Thursday, March 19, 2015

10 Days of Silent Meditation

     I took a trip recently that was more for personal growth and exploration than anything else, so I didn't tell anyone except for my wife a few close friends.  It was a 10 day silent meditation retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, MA.  Since I've got back it's been difficult to recalibrate to the normal flow of daily life.  But I at least wanted to sit down and collect some of cursory thoughts on the trip and let all of you know how it was and what it's all about.  I'll start with some simple pros and cons, then give you a break down of what the technique is all about (from my perspective.)  It's also worth noting that, prior to this trip, I had exactly zero hours of any sort of disciplined meditation practice with any technique.  I went into this as a complete novice, only having read Sam Harris's "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion," and a few articles online.

Pros:

  • The technique works!
  • The food was delicious.  It was all vegetarian (which was great for me), but even all of the meat-eaters I spoke to said they were more than satisfied.
  • The staff--who are all volunteers--were incredibly polite, accommodating, and understanding.
  • It's absolutely free.  In fact, they refuse to let you give them any money or compensation until after you've completed a 10 day course.  Even when the course is over, they don't solicit donations from you.  If you want to donate some money, you give as much or as little as you're able.  They insist that you not give them money with the intention of payment, but rather with the intention of contributing to a future student's ability to receive the technique.  They also tell you all about volunteer opportunities at the center, which is another way to give back.
  • Lots of quiet time. 
Cons:
  • Lots of quiet time. 
  • People burp and fart in the meditation hall, a lot.  And there's nothing you can do about it.
  • The teacher, S. N. Goenka, is slightly more into weird spiritual beliefs than I'm comfortable with. (i.e. reincarnation, "energy" being transferred from people, karma, etc.)  This would probably only be a "con" to anti-theists like myself.  I eventually got over this and learned to ignore the stuff I didn't agree with and focus on the technique.  But it was a serious hang-up for me, for a few days. 
  • Leg, ankle, knee, back, and neck pain. 
  • Goenka chants a lot, and it's supposed to create a calm environment for meditating, but it sounds awful.
  • This may not apply to single people, but I was incredibly homesick and constantly missed my wife and dog. 

     Now, on to the actual technique.  If you're interested in the history of the technique, click this link and skim through the wikipedia article.  Vipassana is a Pali word that refers to insight and basically means "seeing things as they really are." There are 10 full days of practice, plus two half-days (the night you arrive and the morning you depart.) 

     There are many rules you have to abide by during the course, but I'll just explain the main ones quickly.  Starting at about 8pm on Day 0, and ending around 11am on Day 10, you cannot communicate with any other students in anyway; no speaking, writing, gesturing, or eye contact.  They also separate men and women completely during this time.  You can ask the assistant teachers questions about the technique from 12-1pm everyday, and during breaks in the evening group sits.  You can also ask members of the staff questions about your accommodations if you have to.  Other than that, you're supposed to remain in a constant state of inward focus, ignoring everyone else.  The daily schedule looks like this:
  • 4am: Wake-up.
  • 4:30-6:30: Meditate on your own in the hall or in your room.
  • 6:30-8: Eat breakfast and rest.
  • 8-9: Group sit in the meditation hall.
  • 9-11: Meditate on your own in the hall or in your room.
  • 11-12pm: Eat lunch and rest.
  • 12-1: Question time with assistant teachers, and rest.
  • 1-2:30: Meditate on your own in the hall or in your room.
  • 2:30-3:30: Group sit in the meditation hall.
  • 3:30-5: Meditate on your own in the hall or in your room.
  • 5-6: Tea break and rest. 
  • 6-7: Group sit in the meditation hall.
  • 7-8:15: Evening discourse from S.N. Goenka. 
  • 8:15-9: Group sit in the meditation hall.
  • 9-9:30: Question time with assistant teachers, and rest.
  • 9:30: Lights out.
     During the 5pm tea break, new students are allowed to drink tea and eat fruit.  Old students (those who have completed a 10 day course before) were only supposed to drink lemon water. :/ 

     Days 1 through 3, and the first half of day 4, are all spent working on Anapana meditation, which is "awareness of respiration."  They start by telling you to relax and let yourself breathe naturally.  (Side note: There is no "official" meditation posture you're supposed to assume--at least that's how they made it seem.  You use whatever cushions or benches you need to be reasonably comfortable on your meditation cushion.  Some people with injuries even used chairs.  The only things they insist on for posture is that you're reasonably comfortable, and that you sit with your back and neck as straight as possible.  I was completely unashamed of the cushion fortress I built.)  

     Once you relax and learn to let yourself breathe naturally--through the nose, not the mouth--they tell you to remain aware of your respiration as it enters and exits your nostrils.  You're supposed to focus your attention on the entire area of your nostrils, inside and out, as well as the space of skin below your nose and above your upper lip.  Don't try to force your attention to stay there or get frustrated or discouraged when you notice that your attention has slipped to something else.  Just accept that your attention has wandered, and gently bring it back to your breath.  We focused on this larger area for the night of Day 0 and for all of Day 1.  

     Over the course of Days 2 and 3, they gradually instructed us to narrow our attention from the larger area of the entire nostrils down to the small area covering the rings of our nostrils and the skin above our upper lips.  This is a surprisingly difficult thing to do.  In my experience, it seems that the more I relaxed, the more soft my breath became.  The softer my breath became, the harder it was to remain aware of it.  But that's kind of the point.  You're gradually training your mind to notice the subtlest sensations on your body.  Whenever we fail to maintain awareness of our breath, they say to take a few harder and intentional breaths to regain our awareness, then fall back to natural breathing and try to maintain that awareness.  In the last part of Anapana mediation--the evening of Day 3 and the first half of Day 4--they instruct us to give priority in our awareness to any subtle sensations that occur on our nostril rings or the skin above the upper lip.  So we're giving the awareness of respiration a 2nd priority and only focusing on that if we can't notice any subtle independent sensations in that area.  The idea here, is that over the first 3 days we should have built a keenness in our awareness for very subtle sensations on the surface of the skin.

     On the afternoon of Day 4, they instructed us on how to start Vipassana.  Basically, you're taking the last principle from Anapana--developing awareness of the sensations on the skin--and applying that awareness to your entire body, piece by piece, in a systematic way.  They tell you to go in whatever order suits you best, but that you should stick to the exact same way, not letting your attention wander randomly around your body.  You start at the top of the head, and gradually work your way down to the tips of your toes.  My system for this part of Vipassana was something like this: top of the head --> forehead --> nose-eyes-cheeks --> lips-chin-jaw --> back of the head --> sides of the head and ears --> throat --> chest --> front of the torso --> left shoulder --> left upper arm --> left forearm --> left hand --> right shoulder --> right upper arm --> right forearm --> right hand --> back of the neck --> upper back --> lower back --> butt --> left thigh --> left knee --> left lower leg --> left foot --> right thigh --> right knee --> right lower leg --> right foot.

     In the beginning, it would take me about 25 minutes to get from the top of my head to the toes of my right foot, going in this order.  You're supposed to focus your attention on each area independently--ignoring sensations in other areas when you aren't on that spot yet--and try to remain aware of any sensations you might feel on that particular area.  Subtle vibrations, tingling, itching, pulsing, throbbing, sharp pains, dull pains, tightness, dryness, heat, cold, perspiration, anything.  You give priority to whatever is the most subtle sensation in that area.  For example, if I'm focusing on the top of my head and I have an intense itching sensation in one part, and a subtle tingle right beside it, I'm going to focus on the subtle tingle and try to ignore the intense itch.  This way, I'm training my awareness to notice the smaller sensation.  Think of it like trying to read a road sign that's far away; it's easy to see "35 Speed Limit" in big bold letters, but harder to see "during school hours" in smaller print at the bottom.  So for the first day or two of Vipassana, we were focusing on these sensations in specific sections of our body, trying to gradually notice subtler and subtler sensations.

     It's also important to keep in mind that regardless of whatever sensation you're noticing at a particular moment, you should be maintaining equanimity with all of it.  Goenka will remind you hundreds of times that the two biggest parts of Vipassana meditation are awareness and equanimity.  You're supposed to be an objective observer of whatever is happening to your body.  You don't identify with the intense pain in your knee after 40 constant minutes of sitting without moving.  You simply notice the pain objectively, without developing an aversion for the pain, and wait until it passes.  Similarly, when you get a strong vibrating sensation throughout an entire section of your body, and it feels utterly blissful, you don't identify with it and you don't develop a craving for it.  You simply notice that it's happening, and wait for it to pass.  He speaks a lot about the "law of impermanence" and how everything in the universe is constantly changing.  He tells you to apply this same principle to the sensations in your body.  All sensations, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, painful or blissful, will eventually fade away.  They come, and they go.  Therefore, as Goenka will tell you, developing cravings or aversions for any of these sensations only increases your suffering.  When you have an aversion for something, and it happens, you're miserable until it goes away.  When you have a craving for something, and you can't have it, you're miserable until you get it.  Training your mind to eliminate all of these cravings and aversions will eventually cause you to be at peace with whatever is happening in the present moment.  Whether good or bad, you learn to accept the present moment for what it is with the understanding of impermanence.  

     So over the course of Days 5 through 9, we were gradually training and developing our awareness to focus on sensations all over the body in a systematic way.  We learned to do a sweeping awareness where you focus on symmetrical parts simultaneously.  In rare moments when my mind was extremely calm and my pains were minimal, I was able to have a free-flowing sense of subtle vibration throughout my entire body, and I could sweep my attention from head to toe, and from toe to head, in one motion, noticing the wave of vibrations all over my body.  Those instances were rare, and also very difficult to not develop a craving towards.  However, Goenka and the assistant teachers reiterate that a sweeping sensation of vibration is not the goal of Vipassana and you shouldn't get discouraged if you haven't achieved that.  The goal of Vipassana, as far as I can gather, is to develop a keen awareness of bodily sensations, and to maintain an objective and equanimous frame of mind with every sensation.  There were a couple of days where all I could focus on was the pain in my knees and ankles.  There were other times when I could get the pain to pass, but I couldn't notice any other sensations on many parts of my body.  There are some "blind areas" that take time to develop an awareness for sensations.  

     We learned one final technique on Day 10, called Metta, which is actually very pleasant.  You're supposed to do this technique at the end of a Vipassana session.  You get comfortable, to alleviate any uncomfortable pains in your body, and focus on the subtle hum of vibrations throughout your body.  While you're maintaining awareness of those vibrations, you let feelings of love and compassion for all beings come into your mind and inhabit that hum of vibrations.  Goenka, and many of the meditators there, seemed to believe that you could literally push those feelings of love and compassion out of your body, like an aura, and give them to the people, creatures, and the world around you.  I'm not sold on that part.  However, I do recognize the virtue in contemplating and nurturing a sense of love and compassion for all people and creatures; so I still enjoyed this technique.   =) 

     It's been about a week and a half since I got home from this trip, and I'm sad to say that I haven't meditated since coming home.  I wanted to get away from it for a while to try to really understand how I felt about it.  I didn't want the proximity in time with the trip to cloud my judgement about the technique.  But after a week and a half of trying to forget about the technique and getting back into the daily swing of things, I still feel exactly the same about it, so I don't think I was brainwashed.  I'm going to work on incorporating a daily meditation session at least in the mornings, and hopefully before bed as well.  I really think that a daily practice of this technique will improve a person's life in a noticeable way.  You'll still get angry, sad, frustrated, and ecstatic.  But those brief moments of reprieve are well worth the effort.  You may find that in the most stressful situations, you're slightly less stressed than normal.  Eventually, that level will decrease more and more.  

     Hopefully you're still with me and don't think I'm crazy.  If you're curious or interested in meditation after this, please check out this website and read more about the technique, and see if you can find a center near you.  I know 10 days seems like a lot of vacation time to burn, and a lot of time away from family, but you will almost certainly learn more about yourself and gain meaningful insights that you probably never would have otherwise.  Feel free to comment and ask me any questions as well!