On January 19th, I returned from a ten day Vipassana retreat.
I would like to use this post to explain what the trip was about. However, let me take this moment to say that I have not done serious study on the topic of Vipassana meditation. I did no research prior to my trip and have yet to do any research upon my return. Everything I write in this post will be based on my understanding after completing the course. So if I'm wrong about anything, I apologize.
There are times in life when you are convinced that you are headed down a path for a specific reason, then once you get there you realize that God had an entirely different purpose for sending you.
That is how this trip felt to me. I was convinced I was only going to see if I could survive not talking for 10 days. I just wanted to know if I could do it, that was all. But it wasn't until I got there that I realized that God had sent me on this trip as part of my efforts to better understand my depression and how best to manage it in the future.
In this context Vipassana is a form of meditation where the ultimate goal is liberation from misery and to purify the soul.
I know that may seem like a pretty lofty promise, but actually there is a pretty interesting theory behind this. But I'll explain more about that in a moment.
The technique can be taught by attending a course at any of the Vipassana retreat centers all across the world, including 16 centers in the United States alone.
During the course you are asked to take certain measures to achieve mental silence. This is done by adhering to the Noble Silence rule (no talking, no eye contact, no body language, no communication of any kind with the fellow students) and by not keeping a journal or having any reading materials.
Why no reading materials? Because they want you to base your opinion on Vipassana solely on what you experience. They don't want you to agree just because they said so or because you read it in a book somewhere.
Why no journaling? This was never actually addressed in the course but my guess is that sometimes when you write something down that idea can become fixed in your brain. But the whole idea behind this study is that sensations change and things pass away. You should base your opinion on what you experience in that moment, and shouldn't carry over any bias you had from the day before.
Why Noble Silence? Mainly for all the reasons I've listed in answer to the other two rules, but also because you don't want to compare what you are learning or feeling to what someone else is experiencing. You may think you had a really good sitting until you hear that your friend had an amazing one and now all of a sudden your experience wasn't good enough. Plus, you can also use the experiences of others to distract you from working on your own issues.
During the course you spend the first two days focused on the respiration passing through the nose. You spend all that time meditating only focusing on being aware of the breath passing in and out at the softest most natural level.
On the third day you start to become aware of the sensations that occur anywhere from the bridge of the nose down to the sensations on the upper lip.
You know how sometimes you can think of your nose or your ear or any other body part, and all of a sudden it heats up or starts buzzing? Well, those are the types of sensations we are talking about. Buzzing, heat, coldness, perspiration, or pressure. Those sensations are occurring all the time but our minds are usually too distracted to notice.
On the fourth day we actually started the Vipassana part of the meditation, where you aim to become aware of those same sensations all over the body. And you don't move...for an hour!
When you come in and sit down you can sit in as comfortable position as you can find, but no matter how comfortable a position you start with after about 20 minutes...not so comfortable anymore.
This is probably the most important part to the whole teaching. The goal during this part of the meditation is to get to the point where you can observe the sensations, even the painful ones like numbing, as neither pain or pleasure.
Which brings me back to that theory I mentioned earlier.
One of the biggest theories behind this teaching is that all unhappiness stems from cravings or aversions. Something bad happens, you don't like it, you don't want it to happen again, you create an aversion to it. Something good happens, you love it, you want to feel that way always, and you create a craving to have that feeling all the time. The more cravings and aversions you build up the harder it is to find contentment.
All these years that we have been living we have been training our bodies to react to those feelings of cravings and aversions.
Vipassana teaches us at the most basic level how to not react.
You spend all this time concentrating on the sensations of your body. Suddenly, you have an itch. You must learn to observe the itch and not react to it. It is believed that each time you do this, you are changing the habit patterns of your mind and breaking loose from you bigger miseries like anger, depression and anxiety.
I know this may seem impossible, but it is important to remember that pain is only pain when put in context. For example, sometimes you will be sitting there with your legs crossed and get this intense burn or ache in your calf or thigh. You see it as a bad pain. However, after a great workout you have that burn in your calf or thigh and you will see it as a good pain because it is proof that you worked hard. It is the same sensation but in one scenario the pain is torture and in the other it is welcomed.
Anyway, once the methods of Vipassana were taught to us on the fourth day, we spent the remaining part of our course perfecting this.
I have yet to perfect it. I was able to remain detached from the pain, but I really struggled with getting restless. I would want to move after about 15 minutes just for the sake of moving. I don't know what that says about me and my depression, but there you have it.
Since my return I've had two questions asked of me more then any others:
What was the hardest part?
Would I do it again?
I had two things that were the hardest part. Not having a pen, not being able to journal, drove me insane and made my brain feel like mush by the time the course was over. I'm the type of person that learns best having the directions in front of me and being able to take notes and write things down, even if I never read over what I wrote. It is the only way that I feel like I can articulate and really get a grasp on what I'm thinking about something.
The other thing was to have one of my closest friends four rows in front of me, passing me in the hall, sitting next to me at lunch, and not being able to acknowledge her. Especially when I was thinking through some pretty tough stuff and I knew she was as well. That was painful.
Would I do it again? If you had asked me on the morning of the tenth day my answer would have been: "Are you f*%#ing kidding me!?!"
But once I was finally able to vent my frustrations and hear that I was not alone, I was able to see the experience for what it really was. I was able to see it for what I actually did learn and appreciate how it did help me.
Today, my answer is, yes. I would most absolutely do it again.
However, they do have shorter courses and I would go to one of those first. If I really felt like the shorter courses couldn't give me what I needed, then I would try to muster up the strength to complete a longer course again. But I would definitely try the shorter course first.
Thank you so much for reading this post, I'm sorry if it felt really long and boring! If you have any questions please leave them in the comments and I will answer everything I can.