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My experience with a Vipassana course

As I mentioned in my last post, I joined an online Vipassana course last month. It was an illuminating experience and while I didn’t get to spend as much time as it as I wanted to, I’m glad I went through it.

I’d been wanting to join a meditation retreat for years. I searched for retreats near me, but never pushed through. They were too far, or too expensive, or I was in the middle of work projects and couldn’t get away.

So when I heard about a free, online course that could be taken within my normal schedule, I was in!

Getting started

I chose the “Workplace Warrior” stream because I wasn’t taking time off. I continued working and doing my share of the housework the entire time. This stream has the least amount of meditation, but it still has several hours worth each day.

There were guidelines to follow, too. For example, there was a prescribed diet and I couldn’t drink alcohol. I also wasn’t supposed to interact with the outside world or consume other media. Obviously, this was impossible given the job I do, but I cut it down when I could. I stopped watching the news, I didn’t listen to my podcasts, I didn’t read anything for fun.

I followed it for two days, and then…

I was going along swimmingly until I hit the two day mark. I started getting insomnia. Again. This was something I’d started struggling with late last year. I’d just gotten a good sleep rhythm going, so it was frustrating when I couldn’t fall sleep again. Apparently, this isn’t uncommon. Meditation had made me hyper aware of my surroundings. I’d lie awake at night being super conscious of my breathing and unable to sleep.

I think, if I were in a proper retreat, I probably would’ve pushed through the insomnia. But my challenge was I still needed to be functional at work. So while I still watched to all the lectures and did some meditation, I decreased my meditation time.

Any breakthroughs?

Despite not doing as much meditation as I could have, I had a few key learnings.

One, the importance of what I feed into my mind. I’d always done 5 or 10 minute meditations sessions but couldn’t go for longer than that. Because of that, I was stuck in the phase where I was fidgety and impatient and never pushed through to the next phase where I could calmly observe my thoughts and focus on my breath.

It made me realise about how much crap I was letting into my consciousness. As I was sitting there, all these useless things where flitting in and out of my mind – celebrity gossip, news that had zero effect on me, old conversations. It made me realise that they were there because I had let them in.

Second, it made me more comfortable with uncomfortable thoughts and sensations. I had a taste of looking at them more objectively, and trying to get closer to the root of them.

Three, it was amazing what I could get done when I was focused. Obviously, I had to carve off a substantial chunk of my time for meditation, which meant I had limited time to do things. That, coupled with not being able to browse the Internet randomly, meant that I was super efficient. I was able to squeeze in all my chores and things in the allotted time!

Finally, it was great to get an explanation about certain meditation practices. The session wasn’t all meditation, there would be two talks twice a day. For example, I’d always wondered why a lot of meditations were focusing on the breath and I’d always impatiently wait til it was over. But as David Hans-Barker explained: “If you can focus on something as boring as the breath, you can focus on anything!” Good point. So now when I start a meditation about focusing on the breath, I know what it’s for.

Moving forwards

I’ve been in the real world for a few weeks now. While I’ve gone back to reading things outside of the course content (obviously) I’m now more intentional about what I consume.

I’ve also resolved that I want to strengthen my meditation skills. Instead of just doing 5-10 minutes as a cursory exercise, I’d like to take it further. I realised that I really like the “loving kindness” type meditations so I’d like to focus in that area.

Anyway, if there’s anyone reading this who’s keen to take the course, I’d highly recommend it.

First, it’s free.

Second, it’s flexible. The guidelines are more of recommendations – there was a prescribed diet, but I didn’t follow it, and that was OK. Besides, it’s an online course – nobody’s keeping tabs. But at the end of the day, people get out what they put in – there’s no accountability but to oneself.

Finally, there are benefits even if someone doesn’t complete the entire course. As I mentioned, I didn’t complete all the meditations, and that was OK. I still got a lot out of it.

Part of me wonders if I should take this course (or a version of it) every year, as a reminder. I’ll see.

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2021 goals

I usually have a succinct theme for the start of each year. But for 2021, I couldn’t phrase it in a way that didn’t sound pretentious. (Haha.) So, the gist of what I want to happen, is to strengthen my self. To make sure I have a solid foundation of my thoughts, habits, etc.

I was inspired after reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (which took me 3 months to complete – it’s not long at all, I’d just get distracted about other things). In particular, reading about his personal project to improve himself using 13 virtues. Each week, he would focus on a single virtue, trying his best to live it. He cycled through the 13 virtues continuously from when he was 20 years old.

I don’t think I’m ready to cycle through virtues weekly and hold myself to the same standard. But I like the idea of focusing on a single aspect of self-improvement. So for each month, I’m going to deep-dive on one thing of improving my self. While I feel like doing the “little bits every day” is helpful for some things, I think there are other things that I could devote a bigger chunk of my time and energy to.

For January, I’m joining an online Vipassana course for 10 days, starting two days from now. There’s an option for people who can’t get away from work or family commitments and that’s what I’ve signed up for. Even then, I’m a little overwhelmed looking at the schedule. Even with the “lite” version, there’s around 5 hours of meditation each day, plus rules to follow for when I’m not working/needing to do the “essentials”: not exposing myself to content with the outside world, refraining from interacting with others, etc. Still, it is only 10 days, and I’m excited to see what I’ll learn.

(Obviously, writing blogs is out of the question for that time, so see you all in two weeks or so!)

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“Brick by boring brick”

If there’s anything to describe 2020, it’d be this phrase nicked from one of the readings on “The Daily Stoic Journal”. (It’s also one of the reasons why I managed to finish the journal in the first place. I started it in 2019, but only completed only around 5% by the end of that year. Oops.)

With everything going on, there was a lot of waiting. And putting plans on hold, if not cancelling them entirely. While there were milestones, there were no big celebrations. It just felt like a quiet, subdued year. Plodding along slowly, steadily.

This year, I learned how to do things little by little. An hour of exercise a day, and I’ve now done heaps more exercise than the previous year. Fifteen minutes of EspaƱol each morning and I’ve completed several online courses (and feeling a lot more fluent than when I stopped studying years ago). Thirty minutes of sewing and I’ve made around a dozen items of clothing in 2020, more than I made from the past years put together (and that’s not even counting masks). This year had more baking, more cooking, more piano playing, more meditation.

I always thought that I never had as much time as I wanted for my hobbies. I used to want to wait for long stretches of time to do things and complain that I never got to complete the projects I wanted to. But now I know, this small, steady bit of effort, no matter how unexciting it feels, all adds up sooner or later. Brick by boring brick.