Two days ago a guy named Satya Narayan Goenka died.
Who was Goenka and why should I care?
First, I’ll mention how I found out about him.
I had no experience with meditation when a longtime friend I hadn’t seen in a while suggested I try it. The idea made no sense to me because meditation made no sense to me. I didn’t know or care about it to that point in my life — somewhere around 2006. But my friend knew me a long time and I valued her perspective.
I decided to try a ten-day meditation retreat, I guess like jumping in the deep end — these retreats allow no talking, reading, writing, etc for the first nine days. You can leave if you want, but the point is to follow the structure and go for ten days. It took me more than a year after learning about these things to go.
I remember waking up the first day thinking, “What am I doing? What kind of person does this? What if my friends found out?”
It ended up one of the best experiences of my life in terms of what it gave me — calmness, patience, awareness, understanding more how my mind works, freedom from being gripped by intense emotion, etc. It had more religion than I would have preferred, but not so much to keep me from learning meditation. They didn’t try to get me to believe anything I didn’t want to, to give money, to sign anyone else up. They accept donations, but they don’t encourage them.
Goenka started a project of creating meditation centers — here’s that project’s page, which describes it and centers near you. It’s hard to describe in words except that the first time you go, you have to do a ten-day course consisting of meditating ten to twelve hours a day, talking to no one (except questions of the teacher at certain scheduled times), reading nothing, disconnected from the outside world. You bring with you clothing and toiletries, checking in the rest for safe keeping outside.
Most people say it sounds grueling and say they can’t or wouldn’t do it. It is grueling. It’s physically painful to sit still for so long, although it gets easier. Of course you can leave any time you want, but the point is you can stay the whole time too. Countless others have and found value in it. Only by doing it can you get that value.
Also, see my post Do you confuse a reason to do something with an excuse not to?, which describes the pattern of people giving excuses not to do valuable things.
Why can’t you keep a diary or check messages? Why ten days?
All I can say is that you have to experience it to understand. I guess I can add that you can only think on the time scale that things interrupt you. In stressful times when you’re interrupted every few minutes, you can’t think about anything more complex than a few-minute thought allows. Whatever long-term ideas you can in principle understand or consider, you won’t because the interruptions will jar them.
First couple days
On the first day or two of your first retreat you think about what you have to do when you get back, friends you want to talk to, and ordinary daily life things.
Your body is also in pain a lot of the time, especially from your legs falling asleep. Your muscles burn. You spend as much time adjusting support pillows as anything else. Ten minutes into an hour meditation period you look at the clock and wonder how you’ll make it through another fifty minutes, and then another six or seven periods like it that day.
You’re also confused because you just feel like you’re sitting there thinking. Is that meditation? At least you do if you’ve never meditated before at all. It’s also boring.
Next few days
Somewhere around day three or four the practice starts making sense. Your mind stops jumping around so much on daily stuff and is able to stick to single thoughts longer.
When not meditating, you can think about long-term project in your life, important relationships, goals, and such.
You start using few pillows as your body learns how to sit for longer, but it’s still hard. Making it through an hour is still plenty challenging and painful. It’s still boring.
Next few days
Somewhere around days five, six, or seven you start seeing deeper patterns — in how your mind works, in how you’ve lived your life, in what life is about… things like that.
When you aren’t meditation you can think about overall patterns in your life, your values, how you think, how your thoughts affect your life, and things like that. You become more calm, less judgmental, more thoughtful. It’s hard to describe.
Somewhere around there I probably got to where I could go nearly an hour without feeling tempted to look at the clock. The feeling of boredom gives way to curiosity and intrigue.
Last few days
By day nine you have experiences of great joy (see my Jumping For Joy post from a later retreat). You realize you have more control over your mind than you thought and you can explore it. I’m not sure if that makes sense.
By now you don’t need pillows. You aren’t trying to figure out what you’re doing. You get into a meditative state quickly. You look forward to the calmness. You aren’t thinking about your life so much as you think about life itself.
Also we got solo rooms where you can meditate with less distraction — no people talking, no one to compare yourself with, etc. I forget if I had a clock in that room. But then you can focus more deeply and for longer.
You also start looking forward to day ten when you can talk to everyone else. Though you haven’t overtly communicated with others, the experience has a major social component. You’ve been seeing everyone else, eating with them, comparing yourself with them, and so on.
Day ten is totally different because you can talk with everyone. You share experiences and learn how differently others experienced it. You learn some people left in the middle. Some loved it. Others didn’t.
Overall I consider the experience as among my most valuable. I haven’t kept up the practice that regularly, but I’ve gone back and expect to go back for yet more retreats. In any case, you can’t un-experience it once you’ve experienced it.
You also can’t learn what you learn there except by doing it. How else can you describe the feeling of being nine days into a course doing something you’ve never done before.
I looked at the Wikipedia page for Vipassana, the name for the meditation practice Goenka uses, but won’t link to it because it doesn’t make any sense to me, filled with words from other languages and religious talk.
What I valued most from the experience was learning a useful practice without the other stuff connected to it.
I can’t say if a retreat would work for you. I can only say it worked for me. In describing how the days go above, I wrote “you,” but I don’t know how closely your experience will follow mine. I meant it more as an illustration.
I tell people I think nearly everyone would benefit from the experience but I don’t take the step of recommending it because I think they have to decide for themselves. I don’t want the responsibility of them not liking it and blaming me. Still, a few people I’ve told about it did it and everyone found it as valuable as I did.
Goenka: leader and entrepreneur
As an entrepreneur and leadership teacher I also respect and admire the man for the successful global project he led.
The meditation centers are all over the world. You never have to pay. The one in Massachusetts I went to was in the process of renovating some buildings. They described how they secured a million-dollar loan from a local bank despite having no revenues or dues.
Also, the organization’s culture is strongly focused on education and the practice. Many leaders could learn from him and his organization’s success — to build a global community that doesn’t ask for money, has a decentralized structure, doesn’t try to compete with anyone, doesn’t advertise, yet grows and keeps its culture and mission.
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