“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” - Blaise Pascal
The bell sounds and 30 people sit quietly in a room without making eye contact.
For an hour no one moves or says a word. The turn of a page would upset the stillness in the air.
My eyes shield me and I see nothing but darkness. I try to focus on my breath. I don’t notice distraction creeping in. Thoughts fill the void.
My internal dialogue: How long do I have to sit here? Ow ow ow my legs are going numb. That’s not normal. I wonder what’s for lunch? The tempeh was pretty good yesterday. This is stupid. I’m stupid. Why can’t I sit still without hurting? Why?
I look upon those 10 days of meditation as one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. There’s something hard about sitting still for hours at a time.
All 30 participants in the Vipassana meditation course came for different reasons. One fellow struggled with PTSD. One lady was seeking spiritual enlightenment. Another person wanted to see if any of the benefits of meditation were true.
Beyond curiosity and a willingness to try new things, I had no other reason. I didn’t know what to expect.
The requirements for the retreat were simple in principle but hard in practice. For 10 days, all forms of external communication were prohibited. No talking. No cell phones. No reading, writing, or physical contact. Men and women were separated. From the beginning of the course until the end, students cultivated a silence of body, speech and mind. Our goal was to cultivate a sense that we were working in isolation.
I felt naked and exposed. For the first time in a long time I had nothing else to look at beside myself.
On some level, the experience didn’t change me. It’s hard to see what runs through your mind because the mind is a lot like a subatomic particle. Once you start looking at it, it changes position.
In hindsight, I learned a lot.
I realized that much of the suffering we experience is self-inflicted. Pain is inevitable (and temporary). Suffering is optional. It’s a choice.
We can’t always choose what happens to us. In 1944, Victor Frankl was transported to Auschwitz. While in the concentration camp, Frankl lost his mother, father, brother and pregnant wife. His captors took everything of personal value except Frankl’s ability to choose how to react. Frankl survived the camp because he found meaning in life even under brutal conditions.
I also learned about resilience, the ability to adapt to recover quickly from stress and difficulty. There are bound to be obstacles in your life. Big or small. One way you can handle these challenges is to break them into manageable chunks. I might not feel like I can meditate for 8 hours each day. But I know I can meditate for 1 hour. And I can do that 8 times. If 1 hour seems too much, I know 1 minute is definitely doable.
I also learned about compassion. Everyone is going through a battle you can’t see. The person who cuts in front of you on the way to work. The bully. The angry spouse or significant other. Our struggles manifest themselves in different ways. But difficulty is part of the human condition. Sometimes we lash out at people as a way to deal with tough situations in our life. I constantly remind myself of Hanlon’s razor (modified): Don’t mistake ignorance, incompetence or confusion for malice.
This compassion needn’t only be extended to other people. Sometimes the hardest person to be kind towards is ourselves. I suffer from the occasional streak of perfectionism. And I’m my own worst critic. I’m not alone. Many people are hit by the shame gremlin. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, says that shame is the voice that tells you you’re not good enough. For women, shame is mostly about dealing with the conflicting expectations around looking perfectly beautiful and being a perfect mother, perfect wife, and perfect business professional. For men, shame is often about being perceived as weak. In truth, everyone is perfectly imperfect. The best advice I’ve heard on countering shame?: Love yourself like your life depends on it.
What do these lessons mean to you? I can’t say for sure because I’m not you. At this point in your life, you might be dealing with depression, frustration with your parents, bullying, unfair social standards, personal health problems or the death of someone you love dearly. Life isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. At the very least, you can control your thoughts.
I hope that this post gives you some inkling of what’s possible. I hope this post reminds you that you don’t always have to be the victim. You’re enough right now and you have the power to respond constructively to the problems in your life.
And if that last paragraph was too aspirational for you, just focus on learning the fine art of mind control (even outside of the context of meditation).
Because ultimately, while (lack of) awareness lies at the root of our problems, it also holds almost all of the solutions.
Kevin Nguyen is a writer with a heart for adventure. He's hiked the 3 tallest mountains in the contiguous U.S, canoed 210 miles from NH to the Atlantic Ocean, and learned how to make dumplings from Chinese street vendors. He graduated from Dartmouth College, where he studied neuroscience, digital design, and Chinese. He lives everywhere and can be found at kevinwin.com