Saturday, May 31, 2008

"My" Vipassana Meditation Experience

I have passed the New York Bar Exam, finished four marathons, and babysat my nephews.

By the fourth day of a ten-day Vipassana meditation course, a completely new standard was set for challenging my mental discipline and endurance. That course was the hardest thing I've ever done. It has also been the most rewarding.

"Vipassana," which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. During a 10-day Vipassana course (as taught by former Burmese industrialist S.N. Goenka), one is asked to wake up daily at 4 am, spend 10 hours and 45 minutes per day sitting in silent meditation, have absolutely no contact with the outside world or communication with other students, refrain from touching anyone, and be totally segregated from the opposite sex; Essentially anything that might distract one's mind from the process of self-inspection and observation is prohibited, including music, reading, and writing.

Students are also asked to commit in writing that they will stay the entire ten days without leaving the course boundary, and scrupulously follow five moral precepts:
  1. to abstain from killing any being;
  2. to abstain from stealing;
  3. to abstain from all sexual activity;
  4. to abstain from telling lies;
  5. to abstain from all intoxicants.
I first heard about Vipassana meditation by reading Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo's blog about it on myspace (reposted here). I was interested, but didn't look any further or seriously consider doing it. Then in April, my uncle told me about his own Vipassana experience. He had done a three-day course, and said that it was very painful to sit for three days straight, but that the pain is part of the experience, and also that in the beginning when someone made noises it would really disturb him, but by the end it became just a noise and there was far less negative reaction. My attention glanced over the pain part - I imagine myself as being able to handle any kind of pain without a problem (ha!) - but the part about eliminating negative reactions to everyday annoyances and cultivating peace of mind and self-knowledge was very interesting to me.

I started researching. The course is totally free, including food and lodging. Everything is paid for by donations from former students. Only someone who has taken the full course is allowed to make a donation. There are 8 centers in the United States and 3 in Canada. I found workable dates at the Illinois and Georgia centers and applied. I got wait-listed for both courses, but the Illinois people (their Center is called Dhamma Pakasa) told me I was second on the list and would almost surely get a spot, so I got ready to go, bought a plane ticket, and found a ride from O'Hare on the "ride share board." Perfect.

After a quiet 2-hour drive into deep rural Illinois with 4 other students, I got to the Center and was impressed by its natural beauty. It's on a 20-acre converted farm with large trees, barns, and duck ponds, which were swarming with nesting Canadian geese. There is a bridge over the ponds next to the meditation hall, which makes for a picturesque scene. The first thing I did when I got there is hand over all my books, electronics, paper, pens, etc. to the manager, so that all I had were some loose clothes and hygiene products. Then I went to my room. Each meditator has their own private room, and each two rooms share a bathroom. It was new, clean, simple, and just had a comfortable and peaceful feel to it.

I filled out a form asking about any medical problems, mental issues, emergency contacts, and a short bio. I was also given a booklet containing the Code of Discipline. My attitude going in was that I was giving this ten days of my life, so I might as well do my best and not cut any corners. As Mr. Miyagi once told Daniel-san:

"Daniel-san, must talk. Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do "yes" or karate do "no." You karate do "guess so," [makes squish gesture] just like grape."

So I decided to "Vipassana do yes."

At 5 pm, we were served a green onion soup with some bread and I sat at a table with a few guys, having a colloquial conversation. There were 18 guys and 18 girls doing the course, and about 4 volunteers helping out with cooking, serving, and other behind-the-scenes stuff. At my table there was a doctor, a mathematician, a jazz pianist, a retired St. Louis city employee, and a lawyer (me). So a nice variety of people of all ages, races, and backgrounds, and everyone seemed pretty normal, if not more intelligent and friendly than your average handful of people. After chatting, we went to the meditation hall to learn the first technique and begin "Noble Silence," meaning after that, we were not to communicate with anyone by speech or gesture at all, except for the course manager (who we could go to with any problems with food or housing) and the assistant teacher (who we could address problems and questions about the technique with).


At the first sitting that evening, we learned the technique of "anapana," which is essentially observing your own respiration. In the meditation hall, each student is assigned a blue square mat about two feet by two feet, and may use any cushions or aids available for sitting within that space. There were plenty of cushions available. Some people with physical conditions used seats with upright backs and a couple of people even used chairs. Men and women were in the same room but segregated, and that is the closest we got to the girls during the course. I was in the very front on the far side of the room, so I had to really make an effort to see any women, which was good for me. An older, tall, frail-looking man sat at the front facing the students, and it was understood that this was our assistant teacher, Dennis. (S.N. Goenka is the teacher, but he is only there via audio and video recordings). Dennis didn't really teach or say much, except for answering questions at two scheduled times every day, one in private and one after the evening discourse at the front of the hall. All you really see him do is control the lights and sound, give instructions to the course manager, and meditate.

Goenka (as he calls himself) came on the speakers in a calm and gentle, heavily-accented voice and did a few minutes of chanting in Pali. Students were then asked to make a formal, out-loud request to learn the technique, affirm the moral precepts, and surrender to the teaching and the technique for those ten days.

He then instructed the meditators to observe the physical reality of breathing in the area of the nostrils and above the upper-lip. Special emphasis was given to refrain from imagining sensations or trying to search for a particular sensation that should be there, but to simply observe the reality of what was physically happening with respiration in each moment. We were also told that when the mind inevitably loses its focus on observing respiration, to simply notice that the mind has strayed and to "smilingly" return our full attention back to the breath.

That evening was lights out at 9:30pm. I got back to the dorm, and was curious to see who was sharing the bathroom with me. It was a guy I hadn't talked to before. He was kind of short and had one of those patches of dirt on the tip of his chin, and wore a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up. As soon as I walked in the door, he looked away, went in his room, and closed the door. "Oh wow, he's really serious about this. That's great," I thought. I also instantly judged him as a real tough guy. (Ha!) I decided to temporarily name him "Dirt" after his choice of facial hairstyle. I was asleep as soon as I hit the bed. The next morning, I woke up at 4 am to begin Day One. With two exceptions, the next ten days followed this schedule strictly (they ran the course like clockwork... everyone was always ready to go on schedule):

4:00 am
Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am
Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am
Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am
Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am
Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon
Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm
Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm
Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm
Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm
Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm
Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm
Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm
Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm
Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm
Question time in the hall
9:30 pm
Retire to your own room--Lights out

There are small gongs in the dorm and outside, sounded 15 minutes before each meditation time and when meals are served. If you do the math, there are 10 hours and 45 minutes of scheduled meditation every day. Out of this, 3 hours and 45 minutes are required to be done in the meditation hall. The rest of it is a bit less strict, as you could do it in your private room with nobody else watching or keeping track. There is also time to get between the dining hall, meditation hall, and dorm, and other than the meditation hall times, everyone is pretty much free to walk around and do whatever. I quickly found, however, that there is absolutely nothing to do, so the time might as well be spent meditating. There is also the discourse at 7pm, which is a video of Goenka sitting next to his ever-silent and stoic wife, explaining the Vipassana technique taught by Gotama the Buddha and telling these wonderful little stories. He is an incredibly charismatic, intelligent and interesting speaker with a great mastery of the English language. He's really funny and... you can just tell he is genuinely loving every single being on Earth in every moment. The discourse quickly became one of my favorite parts of each day.


The first day was one of the longest and toughest days of my life. The main reason was simply the amount of time I spent sitting down - concentrating on breath, concentrating on breath, concentrating on breath. My mind was constantly losing focus, jumping from one subject to another. I would think about what my friends were doing in New York, which girls I wanted to date, what I would do after the course was over, what I thought about the girls I was getting to know, what I would say to people about the course when it was over, how the people around me were doing, how my ex-girlfriends were doing, how many emails I would have waiting after ten days, if there were any cute girls at this course, who won the game last night, which girls I wanted to get to know better, how stupid what I said to that person was, how cool it would be to meet a girl at a meditation course - It is amazing the things you find yourself thinking about over and over and over again if you pay close attention to your thoughts.

The second day was almost just as tough. Thinking back, I see that none of my normal outlets like TV, food, alcohol, internet, exercise, and hanging out with friends was available, so every discomfort was compounded and had to be faced, without distraction or escape. I also started feeling some serious pain in my knees, hips, and back, which I didn't expect after the rigorous yoga I had been practicing in the months prior. I had to shift my position several times during each sitting, sometimes only lasting a few minutes before getting too uncomfortable to continue.

But during the meditation, when I was able to put everything else aside and really go deep, interesting things started happening. I found myself able to progressively spend longer stretches of time focusing on the breath without getting distracted, and bringing my attention back more quickly when the distractions came. I also started noticing more and more subtle sensations in my nostrils and on my face that I had never experienced before. I noticed the feeling of the air moving over tiny areas of skin inside my nostrils, how it touched different parts at different times and how that felt, how the air was slightly warmer on the way out than the way in, how my breathing would change from right nostril to left nostril and back again over the course of every few hours, and many other subtle sensations.

I also started experiencing sensations all over my face that were very strong, very real, and that I could not explain. Little pulsations, pressures, and waves on the top of my nose were the most common. Sometimes it felt like my face was being warped by some unknown force. I went to the teacher that afternoon and asked him what that was about, and he said that Goenka would address those sensations on day 3.

Sure enough, one or two sittings later, Goenka told us that as our mind became more and more calm and focused, we would become aware of subtler and subtler sensations, subtler and subtler realities that were always there, but that we had been too distracted to notice. We were instructed to focus on the sensations on the small triangular area of skin below our nostrils and above our upper lip. We were not to judge the sensations or label them, just observe whatever was happening from moment to moment as reality.

Something else pretty cool started to happen. As I concentrated really hard just on that small area, it started to feel like I had a magnifying glass on my upper lip, or that I was watching that tiny area of skin on an IMAX movie screen, like "I" was living a few millimeters behind that skin and it was my entire universe. When I first realized that it was happening, I got very excited. I tried doing it with other parts of the body, but it wasn't as easy.

There is a lot more at play during the course than just the meditation. Without the normal distractions, I started becoming more and more aware of what was going on around me in every moment: The nature, the other meditators, and the way my mind was working in relation to everything. I started to see the objects around me without labeling them, just observing what was happening in reality without letting words get in the way. I saw the geese, but without labeling them as geese, I was able to observe them as strange and even ridiculous creatures, without expectations based on other people's descriptions of geese. It was like I was the first human being to ever come into contact with a goose, and so each moment watching them became sacred. I started observing the other people, but with people, my mind would get distracted into coming up with theories about who they really were based on their behavior.

One of those human behaviors I observed was that Dirt was sleeping in until 6:30 every day while I started to meditate at 4:30. He would close his door during all of the non-meditation hall hours despite the Center's request to leave the door open during that time, so I suspected he was just laying around playing games, or doing something "illegal" like listening to music or reading a book. I took a very self-righteous attitude about his behavior, and it started pissing me off both that he was doing it, and that I was getting pissed off and judging him despite my great efforts at meditating and trying to become more peaceful and accepting of others. I watched my mind go through this cycle over and over every day.

The lunch meals were amazing. Each one was different and delicious. However, one effect of the high fiber, pure organic vegetarian diet was that I was pretty gassy for the first few days... but I was hardly the only one so it wasn't such a big deal. From reading other people's experiences online, it seems that a constant orchestra of bodily sounds in the hall is standard Vipassana fare.

Daily, I became more and more attuned and aware of the outside world along with my inner world. I started noticing details about the ponds that were not there for me before. Microscopic ripples on the surface, frogs hiding in between the floating plants, and swirls of algae all suddenly became visible in ever-increasing detail and beauty. More was constantly being revealed.

I also asked the teacher if I could practice yoga in my room, and he said I could as long as I was quiet and didn't disturb the other meditators. So I did yoga in the afternoon every day and then took a shower afterward. The exercise and comfortable familiarity of a hot shower was really a key to me keeping me sane.

VIPASSANA (Days 4-9)

After 3 1/2 days of observing respiration, on the afternoon of the 4th day, we were told that our minds are calm and concentrated enough to learn Vipassana meditation, and that there will be a 2-hour sitting in the hall to learn the technique.

By the time that session rolled around, I was a mess. My mind was very agitated, and I started getting upset and feeling like I was in a hopeless situation. Nevertheless, I sucked it up and went for it. "This is why I'm here, right?"

Inside the meditation hall, we did Anapana for an hour. Then, we took a short break, and returned to do an hour and a half of Vipassana instruction.

As the instruction began, were directed to focus our entire attention on the small area at the top of the head and observe the sensations there. I felt a very strong tingling sensation, like ants crawling on my head. Next, we moved our attention down our body towards our toes, giving attention to each individual part.

"Sensations" are defined as broadly as possible to mean ANY sensation, including pain, heat, sweat, the touch of clothing, and also the subtler sensations similar those experienced in Anapana and even subtler than that. The whole key to the technique is to observe whatever is there "equanimously," meaning that we should simply observe the reality without becoming attached to the pleasant sensations or averse to the painful or unpleasant ones. We were to experience all sensations as only temporary, continuously arising and passing, over and over. We are told that the subconscious reaction of craving the things we like and developing aversion to things we don't like is the source of all suffering, and we are now both becoming fully conscious of what was previously only subconscious to us, and training our minds to observe all events and sensations dispassionately. As Goenka later says, the measure of success is not how many subtle sensations you are capable of experiencing, but how aware you become and how equanimous and balanced your mind remains no matter what experience you encounter.

One other new rule is introduced that afternoon: from then on, the three daily sittings in the meditaiton hall would be "Sittings of Strong Determination," in which we were to remain still in the same position for the entire hour. In my head I called it the "Hour of Power," but the key is not to power through each second with force of will and pain tolerance, but to surrender to the present moment being experienced and just keep breathing and observing the situation objectively. Although it was very difficult and painful for me at first, it got easier. A few times, the hour was over before I gave any thought to how long I was sitting for. I ended up being successful at all of the sittings in days 5-9, and 2 out of the 3 on day 10.

On the fourth day, the agitation and negativity I was feeling developed into my first major crisis. During most of the Vipassana instruction, I continuously shifted my position and had negative thoughts going through my head without much ability to concentrate at all. When it was time to go back to the dorm and practice, I just closed the door and laid in bed the whole time, staring into space and letting my mind spiral into negativity. This was extremely humbling for me. After all, I had spent three days mentally condemning Dirt and anyone else I suspected of slacking off, and here I was not even attempting to meditate. The words of Jesus came to mind: "First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye."

After having spent two hours laying there with my door closed, doing nothing but feel sorry for myself, it was very difficult for me to honestly condemn anyone else for not meditating. My mind would start to get upset when I witnessed behavior I didn't approve of, but then I would remember my own imperfection and let it slide a bit more every time. This was a major breakthrough for me: to fully experience letting go and allowing people to run their own show without compulsively sizing them up or comparing them to myself.

The agitation passed by the next day, and I started feeling a lot better and had a couple of good days. On days 5 and 6, I experienced extremely intense sensations in between my eyes, in the area that some spiritual traditions refer to as the "third eye." I had never experienced anything there before. It feels very pleasurable, like there is a supernatural force of incredible power residing there. At first I just noticed it and kept going, but the more concentrated my mind got, the stronger the sensation was. I decided to experiment with it and took all of my concentration there, and found that if I went deep into that sensation, I could be aware of every other subtle sensation over my entire body, and my thoughts, and everything going on outside my body as well, all at the same time and all at a very high level. I got very excited at this. The best part of it was that it was not just a one-time thing. I found I could go into that state at will, repeatedly, and with minimal effort. I started secretly feeling that maybe there was something pretty special about me, since I was able to go into this super-conscious state. I went to the teacher in private, and a small little voice in the back of my mind was hoping he would be shocked at my advancement and say something like, "this is amazing. We need to get you straight to Mr. Goenka immediately so that he can personally oversee your development."

Nope. He gave me the most loving and compassionate smile, and simply said that the area between the eyes is a very sensitive area for some people, and important in other traditions, but in Vipassana, it is just another part of the body and should be viewed equanimously. Just notice the reality there and move on the the next part of the body. Of course, I knew it was the right answer and that my ego had just gotten out of control. After a few more sessions it stopped being so intense.

Along with the "third eye," I had strong subtle sensations in my limbs and head, though my torso remained "blind" to it most of the time. "The subtle sensation," in my experience, is like an electric tingling or burning, and it is pleasurable to experience, especially if there is a major movement or flow. Once I started paying full attention to it, I realized I had felt it many times before in my life, but never given it much thought. Although I wanted to feel more of the subtle sensation, I trained myself to view that and the pain as just signals between my body and mind, and not to grow too attached or averse to anything - it all arises and passes, then arises and passes again. Nothing is stable, nothing is permanent. "Anicha!" as Goenka says.

During the non-meditation hours, I pretty much let my mind roam free. I took long walks around the beautiful area - everything continued to look brighter and more alive. The further into the course I got, the more my thoughts shifted from things in the outside world, things I did in the past and was planning for the future, to contemplating Goenka's teaching (The Dhamma) and my experiences in the meditation room and in the present moment. To amuse myself, I came up with nicknames for all of the guys and had a few good laughs inside my head.

The most profound experience I had came during the seventh day, when I was getting more than a bit restless and agitated again. Somebody sitting very close to me had some sort of problem, where every few seconds he made loud cracking, smacking, and gulping noises. Not a big deal, you might think, but when your mind becomes sensitive to every little sensation and you're trying to concentrate, finger cracking, lip-smacking, and gulping are the equivalent of a low-rider with the bass pumping full-volume pulling up next to you at a stop light. I decided that the monsterous sounds must be coming from the old Chinese guy behind me and to the right, and that his new nickname would thus be "Gollum."

Over the course of a few days, I watched myself switching between going so deep within myself that I didn't notice anything outside, and getting increasingly irritated at Gollum for the constant noises. That afternoon, I was in the hall for a non-mandatory hall sitting, and the noises were going full force. I decided to turn around and look, to find out once and for all who was making the noises, and how they managed to do it so loudly. To my astonishment, Gollum was not even there! Next to his empty mat was Turbo, a kid who had some sort of mental condition where he was constantly and compulsively making rapid movements - I had noticed that he was always walking very quickly, and rapidly shaking his legs and head when he was seated at the dining hall. I guess that during meditation, he was compulsively cracking his knuckles, licking and smacking his lips, and doing this crazy loud super-gulping thing.

I realized what a fool I had been to prejudge Gollum like that and be upset with him, and wondered what other times in my life I made false assumptions like that. I did, however, continue getting irritated at Turbo, and my thoughts started to focus on how I could teach him to focus on body movements and try to sit still for a while, being aware of his compulsions to move and simply observe them. "He is such a fool," I thought. "And I'm the only person in this room who understands how he can be helped." (Ha!)

At the next sitting, I decided to use my new "Vipassana Powers" to just observe his noises and my reactions to them, whatever they may be. It was an incredible experience. At first, I found myself sitting and waiting for the sounds... actually craving them and getting anxious and upset when he wasn't making the sounds. The sounds inevitably came, and I watched the same negative, judgmental thoughts instantly trigger. I watched my mind condemn Turbo, and comparatively build up my image of myself as being so quiet, intelligent, and determined. I watched the physical reaction that occurred simultaneously with those thoughts: heat in my stomach, faster breathing, clenched facial muscles. Then I noticed something I had never noticed before: In the midst of that unconscious, automatic reaction to the noises, I was absolutely miserable. I was suffering terribly and so unhappy! I saw what I was doing to myself and wanted to cry with compassion for my own situation. I had never seen the source of my own suffering so clearly, but there it was.

Now, I'd like to take a moment to clear up what I mean by "misery" and "suffering." I have always considered myself a happy person. I am healthy, have a close family that I love, and have great friends. I have enjoyed almost every day on this sweet Earth. It's probably been years since I've had an argument with anyone. Really, I have as much to be grateful for as anyone I've ever met. So what's all this talk about misery and suffering? Well, each person has their own unique situation, and thus for each person suffering is triggered in different ways and in greatly varying degrees. However, mostly everybody has desires for their own lives, and guidelines for how the people around them should behave - both of which get trampled on a regular basis. I get pissed off at lousy drivers and people who throw trash on the street, and people who leave dirty dishes in the sink for a week. I wish that I had more money, less debt, a trimmer body, and better guitar skills. No matter what the circumstances of one's life are, we are rarely satisfied with everyone around us, or the way things are happening for us, at least for long. Even when we get everything we've been wanting, we come to a point where we say, "OK, this is good but...? Now what? What more can I do/be/have? And why the hell is that guy driving a Hummer by himself in the H.O.V. lane 30 mph during rush hour?? What a freaking jerk!!"

I resolved to stop judging anyone or comparing anyone to myself from then on, but it wasn't that easy. I stewed in my anger and misery for a few hours after that, and couldn't help but wonder why my suffering was still there after I had fully experienced the process of its creation. I saw just how deep those negative reaction patterns were in my mind. I saw very clearly that there was a path being shown to me right there, that I had already begun to walk, that would lead me out of that behavior and suffering, and into a peaceful, happy life where I could actually love and accept all people exactly as they are.

I resolved to put everything I had into the course until the end, and I did, meditating every session in the meditation hall on days 8 and 9. There isn't much I can communicate about what happened in those days. I dug deep into the inner depths of my mind. I barely noticed the world happening outside my mind and body, even in the non-meditation hours I was walking in a state of meditation. I experienced the dissolution of severe physical pain in an instant, and I experienced detachment from my mind and body, so that the presence of "I" existed independent of mind and body as a non-localized phenomenon. With awareness of the transient nature of mind and matter, I experienced the error in the idea of calling anything "my" or "mine." I experienced that the instant the mind forms a notion of possession or forms attachment to anything or anyone, suffering becomes inevitable. By bedtime on Day 9, my mind and body were raw and sore, and I was ready to be finished. But I felt really good.


After 10am on Day 10, Noble Silence ends and students are allowed to engage in "Noble Chatter." I found myself enjoying the conversations and laughing, and I also found myself needing peace and quiet. A couple of times, I just wanted to walk away from a conversation and sit alone in silence with nature. I found out that most of the people were nothing like what I'd imagined. I got along great with Dirt. He had finished his tour in the Navy a few weeks earlier, and his wife had convinced him to try the course. One of the first things he said to me was that he wasn't prepared to put so much time into meditating, and he felt embarrassed for keeping his door closed all the time and sleeping until 6:30. I really didn't care to judge him by that point, even at the deepest level, I just accepted him the way he was.

At lunch, there is an opportunity to read literature and popular articles about Vipassana, and although it's mentioned only as a matter of fact, there is a donation table and an anonymous donation box. Everyone is free to give whatever they like towards future Vipassana courses, and there is absolutely no pressure, and nobody keeping track. They have a sheet that details the cost of putting a student through the course for anyone who wishes to consider that in figuring out a donation. It was shockingly only $384.

I arranged a ride back to O'Hare, and did the last few meditation sessions. I was mentally exhausted and very very ready to go home and stop meditating so much. There is also a video about volunteering at future courses if anyone is interested, but again, there is no pressure, they just say it has been very beneficial for those who have done it.

On the departure day, there is a final session in the morning, with a video of Goenka detailing how one should continue the practice outside the center. We were taught a third and final meditation technique called "Metta," which is basically feeling the subtle sensations in your body and filling them with love, compassion, peace, and happiness, and sharing that with all living beings. This was an awesome experience for me.

After the meditation, the assistant teacher stood up, bowed humbly to each side of the room, and silently walked out. That moment - seeing a guy who we'd never met before, who had given every moment of his 10 days without receiving any gratitude, praise, or payment, just humbly walk away with no desires or expectations of us - had a very profound effect on me. It was a moment that will stay with me forever. I realized all of the incredible, selfless things that so many people had done to make this course possible for me, and all of the kindnesses that have been given to me by people I know and I don't know throughout my life. I had to stay in my spot for a while after everyone left letting that run its course.


I was lying on my father's couch the other day, and suddenly my 18-month-old nephew crawled onto me and laid his tiny head on my chest. I closed my eyes and observed what was happening in reality that moment. His little head put pressure and heat on my skin, a loving warmth was spreading throughout my body, and my facial muscles were pulling my mouth into a subtle smile. I experienced the whole thing with intense enjoyment, but naturally without a craving for him to stay there, and without an aversion to the inevitable moment when he would decide to get up and do something else. I knew that the wonderful sensations I was experiencing would pass, whether I liked it or not. That was not pessimism, it was reality. This sort of detachment is not a lack of emotion or humanness, but on the contrary, a total immersion in the human experience without any delusion. I was able to enjoy each moment of his presence fully, and enjoy it in a way that is the essence of unconditional love: no craving, no attachment, no aversion - just love existing completely in the only moment that will ever exist. When he got up and walked away, I was not upset with him and I didn't feel as if I'd lost anything. The intense feeling of love stayed with me. I just moved on to the next moment - each moment a unique flash in the continuum of reality, there just once, for an instant, never to be seen again.

My life in practicality is not perfect now, but it's a lot easier in a subtle, almost indescribable way. I don't feel any confusion about spirituality or the meaning of my existence and purpose in this world. I've found that I am in the habit of constant self-observation to a higher degree than before, which makes unconscious reaction and acting out of habit or compulsion far less likely. I have always been considered by others to be a very calm and even-tempered person, but now I have a deeper inner calmness and peace that is unparalleled to my prior experience. I don't mentally try to run the show of everyone around me, but just let them do their own thing and let nature take its course, and in turn, I am much less self-critical without making any effort to be that way. It's nice to truly accept and enjoy things just the way they are.

I have tried to continue the meditation as instructed (1 hour each in the morning and evening), but found it very difficult. It is not as easy to do at home when I have phone, internet, tv, books, etc, to distract me. Also, by the end of the course I was so sick of meditating that I really needed a break. As that subsides, every day it's getting a little easier to meditate on my own, and I think my standard will become an hour a day in the morning. I meditated this morning and it felt fantastic.


1. Bring an attitude that you are ready to surrender yourself to the situation as it is presented at the course and be determined to work hard and put your best into it. It is good to be skeptical of the course, technique, and its results until having your own experience, but in order to give it a fair chance to get the best possible results, you need to let go and go for it all the way.

2. Put aside your fears about the wakeup times, eating schedule, silence, and long hours of sitting, and just let yourself experience the reality as it comes. I found out that none of these things bothered me at all, except for the long sittings, which by the end I found I could transcend. After day 5, I stopped eating anything after the noon meal and felt even better than before, which was a real shock. I was never hungry.

3. Listen to Goenka. One of the guys was doing his fourth or fifth course, and at the end he told me that what he got out of this course was that feeling the subtle pleasurable sensations isn't as important as observing all sensations equanimously. I wanted to say, "dude, Goenka said that about five times every day," but he said he had never heard that part before. Crazy.

4. Put aside any fears you have that this is a cult or a cleverly disguised religion that wants to take advantage of you. There is no "catch." These are actually just people who want to share the technique and help you be a happy person. By the third or fourth day, by his self-deprecation and rational slicing through the dogma of other religions, Goenka makes it impossible for you to see him as a guru or anything other than a regular guy who has successfully followed this path to the end and now really really wants you to end your suffering in all forms and be happy.

5. Be prepared for some chanting in Pali and hearing about the teachings of Buddha presented in a non-sectarian way. At the beginning and end of every sitting in the meditation hall there is recorded chanting in Pali that lasts from one to five minutes. At the beginning it can be weird, but by the 10th day, Goenka has explained most of the meanings and it's all stuff like "may all beings be happy," "may you learn the wisdom of change," and that kind of thing that nobody sensible can argue with. Be warned that at some of the non-mandatory meditation hall sittings, the teacher comes in and plays 25-30 minutes of chanting at the end. This was torture for me the first time because I thought it would last 5 minutes and it just kept going...

6. If you go in Illinois, don't make a major effort to buy anything but clothes and personal hygeine supplies. The website says to bring a clock, flashlight, sheets and pillow, and meditation cushion, but all that is available to use at the site (there is a limited supply though, so if you already have it anyways, bring it).

7. Don't think that you can get the same results by reading about the meditation online or trying it at home. You can get a PhD in apples and study them your whole life, but if you've never eaten one, your intellectual knowledge about apples doesn't help when someone asks you what an apple tastes like. To really know apples, you have to experience eating one yourself. There are experiences you will have during this course and things you will discover about yourself that cannot be expressed in language. You need to experience it to know it.

8. There are several negative posts on the internet about Vipassana, mostly from people who quit the course on the fourth or fifth day and/or didn't commit to following the other guidelines. Goenka will tell you that there are many other paths, and nobody is there to condemn any religion or tradition. He also says in one of the final discourses that weak-minded people cannot get through the course. When they give up, an excuse is needed, so stories will develop about how the environment around them was intolerable, or that the teaching is faulty for whatever reason. They must do this because they are not yet capable of facing and transcending their own weaknesses, and their complaints usually have little basis in reality. I am not saying this to prove how strong-minded I am for finishing the course, or that I don't have weaknesses myself. I'm saying this because I don't want anyone to be discouraged by those posts, or to allow essentially baseless excuses to prevent getting this wonderful teaching. I wish that everyone would sign up and stick it through, because this technique can truly transform people at the deepest level and make the world a more peaceful and tolerant place.

I hope this post is informative to others, to my friends and family who were wondering what I was doing for ten days on a farm in the middle of Illinois, and especially to anyone considering attending a course. My final tip would be, if there is any part of you that feels an urge to do this, then stop thinking about it and just do it. Sign up and book your plane ticket. Go for it all the way. It will change the way you see the world and put you on an exciting path towards true happiness and liberation, which will benefit you and everyone else in your life immensely.

May all beings be happy!


Anonymous said...

Hi Roy,
I really enjoyed reading your experiences. I have signed up for the vipasana in coming September, but haven't got any confirmation, hope I will get it soon.

Roy said...

Thanks for your kind comment, and congratulations on taking action and signing up! Did you get enrolled yet? Be happy :)

Anonymous said...

hi jordan again... can you delete my post.. it has my email on it and I don't want spam!

what I had posted was:

Thanks. This reminded me of my experience - especially the microscopic view of the skin above the upper lip....same thing happened to me.