Meditator for a Month
For one month I immersed myself in meditation as much as I could. I meditated multiple times per day, read books on meditation, listened to teachings on meditation and followed a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. These are my stories and experiences from my month as a meditator.
When the Spin-Off Project was nothing more than a spiked travel idea that existed only in my mind, the two lifestyle immersions that I remember looking most forward to were: 1) learning to make pasta from some grumpy “nonna” in a tiny Italian village and 2) going to a Buddhist monastery (preferably one with an insanely beautiful backdrop) for hardcore meditation practice.
The cooking lifestyle appealed to me because of, well, “the pasta part” and the “tiny Italian village part”, and yes, even the “grumpy nonna part”. Spending a month learning to cook secret family recipes in la bella Italia sounded rather awesome to me.
Furthermore, back then (say 2010), when the “white-flour-will-kill-you” story still hadn’t reached me, homemade pasta was pretty much my idea of a dream dish. What could be better than learning to make it myself? And, while neck-deep in the mascarpone anyway, pick up a tiramisu skill or two.
As for wanting to be an impromptu buddhist monk, I figured life would prove more simple when spent doing nothing but meditating. Becoming a buddhist monk would allow me to escape difficult life decisions that needed to be taken, past and future mistakes and ever-lingering conflicts with other homo sapiens.
But escaping life isn’t what this month was about anymore. Because I’ve actually come to appreciate difficult life decisions. I’ve made friends with failure and the other monkeys and I seem to be getting along better every day.
This spin-off, be a meditator*, was about finding out what it would be like to spend my days in solitude and contemplation. And furthermore, about hoping to learn how to deal with the daily emotional grind and endlessly thinking mind.
*I changed the name of this spin-off from “be a buddhist monk” to “be a meditator” because, although most meditation practices are grounded in Buddhist religious teachings, I wanted to keep this spin-off as free as I could from religiosity.
what it was like to meditate every day for a month
There were two different parts to this spin-off. There were the 10 days that I spent meditating 10+ hours per day at a Vipassana meditation center and then there were the rest of the days which I spent at home, reading and learning about meditation, and meditating for about 2 hours per day.
My time at the Vipassana center was no picnic. Agreeing to refrain from speaking, exercising and reading (and forsaking all other forms of entertainment) wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. On the other hand, having to sit in meditation postures for 10+ hours per day was, above all, physically very demanding. Emotionally, it was tough too.
I didn’t go mental like I thought I might (although I seemed to get pretty close to it on the 4th morning); I did find myself on a tireless emotional rollercoaster all the time. One moment I’d feel awesome, even elated, the other I’d be angry, sad or bored. And mind you, there were many moments to be had in a single day.
As for the days that I spent at home, preparing for the course, practicing meditation only a couple of hours a day and doing research into meditation, those days were rather pleasant, and balanced.
Although the material on meditation was somewhat overwhelming at first, little by little, one Wikipedia click after another, as the information overwhelm transformed into understanding, these new insights began complementing my daily meditation practice. And, furthermore, allowed me to make well-informed decisions about the role meditation is to play in my life.
if I could do this spin-off over, this is what I’d do differently
Before taking the Vipassana meditation course, I planned to listen to the one-hour discourses by the Burmese-Indian Vipassana meditation teacher, Mr. Goenka, that were going to be played at the end of each course day.
These evening talks were the only theory I’d hear for ten days, so I wanted to make sure I understood them. Plus, there was a chance that I’d disagree with some parts of the theory, and not being able to look for clarifications/explanantions during the course, could become a point of irritation.
In the end, I didn’t listen to the discourses beforehand. And, I wish I had. Because despite the promise that the course would be non-dogmatic, non-religious and non-sectarian, and regardless of the fact that the Vipassana meditation technique itself is indeed free of those elements, Mr. Goenka’s discourses, however, are not.
Away from everything I knew, and while going through serious physical and emotional challenges, I felt tricked. Every interpretation of the Buddhist scriptures, every mention of “reincarnation” and “giving donations”, and every hint of religiosity and dogmatism, was like an assault on my intelligence and good taste in general.
Towards the end of the course, it became more difficult to separate the man and his stories from the meditation technique. I started resenting Mr. Goenka and his talks and this bad mood negatively influenced my practice. Once home, I even stopped meditating completely for a while, afraid that if I didn’t, I’d abandon meditation altogether.
Needing to untangle my practice from religion and dogma, I began to research both Buddhism and Vipassana meditation. The more I learned, the clearer the line between meditation, the practice, and the religions that make use of the practice became.
I was now better able to let go of the non-scientific, religious and dogmatic bits of Goenka’s theories and to instead hold on to the parts of the course that were helpful, like the Vipassana meditation technique that I was taught.
Had I listened to Goenka’s discourses and done the necessary research before the course, I would’ve perhaps been able to take some of Goenka’s interpretations less seriously, and to keep my calm and undivided focus on the practice. Or, I might’ve tried to find a different course.
the insights that I took away from this month
Except for the many amazing insights into my life and into the world around me that I had during the 10-day Vipassana meditation course, the most important realisation I experienced, is that the benefits of meditation are real.
I have no idea why this works (nor did any of the books I read provide a satisfying answer), but when I learned to pay attention to my breath and bodily sensations, like I was taught to do during the Vipassana meditation course, and I finally started to practice meditation properly, my whole being got rewired.
Once home, both Mr.G and I noticed profound changes in my behaviour. I had become much less reactive. I was able to cope extremely well with daily setbacks. Living life had become easier–a lot, lot, easier. I experienced emotional balance and a state of mind, which I can only describe as, real happiness.
if I’d want to be a meditator
Meditation will continue to be part of my daily life. I believe it’s crucial for achieving emotional balance and a balanced life. In that sense, I’ll always be a meditator. However, being a full-time meditator isn’t a lifestyle I’d consider giving up everything else for.
I don’t see my life’s answer in meditation. I’m not interested in becoming a Buddhist. I’m also not looking to achieve Enlightenment nor to experience self-transcendence. Without goals like that, without an unwavering faith in a belief system, I don’t think it’s possible to be a meditator and only a meditator.
the resources that I used
Reading books on meditation without putting the theory to practice is like reading a car repair manual from cover to cover without ever picking up a wrench. It’s monotonous, confusing and a waste of your energy.
Fortunately, you don’t need to read a ton of books on meditation to start meditating. You only need to pick one, and then as soon as an exercise pops up to do as it says.
I’m afraid, however, that books on meditation seem to be coated in a saddening “self-help” air; often sound a little too “new-age”; and at times, completely cuckoo.
This seems especially so, if you haven’t yet practiced meditation, and thus still haven’t had the chance to observe the struggles and advantages of meditation firsthand. Once you make some progress though, the material will, oddly enough, begin to sound somewhat less crazy.
Before you know it, you’ll be discovering layers of significant information that have now started resounding in you through the experiences and observations of your own meditation practice.
Reading (or re-reading) books on meditation will, furthermore, inspire you to keep meditating and will help you deepen your practice.
“Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” – Sam Harris
Although there are a few helpful and easy-to-understand insights in “Waking Up”, more often than not, the material is incoherent and unnecessarily complicated. Chapters 2 and 3 tied my brain in such a tight knot, the strain of it almost killed me.
I have to admit though, that Maria Popova from “brainpickings.org” does make the book sound (here and here) like the masterpiece she claims it to be. If only “Waking Up” had been written in her breezy words.
“The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka” – William Hart
I read “The Art of Living” after doing the 10-day Vipassana meditation course and found it helped me put my experiences in perspective. However, I can’t imagine it being useful to those who haven’t attended the course.
“The Discourse Summaries” – S.N. Goenka
These are transcripts of the discourses that Mr. Goenka gave during a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. I only read these because I wanted to find out if the evening talks were indeed as dogmatic, non-scientific and religious as I felt them to be during the course.
If you haven’t followed the course, then absolutely don’t read this. If you did follow it, read “The Art of Living” by William Hart (mentioned above) instead.
“Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Read it. Meditate. Meditate some more. Consider re-reading it.
If you’re just starting out with meditation, read the book but skip the exercises for now and instead follow Headspace’s 30-day meditation foundation pack (first 10 days are free).
“Siddhartha” (a novel) – Herman Hesse
This novel, about a journey of self-discovery, is likely more inspiring when you know a bit about the life of Buddha. Although I wouldn’t be concerned with that much; Hesse’s amazing flowy writing style provides enough inspiration on it’s own.
“The Pema Chödrön Audio Collection“ – Pema Chödrön
The first time I listened to Chödrön’s collection, the mushy, dreamy voice, which seems to be the go-to standard for “spiritual teachers”, was killing me. And so was that annoying “approval-seeking” laughter from the audience.*
The second time I played the collection I’d just come back from my Vipassana meditation course and seemed less bothered by it all. If you can manage to ignore the mushy and the dreamy, and are genuinely interested in the topics presented, the audiobook is surely worth listening to.
*The reason why I kept listening to Chödrön’s collection is because Seth Godin, who I hold in the highest regard, recommended it on the “Tim Ferriss Show”. Though unrelated to meditation, this episode with Godin, “How Seth Godin Manages his Life–Rules, Principles, and Obsessions“, is my favourite of the Ferriss’ podcast so far.
“Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah” – Ajahn Chah
Don’t pick this up unless you’ve already done a fair bit of research into meditation and Buddhism and are so much into both that you don’t mind sparing 15 hours of your free time listening to an angry man who’s discourses are often directed to hardcore monks and not “recreational meditators”.
- Headspace is a meditation application that I started using in 2014 to get in the habit of meditating and I still use it every time I meditate.
- Every now and then I like to follow Sam Harris’ guided meditation “Looking for the Self”.
- I can also recommend Sam Harris’ one hour lecture and one hour Q&A video “Waking Up” on Vimeo.
- Wikipedia’s articles on Buddhism and meditation proved to be, by far, the most useful and least “spiritually overloaded” on these topics that I’ve come across during my research.
a disclaimer of sorts
Traditional schools of meditation, which are almost always rooted in Buddhism, aren’t necessarily concerned with the benefits of meditation. Possible advantages of meditation, like stress reduction, emotional balance or increased productivity, are heavily cited to promote meditation, but they aren’t the primary concern or goal of traditional meditation branches.
The Vipassana meditation technique, for example, is about gaining insight into three different natures of mind and body, namely the nature of “anicca” (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction), and anatta (no-self). These new realities, which you’re bound to observe when you meditate using this technique, can be confusing and overwhelming. Experiencing even a glimpse of “no-self” and at the same time being perfectly aware of “your self” can make you feel like you’ve gone crazy in a very, very, real way.
Since I started experimenting for this spin-off with more serious, traditional meditation techniques, I’ve had three ghastly experiences. The first occured when I was meditating immediately after having watched “Waking Up” (mentioned above); the second following the meditation “Looking for the self” (also mentioned above); and the third on the 4th morning of the Vipassana meditation course. In each situation I felt like I had gone completely mental and needed to be hospitalised.
These were a couple of terribly dark hours, but luckily they passed. I discovered afterwards that experiences like these aren’t uncommon in meditation. Some people argue that they are merely stepping stones or learning opportunities. However, I also found out that in some cases, people have far more serious episodes and don’t manage to come out of them (see: The Dark Knight of the Soul). All this shouldn’t stop you from getting into meditation, but it should make you more critical about meditation.
Adverse effects of meditation are known and you need to google them. This is your mind you’re working with. You only have one, so act accordingly. Do your own research. Question everything: look into different meditation techniques, read the reviews about the courses you’re planning to attend, etc.
Lastly, take it slow and try not to lose yourself in meditation. No matter what some meditation teachers, schools or courses would like you to believe, meditation isn’t the only answer to living. I do believe meditation is essential to achieving emotional balance and a balanced life, but I also believe that meditation needs to be counterbalanced with travel, sport and human interaction.
Tell me what you think. Connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and let me know: Does the meditator lifestyle appeal to you? What are your experiences with meditation? And what books or other resources on meditation can you recommend?
Before being a meditator for a month, I tried 9 other lifestyles.