A handy story and an updated version of the dowdy “this too shall pass.”Read More
“how long did it take you to feel like you’d made some headway with meditation?” - friend of julia
i love this question, which came via text few weeks ago. when i received it i laughed out loud. that’s right, a literal LOL. OMG.
because my response is two words long: beats me!
who says i’ve made any progress? all i know for sure is hunting for a rate of return on your meditation practice is futile and frustrating. what you “get out of” meditation changes all the time, as i discussed here. sometimes it feels like nothing, other times there’s a lovely, relaxing space between your thoughts afterward.
if you want to go deeper and start a routine, try a meditation class. by default it’ll give you proper technique, fellow practitioners to befriend, and the habit of actually meditating regularly, which is crucial.
i remember chatting with a woman at the end of vipassana. she’s in her late 30s but has been meditating half her life and takes courses all over the world. i was saucer-eyed in front of her, like, “what next, guru? what can i expect?”
she said as you progress in meditation, the challenges become greater but so do the fruits. you reach a point where it’s irrelevant if your leg falls asleep because the “flavor of the fruits,” if you will, moves from physical, to mental, then emotional, and finally to the spiritual realms.
i trust her. and i trust how calm long-term meditators are. you can't fake that forever.
but i also like this question for the undercurrent of expectation it includes.
i struggle a lot with creating expectations, hoping they’ll be met, then feeling shocked, angered, and disappointed when they aren’t. it’s a ridiculous process, probably the mental equivalent of a dog chasing its tail. stop it, already!
in a sense, expectation is a lot like comparison, since it robs us of the present moment and moves the finish line another 10 miles away.
vipassana revealed how automatically i form expectations, so i searched for an antonym of “expectation” to think of when i catch myself jumping ahead. but interestingly, there isn’t an exact opposite. the best i found are these antonyms of “expect": carry on, continue, go, move.
“carry on” is my favorite.
ironically, your best bet for both issues is to continue meditating. over time, meditation will become a tool providing you the awareness to catch yourself forming expectations and the discipline to re-route your thoughts.
here’s a song about carrying on. i think. i really have no idea what kishi bashi is saying but “carry on” is in the title, so it’s probably relevant.
"carry on phenomenon" from the "lighght" album, from joyful noise recordings, via youtube:
i remember arriving at the vipassana center and discovering i had a roommate. i truly did not want one. in fact, before turning in my electronics,
sharing a room was one of the roughly 479 vipassana-related issues i cried about on the phone to a friend.
i knew it was a possibility and i could have requested a single, but i didn’t want to go into vipassana making a fuss. i wanted to let things take their course. if i’m supposed to have a roommate i’ll have one. if not, no. it was quaint, zen concept, but increasingly difficult to stick with as the course drew nearer.
“roommate?” i asked, dazed, interrupting the volunteer’s orientation. she pointed to the dormitory map featuring two little beds in the room to which i was assigned. then i couldn’t process anything else.
you know how people say after hearing bad news their senses shut down and noises turn to buzzing? it was precisely like this for me. of course, those people are generally referring to devastating, life-altering information, but to me, in that moment, this qualified.
but i knew i was being spoken to and to avoid crying before the course even began, i focused on smiling and nodding as if i understood everything she said.
why, for the love of God, would i, or anyone on earth want to live in silence with a stranger for 10 days? why didn’t i protect myself from this? i wondered as i trudged through the freezing desert to my room.
in one of my pre-vipassana posts i wrote, “i’ll feel better once i see where i’m sleeping.” did any of you really believe it would end there? not me!
never, because even before i saw my bed my mind was shifting forward.
now i need to see who this roommate character is. then we can begin.
i saw this happen. i practically watched my mind leap ahead in space.
but, and this is crucial, instead of letting my imagination run wild, i almost laughed.
then what, Julia? you’ll require a pony? and after that? it never ends. if you follow those thoughts and live in the future your mind will lead you down a path as complex as the route the marble takes in the most impossible-to-assemble, let alone play, 90s board game, mousetrap.
so yes, don't get caught, but don't even play the game. learn to notice the mental maze and leap over it entirely.
as a side note, my vipassana roommate is fantastic. we hit it off before noble silence began, survived like champs, and have gone hiking together since returning to LA. which, in the hierarchy of los angeles friendship activities, is pretty high on the totem pole. because while everyone goes hiking, you don’t go hiking just with anyone.
thanks for your emailed questions! a lot of you asked the same things, so here’s a q&a addressing what you’d most like to know about my vipassana experience.
how was 10 days of silence? not as bad as it sounds. it isn’t like you’re sitting in your house, unable to speak. everything is completely different anyway. for example: i was in a dorm with a roommate and a bathroom shared with about 16 other women. i was only eating two meals a day, plus “tea time” at 5 pm (more on that later). in short, it quickly becomes the least of your problems.
besides, what would we have talked about? how uncomfortable we were? how angry we were for voluntarily doing this? how our meditation practices measured up?
but on day 6 i really wanted to run up to someone, anyone, and yell, “this is fucking hard!” in this fantasy, i didn’t require a response, nor would i say anything else. just getting that off my chest would have been enough.
weren’t you starving? surprisingly, no. but i definitely planned what i’d eat during meditations immediately preceding meals. one fake hardship i overcame was desert. its inclusion in the lunch menu followed no discernable pattern!
dinner/total non-dinner was a 5 p.m. “tea time” of fruit and tea. this was scary in the beginning because how much fruit can Julia eat in 30 minutes without choking to death, mauling anyone or appearing greedy?
answer? two. my little dinner was sliced banana and apple with cinnamon, honey, and rice milk. and i was sated. let me tell you, the Vipassana Starvation Diet ™ works. i can’t believe it hasn’t taken off here in LA.
how was talking again after 10 days? kinda gross. i took the first few minutes to silently congratulate myself for pulling it off then joined the others.
i wanted license to be a wild animal, conversationally, to interrupt and drag my roommate away from people to just catch up with her, since we’d hit it off before beginning noble silence. but i stayed polite. and it was ok, but i felt pulled out of myself and sometimes stuck in conversations i wanted to leave. i talked without really knowing, or considering, what i said.
did you have a favorite part? i liked my after breakfast walks. the sun was rising and it was brisk. traipsing along the walking path dressed like a polygamist homesteader (to meet the strict dress code), i’d check out the snow on the faraway mountains and brace myself for another day.
how’d you do it? admittedly, 10 days is a long time. and i can’t come up with great explanations about how i managed. early on i thought, “well, the 10th day doesn’t really count because it’s the last one, which means the 9th one is the real last one, so the 8th day is your last super-grueling, no-end-in-sight time.”
and the first few days i collected a small stone to represent making it through another day, but by the 4th day i forgot to find one, so maybe i didn’t need that reassurance after all. by the 5th day i was halfway there, and the rest of the time almost took care of itself. plus, i always looked forward to the evening discourses, since they addressed potential challenges and added levity.
i don’t want to sound like i wanted vipassana to end. it’s just that you never knew when the other emotional shoe would drop, when you’d sit down to meditate and deep, painful wounds would unexpectedly open.
my vipassana wasn’t the emotional evisceration for which i’d prepared myself. i didn’t feel fantastic during the process, but i wasn’t having a breakdown, either. i don’t know what that means and i’d rather not speculate.
to conclude, here are some recollections from certain days:
day 1: my mind was like satellite radio. the music just would not stop. “i’m not the only one” by sam smith was on heavy rotation, especially the lines, “i wish it would be over now” and “you say i’m crazy…”
day 4: when we learned the vipassana technique. the previous 3 days were all about that breath, to paraphrase meghan trainor.
and the first hour of vipassana was excruciating. my whole body hurt, like flames were searing through me. i wanted to cry but knew i wouldn’t. this was also the day when “a whole new world” from the 1994 Disney movie “Aladdin” became firmly lodged in my brain.
day 8: N.B. by now, "payphone" by maroon 5 was on repeat. it also turned out to be tantrum day! eventually and in their own special way, everyone reacts to vipassana. in the afternoon i was meditating standing up, which we were allowed to do when we felt sleepy. suddenly it dawned on me, “i don’t wanna do this any more!” and was on the verge of getting angry when i decided instead to use the technique to observe my thoughts.
all these great ideas came to mind, and ordinarily i’d scribble them in a notebook. but that was against the rules. i was so close to the end of the course i didn’t want to break an important rule now! but i also desperately wanted to remember these eight ideas.
i decided to gather a variety of stones as different as possible from one another and assign an epiphany to each. i gleefully went back to my room, where my roommate was meditating. and while the room was small enough for me to reach out and poke her, i left her alone and, quietly as possible, “memorized” the stones. i felt a little crazy, but 3 days later when i was allowed to write again and remembered all eight ideas, i felt like a genius.
vipassana ended sunday morning. i’m planning a three-part series about it, but to guide my writing, let me know what you’re curious about in the comments. or send me an email- email@example.com.
right now i’m in Palm Springs, chilling out, enjoying nature, reintroducing dark chocolate to my diet, and still not drinking alcohol. it’s been fantastic but alas, i’m heading back to LA tomorrow. i’m not sure how to do that.
i visited Joshua Tree National Park immediately after the course ended, to practice speaking and driving. here are some photos:
the weirdest thing about the place is the topography. the second weirdest thing is when you realize you’ve grown accustomed to it.
and yesterday i went to Coachella Valley Nature Preserve. it’s an oasis, both figuratively and literally, in Thousand Palms. not being Lawrence of Arabia, i never expected to visit such a place. it was really cool and i definitely pretended to be an explorer lost in the desert. here’s what that looked like:
“always look to see if anything that you are facing as a problem is a negative thing or a positive thing.
if it is a negative thing then don’t fight with it; don’t bother about it at all. just look for the positive of it, and you will be at the right door…before you face a problem, just look at it—is it an absence of something?
and the truth is that all your problems are the absence of something. once you have found what they are the absence of, then go after the positive.
the moment you find the positive you have found the light, and the darkness is finished.” - “being in love: how to love with awareness and relate without fear” by osho
part 3 of 3
as soon as i learned about vipassana—from a friend who’d just completed his second course—i wanted in. my first sentences after he explained the process were, “i want to do it. and i’m staying the whole time.” why on earth would i do this to myself? i’ll try to explain.
first, i’m inclined to trust gut reactions.
secondly, i liked the challenge, the purity, and the promise of liberation as long as i follow the rules.
third, it’s basically saying, “deal with your shit.” and who doesn’t need to do that? in the words of lauren hill, “how you gonna win if you ain’t right within?” the weight of carrying what no longer serves me is more of a burden than the energy it takes to let it go.
fourth, the timing is ideal. i cannot stand New Years. every time it rolls around people ask what i’m doing and i think, “noooooooo. can’t we fast forward through this part? catch up mid-month?”
not to get on a soap box, but it’s another commercialization of life—buy this dress, drink this cocktail at this party and then you’ll be happy. even if you don’t buy into that, i can’t live up to the perceived pressure to do something amazing or poignant. politely excusing myself from the whole affair and returning with an incredible experience under my belt once everyone’s settled down sounds ideal. so going dark is the best option. (and i get to call it “going dark,” so there’s that)
and yes, i realize if i were completely at ease with my decisions, i wouldn’t care that i don’t do anything incredible for New Years. maybe vipassana will help with that. in the mean time, i feel like, “oh, you’re going to Vegas for New Years? i hope you survive! i’m fixing my soul.”
that said, i don’t know what to expect. there will be a lot of hard work and discomfort, and maybe a breakthrough at some point. mostly i do not want to speculate or get attached to any outcome. i grilled my friend but he wouldn’t cooperate much, insisting i go with an open mind and see what happens. and he’s right, because if he told me he saw pink unicorns on the fifth day and i get there but no unicorns cometh, i’ll be extremely bummed, start judging my abilities, etc. therefore, i’m just going to show up and experience it completely. but i am also very, very nervous.