Vipassana: If You Meet the Buddha, Kill Him
This is an account of my first 10 day silent meditation retreat in Yangon, Myanmar
Most Meaningful Experience: All of it.
Unfortunately, I only had a few of my original notes – this is my best effort to account for a transformational experience. I have posted a more recent experience here.
Recently, there has been a bit in the news about Vipassana from Jack Dorsey and a recent NYTimes article about Goenka. So what’s the fuss? Read more.
Neither literal nor an instruction to be skeptical of any religious icon, killing the Buddha is all about attachment. To recognize the Buddha is to adhere to your preconceptions and expectations of who or what Buddha is. But in Buddhism, this type of attachment is the crux of suffering.
I needed to understand this better, I had to be at the center of it. So, I made my way to Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar for a 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat with Dhamma at the Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center in Yangon Myanmar. Vipassana is a path to finding security and freedom in reality as it really is. More than anything, it’s a battle against yourself. As it stands, we react to everything – the goal of vipassana is to intervene in moments of physical, mental, or emotional sensation with a strict condemnation of reaction. It’s a means to ending that attachment.
Practicing vipassana involves a directed series of full-body scans. It’s about confining attention to acuteness of the body in each moment. In the case of breath, it’s attention to the expansion of the stomach with an inhale, and the deflation of it with an exhale. Try it out for ten breaths – if done correctly you’ll see that for a brief period of time you’ll feel a release. Your mind may wander – maybe you have an itch – acknowledge it but do NOT react. Remove the sensation from the response and center your attention back to the rise and fall with each breath. That’s the goal – the recognition of impermanence.
Getting in, I knew what I signed up for, but didn’t have a pulse on why. By being there, I was agreeing to oblige some precepts: no killing, cheating, lying, sexual misconduct (yes, this included of thyself), narcotics, eye contact, writing, and of course speaking. The schedule was stringent, 4:00 AM to 9:30 PM with 10+ hours of completely still meditation with some short vegan-based breakfast and lunch breaks. If it sounds ridiculously hard, it is. Here’s my experience with it.
Check in was unsettling. The host read my bio and immediately said, “whatever you do, don’t leave. Kick, scream, cry – don’t leave. This is going to be hard for you.” What was it about me that prompted this advice? I became worried when the host told the girl behind me, “Oh, you are young. You’ll be fine”.
That evening we listen to a basic discourse about what we are about to go through and learn the basic premises. The path to Dhamma relies on three aspects called Threefold Training: sila, samadhi, and panna (pali/sanskrit); or, morality, concentration, and purity of the mind. Overall he calls this mastery of the mind. Furthermore, “What religion would not agree with practicing morality? Who would be against training their ability to concentrate? What group of people would not want to purify their minds?” He’s right, I needed this. I had overwhelming anger, resentment, and anxiety to sort through.
I met my roommate Channah, a ukulele traveling american who had become nomadic post high school. He self-published books and worked at retreats. He spoke softly, wore a beard, and was wise beyond his years. I knew he would be an easy person to be around. He was a Dharma Bum much like in Jack Kerouac’s book.
The class had about a hundred locals, of which 30 were foreigners, mostly travelers and wanderers.
At the boom of the 4:00 AM gong, I was up. By 4:30 I was cross legged and still… and it remained that way for 45 minute increments until 9:00 PM. Within a short amount of time, pain raced up through my legs, anxiety dominated my mind, and anger crawled to my surface. I had know idea what I was doing but slowly I was getting a few seconds of mental peace and clarity.
The instruction was to follow your breath or concentrate on the tip of your nose. When your mind wanders — acknowledge it — bring it to your attention — come to terms that it is happening — control it — readjust to the focus of concentration. This is the art of ana panna – often known as concentration breathing. I had to call out my consciousness for what it was and how it projected as well as separate myself from it. This was a struggle…
Once per day, one can sign up for a discussion with the teacher. My teacher was a warrior. He was an engineer turned writer and political activist who was jailed for a decade for his writings. He renounced everything and turned to the dhamma saying there is nothing in life but the dhamma. His approach to it was fierce. What I’ve learned from now 3 retreats is that each teacher has a different approach. He told me to intensely focus on the triangle of the nose first before going to the small spot. That was the advice on this today.
Goenka’s discourse was so soothing and his motivation to keep a calm and quiet mind was so helpful. Try patiently and persistently. Try again, try again and you will succeed! I thought he was crazy. Where or what could I succeed? Then he replies to my thoughts “don’t try to succeed or attain anything because it will happen naturally as you become aware – you can’t know what you are trying to do.” What? Goenka knows what’s happening and has answers to your questions before you even open your mouth.
I could hardly bear to get out of my wooden palette bed with mosquitos fleeting around. Again, I questioned why I choose to spend my time in this way. However, I continued to practice being in the moment. Focus on the spot beneath the nose. I finally felt my blood pump, then a small tingling – i guess it was working. I could feel something there I did not think was there before. And it wasn’t mosquitos though they were flying around the hot humid air.
As I walked through the courtyard I looked up at the rain clouds coming in, I just noticed them without fear or anxiety. I was attentive to the lift of my foot from the ground and the press of each step back onto Earth. I noticed when my walking changed pace and brought myself back to steady. My eating slowed and I started to notice the nature around me including the pond in the back full of lillies and small reverberations.
The discourses in the evenings were in some ways what keeps you there. Goenka acknowledges and knows everything that is happening and guides you through the process. He tries to keep you calm and motivated.
I felt it all – the good and the bad. I became overwhelmed. It threw me into anxiety and depression, familiar pains. It broke me down, it was almost palpable. I couldn’t understand why I kept thinking about the same thing over and over – all self-deprecating thoughts. I became mad at myself. I thought I was stupid. The emotional turmoil of what was happening became apparent. And with that, I was able to start to push things away. I focused so hard on my nose that I felt it cut my brain in half, almost entirely and my thoughts would pick a spot. Thats when I started to understand the master of the brain. I could in fact control this but only after I took myself to the bottom, the very bottom of my emotional capacity somewhere I found the strength to control my thoughts.
That evening, I was entirely exhausted. I felt it near impossible to remain composed and follow my breath. I looked at my roommate who laid on the bed and looked at the ceiling. He didn’t move, not a bit. We could not be defeated.
At the discourse, A few less people showed up that night. Some people fled. It was hard and Goenka acknowledged Day 3 is so very hard for most people who either develop the control or the mind and thoughts take them away. I was getting the control.
Vipassana, i didn’t get it. I had sensations all over my body? How long did i have to focus on my shoulder before i could feel anything. My teacher said, “don’t stay long, 30 seconds then go, go. Keep going” In some ways I felt this was the key to life – one of my mottos is “keep on keeping on”. So i did that. Slowly I started to feel some sensations – a prick, a tingle, and lots of pain in my hips, back and knees. I needed to sit up straighter, I need to move my pelvis in. Now hold it!
I felt my posture getting better but couldn’t hold it long and toppled-over due to the discomfort and pain. It was my goal to accept, control, and release the pain. I was getting good at catching exhaustion – controlling it was coming at ease. I started dissociating from myself — Angry Kurt, Complaining Kurt, Whiny Kurt, Dreaming Kurt, Planning Kurt, Coaching Kurt — yes, I have succumbed to all these Kurts but I now understood were separate creatures — I could prevent them from influencing me. I couldn’t believe my mind was so many different animals and yet, they were all so easy to identify with and now so easy to manage. I started to understand my mind and that was powerful.
But it was exhausting, the process was so mentally tiring more tiring than cramming for a test, writing a paper or working on a computer. It was a different exhaustion one that exhausted the body and the mind as if they were one entity. That night we crashed hard but the sleep was light and getting lighter. Goenka said that as the mind becomes pure less sleep is needed as thoughts are a cause of tiredness. Now i was understanding.
This day was an uplifting day I was walking much slower and I was starting to feel much stronger. It was the day my brain popped. I actually felt a pop like an expansion. It was a felt real capacity, I could process more. I wasn’t wasting energy. I experienced depersonalization – my mind was isolated from my body, I was separate. I looked in the mirror and glared at my face like a separate structure than who I was. The separation of person and soul I thought – the physical, mental and spiritual were detaching at the seams.
With that power also comes confidence and then a sudden broom swims it all away and the realization that none of this matters. Life doesn’t actually matter I started to think. My decisions don’t matter. What I do doesn’t matter? It wasn’t a despondent or depressed thought it was just a realization that if it doesn’t matter then why do anything or why not shoot for the stars? These were all crazy happenings.
Back in my room I started to clear everything, clean the floor, fold the sheets, fold my clothes, align everything perfectly. Cleaning out my brain and cleaning the room became one for me. It was as if they were the same. I needed everything organized and clean and my friends know that I’m not organized or clean. I’m a constant mess of ideas, projects, and chaos. I am not like most people and i hated it and always battled to clean my room and now i could. I could just clean my room and feel that was enough, that was the right way a thing to do
Pain became bearable. I started to see it as just a point in my body that will pass. Everything passes, the bad, the good. Anger, anxiety, depression – I could detect them quickly. I could not always get them to pass through and I was struggling to stop the chatter, my personal chatter, my insecurities and more. So in my meeting with the teacher he told me to not let them chatter anymore, “shew them away like a bird, shew them, get rid of them, be powerful. This is not always the case but sometimes you have to be powerful and control them, now you must this is your time to take control”. So i did.
I pushed them away, yelled at them, screamed at them in my mind. I would not let them chat anymore. It was a fight and struggle. Then i started to locate them immediately as the arose at their source and remove my attachment, separating myself from the pain. It was like my brain had developed a number of garbage cans, and concern by concern, problem by problem, I started to throw them in the trash and then clear the trash. I could close the bin – intervening between sensations and reactions. Slowly I created a clear mind, determined, and strong mind. It was bliss it was if I was now in control of something I never could control.
That evening after 9, I took a shower and felt the water drip down my spine. It was as if I could feel each separate drop and count them. It was a lukewarm shower, and I could sense it across my body. It was a new power to sense something on your body anywhere. It was so fascinating. And then a scream came, a pounding beside us, a yell, and some whimpering. I didn’t know what to do. Do we help him? It was a small Asian American guy next to us. But we weren’t allowed to help, only to notice. And so we didn’t.
During this day I experienced some invigorating visualizations. The questions of why is a stupa gold and shaped that way were answered – it’s because that is the way the light is shaped as you are enlightened. Why in SE Asia do they have constant lights streaming vertically around buddhas, again because that is the light in your mind. And then the exhilarating senses of blood flow combined with pain your back and legs trying to stay equanimous. Just know these things are there with no reaction to good nor bad.
Some of the sensations were amazing. The visual facial features, feeling yourself turn into an animal. I felt myself as a rabbit and I was looking at myself and then another sensation thought my nose to the top of my head. I wanted to reach for it but I had to remain equanimous. I just had to let it sit there. And the instant I liked it, it vanished so fast.
And this is when I realized the downside of being competitive – craving for thing. I always compete, it’s been my nature, but it also drives my unhappiness. When you compete, you crave & cling — the forces of unhappiness. Over and over Goenka talks about unhappiness is caused by “aversion and craving” Vipassana teaches at the inner levels not to crave not to dislike. By doing this, one can be completely in the moment of harmony and bliss. It leads to regrets of the past and anxieties of the future. From here, I’ll no longer compete
This was the first day we were sent inside a small, iron door room that circles the main stupa. Sitting in there and meditating in the dark brings you to your coughing. One day, Goenka says death will occur and that happens alone, not with others so learn to die. This was frightening to be alone and come face to face with death. And then it went dark.
That night became very dark for me it was if it was haunted and i fell asleep so very lightly and dreamed a deep dream. There i saw myself die. I literally saw myself die looking at my hands shaking next to a tree with a strange disease that I didn’t know. I awoke and stared at the ceiling, it must have been an hour then the gong sounded at 4.
Struggling to the hall was so difficult. I was scared, I was dumbfounded. My prior day elation turned to morbidity. I couldn’t think. So I sat there thinking about my death during the morning sensations. I could see ugly faces and feel the pain all over. I didn’t want to be here. I had to leave i just had to leave. But no, I would stay i would stay.
And I continued until lunch and then sat there looking at my small meal of rice and tea leaves. I looked at it but felt as if it were looking at me. Then the revelations of my past surfaced in despair. What did I do with my life? I didn’t want that life again. I hated the person I was. I wanted to die. The thoughts were incessant and ugly but they were real. I in fact did die. That old person died. I cried and cried and put my head down. I would leave, I could not take it. I decided – this killed me and I could not continue. Then I felt someone put a hand on my shoulder and whisper “don’t leave, don’t leave” and it was Joe, the guy yelling in the room beside me. He broke the rule of touch and silence but i would have left without his support. There is no doubt I would have left.
As I continued the afternoon sessions, I realized had broken all the wires that kept me anxious and depressed over the years. I could define a new life that was up to me to wire. I could start again. I could try again patiently and persistently and that kept me going. I still had not achieved one complete session without moving, not movement at all. So I made that my goal for the afternoon, I would not move and with that i learned more things.
Not moving made me realize more things about my own self confidence and insecurities. I realized I would let external factors influence my core, who I was and that became a symbol of how i worked in business and life. I didn’t like this but I had to become aware of it. Not moving is a very powerful force in conversation, life, and meditation. It’s only then when one can detect everything happening inside of you and then choose how to react to it. Another key to vipassana is choosing to react. We all can choose and developing the power how to react is something that was never easy for me. Now i felt i could – that’s what sitting still taught me.
That evening we had a small cookie and tea. My sensitivities were out of control. The sugar of the cookies I ate were too sweet. The dog that was barking was too loud. The light was too bright. I could see all of the lillies of a pond nearby, one by one and the water reverberate back and forth. If I were an artist I could paint that pond from memory, from sheer memory. Life was just me.
The breakdown was a turning point. Meditation and the associated vibrations and sensations from deep vipassana started to become enjoyable. Observation was the key. Observing is different from judging – cross that line and suffering can and will ensue. I observe feelings, emotions but am confident that they are separate from myself. This felt like it, I understood. Although antithetical, I didn’t want to let go of my acceptance of impermanence.
This was the day that cross flows and free flow happens. Sensing the body inside crossing from chest to back and feeling inner organs. Feeling the head all at once and then focusing on every part of the mouth or each tooth separately. Once can discern any part of the body which is both frightening,exhilarating, and often things arise that are scary such as a hand turning into claw or eyes in the back of your head. At one point I thought my eyes were the other way.
It became fun though. It wasn’t supposed to be, but it was. I was not playing and Goenka said to not play because it would then become a craving and your inner workings would vanish. I stayed equanimous and tried hard to control my reactions. Reactions to everything from the mosquitos to the wind. I made friends with the mosquitos. If you want my blood, have at it, enjoy. You need to eat too.
Appreciation for life grows inside and empathy does as well. It’s a phenomenal process that makes you one with the world, your surroundings, and all living creatures. The flow of life is mostly water and breaking down our solid state is extremely difficult but possible through vipassana. Then can one truly understand the self.
The last day is time, metta (harmony and happiness) and re-entry (talking again). Worrying, pain, it’s all futile. It’s a distraction. Vipassana teaches you to ignore whatever attention is your brain is begging so you can dedicate energy to the present and make the most of every moment. This is not suppression, this is an observation. Your sole job, for 10 days, is to acknowledge whatever happens but not focus on what happened or how it made you feel.
Mentally it has many effects. It forces you to simplify your life, reduce all the clutter and just do what matters. What matters? What makes you happy. That’s very powerful. If forces you to realize all the ideas and thoughts that don’t matter or serve your core being.
If you are looking for something to gain, Vipassana isn’t the right choice for you. Vipassana isn’t about gains, it operates with a different paradigm of success. Vipassana is to lose, lose your fear, lose your anxiety, lose you attachment. It teaches you to choose to react or not to react. Everything is in your control.
The first words out of my mouth to Sol – a girl in the program – was “how are you?” I spoke to them so carefully and slowly. She replied “I’m fine” looking at me as I understood what she had just been through. We smiled and laughed. The ensuing conversations and people who made it became lifelong friends. Its a strong bond and one if you meet others who have done it immediately garner a deep respect.
Vipassana is free psychotherapy – if you are going through a big life change I would suggest it. If you are trying to shake anxieties and depressions (though not suicidal type stuff) then go for it. If you just want to learn about yourself and the a new way to react to life, it’s for you. But stay, stay all 10 days or you won’t understand the full process. if you would like to learn more or find a retreat for you, click here.
Aside from the mental, It also has some amazing physical effects. I found my posture to straighten up, flexibility increase, my stomach acidity decreased, my prostate felt better (maybe due to the sitting or lack of sexual activity. Later I realized that my ability to hold my ejaculation during sex increased significantly. Stimulants became nothing. Our society doesn’t let us be in our natural state. It’s up to us to get there.