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Some Kind of Transcendence: 10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat

Okay, first of all, calling this a retreat is totally silly. I’d go with something more like meditation boot camp. I got back yesterday from my ten-day (actually ten full plus two half-days) Vipassana meditation course at the Dhamma Kunja in Onalaska, WA. Looking back through the website, I see that there is all sorts of information I didn’t look at carefully before I went. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but I don’t think I realized how rich and intense an experience I was getting myself into when I signed up for this.

So, the course. Amazing. Extremely difficult. Exhausting and exhilarating. Definitely a major life experience that I will come back to again and again. I’m pretty sure there was at least one moment each day when the thought of leaving early slipped into my mind. I’m so glad I didn’t. The teacher, S. N. Goenka, describes at the beginning of the course that it will be like “giving yourself brain surgery,” but not to worry because the wound will be tended to and balm applied by the last day of the course.

There are a number of reasons I’m not going to describe my experience in excruciating detail (edit: it appears I have gone ahead and described it in excruciating detail. If it’s any consolation, there is so much more I could have said). First, everyone has a very different experience, and although most of the students ended up at about the same place, each had his own very unique path for getting there. So I don’t want to taint any experience you may have if you take the course by filling you with ideas of how it should go. And second, if you have any inclination toward self-examination or the spiritual arts, I want you to go take this course. I think it can do amazing things for anybody who is willing to commit to try it seriously. Every person I talked to on the last day (yes, we could speak again on Day 10) had a meaningful and powerful experience. Going into too much detail about the physical and mental difficulties might dissuade you from a fantastic opportunity. But, yes, sitting in meditation for 100 hours in ten days hurts a lot in a lot of different ways. And third, I just got back from being totally in my own head for ten days, and that is a LOT to describe. More than I want to write, more than you want to read. Instead, some highlights and comments on things people are most curious about.

The Theory

The official website does a better job of describing this accurately, but I’ll give my understanding of how this all works. Although this is an entirely non-sectarian teaching and technique, it is supposedly the very one developed by the Buddha to achieve liberation and enlightenment, so that is the ultimate goal. There are three main segments of the teaching, and by perfecting all three you reach a transcendent state of being. These focuses are morality, mental concentration, and wisdom through eradication of impurities from the mind. These are the same values that many traditions teach and have taught throughout history, but there is one key difference. Most teachings go only as far as an intellectual understanding of wisdom. Vipassana teaches wisdom through direct experience of observation of sensation in the body. Even seeing something first-hand is not enough to gain this wisdom; one must feel it in the body to understand and the deepest and subtlest level. This is also the biggest difference between my previous experiences with Buddhist thought and this course. I’ve learned a good deal about the Eight Fold Path, the Four Noble Truths, etc, etc, but I’ve never gone as far as to cultivate that understanding within the body. By practicing morality, concentration, and wisdom, one will become free from craving and aversion, which are the root causes of the misery we all suffer.

Another twist is that one cannot practice pure concentration unless morality is already satisfied, nor pure wisdom unless concentration is already solidified. So for the ten days, we were scrupulous about our morals by taking five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no telling lies, no intoxicants. Maybe (read: definitely) we were not great at upholding all these before the course started, but at least for the ten days we would be able to work on the purest concentration and wisdom. To get started on our concentration, we spent the first three days of the course focusing solely on the breath with Anapana meditation. Not altering the breath in any way, rather just observing it flowing in and out of the body through the bottom of the nostrils. This was a lot of time to spend on such a small part of the body, but by the end of the third day I could feel a remarkable increase in the sharpness of my mind. I could feel subtle sensations that would have been otherwise masked by coarser feelings throughout the body (like extreme hip and knee pain from sitting ten hours a day, but that goes away). With our sharpened minds, we started in on the insight technique itself, Vipassana. The technique is basically a body-scan meditation. With heightened awareness, one runs circuits through the body feeling the sensation on every part. Instead of reacting to the sensations (even if they are intense pain or pleasure), one observes each one equanimously. Through extensive practice, this teaches the body at an unconscious level to not react with craving or aversion to external stimuli, and rather maintain a balanced, harmonious demeanor. At the same time, the unconscious mind creates tensions in the body based on past injuries (physical, emotional, mental) and negativity. By remaining balanced in the presence of these knots, one slowly unties them, gradually purifying the mind and relaxing the body. Any description of this is bound to fall short; it must be experienced to cultivate this wisdom.


The course is taught by S. N. Goenka, through audio and video recordings. This (among other things) made it sound potentially cultish to me, but it’s really not at all. The whole system is super transparent, and the more you look into it the more you find that the organization functions with the morals it teaches. Only past students are allowed to donate. All the courses are totally free to allow the purest spread of the teaching and intention of the students taking them. Goenka passed away last month, and even from the videos you can feel how pure his spirit and intentions are. He’s a wonderful teacher – strict when necessary, but always compassionate, endearing, and funny. There were definitely a moments of wanting to forcibly make him shut up after the fifth story about stepping on a person laying on the ground and all the possible emotional repercussions depending on this factor or that factor. I’m pretty sure he was always doing that on purpose to teach us something, though.

Noble Silence

Everyone seems to be most curious about the silence at the course. It was an intriguing aspect throughout, but mostly not for reasons I expected. It turned out to be easy to be silent for the ten days (to be fair, there was a small amount of talking allowed with the assistant teacher to clarify the technique). Getting to know 30 people (men and women are separated completely) without speaking, eye contact or gestures is revealing and often hilarious. I thought the main reason for the silence was to simulate being in isolation throughout, and while that was a part of it, there were two more important reasons. First, it would have been bad to share our experiences with the other meditators while the course was happening (and why I hope you don’t build expectations off my experience). We all started and ended in similar places, but everyone had very different paths for getting there. On days when I was elated, other people were dejected, and a couple days later we would have switched. Second, we had agreed to the precept of not telling lies. It turns out the only way to get us to abstain from lying is to keep us totally silent. Every time we speak, our words are colored by the people we’re talking to, the emotion we’re trying to convey. Most of the time I don’t think we even know what the truth is. Even if it’s clear at the apparent level, we could be totally off the mark on a deeper level. Having just been quiet for a long time, this has become easily understood in my everyday interactions. So, we kept our mouths shut.


Misery was one of the main topics of discussion, and it really changed the way I understand how and why we suffer. Basically, there is only a limited amount we can do to influence the sensations coming into the body and mind. The path to liberation isn’t about putting yourself in constantly pleasant situations, but rather changing how you react to sensations. With proper training, we all have the ability to control the way we react to external stimuli. Slowly we can alter our unconscious conditioning, which has been taught to cultivate craving and attachment toward pleasurable sensations and aversion and hatred toward negative or painful sensations. Focusing on the sensations of the body with equanimous awareness brings this into the unconscious mind. I felt this in tangible ways. Most obviously, my pain tolerance increased and sitting for an hour at a time without moving a muscle became no problem at all. I feel more patient, understanding, focused, and comfortable being with myself. While becoming harmonious with whatever is happening to us, we also develop our compassion for all beings, which makes the whole thing a lot less detached-sounding.


The meditation technique requires closed eyes, so between ten hours of sitting and six to seven hours of sleeping, we weren’t getting a lot of visual stimulation (we also woke up at 4 AM every morning, so it was dark a lot of the time our eyes were open). Sounds were similarly absent. No talking, hardly any traffic sounds. The loudest thing we heard were the cows grazing on the surrounding farms (they were also the loudest smell). There was no touching allowed between students, so all in all we were very sensation-deprived. I’m sure this is important for increasing the sensitivity of the mind for feeling the most subtle sensations on the body, but it also came with intense awareness of sights and sounds. I felt a little bit like a new born baby or vampire constantly shielding myself from the bright sun (and this is Washington – I’m not sure I’ve ever called the sun here bright before) and guarding my ears.


Oh man, the food was so good. Maybe partly due to increased sensory acuity, but also because it was just really well done. We ate twice a day, at 6:30 AM and again at 11:00 AM, and new students were allowed a piece of fruit with their 5:00 PM tea. Goenka also read my mind on the second day and pointed out that we probably think this means we should eat twice as much at lunch to make up for no dinner. Instead, he suggested we only eat three-quarters what we normally would, as the stomach needs to be at least one-quarter empty to meditate properly. Having eaten that extra piece (or two) of cornbread or bowl of veggie stir-fry a couple times, I can vouch for him on this one. By the third day I would have about 20 minutes in the afternoon when I was hungry, but it would go away quickly. After all, we were hardly burning any calories. I was good about eating a little less than I thought should, but sometimes the food was, ironically, too good to resist.

Weird Things

Weird stuff happened. It sounded like everyone had some weird experiences, but hardly anybody described the same thing. Electricity, heat, separation of consciousness, dissolution of body parts, mental gymnastics, pools of energy. Sleeping was difficult, and I found out that the mind and the body don’t necessarily need to rest at the same time. So I meditated in the middle of the night, and felt great in the morning. Lots of music stuck in heads and words or phrases repeated ad nauseam. I actually did think I might puke once. Then I laughed imagining how ridiculous it would be if someone just keeled over and vomited all over the place in this big peaceful room with 80 people silently focusing on their breath. I had a kind of scary moment of bringing my awareness deep into my heart and being able to feel the blood moving from one chamber to another. I was near my watch and I clocked my heart rate at a peppy 30 beats per minute, the lowest I’ve ever felt it. I started to feel dizzy and worry that I might accidentally die, so I moved on. I had some ringing in my ears, but the assistant teacher reassured me that “the mind does some strange things.” It went away after two days.


We didn’t talk about this at all, but I am really curious about all the neuroscience going on here. I have some experiments I want to do on myself, but I’ll need to find myself a high-resolution infrared video camera and an MRI machine. If you know articles or studies on any of this stuff (or want to share access to your advanced technologies), please send them on! A book I’ve mentioned before, Happiness by Matthieu Ricard, touches on some of this stuff as well.

Moving Forward

I feel like I’ve written so much, but that I’ve barely scratched the surface. The thing is that words really cannot do this experience justice. It is so much about being present and experiencing your own awareness. I didn’t even begin to talk about some of the most powerful topics we covered, like gratitude, compassion, addiction, unconditional love, giving away your energy, being at peace in adversity. This is a course on the art of living, and in practicing the art of living, we acquire the art of dying. Goenka explained that an experienced Vipassana practitioner always dies with a smile, knowing that he has lived well. Moving forward, I plan to continue with an hour meditation in the morning and an hour in the evening, and I expect I’ll attend and help out at more ten-day courses in the future. Two weeks ago, I had trouble sitting quietly for twenty minutes at a time, and would only try for thirty if I was already feeling fully at peace. The meaning of meditation has transformed in my mind, and in such a practical way. It’s no longer an attempt to become more relaxed. Instead it’s a fully engaged activity from which a relaxed and strengthened mind are welcome by-products. It’s strange to say that such an abstract experience was so thoroughly practical, but that is the merit of the technique. If you’re curious, I highly recommend trying it out for yourself. Just promise yourself not to leave the course early. Nobody wants a brain surgery left half-done.

Into the Cascades

Last fall I went on a 4-day hike through the Cascades in Washington. I started about 20 miles south of Stevens Pass and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail south and west about 55 miles to Snoqualmie Pass. A friend joined me for Day 1, but after that it was my first solo hike. Fantastic trip. Here are some photos for you.


Getting started with some alpine lakes. Not a lot of sun on Day 1, so the photos were pretty gray.

A friend of mine joined me for the first day. PB&J with a view of where we’re headed to camp that night.


Cathedral Rock. We made our camp around the other side of this guy.

The sky cleared a bit when we got to our camp. Good looking mountain on the horizon.


And sunrise was pretty outrageous.

And it got better.

In all directions.


My friend headed back to the car and I pressed on towards Snoqualmie Pass where we had dropped my car off. First, into the valley.


Always a reassuring sight.

Hiked several miles through the valley and got this shot looking back on where I had just been. Up another ridge!


Over another ridge, this cliff greeted me ominously. I didn’t realize clouds and rock could be so imposing, and frankly scary. I ended up finding a tranquil little pond to camp near, sheltered from the dark clouds.

Morning transformed these cliffs into a spectacular sight.


The sun came out in full on Day 3. I found some more alpine lakes in this saddle after ascending another ridge.

The landscape opened up a bit more.

And I got my first glimpse of Rainier.


Camped where I could see sunrise on the mountain as well.

I got moving early enough to catch some wonderful morning light.

It was a long way down. This was pretty standard for the trail.

Made it! According to this horse on the sign, the trail is “Most Difficult.”

Swirling Colors

Franzen: The Discomfort Zone and Farther Away

I’ve been trying to keep up a good amount of reading lately, but it’s been kind of tricky with all the other stuff I’ve got going on right now. I thought it would be fun to write about each book I finish, both as an exercise in remembering and processing. Here is the first.

Jonathan Franzen: The Discomfort Zone, “Farther Away”

The Discomfort Zone is the first Jonathan Franzen book I’ve read, and perhaps it’s not best to start with the memoir. It seems a bit early for him to be writing a memoir in the first place. The Discomfort Zone was published when Franzen was 46, so there is a lot still up in the air about what direction things are going and how recent events are actually shaping his life. That said, the sections on childhood are well developed, and they allow an interesting glimpse into what shaped the author. Perhaps the way to think about this is as Franzen: Part I.

The writing itself was quite good, though, and this is what kept me engaged through the (brief) 200 pages. Franzen comes off as being laid-back and open, but he is also insightful and pleasingly referential. It is refreshing to hear an honest account of the difficult years of coming of age. If you’re already a big Franzen fan, I’d definitely recommend the book as a way to get to know the author. Otherwise, not a great place to start. I suspect his other novels would have drawn me in faster. Freedom and The Corrections have been recommended to me by a number of people (including Oprah).

Since finishing The Discomfort Zone, I read an article by Franzen in the New Yorker titled “Farther Away”.  It’s a piece about solitude, boredom, Robinson Crusoe, and the tragic suicide of David Foster Wallace. (As a disclaimer I should say that DFW is one of my favorite authors, so anything describing his psyche is bound to interest me. But they were good friends, and this is a touching recount of the immense difficulties DFW went through to stay afloat.) It’s a long article, but compelling and incredibly worthwhile if you can throw an hour at it (or and hour and a half if you read at my speed). It still felt like the Franzen I caught a glimpse of in The Discomfort Zone, but was written with a new level of maturity. He’s able to weave together these themes in a profound way, using each to accentuate the others. David Brooks named the piece the best of 2011.

Franzen’s discussion of boredom is particularly strong and is something I’ve been mulling over for the past couple months. Last fall, I read Wallace’s posthumously published, unfinished manuscript, The Pale King. The work explores the life and connections of a character also named David Foster Wallace, and at some points is written as if to be a memoir. I don’t know if any of it is actually true, though I suspect bits and pieces have been drawn from his past. Wallace has such a capacity for imaginative description that it’s nearly impossible to know what could be true and what is 100% fabricated. The story revolves around an IRS processing facility, knitting together fragments from each character’s past with their current struggle to deal with copious amounts of boredom. The result is a series of vignettes, loosely tied together, still lacking some deeper connection or underlying theme. There was a lot left to be done on the novel, and Franzen suggests that Wallace’s discontent with this sprawling work was one of the many things that weighed on him as he chose to take his own life.

It is fascinating to hear a recount of what was going on behind the scenes for an author like Wallace, and also to see how Franzen reacts and responds to it. Their differences shine through not only in the way they write, but also in the way they’re able to talk about their writing processes and personal histories. Where Wallace is closed off and solitary, Franzen is open and honest. He writes frankly in The Discomfort Zone and “Farther Away”, and it seems that the ability to do so has kept him from the dark isolation that Wallace endured.

Going Solo

I’ve gone on a lot of enjoyable adventures in recent years, and a few of those I’ve done on my own. Returning from a weekend in the snow and mountains with friends, I’m drawn to thinking about what makes an event or adventure special, and how it allows you to grow as a person. The basic idea that has set off my thought process is that I think it is important to have some solo adventures as it is to go off with companions. The reason for this, however, is quite similar to the reason that it’s great to have big experiences with friends.

There are a lot of good reasons to adventure with friends. At least for me, shared experience is one of the most meaningful and easiest ways for me to connect to someone else. Maybe I have trouble getting out of my own head and empathizing with other people’s past histories and stories, but being in the physical presence of another while creating strong memories lets me feel like I understand them on some deeper level. The crux of an adventure, the heart and emotion of it, is nearly impossible to describe to another. Maybe I can relate if I’ve done something similar, but the best I’m going to be able to do is enjoy the fact that you’re riding the feeling of life-building experience.

The other major connector from adventuring is talking about it after the fact. Sometimes there are inside jokes, there is always describing it to others who weren’t there, and for the best adventures, there is reminiscing that continues for years after. “Remember when we…” is a simple and strong bond to have with someone, especially when the remembering is about something wild and maybe a little crazy that you’ve done. Hiked that mountain to see sunrise. Biked over 100 miles to the Oregon coast and back. Had that road trip through 8 national parks.  These things are the glue that make regular friendships into lifelong friendships.

So, isn’t that enough, to have some great trips and vacations with friends? Maybe, but in my life I’ve found the solo adventures to be equally or more valuable than those in groups larger than one. On the most basic level, there have been fewer of them, which may make them stand out by sheer quantity. There is another piece to it, though, that goes deeper. When you go on a solo adventure, for the most part similar things happen as would if there were others with you. The difference is that in this case there is an entirely new sense of internalization. These experiences are wholly yours. They define you on an absolute scale, not one relative to your companions.

There are still inside jokes, but now they are things which you know nobody else will fully understand, so you smile to yourself instead. There is still describing it to others, but without someone else to share the emotion with, description feels empty and usually ends up being brief and lacking. Rather than be disappointed that other people don’t relate, I treat it as an opportunity to keep my experience special. It is beyond words, a deeper part of myself. And years later, the experiences are still there. They are a story to share with yourself as you lie in bed, as your mind wanders on the bus, as you imagine your next adventure.

So what does it actually feel like to do it? I’m coming at this from a couple main experiences. One was a six-month trip to Italy, with good chunks of the second half being solo. The longest unbroken piece was a six-day bike tour from Tuscany to the Amalfi Coast. I interacted with a lot of people, but nobody I knew or have seen since. The other is a four-day backpacking trip through the Cascades in Washington on a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. I started with a friend who had to head home after the first day, and then ran into a handful of other hikers along the way. Again, not isolation, just solo-adventuring.

At first, it’s hard. There are nerves. Obviously to go solo, you should be sure that you are capable and comfortable with what you’re attempting. Still, there can always be emergencies, and being alone removes a lot of your safety net. It is emotionally trying at times. Especially in the woods, evening time is tough. Between stopping hiking and getting in your sleeping bag, watching the sky darken and shadows take over, it is hard to avoid thoughts of friends, lovers, former lovers, potential lovers. Eating is naturally a social activity, and dining alone always gets me.  The list goes on. Even with all these difficulties, and in a lot of ways, because of them, the payoff is huge. It is so empowering to know in such a real way that you are capable of doing something difficult and prolonged without another’s aid. To know that you can overcome hard emotions. To know you won’t die.

It usually takes me about two full days of going solo to get through the tough emotions and loneliness. After that it doesn’t go away all the time, but for the most part I am close to ecstatic. I become calm and connected to myself. I know which avenues of thought are fun to go down, and which will cause me pain or disappointment. I am in control, and I am smiling. I know where to push my limits, but enjoy taking it easy. I don’t mind the fact that I won’t be able to communicate to my friends what it is about this trip that is so great. Sometimes there is something extraordinary that I can tell it will draw people into the story of the trip. Watching a mama hawk teach her baby to soar on gusts of wind. But the real joy comes from the fact that every moment feels that special and unique, it is just harder to communicate why.

I have yet to take a longer solo trip (hiking the Appalachian Trail, or the whole PCT?), so I can only imagine how the presence of solitude evolves over time. It is something I’m curious about, but it seems very dependent on which direction my life leads me. For now, I’ll be making a conscious effort to go adventuring as often as possible, but will be sure to sprinkle in a solo trip here and there.