The Art of Living: Mastering the Mind, and Finding Forgiveness

“Have you forgiven yourself?”, she asked.

“Yes.”, I replied. For the first time, I believed it.

Many of my friends are aware that I did a vipassana retreat in mid-October. To say the technique changed my life would be an understatement. Some people have asked me to share my experience, and I’ve grappled with how to do so because of how my expectations were influenced as a result of hearing about other people’s experiences. I hope that by sharing what mine was like, I can encourage others to commit to their own journey of self-reflection and mindfulness. If you are considering doing a vipassana in the future, I ask that you take my experience with a grain of salt, because your experience might be wildly different from mine.

It’s really tough to articulate vipassana in a succinct way that I think does it justice, because there are so many parts to unpack, each one crucial to understanding another. The experience is impossible to tl;dr. I wrote much of this over the last few weeks of travel, because I was curious to see how long vipassana’s effects would last, and whether my feelings were simply a side effect of a happy afterglow that would recede over time. I spent a lot of time refining, proofreading, and rereading this reflection back to myself to make sure it authentically reflected my experience. Traveling alone gave me the space to disconnect and structure my thoughts in a way that, hopefully, is informative for you, but remains true to me. Though this is reflection is already really long, there’s still a lot I’m leaving out, so I want to thank you in advance for your patience in reading 🙂

Since the beginning of this year, life has been a nonstop blur. Between traveling to 7 different countries in a span of 3 months, oscillating between staying in, or leaving, Shanghai, feeling tepid and unsure about pivoting my career towards engineering, and struggling to sustain a long-distance relationship.. it felt like there was a lot going on. Given the circumstances, I think I handled everything pretty well, but there was definitely a growing melancholy that cast itself over my day-to-day. I came home feeling burnt out from life in China and the breakup, but didn’t have time to feel burned out – my first day at Hack Reactor was less than two weeks away. Hack Reactor was 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 12 weeks, and I was only sleeping 4-5 hours a night due to a growing anxiety of failing out (I had a nightmare that I wrote crappy code for a video game that killed everyone in my cohort – not kidding). I told myself that I’d deal with processing my life after the program ended. When it ended, I again found myself with no time to recoup – I dove headfirst into 2 months of recruiting. Every moment I wasn’t working, I was saddled with feelings of guilt for slacking off; guilt that was pushed into the queue of emotions I hadn’t reconciled since January. I don’t say this in search of sympathy, but because I feel context is necessary to the story.

Throughout this whole period, I was already meditating a few times a week for about 30 minutes at a time. Meditation before my vipassana started off with guided meditations (which I soon found to be more distracting than helpful), visualizations, and trying to “relax” my mind. While it helped, the benefits I experienced were short-term, and didn’t lead to any changes in behavior or thought patterns. I knew that there was insight and meaning I hadn’t tapped into yet, because my practice was not as serious, disciplined, or consistent as it needed to be. I wanted to take it to the next level.

After Hack Reactor was over, I took weekend trips, spent a lot of time outdoors, saw tons of friends who kindly offered help with my job search, and kept up my fitness routine, hoping that ascribing to these oft-prescribed wellness tactics would alleviate my nebulous emotional fog. I also read a lot, searching for answers in books of knowledge others had amassed. I welcomed distractions, and time where I could unplug, but the ends never remained tied. Come Monday, I’d be back in the seemingly never-ending wheel of guilt, pressure, and a sadness that couldn’t seem to shake itself. Unhappiness is an unfamiliar emotion for me, especially for extended periods of time. The weeks leading up to vipassana, I started thinking about therapy. But I wasn’t looking for wasn’t an explanation, so I decided to put it on the back burner, and to revisit the idea if I still felt I needed it after vipassana.

I read books on mindfulness and meditation to prepare myself for the 10 days ahead. I dug up every medium article and reddit thread I could find about what others had experienced, and whether or not it had lived up to expectations. With so much on my plate, I didn’t feel like I was in a place to go, but I also knew that I’d always be able to find an excuse to put it off. And despite reading so much about the difficulty of the experience, I was really looking forward to getting away for 10 days. Naturally, I expected to come out of meditation somewhat enlightened. I told myself I wasn’t expecting a miracle, but I think deep down, part of me was hoping for one. At the very least, I was expecting to face my fears head on in cathartic, multi-hour sessions, with nothing but myself and my thoughts.

Vipassana means to see reality in its true form, not how one wants to see it. It’s a method of self-purification through the process of self-introspection. The rudimentary idea is that all suffering in life comes from three things: cravings, aversions, and ignorance. From birth, we’ve developed cravings for good sensations, and aversions to bad ones. We’ve formed a lifelong habit of continuous reaction to these sensations, both positive and negative. Ignorance to this default process perpetuates the habit. For every thought you have, there is a biochemical response happening in your body. When you feel anger, your muscles tense up. When you feel fear, your pupils dilate. When you feel happy, your mouth instinctively cracks open in a smile. By observing a code of moral discipline (sila), one sharpens the mind (samadhi) to focus on the natural breath, and then, to observe subtle sensations in the body. Through this observation, meditators realize universal truths (panna) of impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. Awareness of how the mind’s activity is manifested physically helps one develop equanimity in responding to different sensations, detaching oneself from a craving or an aversion to a particular sensation. Slowly, one begins to undo the entrenched habit of blind reaction to various sensations. The goal is not to become emotionless—but to observe without reacting, developing mastery of the mind. This allows one to root their actions and responses in compassion and love, and to be more fully present in each moment. Contrary to detachment, meditators feel every emotion in its entirety, because they are able to engage more fully. Eradicating one’s past conditioning to react to sensations allows for the discovery of true joy in each present moment, which is why vipassana is thought of as an art of living.

The technique is non-religious and non-sectarian, which provides the freedom for anyone, from any religious denomination, to practice and experience its benefits without conflict. There’s no goal of conversion, and no embellishments to the technique; no incense, no worship of invisible deities, no music, etc. In fact, vipassana discourages against these tertiary rituals so meditators can focus on the technique in its purity, without distracting themselves, or attributing their progress to unrelated factors. If, for any reason, students don’t understand or agree with something, clarification with the teacher is encouraged, rather than blind submission of faith. Vipassana is completely free, and is financed through the generosity of past students who have experienced benefits for themselves—each 10-day course carries a cost of roughly $15,000. The organization does not run on corporate sponsorship or the backing of any wealthy individual, and all of its governing board members are experienced practitioners and teachers. Meditators are only allowed to donate after finishing one 10-day course in its entirety.

If meditating for 12 hours a day sounds like a lot of time spent inspecting your bodily sensations, you’re right – every day, I tried concocting socially acceptable excuses to give up. Not because it was physically or mentally taxing in ways I’ve traditionally defined “challenging”, but primarily because I found it excruciatingly boring. I didn’t experience deep insight or powerful revelations during the first few days, and it made me believe the entire thing was a waste of my time. The mental chatter was loud and endless; my thoughts kept wandering to my upcoming travels, my new job, what was for lunch that day. I simply thought I had better, more important matters to take care of, and repeatedly questioned why I was there. When I asked my teacher why I hadn’t processed any of the experiences I was hoping to process, and when this part would happen, he responded: “We don’t want to work with thoughts – thoughts are hard to control, and easy to get lost in. They’re abstract. You want to work with your breath because it’s concrete and real, something you can feel, an existence you can’t deny.”

My first small insight was how dependent humans are on sensory and intellectual entertainment from external stimuli. We constantly crave stimulation, whether through interactions with people, reading books, engaging with technology, admiring nature, exercising, etc. We seek out anything that generates pleasant sensations for us. We seek answers and comfort from the outside world, instead of looking inside ourselves to find the truth. How much time have we really spent with ourselves? The other small realization I had was how dull the mind is – though I consider myself physically perceptive, it still took me 72 hours to build the concentration necessary to feel the subtleties of my respiration.

By the time we learned vipassana on the fourth day, my mind was sharp enough to perceive how my natural breath felt against the hairs on the insides of my nostrils. We applied this mental concentration to observing different sensations in our body. The catch with becoming aware of your breath and sensations is that you’re not supposed to create sensations in your body – vipassana is observation of the natural state of mind and body. That is reality. I became attached when I was able to observe sensations, thinking to myself that I was finally meditating correctly. But more often than not, I couldn’t observe anything. When the sensations went away, I’d berate my murky mind for lacking in concentration and effort. I asked my teacher, “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my concentration? Why can’t I focus for the whole sitting?” He laughed and responded, “Chrystal, we’re in the kindergarten of vipassana right now, and you already want a PhD.” He had been meditating for 41 years (and somehow, didn’t look a day over 50). Slowly, it dawned on me: these 10 days were just the beginning of a lifetime of hard, diligent work.

On the fifth day, we introduced adhitthana, the sitting of strong determination. During group meditation in the hall, no matter what sensations you feel in your body, you’re not supposed to adjust your meditating position. Halfway into our first adhithanna sitting, my legs died completely, and because I was determined not to move, my torso then followed suit, with my arms going next. When the gong rang and I released myself from my cross-legged position, all of the blood came coursing back into my muscles, along with one of the most intense waves of emotion I’ve ever felt. It burned heat into the backs of my eyelids for a nanosecond, receding as quickly as it had surfaced. It was so fleeting that I thought I’d imagined it, except I could feel the layer of moisture on my still-closed eyelids, the stickiness in my throat, and the quickened beating of my heart. I don’t know if it was good or bad, but I’d be lying to myself if I denied its existence.

Between learning vipassana and adhitthana, I was entertained until day 6, when my patience began to wane again. Day 6 was particularly hard for me – since I had become accustomed to the long sits, the pain in my legs took longer to set in, and I found myself craving the discomfort. I saw the powerful wave of emotion I had experienced during my first adhithanna sitting as the bar for “productivity” in my meditation practice, and when I had failed to experience it in my subsequent sittings, grew frustrated. My frustration further dulled my mind, taking me back up the levels of superficiality in which I was able to perceive sensation. I’d mentally count down the time until the gong would sound, and would leave the hall immediately, annoyed with myself for subjecting myself to this, feeling the weight of every second that never seemed to pass quickly enough. I asked my teacher about the times I didn’t feel sensation, and he responded, “This is part of vipassana, untying this old habit of craving for a sensation. There are always sensations in your body, but your mind may not always be sharp enough to perceive it. If you don’t feel it, that’s the truth at this moment. Sensations come and go. Accept your reality, and move on.”

The slow onset of recognizing the impermanent nature of the sensations in my body allowed me to understand how transitory life is in regards to good and bad things happening. Everything is temporary; nothing is permanent. You probably already know this; I thought I did too. This is something I’ve known intellectually for years, but until I observed the impermanence of my own bodily sensations, I had never experienced it. When someone is tailgating me on the freeway, my feelings of annoyance are impermanent. When I buy myself the latest iPhone, the feelings of joy will fade away. The grief that comes with the death of a loved one, the butterflies I feel when there’s chemistry with someone – they’re all impermanent sensations manifesting themselves on my body, arising and then passing away. By becoming aware of them, and remaining equanimous, one can choose not to develop cravings and aversions, understanding that the sensation won’t last forever. This is just as important in the context of pleasant sensations as it is for unpleasant ones. Realizing impermanence helped me decouple the past and future from the present moment. By focusing only on my present sensations, and not thoughts of the future or past, I began to understand the preciousness of the present, and fully embrace it. Your present moment is the culmination of all moments in the past. We can’t change the past, but we can orient ourselves towards the future, by choosing how we act and respond in the present. I don’t think vipassana is the only path to understanding this.. but I do think that in order for these truths to truly bring peace to someone, they need to be experienced, not merely read about and understood on a theoretical level.

One of the teachings in vipassana is that once you’ve stopped generating sankharas, or attachments to sensations, the old stock of sankharas that you’ve accumulated in the past can start to rise to the surface, manifesting themselves as sensations on your body. Once you’ve processed your old stock of sankharas, all that remains is compassion and love, and you can begin to spread this loving-kindness, otherwise known as metta. However, if you try to practice metta, but you still have sankharas that haven’t been processed yet, your compassion will be planted with a seed of negativity, and the fruit it bears cannot be sweet. You’ll know when you’re ready by tuning into the subtle sensations in your body. Only when your intention is free from defilement can you practice metta sincerely, and effectively.

In one of Goenka’s discourses, he talks about the practice of love: “If you practice an act of love towards someone else and you expect anything in return (acknowledgement, reciprocation, praise, etc.), this is not loving that person – this is loving your ego.” I had to dig extremely deep into my meditation before I found my ego. I had never been able to see it for what it truly was – or maybe I simply didn’t want to. As my sankharas bubbled their way up to physical sensations, the picture became clearer, and ego took up a lot of space in that picture, its tentacles grasping tightly onto decisions I had made and actions I had taken. The sensations that came up on my body were so slight, and so subtle, that I felt like if my heart beat too hard, I’d lose them. Ego was very tricky for me to see properly because it was often wrapped in images of goodwill and kindness, and it was only through vipassana that I was able to see it for what it really was, and begin to work on dissolving it. Before, I saw my people-pleasing personality as an extension of my overflowing love for others, and would feel hurt when acts of kindness went unnoticed. The ability to dissolve came because I was finally able to see how so many of my past reactions had been tied up with cravings for the pleasant sensation of validation, or aversions to sensations caused by embarrassment. Of course, ego death does not happen overnight; it’s a long journey ahead, but I can’t see myself going back to a place where I was scared to look at it at all.

I was finding it impossible to practice metta when certain people would crop up in my mind – people in the past who had wronged me, hurt me, and in general, caused me a lot of pain. I asked my teacher, “How do you practice metta towards people you don’t like?”. He responded, “That’s hard, of course.. but if you can tune into your breath, and your sensations, you’ll find that, over time, your awareness also diminishes anger and hatred because you choose not to react to these sensations, to remain equanimous, knowing these sensations will pass. People can bring you gifts of misery, but you can choose not to accept.” At the end of our last meditation for the day, I still couldn’t bring myself to practice metta towards everyone – I still felt heat rippling through my body.

On our last day, I remember turning the concept of metta over and over in my head, and I knew I’d feel better if I could forgive. “Come on Chrystal, this is your last adhithanna before Noble Silence is over. Make the effort so you don’t have regrets.” What I didn’t expect during this meditation were the feelings of guilt, shame, and anger I directed towards myself to surface, and the deep belief I’ve held over the years that I deserved to suffer for my past transgressions, and the hurt I’ve caused others. I sat, observing each sensation on my body, determined to not give into the instinct to move or react. When only subtle, pleasant vibrations remained, my mind was several layers deep into a semi-conscious state. There was nothing left, only pleasant sensations under which I could practice metta. I didn’t expect the blessing at the end of meditation to include the words, “I forgive those have hurt me,”, and I definitely didn’t expect what he uttered next: “I forgive myself for the pain I’ve caused others.” And with this release, I sat, tears in my eyes, bathed in compassion and love towards the people I hadn’t been able to forgive the day before, and wrapped in compassion towards myself.

If ego was challenging, forgiveness was the hardest of them all. As hard as it was to find it in myself to generate compassion for those who had hurt me, I was surprised at how much more difficult it was to forgive myself. The funny thing is, I thought I had already forgiven others, but I’d still feel tinges of negativity when they crossed my mind. And I never thought I needed to forgive myself first, but it was only after I held compassion for myself, that I found myself able to practice metta towards others.

You might remember from my birthday reflections a few months ago that I mentioned I was very clear on my life’s true north: to spread compassion and love to as many people as possible. But as clear as my vision was, I had many, many questions about how this abstract objective could be broken down into an actionable strategy. What vipassana showed me was that it’s impossible to embark on this mission without developing true love for yourself first – because the love you spread must be rooted in an intention free of any negativity. That love begins with yourself.

Ever the skeptic, what I really liked about vipassana was that the technique was rooted in logic and rational thought. There was no mention of worshipping any particular figure, or any submission of blind faith. The technique doesn’t restrict accessibility based on money, class, gender, or race – it’s a universally applicable technique that anyone can practice, anywhere, anytime. Perhaps what I find most rewarding about vipassana, is that what you extract out of this technique is a direct result of your own efforts. It’d be simple to sit passively for an hour and lose yourself in your thoughts, but panna is only experienced in deep, concentrated sessions where you truly focus. It’s hard to describe how it feels physically, because it varies from person to person. For me, deep meditation felt like my entire body had gone numb. When the gong would ring to conclude a sitting, it felt like waking up from a deep dream, with the session clinging to my skin like wet clothes. I felt physically weighed down, but light as air mentally. Once, I got up too quickly from a deep meditation and literally fell back down, as if the mind-body connection between my legs and my brain had disconnected. I never saw light, never had visions, and didn’t have any “breakthrough” epiphanies the way I thought I would – rather, the insight came so slowly, so gradually, that most of my processing happened after meditation sessions. I would have easily missed it had I not been perceptive enough, my mind sharpened by 10 days of work.

Noble silence made a lot more sense to me after it was over on day 10. It felt impossible to go deep in meditation for the rest of the day (noise and meditation don’t go together), and it was tough not to draw comparisons between the experiences of different people. The silence is enforced to cultivate an environment of intense focus and the feeling that you’re working in isolation – because you are. Only you can experience and realize these truths. No one else can do this work for you.

What’s more interesting about vipassana is how it has continued to affect my life after the retreat. I came home after meditation to my mom, and for the first time in six months, we had a beautifully long, honest conversation about my experience. She’s planning to do a retreat of her own in January, and I’m so excited for her 🙂 As most of you know, I’ve been traveling solo these last few weeks, and for the first time in my life, without a Google spreadsheet (hard to believe, but I promise, it’s true). I’m not the kind of person to attribute much to fate, but I can honestly say that meditation has enabled me to be present on a level I could only intellectualize before. Meditation after meditation, my days feel brighter and fuller, the mishaps reduced to trivial and amusing moments of impermanence. Of course, I still experience craving and aversion from time to time, but I now understand what I need to do to resolve those attachments.

Did vipassana solve all my life’s problems? Absolutely not, but it gave me the insight and toolkit to live my life in a balanced way, and to choose my actions from a place of awareness and love. I’m not here to sell you on meditation or a retreat, because if you feel coaxed into doing it, you will will block yourself from being able to go as deep as is required to understand. Vipassana is only suitable for those who are willing to work hard, and work honestly. I only want to share my experience, with the volition of encouraging those who are open to it to give this gift to yourself. My only regret is that I waited so long to do mine.

I thank you with full sincerity if you read this reflection in its entirety. If you’re on the fence about doing vipassana, I suggest you take that leap of faith and book it! Trust me when I say that the world will continue, even if you willfully disengage with it for 10 days. There’s never been a better time to give yourself the gift of peace and liberation, than right now.

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