When people ask us what we learned in our ten day silent vipassana meditation retreat, Adam likes to be efficient. His take away from the retreat was:
100% of unhappiness in life, or misery, is your own fault. Fortunately, there are tools to help you solve this problem, and one is vipassana meditation.
As usual, I will be less succinct in my storytelling and recommendations. Before I really get into it, let me remind you that we decided to try a retreat based on a desire to better understand our own consciousness. Although the ten days were tough in many ways, we both found the retreat was a very positive experience. Since leaving, we haven’t fully subscribed to all the tenets of the Vipassana lifestyle, notably booze and meat, but we are meditating for 20 or 30 minutes most days.
Here’s what I took from the retreat, in summary. You can jump, as always, if you prefer to skip around the post.
- Practice vs. Theory: The retreat was focused on learning how to meditate, in practice, rather than intellectually learning the theory.
- The problem, in theory, that meditation solves for is that we are ignorant of how our minds work, and that leads to stress and vicious negative mental cycles.
- Meditation teaches you to break those cycles, and I leveraged Adam’s personal theoretical explanation for how that happens.
- The retreat was one of most unusual experiences in SE Asia and I think it’s had a positive impact on us. We’re still meditating and trying to incorporate what we learned into our lives, at least for now.
- So, would recommend it? This one you have to read and see.
The reason that a beginner Vipassana retreat is ten days long is so that students can really learn the practice. To this end, we spent ten hours a day meditating and then spent just one hour a day listening to explanations of the practice and the theory. All the theory is taught via recordings from Goenka, the school’s founder and original teacher. Goekna passed away in 2013, but the schools all remain true to his vision and original specifications. Of course, the local teaching staff are available to answer any questions that may arise about the technique.
Ten plus hours of meditation every day gave me a practical and emotional understanding of meditation that I would never have reached otherwise. I’ve heard it said that many people who think they are meditating are just “thinking with their eyes shut.” I have now experienced the difference.
I would compare it to other physical experiences like deadlifting, which I can do, or hitting a golf ball, which I can’t. In both of these, it’s one thing to understand the theory of which body parts do what, when, and a completely different thing to teach your body and muscles to pick up a loaded barbell off the floor or hit your drive straight down the fairway.
In addition to internalizing the target mental state, I found a high level of concentration and focus came to me quickly and easily after the first few days. Now, just two weeks later, it’s much more difficult to get my brain to stop singing Margaritaville in the corner when I’m trying to meditate. “Salt! Salt! Salt!”
The other practical reason for learning to meditate properly is that the results should be the reason you continue to meditate. Nothing about the practice is to be taken on faith. (Well, except the booze and the killing and the silence part, and I suppose I can let that slide for ten days.) Results may vary, but you should gradually see more calmness and happiness in your day to day life and that should be why you keep meditating.
The theory is given to help explain why the vipassana practice works, not to rationalize or justify. This is good because I found the theory to be a lot of buddhist mumbo jumbo, for lack of a better description. However, I did come up with my own personal intellectual rationale for meditating, which “feels right” to me. I will now put on my crazy pants and provide my own meditation mumbo jumbo mixed in with some of the buddhist parts.
According to the theory of vipassana, everyone is miserable due to three things: ignorance, craving, and aversion.
Ignorance, in this case, is a lack of awareness that your mind is constantly lurching from thought to thought. To get an immediate sense for this, try to shut your eyes for a few minutes and just follow your breath. Most people will find their mind wanders off very quickly.
Craving and aversion are the two specific negative mental states that vipassana will teach you to avoid. Craving is an extreme desire for good things to happen and continue, while aversion is an extreme desire for bad things not to happen or to stop. In many cases, it is a mental attachment to the future. The problem is that when the future happens differently than you want or expect, as it does, you become unhappy. Ideally, rather than fixating on the future, you should live in the present, appreciating the good stuff before it goes away, and not stress about the bad stuff, because it won’t last forever. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan, work, or even worry about the future, just that you shouldn’t become attached to those future outcomes.
I will admit the whole craving and aversion bit leaves a number of open questions for both Adam and me. Our big two are, “Shouldn’t you crave good things like love and be averse to bad things like murder?” and, “Does this mean you shouldn’t work hard to achieve goals, if everything will just change?” The short answers are that craving and aversion are always bad, and working towards noble goals without attachment is always good. I’ll keep working on articulating intelligent answers to these big picture questions. If anyone reading this blog already knows or has reading recommendations, please let me know in the comments!
In the meantime, I have found it more useful to apply the theory to the more mundane day to day experiences. My key realization with respect to craving and aversion was that my brain does not have a well calibrated volume switch. For instance, hunger, heat, aches or pains usually cause me to react quickly, and often with a desire to react immediately or a bad mood if I can’t fix things. While difficult, it is possible for me to become aware of these sensations, step back, and decide not to let the lack of coffee, for instance, ruin my morning.
So now I’ve tried to explain why we practice, and the theory for how what we’re solving for, so let me try to explain the actual practical technique and Adam’s theory for how it works.
In order to overcome negative mental states of craving and aversion, the practice of vipassana teaches you to respond to all stimuli with equanimity, or mental calmness. Stimuli includes anything “in” your brain, usually thoughts, sounds, or body sensations (e.g., sweating, itching, air moving.) The mental dialogue goes, “This is interesting. Let me see how long it will last.” It may sound easy, but it got tough quickly for fierce itches and copious sweating.
Theoretically, as I haven’t really seen this in practice yet, this will eventually allow you to respond to everyday events with similar calmness.
There was some Buddhist terminology that attempted to explain this in an awkward way, but Adam describes this process as reconditioning your mental Pavlovian response. Pavlov, in case you don’t recall, was the scientist who realized that his dogs became conditioned to salivate for the dinner bell, even if there was no food. Similarly, most of your reactions to the external world are conditioned in a similar way. By observing thoughts, sensations, and emotions with equanimity, you begin to break those old negative habits. You also learn to notice your physical reactions, such as your breathing and heart rate, which can help you take a mental step back from intense emotions.
So, for instance, I almost always get upset or angry when our travel plans don’t go as expected. It’s incredibly frustrating when planes or buses run late, or when we can’t get wifi in the hotel we picked because the reviews said it had fast internet. I still have little patience for extremely slow service in restaurants, even with my new relaxed definition of extremely slow.
Even for these small issues, it’s really easy for me to get angry fast because the issues are annoying but also because I’ve gotten angry about them before. And, none of those things has ever really ruined our day, but me getting angry about them has. It’s aversion in action. I know intellectually that getting angry doesn’t help, but that didn’t help keep me from getting angry. Now, post meditation, I have this practical technique that can help me recognize my anger and maybe even relax a little bit. Then next time, I can realize that these issues don’t need to ruin my afternoon, and be even less annoyed.
Two weeks later, I’m still figuring out how this fits into our wandering lifestyle, now and in the longer term. I survived the boot camp, and I am trying to make sure I maximize my return on investment by giving meditation a place in my everyday life, at least for a while. (Does the finance joke offset the mumbo jumbo?)
The really weird thing for me is that the past week or two, post meditation retreat, have been some of the best weeks of the whole trip so for me. It’s really hard for me to attribute it all to meditation, but I seem to be in a virtuous cycle. I feel happier and more relaxed, and I’ve had some fun blog ideas. (I know, the post output isn’t there yet.) I feel more productive, so I’m sitting down more often and getting more done. (I KNOW, I don’t have that much to do!) I’ve had a couple of really inspirational conversations with people. It’s freaking weird. I am trying to remain calmly equanimous about it.
A few people have already asked us if we would recommend a meditation retreat. Adam says probably. I am a little more hesitant. Ten days of meditation, along with the pre-day and post-day, is a long time. It was a big commitment for us, and we are lucky enough to be roaming the globe without the responsibilities of a job, pets, or kids. I would worry for someone busier that it wouldn’t be worth the two weeks. Then again, it might be even more eye-opening and useful to escape the usual craziness.
I did find myself asking a few times during the retreat if ten days were really necessary. While it took a few days before I settled into the routine, I felt there were some benefits early on. I think shorter would probably still be very meaningful, but Goenka swears than ten days is the minimum needed to see results.
On the plus side, I learned how to meditate, and I am enjoying meditation in small doses post-retreat. More importantly, I came a lot closer to internalizing that it’s all up to me to make myself happy or unhappy. I also realized that my mental state is impermanent, which makes it a little easier to accept the “bad moods” or states of frustration or anger. That’s enough to keep me on the train for now.
I am already looking back on this as one of the most meaningful experiences of our trip. So, given all those potentially life changing pluses, but with an eye towards the fact that it is a really hard ten days, I think anyone who’s still interested should try it.