5 things I learned from a 10-day Vipassana meditation course
I stared into my bowl of oatmeal swirled with bits of granola and apple cinnamon reduction, slowly shoveling spoonfuls into my mouth as I stared outside the dining hall window into an empty courtyard. A cacophony of clanging dishes and shuffling chairs reverberated through the air while bearded men wearing sweatpants and baggy sweaters lined up to serve themselves breakfast. In the dining hall of over 70 men, there was not a single conversation to be had. The noise from spoons hitting bowls was stark and orchestral. It was day three of my ten day Vipassana meditation retreat and I was still trying to grasp this strange and unique experience.
Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique which Buddha taught to his disciples as a means to achieve liberation from misery. After disappearing from India nearly 20 centuries ago, S. N. Goenka learned the technique in Burma and started teaching it back in his home country of India in 1969. The course he developed has spread dramatically and is now taught in centers all over the world.
I had been interested in meditation for the past few years as a means to deal with anxiety during busy times in my life when I had a lot of projects at work or when I was recruiting during my MBA. Even when I wasn’t stressed I found myself constantly dwelling on the future, thinking about what I needed to do to prepare for the next day or often just fantasizing about how the future may look. I yearned for the feeling of a clear mind living in the present. After reading about the positive effects of meditation on the brain and reading articles about successful CEOs and entrepreneurs who mention daily meditation habits, I figured it was worth a deeper look. I had a few friends who had done the 10-day Vipassana course and started looking into it.
There are a lot of rules that govern the experience and after going through it all, it’s clear why they’re in place — to create an atmosphere of isolation for you to do serious work. The moral foundation of the practice is laid in five precepts which you must observe: abstain from killing any being (i.e. insects), stealing, sexual activity, telling lies and intoxicants. A “noble silence” is observed for nine days, which means no talking, eye contact or physical gestures between students. You’re allowed to schedule an interview with the teacher or talk to the course managers about day-to-day issues, but even those conversations are pithy. You’re completely cut off from all technology; the only electronic item I touched was a battery operated alarm clock. You’re not allowed any reading or writing materials. You’re supposed to discontinue all other forms of worship. No yoga or physical exercise. Genders are completely segregated. Your day starts at 4am and ends at 9pm with ten hours dedicated to meditation. You’re given two vegetarian meals for breakfast/lunch daily with fruit and tea for dinner.
Words cannot adequately describe the feeling of living the monk’s life described above for ten days. You really must go see for yourself and though I don’t want to give too much away, I do want to share some of the takeaways I had in the hope of encouraging more to give Vipassana or meditation a try.
1. We don’t use all our senses
Vipassana seeks self-transformation through self-observation of sensations in the body. You start the course by developing the ability to feel sensations in the area above your upper lip and below your nostril. This is difficult at first, but progresses with your regular ten hours of daily practice. You learn to listen to your body and start to feel things too subtle to detect normally. These heightened senses manifest during breaks in between meditations. My course took place on the 600-acre property of an old boarding school in Quebec. Though the entire property is roped off, preventing you from traipsing off deep into the woods, there is a short, wooded walking trail which I used a lot. I’ve never felt so alive walking on this trail in between meditations. The sound of the trees swaying in the wind accompanied the breeze cascading across my face felt incredibly invigorating. The smell of the forest after the rain was fragrant and sweet. I could even smell the scent of the flowers wafting off a tree 20 yards away. Through the course I realized that we don’t activate all our senses on a daily basis. Simply by exercising them, we can be more present and alive in the world around us.
2. The paradox of choice — having less options makes you more happy
When you’re explicitly not allowed to do anything, how do you spend your time? One thing that happens is you relish in mindless chores like showering or self-grooming. I took a proactive approach on brushing my teeth. When that’s all done, what do you do? You can go for a walk on the trail, sit in a chair outside, or lay on your bed. I was lucky enough to have sunny summer weather during my retreat so I tried to spend most of my free time outside. A surprising observation that I had was that despite the limited number of things I could do or see, I found deep enjoyment in very simple pleasures. When I was outside in the grassy courtyard in front of the meditation hall I had two options a) stare at the tree which was in full bloom and buzzing with bumblebees or b) stare at the chipmunks dancing across the pavement. Life was blissful when you only have two options and no fear that there’s something else you could be doing that’s better. I had never seen a tree as beautiful.
3. You can accomplish a lot in ten days
In many ways I felt like the retreat was what I imagine ninja training is like. Strict adherence to a moral code, isolation, removal of all distractions, and a structured, disciplined day solely focused on self-improvement. With the removal of all life obligations your only focus is practicing Vipassana. Physically the meditations took a toll on my body and the pain was quite intense the first few days. But as my meditations progressed, so did my body. By the end my posture had improved dramatically from a decade of craning my neck to look at screens. My back felt much stronger and I was more limber and flexible than ever. All these physical benefits were side-effects of developing skill in Vipassana. If you had replaced the ten hours of daily meditation with hitting wooden dummies and balancing on pillars while holding buckets of water, then I would’ve developed the skills of a ninja. You can accomplish a lot with focused, disciplined work. Ten days of hard work took a lot of mental toughness to outlast. However, it hardened my resolve and determination for doing difficult things. In the end, spending ten days of your free time in this environment is not asking much when it’s for your mental health and happiness.
4. Smartphones take us out of the present
The scene outside the meditation hall resembled the grounds of a psychiatric hospital–men in sweatpants walking in circles, staring intensely at flowers and chipmunks. Seems bizarre, right? But what is actually more crazy: intensely observing the world around you or staring at a screen held in front of your face looking at places and experiences that you are, by definition, not a part of? The function of a phone is to take you out of the present and communicate with something or someone you are not near. Most of your apps are feeds of events, tweets, photos, statuses of other people, who are not near you. Therefore, people who live with their faces glued to their phone screens are never present, always somewhere else, taking in other people’s jokes, photos and experiences. As our smartphone apps are designed to be more and more engaging, our presence in the world around us becomes smaller. To combat this, stopping and smelling the roses becomes advice that should be taken literally.
5. Don’t worry, be happy
Though I took a pragmatic approach to the course focusing just on learning meditation, Vipassana is not just a tool — it’s an “Art of Living.” If you practice wholeheartedly, you can entirely free yourself from misery and be full of love and compassion for all. Though the phrase, “love and compassion for all” may evoke images of people with dreadlocks in a beachside drum circle, when you put aside those preconceived notions, you can understand how this positive mentality is really better for you. Imagine you were cut off on the highway. Typically this would cause you to be angry and upset for ten minutes. Imagine you were only angry for five minutes. Now imagine that being cut off didn’t make you angry at all, because you were understanding that the person who cut you off was really in a rush for to pick up their kids at school. You can’t change the event, but you can change the way it affects you. If you don’t hold onto anger, especially unnecessary anger brought on by others, then you will simply be less anxious and more happy more often.
For me, travel has always been the best time for self-reflection, because only when I’ve taken myself out of my environment and daily routine have I been able to look at my life objectively and figure out if I need to make changes. From that perspective, the 10-day Vipassana retreat was meta-self-reflection. You are deeply examining your operating system for making decisions. During those ten days, I gained a profound understanding of how I react based on how I feel. How I feel mentally is connected to my body, which I can control and understand through meditation.
Life is a chain of decisions: where will you live, what career will you pursue, with whom you decide to grow old. Big life decisions notwithstanding, this is true at the daily level: how will you spend your time today, how will you treat your coworkers, how will you enjoy your dinner. If our lives are built like a house, nail-by-nail, based on decisions we make daily, then we can improve our lives by learning how to use a hammer better. It takes conscious effort to put aside time to work on skills development when you have a house to build, but these investments compound over a lifetime of building a house. Our decisions and process get better leading to a happier and more enlightened life. Regardless of whether we end up with an A-frame or a log cabin, we will know that our final product has been built on a sound foundation, with every nail hammered straight.