all of its uncomfortable glory, I know that I won’t be anxious forever (see #1 and #2 above).

But again, I digress from my task, which was to convey my Vipassa experience to you. Although with that digression, I’ve demonstrated the lovely capacity of my brain to go off on tangents. These monkey mind digressions happened approximately one billion times a day during the retreat. I’m sure they happen with similar regularity in my normal life, I’m just not as attuned to my mind’s behavior while not on retreat.

Anywho, back to “how Vipassana works…”

After 3.5 days of focus-sharpening “ahna pahna” meditation (i.e. observing the breath and the face-triangle), we started with the actual Vipassana practice. For those who have done some meditation before, Vipassana is basically a body scan. For others, the Vipassana techniqe goes like this:
1. Sit still and with closed eyes.
2. Move your attention from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, attending to each part of the body along the way.
3. When you notice a sensation, remain equanimous. If you have an itch on your cheek, do not scratch it. If you have a pain in your hip, do not shift your sitting position. Do not wish it away (aversion). Just observe it, see how long it lasts. See how the sensations change.
4. When thoughts intrude, do not get carried away with them. Focus on the bodily sensations. When thoughts do carry you away, return to the sensations on the body. Do not give yourself a hard time for getting distracted. To wander is the nature of the mind. Just observe that it has happened and get on with the Vipassana.
5. Repeat. Repeat repeat repeat. In this way, the instinctual reactivity of the mind can be acknowledged, slowed, stopped, and reprogrammed.
6. Do not expect to reach enlightenment, complete freedom from suffering, by day 10. Or week 10. Or year 10. Or maybe even decade 10.
7. Do expect that with consistent practice of Vipassana, that your life gets slowly, incrementally calmer, incrementally happier.

I thoroughly appreciate this sensory approach to mental reprogramming. The mind’s reaction to physical sensations is directly related to the mind’s reaction to emotional stimuli. Retrain one and the other falls into the same line. It’s genius really (high fives to Gotama Buddha for figuring this out). Observing emotions with equanimity is nigh on impossible (I’ve tried; I continue to try), especially for people with little to no training in any sort of mindfulness meditation. However, learning to observe and not react to little itches, pains, and skittering bugs on your body is something very highly attainable within a 10 day Vipassana retreat (or any amount of consistent and devoted practice).

This is kinda how my meditation went: I cried, but not as much as I thought I might. I made plans for returning to the US. I daydreamed about real and imagined lovers. I worried and plotted about how to get a job. I fantasized about potlucks and pub nights and cozy evenings with good friends. I craved for my siblings to move closer to me. I planned to get into good climbing shape. I worried about sucking at skiing after a yearlong hiatus, even as I yearned to strap planks to my feet again. I mercilessly analyzed my love life. I composed snippets of blog posts. I planned to learn to guide a whitewater raft. I started a 30-before-30 to-do list. I raged at the pain in my hips and the bastards that expected me to sit with it. I cursed Goenka’s recorded voice, which might as well have been nails on a chalkboard; I fantasized about chucking my cushion at the speakers that bathed us in his gravely voice, the quality of which was like a bullfrog with emphysema. I yearned for his chanting to end. I laughed at my rageful reaction to Goenka’s voice and manner of speaking. I opened my eyes to see how much time was left. I craved for the gong to ring, signalling lunch time or tea time. I came up with mental games to play when I noticed my mind wandering (this game involved managing some hyperactive squirrels). I cultivated equanimity with all of those things. I succeeded. I failed. I accepted. I revolted. I gently coaxed my mind to remain aware and equanimous. I succeeded and failed some more, in endless succession. I moved on with each new moment. I let go. I felt calm, peaceful. I rejoiced when the bell rang to herald tea time and the almost-end of another day of my self-imposed imprisonment. With each pre-meditation bell, I entered the hall again to engage with my mind in another battle of “you don’t like this but it’s good for you.”

When I wasn’t meditating or sleeping, I walked laps around our female-only part of the retreat center. 10 laps took about 40 minutes, depending on how much I got distracted. For a place with practically no human interaction, external distractions were surprisingly easy to come by. Mostly these involved monkeys or slugs, the main residents of the woods in which the center is built. Once, I unintentionally walked through a family of monkeys and got screeched at. That was rather terrifying; these monkeys are vicious and their teeth are very pointy. Another time the monkeys howled and swatted my trousers as I tried to play “I’m bigger than you so I should be allowed to walk here.” I lost. The slugs were interesting in a slow motion way. For the retreat we took a vow to kill no creatures, and the slugs were the main challenge to that vow. They all seemed to have death wishes – every day the path was a veritable mine field of sticky, squishy invertebrates. I saw slug sex, slug birth, slug disembowelment, and (my favorite) slug-cuddling-a-monkey-turd. In addition to nature watching, I came up with nicknames for the ladies with whom I shared our silent space. Their identities were based on their footwear, since we basically never looked anyone in the face. I also spent lots of time composing chunks of blog posts that I subsequently forgot, since we were not allowed to write (or read) during the retreat. Meal times were among the highlights of the day; the Indian food served was delicious. These activities may sound trifling, but they are all highly entertaining when you have a general lack of external stimuli.

”[UNSET ”[UNSET

On day 10, they lifted the rule of silence and the retreat center came alive with chatter. It was strange and exciting to be able to look someone in the eye and have a conversation after 9 days of nothing. It was the first time I got to talk to my roommate, who I hadn’t met before the silence started so many days prior. We’d shared our tiny room in silence, never acknowledging each other or knowing anything about the other, trying to be considerate without any idea of the other’s wishes. I also got to continue getting to know Amanda, a girl with whom I’d chatted on day 0 after registration and before the silence began. She and I hit it right off, and I would end up joining her after the retreat for a 2.5 week trek in Ladakh in northern India. On the morning of day 11, we were released back into the world. Fortunately, the world adjacent to the retreat center is the peaceful village of Dharamkot. While it’s overrun with tourists, it’s also full of lovely little cafes, where a few of us meditators would spend many hours over the next few days decompressing about our respective experiences. To spend time with people (men and women) who’d just gone through brain boot camp with me was a wonderful experience. We hadn’t communicated at all during the retreat, but we were able to deeply empathize with each other about it after the fact. It was beautiful to find genuine connection with other humans after such an intensely isolated 10 days. There was lots of serious talk and equal amounts of silliness, a perfect combination. It warms my heart to think about my Vipassana friends and to know that despite our distances, we will see each other again.

”[UNSET ”[UNSET

Do I feel like I’ve actually helped myself? Absolutely. Do I see enlightenment and freedom from suffering on the horizon? Absolutely not. But I notice that I’m gentler with myself. I freak out just slightly less about the future, and just slightly less about my old friends, Woulda, Coulda, and Shoulda. I try to meditate every day, even if only for a few minutes and even if I’m not doing the Vipassana technique. I fail occasionally, but I get back on the meditation horse. 30 minutes seems like nothing compared to the 10 hours a day I was doing in the retreat, but it’s amazing how quickly my mind has readapted to constant stimulation and external interaction. I can appreciate the retreat environment for its ability to enable meditation and self-study… I guess that’s why they call it a retreat. 10 days of Vipassana aren’t what most people would consider a holiday, but I think most people would benefit from a little constructive tinkering with the wiring of their brains. If most people in the world gave just one Vipassana retreat a shot, I think the shittier portions of humanity as a whole would become just slightly less shitty, and we’d be on a collective path toward a more peaceful existence. It’s not going to happen, but I can dream, can’t I?

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