Up at 4am. Two meals per day. No talking, no reading, no writing.
Hour after hour, one concern: to observe reality as it is, within the framework of your body.
Through a ramification of events I found myself in the outskirts of Bodh Gaya, the village where Siddartha Gautama became enlightened 2500 years ago, ready to undertake the most rigorous training of my life.
The technique: seeing things as they really are
Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. It is very simple in its instruction, yet very difficult in its implementation.
S.N. Goenka’s 10 day Vipassana retreat operates in 100+ countries around the world, providing free teaching, free accomodation and free food – all supported by donations from students. It requires no belief and is open to atheists, agnostics and believers of all creeds. However because of its Buddhist origin you will see many references to this tradition.
I will very briefly describe the format.
– It starts with a foundation of Shila: for the duration of the retreat you commit to maintain five precepts which are required for the concentration training ahead. They are: no killing, no stealing, no sensual misconduct, no lying and no intoxicants.
– It follows with two days of Anapana: this meditation helps calm the mind and make it more sensitive than usual. It consists of feeling the sensations caused by the movements of the breath through your nostrils. There is no modification of your breath pattern, simply observation.
– On the third day you expand to sensations: at this point you start focusing on the sensations between your lips and your nostrils. It is a weird moment when you notice for the first time there are constant sensations erupting every few seconds in such a limited area of your body.
– The remaining days you expand this quality of awareness through every single part of your body, inside and outside.
The former founder of this retreat speaks through a one hour recorded video every day, explaining the theory that brings more sense to the practice you’ve done throughout the day. It is surprising how predictable your concerns and doubts are, hence how uniform the experience for everyone attending.
During those 10 days you may experience from pure boredom to moments of ecstasy (jhannas). Neither matter. Vipassana teaching is focused on developing equanimity.
The positive impact of this technique is so good reads like a scam. Reduces anxiety and self-obsessed thinking. Increases objectivity in facing difficult situations, selflessness, emotional self-regulation and compassion. If you were a meditator before, you will find daily practice post-retreat a lot easier to maintain.
It will be challenging at times. You may also become eerily aware of how compulsive and insane our default awareness mode is and how modern society’s values are engineered towards eternal discontent.
Pain vs Suffering
One of the inflection points in my understanding of the human condition during my 20s was the distinction between pain and suffering. This is important to make sense of the rest of the article so here is the insight in a nutshell:
Pain is a highly unpleasant physical sensation caused by illness or injury. Suffering is mental distress manifested as unpleasant physical sensation caused by thought.
Pain is unavoidable. Suffering is optional.
I love having my understanding of reality challenged, even shattered, and then picking up the pieces to reconstruct a new puzzle. The map is not the territory. What Vipassana has brought forth challenges much of what I’ve strived for – so I’m still carefully re-arranging the pieces.
What follows is just one example of such a paradigm shift.
Beyond pain and pleasure
According to Siddhārtha Gautama the root of human suffering comes from the constant struggling to get pleasure and avoid pain. The former by striving to intensify it and to hold on to it when present. The latter by changing external circumstances or shifting mental focus.
What are pain and pleasure? They are simply sensations, agitations inside your body. Some we like, some we detest. Most sensations only last from a fraction of a second to a few seconds, rarely much more – unless we perpetuate them through our own thinking, turning them into suffering.
The History of humankind can be reduced to a striving for pleasurable sensations and avoidance of painful sensations. Although I was familiar with this twin powers – isn’t the game of life about optimizing such equation? – I didn’t know you could transcend them and abide in an alternative variate.
Vipassana allows you to observe the arising and passing of pain and pleasure objectively, with a quiet mind, with equanimity, with non-attachment. When you do that correctly… peace of mind comes forth.
This “peace that passes all understanding” is orthogonal to both: you can be at peace while experiencing pain, you can be at peace while experiencing joy. Unbeknowned to me you can feel either from a state of peace.
The ramifications are profound. It means you can feel deep peace while the world around you is “just ok”, or merely tedious, or even falling apart. This is a happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances and it does not require you to fool yourself about external reality. It allows you to feel deep satisfaction, wellbeing and calmness of mind regardless of what is happening in your life situation by actually seeing reality as it is.
I am still trying to digest the consequences of this insight. While I’ve only tasted this truth at various moments, and I am very far from abiding in that state most of the time, knowing it is possible makes me pause and ponder about what to optimize for in life. When the present moment is completely satisfying, your priorities and values magically change. Suddenly, doing anything as a means to an end becomes highly uninteresting.
If it doesn’t change your behavior, why bother?
The preacher says “don’t do this, do that instead and you will be joyful!” The listener thinks “oh that is a wonderful teaching, that makes sense, if only everyone acted that way!” and then goes on to sin miserably (to sin means to “miss the mark”).
In insight meditation (another name for Vipassana) you just sit and practice – and your behavior gradually changes. There is wide research on the neuroscience of meditation beyond the scope of this article. This type of meditation literally rewires the connections in your brain so that peace, kindness and compassion emerge naturally through you.
What I love is that there is nothing personal in it. It makes no sense to say “oh Miguel is so peaceful/kind/compassionate”. Even if it were true :). Those qualities arise naturally when you practice Vipassana. If you do it two hours a day it changes your awareness and hence your behavior. If you don’t, you fall back into the worrying reactive monkey-mind wired to survive the tiger’s threath – highly effective at it, and highly prone to misery.
You can still go on with your life, your work, your relationships… but it is the quality of consciousness from where you act that makes all the difference.
Should you do this?
I have written this article in response to numerous requests to hear about my experience in Goenka’s 10 day Vipassana retreat. My guess is people are wondering: is it worth it?
I wanted to leave some time to allow for the “halo effect” that accompanies any retreat to wear off. Vipassana may be the exception for this concern, for it brushes off peak experiences when they happen, favoring an equanimous mind over blissing out.
Four months later I can say that it is having a very positive impact in my quality of life and I’d like to think that also in some of the people around me. In fact, the difference between the days I meditate and a string of days without practice has become so stark that I wonder how I could live with such low standards of mental balance before.
Some words of caution
If you have never done any meditation I recommend you start with this book, this app, and find an MBSR or similar introductory guided meditation course. I consider a 10 day silent retreat too intense as a primer.
This 10 day retreat is not something to take lightly. It requires a strong commitment. At times It will be very frustrating, uncomfortable and even painful. You will embark on a journey to your subsconscious. You must stay for the whole 10 days once you start. And yet it is absolutely worth it. You already know how normal reality works, how the wheel of pleasure and pain makes human life a drama, so why not test a different approach? You will be facing nothing but truths about yourself and reality. As a wise man said, the truth will set you free.