Takeaways & Conclusions
The Actual Practice of Meditation During the Ten Day Retreat
This is the third in a series of posts that start here and here. Having returned to the busy world in Denver, the silence and contemplation seem a world away now. This post breaks down what I learned from the practice itself. If you're short on time, start with this one and return to the others later.
Although these courses are listed under the label of 'Vipassana Retreat', there are actually three separate but interrelated styles of meditation involved in this practice. All of them originate in Buddhist methodology, but as previously mentioned, they are intended to be secular in nature.
I can’t begin to emphasize how important these periods of actual meditation are in mitigating the effects of the constant introspection one encountered amid the "break" periods of the course. Although generally intensely introspective, these sessions were also often deeply therapeutic in contrast to meandering monkey mind of our downtime.
During the sittings, I encountered personal and spiritual epiphanies to the point where I would have to totally restart my meditation after having gotten so deep into the weeds mentally that I had completely lost all focus. However, the insight into whatever I was working through made it totally worthwhile to simply set it aside and begin again. Several times (but not always) I would wind up effectively solving a lot of personal problems in a single sitting.
In this respect, I’ve resigned myself to understanding that the program influenced my thinking in exactly the way that it was designed to.For the first third of the program, I struggled incessantly with my thoughts, and Anapana dredged up a lot of underlying anxiety and trauma that I hadn’t been addressing for what appeared to be years.
By the time the Vipassana portion had gotten into full swing, I was so deeply entrenched in my personal struggles that all I wanted to do was fall back on the distractions that had kept me from dealing with all of these things that were cropping up in my consciousness.
The end of the course— punctuated by Metta practice— saw a drastic upswing in my demeanor and attitude, and by the end I walked out with a giant smile on my face, excited for every single thing that awaited me in the outside world.
To clarify some of this information, I think it would make sense for me to break down each form of mediation as it is taught to the students. I've included links to actual guided meditations if you're interested in giving any of these a try:
Anapana: During the first four days of the course, the students work through this method meditation, which is essentially mindfulness meditation in its barest essence. While practicing Anapana, you specifically and very deliberately focus on the space between the nostrils and the upper lip, becoming fully enthralled only with the sensations involved in nasal breathing. The goal is to become as engaged with your breath as possible in order to divert your mind from internal or external distraction.
Vipassana: This is the meat of the practice. From day four to day nine, the centerpiece of the meditation practice lies in working through Vipassana, which translates from the intense breath focus awareness of Anapana to a full body sensation scan. As Goenka is so fond of saying, “from the top of the head to the feet, and from the feet to the top of the head.”
During the Vipassana practice, the goal is to continuously dig deeper into your spacial awareness, becoming more and more aware of minuscule sensations across the entire body surface. This process eventually translates into a hyperawareness that will move you into a state where you can become cognizant of the movement of blood through your veins for example, or the stimulation of specific nerves. This apparently takes a very long time.
Metta: Metta meditation is also known as Lovingkindness meditation, and it rounds out the final days of the session. The focus here turns outward, radiating positivity and love to those who need it. Essentially you devote your thoughts to forgiveness and the wellbeing of others. This works more or less like a pressure valve after working through relative hairiness of the other methods. This one is a favorite of Tara Brach's and she offers several for free on her website which can be found here. (If you're looking for a quick stress reliever, this is the way to go especially if you have access to some headphones or are in a busy place where silence is lacking.)
Results of the practice:
I am by no means an expert meditator after this course. If anything, it served to show me exactly how much work I have yet to do. That being said, the ten days that I spent in Elbert were ten of the most difficult but deeply rewarding days in recent memory.
As I discussed with one of my bunkmates at the conclusion of the course, the difference in scope of personal depth encountered in each different method of meditation is really staggering. Virtually everyone I spoke to said that the Anapana meditation served to elucidate the scary stuff that all of us deal with from time to time. More often than not, the people I spoke to were quite adamant that this was some of the most important personal digging they had ever done. For this reason, I am not even remotely surprised that they instruct people with psychological problems to avoid these courses.
The Vipassana practice, conversely, seemed for most folks to serve as an opportunity to move past those things to a more deeply physical state of awareness. If you have ever effectively meditated for any length of time-- using any method-- you more than likely have had experiences in which you felt a sense of peace and tranquility. When I was deep into the Vipassana portion of the course, I had moments where I felt awash in intense sensation throughout my entire body.
More often than that, though, I struggled to keep my concentration, and I also had a very hard time with the body scan. I often felt like a fidgety fourth grader trying to read the US Constitution or something— it just wasn’t happening a lot of the time. But that’s just me, apparently, a lot of other people were going reeeeeal deep.
Between being removed from my shiny little device, and having no distractions whatsoever (including not carrying anything in my pockets), the biggest win I believe I have gleaned from this experience is having gained a higher level of understanding about how distraction serves to limit my abilities.
Since returning from the course, I have managed to act on a lot of the things that I discovered about myself. For example, my girlfriend and I made the conclusive decision to move to Steamboat to remove ourselves from the city hustle. We’ve both felt on edge for a long time, and that solution dawned on me in the midst of a morning session. I have also scaled back my caffeine consumption and have almost entirely stopped eating meat (the course fare is strictly vegetarian and coffee is only available in Sanka form…guh.)
I have not been as consistent with my meditation practice as I hoped I would be, but after a couple of weeks, I have concluded that I will indeed enroll in another course in the future. The effects of this one are still developing, but it will likely prove to be one of the more transformative experiences of my life.
In short: if you’re considering a course and you're not apprehensive about what your subconscious has awaiting you, do it. Absolutely do it. But make sure you bring some earplugs, at very least in case one of your bunkmates snores. To finish this one off, here's a little slice of Goenka in action. Enjoy!