My 10-day meditation retreat in silence

A mind opening experience

Image source: globalpagoda.org

I’ve always been interested in meditation but I’ve never practiced it. I’m just too lazy. I bought the book “Search Inside Yourself” (by Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer), read the first chapter and stopped (like I do with most books). I knew that if I wanted to be serious about this I should put myself in a situation where I wouldn’t have any other alternative than to just do it. That’s how I work. So I signed up for 10-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Dhamma Manda, 3 hours north of San Francisco, April 15th 2015.

TL;DR;

  • I absolutely recommend it

  • Great way to get into meditation and directly start seeing the benefits

  • You’ll learn to be more in control of your mind and of your reactions

  • You’ll learn to have a more balanced mind (equanimity)

  • Food is excellent and it will make you want to become vegetarian

I’ve been running all around for the past 7 years, moving from Belgium to San Francisco to create a startup (Storify). I never spent more than a day away from my iPhone since the first version came out. I was always “connected”. I needed to take a break, to think about things. I wanted to take the time to better understand life and its purpose.

As I’m now “in between startups”, I wanted to make sure that whatever I will end up doing next will be something meaningful, which will contribute in a positive way to humanity. Something that will move the needle, something that will be worth devoting so much time of my life.

The Dhamma Manda Vipassana Meditation Center in North California (near Kelseyville) (Photo Dhamma Manda on Facebook)The Dhamma Manda Vipassana Meditation Center in North California (near Kelseyville) (Photo Dhamma Manda on Facebook)

The Vipassana 10-day Meditation Retreat is like a bootcamp. We were about 50 people, more or less equally split between genders but we were segregated at all times. The rule of noble silence applies throughout the course. No talk, except to ask questions at 9pm to the teacher on an individual basis. No book, no notes, no mobile phone, no Internet, nothing. The goal is to disconnect completely from the outside world and focus on your meditation and on yourself.

Daily schedule

4am wake up bell (I would take my shower then to wake me up) 4:30am-6:30am Meditation 6:30am Breakfast (I would always take oatmeal with a warm sauce with plums, peaches, raisins, etc. and granola with half banana and a quarter of an apple) 7am-8am Nap 8am-11am Meditation (with one 10mn break) 11am Lunch (Vegetarian, delicious food) 12pm-1pm Nap 1pm-5pm Meditation (with two 10mn break) 5pm Fruits and tea (I would prepare a fruit salad with one banana, one apple and one orange) 6pm-7pm Meditation 7pm-8:15pm Discourse (video by SN. Goenka, meditation teacher from Burma/India) 8:20pm-9pm Meditation 10pm Lights off

The first 3 days: Anapana

The first 3 days were probably the most difficult ones. Change of rythm, change of diet, change of behavior, etc. It takes a bit of time for your mind to get used to it.

The first meditations are all about being aware of your breath (Anapana means “Mindfulness of Breathing”). Breathing is the only body function that works both in a conscious and an unconscious way. When you don’t think about it, you are still breathing. But when you do, you can control it. That’s why it’s a really good bridge to connect with your subconscious.

At first, it’s quite difficult to get your mind to shut up. You can’t help but thinking about memories or things that you would like to do in the future. You need to learn to tame your mind and bring it back whenever you can to your breath. Easier said than done. It takes practice and dedication.

SN. Goenka’s DVD was playing every evening for an hour to teach us the Vipassana meditation technique. Image source: http://solidgoldcreativity.comSN. Goenka’s DVD was playing every evening for an hour to teach us the Vipassana meditation technique. Image source: solidgoldcreativity.com

Every evening at 7pm, there was a 1h15 discourse given by SN. Goenka. That was by far the highlight of the day. This guy is so inspiring. What he was saying was music to my ears.

I’ve had a Catholic education back in Europe and I’ve always had a problem with it. As an engineer, I have a logical mind and I always push back on anything that people would tell me without proper explanation. If I can’t understand something, I won’t remember it and I won’t believe it.

Here, the teaching was very different. Instead of saying “Here is the holy bible, you’ve got to believe it”, they say “here is a path, we can’t walk on it for you, you’ve got to do it. You don’t have to believe anything we say, experience it and understand for yourself”.

This really resonated with me. In a way, the Christian education I got was pretty much a top to bottom education. The truth comes from above and you need to accept it. Here, it’s a bottom up process. While you are being given some guidance, you need to come up with your own truth. You need to experience it yourself. That’s a bit like being a parent or being an entrepreneur. You can ask as many advice from people who’ve done it before, but it will never replace the experience of actually living it yourself.

It also occurred to me that this bottom up nature of this teaching makes it particularly well suited for the 21st century where bottom up is increasingly replacing top to bottom hierarchies of the previous centuries. Coincidentally, Buddha predicted that it would take 2,500 years for Buddhism to take over the West (and that was… 2,559 years ago).

The benefit of doing such retreat is that you get to cover not only the theory through those daily discourses, but you also get to practice it. And that makes a massive difference. A lot of the things that you start experiencing don’t happen over night. It takes a few days. That’s why it’s so important to be in the right environment for 10 days to give this technique a fair try.

You are not only a body, you are also a mind. The two work like the wings of a butterfly. You need to master both to be able to fly.

We are all made of subatomic particles that vibrate continuously (Buddhists call them Kalapas). Nothing is solid. Everything is a vibration. Those vibrations happen so quickly that we don’t realize them. It’s a bit like the light of a bulb, it may seem fixed and constant, but in reality there is a continuous flow — an electric current — going through it.

Our body is constantly producing Kalapas. They are arising and passing away in a continuous flow. With enough practice and concentration of your mind, you can start experiencing this process.

You first learn to sharpen your mind and to be aware of things that happen throughout your body without you noticing. You start with the breath and you start with a small triangle area between the upper lip and the top of your nose. By focusing on a small area you train your mind to become sharper and sharper. It’s like if you would slowly increase the resolution of a picture so that you can see more and more details.

After a few days, you start experiencing new sensations in that small area. The goal is to experience first hand that everything in your body is constantly arising and passing away. And because of that, there is no point to feel aversion. There is also no point to crave for something. Everything is changing all the time. Don’t get attached to things, they will pass. Likewise, there is no such thing as “I” or “mine”. If you can detach yourself from your sensations (like pain), and if they keep arising and passing away, then they are never really “yours”. If you accept that nothing is ever yours, you will also feel much less pain whenever it’s gone, which will help you maintain your equanimity (the balance of your mind). The concept of no “I” is harder to grasp and I still have a hard time with it to be honest. I didn’t reach that far in my understanding in my meditation. It’s not with a 10-day course that you become enlightened. That would have been too easy :-)

The 4 main ingredients of Kalapas

Those Kalapas are the products of 4 elements. 2 physical elements and 2 mental ones.

The first one is food. That’s why it’s important to eat healthy. During those 10 days we only had vegetarian food (one of the rules we had to follow is to not kill any living being, and by eating meat you actually indirectly kill an animal). That was the first time for me that I would follow such strict diet for so long. And I have to say that I felt really, really good. My body just feels so much better. I’m not tired anymore after eating, I have much more energy throughout the day and I stopped drinking coffee.

The second one is everything else that your body captures on the physical level. The air you breath, the sun you get, etc. So it’s important to not live in a place where there is a lot of pollution.

The third one and the first on the mental side is how you currently feel. If you feel angry you will produce a different type of hormone, your body temperature may raise, etc. Likewise if you are stressed or if you are scared, your body will start generating different type of particles that will go throughout your body.

The fourth and last one is your history. How did you react previously in similar situations? That’s why if you see a spider and are afraid of spiders, independently of how you feel right now, you will automatically develop a reaction of fear.

The mind has a very important role to play in all this, in fact a role as important as the food and the physical environment in which we live in.

Despite that, in the West, we don’t get much opportunity to learn much about how our mind works, yet alone how to master it. We train our body, we train our intellect, but not our mind.

So this was for me my first crash course “mastering your mind 101” to get up to speed.

Day 4 to Day 10: Vipassana

Vipassana means “Insight into the True Nature of Reality”.

The Dhamma Hall where all the group meditation were taking place. Photo Dhamma Manda on Facebook)The Dhamma Hall where all the group meditation were taking place. Photo Dhamma Manda on Facebook

On Day 4, you are asked for the first time to sit for an hour without moving your legs or your arms. That hurts. A lot. They call it the “Sittings of Strong Determination”. The goal is to develop your equanimity, your capacity to observe pleasant and unpleasant sensations throughout your body in a balanced way without reacting to them.

After a few sittings you start being able to calmly observe the pain and detach yourself from it. Your mind acts then as a torch that highlights one part of the body at a time, while the others remain in the dark (and therefore you don’t feel the pain anymore). Experiencing this is mind blowing.

The goal here is to learn to reprogram your body and your mind. You become aware of all the reactions that you have that have become automatisms. Those predetermined reactions are called Sankharas. They are the fruits of our past experiences. Every time we have a reaction to something — a craving or an aversion — we build up a new Sankhara. They accumulate over time and consolidate into our subconscious. By meditating, they come up to the surface into our conscious mind. The way to get rid of them is not to ignore them but to face them, observe them objectively and let them go away. Because everything — even our thoughts —are arising and passing away, continuously.

Day 7 I started to experience what we call a free flow of vibrations throughout the body. That’s a pretty phenomenal experience. It’s like an entire world happening within my body that just opened up to my conscious mind. Quite an experience. It’s easy to fall into the trap of enjoying it too much and start feeling craving for it. It’s not a “game of sensations”. We need to learn to observe pleasant experiences with the same equanimity that we observe unpleasant ones.

After all those days, my mind became sharp enough to feel really subtle sensations on the surface of my skin. The next stage is to dig inside of my body and train my mind to focus its attention and witness sensations deep within my body. I didn’t get that far. I need more training.

The last day, we learned a new meditation technique. Whereas Vipassana is all about focusing on yourself, looking inside your own body, here we are being asked to share our harmony, our peace and our happiness with not only our loved ones but also with all beings in general. As you switch your focus from inside in to outside out, you start feeling your entire body vibrating like the woofer of a speaker. It feels like you are literally emitting positive waves. That sounds crazy but that’s really how it feels (but it’s very subtle).

Back home

When I got back home, I could tell that I had changed. Without even realizing it, I was able to see the things that were happening with much more distance. As a result, I was able to keep my calm and not react in situations that would have usually upset me.

Also, I don’t have any craving anymore. Meat doesn’t interest me anymore. I didn’t turn on my iPhone till the next day. I don’t check Twitter nearly as much as I used to. I’m just in peace and I don’t need anything to fill any void (at least for now, I hope this will last!).

It’s been a week now and I kept meditating twice a day every day for about 30mn (they say we are supposed to meditate 1h twice a day, but that’s a bit too much for me for now). Now we will be traveling the world for 4 months with my wife and my 2-year-old daughter. I hope I’ll be able to keep practicing.

Conclusion

I’m very glad that I did it and I highly recommend it. It’s entirely free but donations are welcome. The idea is that you get to experience this course thanks to the people who did it before you and donated money.

I know it’s not easy to spare 10 days in the busy crazy lives that we all have. But I think it’s really well worth your time. We need every once in a while to take a step back to make sure that we are still on the right track. It’s easy to get absorbed in whatever we do and jump from one opportunity to another but what for? What do we try to optimize for? Is that really worth our time? Speed is nothing if you are not heading to the right direction. Don’t rush mindlessly to your death. Life is beautiful and is worth being lived in the driver seat.

May all beings be happy.

Thanks to Wolf Berg (who was my roommate during this course but I had to wait the last day to finally talk to him!) for proof reading it. Thanks also to my friends Aseem Sood, Brian Noguchi and Tatsiana Degaugue who did this retreat before me and recommended it to me. Thank you!

Xavier Damman

About the author

I'm Xavier Damman. I'm an engineer in computer science and an entrepreneur. I'm passionate about the digital renaissance. I like to think about the future of media (I cofounded Storify), organizations and democracy (I'm now working on Open Collective). In my spare time, I like to hack and talk. You can follow me on Twitter @xdamman.