My Experience with 10 day Vipassana Meditation: Part 2

This is the second post in a 3 part series that covers my personal experience attending the 10 day Vipassana Meditation course. Please find Part 1 and Part 3 here. While Part 1 focused on the theory, benefits and my personal goals, this post covers what I observed and learnt while actually doing the course.

My learning and observations: 

  1. You don’t become enlightened at the end of 10 days

Before you start the course, 10 days (~110 hours of meditation) seems like a very large commitment and you may have very high expectations. However, by the 4th or 5th day you realise that the course is just the basic foundation for what could be a very long journey. You may or may not notice changes at the end of 10 days but you will be far away from enlightenment. 🙂  

One of my goals was also to experience the concepts of anatta (non-self) and shunyata (essencelessness of objects) Both experiences remain elusive too but in hindsight, I was aiming too high.  

  1. Meditation is hard work and not meant to be approached passively. 

This is definitely not a retreat or a holiday to unwind. You will be living for 10 days like a monk or a nun with minimal external mental stimulation. The daily 11 hour meditation sessions can only be approached if you have developed genuine motivation before taking the course. Instead of imagining that you will be resting and chilling for 10 days, it is better to think of this as the mental equivalent of a lumber camp where you are constantly required to hack away at large trees, little by little. 

The rules imposed earlier may seem slightly overbearing but I found that the externally imposed discipline as well as the encouraging lectures at night helped and increased my motivation and chances of success.  

I also found that re-imagining the task a little bit helps keep you engaged in the meditation and prevents boredom from setting in (eg: instead of doing body scans in top-down, innovate a little bit with the order in which you do every scan)

  1. Your body’s demand for sleep and food reduces 

Either because of meditation or because you sit in one place for many hours a day, you find that you don’t require as much food and sleep. My sleep requirement fell from 7 hours to 4-5 hours and I also woke up feeling refreshed. There was no dinner served and I ate small portions of other meals but did not feel hungry at night like I expected. 

  1. The most under-rated aspect of a good meditation practice is the ability to sit cross-legged in a good posture for hours 

If you can manage to sit in a straight posture for hours, it increases your chances of a successful meditative practice. Most people, (including me) had less than optimal experiences because their legs, backs and necks start hurting sometime in the middle of the adhisthana (strong determination) practice. 

I could reach a meditative flow state (see below) for 4-5 hours within the ~100 hours I spent. Nothing killed a meditative flow state like having to move or uncross your legs due to strong pain sensations. 

  1. Meditative practice has stages and markers of progress 

Meditating is like starting a car engine that has gone cold. It is very difficult with lots of false starts in the beginning but gets easier until it is almost automatic and effortless once the engine starts. I could break the stages of meditative experience experienced in these parts. 

  1. Scattered and Judgemental: A thought arises (about the past or the future). We identify with the thought and before we realize, we have been pulled into a detour that lasted 10-15 minutes. When we realize this, we are frustrated and slightly panicked because we have wasted quite a bit of time on the thought detour. This keeps on happening no matter how hard we try. 
  2. Scattered but Equanimous: Whenever a thought arises, we may go on a small detour but recover rather quickly and gently nudge ourselves back to the practice without passing judgement or feeling bad about the detour. 
  3. Reflective: A thought arises (and keeps on arising intermittently) in our consciousness but they are immediately recognized and gently pushed aside without judgement. 

The first 3 days are focussed on “anapana meditation” and meant to get you to the third state so that you can be ready for vipassana. However, it is not uncommon to regress back to the 2nd or 1st state sometimes on the later days. 

  1. Reflective, Concentrated and Aware: In this state your mind has generally been calmed and you are actually meditating instead of daydreaming. However, you are still aware of external sensations, noises e.t.c and sometimes react instinctively to pain in your body by shuffling your legs and changing your posture. You are aware of the passage of time and sometimes feel bored without losing your concentration. This is the state I spent most of my ~100 hours in after Day 2 until Day 9. 
  2. Meditative Flow: I experienced this state for the first time in my life for 4-5 hours, usually on the same 6-7 pm “strong determination” slot each day. In this state, you are so engrossed in the meditation that external stimuli and even pain in your body becomes less noticeable. Pain sensations still exist but they can be relegated to the background of the consciousness without applying any label on it. Time goes by really fast and before you know it an hour is over. I lost sense of balance and was frequently nodding off, even though I wasn’t sleeping inside.

This was the peak stage I could reach in the 10 days and reaching here seems to be the result of some combination of the externally imposed discipline (where you can’t move your legs, hands or open eyes for 1 hr), time of the day and the fact that I had tea right before the session. (Tea contains a compound called L-Theanine that creates a state of calm alertness, perfect for a meditative practice)  

6. You feel sensations that always existed but were never registered by your conscious mind

Forcing awareness on parts of your body causes you to become aware of sensations on them that have always existed but had been blocked out by your mind.
From Day 5-6 onwards, I could feel subtle sensations that resembled a column of air on skin wherever I focused my awareness. Sometimes these sensations would persist for hours after ending the session. Some parts (presumably with higher nerve endings) were easier to feel (eg: soles of feet or thighs) and would remain continuously “lit up” while I focused on other areas. Other areas like my stomach were relatively harder to activate and would lose sensation when I moved to other areas.   

On some sessions it was easier to light up the right half of the body and on others lighting up the left half was easier, thus indicating that the nervous system of the body was involved. 

On Day 8 and 9, I experienced a sensation on the bridge of my nose that can be described as a gentle upward pressure with the feeling of very rapid pulsing behind the nose. While I experienced this, I could not experience subtle sensations on the face. Bringing awareness to the nose and to the lower right part of the chest increased these sensations and I could feel it even after ending the meditation session. This seemed to me like a “gross sensation” described in the course and was an experience unique to me. After the course, I researched and found that a small number of mediators had experienced the same sensation but the meaning was inconclusive.

The idea behind Vipassana is to be aware of these sensations and not crave or avoid any of them. They are just there, observe them and their impermanent nature without getting attached or being repulsed.    

7. You mind can go to the default “chatter” state quite fast 
Even though you may have quieted your mind while meditating, once you stop meditating it won’t be hard for your mind to entangle itself in a web of thoughts very fast. The first 10-15 minutes after emerging from a meditative flow state were very surreal but the altered perception did not last long or carry over indefinitely into regular life. 

If you are attending the course for the first time, here are some helpful tips based on my experiences and learnings. 

  1. Before the course
    • Go in with some kind of motivation and reason. (Find your own) It makes the 10 days easier to endure and will ensure you don’t give up early. 
    • Practice sitting cross-legged for an hour and doing some basic breath awareness meditation before starting the course. This helps your body and mind to get acclimatized fast.  
  2. During the course
    • Eat less, your body will not need that much food and it helps with the meditation. 
    • Between meditation sessions (rest breaks), try to keep awareness of your body and the present or keep an empty mind. If you lose the meditative state, it takes some time to get it back the next time you sit.  
    • Invest some time in finding the right sitting posture before you sit for the “strong determination” sessions. If you have mild dull pain, you will be able to ignore it while meditating seriously but if it becomes a sharp and throbbing pain over time, it gets very difficult to continue meditating. The only way to not move your legs if this happens would be to bring the pain into your awareness and study it. However, doing that will break your meditation plan. So it’s best to prepare so that the sharp pain can never arise. 
    • Don’t focus too much on the sensations and become elated or disheartened. It’s your equanimous reaction to them or their absence that matters the most. 
    • Go gentle on yourself if you feel like you are not going in the right direction or making progress. Getting frustrated or extremely goal-oriented will further impede your progress. 
  3. After the course
    1. Read the book “Inner Game of Tennis” and marvel at the parallels
    2.  Keep practicing regularly, if not 2 hours everyday

In the next and final post, I will cover what I did not like in the course and the concepts I am a bit skeptical about.

My Experience with 10 day Vipassana Meditation: Part 1

I recently took a 10 day Vipassana meditation course. I had it on my bucketlist after reading “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright last year. This series of posts is meant to provide insights into my experience and learnings from doing the course. They will be useful to those who are planning to take it for the first time. 

This post will cover some basic theory, background and my goals for taking the course. The second post will cover my learnings/observations and tips for first-timers taking the course. The third post will cover some of the things I am skeptical about and for which more investigation is required. 

Overall, I had a very positive experience and think that the 10 days were well spent. The bulk of the course focuses on Vipassana Meditation and it is an amazing technique that is taught with the seriousness it deserves. 

Theory behind Vipassana 

The theory behind Vipassana is simple (and scientifically accurate) 

  • The mind works as follows
    1. Cognizing: Internal and external objects and events are recognized through our 6 sense doors (eye, ear, skin, nose, taste and mind/thought consciousness) Notice that mind is rightly characterized as external as we have little control over thoughts that emerge within us from time to time. 
    2. Perception, Evaluation and Sensation: These objects are perceived and understood by the mind based on past experiences and based on our evaluation, affective sensations are sent to the body (pleasing or non-pleasing) Whatever happens upto this point is automatic and you have little control over this process. 
    3. Reaction/Formation: The sensations are felt both consciously and unconsciously and we generate a heap of actions to respond to the sensations – either get more of the pleasing ones or get away from the non-pleasing ones. This is something we have control over and a place where we can make changes through Vipassana meditation. 
    4. Consciousness: This heap of actions taken based on sensations produces the feeling of consciousness of “I” that is responding to the sensations. This cycle goes on endlessly throughout our life as we are always exposed to the external and internal world through our sense doors. 
  • The sensations can induce craving/clinging or aversion if allowed a free rein on our lives (like human Pavlovian dogs)   
  • The way to free ourselves of craving is to deeply understand these sensations and their nature of impermanence (aniccha), stop identifying with them and reacting to them blindly, observe them dispassionately and remain equanimous to them. 
  • If we keep on doing this, new reactions will not be generated while the stock of old ones (generated through previous actions) will rise to the surface and be eventually eliminated. This is the foundational logic of Vipassana meditation.

If you want to know more about affective sensations and the body-brain connection, I recommend the book “How Emotions are Made”    

What do you gain from it? 

  1. Equanimity: Practicing Vipassana properly and continuously will allow you to free yourself from the hold that the hedonic machinery has on you. It will pull you away from the near constant state of unsatisfactoriness that most humans find themselves in – which requires them to keep identifying with and submitting to the sensations in the body inducing craving and aversion. The “reactive” part of your brain will get weaker over time and you will be able to take more purposeful action.  
  2. Perceptive Boost: Since the technique involves observing sensations created in your body, you will gradually increase your perceptive powers to recognize increasingly subtler sensations and observe the interplay between mind and matter (I did experience this personally in last 3-4 days) The chief teacher Mr. Goenka also says that with a sharp enough mind, you will eventually be able to perceive something that transcends both mind and matter. This is the experience of enlightenment which can take a lot of effort to reach. You may also be able to grasp the true nature of the world and the self (essenceless and non-self) rather than “apparent reality” around you and inside you. The “cognizing” part of your brain will become stronger and you will start seeing reality in less distorted ways. 
  3. Compassion and Kindness: I am not sure how it works but practicing this makes you more compassionate towards others and less likely to experience anger, fear e.t.c (which are considered as defilements of the mind in Buddhist theory). I did experience a slightly altered perception of many events from the past where I had been wronged and would react with anger and distress. This seems to be a subjective experience though and could have been due to other factors. 
  4. Better Quality of Life: Just like any other type of meditation, the practice requires a concentrated mind so you will get all the mundane benefits as well which include clarity of thought, calmness, mental resilience which should impact all aspects of your life including work, relationships e.t.c 

My personal goals before taking the course 

When I decided to go for the 10 day course, I felt it was going to be a big investment of my time. Therefore, I had high expectations from it. “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright is about how modern science and evolutionary psychology is finding a lot of Buddhist theory to be fundamentally correct (eg: the concept that the self does not exist and that external objects have no essence). Meditation was a tool to experientially grasp these realities instead of just understanding them at an intellectual level. 

Even though Buddhism had a flourishing tradition of philosophy and logic, it is fundamentally a experiential tradition where you are encouraged to see the truth yourself through meditation (samadhi, panya) and wholesome actions (sila). Intellectually, I know that I am seeing a distorted sense of self and the world but it was not possible to change my perception just by me trying to will it. Meditation practice is a necessary tool to see things clearly, as they are.

I did not really achieve these goals in the 10 day course but I am still happy for having been introduced to this technique which I can use to make progress on these goals in the future. 

The next post will cover some of my learnings and observations from when I was actually doing the 10 day course