This post is my attempt at sharing what I’ve learned during my brief history with practicing meditation. I hope it’s helpful to people who are curious about the topic and ready to explore it. I’m certain it will be helpful to future-me when I return to this post to read about a unique season of my life.
I’ve practiced some yoga, a little mindfulness, and most recently, a lot of meditation. I first tried yoga around 2007. Despite my persistent inflexibility, I enjoyed it, and practiced it sporadically. I got deeper exposure to yoga in 2013 during my time at Dev Boot camp, where yoga instructors worked with us regularly. I practiced yoga regularly on my own in 2014. Later that year, I picked up on mindfulness through reading Search Inside Yourself, which also introduced me to the science of meditation. While yoga and mindfulness were wonderful, I found myself wanting something more focused.
In 2015, I started regularly using a seven-minute guided meditation called Noticing, recorded by my friend Alex Harms. Noticing was the gateway to my meditation practice getting more serious. In late 2016, I decided to try out The Cutting Machinery, an app created by Vinay Gupta and the Future Thinkers. The Cutting Machinery practice is an hour of sitting in silence, and changing your focus every ten minutes. You can also toggle some commentary by Vinay, and listen to a bunch of his mini-lectures that unlock as you progress.
- Mantra: Simply repeat a word each time you breathe. I use “sunflower”.
- Open Awareness: Open your eyes and meditate on the full input of all of your senses.
- Feel Your Emotions: Focus on what emotions are happening for you, particularly any negative emotions.
That last segment was very difficult for me. In fact, the first time I tried it in late 2016, I couldn’t get through it. I was eventually able to handle it a month later, but only after I had resolved the issues that were blocking me.
Practicing this meditation over the past 10 months, I’ve been able to feel my actual feelings much more consistently. As someone who is adept at avoiding and denying difficult feelings, this has had a profound impact on my life.
While on vacation in June, I practiced meditation every morning, watching the sun rise over Rainy Lake in Ontario. I’ve continued this daily practice ever since that trip. In fact, today marks the 100th consecutive day that I’ve practiced this hour-long meditation. I’m using this 100-day milestone to share what I’ve learned so far.
Psychotherapist as meditation guide
I’ve met with my psychotherapist every week or two for the past year. Our work together has flourished with the integration of my meditation practice. Sometimes my therapist has simply asked me what I had learned during meditation this week in order to kick off our time together. Most of the hard personal work I’ve done recently happens during meditation. My therapist plays a guiding role, and has created a safe place for me to discuss and process what I’m learning.
Once I started meditating more regularly, I became more aware of my body and how I was feeling. I was able to physically feel how my diet was holding me back and silencing my feelings. At my therapist’s advice, as well as the advice of a diet-focused friend, I started changing my diet.
The first thing I dropped was coffee and caffeine. Living without caffeine can be a real challenge in our hard-driving society. There have definitely been seasons of my life where it’s hard to imagine surviving without it. For now, I want my body to feel tired when it naturally feels tired. I still sometimes grind through long days at work, but instead of chugging coffee all afternoon and feeling artificially energized, I just let myself feel exhausted. Then I go to bed early that night
One of my mouth’s favorite things is sugary food chased by coffee. Having dropped coffee, it naturally cut down on my sugar intake. But I really attacked sugar via going on a keto diet for a couple weeks. I’ve never paid much attention to food or nutrition, and learning how to avoid carbohydrates was educational. I mainly just wanted to eat more deliberately. I’ve backed off from my initial keto push, but still focus on eating mainly meat and vegetables. I had to replace my belt with a smaller one, so I assume I’ve dropped some weight this year.
Possibly the most drastic change to my diet wasn’t about what I ate, but when I ate it. I had a bad habit of binging on sugary food at night. When I stopped eating food after dinner, it became quickly apparent how important that night food was for self-comfort. I missed those cookies, cereal, and ice cream as I was left with my typically-silenced feelings to deal with.
The side effect of all these dietary changes was that breakfast became very important to me. I woke up hungry from not eating the night before, and became even hungrier after an hour of meditation. My morning hunger has created a positive feedback loop where I eat a big, protein-rich breakfast (typically 3 eggs with veggies mixed in) which makes me less hungry for my later meals. I also usually have 100% control over what I eat for breakfast, whereas my lunch and dinner can be tougher to plan out due to busy schedules. Hence, my biggest meal of the day tends to be my healthiness
Meditation can “replace” sleep
When I started my one-hour meditation practice, I wondered how I’d ever increase my frequency. Who can afford an hour to meditate every single day? As I gradually practiced more often, I began to notice that I could go to sleep around 10:30pm, wake up around 5am, meditate for an hour, and feel refreshed. Most of the time I don’t need to set an alarm. My body tends to wake up early automatically because it’s excited for breakfast and my brain is hungry for meditation practice. I’ve kept this rhythm going daily and it’s working well. When my practice is unfocused, I’ll feel sleepy in the afternoon. So I’ll try to power-nap when I can, or just go to sleep earlier that night.
Sitting on the floor can be a workout
I mentioned above that I’m inflexible. Sitting cross-legged for an hour was challenging at first, and it still isn’t easy. (I’m very slowly and carefully working my way to the lotus pose.) Leg flexibility isn’t the only challenge, though. Just sitting up straight with no back support for an hour is a core workout.
The beginning of my practice was a challenge. As I got tired of sitting up straight, I wanted to lean on my legs for support, but my legs were so stretched that it hurt to lean on them. So I ended up sort of pulling on my legs to balance and relieve the stretch. Over time, my core strengthened because I don’t struggle to sit up for an hour anymore, but I still have a long way to go on my flexibility.
Note: I always sit on something softer than just a bare hard floor. Depending on the circumstances, I’ve used carpet, a piece of cardboard, or a towel.
Meditation is fitness for your mind
It is surprising how spiritualist my meditation practice is. I’ve found that it is just as spiritual as anything else I do with intense focus, though it is often more meaningful. The best way to describe its effects on me is to compare it to physical fitness. Similar to a body that gets in shape from exercise, my mind is stronger and clearer due to this practice.
- Counting breaths. When my mind is especially chaotic or noisy during my practice, I simply count my breaths. I started by repeatedly counting to four. Eventually I worked my way up to ten, and then twenty. Now I’m going back to four because I’ve noticed that my mind can wander as it goes into autopilot with larger numbers.
- Slower breathing is another helpful way to slow down my mind. I don’t hold my breath or make myself uncomfortable, but I practice taking fewer breaths.
Those who meditate daily for 1 hour or longer:
I started meditating about a month ago using the headspace app to get it the right way. Currently im meditating between 10-30 minutes a day, and im wondering whether i should increase my meditation time to an hour or more, but i do not know if it is yet worth it. This leads me to my question: What are your experiences with meditating daily for 1 hour or longer? How big are the differences/outcomes compared to times when you used to meditate for a shorter period of time (especially in the beginning)? Since i read that some of you also used to meditate daily for a longer period of time than they do now: Why did you lower your meditation time? Did this make a big difference to you
Meditation is one of those habits that has officially entered main stream consciousness, and now everyone feels they should be doing more of it. 100 hours of it seems the ultimate way to cement the benefits of meditation once and for all, become super-human and change my life forever.
Several friends of mine have taken the plunge of a Vipassana (vi-paw-such-nuh) meditation retreat and raved about the experience. “Life changing,” they said.
As a loud advocate of meditation and an avid experimenter with all things self-improvement, I had to see for myself.
I googled ‘vipassana Portland’ and found a retreat center 2 hours away in Washington with openings in the coming weeks. I submitted an application and received an acceptance email a few days later. Woohoo!
A few weeks later I bought a comically expensive meditation cushion ($80 for a mini beanbag?) and hopped on a train up to beautiful Centralize, Washington.
Upon arrival, all ‘students’ were required to sign our names, saying we understood the stipulations of the course:
- No talking, touching or eye contact with other students
- Males and females are segregated at all times
- No intoxicants, sexual activity, stealing, telling lies, killing or otherwise lude behavior
- No reading, writing, electronics or any other means of communication or entertainment
- Strict adherence to the Vipassana method of meditation so that we could give it a ‘proper trial’ during these 10 days (this included religious rites, praying, etc.)
- Most important of all, to finish the 10 day course
These requirements probably sound extreme at first glance. Their intention is to eliminate all distractions so one can go go as deep into ones own being as possible.
Our daily schedule would be as follows:
4:00am – Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30am – Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00am – Breakfast break
8:00-9:00am – Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00am – Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00pm – Lunch break
12pm-1:00 pm – Rest and the option to speak 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
3:30-5:00pm – Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00pm – Tea break
6:00-7:00pm – Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15pm – Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00pm – Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30pm – Question time in the hall
9:30pm – Retire to your own room
10:00pm – Lights out
That’s a daily dose of roughly 10 hours of meditation and an 90 minute video discourse by S.N. Goenka, the creator of this particular flavor of meditation.
Before I go any further I’d like to explain the Vipassana meditation technique. I had zero knowledge about Vipassana going into the retreat, and was surprised to learn a technique unlike any I had heard of before.
According to Goenka, Vipassana was the method of meditation used by the Buddha to achieve enlightenment. This is, of course, the subject of much scholarly debate since none of Buddha’s teachings were written down until after his death. Either way, it is an enticing possibility 🙂
The goal of Vipassana is to realize the true nature of reality by observing sensations throughout the body.
By simply observing an itch without craving for it to go away, or observing a pleasurable sensation without wishing for it to stay, you learn to observe objectively on all levels of life.
This also reinforces the truth that everything in life is impermanent. You realize that the ache in your left knee eventually passes away just like the pleasant vibration in your pinky finger.
Vipassana also teaches that deep-held aversions and cravings from your past called sankaras will rise to the surface as bodily sensations. This allows you to let them go through the same practice of objective observation. The end goal is to get rid of all your past sankaras.
Now back to the story!
Wow. 4am is really early.
For the first few days, we are instructed to simply observe the sensations in our nostrils and the small area above the upper lip. If we feel two sensations at once, we are to focus on the more subtle of the two.
The first 2 hour meditation in the morning is a rude awakening.
2 hours is a LONG time. My brain is constantly attempting to calculate how much time is left (even though that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing!). It’s pretty discouraging when you realize you’re only halfway through after an hour.
After breakfast I rush back to my room to grab an hour of sleep before meditation begins again.
I’m still tired after that nap so I use the time after lunch for another nap.
The meditation sessions are tedious, but doable. Although I suppose you could say that about anything. I keep reminding myself that all I have to do is sit here! What could be easier?
Rationally I know it’s a walk in the park compared to a sports hell week… but it sure doesn’t feel like it.
I make it to the night-time discourse and expect a lecture reminiscent of high school history class, but I’m pleasantly surprised by Goenka. He is full of jokes and brings to light many poignant insights about the first day.
Lying in bed and reflecting on the day, I realize that the combination of no talking, no eye contact, strict eating/sleep schedules and mandated meditation makes me feel like I’m in a Buddhist prison.
And this is only Day 1. What did I get myself into?
Today I can distinctly feel subtle sensations in my nostrils. There are little vibrations, itches, warm and cold spots, wet & dry sensations, and some I’m unable to label.
My mind continues to wander every 30-60 seconds, but I’m able to quickly notice this and return my attention to the breath.
Today is substantially more comfortable than yesterday because I discovered a wondrous invention: the meditation bench!
Lotus (cross-legged) is not for me, and I’ll always felt very grounded and powerful in thunderbolt pose (sitting on your knees). My knees begin to throb about 40 minutes into the hour, but that will get better.
Did I mention the food here is amazing? It could have something to do with it being our only respite from meditation besides sleep, but still! It’s all vegetarian + gluten-free and I don’t miss meat at all.
Big problem: I can’t stop swallowing.
During the morning meditation session my mouth was very full of saliva for some reason, and I kept having to swallow.
This soon developed into a downward spiral of trying NOT to swallow, which of course put more saliva into my mouth.
Then I started to worry whether my constant swallowing was bothering my meditating neighbors. I heard them begin to swallow after I do. Am I contaminating the whole group? It’s honestly difficult to remember a time when I’ve felt more miserable.
I go to speak with the instructor during lunch. He laughs and says ‘Yeah… that can happen.’ He says the issue is actually the perfect teacher for Vipassana. I should remain equanimous with my swallowing just as I am supposed to be okay with any other sensation.
I mentally repeat to myself that swallowing is fine a 100 different ways during the remaining meditations that day. Nothing helps. I’m swallowing roughly twice a minute. Sometimes 4-5 times in quick succession.
Even worse, I’m still swallowing as I’m falling asleep. I’m not thinking about it anymore, so maybe it’s just a physiological pattern at this point. Dear god I hope sleep fixes everything.
Sleep did not fix it. I woke up swallowing during the night. It’s still happening at 4am.
Worse yet, today is Vipassana Day, the first day that we’ll be practicing the true form of the technique. This means two things:
- We’ll be sweeping our attention throughout the body rather than focusing only on the nostrils
- We’re asked to remain completely still for the entire hour in group sittings.
Our first ‘real’ sitting turns out to be the longest we’ll ever have to endure. A full 2 hours. No moving.
I start off in a funky position and stubbornly decide to mentally fight off the pain for the rest of the time instead of just adjusting. Everyone else seems to be just as determined. The entire hall is silent.
That silence is broken by something horrible. One girl begins sobbing. It’s not clear if it’s from physical pain, or some emotion that came to the surface, but either way it’s really tough to hear.
The worst part? No one comes to her aid. She’s there sobbing uncontrollably for a good 5 minutes and not even the teacher moves to comfort here.
We’re told later that this is normal. Vipassana is about dealing with these emotions yourself. I still don’t like that answer. :/
In case you were wondering, the swallowing has not stopped. It has slowed a bit because my mind is also occupied by physical pain. Progress?
The not-moving is easier today. Getting into the perfect position at the start is crucial for making the hour bearable.
The swallowing is still there. I’m beginning to think I’ve caused permanent damage.
Have I reprogrammed my glands to produce more saliva?
I came here to master my mind, but I feel like I have less control over it than ever.
Oh wait, I’m supposed to be equanimous with my swallowing. Breath. Breath. It’s okay. Breath…
That mental loop played on repeat all day.
A miracle has happened. The swallowing has stopped!!!
I spent today meditating in my room instead of the hall so that I wouldn’t be so worried about bothering others. This allowed me to become okay with the swallowing. Then it slowly disappeared.
Nothing can stop me now. Day 10, here we come!
Days 7 – 9
I’ve started to cheat a little bit :p
I brought along my Kindle and have been journalism in it during my free time. I’ve had SO many ideas and realizations during my meditations. It would be a shame to not record them and forget them all.
I’ve written a massive list of all the ways I can help my girlfriend, my siblings, my parents and step-parents, my best friends, some old friends and even some strangers I’ve met recently.
I realize that my love for others has been fairly selfish up to this point. I love people that are easy to love. I love when it serves me to love. Even when I do have love someone, I know it can be so much stronger.
I’m going to love more, starting with this list.
Today we regain the ability of speech and can talk with our fellow mediators.
It’s strange to talk again. We have a meeting with both the men and women, explaining the procedures for cleaning up and leaving, and it’s almost overwhelming. So many stimuli. I almost want to go back to no talking.
I’m shocked to hear how different some peoples’ experiences were from mine. Some even wish they could go on for a few more days. Some say they aren’t looking forward to going home, whereas I’ve been counting the days since Day 2.
Still, everyone had a hard time. One guy is on his 8th Vipassana and says it never gets easier. Different issues arise each time. That’s why he keeps coming back each year. “Gotta keep doing the hard work.”
I enjoyed seeing how everybody’s personalities compared to the assumptions I made about them during the last 9 days. We couldn’t talk, but I could still observe their mannerisms, their outfits, the ways they walked. I extrapolated those details to little stories about some of the more memorable characters. Some even had nicknames. Your mind does a lot of funny things when you aren’t doing anything for 10 hours a day 🙂
I am ECSTATIC to be back home. I’m overjoyed to see Sandra (my girlfriend). Music sounds absolutely amazing. Life is good.
I’ve heard many people say it’s a huge shock to go back to the real world after a Vipassana. Too many lights and sounds. But I found it to be easy, and even enjoyable.
What I loved about it
I’ve always wondered how I would feel if I meditated for multiples hours per day. I doubt I would have ever done it if not for this retreat. It feels great, but does has diminishing returns. I think one hour per day is optimal.
Technically we weren’t supposed to be doing any pondering…but c’mon! I came out of Day 11 with pages of ideas and realizations that I’ve been applying ever since. Lessons that stuck.
I’m a foodie and the meals were seriously fantastic. I later found out that all Goenka retreat centers use the same cookbook, so you’ll be able to see what I mean if you attend 🙂
I see why Goenka thought the many restrictions and tight schedule would create the optimal meditation environment. The lack of distractions does pull you deeper into yourself.
However, that environment is so drastically different from normal life that it’s harder to apply what you learned back home. It’s like weight lifting in low-gravity.
One of the phrases Goenka repeats over and over is that Vipassana is ‘universal, law of nature, non-sectarian’, meaning that the technique does not require belief, it just makes logical sense. There’s no dogma, only rational conclusions.
I disagree wholeheartedly. The whole concept of ‘sankaras’ is a belief. Goenka attempts to explain the ‘science’ behind sankaras with some flowery metaphors that sound logical at first listen, but can easily be taken apart with some critical thinking.
Goenka also states (more or less that) that Vipassana is the best form of meditation. He says the Buddha tried every type of meditation before settling on Vipassana as the one that would allow him to reach enlightenment. This is just his interpretation of what we know of the Buddha’s life, but is stated as fact.
I really like Vipassana, and I’m sure it could be the optimal technique for a lot of people. I just thought this aspect was ironic.
Goenka chants in pali for at least a few minutes at the beginning and end of every meditation. At the end of a session it’s the most wonderful sound because it signals the end. But overall it’s very repetitive and a bit weird. Here, give this a listen for a few seconds and you’ll know what I mean: