Shut up and… Meditate!

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2018 started great for you and you are still positive towards your New Year’s resolutions 🙂

Something that was on my list for some time now was to practice meditation again. After I finished my Bachelor studies in 2008, I attended my first Vipassana course and took another one in 2010 after I finished my Master. Unfortunately, I did not manage to meditate regularly and after a while I stopped meditating altogether. It was very difficult for me to find a way back into this practice. In order to relearn the technique, I again attended a 10 day Vipassana course, from which I returned a week ago. Usually, my motto as PhD student should be #ShutUpAndWrite, but at the turn of the year, it was: Shut up and meditate. It was hard work, but absolutely worth it and there are some things I would like to share with you about my experience.

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana is a meditation technique by which you observe the sensations on your body. Hereby you aim to develop equanimity; get rid of your old habits of aversion, craving, and constant reaction to stimuli; observe the world as it is, not as you want it to be; be liberated and full of love, peace, and harmony. Sounds great right? To learn the Vipassana meditation technique as taught by the late S.N. Goenka, you have to attend a ten-day residential course, in which you have no access to your phone, books, notes, internet, or anything that could distract you. You are also not allowed to talk to the other participants. You have one job, and one job only: To Meditate! Everything else is taken care of: you are provided food and shelter, and the schedule is designed in a way that helps you to practice continuously.

This is what the course timetable looks like (around the world by the way – wherever you attend a Vipassana course in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin):

4:00 Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 Lunch break
12:00-13:00 Rest and interviews with the teacher
13:00-14:30 Meditate in the hall or in your room
14:30-15:30 Group meditation in the hall
15:30-17:00 Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
17:00-18:00 Tea break
18:00-19:00 Group meditation in the hall
19:00-20:15 Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
20:15-21:00 Group meditation in the hall
21:00-21:30 Question time in the hall
21:30 Retire to your own room–Lights out

The instructions and discourses are given by S.N. Goenka via audio and video recordingst, which was already the case before he died. As you can see from the schedule: it’s quite tough. This is no vacation; this is a training camp for meditators. You learn the technique step-by-step; every day some new instructions are given. If you want to learn more about it, go to the Dhamma Website or read this short post by James Allworth.

Enjoy the Silence

During the course, you are not allowed to talk to anyone for 9 days, except the assistant teachers if you have questions. This might seem difficult, but this was actually not a challenge at all, even though I am quite communicative. It was my third course, and I was still amazed how easy it was to live together with more than 50 women in a rather small hostel without having to talk. Everyone was attentive, making room for the other, holding the doors open, etc. It was however also amazing, what happened on day 10 when everyone was allowed to talk again. All of the sudden, the calm and organised way of leaving the hall, standing in line for the food, etc. was gone. People bummed into each other, which did not happen before, when nobody was allowed to talk.

Monkey Mind

The challenge for me was rather how to shut up my mind. During the first 3.5 days, the meditation focuses on observing the respiration in a small area in order to sharpen the mind. Sharp mind? Sleepy mind! I barely made it through a session because I was dozing off. This is, however, quite common, as the mind does not want to work like this. After two days of hard work, my mind gave up. Ok… no sleep. Focus on the breath… the incoming breath, the outgoing breath. And then I noticed, my mind had not really given up, because now it started wandering around. You cannot imaging the things that popped up in my mind. Have you every listened to your own thoughts without any interruptions or distractions from outside? This is madness!

Goenka talks about this fleeting and flickering mind in one of his discourses. You can watch that segment here:

He compares the mind that refuses to focus with a wild animal, “a monkey mind”, that is grasping one branch after the other. The monkey analogy reminded me of this brilliant blog post that explains why procrastinators procrastinate. Tim Urban also uses a monkey as analogy which he called the Instant Gratification Monkey.

I am very aware, that our mind has the tendency to interrupt us. Not without reason, there are techniques like Pomodoro that help to focus on one task at a time instead of jumping from one task to another. With Pomodoro, you make a commitment to do a specific task in the next 25 minutes and you are not allowed to do anything else before the time is up. This enhances your focus and concentration as you cut down your interruptions. In a Vipassana course, you make the commitment to meditate – but you need to practice very hard so that your mind shuts up and focuses on the task at hand: observing the sensations on your body.

Writing and Meditating with a busy mind

Being forced to focus is an interesting experience. Already when using the Pomodoro technique, I experienced that a task that seemed extremely important during a Pomodoro (i.e., the 25 minute session), was not that urgent any more after the kitchen clock rang. This was also described by Francesco Cirillo:

It’s a different mind that reads over those items at the end of a Pomodoro, or a set of four, or at the end of the day, and it’s sometimes surprising.

When I attended the Vipassana course in 2010, I was thinking about a class reunion and whether I should start organising one. During several group sittings, instead of observing the sensations on my body, I already started organising the reunion in my head: Who should I contact? Which venue? Who could help me organise it? Who was in our class again? What about the teachers? And guess what: it actually never happened! At the time, my mind could not stop thinking about this, as well as about many other things, but later they were not that important anymore. Seven years later and still no reunion. During the recent Vipassana course, I remembered that I had thought about a reunion in the prior course. And so my mind started organising again. *sigh*

Listening in to my mind talking all the time, made me wonder: How many unfinished thoughts do we have during the day that we are not even aware of? In our everyday life we are easily distracted so that we don’t notice all of our thoughts; let alone finish them. What a wandering and fleeting mind we have.

External memory

As you might have noticed in the above picture, there are some websites that came up in my head. But I did not only think about, for example “YouTube”, as a word. I saw the queries appearing in the search box, as if I had typed them. For example: YouTube (“How do you sit most comfortably while meditating?”), IMDB (“What was this movie called with Richard Gere where the dog is waiting for him every day at the train station to come back from work? IMDB – Richard Gere – show by year”), Google scholar (“Oh, there is a Vipassana research institute? Maybe there are some articles published on the results of practicing Vipassana? Let’s see… Vipassana – Long Term”), or Google (“What was the name of my chemistry teacher again? Google – Realschule Herzlake – Chemie”). I almost laughed out loud, that the first thing I contemplated was where to look it up, instead of searching a bit harder in my own memory. Another fun fact: For the last couple of weeks, I was indeed thinking about the maiden name of a person I haven’t seen in years. However hard I tried, it just would not come back to me. During one of the group sittings, it did 😉

Observing the practices of my mind, I wondered: How often do I do this throughout the day without even noticing. And I guess, I then immediately go to these websites, search for the things I think about, and inevitably interrupt my current task. And we’ve probably all been there: What started as one “quick” Web search, ends up in 1 hour of watching all sorts of, for example, meditation posture videos 🙂

Mind the Mind

I don’t think the aim of the meditation is to make you pay attention to your thoughts, as you are supposed to scan your body and observe sensations. However, I strongly hope that through daily meditation, my mind will become calmer and I become more focused, as this is exactly what you practice: Taming the wild animal 🙂


Featured Image by Jared Rice on Unsplash
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