Earlier this year, a friend (N) sent me a link to a meditation technique he’d come across called Vipassana. At the time, I was just starting to focus on meditation a little more heavily, but with no specific technique in mind. Simple enough, I’d sit for 20–30 minutes each day and watch my breath. The benefits were clear: after each sit, I’d have a clearer mind, find myself more focused, and be generally more upbeat. Talking with N, I learned that the Vipassana technique was taught through a silent, 10-day retreat. Curious, I applied and was invited to a retreat near my home in Chicago that just took place over the past week and a half.

The course was fairly rigorous. Each day started at 4am and ran until about 9pm. For ten days, I along with 40–50 other people were not allowed to talk to each other. Individually, we were not allowed to have any electronics, books, notebooks, etc. The purpose of this is to give you an environment where nothing can disturb your mind and your focus is solely on meditation (all meals are prepared for you as well). The only exception to this rule was the ability to speak briefly with the assistant teacher after lunch each day. For the first day or two this was strange, but eventually you learn to enjoy the silence.

Positioned on an old farm out in the Illinois country, the facility I attended (formally known as Dhamma Pakasa) is a perfect setting for existing between meditations. One of the things the silence revealed to me was all of the life around me. The pond near the meditation hall was filled with frogs that I enjoyed playing with in-between sits. I accidentally found out that if you walked along the edge, the younger frogs would leap into the pond and let out a little yipping (discontent?) noise. Caterpillars wiggled down sidewalks and I’d help them into trees. I even let a spider crawl on my arm (I’m not a fan of spiders) and find its way to a blade of grass [1]. While being out in nature was a nice change of pace, what really caught my attention was the Vipassana meditation technique itself.

For the first three days of the course, you don’t practice Vipassana, but instead, Anapana. Anapana is based on sitting with your eyes closed and watching your breath as it enters and exits the area around your nose and upper lip. It was explained on day four that starting with Anapana was essential in quieting the mind. Rightfully so, for the first three days my meditations were fairly fruitless as my mind ran rampant with bits like “I have to buy paper towels…oh, she’s cute…did I lock the back door?” Once you complete Anapana and get your mind a bit quieter, you’re taught Vipassana.

Vipassana differs from Anapana in that it’s focused on the entire body as opposed to a central area. Where Vipassana succeeds is in teaching you to focus on the sensations in your body — a tickle on your nose or a pain in your leg — and instead of reacting to them (scratching or stretching), you observe them. Using a scanning technique starting at the top of the head and continuing to the feet, you watch how throughout your entire body, all the time, there are little sensations that rise and fall away. While it alluded me for a bit, the point audibly and internally became clear: everything is impermanent (Anicca). From the tiniest tickle to the most focus-shattering pain, nothing is permanent. More importantly, the technique indirectly teaches you that we as humans have the capacity to control when and what we react to in our lives entirely. You don’t have to scratch the itch.

Where things got really interesting is when we practiced Adhiṭṭhāna or strong determination sitting. Where in the other sits it was acceptable to move around and adjust your posture, in Adhiṭṭhāna, unless you absolutely cannot you’re asked to stay in your starting posture, eyes closed for an hour straight. Throughout the course, I struggled with a sharp pain in my right knee. Up until the 9th day, I would stretch my leg out during Adhiṭṭhāna until something clicked: sit through the pain, that’s the point. Observe it and see if you can make it. Sure enough, I made it an entire hour (and repeated it over three more sits). Coming out of that sit, I walked outside and was in a state of utter bliss. Funny enough, my knee didn’t even hurt once I stood up. I wanted to tell someone how the experience felt but I couldn’t!

Fortunately, I got a chance to run my mouth before we parted ways. After the morning meditation on the tenth day, students are allowed to start speaking to one another. In less than 24 hours, silent faces turned into folks from a wide variety of life-paths: the military sax player, the young fellow who could give you a run down on the experience (and acquisition) of psychedelic drugs like a pro, the fellow music geek who reminded me of A Goofy Movie, and — my favorite — the older German engineer who was responsible for designing the transmission systems (and accompanying factory implementation) in the F-series Ford trucks (N).

Just before N left breakfast this morning as we were finishing the course, he stopped to say goodbye and said something to me (we developed a rapport discussing quality control and the Six Sigma process): “you can either spend your life on the externals or the internals. A lot of people spend their life on the externals and are never happy. Don’t waste your life on this stuff (gesturing to my recently returned cell phone).” It was a wonderful cap on the retreat.

Vipassana is one of those rare things in the world that sounds utterly ridiculous in theory but proves wildly fruitful in practice. For the first time in my entire life, I am completely at peace and happy. Everything has a brightness and glow that I’ve never experienced before. I highly recommend finding ten days (they go quicker than you’d think) and investing in learning to quiet and control your mind. It’s purely experiential, so don’t take the above as what you’ll personally get out of it.

Bhavatu sabba mangalam.

[1] Yes, this is an appropriate time to call me a hippie.

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