My Vipassana experience part 1: How meditation is related to language learning
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Hello 2020! New decade, new life, new mind. Yeah baby, I'm all about new beginnings.
I was thinking I should actually write a catchier title for this post. Something like:
"The Vipassana wonder: This decade, find your inner peace!
I found inner peace and you can do it too. Hurry before the decade ends. Limited offer.
You too deserve to be happy!"
This idea, however, didn't make it to the title. Almost. Anyway, come on, let's start the post.
Hello everyone, today I am going to write about how my Vipassana meditation retreat was.
If you only have less than a minute and would like to know the main and ultimate conclusion, here it goes for you: "This too shall pass." Thanks for reading! Bye :)
For those who decide to bear with me for a little longer, here goes the story of what I realized these days I spent in silence and isolation apart from the fact that my breathing pattern is totally messed up.
Let's start with the most evident facts:
- It is incredibly hard to become the master of your own mind.
- However, you are able to do much much more than you (initially) think!
- Digital detox is such a blessing!
- We start appreciating things so much more once we don't have them and don't take them for granted (examples: food, comfort, freedom of any kind...). Yes, this is one of the greatest truths!
- When something is not obligatory: we do it with more passion; in fact we do it, own it and feel proud of ourselves (as opposed to obligatory, think of your school days for example).
- Peace is there within, we just have to find the right means to start moving towards it.
- FOOD! We can have less of it and enjoy more. Quality above quantity!
- Multitasking is actually not a good skill, it is healthier to do one thing at a time.
- Fear can be paralyzing and fear of uncertainty can be very dangerous.
I understood all these things at an experiential level, which is very different from the mere intellectual level of understanding. The point is, if you haven't expreienced something yourself, anyone can tell you anything, you won't really understand what the person is talking about... consequently you won't really care.
At this point I think I should explain what this kind of 10-day Vipassana course is about:
A strict daily schedule, 10 hours of meditation a day, complete silence, slowing down, no contact with other students, no contact with the outside world, only you and your mind that you are constantly trying to train. Or tame (as you would do with a wild aninal). You fight your own battles and don't compare yourself to others. You don't get distracted by your phone, so you learn and practice to focus. Focus inward, learn to see what's happening inside you. On the physical and on the emotional level too.
We started the first few days by paying attention to the breath, then later narrowing it down, focusing on smaller details day by day, sharpening the mind. Why? What is it good for?
Well. Can you focus on your breath for 30 seconds? Just try! And can you feel the difference of the temperature of air that enters and exits your nostrils? Of course (not)!
The whole point is that you start controlling your mind and don't let it control you. By sharpening it and learning to focus, eventually you learn to switch it off and you don't get carried away by thoughts. You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts come and go. Still, most of the time they control how you feel. And too many times you feel stressed. But why? If you can also be relaxed and calm. And peaceful. Not subject to thoughts and feelings. Yes, that IS possible. You just have to work hard enough to achieve it. But it is so worth it! Once you do achieve it, now THAT is a wonderful state of mind.
By spending days & days in almost complete silence and focusing your attention on your bodily functions and sensations for so long, you also become a superhuman with the sharpest senses and can surprisingly easily notice things like the temperature of the air that enters and exits your nostrils. Also, you can feel your heartbeat, the anxiety building up in your chest, or even notice your left/right brain working... The sense of smell becomes magnified as well, every time you smell something, it really hits you. It is all so crazy, incredible, surprising.
Later on, more challenging tasks are added to the course. From the 4th day on, the "hour of strong determination" is also introduced. Their idea of strong determination is you sitting in the same position without moving while meditating for an hour. Three times a day. You don't care about pain, itching, body parts going numb, basically anything unpleasant or uncomfortable. You are determined to sit and not be bothered by these temporary sensations. They all shall pass.
And once you start grasping the approach and eventually make it yours, a whole new perspective on life, pain, suffering and being at peace opens up. It is actually really hard to explain. You basically become much more peaceful, humble, understanding, compassionate, less stressed and even less ambitious. You realize you are happy with what you already have and don't really need more. And what you are not happy with a.k.a. your myseries, you can work on getting rid of. In a peaceful and relaxed way. Whoa. Does that make sense now?
As they mention several times, the Vipassana course doesn't teach you blind/ignorant optimism, it teaches you "workism". You do have to work on getting rid of your sufferings, or myseries as they call them. My interpretation of this kind of philosophy is: if something is enjoyable, enjoy it while it lasts, but do not cling to it, be able to let it go gracefully, do not wish it lasted forever. Also don't want what you don't have. Don't wish for something different. Real happiness is not having what you want but wanting what you have. Oh I've heard this kind of motivational quotes so many times! And now I've experienced on my own skin that it is so true! Very different from just hearing it, may it be a 100 times.
An example: I am a big fan of watching sunsets. If one day I miss a sunset due to heavy traffic on the way for example, I feel sad. And even if I see it, many times I wish it lasted longer. But hey! Actually I can simply enjoy when I am able to witness it and just as long as it lasts. Simple as that. No more FOMO!
Below my thoughts on how learning to meditate is related to language learning
(or learning any other new skill in fact) :
Learning to meditate is a lesson in patience. Many times I felt like it was a new sport. One I was really bad at initially. But I kept trying, didn't get discouraged by the hardships at the beginning, and later I did get my rewards. (But we'll get to that later)
As with any new habit we start in our lives, first we need to get used to it and then we'll keep getting better & better. It all boils down to our patience, our persistence, and the fact that we need to find it interesting and enjoyable enough to keep going.
So in the case of Vipassana I often thought to myself: Nobody was born with the talent of sitting for hours without moving. All these monks have practiced a LOT. Yes, there were real monks (and nuns!) at my course. The ones with orange (or brown) robes, shaved heads and an approach like a pro. Whenever I felt I couldn't do this, I thought of them. Or of the 13-14 year old girls and the 70-80 year old grandmas who I was surrounded with. Or the gorgeous pregnant lady. If they can all do it, sure I can do it too!
When you take the challenge and start learning a new language (or take up a new sport or start to meditate), after putting in some effort, quite quickly you start feeling a sense of success. You feel it is relatively easy and rewarding. Then after another while, as the learning curve most probably gets flatter, frustration starts. How do we actually get over this phase? That's the eternal question ;)
First of all, making a mountain out of a molehill is never useful, yet we do it SO many times.
We take failures so personally, and make things more difficult for ourselves by creating worries, complexes and fears. If we encounter some difficulties on the way, like other people don't understand us immediately when we try to speak their language, we start watching a movie in another language but don't understand most of it for the first time, try to read a book or an article but it seems it's written in some alien language... what do we do? Of course, we say it's too difficult, we are simply not good at languages, we might just do it some other time, so we basically give up and find excuses.
So what works? In my honest opinion, based on so many cases of my students and my own experience as well:
+ trying to keep a positive approach no matter what is the most important factor
+ not giving up, being able to persevere: if for whatever reason it is important to you to learn the language (/sport/skill/...)
+ for this you need to realize and make it clear to yourself that you are actually able to make the most of it
+ you can invent your own way of learning, explore how you can enjoy the process, try different methods, see what works and what doesn't and keep the enjoyable ones, noone else can do this for you, only you
+ taking enough breaks is crucial, never exhaust yourself too much, as it will take your motivation away
+ challenging yourself while learning, always being a little more strict with yourself than what would be comfortable, this way you are making an effort but still enjoying, it keeps being a challenge, but not a huge and discouraging one
Picture it like this: you are learning to swim. At first, there are only some seconds when your head is above the water, then they become minutes, hours, etc. At first you are mostly underwater, then you slowly learn to float, and later to swim. And then it just feels wonderful.
And let me repeat it once again: APPROACH is everything! You may have the best books/apps/teachers and your teacher can also do his/her best, as long as you see it all as an enormous obstacle, something that scares or paralyzes you and you can't find the way to make it enjoyable for yourself, you are not going to succeed.
So my advice is: find/invent your way/method/process/path & go on it, and ENJOY the process!
If you have trouble starting something new and persevering through the process, I would suggest you try to create a new habit by first attending an "extreme" event that gets you out of your habitual life, routine, (I am not going to call it comfort zone, hope that's all right) such as an intensive language course, a training, a meditation retreat... :) It might just be more easy and effective for you. At least it's worth a try, isn't it?
I believe everyone needs to experience by themselves how important approach is. It is not enough that you only hear/read about it. Then again comes the how to question :D
While I was at the course, I had to obey several rules. Too many in fact. Really hard for people like me who are mostly used to working and living based on their own rules.
So I cheated in 3 things:
-Even though we had to hand in to the management anything we could use for writing, I kept a pen with me and wrote a diary (or better said: I jotted down some thoughts and observations on toilet paper secretly in my room) Why? Because I am a wise ass and also for the sake of the future of humanity, I might help them survive with my notes, you know...
-I daydreamed way more than I should probably have
-I skipped morning meditation (4:30-6:30). I did try to do it at the beginning but I soon realized it was totally useless. I work smart, not hard, you see. Rather than putting in so many hours, I believe in using time in a more valuable way...
Goenka, the father and mother, the heart and soul and all else of this technique and this meditation retreat "chain" has certainly not heard of the Pomo d'oro technique or any other time management method for that matter. At this retreat you are supposed to meditate 10 hours a day and he keeps repeating that you better make most of the time you spend at the meditation centre, you should be patient, persistent and diligent. So he definitely creates the feeling of guit in one when he/she skips a few hours. For me, 8 hours of meditation a day was perfectly enough, mostly even more than enough. Many times I thought this guy was mad, he was definitely exaggerating...
However, it is funny how all those videos & acticles are about surviving Vipassana, and how you should prepare for it. And so many people say that it was one of the most difficult experiences of their lives. Why? Because of the 10 hours of daily focus? Are we all such pussies? Really?
In general, Asians bear much more than Westerners. And their approach is so different. With all its pros and cons, of course. In any case, we could definitely learn so much from them.
Let me just finish this post with a little story. At some point I thought I was crazier than the rest and as I could not talk to anyone or google anything in this isolated situation, I was going even crazier due to this thought. So I decided to ask the teacher. Our skinny, pale, super-enlightened, always smiling buddhist teacher. I felt that my mind was often doing two things at the same time. And it was not the first time, it had happened many times when I was trying to sleep, that I was thinking and singing a song or counting breaths or doing something monotonous at the same time. As if in my mind I had two wild animals to tame. It might be the consequence of multitasking so much. Or I might just be simply crazy. So I told the teacher I was concerned about this. The short Asian man just smiled and answered: "Don't worry, it is normal. It is like when you are watching TV and trying to read a book at the same time. You can't concentrate on both. When you are focusing on meditation, just try to ignore the TV and only pay attention to the book." He also added: "Whenever you feel you can't do something, just smile and try again."
Sounded convincing to me, so that's what I have been trying to practice ever since. And I recommend you do the same ;)
Also, stay tuned, the second part of my Vipassana story is coming soon! ;)