Spiritual journey, anyone?
Wants and needs; the two driving forces that cause people to act. They can change through life, as mine have. My appetites used to revolve around video games, beer, traveling, and sex. All right……they haven’t changed at all.
I was 18 when I found the need for self-improvement. Researching the world’s religions paired with soul-searching led me to discovering eastern religions; namely Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
I was living in Savannah, Georgia when I first heard of Vipassana. The center was just an hour away in the town of Jesup. Never heard of it, but figured I’d do it anyway. Why let naivety stop me from doing something crazy?
Before I continue, here are some facts about Vipassana:
- It is a Pali word which roughly translates to, “the true nature of reality”, “viewing things as they really are”.
- Taught originally by The Buddha. However, the practice is not just for Buddhists. It is merely a technique that can supplement any belief system.
- For a new student the intro course is 10 days. Really it’s 11, as the first day is named “Day 0”.
- Distractions are kept at a minimum throughout the course. This means no computers, books, phones, internet, verbal or visual communication, exercise routines, or instruments. It is also segregated by gender.
- The cost of the course is technically $0. By tradition, it is totally funded by services and donations from old students.
Prior aspirations of experiencing life as an ascetic monk were coming true. Daydreams of “mountaintop epiphanies” and all that were not only incorrect, they were delusional. Unsurprisingly friends and family thought I was crazy…well…more than they already did. I had to request nearly 2 weeks off, and my coworkers’ responses were amusing. One such sticks out:
Chris: “So while you’re there you can’t read anything?
Chris: “And you can’t get online while you’re there?”
Chris: “So…wait. You’re going to spend the next 10 days doing…nothing?
Me: “Well…I guess that’s one way look at it.”
Chris: “That’s crazy. I’d go to New York, or Vegas, or somewhere. I’d do SOME thing.”
Me: “Huh. I guess you have a point.”
Before starting, all I really knew were the essentials. This was to avoid forming expectations or preconceived notions. The daily schedule was all I really knew:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
That’s right. Each day begins with a 4:00 a.m. wakeup “gong”. It takes me a few days to acclimate to a change in schedule, but the idea of waking up that early didn’t make sense to me. Who gets up at 4 a.m.? Why get up at 4 a.m.? WHAT is 4 a.m.?!
For 8 years I have practiced some variety of meditation. So it’s not totally new to me. Usually I would focus on breathing or on different areas of my body. It was a daily goal but was not always met.
The study of Vipassana is no joke. 8-10 hours a day was spent meditating. Leaving meditation sessions oftentimes left me feeling physically drained. Somehow the act of focusing is exhausting.
One would think the total lack of amusement would yield boredom or loneliness. This was never the case. Don’t get me wrong, playing my guitar or writing would have been great, but I never yearned for it. The one thing I never got used to was purposely not acknowledging someone else’s existence. Every day I passed by the same people without ever saying “hi” or even giving a nod. For a Midwesterner, that’s unthinkable.
Enough intro. Here we go. The 10 days are broken down below:
One word: difficult. Lack of sleep, backaches, sore legs, and wondering what the hell am I doing composed these days. Further confusion came from constantly having to focus on the breath at the entrance of the nostrils. Why? Is this going somewhere?
Thank God they had coffee.
The most challenging day for me was day 3. I was tired, irritable and all I could think of was that I still had 7 more days.
But really…thank God they had coffee. Which brings me to the food; it was amazing! Hearty vegetarian meals all served fresh. There was never a worry of getting my 5 fruits/vegetables a day. Burritos, curries, and lasagna (all veggie of course) were just some of the delicious meals.
Even though the days were tough, my focus was improving. Yet somehow irritation still found its way to creep in despite the total lack of distraction. Hearing someone swallow or making lip noises while meditating was just as aggravating as stepping in dog shit. Just shows how stress truly is self-imposed.
This needs saying once more: thank God they had coffee.
The actual practice of Vipassana begins on day 4. The preceding days were spent building up focus and technique. Day 4 was also the day I dropped a bowl, shattering it. Although I retained my vow of “noble silence”, the crashing bowl did not.
With Vipassana meditation, focus is on breath as well as sensations of the body. Any sensation whether it be a pulsing, aching, tingling, pressure, etc. This is done part by part, up and down, down and up. Just after the first session, I was exhausted and wondered what I had just done to myself.
Some students encountered minor breakdowns and/or quit the course. Nevertheless, this does not mean they were weak. All 10 days you’re isolated with your best friend and your worst enemy: yourself. You are literally a prisoner of the mind. It wanders everywhere be it good, bad, past, present, future, good times, regrets, etc. If you’re not in a particularly good stage in life then these thoughts or fears may take over. My life was excellent, yet still I found myself dwelling on regrets.
One word: cakewalk. Benefits of the meditation were apparent. The whole “one with everything” and “words-can’t-quite-explain-this” sensations arose. Though these euphoric feelings may occur, we were instructed not to produce a sense of clinging or aversion. Equanimity and knowing “this too shall pass” were heavily stressed.
Meditation became an enjoyable experience as I found myself practicing even during breaks. This was true for other students as well. Nonetheless, I was still excited to complete the course and to be able to speak. The vow of silence is lifted on day 10, and I had giddiness from the anticipation.
General consensus says I am “talkative”, “conversational”, and some have even gone as far as to say “exhausting” (they’ll pay for that…trust me). Friends and family assumed that 10 days of complete silence would be the hardest part. To be honest, it was the easiest.
Memory noticeably improved as I was able to absorb and retain more information. This undoubtedly was the result from meditation. I could better sense minor details, such as the routines of the other students. By day 10 I could predict exactly what my roommate was going to eat, drink, and in the correct proportions.
Finally the vow of silence had ended.
Students were old and young and from all walks of life. Our conversations were all over, but mainly had to do with first impressions and what days were the toughest. One chat will always stick with me:
Sean: “Fuck, I almost left on day 8. My roommate quit that morning and I just thought, ‘I could leave now and get a burger and a beer’.”
Me: “Day 8? He must’ve planted the seed of thought for quitting. Mine was definitely day 3.”
Sean: “Yeah he must have. No idea why he quit. Couldn’t really ask him, y’know? Did you talk to your roommate or anyone at all?”
Me: “Not at all. Actually followed all the rules pretty much spot on.”
Sean: “Did you jerk off?”
(A spilt second of surprise)
Me: “Nah. Never even had the urge.”
Meditation became more than a just a technique, it became a part of me.
- Live in the moment
- This too shall pass
- Do not create feelings of craving or aversion
These precepts meant so much more. Beyond understanding them intellectually, I now understood them through direct experience. The application of equanimity has profound results. Again, Vipassana meditation can benefit anyone regardless of race, beliefs, religion, or gender.
To sum it all up: It was one of the most difficult yet rewarding things I’ve ever done.
May all beings be happy. 🙂
For further reading and/or viewing, feel free to click the links below:
Vipassana Meditation’s official website:
Watch a documentary of the effects Vipassana had on prisoners in Alabama named, “The Dhamma Brothers”: