"You will feel like you took one giant step on a very very long path.”
That was how my best friend described the journey. Having been through the 10 day silent meditation course himself, I asked him for a bit of the behind the scenes.
I admit - walking into the first day of a 10 day silent meditation course with 100 total hours of meditation (yes - that's 10 hours each day) I had an expectation of reaching some climax. Likely on day 7, 8, or 9. As hard as I tried to enter the journey with no expectations, one does not volunteer for ten days of full silence and meditation sits at 4:30 AM each day without expecting some benefit or the attainment of some goal.
I should list out some logistical details about the program before going any further. There are dozens of meditation techniques and courses. From the celebrity-endorsed transcendental meditation seen on GQ features, all the way to vinyasa yoga, sitting down and crossing your legs has long breached full blown Williamsburg yuppie appropriation and with that comes variations in technique and experience. This specific 10 day course was in the practice of Vipassana Meditation at the Dhamma Dhara center in western Massachusetts. The course itself is taught by video and audio tapes of S.N. Goenka along with an appointed assistant teacher.
- The entire course is taught in noble silence . Students aren't allowed to communicate verbally or with gestures (i.e. eye contact or holding the door open). Students may speak to the teacher only when questions regarding the practice arise). I myself spent about ten minutes in total speaking with the teacher over the course of the ten days.
- No phones, email, computers, reading, writing, exercise, yoga, or sexual activity.
- Meals must be eaten in the dining hall and never stored in the residence. Breakfast starts at 6:30 AM and lunch at 11 AM. Other than those two meals, there is fruit and tea at 5 PM.
- Ten hours of the day are scheduled for meditation. The first session starts at 4:30 AM and the last session ends around 9 PM.
- Students are asked to refrain from practicing any other religion for the ten days. Though, Goenka is very adamant about the course being complementary to any religion. While Vipassana itself is taught by many different teachers in different organizations, Goenka has gained popularity and coverage because his tradition is easier for secular people to pick up in that it wipes out any classically “religious” components (no incents or chants or statues or gods) and other potentially alienating, non-universal norms.
- Men and women are separated for the entire ten days with the exception of the joint meditation hall. Meals and breaks are spent separate.
- Of the 40 men and 60 women in my course there were new students with minimal meditation experience, new students with zero meditation experience, and old students who had already been through a ten day course (in once instance a woman was on her 11th (!) course). There was ample diversity in race, class, and experience.
- The entire experience is run on donations. Students can donate after the ten days or they can elect to serve as a volunteer in another course. In truth, the residence managers, the cooks, and the assistant teachers are all volunteers who practice Vipassana regularly.
My interest in the course stemmed from a desire to take my meditation to the next level. That means having a solid understanding on a theoretical and tactical level and being able to describe what meditation really means beyond merely sitting on a cushion and listening to my breath. In truth, practicing meditation was one of my New Year's resolutions. Before the course I had penned myself an on-again off-again meditator, dedicating 20 minutes or so each morning and evening to sitting. I was already aware of the proclaimed benefits of meditation: reduced stress, increased ability to focus, and general increase in happiness.
At the end of the second day, I walked up to the assistant teacher (whom you are allowed to speak with only when questions regarding the practice arise). Moments away from pulling the plug on the remaining 8 days, I told him quite frankly "Listen, Michael, I honestly don't think I can last the entire 10 days. I'm thinking about things back home. The plants that are going to die. The thermostat I forgot to set on vacation mode. And the project at work I've been managing that launches the week I get back." Michael smiled and as if he had heard ten thousand iterations of this story from every other student, replied "The mind will do that. Just let it go. You've dedicated the ten days. Try to observe the highs and lows your mind will go through and let them be."
The first three days of the course are spent focusing on anapanna, a subsidiary technique of Vipassana that focuses on the breath beneath the nostrils. In doing so, one becomes better able to fix their concentration. Any time the mind wanders away from the breath (which, to be clear, happened often) the meditator tells the mind to bring the concentration back to the area of the body beneath the nostrils. After the second day, any time my mind felt like leaving I essentially told my mind to focus on the original intent of why I chose to spend these ten days at the center. As I spent more time practicing, the amount of time between distraction and focus became shorter and shorter. In other words, the anxieties of the outside world became distractions, not anxieties, and I was able to dismiss them as distractions from the present moment.
In the Day 3 discourse, Goenka ended the session by echoing "You are the master of the present." This became the first of three takeaways on my journey. At the heart of Goenka’s philosophy (and Buddhism as well) is the notion that enlightenment comes from self-mastery. While it’s not entirely plausible to control circumstance or even one’s own emotions, mastering the present means developing one’s ability to control how the mind receives input.
I often spent the ten minutes before a long meditation sit thinking about how my next four hours were going to be spent with intense concentration and painful sitting. Those ten minutes were often more painful than the third or even 59th minute of the actual meditation sit. After Day 3 it became quite apparent to me that my anxieties of the daily routine emerged from my reaction to the routine, not the routine itself.
The actual technique of vipassana isn’t taught until the 4th day. Pivotal to the learning of vipassana are “adhitanna” sits. Adhitanna meditation roughly translates to meditation of strong determination and the sessions are designed such that the meditator can’t move their arms, legs, or eyes for an entire hour. We did this for three different hour-long blocks each day.
At this point I should be clear that I experienced pain in every sit – it’s the most obvious observation in anyone’s meditation experience. While Goenka is very adamant that the technique is not designed to torture, sitting in the same position for such long periods brought so much pain that I nearly asked the teacher for a chair. In meditation sessions where I was allowed to take a break and stand up, I did so without hesitation. Sometimes I even left the actual meditation hall.
The official stance on the physical exertion (yes, from sitting on your butt for an unfathomable length of time) is that managing pain – observing painful sensations with equanimity – is another layer of the mental mastery process. Vipassana uses the heightened awareness capability built from the first three days in order to develop an ability for the mind to act equanimously. What this means (and this is my second takeaway) is that by the end of the course I was able to observe an itch on my nose, a jolt of pain in my left knee, or a pleasant flow of body sensations with an equal level of objectivity. (There are some students who request a chair if the pain is absolutely unbearable, or if they have a medical reason. But eventually, every student was able to sit for a full hour without breaking pose.)
There’s a philosophical tie in to the equanimity. According to Goenka, pain represents some of the anxieties (also known as sankaras) in your life that distract the mind. Connect these anxieties to the physical sensations in your body and you basically see them leave the body, and ultimately the mind.
Day 6 ended with one of Goenka’s parables. In the story, two brothers are bestowed two rings from their deceased father. One ring is clad in diamonds, the other just a simple band. While one brother opts for the shiny piece, the other brother elects for the simpler ring. Years later, the brother with the diamonds dies and the brother with the simple band notices an engraving on the inside. Etched into the material are the words “This will also change.” The parable implies that the wisdom in those words provides more everlasting joy than any piece of jewelry, diamond clad or other.
The law of nature in Vipassana contends that the only constant is change. It might be hard to feel this truth in a home like New York City where triangle patches of grass are sanctioned parks and people spend 101% of their energy making sure they don’t absentmindedly turn the coffee maker on without placing the pot underneath (true story), but after sitting beside myself for 7 days in rural Massachusetts I started to feel the truth of this law in my practice. Out of Goenka’s many parables, the two brothers and the rings stuck with me because of it’s seeming incompatibility with my first takeaway. On the one hand, there is a law of constant change that every fabric of creation is held to. And on the other hand, the mind’s ability to focus on the present, this moment, this breath, presents agency within that law. Liberation and empowerment. They are both available.
As I write this one week on the other side of this experience, I can’t help but feel a bit mixed or hesitant about adopting a fully Buddhist way of living. The reincarnation pieces and the ascetic lifestyle don't completely jive with me. But Parts of Goenka’s sharings and the Buddhist philosophy are wholly human and beautiful. Vipassana translates to “see things as they really are”. I love the idea of turning within, looking inward to find happiness instead of practicing blind rituals or appealing to gods. Who doesn’t like the idea of observing one’s anger instead of reacting to it? Who doesn’t like the idea of training your mind to feel its most subtlest movements at the most simplified subatomic particles in the representation of pleasant vibrations across the entire body? (You can laugh at this, but this is really how deep meditation feels and anyone who has taken the course will agree).
My last takeaway: meditation provides a way to cross the bridge from knowing these truths on an intellectual level and knowing these truths experientially. It’s the difference between seeing an entrée that looks delicious on a menu and actually tasting that meal.
The first book I picked up after arriving back in Brooklyn was Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils of Pleasures of a Creative Life, a memoir of her life and journey as a writer. On the 50th page she hones in on the practice of writing:
If I waited to be in the mood to write, I’d barely have a chapbook of material to my name. Who would ever be in the mood to write? Do marathon runners get in the mood to run? Do teachers wake up with the urge to lecture? I don’t know, but I doubt it. My guess is that it’s the very act that is generative. The doing of the thing that makes possible the desire for it. A runner suits up, stretches, begins to run. An inventor trudges down to his workroom, closing the door behind him. A writer sits in her writing space, setting aside the time to be alone with her work. Is she inspired doing it? Very possibly not. Is she distracted, bored, lonely, in need of stimulation? Oh, absolutely, without a doubt it’s hard to sit there. Who wants to sit there? Something nags at the edges of her mind. Should she make soup for dinner tonight? She’s on the verge of jumping up from her chair – in which case all will be lost – but wait. Suddenly she remembers: this is her hour (or two, or three). This is her habit, her job, her discipline. Think of a ballet dancer at the barre. Plie, eleve, battement tendu. She is practicing, because she knows that there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art.
It’s the very act that is generative. Even now after over 100 hours of meditation under my belt, I sometimes feel a reluctance to sit on the meditation cushion. My goal for the year is to meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening (Goenka recommends one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening). The act of meditation may not ever feel easy. I may never reach a point where I yearn to meditate for hours on end. But the practice is the art.
There are a lot of things I have yet to fully understand - how to develop a career, eat oranges without getting my fingers sticky, and stir-fry tofu. There are some things I do understand. Meditation is becoming one of them. Figuring the rest out is a certain kind of practice, I've recently learned.