In October 2019 I went on a 10-day Vipassana meditation course as taught by S. N. Goenka that among other things requires attendees to keep silence. Neither does it allow the use of any media, reading, writing or any kind of exercise. In this post I am collecting the reasons why I chose to try this.
Media and distraction
The joy of reading
I have been an avid reader since childhood and in the past could easily spend whole days reading. But for the last few years I noticed that I was reading less and less. I still do nearly daily, but usually only a few minutes before going to bed. Only on rare occasions I even take the time to read for long stretches. If I do, I have a hard time not to get distracted by my mobile or some other task that pops into my mind every few minutes. For some time this confused me, as this definitely hasn’t been the case in the past. Added responsibilities and other hobbies, of course, explain the limited time I actually have for reading long stretches. What it can’t explain why I had such a hard time focusing.
But reading isn’t the only thing that I found impaired. Increasingly I noticed that I had a hard time really being present if I met friends or even on dates. Especially while waiting, I could barely get through a minute and two without getting my smartphone out. There was this constant urge to distract myself, not to be alone with my thoughts.
Why am I so distracted?
So I did what comes natural to us digital natives – I googled what could be going on. And lo and behold, there actually are studies and articles en masse to be discovered. Turns out that attention is a limited resource and due to the masses of information that are available all the time we have a hard time focusing. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Smartphones have a massive, negative impact on our social interactions even without actively using it. Also a (not peer-reviewed) study by Microsoft found that our attention span has dropped by a third between 2000 and 2013.
So obviously I wasn’t alone with these issues, but what to do about it? I found a few steps I could take that, hopefully, would help to improve the matter:
- not using my phone when meeting with people
- switching off all notifications on my phone
- not using my phone in these in-between moments, like waiting for someone
- scheduling time each week without media, books or any other external distractions
All of this helped, my concentration definitely improved. Not to the point where I can read without picking up my phone for hours, but definitely for longer stretches. In my interactions with other people I am definitely more present. But just as if I would have peeled away some tapestry in my mind, I noticed that I found it very hard to be alone with my thoughts, to accept boredom. But boredom is just an important part of life. And it is an essential part in any creative pursuit, as studies have found.
So I wondered what would happen if I forced myself to be bored? What would I discover? Would it hurt?
Meditation and spirituality
Origin of my interest
I have been interested in learning about human nature and striving to become my best self my whole adult life. As part of this journey, I became interested in meditation as a way to relieve stress and anxiety. For years I tinkered with different practices on-and-off, without ever really getting into it too deep.
There were several reasons for this, but the spiritual scent that surrounded it definitely was one of the main things that prevented me from embracing it. As long as I remember spirituality and religion have been the same thing to me. I tend to be scientific minded and as such could never see the point of belief in a god. As I conflated spirituality with religion, I also didn’t consider it anything worth my while.
Another important reason was the effort required. The relaxation aspect of meditation was something I considered interesting, but it wasn’t anything I intended to – or could, for the matter – spend hours on end practicing.
This is until a colleague recommended Sam Harris and his Making Sense podcast to me. His no-bullshit approach to spirituality helped me see that there is an actual difference to faith. That I could be spiritual without being religious. But his distinct perception of spirituality wasn’t the only thing that resonated with me. Sam notes that 10 minutes of meditation done daily are worth much more than long sittings done rarely. His views made me reconsider my position on meditation. As a consequence I started to practice daily for a few minutes, about 1,5 years ago.
Doing these 5-15 minutes of mindfulness meditation every morning felt good most of the time. Even if it didn’t on some days, it was short enough that I did just go through with it none-the-less. And while there is no way of telling if my daily meditation was the cause, I felt that I became calmer and more aware of my inner state in my daily life. This made me wonder what would happen if I spent more time meditating.
In his discussions with guests on his podcast Sam Harris also talked about his own journey. That he had been doing many longer meditation retreats – 10 days or more – and the benefits he gained from it. I had heard about this before and was curious how it would feel not to speak for days. At this point I didn’t really have any specific reason beside idle curiosity, but hearing Sam talk about it piqued my interest.
So I started looking into meditation retreats and found these 10-day Vipassana meditation courses that had some peculiar attributes:
- Multiple hours of meditation per day
- No media, reading, writing, or exercise
- Noble Silence, so no talking or interacting with any of the other attendees
- No moving outside of the course area
This looked like it would tick all the boxes for me:
- improving my meditation skills – skill comes with practice, and multiple hours a day must give me a massive boost, right?
- what better way to see how I cope with a lot of boredom by not being able to distract myself with media, books or exercise?
- I strongly believe that personal growth is only possible if you move out of your comfort zone. Not interacting with anyone, or reading, or going outside for 10 days definitely will do that for me
The same things that made it interesting, worried me as well – this looked really hard. Do I really want to torture myself like that? But in the end I decided to go for it. One of my personal core values is growth and what better way to affirm it than follow through. So I waited for the next possible option and signed up for a course in the Austrian Alps mid-October.
This is how I got to go on a 10-day Vipassana course. As I am writing this after the fact, I can already tell you that I didn’t manage to go through with it – I dropped out on the fifth day of the retreat. If you are interested in reading how it went and why I failed, check out the follow ups in two parts: days 1-4, day 5 and conclusions.