By Ethan Maurice | November 20th, 2018
Ten hours a day for ten days straight, I sat meditating (or attempting to at least). Not to short-change past endeavors, like recovering from a brain-damaging stroke or pedaling a bicycle across the United States, but it might have been the most intense, challenging experience of my life to date. It was also one of the best.
What follows is part story, part review: why I signed up, my experience, and why I believe that—if one can handle it—a ten-day Vipassana meditation course is one of the best experiences a human can have.
Why’d I Sign Up for a 10-Day Vipassana Meditation Course?
Twenty minutes was the longest I'd ever tried to meditate before. Yet, there I sat, about to embark on one hundred hours of meditation over the next ten days. How did this happen?
I have my sister to thank for the introduction. During a road trip up the west coast this past April, I picked her up at the airport in Seattle and dropped her off at a Vipassana center in southern Washington. The day the course began was the most stressful day of my entire road trip. A mad dash of gathering supplies, last minute decisions, and leaving Seattle with a need to make up fifteen minutes to arrive on time—in silence—as she rushed to submit multiple summer job applications by laptop via cellular data hotspot. I marveled at the irony of entering any sort of calming activity in such a way.
Twelve days passed and I picked her up at the airport again. This time in Bozeman, Montana to help out at my place of seasonal work for a couple weeks. She was another person. Written in her posture, speech, and this quiet smile she carried was unflappable contentment. At least an hour every day, she would sit in her room and meditate. We talked in depth about her experience, she told me about this incredible ability to sense her body and disassociate from physical pain, yet I never fully grasped how that helped one's mind.
In August, she did another ten-day course. Clearly something worthwhile was happening here. Then in September, I read that mega-bestselling book of human history Sapiens, where author Yuval Noah Harari twice mentions the practice with the highest praise. Too much good was stacking up to not explore this.
At a pivotal point in my life, with my final season of running the Range Rider's Lodge winding down and limitless options ahead, I hoped such an intense, immersive experience might lend insight into what I should do next. I also felt I hadn't truly challenged myself in a while and some part of me wanted to see if I could handle the fire. So, I did the unthinkable: I signed up to live as a monk for ten days, sitting eyes-closed and still for over one hundred hours.
A Side Note & The Schedule
At this point in the article, it would make sense to explain what Vipassana meditation actually is, but I'm not going to. Why? Because I didn't know, and to tell you would sort of ruin the sense of discovery. The text above and the schedule below was all I knew about the practice (I'm a big fan of hurling oneself into the unknown).
Vipassana Daily Schedule:
4:00am Morning wake-up bell
6:30-8:00am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00am Group meditation
11:00-12:00pm Lunch break
12:00-1:00pm Rest and interviews w/ teacher
2:30-3:30pm Group meditation
5:00-6:00pm Fruit and tea break
6:00-7:00pm Group meditation
7:00-8:15pm Teacher’s Discourse
8:15-9:00pm Group meditation
9:00-9:30pm Question time
9:30pm Retire to your room–lights out
A Daily Breakdown of My Vipassana Experience
After eight days on the road from Montana to Texas, I arrive on the afternoon of Day Zero (the course actually spans twelve days to allot ten full days to meditation). I haven't given this a ton of thought and over the past few days doubts have arisen. Do I actually want to do this? Ten full days of meditation? Of sitting in shut-eyed silence? But after driving 1,500 miles, backing out is clearly out of the question. I gather the little I need from my home on wheels and head in.
After signing in, I drop my things in a bunk room of the male dorm and take a tour of the grounds with everyone. The property is elegant and well kept with lush grass, covered walkways, a pond of large goldfish hoping to be fed, and Buddhist statues abound.
I don't think you could assemble a more diverse crowd of people—a full spectrum of ages, races, and religious backgrounds are represented. At least three or four different languages are being spoken, which I think to be a good sign about the universality of the practice.
In the meditation hall, everyone is assigned a specific spot and cushion. We watch our first nightly recorded lecture from a cheerful, old, smooth-voiced man by the name of S.N. Goenka. After the lecture “noble silence” begins. No communication through words, eye contact, or even gestures is to be made for the next ten days. However, we will be allowed to ask questions of an assistant teacher and course manager if needed. In anticipatory silence, not unlike astronauts walking out to a space shuttle before launch, we walk back to our bunk rooms and go straight to bed. Tomorrow, we are to begin exploration of the universe within.
“THIS HURTS. THERE'S NO WAY I CAN DO THIS FOR TEN DAYS. I SHOULD JUST LEAVE.” is the mantra grinding on repeat through my head. Turns out, I'm not flexible enough to comfortably sit cross-legged for more than five minutes. Sitting on my heels is even worse. I sit in fidgeting variation, mostly with my feet planted on the floor hugging my knees. My ass is killing me and ten days of this is surely impossible. Ironically, it's my ego and the embarrassment I'd suffer for driving across multiple states for this experience only to leave on the first day that keeps me there. Minute by minute, hour by hour, I struggle and somehow survive.
We spend the entire day trying to direct our focus on the air passing in and out of the nostrils with each breath. When you realize your mind has wandered, you smile and bring it back to the sensations in your nose. The sitting is excruciating, which makes the smiling part hard, but as the hours pass my focus begins to improve.
Nose exploration day. You focus on a small area inside the nostrils to feel your breath passing in and out and continue to bring the mind back when it wanders away. In the afternoon, I hold my entire conscious attention on a single nose hair for five minutes straight. At times, I suffer immensely from the aches and searing pains in the lower half of my body. Other times, the pain becomes mere background noise as I'm so focused on a hair in my nose. As my mind wanders less and less my determination to stay grows.
We spend an entire day feeling for any sort of sensation in the area which one would grow a mustache. While meditating, I can remain in conscious awareness for five or ten minutes without a thought. I've only ever glimpsed the present like this before, it's utterly blissful. My eyes well up multiple times throughout the day. I begin to perceive the difference between observing and suffering from pain, though I still suffer most of the time.
I discover that the past three days we have not been doing Vipassana meditation. Rather, we've been sharpening the mind: training it to stop following strings of thought and to feel subtler sensations. In the afternoon, we begin actual Vipassana meditation, unleashing our newfound abilities throughout the body. We're told to start with the top of the head. When I focus all my conscious attention there, it immediately feels like a bunch of bugs are running around on my scalp, which is weird, yet oddly satisfying. As instructed, I move my focus place by place throughout my body. Though I have trouble finding any sensation in most areas, I am astonished by this ability to “look around” inside. I begin to think I might understand what a“third eye” is.
Spot by spot, we spend the whole day moving our conscious focus around our bodies. With every pass through, I notice another slight sensation here, another detail there. In a day, my entire musculature goes from roughly twenty to eighty percent consciously perceivable. We're repeatedly reminded that any sensation experienced is change, which is absolutely true, at the very minimum a neuron is electrically or chemically signaling to the brain. Plus, there are trillion upon trillions of cells in a human body and considering that each cell is constantly at work, there is always whole lot of change going on within. In some of the most sensitive spots I place my focus I begin to encounter these rapid, pleasurable tingling sensations that I've never felt before in my entire life.
That afternoon, I make the oddest discovery: my subconscious mind is counting my every breath. When I become aware of this, it's somewhere in the sixties. It's clearly pretty bad at counting, as I find it's always somewhere between one and ninety-nine. I attribute this to ten years of working out, counting each rep and breath. I try consciously sabotaging my subconscious counting, throwing random numbers or even letters into the mix, but eventually it always starts up again. Thinking I might be going crazy, I break silence to ask the assistant teacher about this. He tells me it's normal for these subconscious patterns to come up. As long as I’m not consciously reinforcing the pattern, it will work itself out.
The third day we've spent exploring our bodies with conscious awareness, I've gained an incredible ability to sense the tiniest details all throughout my body. Increasingly often, I run into those rapid, pleasurable tingling sensation wherever I focus my awareness. We're told to swiftly sweep our awareness throughout our bodies every now and then.
In the afternoon, something amazing happens. I sweep my focus round and round and my entire body lights up in these rapid, pleasurable tingling sensations. Thousands upon thousands in every second. I know that each sensation is the result of some tiny change occurring my body and in the craziest moment of realization, experience that I am entirely composed of change. With tears streaming down my face, I wonder where “I,” an individual, special me separate from the rest of the universe could possibly exist in this rapidly changing framework. Might “I” be a case of mistaken identity? Like a wave thinking it's a wave and not the ocean? For me, this is the most mind-blowing moment of the entire course.
Experiencing pleasurable sensations of change throughout one’s entire body is amazing and philosophically revolutionary, but it's also not the point of Vipassana meditation. It's the pleasure to complement the pain, the positive to the negative, the yin to the yang. Pleasurable and painful sensations arise and pass. We are to sit and equanimously observe both, neither craving the pleasure or the dissolution of pain.
It turns out that, in its essence, Vipassana meditation is simply a practice to consciously break the subconscious habit of reacting to sensation.
A fan of Stoic philosophy, I realize Vipassana meditation is akin to programming stoicism into the body and subconscious mind. In a way, Buddha, who discovered and spread this practice 2,500 years ago was the world's best Stoic hundreds of years before the advent of Stoicism. What was so remarkable about Buddha's discovery? He figured out how to instill that imperturbable calm below thought and intellect, at the deepest causal level, through observing and not reacting to pleasure or pain at all levels of sensation. Buddha aimed at “the root,” while every other religion, philosophy, and idea I have ever encountered is less effectively aimed higher up “the tree.”
No longer are my legs and butt the biggest pain. After seven days of sitting, my upper spine feels sort of like it’s being stabbed with hot knives. Now that I understand the practice, I think, “Cool, I’ve got this. I can leave now! Don't want to mess up my back or anything.” But to leave would be to react to the pain. As the fire of unpleasant sensation grows, I do my best to remain equanimous. Three days remain.
Mid-morning, a parasitic thought pops into my head that hadn't occurred the past week: “What am I doing after this meditation course?” So focused on the meditation left to traverse, no worry of the past week was apparently able to reach beyond this course. But with only two days left, my mind seems once again able to project further. I bring my attention back to my nose, but my mind butts in again with “reasonable” excuses to think about the future and in a moment of weakness, I oblige. I spent an hour in the mediation hall considering “what’s next?” From this point on, my mental wandering grows. Though I can still find ten minutes of thoughtless inner-exploration, I can also find half an hour to fret about my future.
Full of wild emotional ups and downs, I try my best to observe them. Twice, my entire body feels like its dissolved into tiny, rapid, pleasurable sensations of change as it did the seventh day. Other times, a line of spastic pain originating in my spine radiates up the back of my head, across the top, and all the way down into my upper nose. My face feels contorted, but sitting in utter stillness, one loses their sense for the external and I can't be sure.
I spend multiple hours of meditation thinking about the future: ideas of adventures, books, and businesses popping up as “the answer!” to what I'm doing when I leave only to seem stupid twenty minutes later. While a day of meditation is surprisingly exhausting and I usually fall asleep in a matter of two or three minutes, I toss and turn for hours this night, unable to turn off the frantic problem-solving apparatus of my mind.
In the depths of a sleepless night, a realization dawns: my overwhelming focus on the future isn’t the result of impending decision, but of ego. The question plaguing me is not “what’s next?” but “how can I keep up this streak of extraordinary?” Five years ago, I started out in curiosity and excitement towards things like pedaling a bicycle across the USA, working as a deckhand on a cruise ship, and WWOOFing on the Big Island of Hawaii. But somewhere along the way, I began building my identity on and deriving self-worth from successful, swashbuckling endeavor. I’m obsessing over the future because it’s threatening the story I tell myself about who I am.
From all these hours of meditation, it’s quite clear whatever I am has little to do with my ego’s story about itself. Tremendous relief washes over me. I laugh aloud in my bunk, let go, and finally fall asleep.
The peace remains in the morning. We meditate for a couple of hours, which before this retreat would have been an impassible eternity, but even with agonizing back pain, the idea barely phases me. When our 8-9am session ends, “noble silence” is lifted.
Hardly anyone can believe they survived. We paradoxically discuss which days we thought about leaving the most and how signing up for this course was one of the best decisions we ever made. Everyone feels they've changed in a major way but is too fresh out of what’s dubbed “mental surgery” to tell. In the afternoon, we learn another type of meditation in which we wish happiness to all beings to end all our future meditations with.
In the same way that war bond soldiers, Vipassana has bonded us. Trent, the blues guitarist I sat next to for thirty silent meals in the dining hall jumps my car’s dead battery and gives me an unplugged Eric Clapton CD. I drive away in awe of the totality of the ten days, vowing to connect more than a couple people in my life with the inner half of the human experience.
The first day or two after the course, my mind is remarkably still. As days pass, however, my mind learns how to wander again. When I notice, I can often bring myself back to present awareness simply with conscious focus on my breath. Hiking around Big Big National Park for a couple days after the course, I remain completely present with each step for minutes at a time, making for some of the most immersive moments in nature I've ever experienced.
Almost three weeks out now, Vipassana still pervades my every day. That said, mediation is a practice and all these benefits will fade with time if I don't continue practicing. It's recommended to meditate for an hour in both the morning and evening, but I'm currently only spending twenty minutes each morning in meditation. In time, I’ll know how much of the benefit I can retain with only a fraction of the investment.
What I Learned from Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana meditation is a 180-degree rotation of attention from the external to the internal. Before experiencing Vipassana, the idea of confining attention to my body for ten days seemed quite boring, but that’s because my senses within were so dull. Over a week, those internal senses evolved from the equivalent of a 1990’s car radio screen to a modern-day 4K television. Until I experienced this for myself, I couldn’t even comprehend what I was missing.
I did expect some sensory improvement to happen (though to a much lesser degree), but what truly I didn’t understand was how internal exploration could be more fruitful than external exploration… Why observe the body?
What I came to understand in those ten days is best described with the analogy of a tree. The external world being the branches and leaves, the mind the trunk, and the body the root. While it may look as if the trunk is the source and that what happens with the branches and leaves of our lives is what makes or breaks them, the entire tree always stems from the root.
As roots are the unseen foundation of the tree, the sensations of our bodies are the unseen foundation of our every experience. In deep examination of my roots, it became clear that all feelings, thoughts, and actions in the world external to me manifest first in them. If we are to find inner-peace in life, I know from experience that the roots are the place to look.
However the most useful thing I learned is that suffering comes from a desire to change what is. Two paragraphs from Sapiens, the book that inspired me to try Vipassana, probably describe this better than I can:
“People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realize how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing—joy, anger, boredom, lust—but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasizing about what might have been.
The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!”
Vipassana meditation is the intersection of the two above points: a sharpening of the conscious mind to sense the subtlest possible sensations, and equanimous observation—without reaction—to all sensations. Through this method, one can fully accept what is, and thus, be completely at peace.
*Of course, this is a bit easier said than done.
Would I Recommend Vipassana Meditation to Others?
Yes! But only when the timing is right.
A simple, non-sectarian technique for programming pervasive peace into our lives, I believe Vipassana meditation to be one of the best things I've ever encountered. I wouldn't recommend rushing into a course, though. Had I attended one a year ago, I probably would have left the first day. Trying to sit still and consciously aware for ten straight days is a tremendous challenge. Sign up when you have some extra gumption to give to the experience.
Lastly, if you’ve made it this far in this lengthy article, you might be curious how much a ten-day Vipassana course cost? It’s absolutely free. The program is entirely run by volunteers and financially supported by past students (I found myself keen to donate after the course to give another the remarkable experience I just had).
Dhamma.org – The homepage of Vipassana Meditation, where you can find course locations, schedules, apply, and all that jazz.
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation – A simple written explanation of Vipassana from S.N. Goenka (the cheerful, old, smooth-voiced man who posthumously teaches all the classes via recorded lecture).