Vipassanā: What I learned after 12 days of Meditation
Vipassanā is the meditation technique taught by The Buddha, and kept in its pure, pristine form by Burmese Monks (now Myanmar) for over 2500 years.
Over that period of time, languages were transformed, cultures were lost, empires rose and fell, but the technique remained, passed on generation after generation, for they believed their mission was to help humanity reach higher levels of consciousness by spreading this meditation technique all over the world, once again.
I first started hearing about this strange concept of "10-day retreats out of society" a few years ago through various acquaintances. I have to admit, at first, I believed these people were completely mad. 10 days without phone or wi-fi, seriously !? But my interest grew over the years, as I educated myself more and more on the subjects of meditation, yoga, and mindful-living.
Slowly, what used to make me tick and throw me off started to actually make sense. Emotions, feelings, intuition, hunches... everything we are told to quiet down as children were beginning to rise newly within my body and influence my life in an incredibly positive way. Rather than hiding, avoiding, or falling victim to them, it felt like tapping into a whole new realm of human capabilities; tapping into my own infinite potential.
"What possibilities become available to us when exploring unknown territory?"
In the pursuit of answers to this grand question, I have pushed my boundaries further away than I have ever thought possible. Exploring the world of inner-self —which in Western Society is something we usually try to avoid at all costs— seemed like the next logical step to get a better idea of you I am, and why I do what I do.
In short, Vipassanā is a self-observation meditation technique that allows you to reach your subconscious mind, the root of physical and emotional pain. Once you've understood mind and body mechanisms at the experiential level, and how much they are, in fact, inter-connected, you are able to re-wire the negative patterns that no longer serve you, achieve peace of mind and put a definitive end to your suffering.
This ancient meditation practice was reintroduced to India and rapidly expanded throughout the world in the 70s, when Indian/Burmese businessman S. N. Goenka was authorized to teach Vipassanā, in the tradition of his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin.
Today, both Goenka and U Ba Khin have passed, yet the expansion continues and more than 100.000 people around the world attend these retreats every year.
It was explicitly and repeatedly stated that reading and writing material were not permitted for the entire course duration. I have my writer's instinct to thank for this article; the habit of hiding pen and paper in every bag, coat, and pocket certainly paid off this time.
What follows is a short-version diary of my personal experience meditating for 12 days, completely cut-off from the outside world: no calls, no texts, no internet, no phones, no talking, no reading, no sex, no drinks, no music, NOTHING !!!
This is what our daily schedule looked like:
4:00 a.m. — Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 — Meditation in the Hall or in your room
6:30-7:15 — Breakfast
7:15-8:00 — Break
8:00-9:00 — Group sitting in the Meditation Hall
9:00-11:00 — Meditation in the Hall or in your room
11:00-11:45 — Lunch
11:45-1:00 p.m. — Break / private interviews with teacher
1:00-2:30 — Meditation in the Hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 — Group sitting in the Meditation Hall
3:30-5:00 — Meditation in the Hall or in your room
5:00-5:30 — Tea time
5:30-6:00 — Break
6:00-7:00 — Group sitting in the Meditation Hall
7:00-8:15 — Teacher's discourse in the Hall
8:15-9:00 — Group sitting in the Meditation Hall
9:00-9:30 — Retire to your room
9:30 p.m. — Lights out
The daily teacher's discourses are audio and video recordings of Goenka conducting his classes in the early 90s, before he passed. His personality, voice, and presence are so phenomenal that his teachings are still the base reference today for all the centers around the world.
❊ Picked-up two other meditators (Jivan from Cambodia and Maya from Israël) in the Greater LA area. Drove 5 hours to Dhamma Mahavana in southern Yosemite (one of the California Vipassanā Centers; there are over 170 in the world)
❊ My first impression getting there wasn't a great one: I found out the 10-day retreat was actually really 12 days: they don't count the days of arrival and departure, which meant the day of departure was overlapping with my next production gig starting on October 15th... in Los Angeles ! They were very categoric about me having to make a decision there and now: either do it entirely, or not at all. I wasn't prepared for this Cornelian dilemma
❊ After a group reunion with the management team where all the instructions were given yet again, we were offered a meal and asked to meet at the Meditation Hall after dinner
❊ The property on which the center is built is really big, I was so impressed and also kind of lost, especially in the middle of the night. I didn't expect to have to walk uphill, in practically total darkness and in the wild for a good 5 minutes in order to get to the Meditation Hall. It was pretty cool though, it felt like living in a world of total isolation
❊ Focus on the breath; feel the air coming in and out of the nostrils
❊ Having trouble accessing a quiet state of mind; the teacher gives us some insight:
"If a thought arises, do not push it away, but do not give it attention either. Rather, bring the attention back to the breath. The problem you are imagining will be solved when the time has come. Simply observe the reality as it is, not as you want it to be. The reality is: You are here, and now. You are breathing."
❊ Morning meditation: again with the nostrils ? I'm already bored !
We are asked to pay attention to the smallest feeling/detail when breathing in, and out
❊ Yesterday I woke up veeeery late (7am); today I woke up late (6am), hopefully tomorrow I can wake up at 5 and meditate a bit before breakfast
❊ Perform wholesome actions; avoid sinful actions
❊ Try to be aware of the breath going in, and going out a little warmer
❊ Some frustration as the mind still wanders; my back is hurting a lot
❊ Focusing on the triangle nose/mouth; I am able to feel my heart beat in my upper lip. I requested for an interview with the teacher at noon
Question 1: Asked him about falling asleep and waking up at 4am.
He said: "When you are laying down, you are giving rest to the body. To rest the mind, do not stress over how many hours of sleep you are trying to get. Instead, focus on breath and body sensations to calm the mind and ease it to sleep."
Question 2: I told him I was worried I wasn't meditating properly because I wandered 70% of the time, and was only focused 30% of the time.
He replied: "The most important things are Awareness, and Equanimity, and finding the right balance between the two. You will have better days, and worse days. Unless you become a Buddha, your mind will always wander. Instead, be aware that it wanders, and accept it. Once brought back to focus, start again. Be disciplined, not angry. Find balance."
❊ You can experience everything you desire on an intellectual level, but True Wisdom can only come from the experiential level
❊ I love the evening video discourses by S. N. Goenka; he is really wise, funny and lovable
❊ Today, the actual Vipassanā technique starts; the 3 previous days were only there to calm the mind from all of our daily concerns
❊ What started as an angry day (still not a morning person) has now become a day full of bliss and gratitude for my life and everything in it. I know I'm not supposed to lean into negative OR positive emotions, but I'm really happy because I feel very strong about what's to come, and also because these 2 hours of meditation went by so quickly. So focused ! About 50%/50%. It's funny how when you're totally present, attentive to every single second passing, time actually flies. I was really good at bringing back my focus back to the little nose/mouth triangle area, where I felt tickling, throbbing, and tiny displacement of my mustache hair when the air would hit it from breathing out
❊ We were introduced to sittings of Strong Determination, which means that from now on we are not supposed to move at all, hours at a time. There is no moving feet, hands, or opening eyes while meditating
❊ Today, the schedule exceptionally changes. Meditation 1-2pm, Group Meditation 2-3pm, Vipassanā 3-5pm. 4 hours of meditation straight, in one sitting !! Crazy. Wasn't sure I could sustain that. Trying to figure out the perfect sitting pose, building a fort out of pillows of various shapes and sizes. Turns out this wasn't the smartest move, but it's too late now; the chanting has begun, I must not move
❊ THIS IS IT! I entered trance using meditation for the first time in my life! During this out-of-body experience, I was scanning from head-to-toe and toe-to-head, scanning like a TSA machine for any sensation, any sensation at all... Back and knee pain were unbearable, but I held my word and I did not move... until the pain... completely vanished ! It felt like... I was stuck in a body full of cramps, and had to "break the ice" of my own creation in order to come back into reality, come back into my body after the sitting was over. Never felt better in my life
❊ The 4 steps/levels of conscience: 1. Sense: ear, nose, mouth, eyes, body (touch), and mind (thoughts)
2. Perception: we attribute meaning to sensory inputs, while cross-referencing with past memories
3. Sensations: they arise throughout the body (pleasure, comfort, fear, anger, etc.)
4. Reaction (Sankarā): we imprint these experiences in our mind and label them (like/dislike, love/hate, craving for more/less...)
❊ Goenka's discourse: we are constantly planting seeds with our mind, and the results come out verbally or through action, inevitably; we cannot act and speak differently than how we really think; the wheel of Dhamma always knows what we think deep inside, and consequences align in accordance
❊ Had a terrible night of sleep; cried a lot, had very vivid dreams about my little sister: I love you ! Woke up super late again; almost bailed on breakfast but then remembered the old adage: "Wake up, dress up, show up", and got out of bed
❊ The first group sitting of the day. I am now able to feel the air around my skin, the touch of the cloth on my skin. I focus my attention in the framework of my body and advance stage after stage, inch after inch, with the help of my blood flowing through my veins with each heartbeat. Blood pressure, that's how I get to feel everything inside
❊ All there ever is in life are sensations; you can remove yourself from the equation by choosing not to react to them
❊ Discourse: big slap in my face. We got to understand at the intellectual level what the source of all misery in life is. It left like I was left to die in a back-alley with 2 gunshots wounds in my chest. Now the real work can begin: curing myself from past miseries through deep meditation
❊ You can learn to live in complete bliss and happiness and enjoy ALL the great things in life by living without any attachment, as that is the root of all misery: attachment
❊ Everything shall pass; this is the law of Dhamma. Everything comes and goes. Rises and falls. Births and dies. Do not remain attached to any of it. This is the source of your misery
❊ Today was a hard day. Woke up super late, wasn't well focused in meditation, sensations of tiredness. Goenka said Days 2 & 6 are when the most people quit, overwhelmed by their body feelings, which are the expression of resistance from the mind understanding it is about to be overthrown
❊ There was nothing new to learn so I felt pretty bored, and this is why I was botching my body scan work
❊ I was assigned a private cell in the Pagoda; so wonderful !
❊ Savi Sankarā Anicca (literal translation: free yourself from the sensations within the framework of your body, which are impermanent)
❊ Super bored and agitated mind although I'm great at scanning efficiently now. After 7pm meditation I was very calm and had a quiet mind, I did not want the session to end, so I stayed in my position without moving as everyone else was going outside for a short break. I felt like a black screen in front of reality, except I couldn't see because my eyes were closed; I felt like I was outside of reality for a while
❊ Goenka talked about sleeping and resting body and mind. He says that the mind will be fully rested in the morning if it was aware of the sensations throughout the night.
Is meditation the answer to my notorious history of bad sleep?
Let's find out!
❊ All things considered, I had a pretty good night. Woke up multiple times because of very strange dreams (had so many of these since I got here), but overall felt pretty rested this morning. Let's see if the theory holds :)
❊ From now on, we are supposed to meditate ALL the time! Two last days of strong hard work, being aware of our breath and every arising sensation at all times, exception for when we are in deep sleep, of course
❊ Something quite magical happened today. I was showing growing signs of resistance in the morning, and the enemies (drowsiness, doubt, agitation...) were gaining ground on me, so I decided to ask for a private interview with the teacher. I shared what I was going through, that I was free-flowing easily while scanning my body for sensations from top to bottom, but was only feeling pleasantness all over... which was actually angering. I couldn't help but wonder if I was doing something wrong: the liberation from deep complexes I kept hearing about were not showing up for me
He answered: "Do not create any new sensations of craving for sensations that are not there. Accept the reality as it is, not as you want it to be."
I got even angrier for hearing the same thing over and over, and didn't witness any change. I bailed on working hard and went into my quiet Pagoda cell for a small nap.
At the evening sitting, I was strongly determined to at least TRY to scan properly, diligently, and then... a memory showed up... and a strange painful solid rock sensation came along with in my cheek. I relived that memory in every detail: the initial event, quickly followed by words, feelings, pain, anger... and as I was going deeper in my memory, the cheek rock sensation grew, paralyzing the right half of my face
After I started paying attention to the pain and dissecting it, I started to understand what it meant to me, and the attachments that came with it: money loss, ego... and when I started to let go of it all, accepting the reality as it was, I realized the losses were only materialistic things and I could finally release myself from all the meaning I associated to that event... and magically, the physical pain slowly dissolved
❊ And then... Goenka's teachings were exactly on point with my experience that day, and warned about the great danger of achieving free-flow too early and regressing in the technique because of attachment to wanting sensations... craving for what is not there. That is exactly the opposite of Vipassanā, and the misery multiplies, multiplies, over and over... until we can finally brake the wheel
❊ This morning we took body scanning to the next level, and were asked to pierce through our bodies to feel the inside, feel the hidden Sankarās. It's funny how until they instruct you on trying new, deeper kinds of meditations/sensations, you don't even think that it's possible to go even further.
❊ I have been very agitated, not present, drowsy, and almost fell asleep during an important speech from Goenka at 2-3pm. I'm very mad at myself, and scared that I'm not getting it
❊ Goenka speaks the truth, on point, once again: what most people consider love to be, is actually really self-centered love. It's so relatable to one of the dreams I had the other night
❊ Desire ≠ Craving. Only when attachment is brought to desire, it then becomes a Sankarā
❊ Morning meditation + Mettā Bhavana. We were to only generate feelings of love and compassion towards every body sensation: the entire Hall was vibrating with love !
❊ Noble Silence has ended after the first meditation ceremony. Walking back to my room, I cross paths with someone with the biggest smile on his face; he exclaims:
DUDE!! If this had been a fashion show, you would've killed it!! I've been wanting to tell you all week!! You are so on point, your style screams Vipassanā!! Hahaha
Him and I start laughing uncontrollably for a solid 5 minutes. This was sooo good and liberating; such a fun way to break the ice; my first conversation in 10 days !
❊ Anyway, everything is impermanent, and so is this feeling right now. But if I can generate feelings of joy and well-being inside of me and am able to share them with others, why wouldn't I try to do that more often ?
❊ WOW!!! What a day, seriously !! so many phenomenal conversations with scientists, mathematicians, actors, tech entrepreneurs, buddhist monks, christians, free-spirited travelers...
❊ Woke up at 3:30am, finished packing and went to the final group meditation at 4:00.
❊ Final meditation was an absolutely fantastic chanting meditation. About 2 hours of chanting recorded on tape from Goenka... magical, transcendental, so wonderful !
❊ Breakfast at 6:30am, met with Erica (another meditator) on the parking lot at 7:15 and hit the road back to LA quickkk! Had so much fun on that 5-hour drive back
❊ Picked up my client landing from Paris at LAX airport at 12:50pm !! Two weeks of Production can start, but with a totally different mindset now... zennnnn =)
What I got out of it
I like to joke that I actually now know how to properly meditate. Whatever I said I did before wasn't getting me anywhere close to the depth of awareness and presentness I am now able to achieve in my sittings. That alone is worth the whole trip.
But what's even more fantastic is that I had two major breakthroughs in this experience, on top of the clearings I already shared in my diary.
So I had this very strange dream on Day 6, but it was only through Goenka's discourse on Day 9 that I realized what it meant and how important that discovery really was.
For those of you who don't know me well, I absolutely NEVER remember any of dreams in general; maybe like once a year. At Vipassanā, I've had dreams, vivid dreams even, multiple times a night, and remembered them very clearly in the mornings. So this was all very scary to me... but also, kind of exciting.
In one of my many vivid dreams, I encountered ten of the people that are the closest to me, the people that I care the most about in my life. In a manner resembling a carousel, each of them appeared to me individually, one at a time, and then an event took place involving that particular person.
At first, only their face would appear, staring at me. I would recognize the person, and start to experience intense feelings of love, compassion, warmth and joy all over my body. Once the feelings were well grounded and made real, the person's body fully appeared. They would then go about with their daily lives, and start doing something that they typically do, an activity they are used to doing (cooking, driving, talking...).
I was still there, witnessing everything there was in the moment, but was rendered to the role of an observer. I wasn't the center of attention anymore. I was not included in the activity because the activity had nothing to do with me. It had only to do with that specific person, and how they usually handled the common situation they were in, which I was witnessing.
What happened next was incredibly strange. The basic daily activity each person was engaged into, was starting to look more and more like something " I " did not like. Something I did not like because they wouldn't do it the way I would have done it. Something I did not like because they would say something that I did not agree with. And slowly, all the wonderful positive emotions I had towards that person, started to shift rapidly towards the opposite: annoyance, anger, fear, hate...!!
Some of the things they would do were so silly and innocent, and I could see as an observer that they were just acting the way they were acting, because that was the way they acted. They did not have me in mind when they did it, they were alone, engaged in their lives, and doing what they do. Only, " I " was there witnessing them being themselves and it irritated me. It irritated me so much because I believed they were doing that just to annoy me; but really, they weren't. They were just being themselves. They were handling their activities however they wanted to handle their activities, which just so happened to have been a different way than how I would have handled these activities; or ideas; or conversations... They were not trying to do anything to me personally, they were just trying to be themselves. But I wouldn't allow that, I wouldn't allow them to be themselves because I had decided that the way they were being themselves was not the right way, because " I " had decided what the right way was.
I did not really understand what all of that meant when I woke up the next morning. If anything, I understood that the people I loved, I also sometimes hated.
But then it struck me on Day 9. It struck me when Goenka spoke about Self-centered Love. And I had an epiphany... I finally understood what it meant to love someone, to actually LOVE someone for who they are and not for who I want them to be. Conditional Love is not love; it is Self-centered Love: "I love you only if you do this, or if you say that. If you are any different than my expectation of you, then you are not worthy of my love."
Exactly how selfish is this form of love ? Very, very, veryyyyy selfish !
And that is why it was never really love in the first place. Real Love can only be Unconditional Love, and real Love can only be loving someone exactly for who they are, for who they wish to become, and for whatever they choose their experience of Life to be. Anything less than that is Self-centered Love; it is selfish; and it is the absolute opposite of real, powerful, wholesome Love for another human being.
In loving someone for who they really are —and not for who we want them to be— lies the power to grant that person complete freedom. And when we consciously choose to grant freedom to another human being, we are, in turn, granting freedom to ourselves... freedom to live a life free of any expectation; freedom to live a life free of attachment; free of craving; free of suffering.
You are the creator of your own suffering
You might be more familiar with the idea that we are the creators of our own happiness, even though it has yet to be universally understood and accepted.
I know all of this sounds crazy, but hear me out. Our automatic way of being would rather point fingers and blame others for our negative experiences than taking responsibility for the part we're playing in the game of life.
Suffering is the inevitable consequence to attachment.
Let this information sink in for a couple minutes.
Let me give you an example to illustrate: when there is an experience of pleasantness, such as buying a new car, our default way of being is to create attachment to that pleasant experience, and then crave for more. The longer we wait until our Body can experience that feeling again, the greater the suffering becomes. In fact, it is not the actual car that is granting us that pleasure, it is the feeling that is experienced when we acquire the car that does. And it is that very feeling that our Mind is so deeply craving all the time. That craving is a hole, and it grows bigger and wider the more we think about it and give it meaning, so we try to fill it up by any means possible... like buying a bigger and better car whenever the experience of not having enough becomes too unbearable.
But here lies the trick: we are now associating the experience of buying a bigger and better car with the feeling of pleasantness, and our Mind will eventually trick us into believing that the only way we can achieve that feeling of bliss once again will be to buy an even bigger and better car... and we will crave it... oh, we will it crave it so, so much...
I know it's hard to understand. There can never be any real understanding of anything of that magnitude without having felt it on an experiential level first.
The reason you're probably already resisting what I'm saying, and dismissing it just as quickly, is because right now the only experience you've had of what I am saying is at the intellectual level. No amount of books or films (intellectual) can ever replace actually living a moment (experience), and witnessing the creation of a new emotion. Garnering immense amounts of knowledge can only get us to a certain level. Unless we've actually felt it in our guts, in our heart, at the core of our being, we will never fully understand or accept any of the great life lessons as truths.
Going deep within the subconscious mind, achieved through techniques such as Vipassanā meditation, will not only provide you with the most accurate knowledge you could ever have about yourself, but also reveal to you the way emotions are created within the framework of your body, when automatically reacting to outside stimuli.
When the process is unveiled and experienced at the core, it then becomes an undeniable truth that we can no longer ignore. Our experience of reality, whether it is positive or negative, lies solely and entirely within the world we allowed our Mind to create for ourselves.
I'm sure it is no secret to you when I tell you we are Mind, Body, and Soul.
What this means is that Mind and Body are here to serve the Soul, help it survive the very wide range of conditions that we face as human beings.
You are the master and creator of your own life. Your Mind and your Body are here to serve YOU. You are neither your Mind, nor are you your Body. They are your tools. They are your slaves. Do not become a slave to them. They will try to revolt, fight back for supremacy, they will try very hard to trick you into believing crazy things, such as that you are not enough, not capable enough, not strong enough, not deserving of love, that you cannot achieve your goals, your dreams, thus constantly and repeatedly dragging you out of what your Heart (Soul) desires most.
I've been trying to write this article for a while; deciding what information to share without releasing a never-ending story of 30 pages was certainly not an easy task. I sincerely hope I was able to truthfully recount this exceptional, mind-blowing, heart-opening, life-changing experience, while granting you access to a new world of possibility and discovery for yourself in the process.
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam
(May All Beings Be Happy)