I completed my first 10-day Vipassana silent meditation course last Sunday, May 22, 2016.
Upon returning, people asked me how the course was. I have never had a harder time responding to this question. Now that I’ve reflected on it, this is my response — why it’s tough to be truthful about how the course was, why I joined, and a reflection on my experience and what I learned.
“How was the course?” is difficult to answer for two reasons:
1. It’s unlike anything I have ever experienced. It was neither fun nor relaxing nor life-changing. The most accurate adjective to use might be “remarkable,” i.e. worth remarking on.
2. High expectations. You “meditate” for 11 hours a day. You disconnect from your normal life for 10 days. People want to hear, “This changes everything.” It’s difficult to be truthful, or at least to not exaggerate.
Me, I had no expectations. I did go in with a rule: To not fool myself.
A rule: To not fool myself
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
Richard Feynman (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!)
I used to attend church. The retreats were spectacular. What I remember most is the singing. Imagine — you are in a crowd of close to a hundred people. Everyone is singing their hearts out. The air is charged with emotion, much more than in concerts. Then people start to shout. Like possessed people. In fact, we called that the “filling of the holy spirit.”
I don’t know about others’ experience. But as someone who did some of the shouting and crying, the fact, is, the holy spirit did not fill me. I did let the crowd rile me up into doing what’s fashionable, which was to appear “holy.”
This emotional experience spills over to our normal lives for a few weeks post-retreat. We’d go to church and read the Bible and think well of even the people who hurt us. This works until the emotion wears off, and until the next year, when we repeat the cycle.
We never made any real changes. We told ourselves it’s just the devil stopping us from serving the Lord, but of course, it was us. We fooled ourselves into this charade, over and over. I no longer wanted to be a part of it.
This is why it is so important to me that I not fool myself.
To me, being truthful is more than a moral imperative. Ray Dalio said it best. Being truthful — in this case, not exaggerating and telling stories about what you think you “should” experience and embracing what you actually did — is an extension of your freedom to be you.
During the course, we practiced Noble Silence. Noble Silence means not communicating with anyone in any way — not verbally, not with gestures, not even eye contact.
There are many reasons for enforcing Noble Silence. One of them is to learn the technique properly. Had we been able to communicate, people would have talked about phenomena such as seeing white lights and feeling out-of-this-world vibrations.
I’m not saying they’d be lying. Regardless, not everyone will have the same experience. And you’d feel bad about it. You’ll start to either doubt yourself, or crave those sensations. Maybe you’d even invent the experience. This is the opposite Vipassana’s purpose, which is to use your body’s sensations as tools to help you be aware and equanimous when cravings and aversion arise.
The teacher, S.N. Goenka, warns us against people who go to course after course but never benefit. These people weren’t there to get insight, but to “play games of sensations.” Like how I went to retreats not to live more like Jesus, but to feel something. Games of sensations.
In a way, I am defending the banality of my experience.
The truth? I do feel inadequate for not experiencing vibrations or flow or anything extraordinary. Maybe there’s something wrong with me? I wasn’t practicing properly? I don’t know.
Feeling bad, despite knowing I’m doing the technique properly, helped me understand how the inability to be truthful causes suffering.
When you don’t trust the truth — and truth can only be truth as you experience it — you invent stories about how things “should” be, according to what others or experts tell you. The mismatch between your experience and the stories leads to discomfort, which sends you escaping to more pleasurable sensations, often away from your work, to things you shouldn’t be doing. If you want to stop suffering, you have to trust yourself enough to be truthful.
Don’t run from your truth. Trust it.
Why I attended the course
A common topic of conversation during the course was why we attended the course. Everybody evaded the question. Not that we ignored it, but we responded with how we discovered the course, as if we attended because we heard about it — from yoga teachers, reading it in Eat Pray Love, myself, from an American friend who’s done it.
Interesting, but not the answer to why. Completing the course is difficult. A lot of people quit. To last the ten days, you have to have a strong reason for doing so. Mere curiosity, I think, is not enough.
It’s an intensely personal question, of course. But I regret not daring to be more vulnerable, not talking about why I was there, and especially not making an effort to create an environment where everyone feels safe to open up. (If you took the course, maybe you can share your why?)
Maybe talking about our deepest sources of shame will expose how profoundly normal they are, helping us see that maybe we ought not to feel so ashamed about them. The course would have been the perfect avenue for that.
I procrastinate a lot.
That’s the reason I attended the course. Does that sound silly to you? It sounds silly to me now, as I write this. But being seen as lazy, as a procrastinator, is a shame trigger for me.
It’s funny how most people who know me think I am one of the most disciplined, most hardworking, person they know. In fact, I feel like the laziest, biggest procrastinator, on Earth.
I don’t understand how I ever get anything done, much less achieve what I have achieved. Maybe what I’m good at is fooling everyone. Even smart mentors I respect tell me I am just being too harsh on myself.
And I think, I’m not being harsh on myself, I’m merely stating facts. If only they knew… Nobody understands how much I procrastinate, and how much it holds me back.
Of course, this is BS. Everyone feels like they’re not working as hard as they should. But still, I want to work.
How do I learn to stop running away from it?
By the time day 10’s Discourse ended, I still had no answer.
We mostly talk about about craving and aversion, and how they are the two big reasons for suffering. How we should not like or dislike what we experience, because they inevitably turn into craving or aversion.
But what about goals? What’s the point of working hard if not to achieve something you desire, like a goal? That’s craving, right?
On day 11’s Discourse, before he sends us back to the real world, Goenka then said the most profound thing during the entire course.
I’m not sure if others found it profound, but it was the highlight of the course for me. It is what I came here for.
People work because they crave. “Without craving, without attachment, how can anybody work?” Goenka’s students ask all the time.
Oh because you have not learned how to work in a detached way.
When you’re attached, you’re so tense inside, you’re so self-centered. I’m working for me. For me. For me. And once you become detached, all tension goes away. Now you work.
Oh. Is that how you do it? Work? To do it in a detached way, not because you have to do something you desire or hate, but because you decided the work is worth doing? If I can do that, will I be able to do anything I say I will do, without any angst? Is that possible?
I think I get it… If only barely.
I still believe you shouldn’t spend your life slaving on something you hate. But I do believe in training, writing this article, waking up in the morning and being a good human being
…even when I don’t feel like it. Or even when I could be doing something easier, more enjoyable. That’s, like, 80% of the time. When it’s too hot, I’m not feeling inspired, and it feels so good staying under my comforter…
Working in a detached way
As I write, the fragile thread by which I hold that insight is strengthened.
I remember the only time I came close to feeling a drop of enlightenment. It moved me to tears.
It was the second hour of Addithana, or hour of strong determination. The goal is to sit without changing your position during the entire hour. The point is to internalize the lesson of Anicca, the impermanent nature of things, in the midst of intense pain and hardship.
The first time we did Addithana, I was sure I cracked my tailbone. Every minute I follow this fat man’s fucking instructions I am destroying my back. This is stupid. It’s not worth it. How could anything be worth getting permanent back pain?
I moved. I felt temporary relieved, of course. And then disappointed at how much I exaggerated the pain. Why couldn’t I do something so simple? To sit without moving for an hour? How hard is that?
The next Addithana, I started with a more comfortable position and sat that way. It was still painful. My left thigh crushed my right foot. I felt the temptation to open my eyes and see how my coursemates are doing. I felt that surely, surely, our assistant teacher had fallen asleep. I’m SURE it’s more than an hour already. But I sat and I sat and I sat, repeating Anicca, Anicca, Anicca…
I made it. I made it through the hour without moving. I couldn’t believe it. Cracking my bones and stretching afterwards felt so good. But this time, I was doing the right action at the right time.
I did not react, like a slave, to my feelings and impulses. To things that naturally arise, things I have no control over…
When the chanting signifying the last 5 minutes of the session started, I knew I was going to make it. And I thought to myself, I get to be great.
I get to be great.
Not I am great. But I get to be great.
I’ve always believed I am talented and intelligent enough to do anything I want. When people say, “This is not rocket science.” I think, “Oh yeah? What’s so special about rocket science? I bet it’s not such a big deal.”
I can do anything, if I can make myself work.
You know the students who say they could beat the best student in the class, if only they tried (but they’re too cool to)? That was me. Except, I was one of the best students in the class.
That was the story I told myself my whole life, “You are a smart, but lazy person.” I internalized this belief, made it part of my identity. I learned how to multiply at 4 years old. By third grade, I was doing advanced algebra. I learned how to bike within the first hour of sitting on one. Everything came so naturally. Hard work is for normal people.
Obviously, this doesn’t work so well in the adult world. Business, especially. I don’t know anyone who was born knowing how to regularly generate a significant amount of cash flow. You have to work. “Ardently. Patiently and persistently.” according to Goenka. Even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it.
For the longest time, I tried to convince myself, intellectually, that I am no longer a smart but lazy person. (Still smart, but no longer lazy.) Bad mental habits prevented me from acting according to who I want to be, someone who’s talented and does something about it.
Back to Adhittahana.
I decided to do something — to sit for one hour without changing my position, even as feelings of intense pain, doubt, and frustration arose — then did it.
The actual experience of that… I wouldn’t say “it changed everything.” I did commit to being truthful. But, in my day to day when I feel like reacting to an impulse or feel like escaping discomfort, I get to recall that moment.
It made me realize that if I can do this in my life, if the inability to do so has been all that is holding me back, then I get to be great.
Sitting as work
Work diligently. Work persistently. Work ardently. You are bound to be successful.
This is one of the phrases Goenka repeats millions of times.
But is sitting work? Sitting, that’s essentially what meditation is. Sure, it’s not the most fun thing to do for eleven hours everyday for ten days.
But is it work? Hard work? The toughest work you’ve ever done?
I hate being patronized. If I’m fat, tell it to me straight. In a nice way, if you can. But tell me. Comforting me with it’s okay, it’s the inside that counts, or it’s not my fault because it’s my genes… I’m more insulted than comforted.
By talking about what we were doing as very hard work, I felt Goenka was patronizing us. To make what we were doing seem important, instead of trivial. After all, we were “just” sitting.
As I write this, dozens of impulses arise:
I should drink water. I need more coffee. My back hurts, maybe I should lie down. Now I should sit down. That doesn’t make sense. What you’re writing is stupid. Oh it’s 2380 words now. That’s gonna be impossible to edit later. Why are you doing this? What’s the point? Nobody will read this.
As I write and practice being aware of my thoughts without reacting to or feeling annoyed at them, it dawned on me… Sitting is work. In fact, it’s the simplest, most truthful form of work.
Sitting as work encapsulates the insights of truth and working in a detached way.
Sitting as work —
During the course, you sit from 4:30–6:30 a.m., 8:00–11:00 a.m., 1:00–5:00 p.m., and 6:00–9:00 p.m.. When you join, you decide that’s what you’re doing for the next ten days.
And if you are doing your work properly, you sit regardless of how you feel about it, whether you feel you’re doing badly, or you think you’d be readier next time. You persist until your work is done.
Isn’t that all “real” work is?
All I have to do to finish this article is sit and type until I’m done. That’s it. If you’re going to write, write. If you’re going to have a difficult conversation, have that difficult conversation. If you’re going to solve a programming problem, solve the programming problem. Whether you’re in the mood or not.
Whatever work you’re doing, discomfort, the need to escape, and feelings of unworthiness will inevitably arise. Our job is to do our work.
Thinking of sitting as “work” has helped me look at work through a more truthful, more realistic, lens. To stop feeling bad about not exhibiting the glamourized version of what I think work should be, and instead be aware of what needs to be done and do it. Real work is messy. It’s painful. A lot of it, boring.
My performance during a 3-minute fight is just 20% of winning a wrestling competition. 80% is practicing takedowns hundreds of times, as well as continuing to attack during sparring sessions despite constant feelings of not making any progress.
It’s boring, repetitive work, not glamorous at all like what you see in the UFC.
Working in a detached way —
And you learn to do all this in a relaxed way, not because you really, really, really need your boss’s approval, or because you really, really, really need to just fucking suck it up and do it, but simply, because this is your work.
If you can do this? Then you get to be great.