Me Unplugged... my 10-day Vipassana experience.
Updated: Jul 20, 2022
Rupa: “I will be gone for 10 days where I will have access to nothing and will be meditating for hours a day”…. This was back in 2018 and I was preparing for a 3-week work trip to Australia, Singapore, and Japan so her statement barely registered in my mind. I hated the fact I would not be able to speak to her for almost half my trip but there was a number I could call to leave a message for her in case of an emergency and vice versa. After I got back, we talked about it, and she said it had been one of the most profound experiences of her life and that I should look into it. I could never see myself being still for more than 10 minutes, let alone 10 days. I soon forgot about it despite her telling me I should at least read up on it. The ‘Always Connected Life’ most of us live ensures we never go into much depth on anything and instead bounce around, forever consuming from the firehose of the Internet and social media.
Covid and 2020 changed many, many things for me at a personal level and gave me a much-needed pause on a globe-trotting lifestyle. Mind you it was not a happy experience at first, but it ended up being one of the best things to happen to me at this stage of life. One of the things I finally read was the principles and concept behind Vipassana as detailed at the primary resource for it at dhamma.org. I have always been an extrovert with a hyper-active mind that found its fuel in the infinite well of (useful and useless) information that is the Internet. I love reading, learning, and understanding about things but also spending time on messages, social media and connecting with people. It would start from when I wake up and not end till I fell asleep at night. There were pauses such as exercise, meditation or forced breaks but overall, some 90% of my day was spent consuming from a screen. After reading about the ills of blue light and an overactive mind, I started to temper some of this a few years ago via forced avoidance of my phone and computer. This maybe reduced my engagement by 15% but nothing transformational really happened. Then in 2020, I discovered Sadhguru and his art of Inner Engineering (a well-deserved, separate blog) which made complete sense to me as an art of living. But, as ever, it left me with more questions, as I now had more knowledge but no real experience. In Jan of 2021, I made a resolution to finally steer myself down a path of seeking existential experiences to break from the path I was on. 2021 would also be the year that I decided to destroy another part of the Ego and (mostly) quit my job but that is a story for another post 😊
We are very fortunate to have a Vipassana center in WA state, about a 2-hour drive from our home. Due to Covid, the center had been closed for most of the year but opened after vaccinations started and restrictions were lifted. On Jul 18, we registered for the first available course in Oct as Rupa had decided to do it for the second time. Over the next few months, telling close friends or family about this almost always brought the same response: “I can easily see Rupa doing it, but no way can you do it.” I can’t blame them as my own thoughts were not far from this statement. But when needed, I have always been good about forcing myself to do things despite fear and this was no exception. So, on the morning of Oct 13, we loaded the car and set off on what would be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
a Vipassana primer
At a very basic level, Vipassana tries to allow you to see things as they really are through a rigorous process of self-observation and meditation. Discovered by Gautama the Buddha (there are other Buddhas btw) over 2,500 years ago, it was taught by him as a means of a universal remedy to the many ills and frustrations of life. The teachings of Vipassana have been passed down by an unbroken chain of teachers including the current one, the late SN Goenka who was from Myanmar. Vipassana is a completely non-sectarian teaching and the course documentation and Goenka’s discourses during the course state this repeatedly. Rather than religion or dogma, these techniques thought here are completely experiential and puts the student in charge. The best overview can be found here.
By focusing on the deep interconnection between the mind and the body and through observation of the resulting sensations, Vipassana creates a self-exploratory journey whose goal is to produce a more balanced and non-reactive mind. The main goal is to reach a state of non-reaction to any external event (good or bad), thus breaking or significantly slowing the cycle of craving and aversion that permeates most of our lives. The resulting balance and equanimity (a word you will hear many times and is the centerpiece of Vipassana) produces a calmer, happier and more aware person who by his nature becomes a more loving and compassionate person which benefits self and all.
the 10-day course
No! phones, talking, Internet, exercise, music, TV, radio, reading, writing, sex, alcohol, laptop or anything that is not just “you”. The Code that is part of the preparation provides the following precepts for the entire duration of the course;
to abstain from killing any being.
to abstain from stealing.
to abstain from all sexual activity.
to abstain from telling lies.
to abstain from all intoxicants.
to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations.
to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
For students that have already completed the course before, there is one additional precept which is;
8. to abstain from eating after midday
There is one additional major precept and perhaps the most important one which is that of ‘Noble Silence’. This is silence of body, speech and mind which forbids any form of communication with anybody for the entire 10-day period. This means avoiding eye contact, not gesturing, writing or any action that communicates with another person. There is a small allowance made to speak to the course teacher during between noon to 1pm but this is limited to questions about the technique or code. The overall goal is for the student to feel like they are working in complete isolation.
The complex is located in a very rural part of WA state and consists of 4 buildings. There is a large meditation hall in the center next to which is a house that has two dining halls and a kitchen. On opposite sites for the complex are quarters for men and women which consists of about 20 rooms. For the entirety of the course, men and women are separated from each other. This is maintained even during group meditation sessions and food service. The rooms are spartan but clean and comfortable. They consist of two small bedrooms and a shared bathroom. Typically, two students share a room but due to Covid, we were all allocated our own room where we meditated, ate meals, and slept. The only piece of tech for the course that I had access to was an old fashioned digital alarm clock. Finally, strenuous exercise (including yoga) is not permitted but walking in the beautiful grounds between sessions was allowed. In fact, any other form of exercise, prayer or routine is to be suspended for the 10 days to allow one to focus utterly on Vipassana alone.
The following are some photos of the rooms and grounds.
The daily schedule is long as it is intense and begins with the ringing of a gong at 4am (yes, AM). The rest of the day is organized as follows.
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12 noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out
Breakfast and lunch were simple vegetarian meals and was DELICIOUS. Lunch was especially good and something that I looked forward to each day. Being my first time, dinner consisted of some fresh fruit and chamomile tea. The goal was to never become more than 75% full as this ensures optimal focus during meditation.
Finally, there is no cost for the course and none of the teachers, cooks or serving staff are compensated in any way. All are volunteers who give their time to help after realizing the benefits of the practice and wish to help others do the same. Donations are accepted at the end of the course and strictly voluntary. This ensure that the teaching of Vipassana is carried out with purity of purpose without any commercial influences.
on my experience
I will start by saying that I am not going to share the entirety of my experience here, especially some of the deeper experiences. The reason for this is that each person is different, and your experience may be completely different from mine. While the start and end of Vipassana is the same, there are infinite amounts of paths in-between. But this was a very powerful and beautiful experience, and I would love to share my thoughts with you in person if you are interested. There were also a few things which I am still trying to understand and hence impossible to put to words.
on silence… The easiest part of the course for me was not talking for 10 days, not being able to access anything or have any idea what is happening in the world. After the first evening, I found a profound sense of liberation from having zero input and hence zero reaction, thought, analysis or response. This grew to a feeling of bliss over the 10 days, and I was actually not looking forward to going back to the real world at all. There were only two times that I missed my phone and that was only for the camera as one evening there was a stunning sunset highlighting fall colors and another was seeing a beautiful slug on one of my many walks. Not once did I miss the communication and human interaction part of life with the small exception of being able to talk to Rupa about my experience as it happened.
I can also see why silence is mandated. First, discussing our experiences with others as it happens means we become colored by the path of others or vice versa. While I may be having a great day or morning others may not and become dejected that they are “failing”. Vipassana is a completely individual experience and NOT a competition. Second, we were bound by the precept of not telling a lie. But anytime we speak, our words are influenced by our experiences, emotions, and our perception of the receiver. Many times, what we think is the truth turns out to not be and I don’t think we know what the truth is many times. While something may seem true on the apparent level, it could be the opposite on a deeper level. Silence means we have no chance of lying.
on physical considerations… This was the hardest thing I experienced and one that interfered the most with my meditation the first few days. Before this course, the longest I had sat in posture in the Lotus Position was maybe 20 minutes during normal meditation. The first evening, the group meditation was an hour, which I somehow made it through. But the next morning the pain really set in, and I found myself shifting positions often. This interfered with my meditation and also made noise which is hyper-amplified in the dead-silent hall. On the 3rd day, I requested to be moved to the back so I could use the wall as support for my back. I also finally got some support blocks for my knees and a cushion for my bum. This helped a lot and by the 4th day I was able to make it almost the entire hour before needed to shift position. There are lots of different cushions, support foam blocks, cushions, pillows and sitting stools available so feel free to mix and match to get to a combination that works for you.
on what I would tell others to prepare… I want to start this by saying that even if you are unable to do any of these, please do not let it dissuade you from doing the course. I thought long about including these here but overall, I think these will make for a better experience for you. I would recommend starting this asap as they will benefit you anyway, regardless of if you do the course or not.
Sitting in posture: 10 hours a day is a long time to sit in the same position. Most of us are not used to doing this. I would start by sitting in the Lotus Position for 10 minutes a day and increase it slowly to around 45 minutes if you can. Try using pillows or foam supports (available online in many stores) to figure out what your body needs to sit in posture. There are many YouTube videos that provide guidance on how to get it right. Learning to do this right not only will this get your body ready for the course, but it will also benefit blood flow and give you a platform to try normal meditation.
Being disconnected: While this was easy for me, I suspect it will not be for many. Find a place in your garden or a room in your house that is not used often. Tell family to not bother you for any reason during this time. Leave your phone on mute at the other end of the house. Turn off the lights or pull curtains and just sit in the room for 10 minutes. Put on earplugs or an eye mask if needed. You can sit on a chair or in the Lotus position on the floor, it does not matter. Try to extend this to 30 minutes over time. Hint… this is a lot harder than you think and yes, your mind will go crazy. Learn to ignore it as you would a TV blaring in the background.
Not eating proper dinner: This was the one that caught me by surprise. I did not think I would have any problems eating fruit for dinner as mostly only eat vegetables for dinner at home. But I discovered that my stomach does not like only fruit (especially citrus ones) for dinner and I got bad acid reflux the first two nights before I connected the dots. I never have any stomach issues from food before so knowing this ahead of time would have saved me from the distraction and worry. Try it at home well ahead of the course
Note that they will accommodate seating, food, or any other health-related requests if you notify them ahead of time. There were some people who used chairs as they could not sit on the floor. A few people had special meals made for them.
on meditating 10hrs a day… My meditation sessions were slightly different depending on where I was meditating. In the main hall with group meditation, there was a sense of “shared energy” which I found empowering. I realize that may not make sense but having 40+ people all meditating together has some multiplier effect. I also was less prone to shifting around and bearing the pain as every noise was amplified in the silence. In the room, I would take breaks more often (usually at the 45-minute mark) and thus affecting my meditation but having less distraction from the pain. As the days went on, I found my body adjusting faster to sitting in posture and hence the quality of meditation significantly improved.
The other factor that played a big role in the first two days was my sleep cycle. I am usually a late-night person and at my creative best from 8pm-midnight. Waking up at 4am the first day was not hard but by noon, I was groggy and tired. I could not meditate in the afternoon solo session and slept for the time instead. But, by the 2nd day my body adjusted, and I was falling asleep by 10pm and waking up before the gong at 4am. Even after coming home, I was able to easily wake up at 7am and meditate. It amazes me how much time we have when we wake up early. And to start the day by meditating has many benefits I can feel, including more energy and calmness.
I also found that overall, my awareness increased a lot to the point I was noticing things I never did before. On one of my many walks, I could hear water droplets in the woods after a recent rain. I saw the beauty of a single leaf that had fallen to the ground and spent 5 minutes just admiring how it must have formed, nourished the tree and now fallen. I noticed that water becomes effervescent in your mouth when you rinse after brushing. I also discovered so many subtle sensations that happen all the time on and in our bodies. Many times, during deep meditations, I felt the rhythm of my heartbeat and the flow of blood in my head. I became an unassociated and dispassionate observer of my own body (for short periods of time), and it was an incredible experience. The focus that Vipassana demands sharpens the mind to recognize sensations that get drowned out in normal life.
on Goenka and misery… Perhaps the most enjoyable and only intellectual part of the course were the nightly discourses by Goenka on TV. Each day he provided more insight into the technique and principles behind Vipassana. Having never been one for blind following or rituals, I loved the easy-to-understand explanations behind all that we were doing for 10 hours a day. He was a very wealthy industrialist and discovered and embraced Vipassana at the height of his success. At this stage in my own life, I really could resonate with the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ as it made intellectual sense to me while I was experiencing it every day.
In my opinion, the core goal of Vipassana is the muting (if not attempt to eliminate) of misery that is caused just by being human. From the day we are born, our sense organs start feeding our minds input. As we get older, what we are taught, and our experiences form a system that produces biases and opinions. This then leads to an endless cycle of craving and aversion that does not stop till death of the body. This cycle creates misery as we crave the good times but are averse to the bad. But life is full of both and hence we reach a state where happiness and joy are fleeting. I began to realize the truth in this in my own life in that there is always an average between the very happy and very sad, the very joyous and very angry, etc. I finally utterly understood and felt deeply the meaning of the word ‘Equanimity’ and why it is such an elegant solution to blunting misery. By becoming more balanced and reacting in a more measured way (if at all), it is possible to become a happier person at the root level. Since external input has less and less effect on you, there is a noticeable reduction in intensity of the craving/aversion cycle. The realization that everything (including our body) is impermanent means it does not make sense to react in an extreme to any condition, be it good or bad.
Some of the principles do get deep into what many call Karma, a word that is very misunderstood and misused. Goenka’s uses the word Sanskara instead of Karma but both mean the same; a sort of bank account where our cravings and aversions create credits or deficits that are accumulated over many lifetimes or incarnations. And the catch here is the more we get “entangled” (to use a quantum term), the worse it gets; Partners, bosses, friends, kids, dogs, material possessions, parents, etc. all create more and more ways of increasing the scope of the craving/aversion cycle. Gautama the Buddha became obsessed with this and sought a way to break and end the cycle. What he discovered is what I call a ‘glitch in the matrix’ and gave Vipassana to the world as a means of exploiting that glitch to reach enlightenment (when the bank account goes to zero). At the basic level, the method is to stop creating these Sanskaras or Karmic events, and instead just observe them without reacting in either direction. Given the range of human tools we have to create both (love, anger, revulsion, affection, attachment, etc.), this seems and feels like an impossible task. I could make an entire blog out of this concept, but some things are better left to be discussed in person over a good drink 😊
on my mind… Oh boy, where to begin. One thing I came to realize through all my readings and experiences in 2020 is that we have become our minds (the intellectual part), fully and utterly. This is why humanity has become so addicted to smartphones, with many spending most of their lives on it. Even before Vipassana, I meditated and spent time in the woods just to unplug my mind, but it was a losing battle for the most part. Sadhguru gives great insight into the why over many discourses, but it can be summarized as such; the mind (intellect) is a sharp tool that constantly needs to analyze and dissect things. Since we have given our lives over to the intellect, we constantly must keep feeding it stuff (cat videos, Facebook, TV, chat, etc.) least it revolts and causes the worst of all human experiences…. Boredom!
For 10 days, I was forced to starve my mind of most external input which I started to love. But the intellect would have none of it; The first day, it brought up everything that I had thought about or engaged with the week prior. As the days progressed, it began to bring up memories and experiences from as far back as when I was a child. I re-lived going to ancient temples in India, living in Bombay in the 70s, seeing Pink Floyd in concert, my first ever flight, seeing snow for the first time, living in North Carolina as a kid, going to university, spring break, my first crush when I was 9 years old, scenes from a hundred places I’ve visited, etc. etc. Movies and shows that I have watched from ‘The Dukes or Hazard’ to ‘Altered Carbon’ played in my head. These would come and go as if I pushed down on the ‘Let’s watch something’ button on Netflix and never let go. For the first few days, I could not get more than a few minutes of meditation done before the movies started. Towards the latter part of the course, my intellect became its own director and started creating movies of places and experiences I have never had. I was in an ancient castle in Switzerland, a party in a house in Seattle I have never seen, skiing with “friends” in Australia, having a drink in a stunningly beautiful bar in Paris and so on. My dreams also became more vivid and drawn out where it would take me a few minutes to reboot to this reality when I woke up. In some ways I enjoyed being a semi-detached observer of my own mind and seeing all the amazing reboots of reality or creation of fantasies it can produce. At one point, I began to wonder if the movie Inception was not that far off and that with enough effort, we could live entire realities in our own minds and never have to come to the real world, a la Matrix.
One of the more tangible things I learned after the 10 days was how to not try and control my intellect. It is impossible and only makes it worse… try right now NOT to think of a green monkey! 😊 Instead, I learned to treat it as I would a TV in the background or sounds at a bar when trying to have a conversation. Yes, sometimes it does overwhelm you but over time you can learn to ignore it more often than not.
Vipassana was one of the most intense and profound experiences I have had in my life. It took a lot of things I understood intellectually and allowed me to experience them. As I said before, ritual and dogma serve a purpose, but I am somebody that needs to first understand something and then experience it for myself. In some ways I feel fortunate to have been born and raised in India at a time when spiritual pursuits were still in vogue. Some of the earliest experiences and teaching from my grandparents set a foundation that has only grown stronger and broader as I get older. For me, the biggest learning from Vipassana is that if we can pause before we act, we gain immense control over our lives and energy we expend on random things. I started to realize how so many of the things I reacted to are meaningless or trivial but caused some form of emotion and processing within that is just wasted energy. Even worse, many events continue to live in our heads long after they are gone. I have found tangible change in my treatment of external stimuli and having a more balanced approach to, well, everything.
The other aspect that I have been able to do more of is increased awareness and of being more engaged with just being. This path is a lifelong journey, and a 10-day course is not going to make one reach enlightenment 😊 I still catch myself often engaged in a mind movie while walking in the forest or sitting in meditation. But at least now I can recognize it and start to ignore it. I have no doubt with time and continued practice, this will become more and more a natural state of being. I now find joy in doing nothing physically AND mentally and just being, what most would call boredom. This goes counter to everything we were ever taught to not be lazy and doing something all the time. Sitting in the garden and just watching a plant or an ant going about his duties fascinates me. I can now watch the waves in the ocean for minutes without thinking. For me, being more often in a state of mindlessness is a beautiful thing. We have always been taught to be mindful and present, but I think the opposite benefits us more.
I will leave you with words from a beautiful meditation we learned at the end of the course called Metta. It’s basically to send love and kindness to all beings from oneself.