What 4,300 hours of meditation has taught me
I started meditating consistently in the summer of 2001. I had just finished developing the first Microsoft Xbox, and I literally sat with my feet on my desk. I should have felt proud and satisfied. I had a beautiful, big, brand-new house in Silicon Valley, and an Audi and a Porsche. I was a multi-millionaire and had more money than I knew what to do with.
Sitting there in my office, I noticed that I couldn’t relax. I felt dissatisfied and anxious, and I had no idea why. Shortly afterwards, at my 27th birthday party, I drunkenly walked from guest to guest asking people what the meaning of life was. One response that stands out in my memory was from a friend named Jing; I’m proud to tell you that Jing created gmail. Jing said, “Never own a house that’s too big to hold all of your friends.” (see note at end)
Finally, I turned the camera on myself, and somewhere there is a DV tape-recording of me slurring the words, “The purpose of life is to become enlightened. There are fourteen steps to enlightenment. The first step is to realize that you want to be enlightened, and the last steps is to become enlightened.”
I have been interested in introspection since I was a kid. I remember at about age seven picking up a ragged book on meditation that was in the stack of books next to our toilet. The book was about Transcendental Meditation. As I read it, I remember thinking that it seemed too complicated. I had the impression that meditation was supposed to be simple, but this book was filled with a very complex philosophy. One of the key points that the book stressed was that the one needed a guru. So I went to my mum and asked her where I could find a guru. She suggested looking in the Yellow Pages under “G for guru.” I went and looked, but of course I found nothing.
At around age eight, I had the idea that if I could make one eye look directly into the other eye, and that if I did that for a while, the recursive cycle would cause me to enter an ecstatic state. I searched around the house for pieces of mirror and lenses that I could use to create such a device. I kept stopping and questioning myself: part of me believed that it would work, and another part of me was skeptical and thought that it was a silly idea. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find the materials, and I didn’t have the tools or knowledge to make the device. In various different contexts, the tension between these two parts of myself — the visionary and the skeptic — has resurfaced repeatedly in my life.
During my undergraduate degree, I trained in Tae Kwon Do, and I now understand that the training contained elements that were meditative, including focusing of the mind, and increased embodied awareness. I also learned to juggle, which requires a high level of mental focus and control.
When I graduated and started working, I was clearly searching for spiritual meaning, and I read the Bible from cover to cover while on a business trip to California. I remember forcing myself to read every mind-numbing word about who begat who in the Book of Genesis. I particularly enjoyed the Book of Proverbs, which is a book of wisdom, and parts of the Book of Psalms, which is a book of poetic devotion. I also forced myself to read a thick book on Tibetan Buddhism, which I found to be strangely complex and cognitive. I didn’t find what I was looking for — a practical technique — in either contemporary Christianity or in Tibetan Buddhism.
Nevertheless, I seem to have been meditating. I remember going running at lunchtime in Bristol in the UK. I learned to proactively control my breath by taking long, slow, deep breaths, which prevented me from getting out of breath and needing to pant. In hindsight, I realize that this was a form of breath control meditation, known as pranayama in Sanskrit. “Prana” means energy and “yama” means to control.
I also believe — although I don’t think that there is objective evidence for this yet— that running tends to help integrate trauma, leading to increased balance of the mind. It does this by activating and completing the flight response to traumatic experiences, and also by alternately stimulating the two sides of the thalamus (as in EMDR therapy), which helps to thoroughly integrate and finally store traumatic experiences as memories. Before integration, these traumatic experiences are captured as mostly disjoint neural configurations in different areas of the brain.
After running, I used to sit and meditate on the grass — with the ducks and geese — next to a lake in the business park where I worked. I witnessed the breath in my nostrils for fifteen minutes per day. I don’t understand how I knew to do that, because it’s something I learned later in life. This practice is called ānāpānasati in Pali. “Sati” means mindfulness and “ānāpāna” means inhalation and exhalation.
Now let’s travel forward again to 2001, to the completion of Xbox, and to my feet on my desk and anxiety in my mind. Shortly after my the birthday party where I drunkenly realized my need for enlightenment, I was at the gym where I worked-out when saw an advert for a meditation seminar, a seminar which I attended. The seminar was taught be a man-woman couple. The woman taught a breath witnessing technique called hong-sau, which is similar to ānāpānasati except that you mentally say “hong” on the inhalation and “sau” on the exhalation. I found that this immediately calmed my mind. The man talked philosophy, and told us that stress is caused by the difference between the way things are and the way we want them to be. He said that we can reduce stress either by changing the way things are (externally) or by changing ourselves (internally). This made a lot of sense to me.
I started practicing this hong-sau meditation technique for fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes in the evening. My anxiety decreased and my contentment increased. I was promoted to management at work. My personality changed and I became more authentic and better able to advocate for myself, including becoming aware of when I felt hurt, and becoming more able to express that. This ultimately led to the relationship with my wife breaking down, and to divorce: I changed, and so we became incompatible.
After four months of practicing hong-sau, around Christmas of 2001, I had some life-changing experiences in meditation. My awareness became so focussed that it was able to temporarily pierce the veil of delusion and directly experience the fundamental nature of reality. I’ve tried to write about this before, and it’s very hard to explain with words. In a nutshell, there is truly only one thing that exists. This is sometimes called non-duality, and also what some mystics call God. Everything that is experienced is actually an expression of this underlying non-dual reality, except that in our normal experience of duality opposites appear to be separate and contrasting; opposites appear to be in conflict with each other. In reality, everything cancels through time and space into an indescribable perfection, which can always be experienced here and now. This is the experience that my eight-year-old self was anticipating as he dreamed of making the eye-gazing contraption. It may be that the device was a metaphor for the process of awareness becoming aware of itself in a recursive loop.
After these experiences, I discovered that I had a profound and alternative understanding of many scriptural texts, because they often reference this non-dual reality, a reality that can only truly be understood through direct experience. I also found myself confused and trapped in this body, in this reality, unable to return at-will to the direct experience of our true nature. I have been going through a process of integration of these experiences over the past sixteen years.
I discovered the spiritual group that the seminar teachers were part of. They were devotees of Paramahansa Yogananda, one of the main teachers who, in the 1920s, brought meditation to the USA from India. I learned the technique of Kriya Yoga as taught by Yogananda, and I practiced it for up to four hours per day.
I had many intense experiences, which some people might consider spiritual. One time, I was driving home in my Porsche (I think it’s funny that I was driving a Porsche), while witnessing my natural breath. I looked to the side, and saw a piece of litter by the side of the road. Usually, seeing litter would bother me; I would internally fret about the inconsiderate nature of people. Instead, in this instance, I became overwhelmed by the perfection of not just this piece of litter, its qualities and its placement, but by the perfection of everything in the universe. I was instantly not only aware of the whole of reality but also perceiving it all as perfect.
Another time, I woke up inside a dream. In the dream, I was witnessing a galaxy when I realized that I was dreaming and became aware that the galaxy was inside of me. There was an overwhelming sense of enormousness and power. I was in awe of what it means to contain galaxies. To be such a small creature, yet to be made of everything; to contain countless universes. The power of the energy flowing through my spine felt so great that it could rip me to pieces, like I was being flossed by a galactic-sized pipe-cleaner. Reflecting on this now, this experience shares a quality with the fundamental nature of reality: that too is infinitely large, yet is contained within these small beings. Note that it’s one thing for the cognitive mind to try to conceive of infinity, and it’s another thing entirely to experience infinity directly by knowing it inside yourself.
I have a very complex and unusual life-story, which you can read about in other articles, articles already written, and articles that will be written. For now, I’m going to jump to 2011. At this point I had been practicing Kriya Yoga for ten years, and accrued at least 2,000 hours of meditation experience. I had been hearing about the 10-day Vipassana retreats taught by S. N. Goenka, and finally went to my first one.
Before going to my first 10-day, I thought that I was special, that I was some kind of mystic or guru. I thought that I had some great purpose in this life. Somewhere in the depth of my mind, I thought that I was some kind of messiah, and that my purpose was to somehow help other people. What I discovered on this first 10-day retreat was the depth and breath of my suffering. I came to understand what it really means to be a human, and I understood experientially how and I why I am trapped inside this body. I got a relatively clear perception of the moment-to-moment suffering that my mind inflicted upon itself in its struggle to have reality be other than it is. It was overwhelming to become conscious of the intensity, depth, and persistence of my unconscious mind’s arduous struggle with reality, it’s rejection of things evaluated as unfavorable and it’s grasping after things evaluated as favorable. Who am I to think I can help anyone when I am so totally lost in delusion and suffering?
I discovered that I’m just a regular human, and a pretty broken one at that. Like all humans, my mind is broken, but I’ve gradually come to appreciate how beautifully broken it is. This is actually part of the path: to increase equanimity not just for the favorable and unfavorable circumstances by increasing equanimity for the sensations that they invoke in the mind-body, but also to increase equanimity for the non-adaptive nature of the unconditioned mind and how adorably it struggles with reality.
So, by practicing what Buddha taught, I came to understand his first noble truth: that life is suffering. More specifically, the nature of the untrained mind is suffering, and suffering begets more suffering, creating an endless loop of experiencing the delusion of being, from moment-to-moment, in this life, and perpetuating it from life-to-life. Paradoxically, the way out of this trap is to develop equanimity not only for the trap itself, but for our foolishness in staying trapped. Also, paradoxically, freedom from this trap is annihilation of the very entity that seeks freedom.
The reality is that my wife Cindy and I are gurus (teachers), but we’re only gurus to the extent that we embrace our normal humanity, and dedicate our lives to the process of being regular humans and supporting others in doing the same. We are only teachers to the extent that we meditate and practice what we advocate. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that I’m some kind of perfected guru and then use that as a defense against further learning, growth, integration, and truth. We know of so many so-called teachers or gurus who are, in reality and secretly, far less functional than the average person; it’s the guru defense, and most gurus suffer from it.
I just got back from my fourth ten-day Vipassana retreat. For the first nine days of the retreat, you don’t talk with anyone, acting as if you are there alone, making no eye contact, and not even gesturing to others. On the tenth day, you can talk to others; and a lot of talking happens on day ten. The daily schedule looks like this (I now know this schedule by heart):
- 4:00 Wake
- 4:30–6:30 Meditate (2 hours)
- 6:30–8:00 Breakfast
- 8:00–11:00 Meditate (3 hours)
- 11:00–1:00 Lunch
- 1:00–5:00 Meditate (4 hours)
- 5:00–6:00 Break (no food for old students)
- 6:00–9:00 Meditate and discourse from teacher (1.5 hours of meditation)
- 9:30 Sleep
So you meditate for about 10.5 hours per day, which amounts to over 100 hours during the ten-day retreat. This is industrial-strength meditation training, and is apparently the format that Buddha used to teach Vipassana, and the format that has been used for thousands of years to teach Vipassana. The process needs to be this intense in order to overcome the enormous amount of momentum we have in our everyday lives. It takes this much effort to become skilled and practiced enough in the technique to be able to bring it home and use it, day-to-day, in everyday life.
I’ve been practicing Vipassana since late 2011, and meditating at home for between one and two hours per day since late 2015. I estimate that I’ve practiced Vipassana for over 2,300 hours. Overall I estimate that I’ve now meditated for over 4,300 hours in my lifetime. Here are some additional things that I have learned from all that meditation:
The only thing we can control is our attention
We can’t control the external circumstances of the world. We can’t control our bodies. We can’t control our thoughts. We can’t control our emotions. Everything that happens to us, and that we do, is the result of our unconscious mind reacting, and to circumstances arising in order to invoke reactions from our unconscious mind. The only thing we have control over is where we place our attention. This is because the only thing that really exists is our attention, and it’s what we are. By directing our attention to the core of our delusion, we can use it to untie the knots of delusion which bind us, and free ourselves from this self-imposed prison of suffering.
We are 100% responsible for our contentment
Whether we are happy or unhappy, content or discontent, is the result of a process inside our minds. The default program that our unconscious mind is running is designed to cause us to suffer. It does this by continually reacting to reality, to the sensations that reality invokes inside our bodies. Not only that, but our unconscious patterning tells us that we are unhappy and suffering, or needing to acquire something, because of external circumstances. There is in fact absolutely zero necessity for suffering, under any circumstances.
We are 100% responsible for our circumstances
Everything we experience is created by our past thoughts. To experience different circumstances, we must think different thoughts. Our thoughts are a result of the purity of our mind, which is a function of how we direct our attention. By skillful direction of attention, we can purify the mind, which will lead to more adaptive thinking, and therefore more favorable circumstances. Meanwhile, paradoxically, as the mind is purified — and retrained to not react to reality — whatever circumstances we find ourselves in are increasingly experienced as optimal.
Everyone else is suffering too
As we come to experientially understand our true nature, and the real cause of our suffering, it becomes very clear what drives people to behave the way they do. This leads to dysfunctional behavior from others being seen not as a personal attack but as an expression of delusion. They don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t yet understand how their actions are harmful to themselves. They’re choosing the best item on their menu of behavioral options.
It becomes much easier to feel compassion for even the most heinous of perpetrators. This doesn’t lead to allowing abuse; in fact, one is able to more powerfully prevent harm coming to the innocent, because the real issues can be faced head-on.
In situations where there is an abuser and a victim, compassion naturally arises for both the abuser and the victim, and sometimes even more so for the abuser; they are unwittingly harming both themselves and the victim. This change in perspective leads to the cycle of victim-perpetrator-savior being broken because we don’t automatically take on the role of savior, just as we don’t automatically take on the role of either the victim or the perpetrator.
Meditation is the most effective use of time
I have experienced many revelations during or after meditation sessions that led to massive reductions in effort in achieving goals. It’s one thing to drive to achieve something, but it’s a whole other level of effectiveness to spend that energy striving for the right thing. Effective and right use of effort is something that requires time for incubation and disconnection. Not only that, but the purification of the mind that comes from Vipassana practice, and the development of the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, leads to a clarity of vision that is an unparalleled asset in decision-making.
Relationships are extremely valuable to me
In my drive to be productive and effective, I often forget about the value of my social and family connections. Because meditation brings my awareness back to the reality of my human being, I become acutely aware of the true value of the people that I love. I am reminded of how important these “soft” assets are to me: the people and the relationships. I often reach out to and connect with many people following ten-day retreats, and the amount of time that I socialize seems to be correlated with the amount of time that I meditate.
My suffering is not what it seems to be
At this last retreat, I realized that there is a very similar pattern to my experiences at retreats. I have always gone through a period of feeling down, regretful, and anxious. This is in contrast to what many others experience: bouts of anger. At least until now, I don’t seem to have struggled with a large number of mental impurities related to anger. I realized that the water I swim in is colored with sadness, regret, and anxiety. I didn’t used to even think of those states as mental impurities. Like most people, I thought that my modes of suffering where ways that I was a victim to life, that these were externally imposed by my circumstances and history. This past retreat, I understood, even more deeply than before, that these are just non-adaptive mental habits that I have unconsciously perpetuated. By returning to the Vipassana technique, I was able to release these layers of impurities and come through into more clarity.
This article should have given you a glimpse into the mind of a long-term meditator. If you meditate a lot yourself, perhaps what I have written is validating or comforting, or perhaps even challenging. Thanks for reading, and please remember to give this article some claps, and to subscribe to my profile here on Medium, if you have not already done so.
Vipassana vs Kriya Yoga (optional read)
I have realized, while writing this article, some differences and similarities between Vipassana and Kriya Yoga (and other practices), which might be interesting to you if you are familiar with both. If that’s not you, then you might want to skip this section.
Vipassana Ānāpānasati vs Kriya Yoga Hong-Sau
The only difference between hong-sau and ānāpānasati, is, as already mentioned, that in hong-sau the word “hong” is said mentally on the inhalation, and “sau” (pronounced like “saw”) is said mentally on the exhalation. For the ānāpānasati practice of Vipassana, Buddha specifically directs you to not mentally verbalize anything, whether words, as with the mantra word of Transcendental Meditation or the hong-sau of Kriya Yoga, or even counting, as in the Zazen (Zen Meditation).
S. N. Goenka explains the reason for this: mental verbalization aids in concentrating the mind, but it distracts the concentration of the mind from the bare breath and onto the mental object, whether that’s a word or an internal image. The result is that the mind does not achieve what Buddha calls sama-samadhi, right concentration or wise concentration.
It’s critical in Vipassana that the mind becomes concentrated on the actual reality from moment-to-moment, with experience of the breath or the subtle body sensations, and not the sense objects, such as a thought (e.g. “hong”, “sau”, or counting) or even something seen or heard — some meditation practices involve looking at a candle or listening to a bell.
Vipassana Whole-Body Vedanā Witnessing vs Kriya Yoga Spinal Traversal
As I said earlier, Kriya Yoga is a type of pranayama, or energy control, practice. The energy is moved up and down the spine by controlling the breath. It took me a long time to realize, or to discover, that you’re not supposed to try to move the energy in the spine using the mind (in fact, you can’t). The intention is to move the energy by controlling the breath, and then to witness the resulting sensations in the spine. You’re essentially consciously breathing like a liberated person, with a breath pattern that it as smooth and continuous as possible — which means less fettered by mental impurities — and then witnessing the resulting spinal energy blockages that are encountered by the flow of energy up and down the spine.
The blockages are ultimately dissipated, and the unconscious mind purified, to the extent that the spinal sensations are witnessed accurately and not reacted to, or held in equanimity. Since I’m not a master of Kriya Yoga, I don’t know to what extent, if at all, mental impurities as removed by forcing energy through the impurities with the breath.
It’s actually very challenging for most people to feel subtle energy sensations in the spine, so most of the time is spent imaging sensations. I spent a lot of time being confused when I was doing Kriya Yoga, not knowing if I was doing it right.
In Vipassana, as taught by S. N. Goenka, there is a progression from gross to subtle sensations, and from sensations in specific locations in the body to whole-body and to whole-spine sensations. The path that Buddha laid out is progressive, with very clearly defined and experienceable waypoints. You start by increasing mental sharpness using awareness of the sensations of the breath in the nostrils, then progress to sensations on the upper-lip. Then you learn to scan the surface of the body, becoming aware of and experiencing progressively subtle sensations on the surface of the body, and developing equanimity for both the gross, unpleasant sensations and the subtle, pleasant sensations.
Once you have 100% coverage of the surface of the body, you start to move awareness into the interior of the body, scanning three-dimensionally. As that process of increasing awareness and equanimity develops, the nature of the mind-body becomes increasingly clearly experienced, both in its totality (all at once) and in its subtlety (down to the finest level). The mind-body, the self, is repeatedly experienced in dissolution, as non I-referenced is-ness. Once the mind had been purified to a certain level, which is both obtained by, and marked by, sufficient levels of both awareness and equanimity, the spinal column is entered and scanned.
Therefore, as the path of Buddha is traversed, it naturally and automatically begins to look more and more like the spinal traversal of Kriya Yoga, except that in Vipassana you don’t control the breath. Instead, in Vipassana, the entire mind-body is scanned, across all levels, in one natural breath.
I have found that Vipassana is easier to make clearly defined progress in, and, since it doesn’t involve pranayama, is characterized by a deeper level of being with where we’re at. In Vipassana, we settle into what is actually true right now, and any progress is made from there. The whole process is one of discovering and accepting reality, as opposed to changing it.
A follow-up note about the quote from Jing: “Never own a house that’s too big to hold all of your friends.” I just realized that this quote is incorrect; it doesn’t even make logical sense. In fact, I think that he might have said, “Never buy a house that’s big enough to hold all of your friends.” At the time of writing this follow-up note, the original quote had been highlighted at least ten times. I didn’t want to edit the quote, and lose the highlights.
A part of this article is quoted and discussed in the book Persistence is Futile.