What I learned from 10 straight days of meditation.

Man in white robe walking in the desert as the sun sets.

Two summers ago I was making some significant life decisions and felt like the pressures of day-to-day life were limiting my mindset. Somehow I didn’t like the path I was on, but couldn’t find the time to process what changes I needed to make. So what did I decide to do? I drove from my home in Utah to the Mojave Desert in California to attend a 10-day buddhist meditation course. This course was something I had been eyeing for awhile, but had never made time for.

 

With life’s pressures mounting I finally decided it was time to make time. After some air conditioning issues with my car, where I actually had to replace my air compressor in 100 degree weather, I arrived at the Vipassana meditation center in Twentynine Palms California. After casually practicing meditation for years, I was excited and a little nervous for some intense training in meditation.

 

Rules

 

When I walked into the main hall, I was greeted and asked to agree to certain rules to follow throughout the course. To learn the techniques taught at this meditation center there were some ground rules that would enhance my ability to be present and get the most out of the course. The rules were a little daunting at first, but really did enhance the experience.

 

No talking

 

For the duration of the 10 days we were asked to not speak or even make eye contact with each other. As a conversationalist this made meal times, brushing my teeth, sharing a room with a stranger, and walking around the center very unique experiences. We were not to acknowledge each other, which goes against all social norms I have internally. But honestly it relieved a lot of the social pressure as there were no expectations around meditation milestones, or mental energy spent on listening or reading the body language of others.

 

No exercise

 

We could walk between buildings, or on dirt trails within the boundaries of the property (which I spent many hours doing), but could not run, lift, or exert ourselves. This left us without adrenaline and calm hearts and minds throughout the week.

 

No Cell Phone

 

When I arrived and signed in, they asked for my cell phone. This appendage to myself was hard to go without for the first few days. That act of handing over my cell phone, however, helped transport me into another mindset.

 

No Meat

 

All of our meals were prepared by center staff, and followed a strict vegetarian diet. The meals were delicious, however, and always left me feeling satisfied.

 

No music, TV, or reading

 

The purpose of the time at the center was to look internally, and not to learn from external sources. As such there was no reading, no internet, no TV, and no computers. This added hours to my day to think and to be still, but took away all forms of entertainment.

 

No killing

 

Bugs, lizards, birds were scattered throughout the desert landscape, but were not to be disturbed. Walking on the path around the center there were many times that I and others could be seen doing a tip-toe dance on a path trying to avoid stepping on ants. We became aware of where each footstep went and made sure to not kill any living thing. This caused me to feel a supreme peace, awareness, and connection to my surroundings.

 

Schedule

 

Even with no entertainment, with all meals prepared for us, this was no vacation. Each day was rigorous and carefully scheduled. Every morning a gong would ring around the camp at 4:00 AM to notify us it was time to wake up. This would signal the start of a very long day:

 

4:00 am — Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 amMeditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 amBreakfast break
8:00-9:00 amGroup meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 amMeditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noonLunch break
12 noon-1:00 pmRest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pmMeditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pmGroup meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pmMeditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pmTea break
6:00-7:00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pmTeacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pmQuestion time in the hall
9:30 pmRetire to your own room--Lights out

 

This was the consistent schedule for 10 days! When you add up all of the meditation sessions, we were spending over 10 hours meditating each day, adding up to over 100 hours during the course.

 

Frantic Monkey Mind

 

After committing to both the rules and the schedule we were ready to learn. We began very simply. Sit however you want, scratch that itch, move as needed, and just focus on breathing. While we were encouraged to limit our movement, the real goal of the first few days was to learn a method of meditating called ‘Anapana’, which focused entirely on the breathing in your nostrils, ignoring all else.

 

And so for four days we focused on breathing through the nose. Nothing else. Simply training your mind to slowly not engage in any thought except for the air passing through your nostrils. During this exercise I was surprised how frantic my mind became. Sitting still caused my mind to race, as my conscience actively resisted any attempts to focus and be present in the given moment. Hundreds of movie quotes and scenes ran through my mind. It was crazy to recognize how much junk had filled my mind, how much nonsense. So many hours wasted passively internalizing information that now resurfaced only to distract me.

 

Many life experiences also ran through my mind. People I had loved, people I had wronged. My mistakes came to the surface, clear as day. I was reliving my most painful moments, with my shortcomings so apparent. My mind was in shock as all of these suppressed memories were now center stage.

 

Despite how important these realizations around wasted time and pained relationships were, the purpose was to focus. I worked each day to not think, to not process the many emotions as they arose. I learned how busy our minds are, and how difficult true focus can be.

 

Pain

 

As the week went on I realized that my discomfort and wandering mind was actually the purpose of the entire exercise. That somehow my pains and wandering mind were driving a change within me. It took a lot of pain for me to come to this realization. In fact, it wasn’t until the fourth day, which is called the ‘Day of Strong Sitting’ that I realized how central pain truly was to the experience.

 

The Day of Strong Sitting introduced the Vipassana form of meditation with a full two hour meditation session. Instead of focusing on nostril breathing, we now did essentially mental body scans, observing the sensations all across our bodies. Central to this experience is not moving. At all. The ‘sensations’ that you observe are actually the physical pain and itches all over your body that you do not address, but observe. Imagine trying to sit still and have your foot go numb. Then your knee begins to hurt. Imagine having an itch on your face that you cannot scratch, or a strand of hair that is tickling your forehead. All of these experiences I would normally address by moving or scratching. Instead, the goal of the next 6 days of meditation was to acknowledge pain instead of changing position. To wholly embrace painful moments.

As I embraced the pain a surprising thing happened - the pain subsided. My numb leg would bother me for a few minutes, with the pain searing. But as I would focus on the pain and acknowledge the experience I was having, the pain would slowly go away and I could move on to acknowledge the itch on my arm.

This experience taught me an important lesson about pain and uncomfortable situations. We often avoid pain and avoid suffering. In actuality though, sometimes that avoidance only prolongs the pain. Think of the awkward conversation that you don’t want to have, the bad memory that you just want to forget, or avoiding the gym to escape the pain of lifting weights. In each of these cases the perceived pain torments the mind perhaps more than the actual act. We are afraid of experiencing pain and make decisions to avoid pain. Yet this avoidance strategy limits our growth. Deep inside we know who we want to be, but there is likely an element of pain or discomfort to get there. Instead of making decisions based on what is most comfortable, by acknowledging pain we can reach our ultimate potential.

 

Awareness

 

What came of these many days of painful meditation and hours alone to myself was an extreme awareness. Left without my phone and friends, and with time to myself, I became hyper aware of my surroundings. Walking outside you were able to feel the wind on your skin, appreciate the heat of the day, or the feel of your clothes on your body.

I remember on perhaps day 7 or 8 after a 4:30 AM session standing in the Mojave desert outside the bunk area watching the sunrise. I must have stood there for 15 minutes slowly watching the sun creep over the bare desert mountains. Inch by inch the sun rose above the skyline. I had nothing more important in that moment than appreciating the light as it spread across the valley.

Mealtimes were also revelatory. We ate silently in the dining hall, no conversation, no phones, and no eye contact. You were left in that moment to truly focus on your meal. Meals like that are very rare in my life. Instead I’m usually mid-story with a friend, or have Netflix propped up as I enjoy a quickly prepared meal.

During one of my walks on the trail around the compound I remember spotting a simple ant. This ant had a stone in its pincers and was pushing it along the path. I observed this ant carry a stone that was at least ⅓ the size of its own body. I paused and for a length of time observed the ant carry this specific stone over hundreds of similar stones towards an unknown destination. The absolute determination of this ant inspired me. Somehow the drive it took to carry such a large stone, to drop it, and yet find it amidst a sea of similar stones affected me.

Often I lack such determination to act, instead philosophizing around what action to take. While I pause and consider all of the alternatives, here this ant was taking action! This was one lesson I took from nature because I was aware in that moment. I am sure that I have missed hundreds of other lessons from my environment because I am busy or allowing myself to be distracted.

 

Learning from myself

 

In the end I was surprised how much I truly learned during the experience. I was not reading, or learning in any formal way beyond being mentored in the meditation sessions. Yet somehow I was learning. The information floating inside me had time to come together. My life path became very clear in the silence of meditation. The truth stored within myself was allowed to surface. I love learning and typically will go to Google, Quora, or Wikipedia for quick answers. Life’s most important questions can’t be answered in this way though. It takes time to earn answers to such questions. Spending time in prayer, meditation, and quiet can bring such answers to mind. Oftentimes the answers are within us, but we instead bury ourselves in the opinions of others.

 

Returning to ‘Reality’

 

On the last day of the 10 days the ‘Noble Silence’ is lifted and we were able to speak with one another. The silent figures that I meditated next to, ate near, and slept in the same room as, became real people again. The stimulation of simple conversation was overwhelming. Stories, laughter, touch, and listening were all reintroduced. Though strangers, we instantly felt connected. The conversations were meaningful and connections ran deep. It taught me that often it’s what we go through that bonds us more than the words that are spoken

 

After we cleaned the center and I headed on the road the stimulations continued. Turning my phone on I was bombarded with messages, which seemed overwhelming to respond to. Driving home I would intermittently listen to music. Again the stimulation during these songs that were normally background music in my car was palpable. On the drive home I stopped at a church for a worship service. The meeting brought me to tears as the meeting progressed.

Since this time I have struggled to maintain the same level of sensitivity to my current existence. I still avoid pain and seek pleasure, or allow myself to live outside of the given moment. But that time away from the onslaught of demands has set a path and vision that I continue to follow. The pain and quiet moments during in the Mojave Desert have given me principles that I still follow and hope will benefit you in some way.