I just got back from Jesup, Georgia yesterday and my second time sitting a 10 day Goenka style Vipassana meditation course. I sat my first course when I was in India at the end of 2015, about 14 months ago. It’s funny how the whole time I was in the course, my mind wouldn’t stop running in my head and thinking about what I would write in my blog. Then I get home and try to start writing and nothing comes to mind. I feel it’s tricky the second time around because I knew going in how hard it was the first time but also how rewarding it was. This can make it hard to go into with an open mind and no expectations. The courses are given all over the world and they use the exact same format wherever you go. They will even do their best to accommodate people who speak different languages. You turn in all your phones and electronics when you get there as well as any valuables. They ask that you not bring any books or reading or writing materials as it is against the rules to speak or communicate with anybody in any way. No reading, writing, listening to anything, talking, touching anybody else, and not even any eye contact. The aim is to have zero distractions except of course, you are left with the biggest distraction of all, your own mind.
I knew after the first course that I wanted to sit again, yet at the same time, a part of me didn’t want to. It’s hard. I applied for the course and part wanted to get in and part didn’t want to get in.Physically, it’s hard to sit for 10 hours a day and meditate. I found the sitting easier this time around but my mind proved to be at least as hard to sit with. The nearest center is located in Jesup, Georgia which is a tiny town about an hour and a half north of Jacksonville, FL and about an hour from the coast. They always pick locations that are fairly secluded to cut down on distractions. This center was in a really beautiful spot with a pond and lots of trees and forest around. There are boundaries for men and women and of course you can’t leave the property for the entire time. Sometimes on my walk around the forest, I would catch a glimpse of the cars in the parking lot and it seemed like such a different world. So close, yet so far away. The first few days seemed to drag on and I kept needing to just focus on each hour at a time. Looking forward to lunch and dinner breaks and of course the end of the day when I could go to bed and fall asleep almost immediately. Sleep was the only sure respite from the never ending flogging of the mind. Often times, I would nap during our lunch break too, which went from 11 to 1. I would eat lunch right at 11 when the morning meditation session was over, often times eating too much. Then I’d take a few loops around the forest to help my food digest and then nap before the gong sounded at 1 for meditation to resume. Meals were always a big highlight and something to look forward to. The food was good. All vegetarian of course and freshly prepared by volunteers who had sat the course previously. Anybody who sits the course at least once can come back and volunteer at any center.The centers are all volunteer run and supported solely by donations from students who have completed a course. I did realize how much I use food as a coping mechanism in the course and also in life. There is a light snack of fruit and tea at 5 but if you are a returning student, you are not allowed to eat anything past noon each day. I was originally worried about this but actually ended up liking it by the end. It is effectively a form of intermittent fasting, which is where you eat for 8 hours in a day and fast for 16. It gives your body a chance to really use all the food you’ve eaten. I had done a 7 day fast earlier in January where I just had water and tea for the first 3 days and then 8 oz of unsweetened cranberry juice with a fresh squeezed lemon along with the water and tea for the last 4 days. It was hard but a very rewarding experience. I found days 2 through 4 to be particularly hard but day 6 felt amazing. My body had finally realized it wasn’t getting food anymore and I had a lot of energy and felt happy. It felt good to accomplish and I feel like it strengthened my mind and made me more disciplined.
Anyway, back to the course. A part of me felt like I was using sleep as an escape but my mind would get exhausted from so much thinking. The day started every morning with the gong at 4am. Meditation from 4:30 to 6:30. Breakfast and break until 8. Back at 8 and meditation until 11 with a few short breaks in between. Lunch at 11 and break until 1. Back at 1 until 5 with a few short breaks to stretch the legs. Tea break at 5 and back to meditation at 6. There was a discourse at 7 in the meditation hall given by Goenka who is the man who taught Vipassana in India starting in 1969 until he died in 2003. He was responsible for the huge growth of the technique and centers worldwide. I always looked forward to the discourses as they were helpful as well as entertaining at times. The meditation is done in a hall with men on one side and women on the other. There is a teacher who sits at the front of the room and is available at certain times of the day if you have any questions pertaining to the technique. The older students sit at the front of the hall where you are closer to the teacher with the new students behind. I noticed myself feeling a certain air of superiority to the new students a lot during the course as if I was somehow “special” for having already done a course. This is ridiculous, of course, yet I noticed how much I would judge them. Little things like how much they moved around and made noise while meditating or sleeping in. Though you are supposed to meditate for 10 hours a day, only some of the sessions are absolutely required. Certain sits, you will be dragged out of bed for, whereas others, it’s up to you to be there. The first day, when we got there, some of the new students started asking me questions after they found out that I had already sat a course. I tried not to tell too much as everyone’s experience is unique and comparing yourself with others is never a good idea.
The first four days, all you do is focus on your breathing. 10 hours a day of sitting, eyes closed in the hall surrounded by fellow meditators. It took me probably the first half of the course to keep tweaking my cushion arrangement to get something that was the most comfortable. Often times, I would start the hour and think,”Ah, I’ve got the perfect configuration!” But after 30 to 45 minutes, invariably, some part of the body starts screaming. Then it’s a game of the mind. You start to try to see pain as a sensation. Trying to see how equanimous one can remain no matter how intense the pain gets. You are encouraged not to open your eyes or unfold your legs or hands. I did find that as soon as I just decided to sit with the pain and face it head on, it would usually subside to a certain degree. The more upset I would get or identified with the pain, the worse it would be. I found, as I did last course, that I was also able to sometimes dissolve or shift pain with my mind. By focusing directly on it and remaining equanimous it was fascinating to see what would happen. The idea is that pain is not so much physical as much as a manifestation of past negativity that is stored in our bodies. On day 4, they teach the actual technique of Vipassana, which involves scanning your entire body from head to toe with your mind and see what sensations you can feel. Remaining equanimous no matter what. At first you only feel pain and more obvious sensations such as the touch of your clothing on your skin. The longer you keep at it, though, you start to pick up and be able to sense more subtle sensations that are in your body. Eventually, one sometimes gets a sort of “free flow” where you experience the reality of your body which is that it isn’t actually a solid unchanging blob of flesh and bones but made up of subatomic particles that are constantly arising and passing in a constant state of flow. It can be a quite pleasurable experience but even then, if you get attached to the pleasurable feeling or look for certain feelings and don’t remain equanimous, you lose the point of the whole exercise. The idea is to generate equanimity in the face of pain or pleasure and not react no matter what. Easier said than done of course. This translates to being more patient in life. Not reacting to people or situations that usually trigger you. Instead, having the wisdom to act in a rational way without anger or negativity. Basically becoming more mindful in everything you do. Being more conscious when eating and realizing when I’m eating for the sake of eating or eating because my body truly needs food. It’s almost like having a cushion around myself. I feel more aware and more conscious of my mind and don’t fall into my usual reactionary patterns as much or as quickly. It’s a feeling of power for me. It’s almost enjoyable to set your mind to something and then have the will and power to follow through and stick with it. Obviously, I feel amazing after having completed the course again but like anything else, it takes work. They recommend meditating an hour in the morning and an hour at night. I’ve decided to do an hour each morning because I feel like that’s more realistic. I’ve decided to continue living without drugs or alcohol as I have been since my fast in the beginning of January. I like feeling conscious and in control. I know I am feeling particularly good right now having just finished sitting a course so the test will be a few months down the road when I don’t have the same enthusiasm. It can also be hard when you are surrounded by friends who choose not to live the same way. Of course, no judgments whatsoever and I’m not even saying that this is the way I’ll be for the rest of my life. It is simply the reality for right now.
I also noticed during the course how much I make assumptions about people based solely on appearance. You get there and only have a few hours to speak before going into silence. Certainly not enough time to get to know anyone. I talked to both of the guys sitting on either side of me for the whole course when it was over. For one, it was his second course and for the other, he had done many. As far as I could tell during the course, they both were sitting relatively still and doing just fine. It turns out, they were BOTH on the verge of leaving part way through the course. The one had just stopped using cannabis the day before the course and was having a hard time because of that. The other who had done multiple courses was just having a really hard time and starting to doubt the whole concept of Vipassana. I would form all these stories and ideas about my fellow meditators with no basis in reality. Simply projections of my own ideas and insecurities. The world is totally just a mirror of what’s inside us. We can change the world by changing ourselves. It’s not easy, but so worth it. I’ve been reading a book about the law of attraction. It really all starts in your mind. Change your mind and you change your reality. I’m also noticing in my day to day life how much I judge people. All the time. Strangers and people I know. I’ll walk by a truck full of construction workers and start this whole story in my head about them. Usually negative. Like somehow I’m better. Or I’ll see someone who I judge to be better looking or more successful and think to myself how I’ll never be that good looking or as successful as they are. Working at a hotel, I encounter people all the time and even the judgments I make solely on what car they drive happens all the time. Even if people seem to fit into the stereotypes I’ve mapped out in my head, I have no idea what they’ve done to get where they are or what’s going on inside their head. It’s madness! Starting to notice it is crazy.
I thought a lot during the course. At times it was overwhelming. So many thoughts and no way to distract myself. I thought about people who I hadn’t thought about for quite awhile who I really love and care about who aren’t active in my life anymore. Feeling blessed to have had these experiences and had these people in my life. A desire to reach out and reconnect with some of them. There were also people who popped into my head who I’ve had difficult relations with in the past. People who really annoyed me or who I still don’t like. I feel like I typically get along with most people and they like me in return but there are always a few who I just don’t gel with. I found it crazy that even though some of these people are not in my life at all anymore, I am still clearly holding onto some grudge and feelings of negativity towards them. Of course, I know that this is only hurting me and it seems crazy to still be holding grudges for people that really didn’t do anything to me and aren’t even in my life anymore. I wish to be able to truly let these feelings go once and for all. It just shows that stuffing negativity down or distracting myself with substances or people or situations doesn’t really work. All that negativity is just sitting there and dragging me down even if I don’t realize it. Vipassana is a way to let these things come up and not react. Just observe. It’s like a purge for the mind.
In closing, I would say that the second time around for me was definitely different. I feel it wasn’t quite as “life-changing” as the first time around, but that’s ok. More of a refresher, if you will. A good chance to step back from the daily grind and look at where I’m going with my life. I feel less reactionary and generally happier. I feel this is a path that can take me to a higher place and change my life for the better if I put in the work. I love the fact that it works no matter your religion or lack of religion. I think so many people could benefit from sitting a course but if that’s too much, even a little bit of meditation every day can be a good place to start.
May all beings be happy!