Jenine and I have been “meditating” almost every day for nearly two years. I say “meditating” in quotes because most of the time when we would sit down cross-legged in the morning, listening to headspace, we would immediately drift into thought, then try not to think, and before we knew it 20 min was up. What we were mostly doing was sitting down and thinking.
I was never quite sure what the benefits were, but we kept meditating because it was a nice way to slow down in the morning and not just rush into things. After nearly two years of doing this, I would say it was an important part of my life, but not exactly offering any spiritual happiness to me.
Then we heard about Vipassana Meditation from a Rich Roll podcast episode #207 where he interview Colin O’Brady a triathlete who was about to leave to become the youngest and fastest athlete to climb the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each continent) and hike to the South and North poles. Just a few weeks ago he finished this amazing journey when he climbed Everest and Mt Denali back to back. It took him only 5 months. And not only did he shatter the records, he also set the overall speed record for the seven summits. He is one of the most inspirational athletes I know and you should to check him out on Instagram
Anyway, Rich asked him how he was preparing himself for the challenge, and Colin said that the thing that has been most transformational, especially mentally, was a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat he did in Washington. I was immediately intrigued. We had been meditating for 2 years, and I wouldn’t say it has been transformational in my life yet. I knew I had to check this out.
These meditation courses are run by Dhamma.org and they take place in over 160 locations around the globe. They require no payment and are donation based. They provide the teaching, food and lodging and it’s all run by former students who are volunteering their time. Although the practice comes from The Buddha, there is no religious angle here, they just genuinely want people to develop the tools to be compassionate and happy.
We didn’t get serious about taking a course until we met a couple when we were hiking in El Chaltén Argentina. They had this amazing calming presence and great energy, and it turns out they had just completed one of these 10 day courses in Argentina. You could tell by the way they were talking about it that it had been a very challenging 10 days, but their lives seemed transformed by the experience.
After hearing so many backpackers talk about the enlightenment they got by doing Ayahuasca in the jungle, the Vipassana experience sounded like it yielded very similar effects, and it left you with a daily practice that didn’t require tripping on DMT to access the next realm of consciousness.
So after meeting them, we immediately booked an upcoming course at the Vipassana Center in Chile. And I’ll say, we had NO IDEA what we were getting ourselves into. How hard could it really be to meditate? We were way more concerned with not being able to talk for 10 days and we didn’t fully comprehend the pain of sitting and the mental challenge/exhaustion of controlling our minds for 100+ hours of sitting.
So on May 13th we headed to the beautiful Vipassana Center in Puteando Chile.
We checked in and they asked for all of our electronics, reading and writing materials, and valuables to lock up for the 10 days. They then told us the course would begin in 3 hours, and we were free to talk until then. Immediately, Jenine and I were bored. What the hell are we supposed to do for 3 hours without our phones or anything to read or write with?? After about 30 minutes of sitting on a bench, I sheepishly asked for my phone back. They looked at me with a condescending glare. If I can’t even last a few hours without anything to do, what the hell are these 10 days going to do to me!
They were going to break me to pieces that’s what. I gave back my phone, and the course and complete silence began at 8pm after a quick talk where they explained the schedule/rules:
– Absolutely no verbal or non-verbal communication, no reading / writing
– YOU MUST STAY FOR 10 days, no bailing on the course mid-way.
– Girls and guys will be split up, and not see one another (Bye Jenine, good luck and don’t leave..)
– No outside food
– No yoga, exercising or practicing of any other technique besides Vipassana.
– Wake each morning at 4:15am
– Meditate 4:30 to 6:30
– Breakfast at 6:30
– Meditate 8:00 to 11am
– 11am Lunch & break- last full meal of the day
– Meditate 1pm to 5pm
– 5pm – Tea and a fruit snack
– Meditate 6pm to 7pm
– 7pm Vipassana lecture – (this is where you got the motivation to continue on for another day)
– Meditate 8:30pm
– Bed by 10pm.
Repeat for 10 days…..
I had to keep re-reading the schedule every time I walked by it as if to verify that I am really going to be doing nothing but getting up and meditating for 10 hours every day with no dinner. I kept hoping some surprise meal would magically appear on the schedule, but that never happened.
The first 3 days were just focusing on your breath – In and Out. Nothing more than that. Then on day four, we learned the actual Vipassana technique. Since I am not a teacher, I don’t want to explain it in detail, but basically you scan your body from “head to toes and then from toes to head” and you become aware of every single sensation on your body. You do these scans slowly, part by part, and with enough focus and attention you will start to feel clear distinct sensations on every single point on your body. It is tough work, but you get there. Now the real key is to remain “equanimous” or not reacting or judging any of these sensations, including the horrible pain you undoubtedly feel in your back and legs from sitting on the floor all day every day.
What you are doing is essentially training your “mind” to not react, to not crave certain sensations and to have no aversion to the bad sensations. It might seem like this wouldn’t have direct application to real life emotions, but I can tell you it does in a big way. Everything we crave or everything we have aversion toward creates sensations in our body that we generally quickly react to. Someone pisses you off over email or you get jealous by seeing someone achieve success that you don’t have, all these feelings cause deep physical/emotional responses or “saṅkhāras” that you can feel in your body. By training your mind to stop reacting to these feelings of craving and aversion, you can transcend the madness of this world that leads to so much unhappiness. We are experiencing what it means when we say “this too shall pass”. This is what is known as the law of impermanence or “Anicha”.
It is powerful stuff, and I believe Vipassana is the best tool in the world to help you live this equanimous state every day in your life. It is the core meditation technique taught by The Buddha. It’s based on ancient wisdom and the path to true freedom. Furthermore, a great number of people for 2,500 years have achieved happier lives through this practice.
With perseverance that more resembled the look of a broken-down and dazed person, who no longer has free will and is just meditating and eating when told to do so, we made it through all 10 days. We both went nearly mad/crazy over the first 4 days and had moments where we thought we were going to leave (several people did leave early). Our bodies were in constant pain. My mind would continually torment me. I had a moment where I cried after a session, and I don’t know why. We were constantly exhausted and even though the food was delicious vegetarian food, I was constantly hungry.
But we both found some peace and wisdom inside ourselves as the course dragged on. For three of the daily sittings, we were not allowed to move or change body positions for one hour, and this deep exploration into our body through the pain was profound. You can actually make pain disappear through Vipassana, and it is truly amazing to experience Anicha, the law of impermanence, first hand! To achieve anything important in life, you have to work. And this is what this course was about – working very hard to develop a practice that can bring so much happiness in your life going forward.
At the very end of the course we were allowed to talk with the other students. It was such a shock to be pulled back into real life, some people found it overwhelming. But we met some wonderful people, including my roommate for the past 10 days who I hadn’t even talked to yet. It’s strange sharing a room with someone who you don’t even know their name. And Jenine and her roommate finally got to laugh about their absurdly ritualistic usage of the shared bathroom (they devised a schedule without ever talking). To continue the practice and maintain the benefits, it is crucial that you practice an hour each morning and an hour each evening. Repeat, this course was just the baby step on a very long path. So far, two weeks later we are still on that path practicing day and night. The benefits, aside from generally being calmer and happier, are it has made it easier to eat more healthy, we wake up each morning at 6:30am feeling rested and refreshed, we’ve given up coffee (after drinking it for 15 years) and I have less desire to drink alcohol as well. Additionally, both Jenine and I have been able to release long held negative emotions that were tied to past events in our lives that used to bring us down.
I am definitely planning to attend another 10 day course next year and maybe volunteer as a server.
If you are looking to expand your spiritual side and unlock greater happiness and compassion in your life, and you are willing to work hard at it, I highly recommend this training in Vipassana.
The blog title refers to “Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality without Religion” a book by Sam Harris, who is a big proponent of Vipassana.