I peeled open a tin can of sardines drenched in olive oil and inhaled them into my mouth, much like a krill whale opening up its huge mouth to suck down hundreds of krill. With my fingers drenched in oil, I hurriedly washed the tin with soap, wrapped it in a towel and hid it in my bag so that there would be no visible or smell-able evidence of my sin. The last fourteen meals were spicy curry, nan, milky porridge, fried breads, and other Indian staples. The carby foods were far off my usual low carb high protein diet and induced a noticeable shock to my system. My brain was craving change, as well as fat-soluble vitamins.
I had just broken the promise I made to abstain from eating any meat or fish. It was unclear to me whether there was a punishment for this, but I figured it was best to not tell anyone. I contemplated joining the few who had already escaped back to civilization. But there were only three days left, and I promised myself I’d make it through every second of the ten-day retreat. The minutes inched along like hours and I began to doubt whether I could make it to the finish line. Ironically, counting down the minutes and seeing the experience as something to “finish” was precisely the opposite of what I was supposed to be doing.
Days earlier I had arrived by tuk-tuk in Bihar, a small province in northern India, lugging a dusty backpack I’d been carrying around the past several months. After much procrastination, I was finally traveling around Asia. This was a time for experimentation. I was going days without eating (water-fasting), reading dozens of books, practicing yoga, kung fu, and was now about to embark on my first silent meditation retreat. I was sober the entire length of the trip, a commitment I made to myself to ensure that I didn’t get drunk and find myself the victim of organ theft.
While I didn’t have to go to India to meditate, it had its obvious appeal as the birthplace of Buddhism. I chose this particular location in India for two reasons. One, because they had an available slot. Vipassana, the meditation tradition I’d chosen to try, had become popular in the past few years. Even though there were dozens of centers around the world, you typically had to book weeks or months in advance.
Second, this area, Bihar, is where Guatama Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. According to old Buddhist texts, he sat under the tree for 7 weeks – 49 days – battling all sorts of inner demons until he finally reached nirvana. After mastering his mind, he left his life of solitude to teach others meditation.
As I tipped my driver and stepped out of the tuk-tuk and into the relentless sun, I wondered if the Buddha had done his 49-day meditation during the summer, and what his advice was for a newbie. I suppose he’d tell me to be ‘equanimous,’ to keep focusing on my breath, or perhaps he’d offer me a koan (riddle) like ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to sit under a tree, and I’d be inside for the next 10 days — albeit in a room with no air-conditioning and little ventilation.
The meditation center looked like it hadn’t been used in years. It was made up of nine buildings, which were white before but now stained yellow. The crumbling walls were covered with a layer of dust. There was no toilet paper. My bed was rock-hard which was to be expected. I had read that one of the 8 “precepts” (rules) I’d need to follow was “to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.” You see, they don’t want you getting too comfortable and hitting the snooze button, or else you could lose track of your goal — focusing the 100+ waking hours on taming your monkey mind.
But I couldn’t complain…literally. I wasn’t allowed to speak – that’s another precept, Noble Silence. I would be spending the next 10 days with a group of twenty-five meditators, but I couldn’t talk to them until it was all over. You can’t read, write, listen to music, or even make eye contact with anyone. That last one seemed like overkill, but all of this is to simulate an environment of being alone, and to direct all your attention to meditation. This is the life of a monk.
“And one last thing,” explained the Vipassana teacher, “Do not pick any flowers.”
I laughed. Others scoffed. How harmful could picking a flower be? It must have been an archaic Buddhist tradition that got left in the program. I was to later find out first-hand why the teacher said this.
The regiment of waking up at 4:30 am and meditating until 9:00 pm (view the schedule here), along with all these rules like Noble Silence, are part of a highly structured routine that at first glance appears extremely suffocating. In reality, these rules set you up for success.
All of your food and lodging is free, and made possible by the donations of meditators before you (‘dana’). Volunteers from the local village cook your food. The teacher and an assistant are always there to lead meditation sessions and to answer any concerns you have about your practice. They run the show like clockwork and this predictable routine gives you freedom to focus.
We were split up in male and female dorms, separated by a large, circular meditation room and kitchen near the center of the grounds. My roommate was a hygienic and friendly Swedish guy in his 20’s, my age, who was also on his first retreat. He was hopping around Asia for half a year and still coming to terms with the death of his father. This seemed like a fitting environment for soul-searching and reflection.
The kitchen was directly below the meditation hall, which was either bad design or purposeful torture, as the smells of paneer curry and fried bread would fill up the hall as volunteers cooked breakfast and lunch (only 2 meals; we didn’t have dinner, another precept). In hours of concentrated meditation, time ceases to flow. The odors would be a reminder that our meditation hour was almost over.
On day one, everyone arrives and is given time to get settled in. In the evening, there is an initiation ceremony of sorts, and we vow to abide by the laws of the land, and then meditate for an hour to kick things off. Men sit on one side, women on the other. I remember there was a group of six female Vietnamese monks who dressed in blue robes that covered their hands and heads. They’d clearly done this before, and I started to wonder how “far along” they were on their path to enlightenment.
Looks can be deceiving. The next day, one of the austere Vietnamese monks stood up in the middle of our meditation hour and shouted at another monk. Huffing and puffing, she stormed out of the hall and back to her room like a six-year old who didn’t get the Barbie for Christmas. What could she possibly be so upset about? We were all sitting there silently. Fascinated and curious by this outbreak, at that moment I wish I spoke Vietnamese.
On day three, it escalated. While two dozen meditators sat quietly exploring the deepest corners of their minds, the same monk violently broke the silence and began yelling, this time with an increased sense of rage. Like a bloodthirsty spectator waiting for a good show, I secretly hoped that one would slap the other. There was no physical violence, but this went on for quite some time, and two of the monks were eventually asked to leave the retreat. I never did find out what they were quarreling about.
I sat cross-legged and confidently resumed the intense focus of my breath passing over the upper part of my lip. These monks had clocked out after just a few days and I was still going strong. Perhaps I had a knack for meditation. After 30 hours, my body was already experiencing a uniform buzzing sensation that felt like being wrapped in an electrified blanket. It was like being engulfed in a massive vibrating speaker that generated sound from the center of my body. The vibrations are real.
Even after hours of sitting my energy levels were high and I couldn’t wipe off the big smile that was painted across my face. Slowly I rose to a new level. I was totally and utterly aware of my surroundings; sounds started to blend together with smells; I couldn’t separate the touch of air on my arm with the chirping of the birds. I felt at peace, oddly energetic, and as if in a parallel, psychedelic universe. But there were no visions, no ghosts and no funky colors – I was simply here. I was the happiest I have ever been.
Unable to fathom that my own mind – with the help of no external substance – was capable of producing such bouts of joy, I took my attention away from my breath, and focused instead on the positive feeling. I began to think. I wondered how long it would last, and if it could last forever. As I was pondering, a warning that our teacher gave us echoed in my mind. “Do not get attached, even to the good feelings. Be equanimous, equanimous…”
The heart of meditation is observing your thoughts, feelings and emotions as a neutral bystander. When you do this, you can see the true randomness of your thoughts, flowing in front of you like a river. While you can’t stop these thoughts, in taking a step back you can begin to detach yourself from their significance, and in doing so gain some control over them.
This is the opposite of how we normally live, constantly striving to achieve one thing or another – from the grandiose to the mundane – or trying to avoid – consciously or unconsciously – things we don’t want to do. In normal life, we pay too much attention to our feelings, following them towards elusive destinations like success and happiness, but never seeming to arrive.
No longer a neutral bystander, I was deeply distracted by my own feelings of joy. This was a classic newbie mistake.
Within a few hours, it started to fade. I was reminded of a book by Jack Kornfield titled “After the ecstasy, comes the laundry.” I see what he meant – nothing is forever.
The meditator directly in front of me was picking his toe nail for what seemed like hours. If he was actually meditating, I thought, he wouldn’t be sitting there alternating between flicking and picking. He was clearly bored. I consciously locked onto this aggravating sound as if it were the greatest offense, and it immediately became my hell.
The heat started at the bottom of my spine and slowly made its way up my back like a hot iron. I was transforming into a hideous monster and had to double check that the color of my skin wasn’t turning green. My body filled with rage, and for the first time I felt what it was like to be angry. Minutes ago I had been connected to the universe, now I felt like I could murder a man who had done nothing to me. All because of a silly, albeit aggravating, little noise. I was afraid to stand up to say anything, fearing that I’d lose control. The anger of the Vietnamese monks made more sense now.
I took a dozen deep breathes. Focusing on the sensations (tingling, sweating, pulsating, tickling, throbbing, warm, hot), I retraced each point on my body from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. It was a painful, slow process. I’d often forget what I was doing and found myself clenching my fists, fighting off the urge to kick the guy in the head.
After a half hour, my heartbeat started to slow down. And then I made a peculiar observation. It was an insight that has stayed with me to this day. The anger was clearly concentrated in my back, which still felt hot, particularly the lower part. The more breathes I took, the calmer my mind was and the cooler my back became. But when I let myself slip, noticing the picking of the toenail, the heat returned to my spine. I witnessed my anger, for the first time, as a sensation (that manifested as heat), which I could then separate from my emotions.
It dawned on me that if my thoughts could control my emotions, and that if my emotions were connected to sensations/parts of my body, then perhaps through intense concentration I could control what I felt physically. Zooming in on the lower back where the heat was, I slowly inched my attention up, one vertebrae at a time. Eerily, the heat followed. Trying again, this time down my back, I felt the heat follow the direction of my attention. My mind was now controlling the flow of heat throughout my body. Realizing I was one step closer to becoming Neo from the Matrix, I gave myself a mental high-five.
Days into the retreat, one of the students had chosen to ignore the instruction by the teacher made on the first day ‘Don’t pick any flowers.’ Whether by accident or on purpose, I will never know. I witnessed (shockingly!) this heedless student pick a beautiful flower from the large bush on the meditation grounds.
At that moment, I could feel the flower being ripped from inside of me. A deed that I thought harmless for my entire life suddenly had the most profound and saddening impact. Was I upset because he broke the rule, or was I feeling a connection to something greater? What connection did I have with this plant? My pain morphed into anger and disgust.
I screamed in silence and didn’t look at him, of course, as that would be breaking the rules. I considered telling the teacher. A few deep breaths later, I calmed down and decided it was best to keep quiet, maintain Noble Silence, and reflect further on the incident.
You may not be envious of my experience with the flower. But these sensitivities come in a vast array of flavors, like increased compassion for strangers and a greater sense of connection with the world around you.
You’ll find that during periods of prolonged silence, you become extremely sensitive to everything around you — feelings, emotions, thoughts, actions. In light of this ultra-sensitivity, you pick up on subtle emotions that you never knew existed. These emotions are always there and accessible to all of us, but only to those who take the time to train themselves.
As one monk and teacher said, the first step on a spiritual quest requires us to “quiet ourselves enough to listen to the voices of our hearts, to listen to that which is beyond our daily affairs.”
I no longer feel the same torturous pain when I see someone picking a flower, but I do avoid picking flowers and stepping on bugs when I can.
The basis of modern psychotherapy involves more than just sitting in a chair and discussing your feelings with a trusted therapist; it requires reliving the feelings of your past. There’s a reason your therapist will invite you to uncover your childhood with phrases like “That’s interesting. Take me back to that time. How did you feel?” Therapy builds on the idea that when we’re in touch with our feelings from the past, we can then correct them with the faculties of a mature adult. This means recalling, in vivid detail, how it felt to be around a parent that didn’t give you enough attention, or remembering how you overheard your family fighting, which to a child felt like the whole world was on the verge of collapse.
During meditation, it’s common to experience emotions bubbling up from the past, not unlike going to see a therapist. These are unhealed wounds that we’ve covered with band-aids that are now being peeled off. Memories of failed relationships, unfulfilled dreams, and thoughts that you’ve been pushing to the back of your mind for years, even decades. These can be both positive and negative feelings, but they emerge with the intensity in which you experienced them years ago.
There are a couple of possible reasons why this happens. First, we know that thoughts and feelings are stored in our body in the form of physical sensations. Riita Hari, co-author of a study that mapped over 100 emotions to the human body, says, “We have obtained solid evidence that shows the body is involved in all types of cognitive and emotional functions. In other words, the human mind is strongly embodied.” The practice of scanning your body from head to toe, countless times, requires you to hone in on every single part of your body. Because the body is a gateway to your mind, you end up unlocking all sorts of emotions and memories from the past.
Second, our modern lives are marked by a never-ending stream of inputs, so it’s rare that we devote any real silent time to ourselves. In a retreat, you are utterly alone with your thoughts, with no place to run or hide. You will have to confront the good, the bad and the ugly of your past (if this idea scares you, it means that there’s a lot of work to do!). Similar to having ideas pop into your head during a shower or a long walk, meditation gives you the space – or perhaps forces you – to explore the endless stream of thoughts that you may have been too busy to notice.
“For real happiness, for lasting stable happiness, one has to make a journey deep within oneself and get rid of all the unhappiness stored in the deeper levels of the mind. As long as there is misery at the depth of the mind all attempts to feel happy at the surface level of the mind prove futile.” — S. N. Goenka
There are three pillars of Vipassana meditation, called sila, samadhi, and pana. These are the words in the old Pali language of India meaning morality, concentration and wisdom, respectively. Morality is adhering to the precepts, like abstaining from eating meat, drinking/doing drugs, and stealing. Concentration is another way to say that you need to spend time in meditative silence. Wisdom, the third pillar, arises from a shift in perspective when you start to gain insight into the nature of your mind.
These pillars can get a bit spiritual with their talk about karma and rebirth (and various sub-layers), but I’ve found that the practice remains largely free of dogma and focused on your experience. This is what makes meditation attractive to people from different faiths all around the world. You don’t have to believe in karma to reap the rewards of meditation, one of many common misconceptions. In fact, the Buddha himself advocated a sort of individualism.
“Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” —Gautama Buddha
While you are in silence during the retreat, your meditation will be reinforced with knowledge gained in ‘evening discourses.’ These are pre-recorded one-hour hour video sessions with S.N. Goenka, where he imparts much needed words of kindness and motivation. To watch these videos outside of the context of the retreat would be pointless because they are timed to flow with your ten days. After a back-breaking day of meditation, both physically and mentally exhausting, the encouragement (and laughs) I received from these videos often saved me from throwing in the towel.
“Gold must be put through the fires of the crucible in order to be refined.”
— Old Buddhist saying
The first few days brought a key realization that many others have surely had; ‘Holy crap, I complain a lot.’ My legs were cramping. My back was sore. It was too hot and I was drenched in sweat. Why hadn’t I reached enlightenment yet (an especially ridiculous question that showed how naive I was)? These thoughts swirled in my mind and tied in to another insight, and with it brought a solution; thoughts lose their power if you don’t say anything.
There are plenty of occasions where we should do a better job of voicing our concerns and feelings. But often our problem is the exact opposite; we say too much, without saying much of importance. We conjure all of the reasons why things are not as good as they could be, and spew out a stream of words that only perpetuate our situation. Instead of taking action today, we ground ourselves in the past or the future.
Complaining isn’t universal, as journalist John Calapinto discovered when he took a journey deep into the Amazon jungle to meet with the secluded Pirahã tribe. He was accompanied by Dan Everett, a linguist who had studied the tribe extensively and spoke their local tongue. “One morning, while applying bug repellent,” John recalls, “I was watched by an older Pirahã man, who asked Everett what I was doing. Eager to communicate with him in sign language, I pressed together the thumb and index finger of my right hand and weaved them through the air while making a buzzing sound with my mouth. Then I brought my fingers to my forearm and slapped the spot where my fingers had alighted.” The tribesman was puzzled, unable to comprehend what John was trying to tell him. Everett laughed at the situation. “You were trying to tell him something about your general state—that bugs bother you,” he said. “They never talk that way, and they could never understand it. Bugs are a part of life.”
While I didn’t have this cultural conditioning that discouraged complaining, my experience showed me that by not being able to speak, I could see the thoughts and complaints vanishing in my head. Poof. Wait, so that’s all a complaint is? Just a feeling? A thought? Previously they had felt so real. The lesson is that whether through meditative silence, or by an acceptance that it’s part of life like the Pirahã tribesman, we can drastically reduce our stress and improve our wellbeing by getting rid of unnecessary grumbling.
Prior to this course, I had been using the Headspace app for over two years, meditating daily for 15–30 minutes. I’d done a couple of one-hour sittings before, by myself, guided by the sweet British voice on the app. The benefits had already started to manifest after a few months. I knew this because my colleague who would always comment on my frantic pacing around the office, ‘like a chicken with its head cut off,’ pointed out that I seemed more put together.
Headspace and other meditation apps are a great start, easy to use, and effective. I’d recommend anyone to start there. You will see short-term benefits almost immediately. Twenty minutes in the morning will reduce your stress, calm you down, improve focus at work, and even stimulate your creative juices. Most of the world could probably benefit from this.
A few minutes a day, however, is unlikely to take you on a journey to explore the depths of your mind. Nor is it likely to force you to confront the uncomfortable truths, tucked away somewhere, that are at the root of many of your insecurities, neurotic tendencies, and fears. To do so would be to push the limits way outside your comfort zone. It would be destabilizing and would cause you to question the most basic of assumptions; What makes me happy? Why do I act this way? Where am I going?
It’s like the difference between going on a twenty minute walk (healthy) and running an ultra marathon across some unknown terrain (painful). However, make no mistake, a 10-day retreat is not going to give you superpowers or solve all of your problems. It’s more likely that you will take one step forward and two steps back as you peel back the layers of reality and long-held assumptions.
Upon returning from India, I gladly resumed drinking pints of beer, complaining, and forgetting much of what I had experienced. After the fuzziness of my hangover had passed, a familiar emptiness re-appeared, and I knew that my incessant chasing was a bottomless pit. Experience at the retreat had taught me a proven path to experience peace and well-being, for free, absent of all the ‘necessities’ of daily life. Thankfully, meditation is a patient teacher, and I slowly resumed on my path.
S.N. Goenka, the magnificent teacher who revived the practice of Vipassana meditation, was overweight and died from diabetes. Control over your mind does not mean you’re physically or socially healthy, as evidenced by the monks who have years of silent contemplation under their belts but deteriorating or abusive relationships with their families. These are separate skills that require frequent practice and updating to our knowledge-bases. Since we know more about health than our ancestors, we should surely take their sage advice on topics of the mind, but give ourselves the freedom to update the rest.
Upon reflecting on my sardine-eating transgression on day seven, I’ve searched deep into my soul but have not been able to find a single inkling of remorse. Eating that stinky fish was truly the right thing to do in that moment.