Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Why mindfulness and meditation became so popular? A lot of us in high-pressure corporate jobs feel stressed and overwhelmed with high demands. We develop anxiety, insomnia and even burnout. In this post I will share how I learnt to meditate and how it helped me to deal with all of the above.
When did we start to meditate?
Long before apps like Headspace, people have been looking for ways to eliminate suffering and lead happier lives. Buddha was not an exception. He, however, had most persistence of all in search for a universal tool to minimise suffering.
Having spent a lot of time under a tree, he discovered a technique called Vipassana - one of the oldest Buddhist meditation practices.
Meditation is known to cure insomnia, reduce anxiety and relive stress. With many of us suffering from stress and high-pressure at work, the popularity of Vipassana is growing faster than ever.
What is Vipassana meditation?
Vipassana teaches you to methodically observe your bodily sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant, and exercise equanimity. In other words, it teaches you how to not react to things with craving and aversion. Once you learn that - nothing will get you out of balance. Which means you can endure any kind of stress without anxiety or loosing your sleep.
You can learn Vipassana free of charge (although a charitable donation is expected upon the completion of the course) and get a lot of other benefits along the way.
To learn the technique, you must complete a 10-day course - in complete silence, with no contact to the outside world, following a very strict schedule.
Why Vipassana meditation is so effective?
I first heard about Vipassana from a colleague 5 years ago when I was looking to get more serious with my meditation practice. It sounded great, but 10 days of silence seemed scary.
I was hoping I could try it before signing up for a full 10-day course. But it appeared not to be an option. 10-days is a must and there is a very good reason for that. This is the minimum amount of time you need to learn the technique properly.
Vipassana works so well because you learn it through experience and not just on a theoretical level.
Have you ever touched a hot kettle? I bet you remember vividly how painful it was. And no one would make you touch one again. This is precisely why learning through experience is so powerful. And Vipassana is taught following the exact same logic – you must go through the experience, no short cuts.
My first Vipassana meditation course, or 10 days of crying
I did my first course at a meditation centre Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire, UK. I was going through a divorce and was desperate for anything that could help me deal with the pain.
In the western world we don’t like dealing with pain. Instead, we end up doing anything to avoid it.
In the long-run this approach is ineffective. When you distract yourself from the feelings instead of dealing with them, they bottle up and manifest later on in life in form of depression or insomnia.
The course is designed to leave you no space for distractions:
You are asked not to take anything with you apart from clothes and personal hygiene items.
You are fully cut off from the outside world - upon arrival, you leave your phone, earphones, Kindle, writing materials and anything else you might have, in the locker.
Men and women are segregated, and you only interact with people of your own sex.
Everyone is asked to dress modestly and not to interact with each other in any way, not just verbally.
All you do for 10 days is sleep, eat, meditate and take short walks in the dedicated area.
That is a lot of time with no distractions to deal with everything you haven’t dealt with in years. In those 10 days I went through a lot.
Childhood memories, dreams about the future, endless ‘to-do’ lists, past regrets, future hopes, things I must remember to Google when I get home, you name it.
It was shocking to realise how many unprocessed thoughts and feelings I had. I cried a lot, every day, few times a day.
It was agonising, but cathartic at the same time. Like pressing a ‘reset’ button on the phone. It’s annoying to wait while it restarts, but once it does, everything works perfectly again.
Staying silent for 10 days was not the hardest
Staying silent is what most people fear most when signing up for a Vipassana course. Yet it was the easiest thing for me to do. And even somewhat liberating.
You don't need to be nice or polite. You just are, the way you are. Simply living in the purest possible way.
You stick to a very strict schedule that leaves very little ‘me time’, eat wholesome vegetarian food twice a day (yes, losing weight is one of the positive side effects of taking the course).
All of that cultivates the right state of body and mind to learn the technique.
Sitting in a lotus pose for 12 hours a day is not easy, I wouldn’t lie. When you arrive, on ‘day 0’, there is a welcome 1-hour meditation sitting. That’s when you realise you have 10 more days filled with 12 such hours ahead of you.
I was counting days. 9 more days, 8 more days, 5 more days, 3 more days (which means that tomorrow it will be after tomorrow when I am free!).
Learning the technique step-by-step
The first 3 days you sharpen your mind by observing your breath. This is a necessary step to learn the technique.
On day 4, Vipassana is introduced. You start to methodically scan your body and observe the sensations on your body. You observe both good and bad sensations trying to maintain the ‘perfect equanimity’.
Equanimity means not attaching yourself to any of the sensations you might experience. For example, after many hours of sitting in a lotus pose, your back muscles start aching badly. Your initial reaction to that is ‘I am in pain, get me out of this misery!’.
But when you learn to observe your pain objectively, the magic begins. Once you stop thinking ‘I am in pain’ and start watching your pain objectively, as from the outside, without attaching yourself to it, the pain disappears.
This is how you arrive to your own personal wisdom of not reacting to things.
Once you live through the experience of making your pain disappear by not attaching yourself to it, you cannot ‘undo’ it.
On the last day you learn that to reap the benefits of Vipassana to the fullest, you must maintain your daily practice. One hour in the morning, one hour in the evening. While I struggled to do that, I meditated for 30-45 minutes few times a week and longer on those days that were particularly stressful.
My second course helped me recover from work-related burnouot and cure insomnia
The secong time I was recovering from a work-related burnout. Having spent over 5 years in a high-pressure city job I ended up losing my sleep and was barely functioning.
I couldn’t wait for an opportunity to ‘just be’ for 10 days. No expectations, no masks to wear, just sleep, eat and breathe.
Life-long benefits of learning Vipassana meditaiton
I’ve used Vipassana as a tool to deal with everyday adversities and became a lot more balanced and harmonious, which helped to improve my personal and working life.
Apart from learning the technique itself, the 10 days course is a unique spiritual experience. Each day is concluded with an hour-long discourse that offers wisdom on the art of living. The secluded environment with no distractions is a unique chance to learn to appreciate little things.
Taking a hot shower after a long day of sitting in one position becomes a spiritual experience.
Daily walks in the dedicated walking area in solitude are great for observing the changing nature of our world. Suddenly with such clarity you notice things you’ve never seen before.
During one of the lunch time walks I’ve stepped onto an acorn. As I lifted my head, I noticed an oak tree affected by a disease. It was dying, yet it was not desperately thinking ‘Why me? This is not fair!’.
It simply did what it had to do – spread its acorns. And suddenly you notice the changing nature of our world everywhere – the weather, the seasons, leaves, that grow and fall and rot and blossom again.
In such grand scheme of things, us humans are not better and not worse. This is just a natural flow of things. Reacting with craving or aversion is not going to change anything, so all you can do is learn how not to.
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