Three years ago, I signed up for a silent meditation retreat called a vipassana. For ten days, I shared a room with four other guys, went without speaking to anyone, meditated for about ten hours a day, and ate just two daily meals. I did it for the same reason I went to Afghanistan during “fighting season,” spent a summer on a fishing trawler in the North Sea, and lived off nothing but ayahuasca for a week—I thought it would make a good VICE article.
I hated that vipassana and if I'd had cell reception in the Italian mountains where I did it (I cheated by sneaking my phone in) I'd have called a friend to come rescue me. But when it was all over, much like high school and dating a toxic person, I felt pretty amazing.
No shit, you might say, you get to eat properly again, you get to jerk off again (they ask you to refrain) and, most importantly, you get to talk again. But beyond the relief of having my old life back, I also noticed subtle—yet positive—changes in how I perceived the world. And I guess that's why I've signed up for five more vipassanas since then. There are about 200 centers around the world, each offering the exact same course in different languages with slightly different food. I did my most recent ones in Australia, Germany, Ireland, and California.
The benefits of meditation, from making you happier to managing disease, are pretty well documented and scientifically supported. A vipassana gives you ten long days of silence, which, in itself, could be beneficial because high levels of noise pollution have a direct effect on the health of our cardiovascular systems and are associated with depression and anxiety. For me, in silence, I feel a stillness in my body, an awareness of my movements and, as noise-induced anxiety switches off, my appreciation for the visual beauty of the world around me switches on.
At a spiritual level, vipassana, which comes from the Pali word meaning to see things as they really are, is intended as a way of purifying the mind of all defilements. If that language sounds a little Spanish Inquisition-y, I get it, but by "defilements" they mean negative thoughts, neurosis, anxiety and depression. Some people sit a vipassana once, feel satisfied that they got through the ordeal, and then don’t notice any great change in their life. Some people run away on day three dismissing it as a cult, which when you consider the rules, the ancient liturgical language, and the videos you watch every night of the (now deceased) Burmese teacher who brought vipassana to the West, it's hard to argue against. But for me it was very different. After my first vipassana, I quit smoking. After my second, I quit booze. After my third, I made peace with my dad. I didn't have to work at these things, the desire to smoke and drink just went away, along with the desire to stay pissed at pops. Five vipassanas in, I'm not saying I've become perfect—far from it—but I have noticed that my behavior has changed in a way that suggests vipassana has actually reconfigured my brain a bit.
Richard Davidson is professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin who has studied vipassana. He describes what happens during those ten days as a kind of “rewiring”.
Vipassana is a type of mental training that Davidson says gives you “The wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, note that it is an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss."
During a ten day course, you learn two types of meditation: fixed attention and open monitoring. When your mind is concentrated—and when you’re not talking or looking at a phone, you’d be amazed how sharp it gets—you begin mentally scanning your entire body and observing the sensations that come and go without moving or reacting. It's tediously difficult because, even with a sharp mind, your thoughts still take you away to other places or you want to react to the pain in your body that comes from sitting cross-legged all day. This is just the loopy habit pattern of the mind. But slowly—and from my experience nothing happens quickly at a vipassana—your mind and body start to comply, and this compliance, this arduous changing of habits, has had repercussions in almost every area of my life. It’s created a kind of buffer between things happening and me reacting, and over time and with continuous practice, the buffer has become stronger.
It’s a matter of perspective, I think. That mental training has allowed me to see things more clearly, and maybe with a little more gratitude. You can either freak out because you have to stand in line a few more minutes, or realize that you’re standing on a scaffold of bones, breathing through air sacs made of tissue and making sense of it all with a brain so vast it could potentially house the entire Internet.
Studies of vipassana use electroencephalograms (those swimmer cap things with the electrodes attached) to measure brain activity. Specifically, they measure gamma waves, the messengers between the neurons. Vipassana meditators exhibit a very rare occurrence: extremely high gamma wave synchrony. It feels like all your cylinders are firing at once, or as David Dobbs described it beautifully in the Scientific American, “like numerous ropes turning precisely together.” Davidson has found that emotionally stronger people, that is those who bounce back from bad news rather than dip into depression and anxiety, have stronger gamma wave connections between the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdalae. Weaker people, he found, have fewer signals between the PFC and the amygdalae. Vipassana, he surmised, could help rebuild and strengthen those connections.
Perhaps because of this, there are times when I meditate and it feels like my whole head's full of tiny bees singing Enya.
At a personal level, I came to vipassana as an anxiety-prone young man, depressed and unable to even make simple decisions without some great internal anguish. I had a bad habit of leaving the house to do something only to turn back half way. I drank heaps more than I should have. I often found myself in a ball on the carpet, etc. etc. Vipassana and daily meditation nipped a lot of that in the bud. Compared to therapy, which I’ve done a bit of, and psychedelics, which I’ve done a lot of, there’s nothing can really compare to ten days of trying, and failing, and trying again to keep your mind focused for longer than a minute.
I’ve taken iboga and felt bigger than god, but vipassana is a very humbling experience. It’s hard work and it forces you to draw on deep reserves of will. Every hour-long meditation session is an epic battle between determination and quitting. It’s boring as hell. But surprisingly, the drop-out rate is about two out of every one hundred students. The only fee they ask for is whatever you can donate, and the folks cooking, cleaning and waking you up at 4 AM are all past-students, volunteering.
Teachers of vipassana call it 'the art of living', but while you're sitting there with your ass bones raw, your belly empty and your mind skimming through memory catalogues at warp speed, you think maybe the art they're referring to is The Garden of Earthly Delights. Sitting a vipassana is incredibly hard work and I totally understand why many people might say it's not for them. But if like me, you spent most of your life living with a mind full of negativity, bad habits, anxiety, fears, indecision and traumas, then ten days of silence, wishing your butt was five times bigger to cushion all that sitting, is mercifully brief in comparison.
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