The most critical teachings come when you leave space for them. I had to pause entirely.
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Here is a question from Dilay following my post “Learning to be alone”:
I am starting my first 10-day Vipassana retreat in a few days in India… do you have any tips/recos/wisdom for this upcoming initiation in total stillness?
I started meditating precisely ten years ago. It is fun to read my post from 10 years ago, full of ego, as I could not help talking about meditation. I had to write about meditation in Davos, where I met the monk Matthieu Ricard. I had to feel important, even talking about meditation. Well, I had to start somewhere. I got into this world thanks to the influence of my friend Soren Gordhamer, who invited me to speak at his first-ever Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco.
My first 10-day vipassana was in April 2014, when I discovered I could feel something without extreme experiences. I have been quite intense all my life, starting several businesses, trying to jump as high as possible on my kite surf, flying a paraglider, and almost killing myself skydiving… I realize now I was just trying to feel something.
Truth is, I was not feeling much. Living in a city, drinking lots of wine, talking loudly, listening very little, and having many childhood traumas made me insensitive to anything. My eyes glued to the Internet, constantly interacting with as many people as possible since I started using it in 1993, has completely shut down what some people call my “third eye,” and I lived entirely “from my mind only.”
There was no reason to change anything, as I could not see how little I felt, and I was “successful.” In 2012, I divorced. It hit me so hard that the sadness and despair became unbearable. I had to do something with myself. There is often a brutal reason to change one’s life. It could be a health issue, an accident, or the loss of someone; for me, it was my divorce.
My mind was agitated, I was sad non-stop, and I saw a therapist twice a week in 2014, but I still looked outside as this successful, happy entrepreneur. The masks were thick. Writing is magic, and I am so grateful that Ben Casnocha wrote in August 2012 about his own Vipassana 10-day course; reading his post made me do mine a few years later.
I arrived in April 2014 at the Goenka Vipassana Center of North Fork, Dhamma Mahavana. It is located in California's geographic center, a few hours’ drive from San Francisco, where I lived. I had no idea what Buddhism was, and I am grateful the method doesn’t want to convert you. It focuses only on helping people through learning meditation. I had no idea what to expect.
Here are the basics. I left my phone with many other strangers who arrived at the same time to reception and agreed to the rules. Complete silence, staying in the center at all times with no contact with the outside world, no reading and no taking notes, no eye contact, and the Buddhist no killing of any animal, not even an ant, so we were careful while walking around.
The food was entirely vegan with breakfast and lunch, then some fruits instead of dinner for the new students; the old ones fasted from lunch to breakfast. This was a first for me and was hard as I was used to eating a lot and lots of meat. Unlike during my diet in the Amazon jungle, simple sweets and sugar were served, and many people found comfort in honey or peanut butter.
I took all my meals facing a wall or hiding behind my baseball hat, not looking at anyone. I crossed others, walking with my head down, always observing the no-eye contact rule. There was also no alcohol allowed; of course, it was the first time I became sober for years. Oh, I forgot also to mention that sex with oneself was forbidden.
I slept in basic shared rooms and beds. Some rooms had many people; I was fortunate to share a tiny room with only another man. Everything was simple and minimalistic. We had shared bathrooms and showers, often with lines to wash ourselves. It might sound ridiculous to some, but this was a first “shock” for me as I was used to staying in luxury places, and my own home was also luxurious in the center of San Francisco.
I forgot at what time exactly was the wake-up call, but maybe 5:30, then straight into an hour meditation from 6 to 7, then breakfast. The whole day was the same: alternating one-hour meditation and one-hour walking meditation or back in the room, lunch, and a recorded tape talk every night at 8 p.m. We all went to bed around 9 p.m., exhausted. It was initially exhausting because my body was not used to sitting without any backrests. Some people were in the back on regular chairs, but I took the standard meditation cushion. My knees, neck, and back hurt quickly, especially as I’m tall.
There were many people, about 50 men and 50 women, separated. Men were on the left, and women were on the right. There were two gender-separated dorms and two kitchens, so men and women never had to cross each other for ten days.
I remember my knees hurt so much that I extended my right leg outside of “my” meditation space, which was a 1.5x1.5m square at one point. Two monks, a man, and a woman, were supervising the meditations but never saying a word. A helper quickly approached me and said, “The monk is asking you to put your leg back in your space,” so I folded it again in meditation pause. I struggled for ten days with this uncomfortable position and the pain in many places. It was excruciating and part of training my mind to go beyond the pain.
We were asked to concentrate only on the air coming in and out of our nostrils for the first three days. That’s it. The recorded voice of Goenka, the center's founding teacher, regularly reminded us to focus back on our nostrils. His meditation method only concentrates on breath first, then sensations. No mantras, nothing. Wikipedia reports that more than 120,000 people take the 10-day annual retreat, and the many benevolent centers are mostly complete. It is entirely free, and you are just invited at the end when you complete to donate what you like to help run the center, which I did. In a classic, beautiful Buddhist way, they don’t even suggest an amount for us to donate. The demand for these meditation courses is such that it is tough to get a seat. They get full early in advance, but it’s often possible to get last-minute waitlisted seats as many people do not show up.
Everybody understands the benefits of meditation, but let’s face it most don’t do it.
There is always something else to do or excuses such as “I meditate when I [add your activity here].” Still, staying 10 hours daily, eyes closed in silence without moving, is very different from walking around “in meditation.” Nothing coming into your brain, no stimulation, is very special and felt completely alien to me.
Nothing is coming out either, as they ask us not to take notes. I just “marinated” with whatever was troubling me, mainly my divorce. Guilt, anger at myself, regrets, everything came out. The first days were particularly hard, and several “students” already left.
My mind felt like a glass full of water and mud, and it sedimented in three days; the bad fell at the bottom, and my mind finally came down. Once I had thought about the same issue 100 times, my mind dropped it.
It is very efficient but also very hard.
After three days, we meditated on our sensations, doing a body scan from the toes to the top of the head and back down. This was the technique I was going to use non-stop for the remaining seven days.
My dreams started to become very vivid, and I started, for the first time in my life, to really remember my dreams and also receive surprising insights during the night. This “container” works.
The total lack of stimulation in my mind, meeting nobody, talking to nobody, not reading anything, or seeing any advertising for ten days created some hilarious situations. My mind was craving to receive any information it was so used to getting, especially from my phone or computer.
I read the shampoo label about ten times or the title on the pack of toilet paper. That is all I had to read, so I started wondering about each ingredient composing the shampoo, why it was there, where it was made, etc. The lack of everything creates very unusual and often funny processes, especially when it is the first time. It was also my first time without sex, and I will not get into too much detail here, but the dreams sometimes got really interesting, as you can imagine.
Here are some of the gifts that come with this work.
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