[Note: This is not a regular game development blog post.]
Vipassana is a 10-day silent meditation retreat. There are retreat centres all over the world, but the one we went to was in Montebello, which is half-way between Montreal and Ottawa (link).
I’ve been vaguely interested in meditation for a long time, but never practiced. Then several years ago Sara went on this same retreat and her stories rekindled my curiosity. We talked about doing it together and finally signed up with two other friends. You have to sign up a few months in advance because there’s a waiting list.
I think going with friends helped even though you can’t interact with them. Just knowing they’re there provides moral support and sharing stories with them afterwards is a lot more meaningful.
There are many kinds of meditation, but this particular technique comes from a Buddhist tradition and is called Vipassana (which means “Special Observation”). It specifically involves being aware of physical sensations on the body and trying not to react to them, but more generally it’s about reducing suffering, living in the present, being responsible for your own happiness, and helping others. All good stuff!
The words “silent”, “meditation”, and “retreat” evoke a sort of peaceful tranquility. That’s kind of what it was, but it was also a mentally and physically demanding intensive 10-day course, in which you’re held to a strict schedule and purposefully denied almost all sensual pleasures. I characterized it as part boot camp, part rehab, and part training-to-become-Batman.
Boot camp because they woke us up with a gong at 4am every morning and made us undergo regular periods of physical hardship.
Rehab (for the mind and soul) because the course is designed to help cure our natural addictions to craving and aversion.
Batman, because we lived like monks and part of the training was how to IGNORE PAIN.
Now, the rules.
“Noble Silence” doesn’t just mean quiet. It means no communication either verbally or through gestures, body language, or even eye-contact. You pretend you’re there by yourself. You meditate in silence, you walk around in silence, and you eat in silence. There was also gender-segregation so I didn’t even catch a glimpse of Sara. I think I once heard her clearing her throat at lunch. I did see my friend Phil but I tried to avoid him whenever possible. Sitting in the dining room and not acknowledging or even looking at the other people at your table was pretty awkward for the first few days. You’re also not allowed to bring any distractions like books, music, notepads, phones, etc. There is basically nothing to do except meditate, eat, rest, and walk in the forest. This is intentional, so that you can focus on your practice. It works :)
People say “oh, I couldn’t be silent for 10 days” but it’s not like you’re in a busy city where people are talking and laughing and having fun. Everyone around you is going through the same thing. I found it pretty easy to follow the rules and remain silent. We were allowed to talk to the assistant teacher about our practice. And every night we listened to the real teacher, Goenkaji, talk to us for an hour via a prerecorded video lecture.
We also had to practice morality, in the form of five Precepts, but they made them all easier for us because… let’s face it, we’re all pretty immoral and need help:
- No killing. Including animals, which they made easy by serving delicious vegetarian meals every day.
- No stealing. Easy because they took all our valuables away.
- No lying. Easy because we couldn’t talk.
- No intoxicants.
- No sexual misconduct (it wasn’t clear what “misconduct” meant, but I took it to include self-pleasure).
We slept in dorms (or–if you say that you snore on your application form–private rooms!). There were 5 people in my room, but each bed area was separated with high curtains so we still had privacy. I didn’t even see some of the people in my room until the last day.
The schedule was as follows:
- 4:00 am: Morning wake-up bell
- 4:30-6:30 am: Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 6:30-8:00 am: Breakfast break
- 8:00-9:00 am: Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00-11:00 am: Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
- 11:00-12:00 noon: Lunch break
- 12noon-1:00 pm: Rest and interviews with the teacher
- 1:00-2:30 pm: Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 2:30-3:30 pm: Group meditation in the hall
- 3:30-5:00 pm: Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
- 5:00-6:00 pm: Tea break
- 6:00-7:00 pm: Group meditation in the hall
- 7:00-8:15 pm: Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
- 8:15-9:00 pm: Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00-9:30 pm: Question time in the hall
- 9:30 pm: Retire to your own room–Lights out
Breakfast was oatmeal with stewed fruits, cereal, yoghurt, fresh fruits, toast, tea and coffee.
Lunch was a different vegetarian dish each day and a big green salad with lots of toppings.
There was no dinner. The only thing you could eat after midday was at 5pm when they served tea and fruits (just tea for students who had done the course before).
I ate a lot of fruit.
If you meditate at all the suggested times it’s about 10 hours a day. This is a lot. I probably managed about 6 or 7, with the rest of the time spent stretching, resting, thinking, being frustrated, and occasionally getting extra sleep.
In the rest periods I would sit in the sun and go for walks in the forest. The whole experience compels you to pay more attention to your senses and small details and things that were previously in the background. I had some great moments just watching insects and animals going about their lives. Other times I would just enjoy the feeling of sun on my skin or being in the forest.
The evening Discourses were pretty great. Goenkaji (who popularized this technique around the world and still “teaches” all the courses through these videos) is a great elocutionist with a sense of humour and almost everything he talked about was good useful stuff, about listening to your body, how the mind & body are interrelated, learning from your own lived experience, not letting others control your happiness. In 10+ hours of lectures there were only a couple of weird things about “wavelets” and the four elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. He also mentioned past and future lives (reincarnation), but made it clear that you don’t have to believe any of the theory as long as you practice the technique.
Sitting motionless for a prolonged period of time is… uncomfortable. Over the first few days everyone in the hall seemed to try every possible configuration of cushions before finally settling on something pretty simple. Some eventually moved to regular chairs, but this is not recommended.
For the first three days I tried sitting cross-legged on cushions but it was excruciatingly painful after about 20 minutes. I don’t know the exact etymology of the word “excruciating” but since it comes from “crux” or “cross” I can only assume it was invented to describe this exact pain. I figured the pain was due to bad posture from sitting at computers for so long so I tried to stick with it and do lots of stretches. But I had to rest and switch positions every 15 minutes which made it much harder to keep my mind focused.
On the 4th day I switched to a meditation stool (supporting my bum while I knelt) and it was MUCH better. Just in time too, because on the 4th day the group sessions involve “Strong Determination”.
Strong Determination means holding your posture for the full hour without opening your legs, arms, or eyes. With a stool I was now able last the full 60 minutes, but the last 15 were still very difficult. One trick I learned was to not wiggle my toes because as soon as I did I was acutely reminded of all the feeling in my legs and I got a fresh wave of pain. The end of the session is marked with Goenka’s distinctive low voice chanting in Pali, “Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam” (May All Beings Be Happy). Even though I got much better at holding my pose, there were only a few sessions where I was focused enough to not actively look forward to the chanting and feel relief when it started.
Those first three days are, in fact, merely practice for the real technique, using a succession of breathing exercises. They don’t teach you Vipassana until Day 4.
People say “10 days sounds like too much, maybe I could do 3 days instead”. But now having done it, it’s obvious that this just wouldn’t work. If you condensed everything and taught at a quicker pace, you would miss out on a whole bunch of practice and conditioning and mental processing and I think the benefits would be questionable.
The Vipassana technique involves scanning your body by focusing your mind on each small part in turn, gradually moving from head to toes. At each part you wait until you feel a sensation, of any kind, and then move on. It could be a hot or cold sensation, air against the skin, a dry or moist sensation, an itching, tingling, prickling, pulsing, throbbing, numbness, expansion, contraction, pressure, pain. We get the idea, Goenka. The important thing is not to prefer one type of sensation over another, and just keep going from part to part.
As I got better at this I discovered that each area of the body I focused on would immediately start to tingle. This was cool.
As the course progressed we came to learn that the pain was a pretty important part of the technique. We learned to simply experience the pain, to be aware of it and observe it, but not react to it. In fact, we were taught to not react to ANY physical sensations. Instead we learned to be “equanimous” to them, feeling neither craving nor aversion. If you practice this enough, the pain stops being so attention-grabbing and in some cases dissipates completely. This was pretty revelatory to me. I was able to use the power of my mind to stop feeling pain.
The theory is that many (all?) of these pains and other sensations are deep-rooted impurities of the mind and we are doing serious mental “surgery” to bring them to the surface and heal them. Whether that’s true or not, what is a lot more apparent and believable is that whenever we feel emotions, like fear or anger or jealousy, they initially manifest as physical sensations on the body (eg. tightness in the throat, butterflies in the stomach, etc.). If we train ourselves not to react to these sensations we can catch them at this stage and carefully consider them instead of lashing out or shrinking back. In some cases we can pause long enough that the sensation passes and then we’ve just saved ourselves and others from some unhappiness. This is perhaps the most important practical lesson I took from the course.
By Day 5 I was pretty confident in my practice and felt I was doing the technique well. This was also the first day I experienced a moment of intense happiness/elation. I couldn’t stop grinning and was on the verge of uncontrollable laughter. This was quite possibly a sign of my gradual descent into madness, but as someone said later there’s a fine line between an ecstatic spiritual experience and madness. I experienced this overflowing of happiness several times from then on, often when I thought of Sara, but sometimes for no obvious reason.
It didn’t all go smoothly though. My worst day was Day 8 when I just couldn’t focus and spent a lot of time in my room frustrated at myself for wasting one of the last days of serious meditation. But then Day 9 was better, and Day 10? Well Day 10 is special.
On Day 10 after the morning session in the hall, the vow of silence is lifted and you can talk to the other meditators. This felt pretty amazing after 9 days of silence. The chattering was almost overwhelming. I experienced something that Sara had warned me about: preconceptions I had built up about these people I felt I “knew” in some peripheral way were totally blown away when I started talking to them.
On this day men and women were also allowed to meet in the common area, which meant I got to see Sara. I was expecting to start sobbing uncontrollably when we met, but I simply teared up a little and smiled uncontrollably. We talked continuously until the bell rang for the next session. There were still meditation sessions on this day but we were told not to expect any “serious meditation”. Day 10 is for easing you back into normal life.
I had a wonderful experience but even if you have no other benefits you still spend 10 days in beautiful surroundings eating healthy food, spending time in the sun, and improving your posture. It is also completely free. You pay nothing. This is in fact an important prerequisite. You must live on the charity of others, like a monk or a nun. They don’t even accept donations until you’ve finished the 10-day course. After that they are encouraged, but not as a payment for services. You donate so that the next person can also do it for free.
Incidentally, this is the business model I used for Spaceteam :)
Now that it’s been a week since the retreat I can reflect a bit on how my life has changed. I’ve been continuing to meditate for 30 minutes morning and evening (they suggest 1 hour, but that seemed like too much).
I felt pretty high (on life?) for several days after I got back.
The retreat was enough of a system shock that I’ve been able to use it as a catalyst for changing bad habits. I’m taking care of tasks that I’ve avoided for many months. And when new tasks come up that I want to avoid I have just been doing them.
I am consciously trying not to live in the future so much and be fully aware of (and grateful for) the present moment.
After training my body for so long, it is now pretty easy to observe my feelings as they happen and not react so quickly. This is already working, I think it will only get better and it feels great.
I’m thinking about other people more and being less self-centred.
I’m hugging people more.
I’m eating more fruit!
It was a very intense experience but I think after a year has passed I will be ready and even eager to do it again. It’s a big commitment but if you’re able and willing to take the time and spend it on self-improvement like this then I highly recommend it!
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam
[Bonus reading material! An article written by Sara about her first experience 5 years ago: http://sixthsensereader.org/about-the-book/abcderium-index/vipassana-meditation/]