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- Vipassana Part 1: Getting There and About the Course
- Next Week: Heading to Vipassana to Meditate for Ten Days
Learning Through My Legs
Busting Through Samkaras
Vipassana: A Magic Cushion Ride
Note: This post is text-heavy and has nothing to do with points and miles. I’m writing about it here for the same reason I write Trip Reports – to share a new experience. That’s what travel is really about anyway!
In you haven’t yet, be sure to read Vipassana Part 1 to get some background info on an experience like this.
During my time at the Dhamma Siri Meditation Center in Kaufman, TX, the weather actually perfectly mirrored the entire experience. It was uncanny how perfect it was.
Days begin at 4am:
You’ll hear the loud gong of a bell at 4am. Then again at 4:20am – your signal to head to the Meditation Hall.
At the Center I attended, they have the light switch next to the bed. That first morning, I flicked the switch – and had no idea what I was really in for.
I got up, one foot in front of the other, and shortly before 4:30am, headed to the Meditation Hall for the first time.
In This Post
Days 1-3: Going Inward (Rainy AF)
I’m lucky I even made it into DFW. Many flights were canceled because of the weather.
A few days before the course began, there was terrible flooding and high winds. So the area was already damp. It was the kind of weather that made you want to stay inside – and perfect for an inward-looking journey.
I made my way to the Meditation Hall in the cold pre-dawn rain, and huddled silently with a group of strangers at 4:30am. We were waiting to be called in for the first Vipassana sitting.
And the whole time I was thinking, “WHAT have I got myself into now?”
The biggest thing to note is that the teacher, S. N. Goenka, has passed away. They use audio and video recordings to continue his teachings.
Inside the Meditation Hall, the teachers sat on a stage, dressed in white robes.
We took our spots on our assigned cushions. And then the teacher pressed the play button on some device.
Goenka’s voice boomed out from the speakers above.
After you get used to it, it’s fine. But that first time was kind of jarring, to gather and listen to these audio recordings.
Anyhoozers, Day 1 is all about watching the breath. That’s it. “Pure breath.”
There are breaks for breakfast, lunch, and tea scattered throughout the day.
And you can, at times, meditate in your room or in the Pagoda (more on that in a bit).
But for the most part, you sit on a cushion in the Meditation Hall.
All day, I sat on my cushion and watched my breath.
Day 2 is about breathing in and out. Watching the breath go in – observing the breath go out.
Patiently and persistently. With perfect equanimity, perfect equanimity.
Day 3 is about feeling the “touch” of your breath inside your nose and above your top lip. Isolating the area of concentration sharpens the mind. And prepares you to dedicate that level of attention to the rest of your body.
My legs were killing me. Sitting up was fine. Back was fine. It was the legs.
I couldn’t get them comfortable. I crossed and uncrossed, thunderbolted, stretched out, huddled around my knees, added and took away cushions – anything and everything I could think of! Nothing helped.
Teacher summoned me to the front and asked if I wanted a chair.
I said no, that it was steadily getting better. He said give it one more day. Because Vipassana would require me to soon sit completely still.
Day 4: Vipassana Day (Winds of Change / Windy AF)
The rain finally broke. And we were left with weather scraping itself over the earth.
I saw they’d changed the skedge for that day. It was “Vipassana Day.”
This day is the centerpiece of the whole experience, where you learn the technique for the first time.
The videos they played at the end of each day had an uncanny ability to relate to the day’s events, btw. Goenka was a character.
This day, we were instructed to simply feel all our bodily sensations.
To watch them:
- Yes, that’s a lot of adverbs!
The previous 3 days, I struggled to quiet the loud thoughts in my mind.
Slowly, the fully-formed thoughts broke down into phrases. Then words.
I couldn’t stop words from popping into my mind. It drove me insane!
Instead of focusing on how badly I was massacring my legs, I focused on getting these words out of my mind.
Morning and afternoon were filled with this. I still shifted my legs a bit, though much less than the previous days.
Then during the afternoon session, something happened.
My mind went completely blank!
I thought, “Whoa dude, you have no thoughts.” And then, “Well, by thinking you have no thoughts – that is a thought.”
“Oh right, I’ll stop thinking that.”
It felt like I was flying!
I was able to separate my mind’s focus from the thoughts I was thinking. I silently observed my body impersonally – as if it were not mine – and enjoyed the complete stillness. I have never had an experience or feeling like this before in my life.
I had to open my eyes for a few seconds to make sure I was still in the room, and on the cushions.
I felt like I’d blasted off into space! Sensations began popping up all over:
- Legs about to freaking fall off
The mind-body link is just incredible. Incredible how your mind tricks you and can control you.
The mind is like a disobedient puppy that must be trained.
By not reacting to sensations – at all – I sent the message to my mind that it could no longer control me in this way. And just when I thought I’d found the trick, finally, my mind would find ever-increasingly cunning ways to deceive me.
Like I said, it was just incredible. I couldn’t believe how many sensations came and went.
These sensations, and their passing, means the release of samkaras.
Samkaras are things you tell yourself that form your reality and self-concept. There are 3 types of samkara lines you draw:
- Lines in the water (fade immediately)
- Lines in the sand (fade within a day)
- Lines in the rock (have to be buffed out over time)
You can guess which ones we were starting to face.
Days 5-7: The clouds break (Sunny AF)
Beginning Day 5, we had 3 hours per day of “Strong Determination.”
That meant staying COMPLETELY still for an entire hour.
No fidgeting, no adjusting, nothing.
My mind screamed and hissed.
On the plus side, I found out what happens when your legs fall asleep and you don’t move them: they wake up again after a while.
Goenka began describing the experience as a “surgical operation” and “battle.”
I started thinking again. “This is medically unsafe. I’ll get a Deep Vein Thrombosis. The blood can’t reach. I’m damaging my nerves.”
I looked down occasionally, and saw my legs beneath me, open enough to be comfortable.
Then I scolded myself. “The legs are fine. But why does it hurt so bad?”
We were instructed to ignore “gross sensations.”
Instead, to focus on ever-increasing subtle sensations.
And to go down and down and down in ever-increasing layers of subtlety.
This “hurt” me to no end!
Days 4, 5, and 6 were the exact same. It was kind of a bummer because we had a new task at hand for Days 1, 2, and 3. My mind craved newness!
Instead, we were instructed to scan our bodies over and over. All day. Days and days of this.
I was an expert at isolating every sensation by the end of Day 5.
Instead, I focused on enjoying the delicate quiet in my mind. So quiet. But not to crave it!
By the end of Day 6, I could sit completely still for an hour without much pain. I was still progressing.
When it was time for a break, I sprung right up. I took every chance to take short walks, to stay active. I found that even while I was walking around with my eyes open, my mind was still quiet!
If a thought entered my mind, I could send it away. I could shut my eyes and snap my mind blank.
I felt supernatural.
To be honest, it was the other people that were distracting. I’ll sound like a bitch saying this, but the constant burping, farting, throat-clearing, coughing, shifting, sneezing, walking around, yawning, groaning, etc. was starting to get to me.
Each sneeze felt like it slammed into my little force field like an asteroid destroying the atmosphere.
I was experiencing all these new sensations and all these other people were making so much noise. But that’s part of being in the present moment – it presented yet another way to focus. It was an external thing to focus on instead of something internal.
But then, on Day 7, I got a “promotion.”
I was given a private meditation cell in the Pagoda.
From what I understand, you are only assigned a cell if teacher thinks you can handle it.
A cell is a small room big enough for a cushion, painted white, with nothing inside but a light switch.
It was quiet inside. So quiet.
I could hear the sound of my own breathing inside my head. Instead of others distracting me, I distracted myself. I itched my head. I popped my knuckles. I shifted my legs because I could – with no watchful eyes around.
I realized I’d shifted external distractions for internal ones. I became my own asteroid. This was another level of learning to be in the present.
Around this time, Goenka warned up our time was drawing to an end, and to focus as seriously as possible for the time we had left.
I’d scanned my body thousands of times by that point. I began to think of my past and future.
Of everything I’ve hated, or destroyed, or fucked up.
Of things I want to do before I die.
If things were worth it. If I should just say fuck it all and travel as much as possible, all the rest of it be damned.
I thought of my non-existent relationship with my father. Of exes I’d been cruel to. Of my travels.
My mind was flushing itself out – but I just wanted it to be calm.
To make this happen, I had to let all of it go and be there, presently. That day, Day 7, was perhaps my hardest day at the Dhamma Siri Vipassana Center.
Everything became much easier. The pain in my legs faded.
My mind felt clear: razor-sharp. I felt almost euphoric. I wanted to burst into laughter every moment.
Day 9 was boring for me. I was tired of scanning my own body. My sensations had mostly faded by that point. I sat patiently and waited for an itch to pop up. The sensations got more and more subtle.
But I knew it would be over soon. But what was I so eager to return to anyway?
My phone? My computer? Please. The things I was “missing?” As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want to miss my own private revolution! I resolved to get over it and press ahead.
Of course, the time did draw to an end.
On Day 10, when we were allowed to talk, I didn’t want to. I enjoyed the silence too much to start prodding people or fielding random questions from strangers. I wasn’t ready to get back to that world. It would come all too quickly.
And it did. Like it began, it was all over – with the flick of a switch.
I cleaned my room according to their specifications, packed my things, which felt humbling, and got back on the shuttle bus to Dallas.
I gave myself a day to catch up.
And you know what I missed while I was away? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
And what I gained? The key to my own thoughts.
Should you consider a Vipassana course?
Yes, you should consider it. But actually going through with it isn’t for everyone.
People disappeared while I was there. I don’t know what happened to them – family emergency, or just couldn’t take it or what – but I noticed cushions cleared away, a few more each day.
And the end, I felt like one of the stragglers.
All through the experience, I heard peeps leaving to go burst into tears. I heard sobbing at night. The guy behind me started sniffling. I realized he was choking back tears.
Was it the mental anguish, the drudging up of past memories? The euphoria of the experience? Or the bodily pain? I’ll never really know. Perhaps all of them. Memories are painful. And it’s hard to let them go. But also such an intense relief.
When we were able to talk, peeps spoke of how antagonizing the experience was. And I realized it wasn’t quite as hard for me. Guess I didn’t have as many samkaras as I thought I did.
When I described the experience to one friend, she replied, “So… like prison?”
I lol’d. But yes, it is a bit like voluntary prison.
But it will help you. There will be some benefit: mind, body, or both.
It is hard, hard work. Even though you’re “just” sitting on a cushion for 10 days. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Things will surface. And you should be prepared for that.
If you sign up, clear your skedge, fly or drive in, get all the way there – and then leave – you’re doing yourself a great disservice. Not to mention going through a lot of trouble. So think on it long and hard before you apply.
Plus, it’s only 10 days. Is that a long time? Yes and no. In some ways, it is. But it’s not a long time to spend with yourself. Penetrating the deepest levels of the mind isn’t something you want to do in a weekend, you know?
I recommend reading as many accounts as you can. You know yourself better than anyone. Don’t waste your time – or risk disturbing others who wish to seriously study – by signing up on a lark.
Whew! What a time.
Vipassana is a meditation technique that will affect you biochemically. Though it has a simple premise – mental purification through self-observation – it was still extremely challenging.
Looking back now, I think the course could’ve been 8 or 9 days instead of 10. But I understand why it’s set up the way it is: to work for as many people as possible. The centers are all over the world.
Vipassana means “seeing things as they really are.” Here’s a video of Mr. Goenka himself explaining it:
I recommend clicking through and reading the comments on the video – they’re very insightful!
Right now, I’m having trouble incorporating Vipassana into my other philosophies. For example, is it possible to plan for the future while simultaneously being in the present moment?
You’re also supposed to continue meditating 2 hours each day – 1 hour in the morning and another at night. I know, I know – I’m supposed to make time for it and if I cared about it, I would.
2 hours a day though? I’m not sure I’ll ever get there. But you can reap benefits with as little as 10 minutes a day. Maybe that’s a better place to begin.
I’m not critical of the course. On the contrary, I think it is as good as it can possibly be. If you want peace, love, joy, and gratitude – you should consider this technique.
This path is universal and will work for everyone on some level – sometimes in very big ways. But doing the actual work is up to you – no one else can do it for you.
I’m looking for ways to incorporate it into my everyday life. I want to solve this.
I learned that:
- Everything is impermanent, including myself and all the sensations I will ever feel
- It’s much easier to live with joy than anger, pain, or resentment
- My mind tricks my body into doing things because it’s craving or avoiding
- I can be silent if I want to be – mentally and physically
- I don’t need a phone, computer, or the internet to live
- The surest way to misery is holding on to the past or fantasizing about the future
- The present is the only thing we can ever be sure of
- I’m a naturally happy person, and I am thankful for much more than I ever imagined
Please feel free to share your experiences with Vipassana. And please ask me anything.
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