It sounds like a great plot to a legitimate psycho thriller. Eight men and fourteen women from random backgrounds are individually invited to spend 10 days at an a old mansion in the woods of Wisconsin, enjoying free service, lodging and dining under the following precepts: To not leave the premises, to have no social interaction whatsoever, to get up into complete darkness at 4 AM every morning, and to spend 11 hours per day sitting cross-legged on the ground, eyes closed, without any movement or reaction, no matter what happens around them. And day by day, people start disappearing, without a warning, while no-one can talk about it…
What sounds like a nightmare turns out to be one of the most eye-opening and life-altering personal development experiences one could ask for. Some brief words of theory in my own humble language: Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama (AKA the “Buddha”) and is a meditation technique with the goal of purifying your mind and regaining control from the subconscious and reactive ego auto-pilot that has been generated through your life’s experiences. Translated into modern-time English, you could probably call it a heavy mental workout, or a deep mind cleanse that lets you see reality free from cravings and aversions – all with the goal of becoming a better person, making more objective decisions and leading a happy and self-sufficient life. This is taught in three steps: Establishing a virtuous lifestyle, developing the ability to master and concentrate your mind, and lastly, by using a state of full awareness, feeling the constant change of physical sensations throughout your body to let the auto-pilot of the mind dissipate into thin air.
Sounds pretty amazing, right? It is! But it also is a long and very exhausting journey that requires a lot of hard work and dedication. A journey that is highly individual and very different from student to student, as everyone works with their own reality, body and mental history. To mentally prepare for this experience and to ensure walking away with all the huge benefits of this program, here are my 5 pieces of advice to consider for your ‘mental’ survival pack list.
(1) Be prepared to endure physical and mental pain! Many friends wished me “lots of fun” and “relaxation”, but most of the time it is the exact opposite. The course is designed for you to live like a monk or a nun, no luxury, no distraction, and a very tight and strictly enforced daily schedule (yes, they get you from your room if you don’t show for meditation on time). The goal is to develop equanimity and endurance. Your body is tortured through hours of sitting, your joints hurt badly, and usually you develop some kind of headache or sickness in the first few days – all of your inner and outer self is telling you to stop what you’re doing and run away. Don’t! Just don’t! Keep at it! Try and start again, and again, and again! Be sure that your situation will change, because it surely will. And if you make it to day 10, you will know exactly what it was worth!
(2) Be very patient with your mind! It’s is a pretty wild beast, and as it’s not used to this level of intensity. It will actually drive you absolutely insane, with no way out, causing emotions from frustration to isolation, apathy, fear and helplessness. The apparently simple task of ‘concentrating on nothing but your natural breath’ turns into a Mission Impossible. Before you know it, your mind has again taken you down the path of thinking, planning, imagining, worrying – even playing funny games with you to keep you from practicing, like a little child! The funnier ones that I experienced were putting an old-school hip hop rap beat under Goenka’s spiritual chants, imagining the whole place blowing up in a mid-western tornado while maintaining noble silence and cross-legged posture, and most strikingly, the face of my boss walking into the door to witness the scene including myself in the middle of it.
(3) Stay open to new ideas and influences! Some of the course will feel very awkward to you. There are theory discourses through semi-professional VHS style videos, lots of Pāli words to get used to, and not a lot of bling-bling or flowery entertainment around the messages and instructions. Remember, this is a non-profit, funded only through donations of previous students who valued the experience enough to donate. Don’t let this fool your technologically spoiled mind. Also, people in the course come from all kinds of backgrounds, so everyone naturally feels out of place. Embrace this as part of the experience and don’t let it make you think that you’re in the “wrong spot” or doing it at the “wrong time” – everyone naturally and always is!
(4) Accept your limitations and weak moments as current reality! Nothing can be more frustrating than sitting through a whole day of meditation, feeling that you haven’t made any progress whatsoever. Understand that this realization is actually progress, and its acceptance is a huge achievement for you! The technique teaches you to embrace the nature of change and to remain non-judgmental, including the upsides as well as the downsides. Take a walk, breathe, accept current reality, and try to not judge yourself – as things will change either way.
(5) Don’t start interpreting your fellow meditation students! It feels absolutely unnatural to go through a process of such mind-altering, challenging and unfamiliar experiences and not be able to understand what people around you think, feel or experience. Noble silence includes prohibiting eye contact, gestures, anything that only barely relates to communication, so your social self will start interpreting their silence as not being affected by anything, not feeling pain, not caring, yes even worse: Isolating you! Always remember that everyone is going through their own sets of challenges and that the course is designed to be a very individual experience – a path that everyone has to walk by themselves.
If you’re still reading: Great job! Because I can tell you fullheartedly that it’s worth every second of hardship, and the feeling on day 10 is second to none (the only comparison I can draw is crossing the finish line at my first marathon). I would absolutely recommend this course to anyone who is genuinely interested in personal development, as you walk away with so much from this, including:
- the amazing concert of birds in the trees during sunrise on my routine walk break from 5.20 to 5.35 AM every morning
- the smell of spring in the cool air while watching the trees and plants slowly blossom
- the level of closeness and friendship you develop with your fellow students without even exchanging one word
- the feeling of success when the silence is finally broken and your face just naturally starts smiling ear to ear and can’t stop
- the moments of break-through in your meditation practices
- the insights into your so-called ego and the manifestations of all your past experiences
- the genuine gratitude for the people preparing meals and taking care of your well-being
And the list goes on and on.
If you are thinking about taking a course, and you can read through this article feeling challenged but excited about the prospect – just do it! I promise, it’s worth it. For me, this is only the start of a journey to develop my mental capacities and to daily improve my ability of applying the true translation of Vipassana – seeing things as they really are!
Please share this blog with anyone interested, and comment with any additional questions you might have, I will be more than happy to answer them. Also, please check out the organization’s website, read the Wikipedia definition or watch this great movie about how Vipassana was introduced to successfully help reduce relapse rates in Indian prisons.
Anicca, anicca, anicca!