I recently joined a 10 day meditation workshop after procrastinating for years, despite “knowing” of meditation’s benefits. Every one’s path to meditation is different. This article is my [meanering] story to deepen my practice and how I came to join a workshop.
I am sharing my story so that others can potentially enjoy the same benefit of mindfulness by practicing meditation. I had wanted to join for roughly 8 years before successfully signing up for a workshop. From the short time I have practiced post-workshop, I have noticed differences in myself.
I have seen a change in my relationship with mind, body, and equanimity over the past few months. I feel this is due to the tangible benefits of my current practice using the technique taught by the Vipassana Meditation organization. Vipassana is in the Dhamma tradition and taught by S.N. Goenka. Their main website details the ten day course content and philosophy. There are other techniques and organizations that teach mindfulness—exploring these areas are outside the scope of this article. I include some references in a section below to read more about the benefits.
I hope this article will help others attend a mindfulness workshop to deepen their own practice by sharing context and concerns I had prior to joining 1. I now recommend every man, woman, and child attend a workshop at some point in their lives in order to gain the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. I found it difficult to join for a number of reasons, namely uncertainty and logistics, which I hope to help bridge for you by sharing my story.
To start, I’ll give an overview of mindfulness, Vipassana followed by workshop content and questions I could not answer prior to joining this workshop first-hand.
I will keep this section short and not restate others because 1) popular media seems to have a steady stream of articles on the benefits of meditation and 2) more experienced meditators / better writers have approached this topic in the past.
Gyms have been a popular American industry in the past few decades. Many people today go to the gym to train their bodies. By going to the gym, people train their bodies for a higher ceiling of performance and well-being. Meditation can be a way for people to train their minds. By meditating and practicing mindfulness, people train their minds for a higher ceiling of performance and well-being.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (a founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and initial spark for a modern surge in the popularity of mindfulness) describes mindfulness as “present moment awareness”.
The following authors were helpful in helping me cognitively understand the benefits of mindfulness and meditation practice:
- Sam Harris - Waking Up. An atheist philosopher describes the science and practice of spirituality without religion.
- Daniel Goleman - Focus. A psychologist dives into cognitive performance and proposes how mindfulness meditation can be a “prosthetic” to help high performers.
- Michael Taft - Mindful Geek. A meditation and neuroscience coach who writes about the secular practice from his teaching of people in technology.
- Chade-meng Tan - Search Inside Yourself. An early Google engineer writes about his journey and how to start a personal practice.
- Dan Harris - 10% Happier. A TV anchor writes about his journey through meditation practice after a traumatic event, the neuroscience of mindfulness, and stories of different American groups.
I’ve added to my current reading list based on recommendations from people at this Goenka workshop. 2
This workshop is a ten day dive into Vipassana meditation through a program of daily one hour sits and lectures. These programmed sits and lectures use recordings from S.N. Goenka (1924 - 2013; bio) from the early 1990s. The Dhamma organization has been around since the 1970s and has traditionally taught a non-sectarian meditation practice. Throughout the lectures, Goenka describes the practice as secular; that individuals should take only the useful bits of their workshop practice and bring it back with them to their daily rituals (that may include other religions).
Vipassana can be described broadly as “looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing.” 3
dhamma.org’s introduction and code of discipline:
Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all.
Journey of procrastination
2011 → 2018
I hope by sharing my (former) daily practice and procrastination, I can pave a way for others like myself to attempt to learn the technique properly.
Starting from the time I moved to the bay area in 2009, I heard from friends and colleagues as they shared stories of meditation practice (and its benefits). I “understood” this and slowly began my own daily practice. Around 2011 while working on a graduate thesis in human-computer interaction and exploring ideas within the Quantified Self community, I started a somewhat consistent daily practice that I maintained until 2018.
I would typically meditate for ten to twenty minutes a day and be able to maintain this habit when I did not travel and was able to control my environment consistently. However, I found this habit potentially disrupted by project sprints, by travel, and by other distractions. I would then dis-engage and would not be able to practice for weeks at a time until something reminded me of meditation, and I would start my practice again.
Likely, if someone cannot take ten minutes out of a day to meditate, they probably need a ten minute sit more than ever. I maintained this inconsistent practice and lack of awareness until early 2018. All the while, I have read about the benefit of deep practice and did not have a chance to participate in a workshop for years (!) due to uncertainty.
An impetus has been a recent focus on my physical and mental wellness after an extended period of overextending myself at work and travel. Focusing on my meditation practice could be a critical part to not only recover but to thrive again. I recognized a meditation workshop would be a beneficial period to deliberately practice and train differently.
In the past, I had made excuses every time I opened up the workshop sign-up page.
I felt because the only availabilities were for more than six months out, I had difficulty committing to a wait list that far in the future. This inability to commit was often centered around projects, travel and other plans that could potentially change in the intervening months. Also, I found the idea of meditating for hours at a time daunting (the most I had meditated prior to joining this workshop was 30 minutes a handful of times). I found the idea of being silent and in nature for 10 days pleasant though also filled with uncertainty because I had never been silent for this long. While I’m introverted and have done personal trips for days at a time, I usually had access to the outside world with a phone, internet, books or writing utensils. Never before had I been so separated from communicating.
Due to all these uncertainties, I found myself doubting if I would ever have the opportunity to join until March 2018.
Like others who head towards meditation, I found myself signing up after a tough time from too many projects. I wanted a way to relieve excess stress and to revitalize my ability to focus.
I finally signed up a ten day silent meditation workshop with the Vipassana Meditation group at dhamma.org for late April. This organization teaches at various around the world, and seem to have the high credibility among friends I asked in the past. Ten days is the minimum amount of time to practice with the Vipassana Meditation group because it is deemed the minimum amount of time to properly learn the technique (see question below).
In April, I had not heard a thing yet. I emailed the organizers to gauge potential attendence and how to coordinate time and logistics. I heard back nearly immediately that I was near the end of a long waitlist. While this was highly discouraging, two different friends (who had attended workshops in California) said they had both been at the end of long waitlists and were granted admittance within a week of workshop start.
Exactly one week from the workshop start date, I received confirmation from the organizers in Massachussets I could participate, because a spot opened up on the waitlist for me. Upon receiving the email, I immediately did a little dance from my own uncertainty on joining this workshop.
After entering more information and confirming my attendance, I found wanting to asking exactly how to physically attend this workshop.
I found the website easy enough to navigate to find information. However, I had trouble trusting the information I found on the website—likely due to the web design / animated gif in the header, which I suspect stems from my experiencing the early days of the internet 4.
The organization is terrific and entirely volunteer run. A few days before the workshop, I had a call with one of the organizers about whether to bring a sleeping bag or not. I found the call useful in providing more context on living quarters and the general climate of the workshop location.
Like many other Vipassana meditation centers, the center I applied for was outside of any major city centers with easy access by public transit. I joined a workshop in the Dhara Dhamma Center in Shelbourne Falls, Massacchussets. There are course available all over the world. The page on logistics from the Dhara Dhamma Center website had many resources to help people attend.
- Getting there: I emailed a few people to see carpool logistics (though didn’t hear back from any one by email). I looked at a bus route that could take me to a nearby town, where I could either taxi or walk to the center. A one-way trip would require a transfer in Springfield and navigating another short car trip from Greenfield (the closest city to the center). I looked into taking a shared taxi with the NYC Taxi Company. The price was marginally more expensive than taking multiple buses. A bonus was meeting others who were also heading towards the workshop.
- Packing: The center sends you a packing list by email.
- Advice! I asked for advice on Facebook.
I hoped to source good knowledge from a hive brain. I sought out friends' advice on Facebook.
I feel blessed to receive both encouraging messages and great advice.
If pain arises, do not give it leeway; only observe it, do not react to it. Even when your body is shaking and your bones are crying, ignore it all, and focus on the breath. via Tam
Everything that comes up is supposed to. via Maki
No expectations. Be aware of what you enforce yourself and what you came in with. via David
Give yourself permission to just go and be. via John
Remember it is a practice not an event. via Rebecca
Thus, if this idea of ourselves is impermanent and subject to change, like all things, and it is no more than a amalgamation of eccentric ideas, there's just no reason to hang one portion of it at all.. via Tam
Some of the things I had issues with turned out to be non-issues.
I describe the workshop as very rewarding and one of the most difficult periods of work I have ever performed in a short duration. I found myself answering a set of questions consistently from people I mentioned this adventure to. These are ordered by rough order of frequency that I heard them (there is a whole set of questions and answers from Dhamma.org, some of which are quoted below).
“So are you now super relaxed after this workshop?”
I have more equanimity. However, I found the workshop one of the most physically and mentally taxing trainings I have ever done. The work continues during a continued practice on an every day basis (though is less taxing because I’m not practicing four to ten hours a day). The questions section from Dhamma.org says differently (“not difficult”), but I found my practice was more difficult than my expectation. I suspect my difficulty came from this workshop’s practice was longer and different than I had experience with in the past.
For a person in reasonable physical and mental health who is genuinely interested and willing to make a sincere effort, meditation (including “noble silence”) is not difficult. If you are able to follow the instructions patiently and diligently, you can be sure of tangible results. Though it may appear daunting, the day’s schedule is neither too severe nor too relaxed. Moreover, the presence of other students practicing conscientiously in a peaceful and conducive atmosphere lends tremendous support to one’s efforts.
Actually, the ten-day course is the minimum; it provides an essential introduction and foundation to the technique. To develop in the practice is a lifetime job. Experience over generations has shown that if Vipassana is taught in periods of less than ten days, the student does not get a sufficient experiential grasp of the technique. Traditionally, Vipassana was taught in retreats lasting seven weeks. With the dawning of the 20th century, the teachers of this tradition began to experiment with shorter times to suit the quickening pace of life. They tried thirty days, two weeks, ten days, down to seven days–and they found that less than ten days is not enough time for the mind to settle down and work deeply with the mind-body phenomenon.
Vipassana is taught step by step, with a new step added each day to the end of the course. If you leave early, you do not learn the full teaching and do not give the technique a chance to work for you. Also, by meditating intensively, a course participant initiates a process that reaches fulfillment with the completion of the course. Interrupting the process before completion is not advisable.
“Wait, how is it possible not to talk for 10 days? What if I have allergies or issues?”
You sit for 10 days in silence with a group of others most of the time. The assistant teacher has open periods to ask questions (think of an academic office hour from school). This has helped me and others address various concerns you might have.
One thing I would bring next time is to prepare myself to stretch with roller balls throughout the ten days. I will bring sport bands and a roller or therapy balls so I have the tools to massage and stretch muscles that are knoted.
All students attending the course observe “noble silence” — that is, silence of body, speech and mind. They agree to refrain from communicating with their co-meditators. However, students are free to contact the management about their material needs, and to speak with the instructor. Silence is observed for the first nine full days. On the tenth day, speech is resumed as a way of re-establishing the normal pattern of daily life. Continuity of practice is the secret of success in this course; silence is an essential component in maintaining this continuity.
“How do you get there? This workshop appears to be in the middle of nowehere.”
I joined a large meditation center in Shelbourne Falls, Massachussets. I had to commmute here from NYC and did not have a car. I suspect each center has detailed understanding of logistics, and I might suggest contacting your local center as you sign up for more detail. See the section on Preparation above.
“Will I become a member of a sect / cult / religion by attending? Do I need to be Buddhist to join?”
No. The Dhamma series of workshops are expressly non-sectarian. There are some Buddhist quasi-religious elements in lectures, but the lectures are qualified by expressly supporting meditators of all religions and for people to only take the parts of the workshop with them that gives them benefit.
People from many religions and no religion have found the meditation course helpful and beneficial. Vipassana is an art of living, a way of life. While it is the essence of what the Buddha taught, it is not a religion; rather, it is the cultivation of human values leading to a life which is good for oneself and good for others.
“How much does it cost? Something free always seems to imply something.”
Yes. The workshop operates in a completely donation based manner. The non-profit is entirely volunteer driven and elected. There was no explicit nor required donation period at any point in the workshop. My take-away is to donate the amount that’s comfortable given your current circumstances.
Each student who attends a Vipassana course is given this gift by a previous student. There is no charge for either the teaching, or for room and board. All Vipassana courses worldwide are run on a strictly voluntary donation basis. At the end of your course, if you have benefited from the experience, you are welcome to donate for the coming course, according to your volition and your means.
A friend once said, Your professional development will never surpass your personal development. With mindfulness, the path could be a 1000 miles. I feel changed after taking a few good steps. My practice will continue to be impermanent, evolving and perfectly imperfect over the next years. And that’s fine.
As part of writing this article to help my “past self from a few months ago”, I suspect this will also help my future self to attend a workshop. ↩
My current mindfulness reading list, sourced from other members of the workshop:
Shunryū Suzuki - Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
Shantideva - The Way of the Bodhisattva.
Robert Wright - Why Buddhism is True. ↩