My 10-Day Silent Vipassana Adventure
I participated in my first 10-day, silent Vipassana retreat last week. 10 days of silence?! Meditating for 8 hours a day?! Why the hell would you do that, Sam? I’m giving the experiential junkie in me some space to soar as I take a professional pause and head back to graduate school this Fall. I’ve spent so much time focusing on what I want to do in my 20’s and on the impact I want to have on the world, and so little time investigating who I am and what lights me up. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs,” Howard Thurman urges us, “ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” For me, the silent retreat was an opportunity to turn inward, to use the gifts of silence and meditative reflection to dive deeper into who I am and why I’m here.
Vipassana, (which means to ‘see things as they really are’), is an ancient technique that the Buddha practiced and taught nearly 2500 years ago. It’s a powerful meditative experience that anyone, from any religious sect or cultural background can practice. And it’s a growing movement. In 2017, over 100,000 people will attend a Vipassana retreat in one of ninety-four countries around the world.
Paulo Coelho, the author of the timeless masterpiece, The Alchemist, writes “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary.” It isn’t easy to always practice, but Vipassana’s technique is shockingly simple, and if you immerse yourself and commit to the practice, I am convinced that the impact can be extraordinary.
I spent the first 3 days of the retreat focusing all of my attention on the impact of my breath on the space between my upper lip and nostrils. A bit specific, right? Intentionally so. My mind is so scattered in this wild digital world I subscribe to, (quick, how many likes do I have!? What *breaking news* Trump tweet did I miss?! Should I buy more digital coins I know nothing about on Coin Base??) that it was almost a revolutionary act for me to hone in on something so specific. By attuning my mind to the passing physical sensations that arose on this limited part of my body, I was able to focus deeply on the present moment — on what was happening right now, literally on my face! At times I felt numbness, as if I had just received a shot of Novocaine at the dentist; at others, I felt a tickling sensation as my breath nestled up against the sides of my nostrils. And at times, I felt nothing — that’s perfectly ok too. We engaged in this practice for ~8 hours a day. (Yes, you get breaks for meals and time to walk around the compound!) I felt deeply restless and frustrated for parts of the first few days, as my mind wandered and wandered and my body ached to move. And I felt overcome with joy and inspiration at other times, as thoughts and stories I play over and over like a broken record started to dissipate and a layer of stress started to melt away.
After 3 days of focusing on 3 inches of my face, I was ready to learn the specifics of Vipassana practice. The lectures and meditation sits were taught by S.N Goenka via recording — he led thousands of courses around the world until passing in 2013, and is a brilliant teacher and story-teller. Starting at the top of my head, and continuing to the bottom of my feet, Goenka taught me to focus my entire attention on passing sensations that would arise on my body as I engaged in repeated body scans, up and down, from head to toe, over and over again for hours. The only instructions: simply observe the sensations that arise and notice that they are impermanent, there one minute and gone the next. The itch on my arm might seem unbearable in the moment, but a minute or two later, it’s gone. My heart might be beating uncontrollably as my mind replays an upsetting memory one moment, but if I can simply observe my heart beat, (‘oh, my heart’s beating fast. Cool Hansel’), and bring my attention back to the sensation itself, sooner or later, this sensation will pass. The sensations on my body, after all, are just millions of microscopic, vibrating atoms, constantly moving and re-aligning as I interact with the world around me. (More on the fascinating science behind this practice in an upcoming post :)). And this experience — of observing sensations over and over via body scan — leads to the very simple and transformative thesis of Vipassana. When we begin to attach meaning to our sensations, we develop thought-patterns and stories that we convince ourselves must be true. In turn, these stories begin to control our lives, driving our reactions and often manifesting as addictions. Let me give you two personal examples:
- I used to seriously abuse alcohol. In college I would drink 4+ times a week, often to the point where I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t drink because I liked poisoning my body; I drank because I LOVED the sensation of physical numbness and of cerebral inhibition. I felt so free, so in the moment. And I craved that sensation. If I wanted more of that feeling, why — I could just grab a few more drinks!
- Loving myself is a battle I often fight; when I accomplish something, it’s never quite good enough; or when someone shows me love and affection, I struggle to trust that love. And I collect data points all the time to give these stories life. I attach meaning to the most trivial details in my relationship with my girlfriend, for instance, and push away when I feel that unsettling, burning sensation in my heart, a feeling I’ve become accustomed to over the years. I feel an immediate aversion to that sensation, attach meaning to it, “I was right. She doesn’t love me,” and shut down or take action to protect myself.
These cravings, these aversions, these stories I create to explain away the sensations I feel, control so much of my head-space. And so often I don’t even realize it! That, to me, is the power of Vipassana. What if I could observe that unsettling sensation in my heart and accept that it is an impermanent sensation that will pass? What would open up for me if I could simply observe the sensation without attaching a meaning or story to it? As the retreat continued, I began to experience what it felt like to detach my bodily sensations from my overthinking mind. How freeing! How revolutionary!
So, the skeptic in me asks — is that the answer, Sam — just observe and don’t react? What if someone wrongs me? Or if I experience a moment of ecstatic happiness and want to jump with joy? I’m not advocating passivity; it’s important to me that’s clear. I want to be ravished by love and sickened by sadness; I want to pulsate with anger and glow with joy, AND I want to always remember that these are passing sensations, and that I, and only I, have the power to decide what kind of meaning I attach to them. “The only thing that is capital T true,” David Foster Wallace writes, “is that YOU get to decide.”
I practice how I play, and it is my highest hope that as I continue to practice Vipassana during my daily morning sits, these behaviors will begin to show up in my every day interactions with myself and with others. When my shoulders sink and my head hurts with sadness, instead of creating a story about my life and falling deeper into the abyss, I know that I will observe these sensations, sit with them and then observe them pass — perhaps slowly, but ultimately pass. When someone says something that makes my skin boil or heart race, I’ll always aspire to observe my anger and then approach the situation from a place of equilibrium and clarity. I’m only at the beginning of this life-long journey, but after 10-days of sitting with myself, it’s clear to me just how transformative this simple, extraordinary practice could be in my life. I’m so excited to jump in; let me know if you’d like to join :)
P.S: Many of you have asked what I’ve been reading recently. Two books I highly recommend! Many Lives, Many Masters, by the incredibly thoughtful, brilliant psychiatrist, Brian Weiss and Conversations with God, by the philosopher Neale Walsch. Yalla!