How I Flunked Meditation

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If meditation is required for exaltation or enlightenment or whatever, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it. I enrolled in a 10-day meditation course in India which started 5 days ago and ends in 5 days. Today, I dropped out.

Of course, this was not my intention. A friend of mine had taken this course and recommended it highly, and since I was going to be in the India/Nepal area I signed up for these 2 weeks. My first day in the course, I was so grateful for the slow pace — I had been touring India for a week, and the chance to stop and listen to my thoughts was invaluable. It also helped me recover from the stomach bug which had, as usual, plagued me upon traveling a developing country.

After spending the first day listening to our breathing, as I expected, we were conducted into an “evening discourse.” I was hoping this would be live, delivered by one of our facilitators, discussing how they thought about meditation or what their experiences were like. Instead, I was introduced to a video of S. N. Goenka, the founder of many of the modern 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats. He was a wealthy Indian businessman, as we learned over several days of instruction, who went to Buddhist monks for help with debilitating migraines. Once he learned the technique of Vipassana meditation, he was cured and wanted to share this gift with the world. I felt he was charming and clever. And utterly pretentious and insufferable.

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S. N. Goenka. From indianexpress.com

This is one of my great weaknesses: as soon as I feel that someone in authority — professor, priest, boss, or yoga instructor — is pretentious, I start to get antsy. Really antsy. I start wanting to not do things precisely because they want me to do them. I start being skeptical of everything they say, and challenging their teachings, and becoming uninterested.

So on Day 1, S. N. Goenka tells us that “the self” does not exist, and that everything passes away every moment, and that our sufferings and cravings and aversions are merely the products of our minds, not tied to anything real. And the primary point of his method of meditation is to teach the meditator this Buddhist truth. And I think it’s bunk, but I want to give him a chance.

So the next day, I start thinking it over as I meditate. And I think through myself, and what is inconstant (desires, passions, pains, hatreds, likes, dislikes) and what is pretty much constant (memories, deep loves), and what forms our cultural conception of selfhood, and by the afternoon I have determined that I personally believe that the self exists. It may be fluid, and it may just be composed of neural networks, but I believe it exists and it is the thing I love in somebody else, like my mother or my father. I love the selves that they are, even if they’re just composed of neural networks, not some ephemeral being who is passing away every moment. And if I am to believe in love, I feel I must believe in a self. So, here I am, already opposed to S. N. Goenka’s method.

And that evening we’re subjected to another discourse by Goenka (it’s is a daily thing). And now he tells us that his method of Vipassana meditation will cause a complete change in its practitioners, from misery to happiness and from hatred to kindness. Immediately I think, “Well supposedly you’ve perfected this method and yet you’re a pompous old windbag…” But trying to be kind, I decide to spend more time thinking about this.

So Day 3, I spend time while meditating thinking about the people I know who practice meditation. And whatever health or mindfulness benefits they claim from meditation, which I am fully supportive of, I don’t notice that they are consistently kinder or more pleasant. There are great people, and not so great, who practice meditation. So unless S. N. Goenka’s method is vastly superior to other meditation practices, which I’m sure he believes but which seems unlikely to me, he’s already discredited himself twice in my eyes.

In the evening of Day 3, Goenka gets back up on the TV and explains that Day 4 will start our real work in his method of Vipassana meditation. And indeed, the next day his voice recording (the whole course is run by his voice recording — it’s a little creepy) explains how to focus attention on every part of the body from head to foot. And I do it, and I start to be able to feel the tips of my toes and the backs of my thighs and even the skin on my throat. “Cool,” I think. “I can be aware of weird parts of my body. They even tingle sometimes when I pay attention to them.”

Now what? And then S. N. Goenka’s Day 4 evening discourse makes it clear — my goal for the next 6 days is to practice feeling these sensations until I can get flows of energy through my body, which will purify my mind and cleanse my body and prepare me for enlightenment.

Day 5, I decide this is all too spiritual for me. I practice feeling the energy in the morning, feel no more enlightened or excited, and submit my resignation at noon.

You know, there are people it works for. My friend who attended the course loved it (I still love you, Emily!). The research on meditation is still out. There’s evidence published by the NIH that doing Vipassana meditation can make a group feel physically and psychologically better than a control group which does nothing. There are great stories of Vipassana meditation helping prisoners turn their lives around. Cool. I fully support anyone who wants to do it. The course worker who guided me through the check-out process told me how his dad is in jail and his family broken and he’s sure he’d be in the same plight if it weren’t for yoga and Vipassana meditation. That conversation was the only experience in the 5 days which would ever entice me to return.

But I’m so glad to be done. I’m headed to Nepal in a couple of days, to volunteer in an orphanage for 2 weeks until Christmas. And I’m pretty sure I will feel more peace, and love, and enlightenment trying to help those kids than I could ever feel in a meditation hall in India. Let’s hope that kind of stuff will work to purify my mind instead, because I flunked meditation.

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