the ignoble jerkass and Vipassana meditation

Vipassana meditation is a type of meditation where you focus on your breathing and on various sensations throughout the body with the purpose of learning how to not react to them.

The ignoble jerkass is me.

I’m referring to myself as the ignoble jerkass in part due to my failure to observe Noble Silence during the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I recently went on. But I’m also calling myself that for other reasons which I will get to shortly.

Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is available at various meditation centers all over the world. There are courses of varying length for experienced practitioners, but the course for beginners is always 10 days. That’s apparently the minimum amount of time for someone to learn the basics of the technique.

Either that or it’s just a nice round number they picked at random.

A friend of mine from the Peace Corps was the one who recommended I do it. He and I went through a lot of the same things while we were in Africa; stress, fixating on things, obsessing about things, and so on. He went on a retreat in America and apparently got a lot of benefit from it, and suggested I could do the same.

Initially I was reluctant. I was afraid it would turn me into a liberal hippy douchebag with no sense of humor, or worse, that it would somehow make me lose interest in writing or take away my creativity. Of course these fears are not rational, but I’m not exactly the most rational person to begin with, so what can I do.

Fortunately for me there’s a nice big Vipassana meditation center just outside of Melbourne, and that’s where I went. Seven other guys joined me there, and around 12 or 15 girls. We were segregated pretty much the whole time, and after the first evening we were instructed to observe Noble Silence, which meant no talking whatsoever until day 10.

This was hard for me. Especially when my roommate in the dorms stepped on my glasses on day 1. My first new pair of glasses in almost 10 years, crushed and broken. I had honestly meant to observe the Noble Silence strictly, but I couldn’t help letting out an “Awww…” when that happened. Still, the worst part was that I couldn’t even tell the guy that I didn’t actually care that much, which left him wondering for the remaining 9 days whether I was pissed off at him.

Out of the 8 of us guys, 3 left within the first few days. I have to admit I briefly considered leaving, but what stopped me was the realization that no matter what, I didn’t want to go back to how I was feeling before. I needed some kind of change in my life—or at least in my outlook.

And that’s what I got. Vipassana meditation is simply about training your brain to be aware of the sensations you experience but not react to them with craving or aversion. There’s nothing magical or spiritual about it; it’s like learning a new language or a musical instrument. But like both of those things, it requires a lot of practice. The purpose of the 10-day retreat is not to cure you of all that ails you, but rather it’s simply about giving you the tools you need to cure yourself over time.

It also provides a lot of insight into what’s wrong with you. In my case it showed me just how much of a profoundly negative asshole I really am, and how destructive this is to me, to the people around me, and to my relationships with them. And it was fascinating to just sit and observe my thought patterns as I tried to focus my attention on my breathing. Goenka referred to the restless mind as a monkey jumping from branch to branch.

I think my monkey has rabies.

Another interesting aspect of this meditation is that as you stop reacting to stimuli with craving or aversion, your old reaction patterns start coming to the surface. And as long as you don’t react to them, they’ll fade away as well. I experienced a lot of really intense emotions as this happened. On day 3 it was frustration, on day 6 anger, on day 7 lust (don’t ask), and on day 9 anxiety. And no, I can’t say I’m completely free from all of these things now, but it does feel like the dial has been turned down a bit.

Another interesting aspect of the course was that starting on day 4 or 5 (I can’t remember which) we were expected to practice Determined Sitting for one hour, 3 times a day. That might not be what they called it (we weren’t allowed writing materials so I’m doing this from memory), but the point was to sit without moving anything for one hour. If this sounds easy, try it yourself. If you’re like me and have a lot of muscle tension anyway, sitting in one position becomes excruciating after about 45 minutes. The idea is that you’re supposed to train yourself to treat this discomfort as just another physical sensation and not react to it, but that’s easier said than done. The whole point of the retreat was to stop having cravings or aversions, but after about day 5 I started developing an aversion to the meditation hall itself. Because that’s where the Pain happens.

Still, it was totally worth it. I may not be enlightened now, but I feel like I have the tools I need to gradually improve myself over time. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll no longer be a negative asshole or an ignoble jerkass.

But don’t hold your breath.