Posted on April 19, 2017Author firstname.lastname@example.org
“I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books. I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my blood pulsing within me.”
— Hesse, Demian
Despite being a fairly free-spirited person, I’ve always been slightly skeptical of hippies. It’s mostly the fringe ideologies that I have the most trouble understanding, such as hardcore vegans, anti-vaccers, and communists. I’m all for ending war, eating and living healthier, and trying to make the world a better place, but sometimes I think some of their beliefs–to put it mildly–are a little unscientific. However, recent research seems to suggest the hippies were right about one thing: that meditation has a powerful effect on the brain. The topic is exploding amongst the scientific community; in 2016 alone, 667 journals were published about meditation. Some of the benefits are astounding. Studies have shown that regular meditation can help you lose less gray matter due to aging, fight against stress and depression, and, crazily enough, even help you grow more brain. As one researcher puts it, “most of the time, our brains are constantly being shaped by forces around us of which we are really not aware or dimly aware…[but through meditation] we can actually influence the functional and structural changes in our brain.” Another study bears this out: after five or more years of meditation, the amount of gray matter in the hippocampus–a part of the brain associated with memory and awareness–of the test subjects who had meditated versus ones who had not for that period of time had increased dramatically. The study attributes this difference to “practice-based alterations”, an obnoxiously verbose way of saying meditation is good for your brain.
For the last two years, I’ve been meditating almost every day. It hasn’t been particularly intense–usually anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes a day, in the morning most times–but I’ve definitely noticed an effect and change in focus and emotional stability. For the first year I was pretty lazy about it, mostly listening to guided meditations on YouTube and free videos, or I would listen to ambient music while doing my own thing. Even then, though, I noticed brief periods of calmness within my mind that weren’t always present before. Then for my birthday, a friend bought me the app “Headspace”, which was another step in the right direction. Here I learned the technique of mindfulness by watching my respiration in an objective and peaceful manner, bringing my attention back to my breath whenever my mind wandered. After some time using the app, I was able to meditate alone without any guidance at all. At first this was much harder, but as I continued to practice I observed more positive and stronger changes in my mental state after I meditated.
Despite this gradual process, when not meditating I noticed there were still lingering emotions, distractions, and unfocused thoughts that prevented me from fully appreciating the present moment. I thought I could be capable of more. Then another friend told me about his experience at a Vipassana meditation retreat. At this silent 10-day retreat, you would not be allowed to speak to anyone, have access to your cell phone, or be allowed to eat meat (!) or drink alcohol. In this kind of environment, said my friend, you are totally free of all distractions and you have the time and focus to explore the underlying thoughts of your unconscious mind, and either remove or become aware of any unwanted memories or rationalizations that get in the way of enjoying life. He said he came back feeling liberated from fear and worry and now felt full of happiness and focus. I was intrigued and subsequently signed up (it was free!) at the nearest center in Jesup, Georgia for early March.
I drove up from South Florida early in the morning, stopping at a gas station to buy as much beef jerky I thought I could eat for the six-hour drive. I got there at mid-afternoon and after getting settled into the simple dormitory, surveying the tranquil surroundings, and talking with a few prospective meditators, we were ready to begin our practice. We entered the spacious and dimly lit meditation hall, about 60 or 70 meditators in all, and started to work for an hour. We were taught the basics of observing the breath objectively, something I was already familiar with, but we were also told to maintain an upright posture for as long as we could, something I had not been doing before. The length of the meditation was longer than I was used to and I was sore from holding the position, but after the hour was up and we were off to bed, I felt I would be up to the challenge.
The next day proved my optimism was unfounded. The phrase “meditation retreat” is a little misleading–it invokes images of nature and harmonious stillness, a placid attempt to get away from it all–but in reality vipassana should be labeled meditation boot camp. The first session of the day was a two-hour meditation at 4:30 in the morning which, for me, was by far the hardest session throughout the ten days. Sleepy and disgruntled, I shifted around in my meditation cushions incessantly, unable to find a modicum of comfort. My mind refused to focus on the breath, taunting me with unwanted thoughts and stabs of intense body pain from trying to hold my posture. I wanted nothing more for it to end yet it went on endlessly without mercy or concern. When the bell finally rang for breakfast, I felt a wave of relief, devoured a giant bowl of oatmeal, and collapsed in my bed, immensely questioning my decision to come here.
A brief look at the schedule before my next session sprouted more worry. In addition to the morning session there was another mandatory hour session in the hall after the hour and a half break for breakfast. Then two hours of meditating in your room or the hall before a two hour lunch break. After lunch there was another two hours in your room or in the hall but after that, guess what? Another mandatory hour of meditation in the hall and then one more hour in either place before dinner. Sorry, I’m mistaken: did I say dinner? I meant “tea” you sad sack of shit, you don’t get any fucking dinner. Here’s an apple and some lukewarm liquid, now go meditate for another hour, which, by the way, is also required to be in the hall. Almost broken by this point, you get an hour relief where the founder of the course via recorded video (I know that sounds cultish, but trust me, this isn’t a cult) explains the practice and lifts your spirits with irreverent and sometimes nonsensical allegories and stories in a babbly Indian accent about the Buddha and who knows what else. Finally, you have one more mandatory session, but for only half the normal time before you’re allowed to blackout in your bed in a state of exhaustion you’ve never felt before and never will experience again.
That first day was the only time I felt like I might truly give up. I was not the only one to feel this way: after we came back to the mandatory session after “tea”, one of the students sitting next me stood up, audibly sighed, grabbed his pillow, and marched outside of the hall, never to be seen again as he disappeared off into the ominous evening mist of southern Georgia. When I woke up at the start of day two, however, I found meditating a little easier this time. It was still extremely hard, but I noticed the progress and decided I would just have to stick it out.
Because I have type 1 diabetes they decided to give me my own room for the duration of the retreat, as the staff was concerned about the little beeps and alerts my wireless controller sometimes makes would be distracting for the other student. I was very grateful for this and felt I made most of my progress within the confines of my room without any other students or “social” pressures to distract me. Additionally, one of the assistant teachers came up to me at the end of day two and asked if I would like a dinner after the evening discourse with the teacher. Now, as a diabetic, I really didn’t need this meal and I don’t know why they made the assumption I would need one, but I nodded enthusiastically and thereafter I received one full plate of food more than everybody else for basically no reason at all. It was the second time my diabetes turned out to be a hidden asset for this retreat and for probably the first time in my life I was pleased to have a life-threatening defect with my body.
With these advantages, plus the fact I had observed my breath before, I found a groove with the meditation. I still felt pain with the posture, but since I was less strict with myself about doing it perfectly, it became slightly more manageable because I allowed myself to shift a couple of times each session. At the end of day three, something happened while I watching my breath. I felt a strange sensation developing in my nose, first a mild tingling and then a paralyzing sense that I was suffocating. I started to have a mild panic attack. Luckily, the session soon ended and since it was the day’s last as well, you were allowed to ask the teacher a couple of questions if you so desired — one of the only times you are given the opportunity to speak throughout the retreat. I told him about what happened and what I should do about it. “Sounds like it’s working,” he said unconcernedly. “Understand it’s just a sensation and it can’t do you any harm. Tomorrow we start the vipassana technique. You’re going to start feeling many more sensations than the one with your nose, so be ready.” With this ambiguous response, I somewhat uneasily went to bed.
Learning the vipassana technique the next day was discouraging. With vipassana, you are supposed to examine the body part by part until you can feel a sensation on that piece, like how I felt the tingling of my nose. You start at the top of the head and scan downwards slowly, stopping at each point until you can confidently identify a sensation. At first you do this at a snail-like pace, taking full minutes on every little tiny part of the body but eventually you should be able to flow through the entire body quickly when you scan. It was jarring; I was comfortable with anapana, the observation of the breath, and felt I was becoming extremely alert and focused just doing that technique. However, this is the whole point of doing four days of anapana before switching to vipassana: you need that heightened sense of awareness in order to feel the previously hidden sensations throughout your body. If you just tried to start doing vipassana without this awareness it would be pointless; you would most likely struggle to feel anything.
Although this new technique was challenging and laborious, as it felt like starting all over again, I was more confident in my ability to learn and conquer it and by now I trusted the methods of the retreat — the laser-like, cutting concentration I had developed from anapana was something I had never felt before and I was curious what else the retreat had to offer. The back pain from the posture was sometimes overwhelming; one day I had a session where halfway through I put myself up against the wall, flinching in agony. I steadily improved over the next few days, though, as the pain became more and more manageable and I became more zen and aware of every little prickle I could reasonably feel throughout my body.
It was at the end of day 6 when I had some kind of breakthrough. After a particularly engaging and focused last session of meditation, I tried to go to sleep but I was feeling more awake than usual. Laying in my bed, I noticed some emotions were stirring within me. Congruent with what we had been practicing, I tried to remain equanimous and merely observe the feelings; I knew from the course’s teachings these feelings are transient and would ultimately pass, so there is no reason to be affected by them. These emotions, however, were stronger than any I’ve experienced and I faltered. I can only describe what I felt happening to me as being exorcised. It felt like my entire body was lifted by the strength of each emotion before it exited. I couldn’t place exact memories to each one that passed through me — it was more like I’d just feel a specific emotion like fear, rage, guilt, sadness, and regret. I would feel this for some time and then a short period of calmness would wash over me before another one rose up inside of me.
This went on in this manner for a couple of hours. When the final one left me I felt relief like I’ve never felt before. My entire body felt like a feather and like I was being given the best massage in the world over every part of my body all at once. The mental bliss was unexplainable as well — I felt relaxation, peace, and clarity at the same time and journeyed through rapid, colorful visions. I slept so fitfully I missed the first two hour meditation session at 4:30, completely undisturbed by the ringing of the alarm bell.
The next day I asked the teacher if what I had experienced was normal.
“Well, it’s not abnormal,” he chuckled, “sounds like it’s working, keep doing what you’re doing.”
From what I could gather from the later nightly discourses was I had released multiple deep-rooted anxieties, fears, and memories from my unconscious mind called “sankharas.” It’s apparently one of the main goals of a vipassana retreat to remove these invisible bastards, but everyone has different experiences of how they are discharged. Some people feel little to nothing, some won’t have any sense that they’ve been released until well after the retreat, and some can’t even handle them in the first place: two of the students on the girls’ side of the meditation hall left the retreat around this time, both choking through an intense waterfall of tears. I’m not sure whether I believe totally in the whole “sankhara” mythology that they try to explain to you, but I am certain something happened that night that I probably forever will never be able to replicate or fully be able to define.
Seemingly supernatural events such as these were absent for me the rest of the retreat and I mostly just continued to work on developing more zen through vipassana. However, I had a lot of free time to philosophize where I’d have profound realizations, sometimes extremely dark ones, even though it’s uncertain to me if you’re supposed to be intellectualizing during this time. After a discourse where the founder of the school was rambling on about compassion and love being the true state of human nature when all the “sankharas” are stripped away and the mind is fully clear of ignorance, I went on a lengthy walk around the dormitories, contemplating the significance of his words.
I realized that compassion is an emotion that I don’t feel very often unless it’s for a friend or family member I care about, or if I’ve had a direct experience that I can relate with. Even then, it’s kind of a weak, vague, fuzzy feeling. I know that makes me sound sort of like a serial killer, but it’s not like I’ve ever wished real ill will upon anyone and I’ve never wanted to ever explicitly harm someone. I figured that that was enough to consider myself a relatively good person.
Examining this thought further, however, I became aware this was a rationalization: I’ve never even been in a situation where I could be confident that my moral self was composed of such goodness. If I was confronted with my own death or killing dozens of other people, for example, I would without question do what it takes to stay alive. If presented with near-unavoidable death I absolutely would die a coward and without dignity, still desperately trying any way to stay alive. I came to the conclusion whenever I have acted selfishly and without any regard for others, it’s because I am stupidly and needlessly afraid of death and I can rationalize what I’m doing with nihilistic thoughts like “well, you only live once and we’re all just sacks of meat when it comes down to it. Why not indulge? It’s not like anything matters.” This is probably because I’ve lived my entire life without any kind of religion, which for the most part I’m thankful for but I can see where that absence could have potentially hurt me in terms of morality.
It was sobering and a little nauseating to come to such thoughts but ultimately this was probably the most important and long-lasting thing that I will take away from the retreat: I don’t fear death or, for that matter, much of anything else as I once did. I don’t think this is as much because I’ve developed any sort of traditional spirituality about an afterlife, faith in a higher power, or even in the rigid morality they preach at the retreat (“dhamma”. In my opinion, most of it is actually pretty valid and I will adopt a lot of it into my daily life but I believe I am still gladly going to eat meat and drink alcohol). However, because of the precise objectivity this type of thorough meditation develops, I can accept reality without fear or worry. I can develop my own clear morality and spiritually without any self-delusion or negativity. I can live in the present moment without being distracted by the past or the future. It’s only been a month since I finished the retreat, but so far all of these things have been remarkably liberating, and I feel grateful for being introduced to vipassana. I think I would have come to a lot of these conclusions doing my daily routine, but it would have taken far longer and I don’t think I would have internalized them as facts so much. The 10-day retreat was like doing P90X compared to doing a few push-ups every so often, but for mental instead of bodily health.
Near the last day a thin, unshaven and disheveled older gentleman joined us the meditation hall. When I was taking a walk on the paths behind the dormitory that day, I noticed he was living in a small tent out in the forest. Despite his meager situation and minimal possessions, however, he had a radiance about him that was palpable. Even though we could not speak to each other, in my deeply perceptive state I could feel the happiness that emanated from him when I was near his presence. He was a shining example of what the course was trying to teach: that contentment can only arise from within, not from your outside surroundings and situation. If I continue to practice vipassana, maybe I could fail at everything in life and still find joy like this old man. It was a serene moment when I came to the realization I simply won’t be afraid to take any risks in my life anymore. I knew I could always have the chance to find harmony now, even if my circumstances somehow became dire. My desire for material things and my attachment to money, already weak, evaporated further from observing his silent nobility.
By the end of the tenth day I was more than ready to get back to normal life and finally have a burger. The students and I were able to talk amongst each other again and our phones were returned to us. I looked through my phone and, seeing nothing really pressing I had to deal with, placed it away in my pocket after a few short conversations with friends and family. My already distant relationship with social media, often an addiction for most people, appeared to have dissipated even more. As I talked with the other students I found my normal mild social anxiety utterly absent. The conversation flowed from point to point without interruption: everyone was respectfully allowed to speak and make a point and then someone added on to that or moved to a different subject. It was interesting how different even a simple act like talking had become after ten days of meditation: with no other distractions and our egos greatly diminished, everyone was completely tuned in and no one was talking over each other. It was very pleasant. The return to the bustle, panic, and selfishness of the real world would be the real challenge now.
I drove home the next morning, feeling unequivocally euphoric and joyful. I listened to music the entire drive, connecting and singing along with my favorite artists in a way I had never experienced before. With my mind finally allowed to wander, I realized I’ve been searching for some sort of meaning and purpose for most of my life. I didn’t know if I had found all the answers in vipassana, but I felt like I had at least discovered a piece of the puzzle that was previously missing. Comforted by that thought, I continued to drive and returned home full of overflowing peace, fulfillment, and–to my surprise–love and compassion.
“Every person’s life is a journey toward himself, the attempt at a journey, the intimation of a path. No person has ever been completely himself, but each one strives to become so, some gropingly, others more lucidly, according to his abilities…but each one is a gamble of nature, a hopeful attempt at forming a human being. We all have a common origin, we all come out of the same abyss, but each of us, a trial throw of the dice from the depths, strives towards his own goal. We can understand one another, but each of us can only interpret himself.”
— Hesse, Demian