What I Learned from 10 Days of Silent Meditation

In Southeast Asia by Daniel S. Johnson6 Comments

“We’re addicted to thinking because we…derive our sense of self from the content and activity of our minds. We believe we’d cease to be if we stopped thinking.”Eckart Tolle, The Power of Now

Hot pain coursed through my hips and knees as I sat cross-legged in the stuffy meditation hall. A blanket of silence covered the room, broken only by the occasional sneeze or errant belch from one of the 150 participants within. I strained my ears for a different noise: the low growl of recorded chanting that would herald the end of my torture.

My ears pricked up – a sound! Could it be…?? …No. Just a girl burping on the other side of the room.

Sweat beaded on my forehead and trickled down my chest. I attempted to re-focus on the technique and wondered vaguely about how useless pain receptors were at a time like this.

Ten excruciating minutes later, the recorder finally clicked on. Ahhh…who knew that the guttural chants of a middle-aged Indian man could bring such elation? I rolled my shoulders back to straighten my posture and steeled myself for the home stretch – only five minutes to go.


Thus concluded one of the 18 one-hour “Adhiattãna” sessions of my 10-day Vipassana meditation course. Held three times daily from Day 5 onward, they differed from our normal meditation periods in a key way: for the entirety of the hour, all major movement — that is, uncrossing your legs, unfolding your hands from your lap, or opening your eyes — was forbidden.

The purpose of these “sittings of strong determination” was to hone our abilities to observe sensations in our bodies without reacting to them. The “no movement” part ensured an ample supply of sensations to practice on, mainly in the form of steadily-increasing pain in the legs and back.

And any relief one may have gotten from empathizing with fellow meditators afterwards was made unattainable by the strict ban on talking (or even gesturing) to other participants.

‘So,’ one might ask, ‘why would a non-masochistic person voluntarily sign up for ten days of silent misery?’

I became particularly interested in the answer to that question after hearing first-hand accounts from friends who had completed a course at one of the various Vipassana centers around the world. Further testimonials from backpackers in Southeast Asia yielded a consensus among virtually all past-participants I spoke with: it was one of the “hardest and best” things they’d ever done.

“Hardest” wasn’t difficult to imagine. A few scrolls down the no-nonsense Code of Discipline on the Vipassana website dissolved any illusions that the 10 days would be a comfortable affair, either physically or mentally. My apprehension grew as I noted how the daily schedule and requirements played almost uncannily against several of my idiosyncrasies:

PERSONAL
CHARACTERISTIC
COURSE
DETAILS
ANXIETY
ENGAGED
Not a morning person 4 a.m. wake-up call via gong
Constantly hungry Breakfast @ 6:30 a.m., lunch @ 11 a.m.,
tea @ 5 p.m., and no dinner
Aversion to boredom 10 hours of sitting meditation per day
Compulsion to write Writing materials forbidden

And yet I had to wonder — what did people mean by “best”? How could 240 hours of sitting in one spot with your eyes closed produce such a positive, even “life-changing” experience? In the end, curiosity (and the course’s budget-friendly cost of $0, meals and accommodation included) convinced me to find out, and I signed up for one beginning mid-March at the Dhamma Joti Center in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar.

I assume that the Burmese at the top translates roughly to, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

I entered the meditation center at 4:30 p.m. on March 15th, 2016, and emerged a little after sunrise on March 26th. It took me a while to come up with a concise way to express the ups and downs, torture and euphoria of the preceding 10 days, but the description I deemed most accurate was, “a really long deep-tissue massage for my mind.” Painful at times, but 100% worth it for how I felt by the end — and still feel now, several weeks later.

It’s impossible to convey this feeling in words alone, partly because the experience is so personal and therefore unique to every participant. I felt compelled though to try and extract a few applicable take-aways — both to share with others, and to better understand my own ordeal. In the end, I distilled my interpretation down to three main points.

1. Your body and mind are capable of a lot more than you’d think.

People praying at Golden Rock on Mt. Kyaiktiyo

Crowds praying at the Golden Rock on top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo in southeastern Myanmar.

The first one-hour Adhiattãna (no-movement) session was introduced at the end of Day 4, but I only made it about 20 minutes before my patience for the numbness and pain in my legs wore thin and I repositioned. I justified my surrender by telling myself that such intense discomfort was surely a sign my body wasn’t cut out for sitting so long, and that I’d make up for it by getting into yoga more back home, and [insert equally lame excuses here].

With that experience as a precursor, my hopes were far from high as I sat down for the morning Adhiattãna session the next day. I decided I could at least aim for forward progress — perhaps 30 minutes of immobile agony instead of 20. To my surprise, my morning stamina was considerably higher than the previous night’s, and before I knew it I’d made it to what I guessed was the 40-minute mark. I unsuccessfully tried not to visualize a hot knife plunging slowly into my right hip, decided it couldn’t possibly get much worse, and affirmed, “Screw it, I’ve made it this far, I’ll try for the full hour.” Twenty minutes later, I opened my eyes and uncrossed my legs – white-faced and unable to walk for several minutes, but victorious.

The energizing sense of accomplishment propelled me into the afternoon session with more confidence, and when I again made it past the half-hour mark, I decided I’d go for the full hour once more. I probably wouldn’t use “victorious” to describe how I felt 30 minutes later — “desperately relieved” would be more accurate — but it was enough to motivate me to continue my streak and complete the evening session without movement as well.

Once I made it through those three sessions on Day 5, I was forced to acknowledge that my fear of meditation-induced paraplegia was unfounded. If I uncrossed my legs during any of the subsequent one-hour sessions, I would have to accept it for what it was — a lapse in my resolve. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would mean living with the knowledge that I’d voluntarily achieved less than I was capable of. And so, with a sort of grim determination, I started and finished the fifteen remaining Adhiattãna sessions without major movement.

What I learned by the end was this: while it’s impossible to have complete control over physical sensations (e.g. pain, tingling, etc.), we can decide how we react to them. As I practiced objective awareness of sensations like pain and pleasure — perceiving them not as bad or good, but simply there, impermanently — I felt their power over my emotions waning. And if I could choose not to react to base-level sensations like pain and pleasure, what was to stop me from controlling my reactions to external incidents (e.g. getting cut off in traffic, or sitting next to a crying baby on an airplane) as well?

This empowering insight lead to another idea…

2. In the end, YOU are responsible for how much (or how little) you achieve.

Myawyik Pagoda west of Dawei

The Myawyik Pagoda, situated on a small island near the coast in Southern Myanmar.

While the teachers and assistants held me accountable for my physical presence during the group meditation periods, it was ultimately my decision how much real work I put in. I could have made comfort my main priority and gone for a walk whenever the sits became too painful or boring, and then patted myself on the back on Day 11 for technically completing the regimen. But that would have meant missing out on a large portion of the course’s lasting benefit — in particular, the enhanced ability to self-motivate and push your comfort zone.

I should note that, while I completed my goal of not physically shifting during the no-movement sessions, my success in maintaining mental stability was far more hit-or-miss. The Vipassana technique asks that you objectively observe sensations throughout the body from head to feet and feet to head, and to return to this task as quickly as possible when you notice your mind has wandered. In that respect, let’s just say I had good sessions and bad sessions (some particularly memorable mind-wandering episodes included going back and forth about how to transcribe the explosive sneezes of the guy a few rows up [I eventually settled on “Herrr-REHph”], and spending almost an entire one-hour session on Day 8 trying to recall the scene-by-scene dialogue of the movie Pineapple Express).

Moments of distraction aside, when I shouldered complete responsibility for the results I achieved during the course, it reaffirmed a core element of my personal philosophy — we are responsible for our own lives. Our successes are ours, and so are our failures. We can blame our shortcomings on circumstances or other people, but what’s the point? Building a wall of excuses around our egos only limits our progress as individuals. Every time we own up to a mistake and learn from it, we take one step closer to our best selves.

My battles with my own excuses and moments of self-doubt during the course coalesced into a third major realization…

3. Personal experience is the most powerful teacher.

Buddha statue on Dawei peninsula

Buddha statue overlooking the shore on the Dawei Peninsula, Southern Myanmar.

Two moments that Vipassana participants often recall vividly are their lowest point, and their turning point (i.e. a moment where the technique suddenly “clicks” with them on a deeper level). My own lowest and turning points came almost simultaneously on Day 6.

It was mid-afternoon and hovering around 30°C (86°F) in the meditation hall. I had a few recurrent concerns running sporadically through my head — “Am I going to finish this thing without having any meaningful revelations? Wait, stop, wanting a revelation is a craving, the whole point of this is not to form attachments. Man, it’s only Day 6…Day 11 is on Saturday, and today’s Monday, so if this was a work week it would only have just started…” — and so on. My stir-craziness and mental exhaustion reached a new peak of intensity, and the thought of carrying those anxieties for another four and a half days suddenly seemed like more than I could bear. I felt a powerful urge to spring up and out of the meditation hall, to keep running, to leave the drab aesthetics and suffocating silence of the center behind…

And then, with my resolve hovering on a knife’s edge, a small but profound shift in my awareness occurred: I realized I didn’t have to carry all that baggage. Prior to Vipassana, I’d learned on an intellectual level (through various self-improvement books) that holding on to anxiety and negativity is a choice, and that it’s within our power to release those thoughts or alter our perception of the situation. This comprehension elicited several positive top-level changes in my life, but it wasn’t until I understood the concept at the experiential level — until I’d spent 50+ hours observing sensations within me and recognizing their impermanent nature first-hand — that I fully believed in it to a degree where I could apply it constantly. My impression of the theory changed from, “I should do this [because Marcus Aurelius and Napoleon Hill and all these important lifestyle-design authors said so]” to, “I’m going to do this [because not doing so would be akin to volunteering for a ceaseless, Sisyphus-esque struggle with my anxiety].”

In that moment of clarity, I got a real objective glance all the tension flourishing in my mind. I observed it, took a deep breath, smiled, and let a single word float airily through my mind: “Whatever.”

My tone wasn’t one of bitterness or resignation, but relief. I’d been aware for a while that I had an addiction to doing, and that my self-worth was probably tied up too much in my external achievements. It took that complete depletion on Day 6, however — a state where I was too mentally exhausted to sustain the anxious spiral even if I tried — to make me realize how emotionally invested I was in future expectations and matters that had little long-term importance. If anxiety felt like free-fall, then that “Whatever” moment was like realizing I had a parachute on and pulling the ripcord. The sudden feeling of weightlessness is one I’ll never forget.


Looking back on more than five months of backpacking in Southeast Asia, Vipassana is a strong contender for my favorite experience of the trip. A term which was heavily emphasized during the course was “equanimity,” or total present-moment awareness where one observes sensations and events without unconscious reaction. It’s a difficult state to achieve, and harder still to maintain continuously, but the moments where you are able to dial in are nothing short of pure tranquility. Self-consciousness and anxiety are replaced by harmony, inner peace, and just…gratitude. My ability to reach this mode of being with greater ease made all the pain and frustration of the course worth it, and continuing to practice the technique has been a big part of the increased calmness and existential satisfaction I’ve felt in the ensuing weeks.

Taking that all into consideration, it’s probably no surprise that I’d recommend a meditation retreat to just about anyone. There are Vipassana centers and similar organizations all over the world, so it’s unlikely your location will be an impediment. And as for the course duration, all I can say is to think of the time required as an investment — both in your own happiness, and, by proxy, the happiness of those around you.

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunrise

The Shwedagon Pagoda in central Yangon, taken shortly after sunrise on the morning I finished my course.

If you’re interested in finding a meditation retreat, you can use Vipassana’s handy search tool or Google “silent meditation course” and do research on different organizations and courses offered in your area. Feel free to comment below or message me via my Contact page if you have any questions!

Comments

  1. Amy Marton

    Beautifully written. I couldn’t agree more with each of your three main points, and love the way you explained them.

    This is my favorite part: “I’d been aware for a while that I had an addiction to doing, and that my self-worth was probably tied up too much in my external achievements. It took that complete depletion on Day 6, however — a state where I was too mentally exhausted to sustain the anxious spiral even if I tried — to make me realize how emotionally invested I was in future expectations and matters that had little long-term importance. If anxiety felt like free-fall, then that “Whatever” moment was like realizing I had a parachute on and pulling the ripcord. The sudden feeling of weightlessness is one I’ll never forget.”

    We don’t get many moments like these in life: pivotal paradigm shifts in self and in the course of our life. I’m happy for you to have had this one.

    1. Author
      Daniel Johnson

      Hey Amy! Sorry for the late reply, I just returned from a festival in the Philippines. Thank you so much for your comment, a “pivotal paradigm shift” is a lovely and accurate way to describe my turning point =). I highly encourage you to try a course yourself at some point – I have a feeling you’d get at least as much out of it as I did, especially considering the interest you already have in mindfulness and spirituality. I’d also be interested to see how you might connect the technique to your background in positive psychology.

  2. Alan Wexler

    This post gave me the chills Daniel! Man, I am so inspired. I’m sure you will carry this newfound power with you always. Amazing what you learned by this experience. Very much appreciate you sharing.

    Safe travels as you finish up your journey.

    Alan

    1. Author
      Daniel Johnson

      Thanks for the comment Alan! Apologies for the belated reply, I was away at a festival until last night. It means a lot to hear that I inspired you in some way – I think your overall mindset and respect for meditation would be perfectly suited to a course if you ever decided to try one yourself. Thanks again, and looking forward to reconnecting when I visit LA this summer!

  3. Marc Cook

    Very cool Daniel! Thank you for sharing your experiences. Inspiring. (Marshall’s Uncle)

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