I just got home from my second 10-day Vipassana meditation course, as taught by S. N. Goenka. I took my first course (each course has the same material every time) three years ago, and wrote about it here. So I knew what to expect of my external reality. In short, it’s a really intense silent meditation experience, with all sorts of physical pain and mental challenges. And I pretty much got what I asked for.
After my first course, I felt compelled to really lay out the minutiae, but this experience felt less about the details and more about a few overarching thoughts that I came away with. Some mundane, some important, some powerful. So instead of detailing every pain and joy and confusion of the experience, here are a few of the big take aways.
- Food and eating are beautiful things. We should always give them care and attention, and appreciate when we get to share meals with other people.
- Technology has really done a number on our attention and appreciation of the present. This is something I worry about a lot. It felt so peaceful to be disconnected, and I didn’t miss anything that happened in the world despite having no media or phone access.
- We are not addicted to things, we’re addicted to the sensations those things create in our bodies. These sensations are subtle, and must be listened to carefully to be heard. Next time your smart phone vibrates with a text message, just notice your reaction to it. That is where the addiction lives.
- Walking slowly outside for even just a few minutes without other distractions can be so centering.
- It feels great to take an 18 hour fast (early lunch, no dinner, no snacks). We did this every day, and I gained a lot of mental clarity. Granted, we weren’t doing much physically. I want to do this more often.
- A lot of pain in our bodies is referred from injuries in other parts of the body. I found that the searing shoulder pain I experienced after sitting for several hours was completely relieved when I brought attention to relaxing my psoas muscle in my low back/hip.
- A lot of pain in our bodies is the physical component of mental and emotional discomfort: stress, anxiety, depression, worry, fear.
- Waking up early is fantastic. We got up at 4 a.m. every morning on the course, and now I’m going to try to keep it going with a 5 a.m. wake up as long as I can. I love looking at the clock at 8:00 having already been up for three hours.
- It’s nice to go slow, be early, and welcome delays. Got an hour to kill at the mechanic? Wonderful time to sit and reflect.
- Our miseries come from inside.
- Sleep works to rest the body and rest the mind. These two things don’t actually have to happen at the same time. I spent a lot of time awake in the night, unable to sleep, despite the early wake up time. Lying still and focusing on sensations in the body, rather than on thoughts or anxieties, allowed me to be fully awake and functional in the morning. It turns out it is the anxiety and those thoughts that hurt us the next day, much more than the simple lack of sleep.
- Keeping my eyes closed all day gives me really vivid dreams.
- To move beyond unwanted (or badly wanted) thoughts, we don’t push them away or crave for them, but instead observe and acknowledge them. The meditation technique teaches us to slowly learn not to react to those thoughts. They will likely never go away, so we have to learn to live with them.
- All of these ideas, and important ideas in general, can be intellectualized, but they must be experienced to be fully understood.
People are always wondering if I would do this course again, or if I recommend it to others. It’s hard to say for either. I wouldn’t want to do it again in the next several months, but I could see the refresher being invaluable in a couple years or more. And I’m tempted to recommend it to everyone, except that it is such a difficult experience. If you’re curious, and better yet, committed, then I absolutely recommend it. If you suffer from anxiety or depression or addiction, again I recommend it. But if you are going because someone convinced you to, and you aren’t fully committed yourself, then maybe you should think again and strengthen your intention. I do believe everyone is capable of completing the course, and that nearly everyone will be able to gain benefit from it by sticking it out to the end. It’s a hard road to get there, though. Nothing good is supposed to be easy, right?