Monday, June 20, 2016

Vipassana: my 10 days of silent meditation

I came back from Vipassana, a 10 days silent meditation course. It’s amazing. I highly recommend you to go. I won’t lie, it’s hard. There will be a moment when you’ll want to leave. Just stay. The result is worth it.

My primary objective going in was learning to control my mind better. I wanted to tame it, to break a long lasting habit of compulsive uncontrolled thinking and reacting with stress. I wanted to learn to think deeply and systematically. To think less, but better.
Watch this TED Talk for a great 10 min summary on how it works from a scientific point of view.
To be clear, Vipassana is not a “retreat” in a “spa and massages” kinda way. It’s more like a meditation bootcamp. You commit to a brutally intensive course for 10 days in complete isolation. You leave all of your life behind. You wake up at 4am. By 4:30 am you get into the meditation hall and sit still in silence almost non-stop till 9 pm. You eat very simple vegetarian food 2 times a day plus a tea break at 5pm. You are not allowed to talk. No eye contact. No devices. No writing. No sport. No sex. You work really hard. And you get the result.

Breaking old habits of the mind is not easy. For the first couple of days deprived of new information and intellectual tasks my mind went wild. It started boiling like a soup, generating all sorts of random thoughts - from brilliant creative insights to some shockingly dark and disturbing visions. Then, around day 3 I started getting deeper into my subconscious and the insights got more personal: childhood memories, old fears, etc.

On day 4 I hit my lowest point. I was done. I couldn’t focus anymore. I felt tired and depressed. I just wanted to go home. The only reason I stayed was because all my friends who went through it told me this was going to happen and that I should push through it. So I stayed.

It first hit me after the morning meditation session on day 6. For the first time it wasn’t too bad. I sat through it focused and relaxed. And when I walked out of the hall, I breathed in cold air and I felt aware, alive and peaceful. My head was clear. I felt confident and powerful. I felt like I’m in control of my mind. I finally started seeing results. It’s been getting better every day since that morning.

My biggest takeaway from this course is discovering the state of inner peace. Simply knowing this state of balance and harmony exists, gives completely new perspective on my life’s priorities. In this state, you see everything crisp and clear. You are aware of every little sensation in your body as well as every emotion. Making decisions becomes very easy. The questions that have been torturing me for months, suddenly got answers. It’s like I’d been struggling all my life with myopia without realizing it and someone finally gave me prescription glasses.

Most importantly, I learned the technique that I hope will allow getting back to this state regularly. I’ve been practicing daily since I came back, and after a week of work I still feel it. Hopefully, it’ll become my daily habit and I’ll be able to sustain in.

As I mentioned earlier, I highly recommend Vipassana. If you decide to go, here are my 10 pro-tips:

1. Silence for 10 days: don't worry about it. It's actually not a big deal at all. In fact it's kinda awesome.

2. No devices: this is important. Leave your phone home. Don't just leave it in the car, that's a big difference. Not having it there at all helped me a lot. You just know there's no way to get it.

3. Sitting still for hours: this is fucking hard. But that's a skill and you learn it in a few days. In the first day, experiment with all the cushions, benches and other stuff they provide. At the end I found out that the easiest for me is to use the meditation bench (kneeling thing). Some other folks sat cross legged but on a bunch of pillows. Some alternate. Test a bunch of things and find what's best for you. Also bring your own cozy blanket / plaid or something. While at the hall it will keep you warm and comfy. But after you use it there for 10 days, you bring it home and it will be your tested tool, your "trigger" which will help you get back into meditation mode more easily.

4. Lack of movement: this one is a bitch too. They don't allow you to exercise / do yoga / etc. There's a little walking trail though. So I measured 1000 steps on the trail and I made sure I did 10 of these laps every day. My advice: learn good mobility drills to stretch your back, hamstrings, quads, etc. Do your stretches every time you get a chance, as often as possible. Also, bring a lacrosse ball - that was a real life-saver for me. It's like a pocket foam roller. Painful, but the best way to stretch sore muscles.

5. No writing. I'm torn on this one. On one hand I totally understand why then prohibit it. It's for your benefit. Basically, deprived of input info your mind start exploding with ideas. On day 1 I had more meaningful work-related ideas than in the previous 6 months. If you have a pen and textbook it's very easy to just lose yourself to work instead of actually doing what you came for - learning how to meditate…. Anyway, I had a notebook. But i didn’t have a pen. They have sharpies on the shower sign-up sheet. Every once in awhile I’d hide in the shower with my notebook, steal a sharpie and very quickly write down 3-5 very top-level points. Sharpie is too fat and blurry to write a lot with it. So this way I was forced to only do it for as little as possible. But I still got some valuable stuff on paper to remember later. I felt like it was a good balance for me.

6. No sex / mastrubation / opposite gender around. I never thought this would be a big deal. Turns out it’s huge deal starting day 2. Basically mid day 2 I started seeing vivid porn scenes while meditating... they got nastier and nastier and at some point were like the most terrible porn nightmare from a screenwriter of Game of Thrones … No real advice here. Just be prepared.

7. Food. Surprisingly it wasn't an issue at all. In real life I am the opposite to vegetarian, but I loved the food at the center. And I lost so much weight! My advice: bring a thermos mug. Fill it up with tea with plenty of honey during the breaks. You take it with you and leave at the door if meditation hall. This will give you sugar to keep you going during the sessions. Also double down on yogurt and farmers cheese to make sure you consume enough protein.

8. Accommodations / facilities. It's actually really good. Sharing a room with silent dudes keeps you focused and keeps you from breaking the rules - like writing or sleeping through the meditation. My advice here: make it as homey and as cozy as possible. Bring your slippers, your favorite pillow, your pajamas, your potted plant, your stuffed animal, all that. There will be a moment when you'll be ok with sitting... ok with no sex... but you just feel lonely and you'll miss home. Those little things help.

9. Waking up early. You are supposed to wake up at 4am when they ring the bell. Two things here. First, start preparing a week in advance - just start waking up at 5 am or so. I've been doing it for a while before going there so it was easy. And the second: at the last 5 pm tea break of the previous day fill your thermos with coffee. Yes, it's gonna be cold and disgusting in the morning. But it will still wake you up. BTW, it's very tempting to "work from home" for the first 4:30 meditation session. I found that it's much better to do it in the hall. By staying home in addition to all the above you'll be constantly fighting with a desire to lay down.

10. Don't quit. As I said, at some point you're very likely to want to quit. Stay.

Good luck and let all of you experience real peace, real harmony, real happiness!

p.s. million thanks to Dima, Alexey, Yulia, Salar, Lana and Dasha who shared their Vipassana experiences and encouraged me to go.