Mastering the Mind: Secular Insights from a 10 day Silent Meditation Retreat (Vipassana)

In The Mechanics of Wellbeing

Since being diagnosed with depression 4 years ago, I’ve been passionate about self-improvement and conceptualising the ins and outs of human wellbeing.

I’ve tried dozens of nootropics and supplements, diets and sleep routines, formal therapies and rationality ‘debugging’, relationship models and work-hours, and even toyed with moral frameworks. Each of these added a useful component to my wellbeing toolbox.

I now consider myself to a be quite a content and fulfilled person. Yet, whenever someone recommends a practice, or suggests something to be ‘life changing’, I’m still eager to read about it and try understand its benefits (or at least ascertain its placebo effects).

Vipassana is a retreat (10 days for first-timers), in which you meditate — observing your thoughts and feelings — for 10 hours a day. You raise at 4am, eat 1 piece of fruit for dinner, and are not allowed to speak or even make eye contact with other students.

Daily Schedule

In the evenings you watch a 75 min video, in which the late S N Goenka talks about some aspect of the philosophy and technique of Vipassana. Other than some brief interaction with the teachers, this is your primary source of information on the practice while there.

S N Goenka (1924–2013)

On top of this, men and women are segregated during the first 9 days. Separate houses, dining halls, and walking areas. You do meditate in the same hall, but on opposite sides.

As a whole, the experience was unexpectedly insightful and difficult. Spending 10 days with yourself is no easy task. I struggled often, and at one point broke down crying.

I ultimately finished the course with some useful new concepts and skills: I’m more aware of my thought-patterns and emotions; I’m less reactive to pains and stresses; and I feel more able to ‘switch off’ and enjoy the present moment.

Of course, the retreat has its problems. It emanates sect-like vibes. It has unnecessary reverence for a small number of “enlightened” figures, and doesn’t seem interested in updating the practice with modern psychology or cognitive science. At some point I even had to sit for 75 minutes listening to Goenka talk about why the classical element view of nature is consistent with modern physics.

Yet, if you can see past these faults, I’m very comfortable putting Vipassana on my list of most useful tools for wellbeing improvement. No other retreat or multi-day workshop has given me such density of ‘aha!’ moments.

This article is an honest account of my experience and core takeaways of Vipassana — coming from the perspective of a scientific and secular minded person.

A quick word for the skeptics

If you have never meditated, or associate meditation with ‘woo spiritual hippie nonsense’, then you are not alone. I had this intuition as well for most of my life. A framework that helped me de-couple these intuitions, was to see meditation as an exercise in strengthening control of your attention.

By spending prolonged periods of time sitting and trying to focus on your breath, for example, you are able to better observe how much your mind wanders, and where it wanders to; You are better able to connect with your body, and hear the signals that each part of your nervous system is sending; And, as you practice returning your attention to your breath (after getting lost in thought) you become better at directing your attention where you please — be it for productive work or enjoying a scenery.

If that isn’t enough, there are ample scientific studies showing that meditators perform better on tasks assessing sustained attention and persistence; They show more optimism and increased pleasant affect and also show more adaptive responses to aversive stimuli and emotional difficulties; And are also less likely to ruminate, are less cognitively reactive, and have increased emotion regulation.

I hope this persuades some of you to keep reading!

First few days

As soon as you arrive, you are asked to hand over your phone, and are shown to your room.

There were about 80 other students, age ranging between 18–70, with more density in the 25–35 range.

You had the thin software engineer with a Super Mario ‘upgrade your life’ t-shirt; the fit triathlon ‘startup bro’; the stern head-shaven devout Buddhist; the mildly twitchy recovering addict, the glossy eyed spiritual hippie, and the mid-life crisis-er hoping to re-find themselves. Nothing surprising here.

After some socialising you are given a presentation on the facilities and schedule for the 10 days, before being taken to the meditation hall.

At the meditation hall, you are allocated a 1m x 1m mat.

Not my hall, but the closest match I could find online

You are also welcome to make use of the equipment room, stacked with different sized cushions, stools and blankets. I wasn’t sure how bad the discomfort would get, so I took one of everything and waited on my mat.

The session began with a recording of Goenka talking about the purpose of noble silence (the rule of not speaking) and the precepts:

The precepts for first time students
1. To abstain from killing any being
2. To abstain from stealing
3. To abstain from all sexual activity
4. To abstain from telling lies
5. To abstain from all intoxicants

Additional precepts for returning students
6. To abstain from eating after midday
7. To abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations
8. To abstain from using high or luxurious beds

You are then asked to repeat a few phrases in Pali, as a symbol of consenting to the rules.

As a whole, I didn’t find it very difficult to adhere to noble silence or the precepts. On some days I had to stop myself from singing in the shower, but that was about it. The one precept I did break was unconsciously swatting a fly on my neck while I meditated. Sorry fly :(.

Goenka then does a bit of singing and the meditation begins.

Meditation

Before coming on the retreat, the longest I had ever meditated was (a then proud) 20 min in one sitting, and was not doing this more than 3 times per week. So, frankly, I struggled on a number of fronts.

During the first 4 days, your task is to focus on the breath coming in and out of your nostrils. The purpose here is to ‘sharpen’ your attention, as you practice being aware of a small area on your body. In between sessions Goenka would ask:

Does the air come out of the left nostril or the right nostril?

Can you feel how the air breathing in is colder than the air breathing out?

Can you feel the air hitting your upper lip as it goes out?

You are further instructed that if you notice yourself focusing your attention on your thoughts, or on other parts of your body — due to itches or aches — that you gently return your attention to the breath. That you must strengthen your ‘mastery over the mind’.

This might sound easy in theory, but this deceptively simple task is virtually impossible to do for long periods of time (more on this later).

The body

Within 20 min of each sitting, soreness emerged on my knees, heels, the muscles along my spine (especially my upper back), and, oh god, my poor butt. My legs also sometimes fell asleep, and I’d have to regularly stretch them out between other students.

I would change position every 20 minutes and would rock back and forth to ease the pain. And then I’d get frustrated with myself for getting lost in thoughts.

30 min into the first hour, and the reality of what I got myself into really sunk in.

At first, I worried that I was particularly weak minded. I would occasionally half-open an eye to see if others were struggling as well. To my relief, I wasn’t alone. A number of the other newcomers were wearing the ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ expression.

I felt particularly sorry for one of the students, sitting to my left. I’m absolutely certain his experience was worse than mine.

He was constantly fidgeting, changing position and scratching himself. During the second hour, he put a stack of pillows behind his back, and lied down a bit. It seemed like he finally found some relief. But then started snoring — waking himself up in the process. You could almost hear the silent laughter throughout the hall.

He left on the 4th day — which was later than I anticipated.

Fortunately, Vipassana is a not an endurance test, nor a self-torture exercise worth signalling points.

The exercises have their purpose, and the teachers are keen on offering equipment and advice to master the techniques.

The first thing I did that made the experience more manageable was optimising my sitting position. After trying every possible combination of stools and cushions, and watching the return students closely, I settled on these two positions — which I rotated between every hour — for the rest of the course:

The positions didn’t eliminate the body aches, but they certainly helped reduce their frequency and intensity.

And that’s it for using physical technology. The only way left to ease the pain is using mental technology (or leaving the course).

Two concepts, shared by Goenka, helped in this process

1. All sensations are temporary: Pain will pass. Pleasure will pass. Just notice the reality of your sensations.

2. Always pursue “equanimity” (a state of composure and calmness). Don’t react to pain or pleasure, nor make them relevant to your wellbeing.

The framework helped me become more at ease with my discomfort as the days went by. I noticed that I was long accustomed to reacting immediately to discomfort, by looking for a way to alleviate it. My relationship with pain was something like this:

•If hungry → find something to eat

•If uncomfortable → change position

•If bored → find something to do

I didn’t question this model too much. I met my needs when they emerged. That’s all I knew.

But Vipassana was trying to teach me something different:

•If hungry  observe the hunger  eat if you choose to

•If uncomfortable → observe the discomfort → change position if you choose to

•If bored → observe the boredom → find something to do if you choose to

This is by no means easy to do, even after understanding the concepts. But as the days went by, and I practiced not ‘giving in’ to my urges, I became more at ease with the present moment, whether comfortable or not.

What surprised me greatly was to learn that pain, hunger, cold, and exhaustion doesn’t get worse throughout the day, and that a great part of my immediate reaction to the discomforts was the fear of them intensifying.

It was also interesting to observe that the discomforts come in waves. It’s like the body sends you a signal ‘my back hurts’, and once you acknowledge it ‘sure thing buddy, I see you’, then the pain softens up and disappears for a while. It then comes back 10 minutes later, for a short while, at a similar level of discomfort, and then goes away again.

Mastering hunger and cravings

Coming to the course, I knew that skipping dinners was going to be a challenge for me. I’m known for getting ‘hangry’ in my friend circle.

Moreover, I also have a history of using food as a mood regulator. At the peak of my depression I had gained 15kg for eating daily pizzas and take-outs. If I had a ‘bad’ day (which was often) I’d feel like I ‘deserved’ a greasy snack. Period.

I’ve come a long way since those days, but I was curious to see how my system would react under strain.

During the first few days, eating only a piece of fruit in the evenings was hard; Going to sleep hungry was hard; and meditating for those 2 hours before breakfast was the hardest part of each day.

And when the breakfast bell finally rang, I walked faster than everyone else to be at the front of the line. Or I’d make sure to meditate in my room (which was closer to the dining hall), so that I could eat sooner.

When I finally got to the counter, I’d pile food on my plate, use lots of butter, jam, bread, and even put sugar in my tea. Mind you, I haven’t put sugar in my drinks for 5 years, so I was surprised to notice myself do this.

I rationalised my behaviour a bit like this: My needs are so severely unmet for most of each day, that it’s alright for me to soothe myself during meals.

But on day 4, as I sat there with my massive plate, staring out the window (towards the meditation hall), I saw a bald woman (one of the returning students) walking ever so slowly towards the dining hall. The bell had rung 15 minutes ago, but she calmly took her time to look at every flower on the way here.

Seeing this did something to me. ‘Be the master of your mind’ said Goenka in my head (yes, exactly like Yoda), ’Always remain equanimous’ he stressed. My plate at that moment was a clear representation of my giving into cravings. And that woman, a representation of a skill I wanted to learn.

This was the moment that I started to take Vipassana seriously. Suddenly there was something tangible that Vipassana practitioners had that I didn’t.

That evening, I decided to play by the ‘returning students’ rules and didn’t take any fruit for dinner. Over the next few meals, I gradually took smaller portions and healthier food items. I tried eating slower, and listening to my stomach to find out when I was actually full.

This was difficult, but I wanted to know if I had it in me. Can I be the master of my mind?

On day 8, I felt stronger and more able to resist cravings, so I decided to challenge myself. I wanted to be the last person to eat breakfast.

When the breakfast bell rang, I remained seated in the meditation hall. I was hungry, and sore from meditating for 2 hours, but I tried my best to remain equanimous. Most people left during the first 10 minutes — except for that bald woman. She sat there for 20 minutes — and boy d̶i̶d̶ ̶I̶ ̶h̶a̶t̶e̶ ̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶ did this test my equanimity.

I accomplished my mission, but I wasn’t sure if it was an accomplishment. Did I just give into an ego game? Was I healthily testing my new limits? I’m still not sure. But I was proud of myself at the time. I was now able to do something that I couldn’t do when I arrived. An honest indicator for growth.

Carpet shoes

This experience highlighted a gap in my previous model of wellbeing. If you have a look at the graph below, I tend to picture wellbeing as occurring when a sufficient amount of one’s needs are met (depicted as the blue ‘needs bar’ crossing the purple ‘wellbeing threshold’).

However, my old model of thinking was focused on looking for ways to meet ones needs, by acquiring resources, status, achievements, entertainment, partners, etc. But since Vipassana, more of my thinking is going towards looking for ways to reduce the number of needs I have to fulfil (making it easier to cross the wellbeing threshold).

To frame this point differently:

The world is an unpredictable and chaotic place. Even the most rich and powerful stress and struggle to ensure things go as they please. In such a world, having a long list of needs is akin to adding more ‘failure modes’ into your wellbeing system. In other words, having a high number of needs makes it less likely for your needs to be met. As such, it makes sense for one’s wellbeing to be less conditional on chaotic fluctuations outside of one’s control.

Goenka articulates this point nicely in one of the discourses (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

If you want to walk on a carpet all day, it’s harder to cover the world in carpet than it is to wear carpet shoes.

This guy gets it

The mind

When meditating, it quickly becomes apparent that it is hard to not get carried away in thoughts. In a single sitting one will have dozens of “whoops, I should be with my breath” moments.

I already found this frustrating from the get go, but Goenka added a philosophical twist to the exercise, which made it even more frustrating for me (paraphrased from memory):

There is nothing more real than the present moment. The past is gone and the present is yet to be. When you are lost in thought, you are not in tune with reality. Are you comfortable with accepting reality as it is?

But… having true beliefs and being connected to reality is one of my core values.

Yet, during the first half of the course, I probably spent 95% of my meditation time lost in thoughts. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay focused on my breath for more than a minute at a time.

And this bothered me a lot. I didn’t have the ability to (at least) choose to be present if I wanted.

Being present is not easy!

On day 4, at the teacher’s questions session, I asked whether I was doing something wrong. The teacher sort of laughed, and told me that the goal is not to maximise the amount of time focused on my breath, but rather, the exercise serves to help one notice that the mind wanders and observe where the mind wanders to. Prolonged attention will come naturally after that.

This sort of made sense to me, so I changed my tack. Every time I brought my attention back to my breath, I saw it like lifting a weight. It was me becoming aware of where my mind had gone.

This opened up an interesting relationship between me and my mind (whatever that means). I even started referring to my mind as if it was a different person in my head — and it definitely felt this way because I couldn’t control when or what it wondered about!

When I noticed ‘it’ was thinking, I would note what ‘it’ was thinking about, and I would bring my attention to the breath. Which led to some weird conversations in which I’d ask the mind ‘why were you thinking about that?’ or ‘why is this important to you right now?’

Throughout the course, Goenka stresses that students would undergo ‘a deep operation of the mind’. This initially screamed ‘woo mumbo jumbo at me’, but this mechanism made more sense as the days went by.

Given that you have little new stimulation to think about, no new memes to laugh at, or problems to solve at work, your mind seems desperate for things to think about. Childhood memories that I had forgotten were suddenly in my attention. Old feelings, angers, curiosities, and passions all came to the forefront.

On day 6, a particularly difficult set of memories and emotions came to mind, and I uncontrollably burst out in tears. I’ve never experienced an ‘untriggered’ cry before. I don’t cry often, but when I do, it’s usually about something more immediate.

I felt quite grateful to have had this experience. As I was then unaware that this topic was still affecting me.

And, of course, many of the thoughts and feelings that came up were also positive. I had a lot of time to clarify what people and activities are currently good for me — leading also to the desire to publish more of my writing.

What I found interesting about this process is that the mind sort of ‘calms down’ as the days go by. In the beginning the mind is eager to throw topics at you, but as the days go by and you note the topics it brings up, it starts to relax. By the last day, the mind was very calm and collected — as if it has finally said everything it wanted to say.

During my final meeting with the teacher, I tried asking why the mind works this way. Why is it that when deprived of new stimulation, so many memories and emotions are free to come to the foreground. I have a background in philosophy and cognitive neuroscience — of course I was curious.

But he signalled no interest in the question. “You might have heard this theory or that theory. It makes no difference. Just notice and accept how the mind works at the experiential level”.

It wasn’t the most satisfactory answer. But I felt comfortable accepting the reality of the experience I had.

The psychedelic effects of body scanning

On day 4, you are given a new set of meditation instructions. Your task is to scan your body, from head to toe, and toe to head. 10 minutes going down — “piece by piece, part by part” — and 10 minutes going up.

Now, I’ve done body awareness meditation in the past but I’ve never done it for such long periods of time. Things can get trippy as you get better at the exercise.

At first, the idea is to get good at ‘noticing’ different parts of your body.

Try it now if you want. Focus on the soles of your feet. They kind of ‘brighten up’ into awareness. But now focus on a coin-sized area on the top of your scalp. It’s a bit harder, right?

It takes a lot of practice and patience — as some body areas just don’t brighten up, no matter how much attention you give them. But you get better at it.

After practising this for 60 hours, you are able to ‘lighten up’ all parts of your body at the same time. It’s hard to explain. It’s like you have a vivid ‘3D’ awareness of your entire body and you feel sensations of heat and electricity running up and down your arms and legs. You also become acutely sensitive to your heartbeat, as it shakes your body with each pump. Its quite soothing and elating once you achieve it.

A 100% accurate depiction of what this feels like

I could kind of understand why someone with a more ‘spiritual’ mindset might find this ‘enlightening’ or particularly ‘meaningful’. Personally, I conceptualise it as a trick of bodily attention. But it is unique, and it makes sense that others would see it differently.

An interesting side-effect of this state is a strong reduction in bodily pain — which made meditating for 10 hours a day a much easier experience.

Criticisms and takeaways

My main criticism of the course is that it isn’t looking to change and update with experience and scientific research. As much as I found Goenka to be a charming and insightful figure, the fact that the course isn’t taught by new living teachers is disappointing.

I would LOVE to see a modern Vipassana that is truly hooked up with science and offers more tangible theories and explanations for how it works and why it works.

As a whole, I highly recommend the retreat. It’s not going to ‘change your life’ or grant you ‘enlightenment’, but it will add some invaluable items to your wellbeing and productivity toolbox.

For example, in the month since coming back, I’ve been less bothered by the ‘pains’ of having to start a task. It’s been easier for me to just note the aversion, come to terms with it and continue with my task.

I’ve also gained a a handy ‘equanimity mind widget’.


Can I stay content without satisfying this want?

I’ve been able to easily ‘check in’ with myself and discern whether I’m in a state of craving or a wanting. Which I feel has given me a wider range of choices.

I’ve also been feeling generally more at ease and content with things. Though it’s still unclear to what extent this will last. I’ll make a formal update to the article after a few months.

To wrap-up, here is a bullet-point summary of my key conceptual takeaways from the course:

•All sensations are temporary: Pain will pass. Pleasure will pass. Just accept the reality of your sensations.

•Always pursue “equanimity” (a state of composure and calmness). Don’t immediately react to pain or pleasure, nor make them defining of your wellbeing.

•Learn to be present. When you are in your mind, you are remembering the past, or simulating the future. In either case you are not in tune with the present moment.

•Connect with your body. Your body is always sensing something and sending you signals. Get to know those signals.

•Observe your cravings and unnecessary needs. Train yourself to need fewer things, it will be easier to meet your wellbeing threshold this way.