Practicing in public: what I learned from ten days of silent meditation

At 4am on January 1st, I woke up in the new year to the sound of a gong. As I showered in the first bathroom I’ve shared with twenty guys since freshman year of college, I was immediately confused by the absence of want. I was without so many things that — only a day prior — were critical ingredients in my daily life. How could it be possible that I didn’t miss them? I didn’t have my phone or internet access; and thus couldn’t read my email, check my friends on facebook, or exchange happy new year texts. I couldn’t Google or Wikipedia my questions, or jot down my thoughts (massive handicaps if you know me well). I didn’t have my apartment in NYC, or books to read, or music, or a camera. I couldn’t exercise my body, or eat meat. I didn’t have money, or at least my money was temporarily meaningless. I had no family, friends, or coworkers. And most of all, no voice. I’d maintain complete silence for almost ten days.

I’ve been back for a week now. And while those life gaps didn’t bother me at all during the retreat, you might also be surprised by my lacks upon returning home. I didn’t feel the need to shave my head and renounce my worldly possessions or join a monastery. I haven’t become a Buddhist. I wasn’t liberated from my humanly urges. I’m not changing jobs or moving out of the city or becoming celibate. I have no desire to convert you or to convince you to meditate.

And in some small way, I’m both lacking me, and have more me than ever.

In short, this isn’t “that” story, the one you might have expected reading the title. I’m writing this post to answer a few curiosities that both you and I likely share in common. Why on earth would I remove myself from reality for ten days of the hardest mental work of my life, instead of taking a real vacation? What did I discover while I was there? And how has it changed me now that I’m back?

Lesson 1: You won’t (really) learn anything from reading this post

First off, I’m probably just like you. I hadn’t ever meditated before this retreat. In fact, I could barely sit for 10 minutes of silence right before I left. I’ve never formally studied Buddhism, and I knew very little about Buddhist teachings or even this specific technique prior to getting on a plane. I’m still an extremely imperfect meditator. Sometimes I sleep in rather than practicing. My mind still wanders. I scratch my head when it itches from time to time. So don’t look to me to explain how to become enlightened or anything like that. Instead I’m just going to describe how I experienced meditation and how it’s helped me thus far.

The specific style of meditation I learned is called vipassana, which means “insight into the true nature of reality.” It was derived from the Theravada strand of Buddhism that originated in Burma, if you’re curious. It’s historically interesting in a bunch of ways and flawed in a bunch of ways. That’s about all the context that matters. So I’ll put the rest in a separate post.

Why doesn’t anything else matter? The first important (yet obvious) lesson I learned was about knowledge itself. The only real knowledge is experience. While there are three sources of knowledge: other people telling you something, reasoning through something logically, and directly experiencing something, they aren’t created equal. Even here in this post, I’m recounting my direct experience, but for you it’s just “other people telling you.” So, sad news: no matter how many times you subject yourself to reading my long-ass essay, you won’t truly “get” what I learned from vipassana. Even if you understand everything I say.

It was hard for me to write that last paragraph. The greatest delusion I’ve held in my life is that I could borrow others’ knowledge. I wanted to believe that reading others’ writing and reasoning through it constituted wisdom. And that’s a convenient interpretation for me, since I’ve practiced reading a lot. But in truth, reading-wisdom is deeply limited. The best way to know something is to do it.

And thus my answer to why I went on a vipassana retreat. It meant actually doing something hard, rather than just reading about it. For the first time ever.

Lesson 2: I hate(d) practicing

I haven’t read Ben Horowitz’ book, but to me, the hard thing about hard things has always been that I can fail at them.

When I was younger, my mom was kind enough to buy lessons for me to try out all kinds of cool hobbies. I had a couple years of baseball and soccer and dance and piano and probably ten other things I’ve since forgotten. Maybe I was good at some of them and made fast progress for a little while. But eventually, inevitably, I would fail. Everything would be going well but then I’d get the wrong note in a chord, or miss the ball, or fall flat on my face. In fact, practicing was defined by these little failure moments. So eventually I’d get fed up, and I’d tell my mom (or rather yell, in a tantrum): I hate practicing.

Why did I hate practicing? Because I hated failing. And why did I hate failing? Because it was shameful. It wasn’t mere embarrassment, like “that move was wrong,” but something deeper. It said something about me. I was wrong. I failed.

And boy did I ever hate failing. To fail was to cut against the image of myself that I’d so carefully curated in my mind and the minds of others: that things always came easily to me. That I was always in control. So after a shameful failure to pick it up in elementary school, for instance, it took me fifteen years to try learning to ride a bike again.

Practicing meditation during the retreat was a painfully obvious example of just how irrational my fear of failure could be. Imagine this: I’m sitting in a dark meditation hall, filled with fifty others who can’t make fun of me to my face or behind my back, since they can’t talk. And moreover, they must keep their eyes closed. And they’re all struggling too. Yet still, every time I had a weak moment during a meditation and had to adjust my back, my instinct was to feel ashamed. So ashamed that I wanted to get up and leave. For what?

The second big lesson is that struggle isn’t shameful. On the contrary, I learned that struggle is the definition of practice — it’s completely impersonal and doesn’t say anything about me. That’s helped me change my language around practice. Before, I might have thought “I suck at that” or “I failed at that.” But now I think, “I haven’t practiced that yet.” And that’s not euphemism. What separates greatness from fear is merely a strong determination to keep practicing (adhitthana). When I see greatness in others, similarly, I now know “they’ve practiced that a lot.”

Coming home, this helped me feel deeply energized and free to retry all the things I’ve been avoiding for all this time. This past week has been the most experimental in recent memory. And when I’m not so worried about holding up an image of “Jesse can do everything” it makes asking for help a lot easier. Whatever it is I can’t do today, I just haven’t practiced it yet.

Lesson 3: This will also change

A ten day meditation retreat was the epitome of something I could fail at. And I almost did, particularly on day four. I had a little breakdown after the full vipassana technique was revealed, and thought about leaving. But I was saved by that night’s discourse. The teacher lectured on the fundamental truth of all things: impermanence. Nothing lasts forever. That’s what convinced me to stay.

You see, the retreat itself was an example of that fundamental truth. The course was defined by its predictability. It lasted exactly ten days, and I knew that I’d be returning home from the same airport, on the same airline, on the eleventh day. And zooming in further, every subcomponent of the retreat was predictable too. Each day started with a gong at 4 and ended with me getting into bed at 9. Each meditation hour began with sitting down and ended with a chant. The whole thing was just like the first time I heard The Aristocrats — I knew exactly how it’d end… and that it’d end. All that changed is how the spaces in between got filled.

That’s precisely what vipassana teaches. Life is the same way as the retreat, the same as The Aristocrats. We know that we’re born and that we’ll die. That’s neither an optimistic nor pessimistic thought, just a real thought. And it’s a very powerful thought. Every moment begins only to end.

The vipassana technique proves this grand point of impermanence through the microcosm of your own meditation. You can literally experience moments and feelings rising and passing away by meditating.

There are two concepts to help you directly experience this impermanence. First, you learn complete awareness of your natural breath and the subtle sensations everywhere in your body that are happening at every moment. Yup, everywhere.

I’ll try to show you. Stop reading this post for a whole minute, close your eyes, breathe, and think about what you can feel in your left knee. The whole time, without moving it. Keep your attention on your knee and nothing else. Seriously. Like really really. I’ll wait.

What happened? Maybe you could feel the touch of your pants or something. Or a stinging pain. Or an itch. Or maybe you couldn’t focus on your knee. Or maybe you felt nothing. Vipassana meditation is like that, but everywhere on your body. Part by part, moving your focus around for an hour at a time. There’s no chanting “Om,” no physical yoga contortions, just you and your breath and your body. Awareness shows you that there’s always something happening right now, and if you pay attention you’ll notice it.

The second concept is maintaining equanimity in spite of whatever sensations you feel — i.e. keeping your mind completely balanced and free of any blind, automatic reactions. Our reaction patterns are so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to notice them, but they’re always present. For example, try to think back to what made you open your eyes when you were focusing on your knee just now. Maybe your head itched and you scratched it. Maybe your back hurt. Maybe you thought about whether you’d gotten a text message. Whatever it was, that thought or feeling or sound was a sensation, and you had an automatic reaction to it… by scratching the itch or looking at the phone or whatever.

By playing this ‘game’ of feeling a sensation, noticing my automatic reaction pattern, and training myself not to react that way, I learned that my reactions aren’t actually automatic. I’m responsible for how I feel, and I always have a choice. Like my back pain while sitting up straight for hours on end, no matter how extreme a sensation, it’s still impermanent. The few meditations where I chose not to react, never adjusted my back, I left feeling totally calm. A crisis might last for a few minutes, but eventually it’d go away.

That was the third big lesson – everything changes. Really, everything. No sensation or thought or feeling is permanent, and no habit of reacting to those sensations is automatic. You always have a choice of feeling the sensation but not reacting instead. You train yourself not to react by constantly repeating: anicca, anicca (“everything is impermanent”, pronounced like “anit-chah”).

Whatever is, is only right now.

Soberingly, this applies to both pleasant and unpleasant stimuli. The source of all our unhappiness occurs in the instantaneous little moment after we experience any external sensation. In that moment, our default is to form an automatic reaction, regardless of whether the stimulus was pleasant or unpleasant. We crave the good stuff when we don’t have it, and want the bad stuff to go away when it’s there.

Any difference between our desired state and our current reality makes us unhappy with the present moment as it is. For instance, during a meditation, I might be experiencing pain because my back muscles have been flexed for an hour. But I don’t have to make myself unhappy by wishing they were relaxed. The source of unhappiness isn’t that external thing or that pain. It’s our automatic reaction to it. We can change by taking responsibility for our reactions.

That’s tough to put into practice outside of meditation, but I’ve seen it enter my life in subtle ways in the last week. Waiting in line when I’m in a rush doesn’t make my blood boil. I don’t curse if I miss my train. Forgetting my umbrella and walking in cold rain doesn’t make me shiver or worry that I’ll catch pneumonia. And similarly, eating that chocolate or getting some small win doesn’t make me yearn for the next one. I remind myself, painful as it can be sometimes. Anicca. Anicca.

It’s bad right now. It’s great right now. Every statement should end with right now. Things that happen aren’t happening to me, as if I’m the center of the universe. They’re just happening right now. Bad or good, this too shall pass.

The gong, for awakening
The gong, for awakening

Practicing in public

I’ve learned these lessons directly by meditating. I need to experience things for real rather than hiding behind books. It’s not shameful to struggle. And everything changes, so my reactions are my responsibility. Yet I’m also not perfect at applying them by any means. There’s still a ton of work to be done.

Case in point: it took me a few hours to write this post, but a week to start it. That’s a small symptom of a larger problem — this is my first time writing in five hundred days. It’s not for a lack of ideas, since I spent every day at the retreat imagining all the things I’d want to write about when I returned. In fact, I even cheated at one point and tried to write on day 8, only to find my pen didn’t work (hilarity ensued, ask me about my ballpoint ink extraction experiment and the flashlight). And I’ve started hundreds of posts in the last year but never brought myself to finish them.

There are plenty of excuses I could make for myself not writing this week just like all those other days. Sure, I wanted to experiment with integrating vipassana into my daily life before telling you about its benefits. Sure, I had a lot of email to catch up on. Sure, I’ve been getting up at 5am (or so) most days. Sure, it was cloudy on a few of them.

Really, my delay is my own doing, not some external thing. It was the same old fear of failure creeping up again. The truth is, I’m not a perfect vipassana meditator, or an enlightened and liberated one. Ego still gets the best of me all the time. I try to stay equanimous, but sometimes I attach myself to the outcome of becoming a great meditator. When I’m not always making what feels like progress, I feel ashamed and that leads me to avoid practicing. Same old me.

And the truth is, similarly, I’m not a perfect writer. This post is incomplete in so many ways. I didn’t get to half the points I wanted to make. Yet it’s also way too long. Fuck, most people won’t even read up to this point. They’ll give up and think I suck at writing. And the structure isn’t symmetrical. And shit, I’m still just using a WordPress default theme. How could this be my comeback after all that time away from writing?

But the truth is also that I’ve spent maybe a max of 100 hours cumulatively meditating during and after my retreat. And I’ve only published 40 posts, so maybe I’ve spent a similar amount of time blogging. I just haven’t practiced enough yet.

I’m not perfect and I want you all to hear that from me, even though imperfection is obvious and is true of everyone. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s okay that I don’t have all the answers. It’s okay that I don’t get everything on the first try (…or the twentieth — I still can’t ride a bike). I over-intellectualize. I procrastinate. I struggle.

Right now, at least. None of those things define me, and they aren’t forever. Everything changes. So consider this my 41st try at writing. It’s okay – no, exciting even – that you’re going to have questions unanswered by this post. Or that you might not have read it.

It’s about time I start practicing in public.

(But it’s also okay if I don’t sometimes, just like it’s okay if this post doesn’t end on some epic thought-provoking sentence.)

This post is part 1 of a series about my learnings from vipassana. Part 2 on more background and FAQ is here.