There comes a time in a man’s life when one is ought to seek enlightenment™ by the means of sitting in excruciating asanas for a mind-numbing number of hours. That’s how I found myself in a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, where for the whole duration of the course I maintained complete silence, abstained from all kind of entertainment and did nothing but sleep, eat light vegan food and meditated for at least 10 hours a day.
As you can imagine the most important part of this experience is not what you do while staying in the retreat but how you apply the techniques in the real life, namely by telling your every encounter that you just attended a meditation retreat and preferably post about on social media. Course instructors obviously don’t guide you to do such things, but this is obviously due to the lack of Buddahood they have accumulated. A truly liberated™ person would possess the following wisdom: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. From this one can easily deduce that if you don’t tell every single person you meet about your meditation practice regardless of their absolute indifference toward the topic, you might as well haven’t done it at all.
On a more serious note, here are the reasons why I wanted to give the practice a fair try:
* To disconnect from the Online. Naturally, I’m used to spend a lot of time in front of my laptop and consistently stay connected via a mobile phone, which becomes a major source of distraction in my everyday life.
* Overall decompression from overstimulation (plain no-nonsense diet, lack of any “input” from the outside world (you stay isolated from the rest of the world for the duration of the course)
* Improve my ability to focus and generally improve the clarity of thinking
* Challenge. Before I started I suspected that the major challenge would be to stay silent and keep to myself for such a long period of time. I was concerned that my obsessive patterns of thinking would give me a serious abuse, and I would have to fight it.
The course was taking place in a remote suburban location, which was not as tranquil as one would expect from a meditation center — surrounding restaurants produced quite a lot of vibrant Latin rhythms during the weekend and insistently kept introducing me to the fascinating world of the popular modern pop hits.
On the check-in of the course, you surrender all of your personal posessions, except for the basic necessities like toiletries and clothing. You are not allowed to bring any food either. Essentially you temporarily renounce your worldly possessions and become a monk — for 10 days.
On the first day, I realized that I haven’t really given much thought on what exactly I’ve signed up for, feeling more like a prisoner. When it comes to the activities available throughout the day there was not much of variety indeed: 1-hour meditation sessions mixed with 1.5-hour sessions mixed with a 1.5 hours sessions of… meditation, split by 5-minute breaks and occasional 1-hour break. Just as advertised, there was nothing else but meditation and everything was tailored towards an intense introspective experience. It was even advised not to communicate with other meditators using gestures and avoid eye contact.
The Vipassana meditation technique is quite simple when it comes to the instructions: you need to merely stay aware of the sensations in your own body, and observe them with equanimity, i.e. without a feeling of aversion or craving towards unpleasant or pleasant sensations. As you imagine it was much harder to actually follow the technique and not react to the sensation of pain which was bound to appear after sitting still in such uncomfortable positions for a prolonged time. The way it’s justified in the technique was that any sensation is impermanent in its nature, and eventually will pass.
Besides the obvious mental challenge of being left alone with your own thoughts (or the lack of such), it wasn’t quite a walk in the park to sit in a lotus pose for hours at a time, including three 1-hour sessions when you are not to move even slightly. The first day I had an excruciating pain in my knees, which surprisingly would go away on the second day. I also tried to meditate in a chair which was much more comfortable, but eventually didn’t allow me to focus as well as sitting on the floored cushion, especially during the early 4 am sessions when I literally drifted into the unconsciousness fairly consistently.
Thanks to my vocation (programming), I considered myself to have a reasonable ability to focus and have a decent mental capacity of concentration. Little I knew that this attitude applies only to the thinking process, I was not at all used to focus on the sensations of my own body instead. To test your own ability, try it for yourself — and see how soon a thought arises. Unless you are an experienced meditator, you’d probably won’t last longer than a minute.
The technique is being claimed to be purely scientific, secular and free from dogma, rites, and rituals. Personally, I have certain reservations about such statements.
You can trace its roots to the Buddhist tradition, and ultimately its goal is to liberate yourself from suffering by practicing non-attachment. Almost every meditation session is started and ended by chanting in ancient Pali language, and at the end of the ceremony some of the participants chant in as well to acknowledge their support of the practice.
Most of the instructions, as well as the discourses, are accompanied by some sort of lectures, which get alarmingly repetitive and insistingly suggestive after a while. For example one of the most popular arguments to justify the technique which was iterated over and over again was that the practice is logical, scientific and doesn’t require blind belief. It was claimed that by examining your own body, you can see the “true nature of reality”. This axiom was used as a foundation of the logical deductions followed, i.e. that everything in this world is impermanent in its nature, just like the sensations that you directly experience in your own body.
The problem with this claim is that the assumption that your mind can objectively observe your own body is questionable at the very least. If anything the mind is inherently a subjective lens of reality, they way your perceive things might not constitute the objective reality. But let us not indulge in this philosophical discourse any further, and leave that to philosophers.
Overall a lot of those lectures and discourses felt like brainwashing focused on committing you to the “ultimate and the only right path to the Truth and Liberation from the Misery and Ignorance”, and at some point, they started to create way too much of the overhead to the meditation practice itself.
Due to the concerns raised above, I’m not sure if I would maintain this specific meditation traction, but I’d definitely try to meditate for 15 minutes a day. There a vast body of scientific research available supporting the benefits of meditation. It has been shown that besides reducing stress levels, it can alleviate and mitigate depression and anxiety which according to some research is related to hyperconnectivity in Default Mode Network (DMN).
From my personal observations attending the meditation retreat, I find that I now have an improved clarity of mind and ability to focus, as well as a piece of mind caused by reduced background thinking.
From my own experience, I learned to use thinking as a tool for problem-solving, one must be cautious not to become the victim of his own obsessive thought patterns. One can’t control the world around and escape misfortune, but I think that one can master your own mind in a way that would lead to a living a happier life.
There is some truth that true happiness lies within. You are tricked to think that by accumulating positive experiences, one day you’d live an American Dream™ which would lead to happiness, but this is all bullshit. Eventually, once you get the thing which you think would make you happy, you’d invent another one to crave for and the cycle continues. This makes a lot of sense logically, but in the society we live in the prevailing narrative is that you need to have more, to get something which will make you complete, which I believe is at least partially influenced by manipulative marketing telling the story that you need to acquire a certain object or experience to “become” happy which is merely a tool to increases sales for a business.
Anyway, I’m not here to promote my personal philosophy, or even encourage anyone to try meditation (be that Vipassana, or any other type). But I would encourage you to do the opposite and find your own truth, the answers might lie within :)