At the start of last month, I quit my job.
Something you’ll quickly learn in such a situation: you have a lot of time on your hands. Combine that with a scarcity of responsibility — and I thought what the hell. Let’s go try a silent meditation retreat.
With not much more of an understanding than that, I embarked upon ten days of silence at a Vipassana meditation center.
I thought it was going to be ten days of unplugging and zenning out. It didn’t take long before I realized that’s not quite what I had just signed up for.
If you ever decide to do something similar, you’ll arrive at the center in the afternoon of “Day Zero.” Everyone assembles and some ground rules are laid out. The sexes are separated; the timetable is shared (wake up at 4am, upwards of 10 hours of meditation a day; lights out at 10pm); and the concept of “noble silence” is introduced. Despite it being a silent meditation course, there is actually talking that takes place — you receive instruction over the course of the ten days, and if you have problems or questions you are free to either ask the instructors or the assistants. Beyond this, however, it’s not just that you’re not meant to talk.
You’re meant to pretend that you’re the only person there.
The first few days aren’t spent learning Vipassana at all, but rather a different meditation technique: one known as Anapana. This has you focus on the breath, and the sensations that arise from breathing in and breathing out. The aim is two-fold: to prepare you to focus your mind for an extended period of time, but also to sharpen your mind to detect sensations on the body in a very limited area.
At the conclusion of each day, a discourse is given (via video recording) by a Vipassana Master of the name SN Goenka. I won’t lie — the discourses at the conclusion of each day were something that I began to look forward to immensely. It wasn’t just that they demarcated the successful completion of another day (you made it!), but to put it simply, Goenka is one hell of a teacher.
Watching these discourses, it soon becomes clear that he knows the material backwards. His ability to traverse nested lists of complicated concepts with ease was absolutely breathtaking. He combines a clear concern for the well-being of those he’s teaching, with a charismatic presence that shines through even over video.
And for a meditation teacher, he sure has a wicked sense of humor.
Goenka’s own story only adds credence to what you learn. In some of the discourses, he’ll share snippets of the path he took to Vipassana — being born into a successful business family, and into a very different spiritual tradition to Buddhism. His background also informs how he teaches the course. It’s designed to be accessible to us folks whom he terms “householders”, as he once was. Everything that’s taught is workable for those of us who haven’t decided to focus our lives entirely on meditation (i.e. as monks or nuns). Similarly, you don’t need to be a Buddhist to benefit from the course; in fact, pains are made to extend the technique without any of the Buddhist spiritual underpinnings for those of different faiths (though you may have to endure an occasional humorous jab during the discourses).
More than this, however, what I soon came to appreciate about the teaching was how pragmatic it is, and the extent to which you’re responsible for your own success or failure. Underpinning many religions is the belief that the benefit for doing the right thing will accrue to you in the afterlife. And if you’re struggling, don’t worry, there’s a higher power who you can call upon to give you a hand.
This isn’t how Vipassana works. The benefit you get isn’t for later; it’s immediate, here, for right now. It’s also made clear in the training that there are no short cuts to be had in terms of the hard work that you need to do: you’re there to learn how to practice the technique. Once you have the technique, it’s on you to put in the work in to get the results you want. No one else can do it for you. And it’s not going to be easy.
In fact, you soon learn that Vipassana is downright hard — especially to begin with.
It’s on Day 4 that this realization will strike, when you switch away from Anapana meditation. While you’re still breathing (hopefully), when you start Vipassana, the breath is no longer the object of the meditation.
Explaining why this shift takes place requires a little bit of context.
Like a lot of different religions and philosophies, the Buddhist tradition believes that the root of all suffering stems from one thing: attachment. Attachment to the the desire to have (craving) and attachment to the desire to not have (aversion). This probably isn’t news to you; most of us have heard some version of it before. Typically, however, it’s delivered more like this:
Intellectually you understand what is being communicated — and when delivered in a particularly powerful format, perhaps you will even grasp the idea emotionally. But what would often leave me frustrated was the question: how? How do I go about implementing this in my life? I understand that cravings and aversions lead to misery. And that letting these get the better of me will only lead me to walking down dark paths.
But what do I do about it?
One of the insights that Buddha had while sitting under the Bodhi Tree was that when it comes to purifying the mind, most approaches simply don’t go deep enough. They stop at those upper levels of the mind. You prune the branches, but you leave the root intact; and inevitably, you end up right back where you started — with the tree regrown.
These upper levels of the mind — the ones that deal with the interpretation of the senses, or with reasoning and interpretation — are obviously important. But to really get at the root of craving and aversion, you need to go down deeper. You need to go all the way down into the subconscious: the part of the mind that’s always on. Sermons won’t get you there, because this part of the mind is focused entirely on what’s happening inside the body. So what does this internally-focused part of the mind react to?
Turns out, there are two things, and they’re almost self-obvious: pleasant sensations on the body. And unpleasant sensations on the body. Over the course of our lifetimes, we have effectively trained ourselves to be drawn to pleasurable sensations and to recoil from the unpleasant ones. We fixate on what we want. We get angry if we don’t get it. And we get anxious if it looks like we’re going to get what we don’t want.
For many of us, it’s reached the point where we’ve almost become slaves to these sensations.
Despite the amount of energy we spend trying to engineer situations to turn out the way we want, inevitably there’s a lot of life that’s simply beyond our control. There’s little we can do to change those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Similarly, pleasure and pain on the body is always going to be… well, pleasurable or painful. You’re not going to change that.
But there is one thing you have control over: how you react.
Vipassana is about training you — and your subconscious — to become equanimous with whatever situation you find yourself in.
It’s a “how” quite unlike any I had encountered before.
Back to Day Four
The switch to Vipassana requires you to take your focus away from your breath, and towards your body. You scan your body for sensations, whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant, subtle or gross. Given that these sensations are the currency of the subconscious mind, the purpose of scanning the body should be clear: if you want to communicate with that part of the mind, this is how you have to do it.
The trick is not just in building up the currency, however. It’s in how you use it. You find these sensations on your body for one reason alone: in order to develop equanimity towards them. Pain might come up, for example. Your natural reaction? For most of us, it will be to recoil. Or maybe you’ll experience an incredible meditation high — and if your instinct is anything like mine, it will be to attach.
The goal of Vipassana is to find those sensations on the body — but then treat them with complete equanimity. No cravings for more, no aversions for less.
This is how you re-train your subconscious mind.
There is a sting in the tail, however. During three of the meditation periods a day — “sittings of great determination” — you need to sit without moving for an hour.
You’re also not allowed to open your eyes — no peeking at your watch to see how much longer there is left.
Everybody feels it in different ways, but given I have low blood pressure, this is a somewhat accurate depiction of how my hands and feet felt after sitting there without moving for an hour:
The first time I did it, I swore that there was no way I’d be able to make an hour again. The pain all throughout my body was immense. Equanimity with this? You gotta be kidding me.
I know I was meant to be ignoring everyone around me, but the first time we finished one of these sittings I couldn’t help but look around. Was I the only one that suffered? It was clear that I was not. But there were a surprising number of people who seemed quite unfazed by what they had just been through. At that moment, I felt they were incredibly lucky and I quite jealous of their good fortune. I’d just gone through hell and they were putting on their slippers to go get lunch.
And yet, after six more days of practicing the technique — and slowly developing equanimity with the pain — I began to realize that it was in fact those of us that were having difficulty with sitting for that long that were the lucky ones.
If you really want to develop equanimity, pain is a great place to start.
At the point at which you accept this, the broader principle of Vipassana begins to be revealed. Slowly, you develop this muscle of equanimity, and you’re better able to sit through these sensations — both good and bad — and observe them. And as you do, you’ll notice the one thing they all have in common:
In fact, this is the one thing that is common to everything in life. It all changes. As it slowly begins to dawn in your mind, that everything — from the sensations on your body, to that big job that you think is the most important thing in the world — is all temporary, your desire to attach starts to fade almost in direct proportion.
Why attach to something — anything — that’s so ephemeral?
The way this snuck up on me surprised me. I might have understood this idea prior; but the meditation meant that I internalized it experientially. You’re sitting there for hours each day with these sensations. They arise, and particularly when they’re painful, you act like that pain is going to stay with you forever.
But invariably, it doesn’t. It comes.
And then it goes.
During one of the discourses, Goenka told a parable that really stuck with me. Imagine some injustice happens to you. You take it to court, but in India — where Goenka was teaching — the justice system takes its time to come to any conclusion. There are filings, judgements, appeals. You’re miserable the entire seven years, uncertain of what’s going to happen to you given this grave injustice. It’s only after seven years that the justice system finally finishes its machinations.
And at that point, you win.
But you know what else has happened? You’ve lost seven years of your life to that misery and doubt. And for what? It wasn’t going to change the outcome — even if it came down against you.
This story probably hit home so hard for me because I could see myself in it. Having had immigration issues in the past, I found myself in a kind of limbo for an extended period of time. I had no idea what was going to happen, and I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity. I eventually made it out, but I immensely regret how I spent that time. I wasted so much of it.
Of course, it’s easy to say “cheer up” or “just put it out of your mind” to someone in such a situation. Just as it’s easy to say “you shouldn’t give in to cravings and aversions.” What’s hard is equipping someone with the tools they need to actually be able to take your advice.
That’s what Vipassana is. And while I’m not quite ready to admit that this technique has changed my life — it’s much too soon, and there’s still much hard work left to do — I do believe that Vipassana represents the most compelling “how” I’ve come across, in terms of becoming the master of my own mind.
If you’re interested in finding out more, I’d encourage you to visit the Vipassana website. Courses are available all around the world; the organization operates entirely on donations from past students and courses are run entirely by volunteers.
To follow my work, I have a newsletter you can subscribe to here. It’s on the intersection of managing business and managing yourself. Finally, you might also enjoy my podcast, Exponent, that I co-host with Ben Thompson. We talk about this topic on Episode 87.