Is existential rumination a long route towards happiness or a path to nowhere?
It’s a question I have spent much of my young adult life contemplating, often while traveling. I have searched in foreign countries, in sub-cultures, in books, all over — trying, perhaps, to find what it is I’m supposed to be doing for this society and answer “What’s wrong with me?” for being unable to easily find a single path. Of course, the economy and the school systems and Reaganomics are probably to blame for the career crises faced by me and other millennials. But recently, my listlessness has made me feel like the poster-child for a new colloquialism I’ve heard floating around: “28 is the new 18.”
This fall I decided to skip Thanksgiving in favor of my first 10-day silent meditation retreat, in an attempt to break free from technology’s self-surveillance and interconnectivity and completely disconnect in peace. While my family and friends were binging on holiday foods, lively conversation and TV, I’d be forgoing all of the above for a vegetarian diet, hours upon hours of silence and the absence of all electronics.
Practitioners of Vipassana — the type of meditation taught on this retreat — claim that the practice can help people to “see things as they really are.” This beyond any other measure is why I wanted to attend. To quell the hypochondriac and the self-doubter and to figure out a way to effectively engage with the world.
This may seem counter-intuitive given the escapist nature of a retreat, but Vipassana is meant to be incorporated into one’s daily life afterward. It is a skill to practice and maintain, just like typing fast or ordering well at a restaurant. It requires hard work and discipline to practice Vipassana for 20 minutes, let alone hours upon hours for 10 days straight. In return for such effort, one is supposed to achieve a level of awareness on par with the Buddha himself.
According to Vipassana’s website, the practice’s aim is nothing less than “total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.” Damn.
The premise of a Vipassana retreat may not strike a chord with the faint of self. The wake up bell rings at four in the morning and meditation runs on and off until 9 at night: 10 hours of meditation daily. Students are asked to cease all contact with the outside world and cut out all distractions: No drawing, reading, writing, stealing, lying, boozing, smoking or toking. Just you and as many comfy clothes as you can fit in your bag.
What makes Vipassana different from other meditations?
Rather than depending on visualization, chanting or yoga, Vipassana focuses the attention entirely on breath and the sensations occurring inside the body. It’s an ancient form said to predate even the Buddha, but today it’s taught mostly through audio and video of Vipassana’s guru S.N. Goenka, by facilitators who offer free 10-day courses at centers in 96 countries. The only way to learn is to complete one of their 10-day retreats.
Who’s behind it?
S.N. Goenka, a wealthy business-man and devout Hindu born in 1924, learned Vipassana while battling crippling migraines and later spread the technique around the world. It’s his voice who tells you at 5:30 am, after 90 minutes of meditation, “Come out of your suffering, come out of your desperation.”
What did it feel like?
The first three days focus on finding the breath, specifically the unconscious breathing that S.N. Goenka talks about. The idea is to let ourselves breathe involuntarily as we do when we are sleeping, but I find myself constantly nagged by thought. It’s as if the cushion underneath my ass is mocking me for trying to add comfort to this situation. After so many hours of meditation, waves of psychedelic visions start coming to me, especially during the beginning of each hour-long meditation session where I see, feel and hear what looks like a cacophony of pills streaming into the foreground of my unconscious.
On night three, an audio track from Goenka leads us through a body scan, My focus has been strengthened through days of practicing breathing. I follow his commands to become aware of different body parts, from my lip to the top of the head, to my toes. It’s as if I am under a spell, and the effect is such that when I open my eyes and look around I think, Magic is real. From the expression on everyone else’s face I can tell they are similarly astounded.
Aside from that, my body is sore beyond belief, even though I’m using every possible cushion, blanket or stool. I can’t understand why after sitting for hours in meditation during the day, my body and mind seem to be inextricably exhausted. It’s as if I have not had the opportunity to rest in years, and I find myself napping between every meditation.
On day six I show up to my cushion and find a small note waiting for me, inviting me to a private meditation cell inside the confines of the center’s pagoda temple. I make my way down a dimly lit corridor and take a seat on the floor and turn off the light. I close my eyes and try to focus on my breath, but instead, I feel trapped and scared, as though my breathing is being restricted. At a later session, I have a near out of body experience, and I start to understand the importance of not pushing myself too hard. As S.N. Goenka firmly warns us, “Vipassana is not about seeking highs.”
The pagoda sessions end up being immensely generative, but the group meditation sessions are reassuring and blissful in a way that is hard to describe. I begin to develop a gratitude toward the course and the people practicing next to me. People whom I have not spoken with but have heard cry, fart, burp and moan for the past 10 days. When the veil of silence is lifted there is a marked level of elation which I have never experienced around humans before, let alone strangers.
Did it work?
I don’t know if it’s the sobriety, vegetarianism or meditation but after sitting for 10 days of Vipassana, I can say that my body has never felt lighter, freer and looser, like it’s gained a new lease on life. Vipassana is not suggesting that after 10 days you will be completely liberated, of course; Goenka states that this is life’s work, and students are encouraged to sit for one hour in the mornings and evenings and to enroll in further courses.
“Do you think some people just get to be happier than others?” a fellow student asked me as we were driving down the 101 back toward Los Angeles. I can’t say for sure, but happiness does seem more malleable to me and less like a fixed set of circumstances. I doubt myself less because it seems to cause my body pain. I am ruminating less on “where I came from” and can feel with certainty that I am late for a dental appointment and about to clean up some dog pee in the hallway, perhaps, with a tinge less woe-is-me than before.