Meditation Training or Boot Camp for Your Brain? – Part 5

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In the previous installment of this series on the Vipassana 10-day Mediation course, I discussed the law of anicca and the second half of the course. In this fifth and final installment, I will describe the ending of the course and my return to society.

Day 10 – Here comes the boom

The morning of day 10 was upon me. I arose at 4am, quickly took a shower and was on the mat by 4:30am. I sat in meditation posture for an hour and a half straight. After a quick break, I sat for another 20 minutes before breakfast. The techniques that I was learning were working. Following the law of anicca, I was able to sit through the pain for longer periods of time. By quieting the mind and shedding the weight from so many negative past memories, I felt lightness like I hadn’t ever felt before. By noticing the thoughts that I was creating, I was thinking less critically of others and so creating much less negative energy within myself.

After breakfast, we had one more meditation style to learn. This was the compassion meditation. For this mediation style, we were encouraged to sit in a comfortable sitting position. The mediation consists of generating the feelings of peace, happiness, and love within yourself and then allowing those feelings to permeate out to everyone else. You feel your connectedness to everyone and pass those compassionate emotions out to anyone and everyone.

This mediation technique was a beautiful end to a grueling and challenging week and a half. It was amazing being in a room with a hundred people performing this technique. You literally could feel the energy and compassion in the room.

After this final and somewhat brief mediation session, noble silence was lifted. Everyone arose from meditation with an awkward glance around and casual yet hesitant greeting to those around. After 9 days of ignoring everyone one around, it was strange to be able to look at them and address them once again.

As everyone exited the meditation hall, the sonic boom of the cacophony of constant chatter swept across the room. The pent up discussions erupted one after another.

Even myself, a self-prescribed wall flower, was working the room like a presidential candidate. I felt alive and grateful to be talking to anyone and everyone. All of my usual negative mind chatter that used to come up in social situations have vanished. I was in the moment.

That is until exhaustion swept over me after about 45 minutes of numerous conversations. I felt as if I had to get away from the noise of the room. I felt overwhelmed by the tidal wave of constant chatter that had risen.

I went back to the cabin and sat on the patio hearing the distant conversations at a more tempered volume. “Ahhhh peace again”, I thought. Slowly my fellow roommates started to trickle back to the cabin and proceeded to sit with me in a calmer form of discussion. It turned out that all of them had succumbed to the same emotional overload that I had felt. Even the social butterflies of the group had felt overwhelmed by the instant snap back into reality.

It turned out that this was yet another carefully planned part of the course. The last 24 hours was designed to be a slow reentry into society and a chance to retreat back into silence when needed.

My roommates and I talked for a good hour or so about the lessons we had learned, the things that we hoped to take away, the fears and excitement that we had about returning to daily life, and joked about the similar battles that we all seemed to be fighting silently during the course.

As I talked to the fellow participants throughout that day I had yet another epiphany. This would be the fourth life changing epiphany that I had in the course. This one was regarding the judgmental nature of the mind. I had been around these people all week, but was unable to say a single word to them in order to get to know them.

It is human nature to make judgments of other people that you meet. This is a remnant of our ancestor’s protection instinct. Our ancestors needed to judge others to determine if they were safe or dangerous.

Now, we judge others on all kinds of labels, expectations, and social norms. Taking out the speech aspect of meeting new people means that you simple are relying on their physical presentation and actions to make your judgments about what kind of person they are.

The epiphany that I had here was that the judgments that I made about these people were mostly all wrong. I had unknowingly judged people, labeled them and put them in boxes according to my own expectations. When we were able to speak to one another on the tenth day, I was surprised at how different they were compared to how I had judged them.

For example, I had one roommate who I judged to be in his late teens or early 20’s. I labeled him a disgruntled youth and a slacker. I won’t go into all of the reasons why I came to that conclusion, but needless to say I had labeled him and I didn’t realize that I had labeled him.

Here is what I found out on the 10th day when I was able to speak to him. He was in his mid 30’s, had just graduated with a degree after working his way through school, was married and had a teenage son that he adored, and was actually a very conscientious, kind and intelligent person. The “slackerness” that I had associated with him was just him working through his own demons and feelings of sadness over being away from his family.

That was when the epiphany happened. I now realized how I had unconsciously judged him earlier in the course without even a word being exchanged and I realized how wrong those judgments were. This was just one example. As I talked to other participants, I realized all sorts of incorrect judgments I had made based on my own norms and experiences.

Once again, a major life lesson learned simply by quieting the mind and listening to the thoughts that are being generated by my monkey mind.

Oh Yeah, This is Society

After leaving the camp on the 11th morning, I had driven several miles before reaching a sign of modern life; a Wal-Mart store in the first rural town I passed through. As I walked into the store, I had a surreal feeling as if I was walking in someone else’s dream.

I felt like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway where he stood in front of the buffet from his rescue celebration. He stared at the piles of leftover food knowing that, while on the island, he had spent so much time scrounging to find enough food to stay alive. He picked up and pondered in reverence the tools of modern convenience that lay on the buffet table. Such tools that he struggled to survive without.

I scanned the store taking in all of the aisles of things and the people pushing their carts with an abundance of food and other items that seems important to them yet would quickly become landfill material as it lost its luster. I had lived the past 10 days with only the bare necessities and only enough food as I needed. Somehow, I had survived.

I had a flashback to that conversation with my roommates on the porch on the 10th day. We were discussing how crazy most of society and in particular we had been in the past. We pondered why we used to be so caught up in silly things that make most people in society angry and upset. Little things like being cut off in traffic, a significant other not putting the cap back on the toothpaste or things not going as planned. Why did such things that are really of no importance seem to become so paramount to most people? Now we knew it was all from cravings for things to be a certain way or aversions to things being another way.

I chuckled to myself. Here I was standing in Wal-Mart after the course was over and I came across my last epiphany…don’t sweat the small stuff. How many times had I allowed myself to become upset at my wife and kids over the smallest things that I decided at the time to make a big deal. Many of them flashed through my mind and I just thought how silly it all was. Of course, using the teachings from the course, I didn’t allow myself to become upset, have regrets or beat myself up about it. I simple noticed the thoughts, realized how I would normally let such memories upset me and then let them pass away.

Life Goes On

As I write this, several weeks have passed since I attended the Vipassana meditation course. Life has returned to normal. I am back with my family, working as I was before, and going about day-to-day life much as I did prior to the course.

However, life is different now. Not because the conditions of my life had changed or because I moved to a remote jungle to live with no responsibilities or expectations. Rather life has changed because I learned to look at things differently.

In the past, I often felt anguish and longing for big changes in my life because I thought that was what I needed to feel happy. In reality, no matter where you go or what conditions exist in your life, it’s still you. If you find unhappiness in the current conditions of your life, you will eventually find ways to see unhappiness in whatever conditions you create in an attempt to escape the old conditions.

If life is an ocean, I am still floating in the middle treading water just like everyone else. However, I am more accepting of the waves of life and create less anger, despair and reactivity to them.

Sure, those waves will still at times knock me over, drag me under, or make me work harder to get my head above water. I am no saint just because I took a 10-day course. This is a lifelong practice and the course simply gave me the tools and a jump-start along the way. Now it is up to me to plot my own course.

If you have questions about the course, feedback about this series or have taken one of these courses and have a different perspective to share, drop me a comment. I love talking about the course and the benefits that I took away from it. If you have taken the time to read this entire series, I am grateful. I hope that you enjoyed it and got something from the time that it took you to read it.

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Meditation Training or Boot Camp for Your Brain? – Part 4

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In the previous installment of this series, I discussed the first part of the course. In this fourth installment of this series on the Vipassana 10-day Mediation course, I will describe the remainder of serious meditation time along with one of the key concepts learned in the course; the law of Anicca.

The Law of Anicca

The previous post may make it sound like the course is all about pain. Actually, it is about feeling the pain, but not creating suffering because of it. Typically, when we experience pain, either mental or physical, we want it to go away. We attempt to stuff it down, push it away or run away from it. We take some form of intoxicant, take medication or involve ourselves in some form of self-destructive behavior that just creates more pain in a different form. Things like alcoholism, drug addiction, retail therapy (shopping), extramarital affairs and treating others badly all come to mind as potential attempts at covering up our own pain.

What the course teaches is that pain is just another sensation. Just as pleasure is just another sensation. We should recognize them, but become attached to neither because this attachment only creates more suffering.

According to the Buddha, there are really only two things that create all human suffering; craving and aversion. We crave for what we want and don’t have and have aversions for things we have and don’t want. (I wrote more about this in a separate post). Either way we are creating suffering for ourselves because we are not accepting what is.

We feel pain and we fight against it. The pain is not creating our suffering; it is our fighting against it that creates the suffering. We feel pleasure and we become attached to it, which leads to suffering when the pleasurable experience has ended. We long for it to return and when it does not we crave for it and do all sort of crazy things to get it back.

Everything in life follows the law of anicca (pronounced aneecha) which means that everything is impermanent. All things rise and fall, come and go, enter and leave and there is nothing that we can do to control it.

Everything that we experience in life is like waves on the ocean. The waves swell and wane according to the will of the ocean, not our own. Fighting against the law of annica is like treading water in the middle of the ocean and trying to stop the wave that is coming towards you or begging the one that passed by to come back or getting angry with the wave that is off in the distance that will not come near you. Such behavior would be seen as true madness. Yet we all behave in such a manner every day.

The Rise and Fall of Past Experiences

Without the old monkey chatter material, the mind starts to dig up the old material that we stored away from past experiences. During the first few days of using the Vipassana technique, I started to notice something strange. It hit me one morning as I was walking to the bathhouse to get a shower. As I walked, I noticed memories from the past coming out of nowhere. Some of them I had not thought about in years.

As these memories arose, I noticed that they all had some emotional charge behind them. As one rose, I though “hmm, that usually makes me mad when I think about it.” When another one rose, I thought “hmm, that one usually makes me jealous when I think about it.” The strange thing was that I was not feeling those typical reactions. I was just noticing them and then they would pass away without my mood changing.
“Is the technique causing this to happen?” I wondered and later that night asked the teacher.

“Oh yes, that is a normal part of the technique. Your old emotionally charged memories will come to you. If you don’t react to them like you are learning to do with the physical sensations that arise during meditation, then they will pass away and lose their power”.

Essentially, by not reacting to them, I am removing the burdens of past experiences that I had been dragging around with me. I was lightening my emotional load.

This was my third life changing epiphany that came to me during this course. I now realized how much of an emotional drag I was creating for myself by holding onto these old memories and continuing to give them power. Now following the law of anicca, I could let them rise, notice them and then let them go.

Day 6 – Hitting Bottom Again

With all of these impactful life lessons that I was learning, you would think that things would have been going great for me in the course and I would be riding high. I was until day 6.

Every evening at about 8pm we would watch a video, called a discourse, of S.N. Goenka discussing the teachings of the course and explaining the technique and its history. In one of the videos shown towards the end of the course, he described how in days 4 and 6 most people experienced turmoil. I was right in line with that statistic. Day 4 was the day that I wrote about in the last post where I almost quit. Day 6 strangely enough had me feeling that strong tug to get out of this place and go back home.

I was tired, I was losing my ability to hold a meditation posture through the entire hour sessions, I was again homesick, and I was experiencing this rollercoaster ride of past experiences coming to the surface constantly. It was emotionally, physically, and mentally draining.

After the last meditation session on day 6 I went back to my bunk frustrated, angry, and tired. I pushed my alarm clock to the side without setting it for its normal 4am wake call. I slept until about 6am missing the morning meditation session, the wake up gongs that went off every morning and the commotion of my roommates getting up in the morning.

When I awoke, I felt refreshed and renewed. I noticed that some of my cabin mates must have been going through the same thing because several of them were still in bed as well.

I had successfully overcome my third bout of a strong desire to run away. Somehow, I had survived. The announcement to come in day 7’s evening discourse video would bring even more charge back into my desire to finish this course.

Day 7 – What do you mean it’s almost be over?

In the day seven evening discourse, Goinka announced that days 8 and 9 were the last two days of serious meditation and on day 10 noble silence would be lifted and serious meditation would be over.

Everyday up to that point, I had been counting the days and wanting the days to move faster so that I could get to the end. Now with that announcement, I felt sad and concerned. “I am not done with learning the technique. I am not ready for this to be over. I need more time to get better at this.”

Isn’t that the way the mind works? When you are in a situation, the mind claims to want to be in a different situation. When you finally get to the new situation, the mind harkens back to the good times that it misses in the old situation.

This is one of the tricks that the mind plays on you to keep you out of the present moment. The mind is either reliving memories from the past or thinking about things in the future. The mind never wants to just be.

Now that I was past day 6 and feeling back on track, I was back with a “strong determination” for completing this course. I was once again maintaining my posture for the hour mediation sessions and feeling the life changing effects of the tools I was learning.

In the next and final installment of this series, I will describe the completion of the course and the return to society.

Meditation Training or Boot Camp for Your Brain? – Part 3

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In this third installment of this series on the Vipassana 10-day Mediation course, I will describe the first several days of the course along with the first two meditation techniques learned in the course. View the previous post on this series.

3 Entire days of focusing on the breath, really?

The initial 3 days of the course were spent on the first of three mediation technique to be learned in this course. This technique is called Anapana (pronounced ānāpāna) and it focuses on feeling the sensations in the body caused by the movements of the breath. It has three primary goals in mind. The first is to sharpen the attention to sensations in the body. The second is to notice the distracting thoughts in the mind without giving them any attention. The third is to let the monkey mind run through its stockpile of chatter material, while minimizing the sources of new chatter material and allow it to start to quiet down.

Believe it or not, the entire body is constantly feeling sensations. We have learned to tune those sensations out. This technique helps you to tap into the ability to feel those sensations.

Ten hours a day feeling the sensation of the breath as it comes in and out of the nostrils. Sounds maddening doesn’t it? Actually it was relaxing at first, but this course is not about relaxation. The goal of many other meditation techniques is focused on getting the meditator into a relaxed state. Vipassana is about ridding the participant of suffering. Relaxation, as lovely as it would be, is not the path to removing suffering. Relaxation is actually just another way to push the cause of the suffering to the side or back under the surface.

Slowly, the initial relaxation felt at the beginning starts to fade as the other companions of this technique start to creep in. These are boredom, negative emotions, and the building pain from the body sitting in one position for hours at a time.

The mind and body literally fight to get out of the meditation position. The mind starts to bring up all of the reasons why it is more important to be somewhere else besides on the mediation mat. The body starts to send messages to the brain to quickly get out of this ridiculous posture. I can remember feeling a sensation shoot through my body as if I was about to be crushed by a giant piece of furniture that was about to fall on me. I literally felt a sensation of needing to jump up instantly.

Emotions started to swirl again about how I had left my family and the mental recording of the anxiety filled room as I left on Sunday played over and over in my mind like an old scratched record. “We need to go home”, my mind kept telling me.

These are all tricks the mind and body bring up in order to thwart the change that is coming with this mediation technique. They want things to remain the same and this perceived change to what was previously known as normalcy is seen as a threat.

An interesting side effect started to happen while spending these three days focused on the breath. Since there was a sharpened awareness of the chatter going on in the brain and a depleting stockpile of monkey chatter, I started to become aware of thoughts that I had never really given attention to in the past.

I started to realize how critical I was of others. My wife had told me numerous times in the past that I was a critical person.

“I am not that kind of person and I don’t go around criticizing people. “ I would assure her.

“You don’t speak critically to others, but you are constantly criticizing other people, situations, and circumstances to yourself. You may not say it, but you think it.” She would respond.

“That’s ridiculous”, was my typical answer.

I was slowly realizing how “not ridiculous” her statement was. I had been unaware of how I walked around thinking all sorts of negative and mean thoughts about what people were wearing, what they were doing or not doing, or how they were doing things.

I realized how these thoughts, even though I normally did not speak them aloud, contributed to my own anger, discontent, feelings of self-pity, and general negativity. I had been walking around generating anger and negativity without even being aware of it for who knows how long. Now I was aware of it.

The strange thing was that I was noticing those thoughts and by noticing them, they were no longer generating the anger and negativity. I could notice them, realize how ridiculous the thoughts were and let them go. Not only that, but I also realized that by doing this I was starting to find less and less reasons to have such critical thoughts. I was being less critical just through this recognition of how critical I had been.

This was the first of several big epiphanies that I would have at this course. I wondered what more was to come. After all, we hadn’t even started the main technique of the course yet and I had already made a shift that would have huge impacts on my life.

Day Four – Vipassana Day

Day four is called Vipassana day. This means that you have mastered the Anapana technique and are ready to move into the main technique of the course.

The Vipassana technique involves slowly scanning your body and noticing the sensations that arise. In the Anapana technique, the focus is on feeling sensations in the area around and inside the nose. With the Vipassana technique, the attention is moved around the body scanning each area before moving to the next.

The key with this technique is that you learn not to react to the sensations. You notice the sensation and regardless if it is a good sensation or a bad sensation, you let it be. There is no attempting to hold onto a pleasurable feeling or trying to remove an unpleasant feeling. To put in a term used throughout the course, the goal is to keep the mind in an equanimous state, judging all things as equal.

As blissful as that sounds, I was struggling with getting into that state. The mental and physical exhaustion of the last few days was wearing me down and I wasn’t even half way through the course. By the end of day four, I was done. I was homesick. I was in pain. The thought of having to go back into the meditation hall for another day was horrifying. This would prove to be a pivotal moment.

The program had not given any direction around attempting to stay in a posture nor any instructions on how to sit. It was left up to everyone to decide on their own. There was constant movement in the room as people jostled about attempting to find a comfortable position or leaving the room to walk off the pain.

Now things were changing. The course now asked that you attempt to stay in the position for each entire hour session. Up to this point, I had not been able to hold my position for more than 15 minutes before I had to change positions or get up and move around. I didn’t think that it was ever going to be possible for me to sit in one posture for an entire hour.

The next day, I decided to meet with the teacher over lunch. Even though talking to other participants was not permitted, talking with the teacher and staff members was allowed. There was scheduled time every day over the lunch break that participants could meet with the teachers to ask questions, discuss problems or get feedback on the techniques.

My fight or flight response was again screaming to get the heck out of here. I was ready to ask for my keys, wallet and phone and walk out of this place for good. I described my dilemma to the teacher. I told him about how much pain I was in and how I just could not hold the position no matter which one I used.

Here comes epiphany number two. His answer to my whining was like a bolt of lightning that resonated through my body and soul. He described how maintaining the posture and sitting through the pain was a metaphor for life. In the real world when problems arise, you cannot back away, run away, or give up. You must instead push through without reacting to the pains of life.

“Are you kidding me?” I thought. “Is this guy seeing through me? Does he know that he has just described my typical reaction to life’s problems?” I was always the one who wanted to crawl into a ball and hide when life came knocking at the door. I was always the one who wanted to give up when things got tuff. I was always the one who wanted to run away when things were painful or didn’t seem to make sense.

“Well not anymore! “ I declared in my mind. “I didn’t come here and put my family through this just to give up. I came here to make life changes and this was one that needed to be made in a big way. “

The term that kept being used in the course was “strong determination” and that is exactly what I now had. The next meditation session I sat for the entire hour without moving. What once seemed impossible was suddenly possible. Not only did I sit for that entire hour, but also for almost all of the hour sessions that followed. In fact, on the last day, I sat for an hour and a half without moving. Strong determination was now mine.

In the next installment of this series, I will describe the remainder of serious meditation time along with one of the key concepts learned in the course; the law of Anicca.

Meditation Training or Boot Camp for Your Brain? – Part 2

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In this second installment of this series on the Vipassana 10-day Mediation course, I will describe what arriving at the camp was like and what the conditions of the course were. View Part 1.

Day Zero

I checked into the course located on 400 acres of ranch and forestland an hour away from my house at 4pm on Sunday afternoon. This was day zero.

I unpacked and drove my car to the parking area at the front of the property. As I walked the quarter mile dirt road back to the cabins preparing to turn in my cell phone, wallet and keys, I scanned the beautiful landscape that surrounded me. Tears started to fill my eyes as I thought of the long ten days that lay in front of me and of the wake of sadness and anxiety that I left at home with my departure earlier that day.

The pain of leaving home set in at lunch when my seven-year-old daughter turned to me from her coloring sheet at the restaurant table. She looked at me with distressed eyes and said in her most desperate voice “can’t you go a different day?” Up to this point, everyone had been ok with me leaving for ten days, but now that it was THE day, reality was setting in. I proceeded to lament a long explanation of why I had to go this day. She just put her head down on the table next to her mostly uneaten lunch and sobbed.

Later at home as I was saying goodbye, the whole family broke down in tears. My daughter was clinging to my leg and crying for me not to leave. My wife and I attempted to hold back the tears as we embraced and my son clung to my other side sniffling and wiping the tears from his eyes. I had no idea this would be so hard. How do military families get used to doing this all the time?

Now walking up the dirt path I again felt the pain in my heart and was fighting the urge to turn around, get my car, and leave. This would be the first of many times over these ten days that my fight or flight sense would be screaming to run.

Over dinner, the room was loud with chatter and excited discussion. This was the loudest this room would be until early on day 10. The new students, ones that had never taken a Vipassana class before, were visibly nervous. The old students, ones who had taken the course at least once before, were much calmer and aware of what was in front of us in the upcoming days.
At 8pm, we entered the meditation hall for the first time to our assigned 2×2 mediation mat that would be our own personal battleground for the next 10 days. Noble silence began. There would be no talking with other participants, no eye contact and no gestures. I was surrounded by about a hundred people, but I was alone to fight my own battles.

The Buddha, who is the founder of this particular mediation practice, stated that everyone can be shown the path, but each must walk it alone. No one can escort you down it or make you take the turns along the path that you are meant to take. You must decide to do it and you must steer your own course.

This entire course is setup to allow you to walk that path as you so choose. There is no dogma or rituals to be performed. It is not part of any religion or particular belief system. The technique is taught and you decide how you want to utilize it.

The Monkey Mind

If you have ever sat down to meditate, you know the experience of listening to the constant chatter of the mind. The monkey mind, as it is referred to, is constantly jumping from one topic to the next never allowing a second of reprieve.

The restrictions that we were undertaking in the course were all designed to help quiet the monkey mind. Like a comedian constantly on the lookout for joke material for his/her stand-up routine, the mind is constantly looking for material to use for its monkey chatter. It looks for material in what is going on around you, what is projected to happen yet, as well as your memory bank of past experiences.

By removing access to the outside world, the majority of chatter material that comes from daily life is removed. You are no longer reacting to world events or to drama in your favorite TV shows. The treasure trove of chatter material that is your family, friends and coworkers are all hidden from your mind.

By removing verbal and physical contact with fellow participants, even more potential chatter material is removed. The typical commiserating that would be occurring about how hard the course is or how much pain is being felt or how irritating some part of the course is are all removed. More importantly the influence of others experiences are removed. If Manny the meditator on the mat next to you told you that earlier he has such a wonderful experience in meditation where he felt a beautiful, warm and all-encompassing light and you had not had such an experience, your mind would start fixating on when that would happen to you. You would get lost in trying to experience a particular thing instead of paying attention to the experience that you are having.

By removing the constant access to food and putting a schedule around when food is available two purposes are achieved. First it removes the mind’s focus on what food the body wants and when it is going to get it. Second it limits the typical gorging that most of us do when there is open access to food. The benefit here is that when the body gorges on food, its energy is spent on processing the food instead for providing energy for the meditation practice. This leads to feeling lethargic, unfocussed, and the tendency to fall asleep during meditation.

The removal of a fee for attending the course probably has the most unobvious impact on the mind. If there was a fee for the course, the participants would get caught up in evaluation of the course and its conditions in comparison to their expectations of what they should receive based on what they paid. Thoughts like “I paid so much money and my bed is uncomfortable; I don’t get my own room; I don’t get the food that I want when I want it.” The mind cycles through such thoughts and generates more anger, frustration, and discontent; things that the course is attempting to remove. Because it is free, participants are more likely to be accepting of whatever is given to them.

In the next installment of this series, I will describe the two main techniques learned in the course.

Meditation Training or Boot Camp for Your Brain? – Part 1

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This post is part of a series that recounts the 10-day Vipassana meditation course that I attended recently. This series will consist of several posts that each discuss a particular part of the course.

Imagine giving up access to all of your electronic devices. This means no smart phone, computer, iPad, television or radio. No tweeting, FaceBooking, blogging, trash TV or Internet surfing. I’m not talking about giving them up forever, but for ten days straight. Could you do it? Does it sound like a vacation in a remote destination?

Now take it even further. Take away any physical or verbal contact with anyone else for those 10 days. Wake up at 4am every day to sit through a 2-hour meditation before breakfast and then proceed to meditate for about eight more hours over the remainder of the day following a strict schedule. Does it still sound appealing?

Now take away open access to food. You eat what is given to you when it is given to you. To top it all off, there is no food available after Noon each day except for fruit and tea at 5pm. In many parts of the world, this would be unthinkable. We have access to more food than we could ever possibly need whenever we want it. Could you give up that luxury?

In addition, take away any leisure activities such as reading, writing or musical instruments. The idea is to remove anything that could affect your attention to the task of learning the meditation techniques taught in this course. Could you live without all of these things for ten days.

You may be thinking, “Maybe I could, but why would I want to?” Well what if by doing all this you could learn an ancient mediation technique discovered 2,500 years ago that is touted as the path to remove all human suffering. Would that be worth giving all that up for 10 days?

I thought it would be and so I recently had the honor of attending a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. I know it seems like an extreme way to learn meditation and sounds more like hell week at Navy Seals training, but it all has a purpose, as I will describe in this post.

The course was a rollercoaster ride of high moments feeling like I was an enlightened being and low moments when I was fighting my mind and body to step out of past behavior patterns. It was full of twists and turns as new techniques were learned and new challenges were faced. As the website for the organization states, this is no vacation. It is a learning experience and one that significantly improves the lives of thousands of participants who are willing to endure the sacrifice to learn such a technique.

What do you mean it’s free?

This course is offered all over the world. It is offered free of charge and is run strictly on a donation and volunteer basis. As unrealistic as it may sound, it is all run off the generosity of those that have gone through the course previously and have felt so changed by its teachings that they were compelled to donate their money or their time so that others could also enjoy its benefits.

Since I am in America where people are always skeptical of anything free and where most people can’t handle of thought of anything that doesn’t fit into their little box called their view of the world, I received a lot of skepticism about my desire to attend such a course. I was peppered with questions like “Is it a cult?”, “Is it a religious thing?”, “Is this some sort of brainwashing?”, “Are they trying to sell you something?” People wondered if I would come back with a shaved head and goatee prepared to quit my job, leave my family and move to some shack in the woods. I already had a goatee, so I was clearly already on my way.

My response of course was that this is all ridiculous. Of course, none of this was true. Or was it? I must admit, there was a small part of me that was fearful that I would come back different and want to make drastic changes in my life. Ok, so maybe not so small. A big part of me had trepidation going into this course.

So, did any of this happen? Am I writing this from some remote jungle where I sit with nothing but a loose fitting robe listening to chanting going on around me? Let’s find out.

Deciding to take the plunge

I had been looking at different meditation courses for several years and had considered Vipassana as an option. However, the commitment of 10 days seemed daunting and the thought of leaving my family and my job for that long was hard to swallow.

I already had a somewhat regular meditation practice in place for years and was seeing definite benefits. When I was regularly meditating my depression, anxiety and panic attacks that I had suffered in the past had subsided considerably. My issues with anger and up and down feelings of dread with daily life had also started to melt away. Life on meditation was clearer and much more pleasant without the nasty side effects of the multitude of drugs that I could otherwise be prescribed.

The decision to take the plunge and go for the course came with a desire to take the benefits that I had experienced from meditation and thrust them forward. I wanted to enhance those benefits and fill myself with more love, peace and happiness and less anger, despair and reactivity to the waves from the ocean of life.

S.N. Goenka, the head of the Vipassana organization, calls the Vipassana 10-day course a major surgery. Instead of treating those ailments described above with a light salve (daily meditation, intoxicants, medications, addictions), this course was like going under the knife to make deep cuts to eradicate the cause of the suffering.

In the next post of this series, I will describe what is was like arriving at the course and what the first few days of the course was like.