As you read this blog, please keep in mind that what I wrote below is from my personal experience. So, please keep an open mind because your own or the experience of others may be different.
Prior to Vipassana, I was aware that I needed a reset. I had spun off into a pattern that wasn’t serving me, and everything I intended to do to change it wasn’t happening. I told my wife, Parisa, more than once that I needed to go away.
Over the past few years, I have been experiencing an increasing amount of stress, pressure, and grief that finally reached a tipping point. While facing the demands of running an expanding and growing business with a heavy client load while also producing a film and tending to the final stages of my new book, I was hit with a COVID influx of patients and a very stressful intervention for one of our children. Perhaps the most taxing was a court case to move our youngest daughter to LA, which was then denied because the court-appointed minor’s counsel was colluding with the opposing counsel. The court claimed that I was “way too put together and had too much ambition,” for my daughter to move in with us… Following that, I was pulled back into court a year later for a battle over child support.
On top of this, the film I had sunk my time, heart and money into transformed from being a joyful collaboration into something I had to fight to protect. Parisa and I fully funded a short documentary that turned out well until my team began losing their minds. While we were approaching the finish line to submit the film to festivals, I had to pull the plug on the project because my best friend was trying to remove our names and take over the entire thing. To make matters worse, my team, whom Parisa and I paid personally, was supporting this madness. Thus, I had to let them go. Meanwhile, those involved in the scandal held our film hostage and tried to extort money from us to get it back. I had to take a break from my friend and assemble a new team from scratch to help us finish so I could gather my senses and get things back on track.
Parisa and I had committed to moving to Los Angeles in August of 2022. In order to do this, we let go of our clinic in San Jose and turned it over to one of our practitioners. We then rented out our condo and made the move. During this time, we had a new set of eyes working on the film, which was finally moving forward. The anger I felt towards my friend due to his actions turned into compassion over time when I realized he was facing mental illness and wasn’t acting in his right mind.
Then, on September 25th, my father passed away, and three days after his death, my brothers attempted to take over his estate, requiring that I turn it over to another law firm. Over the span of ten days, my father’s caretaker and I cleared out his entire house and I put it on the market to then sell it within the month.
Our 11 year wedding anniversary was in November of that same year. That’s when I received a text from my friend wishing us a happy anniversary and that he loved and missed us. I responded that I loved and missed him in return and said we’d get together to talk soon. I was ready to put the past behind us and planned to meet with him after I received the new version of the film so we could have a conversation about moving forward together in submitting it to film festivals.
My friend then took his own life. It was two months after my father’s passing. I received the film three days after his death, and never had the chance to have that conversation with him.
At the start of the new year in January 2023, Parisa and I opened our new office in downtown Burbank. It’s a beautiful spot and I’m super proud of the space we have created.
I’ve been working on my second book for almost ten years now… The same day I submitted my final manuscript to Scribe Publishing, for which we had already paid them tens of thousands of dollars to publish this book and update my first book, we got word that the owner had taken the money from all the authors and ran. Scribe was closing their doors and we were left without any recourse to get our money back.
Needless to say, there has been a lot of pressure and build-up until this point. However, at the same time, I did recognize that we’ve had a lot of blessings in our life.
About a month ago, after feeling overwhelmed with my client load and other business demands, I told Parisa, again, that I needed to go away.
I was able to recognize that what I have been doing up to this point was no longer working for me, and a lot of the external strife I was experiencing resulted from what was going on inside of me and was manifesting in the external environment. I had no control over my father’s or friend’s passing; however, the surrounding circumstances and drama that arose could have resulted from how I’ve been perceiving my world from within. That’s when Parisa signed me up for the California Vipassana Center’s 10-day silent retreat.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana meditation is a simple, practical way to achieve real peace of mind and lead a happy, useful life. Vipassana literally means “to see things as they are.” It is a logical process of mental refinement through the witness of self-observation.
We all experience agitation, frustration, and disharmony from time to time. Yet, when we suffer, we do not limit our misery to ourselves; we continue to distribute it to others. Indeed, there are better ways to live. We long to live at peace within ourselves and those around us. After all, human beings are social beings which requires that we live and interact with others.
How then can we exist peacefully? How can we remain harmonious within ourselves while maintaining peace and harmony around us?
Vipassana enables us to experience inner stillness; it purifies the mind, freeing it from suffering and the deep-seated causes of that suffering. The practice leads, step-by-step, to the highest spiritual goal of total liberation from all mental defilements.
To learn Vipassana meditation, a ten-day residential course must be taken under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Ten days of sustained practice is the minimum amount of time in which the essentials of the technique can be learned for Vipassana to be applied in daily life.
For the duration of the retreat, you are to remain within the course site and have no contact with the outside world. You must refrain from reading or writing and suspend religious practices and all other disciplines. The retreat follows a demanding daily schedule, which includes about ten hours of seated meditation with breaks interspersed throughout the day. You must observe total silence, not communicating in any way with fellow students. You may speak with the teachers whenever necessary, and you can contact the staff with needs related to food, health, etc.
I had to completely surrender and follow their system for the ten days, which included some strict rules and guidelines I had to commit to. While there, I couldn’t incorporate other mediation practices, Qigong, rituals, or scripture. You aren’t allowed to bring any books or writing material to journal. There are to be no distractions whatsoever. There is to be no communication with anyone in any form, which means no eye contact, talking, or gestures of any kind—complete inwardness. The men and women are separated, and we had separate dorms and areas to walk and eat. The only time men and women are together is during the group meditation, when each keeps to their own side of the room. While there, you make a promise not to steal, lie, have sex, or masturbate; to be promptly on time to all mediations and not kill anything (meaning they serve a vegetarian diet). You have only two meals daily: breakfast at 6 a.m. and lunch at 11 a.m. For the evening, only tea and fruit are served at 5 p.m. While in meditation, you can not just get up and move if you are in pain from sitting that long. You must ask for permission from the group manager to lean on the wall or have a chair to sit in.
Here’s the daily schedule:
4:00 a.m. The ring of the gong to wake up
4:30 – 6:30 a.m. Meditation in your own room or in the meditation hall
6:30 – 7:15 Breakfast
7:15 – 8:00 Rest period
8:00 – 9:00 Mandatory meditation in the meditation hall
9:00 – 11:00 Meditation in main hall or in your own room
11:00 – 11:45 Lunch
11:45 – 1:00 p.m. Rest in your room or review with your teacher
1:00 – 2:20 Meditation in your room or meditation hall
2:30 – 3:30 Mandatory group meditation in meditation hall
3:30 – 5:00 Meditation in your room or the hall
5:00 – 5:30 Tea break
5:30 to 6:00 Rest period
6:00 to 7:00 Mandatory group meditation hall
7:00 to 8:15 Evening discourse
8:15 to 9:00 Mandatory group meditation in the meditation hall
10:00 p.m. Lights out
Before arriving, I had written down several reasons why I was doing this, and I’m glad I did, because as each day passed, especially the first few days and as my mind was mentally breaking down, I’d have to remind myself of my purpose in being there.
This was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done. It was physically, mentally, and emotionally painful. From day one, I had to give myself positive reinforcement through self-talk and seriously take things moment by moment. It became overwhelming if I started to think about whether I had nine days or five days left, etc. I’m used to doing standing meditation for 1 to 2 hours at a time but not seated meditation for 10 hours a day. It was exhausting. You would think it isn’t because all you’re doing is meditating, that it should be relaxing! It wasn’t. The meditation room has no music, no birds chirping or pictures on the wall, absolutely nothing that can distract you. You are given a specific spot to sit and a two-by-two meditation mat that’s yours for the next 11 days. You are to sit in complete silence with your eyes closed, focusing only on the meditation as it is being taught. For the first two-and-a-half days, the meditation focuses only on the breath coming in and out of the nostrils and the sensation of that. Is the breath more predominating in the left or right nostril, or is it equal? How does the breath feel on the upper lip from the nostrils, or can you can even feel it there?
By halfway through the first full day, things started bubbling up. Images and memories from the past that I had tucked deeply away. They called this “surgery on your mind.” These thoughts would pull me out of the mediation when I dwelled upon them. So, each time I noticed them, I would have to pull myself back into the mediation. This was exhausting, and it hurt the most, mentally. What’s interesting is that if I got stuck on a thought, I noticed I would experience greater pain throughout my body. And, I learned quickly that the only way out of that pain was to pull myself back into my breath.
Mr. Goenka called these thoughts and memories “the puss” being pushed to the surface of my deep wounds. Before sealing the wound, you must get the puss out. Beginning the meditation, he would say: Through your despair you have to continue to work diligently, patiently, and persistently. You are sharpening your mind like a pencil, and instead of your mind being in control, you are learning the technique in which to control your mind. You and only you can liberate yourself from the misery inside. No one else can do this for you. You are responsible for your own salvation. This is extremely hard work; the harder you work, the greater benefit you will receive from the next ten days.
I wanted to quit, and I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go. I was stuck with my thoughts and my misery. I prayed moment to moment, day to day, for the strength to finish.
Our 5:00 p.m.tea break was followed by another mandatory one-hour meditation in the group hall and a nightly dissertation from Goenka wrapping up the day’s practice and the deep philosophy surrounding the work being performed. After this 75 minute talk, we would take a five-minute break and meditate again from 8:15 to 9:00 p.m.
The most challenging meditation times for me were between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. From 1:00 – 2:20 p.m. you could meditate either in your room or in the group meditation hall, take a 10-minute break and attend mandatory meditation from 2:30 – 3:30 p.m. This was followed by another five-minute break, where after you can meditate in your room or in the group meditation hall from 3:30 – 5:00 p.m.
I found myself so exhausted during the mandatory group meditations that I would tell myself I would meditate in my room for the 3:30 to 5:00 practice. But, I knew I would find a way to get distracted or end up lying down to meditate, meaning I would fall asleep or find something else to focus on. Amongst the difficulty, I had brief moments of euphoria and growing inner strength as I battled with my mind to not give in, and I ended up choosing to stay in the meditation hall for each session.
Mr. Goenka informed us that day three and six would be the most difficult. I found that to be true, and also days one and two were incredibly challenging as well! By day three, you are asked not to move during mediation, and told that you should refrain even from scratching an itch or readjusting your legs.
Another challenge was to sit on the two-by-two meditation mat for the duration of the retreat. Many participants asked for permission to sit in a chair or against the wall. After I made it through the discomfort of day three, I committed to sticking it out and observing the pain I was experiencing. Interestingly, the discomfort would dissipate when I focused on observing the pain I felt in my knees, hips, or anywhere in my body from sitting in one position for so long.
In the end, I gained a great deal of wisdom from my 10-day Vipassana experience. Here are some of the enlightening realizations I had:
A major part of my miseries arose from past, distorted mind patterns. Where I would focus or become almost obsessed with people or incidents and dwell upon the anger and resentment I felt over what was being done or said, my mind would make up stories of what was happening (or could happen) and what I would say or do if/when that situation came up.
I realized this was at the root of what shows up as misery in my life. During this retreat, my mind almost continuously focused on “potential” events. I realized that this mind pattern is consistent with past mind patterns and keeps me from being fully present.
No matter what negative thoughts I had at the moment, I had to remind myself that I couldn’t do anything about them, even if they seemed valid, because I would be stuck there for the immediate future. It was a good lesson of letting thoughts flow through me along with my breath so I could stay present. I became deeply aware that by keeping peaceful thoughts within, I can also bring peace to the world outside of me.
Because of the misery along with the physical and mental pain, I had to talk myself off the ledge by remembering to practice positive affirmations during the ten days. Here’s one of those affirmations I had to write down and look at when my mind started giving in: Every segment, moment, and day you make it through this program, you feel empowered to continue breaking through the misery of your mind and completing the entire course!
As the liberation of the mind begins to unfold, other components of the past are dissolved, and wisdom is revealed.
I can work through feelings of desperation with calm mind and breath.
With liberation from my mind, I receive true wisdom.
Every moment after a certain point, whether it’s one minute or five, feels like an hour.
My angst about being here is rooted in my attachment to the outside world, my attachment to being at home, and to my busy life.
The addictions of the past were not the substance I was addicted to but the sensation rooted in craving.
Going within is the path to discover what heals the sensation that creates the addictive pattern.
Only I can realize my salvation; no one else is coming to rid my mind of delusion.
I release the misery whenever there’s a feeling of pain, etc., during meditation.
While there, I also had some interesting experiences with manifestation and nature. On day three, while walking from my room to the meditation hall at 4:30 a.m., I was praying for the strength to make it through the next seven days and to resolve the internal conflicts that show up as misery in my life. I then thought it would be amazing if there were a thunderstorm while I was there. Then, I saw a shooting star race across the sky, confirming my prayer. Later that afternoon, we had a thunderstorm. Later that day, a white chipmunk with a brown belly ran across my path. He and I made eye contact. I thought it was a good omen.
On day four, I found a small Zen desert trail, and as I walked along it, a white Gecko with a green belly ran across my path. I stopped. Another person from the group walked past the lizard, and the lizard took a few more steps, stopped, turned towards my direction, opened his mouth, and started doing a little air squat exhibition where I thought this was another good omen.
On day five, I ran across the lizard and chipmunk again.
On day six, walking from the meditation hall after the 4:30 morning meditation, I saw a double rainbow in the sky. On my hike in the late afternoon, I saw the chipmunk and the lizard again. Then, another rainbow appeared between the break and the 6:00 p.m. meditation.
On day seven, I thought about how cool it would be to have another thunderstorm. One came that afternoon and into the evening. Then, while waiting for the mandatory evening meditation to start, a family of quails and their new babies came down towards me.
On day eight, while taking a five-minute break, I walked back from the dorm to the meditation hall where I saw a massive black wasp with florescent orange wings sitting on a white stone, watching all the men walk back towards the hall, almost as if he was on guard. Then, I noticed a giant white boulder not too far behind him, and I saw something on top of it. Upon looking closer, I realized it was that chipmunk again! He was watching everyone walking by as well. As we continued to walk, I stopped to make eye contact with him, and he chirped at me.
On day nine, an early morning lightning storm occurred between meditation and breakfast, and on that same day, I had my greatest emotional release. This clearing showed up as trembling throughout my whole body along with weakness, heat, jerking sensations, and vibrations. Experiencing this, I found myself emotionally and mentally exhausted. I then discovered that while holding on to Kidney 10 on the right leg, I could sit much longer without having to move or feeling discomfort.
During our evening break, I went for a hike along the trail, and I thought to myself, “It would be great to see my lizard friend before I leave.” Something told me that if I didn’t see him on this walk, it would be my last chance, and I didn’t know why at the time. As I walked, I thought to myself, “there’s a couple of guys ahead of me, so I probably won’t run across him, and it’s way too hot out here anyways.” Then, sure enough, three-quarters of the way around the trail, he ran across my path, got to the other side, stopped, turned his head, and made eye contact with me. As I said, I knew then this would be the last time I would see him.
Next, a beautiful lightning storm broke out with strikes hitting the ground and lighting up the sky every few seconds. Then, halfway through day ten, we were called into the hall for a mandatory meeting. We were to be released early because with the hurricane coming in and the expectation of flash floods, if we didn’t leave that afternoon, we would most likely be stuck there. Even though our final day was cut short, I was grateful to have made it to day ten.
To conclude, even though this practice is designed to help participants liberate themselves from their own misery and mind, it may not be a practice that is right for everyone. As for myself, going into this I had to embrace the knowing that I need more practice in being comfortable with the experience of being uncomfortable. This applies to everyone. I was initially anxious and slightly nervous heading into this program, but I’m glad I did it. It’s been almost two weeks now, and I’m still integrating everything that occurred.
If someone observed me from the outside, it may appear that nothing has changed, yet there has been a shift in myself and a breakthrough of some sort, although I am not able to properly describe it at this time. I’ve been asked if I would do this again, and the answer is, yes. Until then, I will continue the practice for two hours every day—one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. And, at some point, I may do a 30 or 45-day silent retreat.
If you’re looking for a reset and a way to change things that aren’t working for you, I’d recommend this course strongly. Vipassana was the very practice that helped Buddha attain enlightenment. You indeed have to eat the bitter through the 10-day process, and the sweetness you will receive comes in liberation. I’m not claiming to be completely liberated from my mind, but I’ve taken a very big first step on that path, which is long but worth it for my own salvation.
About the instructor:
Mr. S.N. Goenka reintroduced Vipassana to the world. His renowned Burmese Vipassana teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, authorized him to teach the practice. Before he died in 1971, U Ba Khin saw one of his most cherished dreams realized. He strongly wished that Vipassana would return to India, the land of its origin, to help the country escape its manifold problems. He felt sure it would then spread from India throughout the world for the benefit of all mankind. S.N. Goenka began teaching Vipassana meditation in India in 1969. A decade later, he began to conduct ten-day courses, ultimately totaling nearly 500 throughout other countries as well. Nowadays, more than 1,000 assistant teachers trained by Mr. Goenka conduct courses worldwide. Over a hundred centers dedicated to the practice have been established, where about 100,000 people attend retreats annually. S.R. Goenka was a guest speaker at many distinguished forums, such as the World Millennium Peace Summit, the UN, and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. His teachings embody a consistent message: lasting happiness is only achieved by purifying the mind. S.R. Goenka passed in 2013, leaving behind a great legacy for us all to benefit from.
Thank you for reading to the end. Be blessed and Qi you later.
-Chris (and Parisa)