Before I begin, two strong disclaimers: (1) I would exercise extreme caution before taking a course. I felt I did a significant amount of research before taking it but in retrospect, I was likely unprepared for the difficulty of the course and how psychologically destabilizing it was. I would absolutely not recommend a course for someone in a negative psychological space or anyone currently fighting mental illness. There is a documented literature of people who experience profoundly adverse effects from meditation retreats and it should be considered carefully. (2) From talking with other meditators on the final day and from reading about the experiences of others, everyone appears to have a different experience during these courses. None of my own experiences should be promised or expected to occur in others.
A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about a Vipassana meditation course she took. We were having a discussion on addictive behaviors and addictions to feeling a certain way. I remember her mentioning that I was likely addicted to the feeling of exercise (I exercise 5-6 times per week and tend to get pretty agitated if I do not). A good addiction to have, no doubt, but an addiction nonetheless. This conversation settled to the back of my mind, but the idea intrigued me and I did more research into the courses and found a lot of thoughtful people endorsing meditation. I had used Headspace periodically and found it provided some modest benefits, although I never did it consistently enough to say that I gave it a fair trial. But I figured all of this was enough to say that I had done due diligence in preparing for something this demanding. The final impetus was that I was given the week of July 4th off from work so I figured the time had come for me to take a course.
One can read elsewhere about the theory behind Vipassana meditation, the details of the technique, or a day-by-day perspective on the course. That will not be the focus of this post. While I tried to follow the instructions from the teacher, I experienced a lot of difficulty and ultimately found the environment and restrictions associated with the course to produce more interest and provocation of thought than the practice itself. Of course, I do not know for certain what caused what, but this is my suspicion. What I am interested in here is exploring how the process of taking the course really transformed my thinking and mimicked a psychedelic experience in sobriety (No drugs or alcohol are permitted during the course. Caffeine, thankfully, is allowed.) While I had read the code of discipline ahead of time, I really had not internalized the degree to which I would be deprived of nearly all of my comforts. No friends. No exercise. No internet. No phone. No choice of food. No shorts. No sex. No physical touch. An uncomfortable mattress.
While those lack of comforts made things difficult, the reason this course was the hardest thing I have ever done was because it was the ultimate confrontation with my own mind. While you can ask the teacher or management questions, they answer in a somewhat distant, detached tone and it carries nothing like the warmth of interacting with a friend. To take this course was to be stranded on a remote island with my own mind. While this sounds terrifying, and it is, it also allowed for my inner voice to be given a full, thorough examination and range of expression that is all but impossible in our world of distraction, stimulation, and concern for appeasement of others. Dan Harris, a newscaster who was recently voiced support for meditation, has mentioned that these courses allow you to notice how “crazy” you are: they allow you the time and space to actually observe your thoughts, rather than simply reacting or distracting yourself from them as one typically does in everyday life. While I might not use the word “crazy," I certainly agree that it allowed me to realize how I am constantly in a chattering dialogue with myself and it gave me the space to take a step back from this. All of the silent hours in the meditation hall, looking at the back of my eyelids, prompts such an incredible array of thoughts, feelings, sensations and I began to realize what an incredibly cluttered mess my own mind was and how easily I could be distracted from one task with another. The character of my unconscious mind began to reveal itself. By the sixth day, it became excruciatingly clear that I had an obsession with the feeling (or sensation, as they are called in Vipassana) of accomplishing various tasks. The course virtually prevents you from doing anything that could typically be characterized as productive. I was so starved for productivity at one point that I organized my toiletry bag, something I would likely never do otherwise.
One of the most profound benefits of the course is that I began to uncover all varieties and stories of self-deception that were quietly riding around in day-to-day life, undetected. My own stories about who I was, what I was capable of, what I assumed others thought of me, began to unravel. This is not to say that I now consider all of my previous notions to be false, just that these things finally received enough attention and scrutiny that I seriously questioned their validity. The inner voice became louder and I began to regard my own instincts and opinions with more conviction and clarity. Instead of Googling one kind of unanswerable question or another (e.g. Am I in the right relationship? Why is life meaningful? What kind of career should I have? etc..), the external world was finally quiet enough for my own answers to come forward. I found this deeply satisfying because these answers ultimately feel true and originating in the heart rather than arbitrarily guided by my current set of stimuli. The sheer duration of the experience made my own thoughts sink in much more deeply than they likely would on a psychedelic drug. Also, while I am writing this a week after the end of course, I notice that these realizations have carried on more persistently than those following drug-induced experiences (or so I am told).
I do not think I have ever had an experience that was more polarized, I experienced moments of inexplicable joy and profound anxiety. There were nights where I lay in bed sleepless, unsure if I would ever see the outside world again, surrendering to intrusive, penetrating thoughts of whether I would retain my sanity enough to go back to my life before the course. The feeling of elation upon finally leaving the course is what I imagine it to be like to leave jail. I screamed as loud as I could with joy in my car. There was an uncanny feeling that I had been living on another planet for much longer than ten days, that I had returned back to my home from another universe with an unshakeable sense of gratitude and excitement. Again, this was the hardest thing I have ever done with my life and took far more will power and sustained effort than a marathon or any physical feat.
When so much is taken away, the value of many things I considered important became so painfully striking. I realized how much I had taken for granted; the beauty of my own community, my loving and supportive family, my closest relationships. All are removed and it becomes clear how fragile all of it is, how precious our time is, how easily and quickly it is all swept away, and the fool I was for not cherishing it while I have it. The concept of impermanence (or “Anicca,” as it called during the course) seems to be the most irrefutable idea presented. Unless one believes in something like the Judeo-Christian idea of a soul, the idea that everything is constantly changing and that we are sentenced to an inescapable process of birth, growth, decay, and death, feels unshakeable. Goenka, the now deceased teacher of the course, does try to put an “optimistic” or perhaps existential spin on this truth, reminding us throughout the course how precious our time is at the center and of course in our lives more broadly. Some of my most painful thoughts were of lost time in the past in which I was lost in my own head, mired in endless obsessions, self-pity, self-hatred, or whatever else, when I had perfectly lovable reality right in front of me. The secret truly is to love what one already has. The awareness of thoughts made clear to me how my own running dialogue with myself all but determines the character of my experience. The automaticity of thought is difficult to detect as we go about our daily lives, but the focus on your own thoughts reveals that this process can be interrupted and approached from another perspective. This is the beauty and freedom that comes with meditation, we can realize that we are telling stories to ourselves all the time and that we can interrupt this process when we realize they do not serve us. As Michael Pollan notes on a recent Sam Harris Podcast, we tend to get trapped by narratives we tell ourselves about who we are. He is discussing psychedelics when he says they can “dope slap people out of their stories” but I believe the same could be said for these courses or any practice that allows you to step outside of your automatic thought patterns. These narratives are stripped bare by the circumstances of the course. The fundamental change that takes place is a shift in the relationship one has to your own thoughts. I realized that I can tell my ego to take a hike and that many of the obstacles I believe are part of the external world are actually imposed by my own mind. Goenka (somewhat convincingly) discusses this idea in one of his hour long discourses (videos), played at 7PM every night of the course. I certainly concede that depending on external outcomes for our own happiness is a recipe for misery, and that we should truly scrutinize whether our dissatisfaction necessarily follows from the world not being as we would wish it.
In the same Sam Harris podcast, Pollan discusses how we dismiss platitudes and cliches because of their obviousness but with the vulnerability and space that comes with a course like this, it becomes clear that these cliches are there for a reason. They are there because they contain a deep truth about reality and ourselves, so deep that they go without saying in our everyday lives. Pollan also discusses how often meditators have decided to pursue meditation following a psychedelic experience, as a means of making a non egoic state more permanent and sustainable. This makes intuitive sense given my experience during the course.
Something about the experience also illustrates the stark finitude of our own lives. How we will never achieve all the things we want and how the world will never be as we would wish it. It becomes so clear that filling our lives with (bad) news and outrage and the fripperies of social media will leave us with a mix of nothing but sadness and confusion. The reality of our own demise also feels present. As I counted down the days until freedom it was clear that there were only so many days until I took my final breath. All of the trivialities I concerned myself with and ruminated over felt excruciating.
My hope is that the lessons of this course survive until my final days (perhaps this is unrealistic). The strongest recurring theme of the discourses and the course in general is how quickly thoughts, feelings, and sensation arise and pass away (“Anicca”). When I paid attention to my thoughts and feelings with my complete attention, I was surprised at how quickly everything from a nervous worry to a small tickle fade into oblivion.
But perhaps most importantly, I started to believe in myself again, I became vulnerable enough to believe in my own dreams, that I was worthy of pursuing them. That it was worth risking failure. That life is too short to be trapped in one’s own narratives or too fearful of pain or the dissolution of ego to live a life to the full. The lack of any of the markers of my own everyday life (my phone, friends, job, partner, etc…) facilitated the dissolution of my ego and created a humbling perspectival shift that allowed me to see myself from a more objective, disinterested, calm point of view. While this dissolution is humbling, I feel I have returned to my normal life with a much greater sense of (psychological) freedom and an excitement about the future that I have not experienced since the end of college. While this experience was one of the most painful things I have ever done, perhaps this freedom and excitement makes the pain a price worth paying.