On the morning of February 2 of this year, I shut down my laptop and left my flat with a rucksack that contained a few clothes and toiletries, but was primarily laden with pillows and blankets. Looking like an off-season backpacker, I made my way to Euboea, an island off the northeast coast of mainland Greece. Since I live in Athens, it was a short trip. Though I’m always surprised by how tightly the sea envelops this country and how even brief trips require crossing the water.
I was heading, for the third time, to a meditation retreat in the technique of Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka.
“Vipassanā” is the Pali word for “insight”. There are many practices that go by that name, beside the one popularised by Goenka. Despite the differences between them, all versions of Vipassana taught in the West are non-sectarian meditation practices that emphasise mindfulness, or non-reactive awareness. In this post “Vipassana” refers to the technique as taught by Goenka.
There are Vipassana courses taught all over the world, including Greece. But while there are teachers here, there is no dedicated meditation centre in the country. Twice a year, the two teachers, along with a cadre of old students, commandeer a hotel in Euboea and convert it into a meditation centre. They transform the dining room into a meditation hall and the reception lounge into a dining room. They demarcate separate areas for men and women throughout the hotel and on the grounds outside. The building was adapted to be as conducive to meditation as possible. Blocking the windows in the common areas, for example, to prevent the sun from flooding in at all hours of the day. This is Greece, after all: even in February, the days are often crispy bright.
Just as the teachers and their helpers were wrapping up their preparations, about a hundred students from all over Greece and some from beyond, myself among them, landed on the island and by bus or on foot made their way to the hotel.
Most of them the students are new and have never taken a Vipassana course before. Some have a background in meditation but that’s not a prerequisite as the course is complete by itself. Everything a student needs to practice is provided. The rest are old students, like myself, who have taken a course before, meditate in their daily life, and return periodically to deepen and strengthen their practice.
A teacher once told me that the course is like spring cleaning. You lift the rugs, go after the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, clean behind and underneath the heavy furniture. It’s hard work, but the result is a freshened mind. Returning to daily life, you to try to maintain the practice. But all that you can muster in the bustle of ordinary being is a bit of dusting and hoovering. Once in a while you sweep behind the couch. But moving the refrigerator or the stove? Forget it. When the grime piles up, it’s time to return. My last course was in the summer of 2014. It was time.
On arrival I signed up and ate a light meal with the other students. We were shown around the newly-transformed meditation centre and settled into our rooms. During these preliminary proceedings the eyes of the new students darted around eagerly, if a bit warily. Some of them asked me questions, and I answered plainly, though a little obliquely. At this point, it’s no use going into a lot of details. I tried to set them at ease, though I was a bit anxious myself. Each course is different, because your experience depends on what you bring along with you in your mind and body. At least I knew the broad outlines of what to expect, and for that reason, above all, I was eager.
I changed into some comfortable clothes and headed back into the dining room. We had, by then, been separated by gender. People find this quaint, but it’s intended to reduce distractions. The mind will play many tricks on you during the course — and sexual thoughts are well-known to meditators. The gender division doesn’t help everyone, but the intention is well-meaning.
When the gong struck I headed into the meditation hall with my cushion and blanket. I only need one of each for the moment, but over the following days I’ll be bringing more pillows and another blanket into the hall. I’ll be adapting to the varying temperature of the hall, as well as tweaking my sitting posture to prevent strain.
We sat facing the teacher — the assistant teacher, as they are called. Then S. N. Goenka, who passed away in 2013, joined us by way of an audio recording. During the course he provides occasional instructions throughout the day and a lengthy discourse each evening.
But the first thing Goenka does on that first sitting, without so much as a hello, is to chant. On my first course, his voice had stunned me. I hadn’t heard anything like it before. It’s hoarse and bubbly at the same time, like the inane mutterings of a baby which is somehow also ancient. I had thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” But I trusted the person who had suggested to take the course and stuck it out. Faith is funny like that. Soon I got used to the chanting and even became fond of it. On the sixth or seventh day it finally dawned on me that it’s intended to stir up good vibrations. And I do mean that literally.
After the chant we made a formal request to be taught the technique and then pledged to follow the code of behaviour during our stay. Initial instructions were provided for the benefit of the new students. We filed out of the hall in a silence as astonishing as the bustle that had preceded it. I went to my room and slipped under the covers of my bed. For the next ten days we would all be, in effect, nuns and monks.
Every aspect of the course is designed to benefit the students. It may not seem so at first, but even the apparent strictness stems from compassion. Meditation is hard work and the rules are there to reduce friction as much as possible. The more I realised this during my first course, the easier everything became. Now, I look forward to the discipline.
First of all we observed noble silence. Students are not allowed to communicate with each other. Not only by voice, but also by gestures or glances. The only people you are allowed to talk to are the assistant teachers, about matters pertaining to the technique, and a designated manager, one for each of the genders, who can address any practical issues that may arise.
When I talk to folks about Vipassana, this is the point that always intimidates them. Being silent is the easy part. It’s the meditating for ten hours that’s hard. Though even that is not as hard as you’d imagine.
Being disconnected from family, friends, coworkers and all of the internet; having no communication except with the teachers and to the manager; with no writing material at hand and nothing to read; with only a delimited area to walk around in; having only minimal inputs from outside your own body and those strictly relating to the practice and to the theory behind it; being, in short, as alone as it is humanly possible to be with others, you find that the mind — that constantly chattering mind — partly through effort, and partly through exhaustion, at last calms down.
The mind never ceases to think thoughts, in the same way that the nose cannot cease to smell or the ears to hear. The mind thinks. That’s what it does. But there is such a difference between a mind that is calm and one that is agitated. A traditional metaphor describes the mind as a glass with muddy water:
As long as we keep stirring the water, it will stay opaque and cloudy. But if we have the patience to simply wait, the mud will eventually settle at the bottom of the glass, leaving clear pure water above1.
For nine days I woke up at four in the morning and slept at nine-thirty in the evening. Each day there were over ten hours of formal meditation, punctuated by two meals and some rest periods. At seven in the evening Goenka discoursed on the Buddhist theory which underpinned the part of the technique taught earlier that day.
The Vipassana technique is not a trade secret, but to prevent misunderstanding it is only taught at ten-day courses. The organisers claim that this is the minimum amount of time required to adequately impart the technique. They’re quite optimistic. They cram a lot of material in those ten days, including a complete description of the technique. But important nuances are revealed only through daily practice and repeated course attendance. Especially if you’re as daft as I am.
For new students, each day adds a new piece of the technique, but for old students the structure of the course is much simpler.
For the first three days we concentrate the mind by focusing awareness on our breathing (ānāpāna meditation). On the fourth day, we switch to vipassanā meditation and for the next six days try to cultivate equanimity by focusing our awareness on bodily sensations. Equanimity in this context is a technical term meaning non-reactiveness in the face of the impermanent nature of reality. Finally, on the tenth day, we also practice loving-kindness (mettā bhāvanā) meditation by filling our mind and body with thoughts and feelings of goodwill for all ourselves and all beings.
In between formal sittings, old students are urged to maintain the continuity of awareness from moment to moment. When we are walking or eating or whatever we happen to be doing, we anchor ourselves to the present by observing either our breathing or the sensations on our bodies. This is different from other mindfulness techniques which may also incorporate awareness of external reality.
New students aren’t included in this exhortation to maintain continuous awareness until the two-thirds through the course. So everything happens at two speeds. When the gong sounds for lunch, the old students move about unhurriedly, taking their time to find their slippers outside the meditation hall, getting their plates and utensils from their room without rushing and patiently waiting their turn to serve themselves at the table. By contrast, the new students dash out of the hall the second the gong strikes, they run up to their rooms two steps at a time to fetch their plates, only to meet the old students ambling up the stairs. The new students wait for them to pass, wondering in exasperation why the old students are shambling about.
On the tenth day, when loving-kindness meditation is taught, the silence — “noble silence”, as it’s called — is lifted and is replaced by chattering. “Noble” chattering, but still. Any thought of serious meditation went out the window as I discovered the joy of wagging that small but powerful muscle in my mouth until it was sore with talking.
On the eleventh day, after staying on to assist with transforming our meditation centre back into a hotel, I made my way home.
During the course I shared a room with a new student. When possible, new students are paired with old ones, in order to have a model of appropriate behaviour. On the last day, when he was a new student no longer and we spoke to each other for the first time in nine days, he asked me if there was one word that encapsulated the course for me. I told him there wasn’t, that it was more complicated than that. But in subsequent days I found that a lot of my takeaways from the course were coalescing around the notion of doubt.
Doubt (vicikicchā) is one of the five hindrances of meditation, which include such wily enemies as drowsiness and worry.
Finally, a great enemy is doubt, either about the teacher, or about the technique, or about one’s ability to practise it. Blind acceptance is not beneficial, but neither is endless unreasoning doubt. So long as you, remain immersed in doubts, you cannot take even one step on the path.2
I have no doubts about Vipassana or about Goenka. Even Goenka’s straight-faced acceptance of some of Buddhism’s pseudo-science is more quaint than unnerving, and he makes up for it with a wealth of insight courtesy of Buddhist psychology.
The doubt that rankled me all through the course was about whether I was practising well. At least, that’s what it seemed like at first.
Although audio recordings of Goenka handle the bulk of explaining the technique, the courses are staffed by one or more assistant teachers. These individuals — typically a man and a woman — have survived vigorous training in Vipassana and are available to steer students back to the right path. Meeting with the teachers is optional. But while I always arrive to courses with the intention of not speaking at all for the nine days, I’ve always found it more helpful to clarify any questions that come up.
For example, on the fifth day I was having trouble with awareness of sensations on some parts of my body. I felt that I wasn’t working correctly and visited the teacher to ask for advices. While explaining my experience, I accidentally revealed the source of my trouble.
“When I try to see the sensations…” I said at some point.
“Not see,” she said. “Feel.”
And that was all she needed to say. I had fallen into the trap of visualising my body instead of feeling it. When I went back to my cushion it was easier to work with the misty areas that had troubled me.
But the next day I returned to the teacher with another problem. She helped me resolve that as well. Just as I was about to ask about another difficulty, a bell rang to signal the end of my allotted time. I thanked her and got up to leave.
“Don’t think it’s easy for anyone else,” she said. “I can see the heads of some students loll as they fall asleep. Others get lost in their thoughts and struggle to reclaim the present. Your enemy is doubt.”
This assertion puzzled me, because I had been making mistakes in technique that could be corrected. But those were not the only problems that plagued me. A panoply of worries kept distracting me. Over the coming days I looked at each of them as they reared up and underneath them all found that I was not, as I had thought, doubting my technique or my abilities. Something subtler was going on.
In Vipassana you don’t strive to make anything special happen. You merely observe what is already there. Your breathing may be deep or shallow, fast or slow. Sensations may be pleasant or unpleasant, intense or feeble. All you do is observe. In so doing, you practice equanimity. Little by little, over many years and countless hours, you learn not to be ruffled by what is happening, whatever that may be.
But because mind and body are bound together, when the mind is sharp and well-balanced it is likely that pleasant sensations will prevail on the body. Therefore, if I was experiencing feeble or unpleasant sensations it could only mean that either I was not as equanimous as I thought, or there was some error in my technique.
I was not a new student wallowing in ignorance. Nor one of those old students who keep taking meditation courses, but never practice in their daily life. I was not, admittedly, as stable as some old students who were like statues well into the evening. But given the conducive environment of the course, how could I not be equanimous? Therefore, I reasoned, I must be making a mistake somewhere. All I had to do was fix this one little thing and everything would unfold easily from then on.
But such vain thoughts are exactly what throws a mind out of balance. My doubts about my technique arose because my experience was not what I thought it should be. In other words, I disbelieved my experience because I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t as skilful as I thought I was.
When I first started meditating daily about three years ago, my mind would rebel by reminding me of something (anything) that I needed to do. About ten minutes in I was often struck by the idea that the hot water was on, for example, regardless of whether I’d left it on or not. There was nothing to do but keep working and eventually such trivial distractions faded away. But with time my mind’s tricks have gotten subtler: now the meditation technique itself was twisted into an obstacle.
Doubt in this context has a limited, technical meaning. But after returning from the course I realised that this “great enemy” appears in other areas of my life as well.
Let’s say I’m trying to accomplish something and it turns out to be more difficult than I expected. A practical approach would be to redouble my efforts and muddle on, eventually attaining the skill to overcome the difficulty. Instead, a doubt arises about how to approach the problem itself. I flatter myself into thinking, “I’m good at this. If I’m struggling, it’s because of some glitch. It can’t be because I’m not good enough. I just have to figure out this thing I’m not quite doing right. It can’t be but a small thing…”
Just as with meditation, I start looking for a detour to avoid the hard slog of practising. But as I’ve written about in the context of writing, deliberative practice — to say nothing of ambitious work — is a purposeful struggle. The mind will conjure up all sorts of excuses to avoid this struggle, including flattering my ego in order to lead me astray from that messy middle where I’d have to stretch and figure out new things.
Faced with designing some complicated web content, I might go looking for a fancy CSS framework. When working on a novel I might spend more time outlining than writing. Other unproductive behaviours I’ve noted include inordinate research, being over-critical and self-defeating perfectionism. This pattern even crops up in tricky interpersonal situations.
After the fact, it’s easy to see that see this as merely my ego huffing and puffing because I’m not as skilful as I’d like to be. But when I’m in it, it’s hard to see through the deception.
Back in January I wrote that “the surest sign of trouble is freedom from doubt, lack of fear”. Doubt is a strong signal that something important is happening. We are not confronted with doubts about trivial matters. But just as real fear energises you to face the situation, real doubt demands that you clarify the uncertainty, not avoid it. If the doubt sends you on a tangent, it’s suspicious. I’ve tried being on the lookout for such wily doubts, but no amount of intellectualising can rouse me when I’m deceived.
Two approaches suggest themselves. The high-minded way is to become more resilient to such doubts by deflating the ego more and more. With less self-importance, it’s harder to flatter that self. But cultivating humility, while admirable, sounds a lot like a tangent when there is work at hand to do.3 The other, more practical, approach is to preempt the doubt.
The recommended dose for a Vipassana meditator is to sit for two hours, morning and evening. Given my other obligations, I’ve been unable to practice so much. Before I went to the course I was meditating once a day for about thirty minutes. On returning I had a straight-forward plan: to carve out one, whole, non-negotiable hour to sit each morning. Except in the case of travel, everything else will give way to this sitting. I will stay up late or wake up early. I will cancel or be late for things. Nothing else will be more important. As you might expect, they have a fancy name for this in in Buddhism. It’s called “strong determination” (adhitthāna).
On the fourth day of the course, when we switch to Vipassana proper, another aspect is also introduced: the adhitthana sittings. Three times a day, you are instructed to sit for one hour with the strong determination not to change your posture or open the eyes. The first time I tried this, I felt as though my feet were on fire and my face was melting. After the hour elapsed and I got up, these sensations instantly ceased. The mind is funny like that. It loves to throw a tantrum. Sitting adhitthana gets easier with practice, though it never becomes easy, which is part of the point. The goal is not to torture yourself. It’s to learn to be equanimous, even if only for a few moments, during difficult situations.
When you show up to Vipassana seminar, you are asked to make the strong determination that you will stay for the whole ten days. After you have completed the course, you are asked to make the strong determination that you will practice twice a day. (Which, as I’ve noted, I haven’t been able to do.) All these commitments are forms of adhitthana. When you’re meditating you don’t have to sit adhitthana – that is, without changing your posture – every time, but sitting daily is adhitthana.
More broadly, adhitthana is to decide in advance what you’ll do when the going gets tough. Before I came back from the seminar I was trying to sit for at least half-an-hour each day. So I sat for exactly half-an-hour, since I could get up at that point without feeling like I’d let myself down. Now I don’t give myself any wiggle room. I sit for an hour. It takes more time, but it’s not more difficult. When I get bored, or anxious, or sleepy, or joyful, and especially when doubts about whether I’m working correctly arise, I just stay on my cushion until the time is up. Adhitthana is deciding you’ll be the best version of yourself and not selling yourself short.
The story goes that when the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, he made the strong determination to stay seated until he achieved enlightenment.
Skin, sinew and bone may dry up as it will; my flesh and blood may dry in my body, but without attaining complete enlightenment I will not leave this seat.4
I don’t suggest this particular approach, but the principle is instructive. Psychologists Baumeister & Tierney refer to it as “precommitment”.
Precommitment helps you avoid … the common failure to appreciate, in moments of cool deliberation, how different you’ll feel in the heat of later moments.5
In situations where I know that I’m prone to doubt and vulnerable to avoiding the hard work to come, I’ve began to counter with the strong determination to work until a certain amount of time, or some other objective measure. I’ve tried this outside of meditation – in my professional work, personal projects, relationships, and even in finishing this post. It’s a productive approach, as long as I have the humility to note the danger in advance, which isn’t always the case.
In my blog’s first post I quoted the spurious Wordsworth quote, “To begin, begin.” The question about how to keep going has been haunting me ever since. It might just be, “To keep going, keep going.”
Or, as Goenka likes to say, “Start again. Start with a calm and quiet mind.”
Mark Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal & Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (2007). ↩
S.N. Goenka, 10-Day Course Discourses, Day 6. ↩
If you happen to have some children around, I have it on good authority that they are excellent deflaters of egos.
Jon Kabat-Zinn calls young children “live-in Zen masters” who “teach us to accept things as they are, and then respond appropriately rather than react mindlessly – because things are already as they are.”
Another sage, Louis C.K., has said that “the greatest thing about having a child is putting yourself second in your own life. It’s a massive gift to be able to say that you’re not the most important person to yourself.” ↩
Walter Henry Nelson, Buddha: His Life and His Teaching (2008). ↩
Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength (2011). ↩
Photos of sunset and the meditation hall by Alexandros A. [CC0].