There are times when you realize that an experience is going to change your life forever; an experience that will take you completely out of your comfort zone and challenge everything about who you think you are.
I recently had such an experience when I attended my first Vipassana course, in the hills two hours outside of Mumbai, India.
What is a Vipassana course you may ask?
Vipassana is an ancient technique for mastering the mind in order to remove negative mental habits that keep you from achieving your goals, transcending pain you are afraid of experiencing, and transforming the emotions that handicap you.
Sounds amazing, huh?
Yet, we all know that nothing in life worth having comes easy.
You learn Vipassana through a 10-day course where you meditate for 10 hours a day. You are not allowed to leave the premises, speak or communicate in any way with other students, use electronic devices, read, sing, exercise (outside of walking), and you must refrain from drinking or smoking.
My friends and I joke that the 10-Day Vipassana Course is the “Navy Seal Training” of mindfulness/meditation practitioners.
You may ask why I would put myself through such ‘suffering’ for ten days.
The answer is quite simple: I had founded this website and coached clients on the premise that you can dramatically change your life by learning how to regulate your mind. Vipassana was the logical next step on my journey into the unknown limits of my mind.
And by knowing my mind, I believe that I can master it.
Mastery of the Mind
The first three days of the course were an introduction to meditation. We developed our concentration by observing our breath and focusing on the sensations experienced in a limited area on our face.
It may seem simple to focus on our breath or a limited area of our body, but it is challenging to keep focused on this area for several hours a day because our mind gets bored and wants us to focus elsewhere.
This is usually on something that we regret happening in the past, or something we fear may occur in the future.
The mind, one learns, would rather be anywhere than the present. And when it is in the present, it is constantly judging, analyzing, and assessing. In short, it is constantly making us miserable.
To deal with this constant flow of thoughts, we were instructed to be aware of when our mind strayed and to come back to our breath without any feeling of negativity.
This process allowed us to observe our thoughts, and realize that they are impermanent. They arise and fade away.
By doing this, we begin to master our mind. We learn to observe the thoughts that do not serve us, and we do not react as they surface and dissolve. Over time, we find that these negative thoughts stop arising altogether and we begin to transform our conditioned mental habits.
I have found that mastery of the mind and the elimination of negative thinking can alter the way we view and interact with life. Ultimately, Vipassana offers us a path to freedom.
One of the most incredible realizations I had on this journey to master my mind was that this mastery could also enable us to transcend physical pain.
The most difficult part of the first three days of the course was being required to sit on a cushion with my legs crossed and no back support for 10 hours a day (spread over seven meditation sessions between 1-2 hours long).
The pain was often too much to bear and I, like many others, alternated between sitting cross-legged and in other positions. Whenever my knee would begin to throb, it was time to switch positions again.
But when we learned the Vipassana technique on the fourth day of the course, I transcended my pain.
Vipassana requires us to scan our body and observe the sensations that take place in each part. In doing this for ten hours each day, I realized my sensations arose with my thoughts.
The majority of the ailments we face as a society today are psychosomatic. They are the result of negative thought processes (i.e., stress and anxiety) that create physical ailments in the body, like knots in the shoulder and back.
As I learned to not give my sensations energy by reacting to them and maintained a perfect balance of the mind, the pain began to dissolve.
Through this practice, I transcended a throbbing pain in my body for the first time in my life. I could meditate three times a day without moving with ease.
Transforming Our Emotions
Emotions, or energy in motion, are something that can be of great assistance and great detriment to us.
In the case of butterflies (anxious energy), they can be a detriment to our ability to perform.
I once heard someone say that there was nothing wrong with having butterflies, as long as you can get those butterflies to fly in formation.
I conceptually understood the meaning of this statement, but it was not until Day 7 of the course that I understood it experientially.
Near the end of the course, I began to notice that I could observe subtle sensations throughout my body—almost as if there was a flow of electric current—while meditating.
In seeing butterflies as sensations, we understand that they too, like thoughts, are impermanent. We may feel butterflies at this moment, but we may not in the next. So instead of letting emotions control us, we can learn to harness their energy for our own purpose.
By deepening my practice of this meditation technique, I know that I will one day learn to fly my butterflies in perfect formation.
Since returning to my day-to-day life, I no longer react blindly to situations. I find that I have cultivated the mental and physical balance that allows me to respond with freedom.
When we achieve this freedom, we go from being a powerless victim of our experiences and habits to experiencing tremendous strength. Life may take us up and down, but we maintain perfect mastery of our mind and ultimately live in true happiness.