Vipassana — a comprehensive review
In the 10 days of noble silence I learned a tool that I now apply every day. It pulls me into the present moment and sharpens my intuition. I did not have major personal breakthroughs but I believe this tool can help most people out of inner trouble.
Where I come from
I have never had big issues with anger, depression, or anxiety. However, a major setback in my life last year made me question my own judgement. A good friend told me that “my intuition was good, but you should trust it more”. She said Vipassana would be the sure way to get there.
Sharpening intuition sounded good. I booked the retreat.
Only two months later I was on a bus to Chanthaburi province, Thailand. I left my luggage in Bangkok and traveled light.
The Dhamma organization behind Vipassana is led by Satya Narayan Goenka. It runs on donations and voluntary service. The idea behind this is that you accept what is given to you for free, without expectations of any kind.
I had zero expectations.
I mainly saw it as a challenge. More on that later.
The outside experience
When I got there we were immediately separated by men and women. Only in the mediation hall we were together, but still separated by a long and narrow carpet. We were facing the teacher, eyes closed.
It was actually fun looking to the sides at times. It had something magical sitting in a room with 80 people who are completely silent.
Each attendee had a small hut with bathroom, a chair, and a simple bed. The bed had a comfortably hard mattress, which I liked. No air conditioning was necessary, a fan was enough.
“Simple vegetarian food”
On the website they promise the above, but it was actually much better than simple: we had rice, noodles, vegetarian curries, and sometimes sweet soups. They even provided peanut butter, bread, and coffee.
I would not have needed to get off my coffee addiction, but after all I’m happy about it.
They could also have written “simple vegan”, because I did not spot any dairy or eggs in the food. Anyway, I was surprised it was that good and that plenty: Three meals per day for first-timers, two meals for old students.
Yes, they put old students on an intermittent fasting diet.
Breaking the rules
Supper was at six o’ clock, and bed time at 10. That means going to bed hungry. As an old student this must be worse. I frequently snatched cookies and ate them before going to bed, just to fall asleep easier.
The other forbidden thing I did was do 120 pushups and three planks before lunch every day. My back already got weak in these 10 days, but without this simple exercise it would have been worse.
Walking, as the center recommended it, just did not cut it for me.
Vipassana demands full submission to the technique. This includes 5 precepts that you need to follow, like: no touching, no talking, no sexual activities.
If you watch the video you will see Wout. He ate and meditated next to me, and lived in the next hut. It was quite funny to share so much without checking in how that person is doing, without even eye contact. Learning to look away anytime you meet someone is called “noble silence”.
As weird as this sounds, it really helped calm down the inner chatter. No more “I should have said that”, or “I wonder why she is so quiet today”. All internal noise suddenly focused on myself.
The other attendees
We had roughly 60 women and 20 men. I guess they were running a lot of retreats and just saw more women applying. Looking at the design of the center facilities, it was clear that the women’s area was much larger than the men’s area.
I would have guessed more guys showing up. Just because I know more guys meditating than women. How is your view on this? Please comment!
Here I just copy in the time table from the “code” to make it easier:
- 4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
- 4:30–6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 6:30–8:00 am Breakfast break
- 8:00–9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00–11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
- 11:00–12:00 noon Lunch break
- 12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
- 1:00–2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 2:30–3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
- 3:30–5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
- 5:00–6:00 pm Tea break
- 6:00–7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
- 7:00–8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
- 8:15–9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00–9:30 pm Question time in the hall
- 9:30 pm Retire to your own room — Lights out
I took all group sessions in the meditation hall to stay accountable. I know I would not meditate alone in my room.
The discourse was a video session every evening for 75 minutes
Also, note that the wakeup bell is at 4, but technically you could sleep after that until 6 and then go to breakfast. I did that on the last day. On the other days I would get up at 4, and then take two naps after breakfast and lunch.
This is how we meditated 12 hours per day.
The inside experience
Meditation is only the act of focusing on something and bringing the mind back in case it wanders off. That’s the definition by Dan Harris. His explanation on the Joe Rogan podcast #940 nails it.
I like this definition, as it does not include any achievement or goal. You just keep doing it, and per definition, you are meditating. I encourage you to watch from time stamp 2h 40min where they talk about awareness.
Any pressure to achieve anything distracts from the real goal of just doing it.
The path is the goal.
What makes Vipassana special?
This meditation technique was invented by Siddhartha Gautama — who we call the Buddha (one of many Buddhas I learned). This does not make it inherently better than other techniques, but is shows that it comes from someone who has practiced it his whole life.
The basic principle of Vipassana is to be aware of the sensations in your body. Four days are used to sharpen the senses by focusing on the breath on the nose area.
The other six days are used to feel the sensations throughout the body. Whenever there is a gross sensation or a blind spot, you try to feel more closely, but be unattached to the outcome.
As you go along these blind spots get resolved, and with them the underlying psychological struggle. This way you learn to let go of unpleasant sensations like sadness, anger etc.
How I experienced it
As I wrote above, I did not have anger or sadness in myself, and I consider myself already a happy and (almost) mindful person.
However, one thing was really cool.
Do you know this feeling when you step out of a warm house into a winter day? This prickling, tingling feeling rushing down your spine?
Or when you listen to a song that gives you chills?
In this technique I learned how to produce this feeling within seconds. If I want to pull myself into the present moment, I can do a quick Vipassana meditation (even one minute is enough), and I feel my complete body, I feel the tingling everywhere.
This result is probably specific to me. I have not heard of someone else experiencing this in the same way. If you did Vipassana: please comment here and tell us how it was for you!
What came up during mind wandering
Of course, my mind was producing ideas after ideas. Mostly content for my Blog, but also other business decisions that I deemed important.
I could not write my ideas down.
So I did what every computer does: continuously refresh the memory. Every morning I would go to my list of ideas and every once in a while I added ideas to that list.
In the end I came up with 10 major decisions that I hence implemented in my life. If these were the right decisions — we will see in half a year from now. Remind me to update this article around March 2018.
The unexpected result
Are you familiar with the bad habit of “time traveling”? This is basically just the mind wandering into two bad directions:
- Future: what will I do when I am rich/strong/popular
- Past: if I would have done this X years ago, this is how my life would look right now.
Two bad ways to waste time. Why? Because it is irrelevant. As S.N. Goenka said: the past is gone, so you can’t change it. And the sensations of someone else (or your future self), are irrelevant, because it is not you.
My big breakthrough came on day 4: time traveling was gone.
A sweeping happiness about my past and a complete confidence for the future filled the void. As I write this post two weeks later, that bad habit has not come back, it might have been gone for good.
Back to reality
On the last day we could talk. It was fun, but did not feel weird. It was not the complete relief that other people had. It was more like a nice step back out of serious meditation and sharing ideas.
We cleaned up our huts, packed the things, had a final breakfast, and left the center.
I noticed the mindfulness on the way back. In the car I looked out of the window and noticed the world in a different way.
I saw how everything is going to be okay, no matter what happens.
A calm confidence that everything is alright surrounded my sensations of the present moment.
Is Vipassana for you?
Someone said “Every person should meditate 30 minutes per day. Unless you are very busy, then you need to meditate 1 hour per day”.
I feel the same: if someone is not able to take 10 days completely off, something is not right in their life. Unless you are Elon Musk or Angela Merkel, you should be able to dedicate some time to your mental health.
The other question is: will you get benefits from Vipassana?
If you have more internal struggle than I did: yes, likely.
If you are in deep depression, Vipassana advises not to take it. But if you are not sure how to be happy in any circumstance, I encourage you to give it a try. It is a challenge worth taking. And you get a tool you can use for the rest of your life.
Thanks for reading. Ask me anything I forgot here.