Finding Magic: 105 Hours of Meditation in 10 Days
Many people have asked me about the Vipassana course I recently completed in India and why I would subject myself to 10 days of silent meditation. I’m a big believer in learning something intensely for a fixed timeframe and then integrating it into a daily practice. It’s what I did when I learned to code and it’s how I’ve picked up most of my other skills. By doing nothing but meditate for 10 days, I believed I’d get to a state that would otherwise take years of daily practice. Once I entered that zone, I’d experience magic and have insights into the way my mind worked. I was right.
What is Vipassana?
Before I tell you about the experience, it would probably be helpful if I told you a bit about Vipassana meditation. It’s a Theravada Buddhist tradition that translates as “insight into the true nature of reality”. Vipassana is a method of training yourself to observe sensations throughout your body and remain equanimous, never craving nor feeling aversion toward those sensations. I’d scan my body, part by part, inch by inch, looking for sensations. Simply being aware, then moving on.
The key philosophy in Vipassana is equanimity. By remaining equanimous about your sensations, you train your mind not to react. By not reacting to ‘negative’ sensations, you are training your mind not to react to aversions. By being aware of the sensation and the fact that it is impermanent, the sensation would (once I was good at this) just turn into a vibration and wouldn’t really be a negative sensation anymore. Vipassana trains you to recognize that you’re reacting negatively (or positively) to a sensation or situation and reduce the time that reaction consumes you. You basically just fast-forward your emotional state, being aware of the feeling and recognizing its impermanence. Then deciding to move on.
Dhamma Giri Vipassana Center in Igatpuri, India
We decided that the most epic way to to learn meditation would be at the oldest and largest Vipassana Center in the world. Over 10k students pass through Dhamma Giri annually, ~600 at a time. Men and women were separate at all times and I never actually saw my wife until Day 10.
Some of the precepts we followed include:
- no contact with the outside world
- no music
- no reading material
- individual and group meditation for ~11 hours per day
- no interactions or communication with other students. This includes talking but also any kind of non-verbal communication (referred to as “Noble Silence”). My Dad joined us for the course and, while he and I saw each other, we never really acknowledged each other until Noble Silence was broken. We did accidentally make eye contact a couple times and I gave him a small smile once when I thought he was struggling.
Dhamma Giri is set in a valley with beautiful green mountains surrounding it. There are big white monkeys jumping around or just hanging out, tons of birds, and lots of other wildlife. It’s about 2 1/2 hours Northeast of Mumbai and most of the attendees are from within 30 miles of the center.
Spoiler alert: If you’re planning on taking a Vipassana course sometime soon, don’t ruin the surprise for yourself.
On the day we arrived, there was a lot of administrative hoopla. It took about 3 hours to check-in and then we had a small meal of Indian porridge. Wait a second, are we going to be eating Indian food for 10 days? Whoops, that didn’t occur to me. My room was small, but I didn’t have to share it with anyone. I even had a flushing toilet!
We were assigned group numbers and herded toward the meditation hall. All the westerners were in Group 5 and wound up sitting on the right side of the meditation hall. I sat towards the front. Our first group meditation session was in the evening. We were instructed to focus all of our attention on our breathing, following a practice called Anapana. Whenever a thought distracted us, we were to be aware of the distraction without being frustrated and bring awareness back to the breath.
At first, I found it challenging to focus on a single thing for more than a minute without my mind wandering. It’s crazy what it came up with. I found myself suddenly thinking of The Walking Dead, then I’d come back to breath. After 20 seconds, I was thinking about that time I hit a home run while playing softball a few years ago. Back to breath. Then 2 minutes of focus without distracting thoughts. I’d feel a thought coming and dismiss it before I could focus on it. Then distraction again. This time thinking about Danielle and how much I missed her. This would consume me for a good 45 seconds before I could regain control. The practice of Anapana is to increase the amount of time you’re aware of nothing but your breath, thereby decreasing distractions. By the end, I could focus on my breath for the whole hour with only a few, short disruptions.
The 6 o’clock group meditation was the most beautiful. It started out every night with crows chirping. Then what sounded like tens of thousands of small birds flocked in and made a cascading vibration of sound. I suspected they came to chow down on the insects that came out as the sun was going down and the temperature was dropping. With these birds came the sounds of monkeys calling to each other and jumping on roofs as they (I suspected) snacked on the small birds. At its crescendo, we were serenaded with the singing of hundreds of crows, thousands of smaller birds, dozens of monkeys and sometimes the occasional cat mewling. Then came the insect sounds. There were 3 waves, with each wave growing louder and louder until what I suspected were cicadas completely drowned out all the other sounds. Only then did the chanting begin, which signaled the coming end of the meditation session.
We began this day, like all others, with a 4am wakeup. They introduced new concepts during 9am meditation sessions. On this day, we were instructed to focus our awareness on sensations just under our nose. Was there an itch? Or perspiration? Or cold/hotness? Any sensation would do. The goal was to focus on that sensation for as long as we could until we sensed another sensation. Whichever sensation was most subtle was the right one to focus on. This would sharpen the mind and prepare us for the next phase.
During the 5 o’clock snack, I grabbed 4 spoon fulls of the yellow rice crispies and three bananas. I sat down across from an Indian guy, who just stared at me. He had about 2 spoon fulls of the rice crispies. As a fun game, I decided to just annihilate my food and try to finish before he did. I crushed all my food while he had eaten about half of what he had left. Then I went back up and grabbed another 3 spoon fulls and came back and sat down across from him again. I then started crushing these and we finished about the same time (but I won). We got up at the same time and he tried to beat me to the exit line. But I detoured and went and got a cup of chai tea instead. Honestly, I have no idea whether he even knew we were racing or if this was all in my head. But if you’re that guy and you happen to be reading this — I was racing.
This was the first day of Vipassana. Up to this point, I didn’t realize that there was a different practice coming. I thought Anapana was Vipassana, but it turns out that we had spent the first few days simply preparing our minds. There was a palpable excitement rippling through both the students and the instructors leading up to the group session where we would be taught the practice we had all come here to learn.
From now on, we would be scanning our entire body, bringing awareness to any sensations we felt. We would remain equanimous of these sensations, neither craving nor feeling aversion to them.
I was tired. And couldn’t really feel sensations in the rest of my body. I felt that I had gone too deep yesterday and had exhausted my mind to a point where I wasn’t going to be able to figure out Vipassana. I felt defeated and a bit depressed with the idea of having to do this for another 5 days. I considered leaving and daydreamed of life in Thailand, our first stop after India. Towards the end of the day, one of the volunteers running the course showed up to my door with a mosquito net and a sarong, which I took as a sign that D still loved me and hadn’t left yet. It gave me the strength to continue and the evening session was productive.
By focusing on sensations without judgement, I was able to de-materialize them into vibrations. For example, I had pretty intense pain in my hips from sitting crosslegged for an hour without moving. By focusing on that pain, I realized that it was actually pain in 10 different spots. By scanning each of these pain points, I became aware that the pain in each of the 10 points was actually 10 smaller points. Each of these 100 smaller points wasn’t actually very painful and I was able to remain still for the entire meditation session.
We were told that our bodies were made up of vibrations that, in time, we might go deep enough to experience all of our sensations as vibration. At first I was skeptical, but by the end of the day I started feeling the vibrations. I continued to scan my body, making sure that I could bring awareness to each inch. When I found a spot where I couldn’t feel any sensations or vibration, I would spend a few minutes focused on that area. Usually, I would soon be met with a familiar feeling of my awareness flooding the spot.
Dhamma Giri has a beautiful pagoda in the middle of the grounds that contains ~100 meditation cells. Each day, a group of meditators were given permission to use the cells. My day was Day 7. The cells were small rectangle rooms with a cushion and a hanging lamp. It was a terrifying prospect to think of being jailed in something like this. However, it was a welcome respite from the noise of meditating surrounded by ~300 others.
I was going deeper and deeper into the awareness of my body. By now, I felt vibrations in whatever part of my body I was focused on. In the afternoon, I began to try flowing my awareness up and down my body. By focusing intensely, I was able to flow the vibrations from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, then back up.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t been instructed to do this and I was doing a technique that my mind wasn’t quite ready for yet. After ~30 minutes of doing this, my head started to hurt and I lost control of the vibrations. They were flowing up and down without my control or intention. My whole body felt like it was on fire and I was actually seeing the world vibrate. It felt like I was an X-man that had a power, but couldn’t control it. It felt like what I imagine a terrible acid trip to feel like. I switched over to Anapana for an hour and my mind settled down. I had cracked through some barrier and could now enter into a vibrational meditative state pretty easily.
My entire body was vibrations. I’d scan from head to foot, foot to head and I’d be aware of sensations — but mostly interpret them as vibrations. It felt like there was magic flowing through my body. I could flow the energy around by moving my awareness. I’d move the energy around, then focus on my fingertips and it felt like I was harnessing The Force. I even tried (a few times) to move things with my mind using telekinesis, but it didn’t work.
When I wasn’t meditating in the hall, I was meditating as I walked, as I ate, and as I lay in bed. I was living and breathing meditation, aware of my every movement, of the touch of the wind, of the sensation of taste as I ate. I felt like Arya Stark seeking to become “no one” in Game of Thrones. It seemed others were in a similar state and we, as a group, possessed a powerful energy. I would love to have been able to see us as an outsider.
There was a small circular walkway near the meditation hall. As evening approached, ~250 of us walked in circles around this, lost in our meditation, not looking at one another. It was like putting a hundred grains of rice in a bowl and slowly stirring.
There were moments on this day when I was able to have awareness of my entire body simultaneously. It’s hard to describe what that’s like, but it was kind of like having a map of my body, where the entire map was filled in with small vibrations. At the beginning of the course, I was so zoomed into the map that I had to look from left to right to see the vibrations, but now I was more zoomed out and could see the whole map and the vibrations at once.
I was focusing on equanimity more than ever before, trying not to crave the vibrations (or any other sensations), while remaining indifferent of anything I had previously considered unpleasant. My legs were no longer in as much pain because I had become more flexible and because all of the ‘pain’ was really just a vibration anyways.
I had conquered Vipassana and found magic. The journey was just beginning and I would be reunited with Danielle soon. Had she gone even deeper into meditation than I had? Was she even still here? I was anxious to talk through everything I was experiencing with her.
The last ‘official’ day. After our normal meditation sessions, we were taught a new meditation technique called Metta, which is a practice of “lovingkindness” and sending positive vibes to the world. Then noble silence was broken and I found Danielle. We cried when we saw each other and it was one of the most powerful reunion experiences I’ve ever had with anyone. After confirming to one another that we were still in love, we talked for an hour about what we had just gone through. Our experiences had some overlap, but also some major differences. As they say in Thailand, it was ‘same same, but different’. While I was one of 7 male westerners, Danielle was actually the only westerner out of ~300 women. She had the same downward spiral that I had on Day 5 and had also felt vibrations all over her body. She’s also writing an article about her experience and I’ll link to it here.
We were celebrities. Now that everyone could talk, I was bombarded by questions from the Indians I had just spent the last 10 days with. They wanted to know where I was from, why in the heck I had come to Igatpuri to learn Vipassana, what I thought of the course and whether I had known I would be eating nothing but Indian food. I was also asked by dozens of people to be in pictures with them and had a line of people at one point. Danielle had it even worse, likely because she was the only white woman at the center and because she’s a blonde. The holy grail was being in a picture with both of us.
We were supposed to stay overnight and leave the next morning, but we convinced our teachers to let us leave that night so we could catch an earlier flight the next day up to Rishikesh, India.
I felt, as I reflected back over the week, that I had discovered a real-life Hogwarts. But instead of spells and flying broomsticks, this Vipassana course taught me how to control my own mind and flow awareness throughout my own body like an electric current. Perhaps it’s possible to exchange energy with other people? I now believe in psychics (reading energy), healers (changing the energy of others for good), and manipulators (changing the energy of others for bad). Perhaps there are other schools that teach these hidden arts.
What You Should Know When Going to Dhamma Giri
- Bring a water bottle — I brought a Hydroflask. There were 3 filtered water stations. At each station, there were a dozen metal cups tied with chains to the wall. These were shared by the entire group — be careful not to let it touch your lips! I never used the cups because, thankfully, I had a water bottle. I drank ~3 liters per day and the water was fine.
- You will constantly get cut in line. This is a cultural thing and, while I found it frustrating at first, I got over it pretty quickly as I began practicing the core Vipassana tenet of equanimity.
- Stretch your legs consistently for a couple weeks before you go. Try sitting crosslegged for an hour straight. If you can do that, you’ll be fine. Most westerners had issues with sitting crosslegged. Many of the Indians that grew up near Igatpuri sit crosslegged at school, so it’s a bit easier for them.
- Grab sitting cushions on day 1, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. They have plenty, but when they run out, they’ll have no sympathy for you.
- If you need a chair, tell them about some injury that makes it necessary. I never did this, but saw others do it. Bonus points if you’re over 50 years old.
- If you’re sitting on your knees with your legs underneath you, be careful when you move. I popped one of my knees on Day 6 and it bothered me the rest of the time.
- For evening lecture, English-speaking students go to a separate room. There aren’t a lot of them and you’ll want to grab a spot next to the wall so you can sit with your back against it.
- The lunches are pretty awesome, the breakfasts are pretty terrible and the ‘dinner’ is actually just yellow rice crispies with corn flakes and peanuts and these fantastic small bananas.
- You should be somewhat familiar with or at least read about Indian food before you go. That way you know what you’d rather avoid. Like this bean curd milk I wish I avoided.
- The chai tea is pretty incredible. I went with a mixture of the sweet and unsweet.
- The women’s section of the meditation center is much smaller than the men’s section, even though it’s roughly the same number of people in each.
- If you’re a male, there is a big circular walking area near the group meditation hall. Walk around this clockwise during your breaks (especially the 5 minutes between meditation sessions). There was a powerful energy when ~250 people in a meditative trance were walking circles around it.
- Westerners get their own rooms. At first the power in my room didn’t seem to work, but there is a master power switch outside that, once flipped, fixed this.
- I brought my own pillow compressed in a massive vacuum bag. It was pretty nice.
- There are big white monkeys that run around the grounds and jump on the buildings, which can be very startling. If you don’t see them your first day, you may think Dhamma Giri is being attacked when they suddenly jump onto the building your inside.
Want to follow us on our journey? Check us out here — www.exploremagic.io!