My time at Hong Kong Vipassana Center 2019-04-17 to 2019-04-21
Part 1. Why, What, Day 1
I went to the Vipassana Meditation Center in New Territories, Hong Kong for a new student's ten day course. I could not complete it and dropped out at the end of the fourth day. This is a journal of how and why it came about as well as my experiences during the course. I hope that it will be of use to the reader.
I am interested in our human minds, how we think and our ability to focus to complete tasks. As my career advanced and became more complicated, I thought it was very important to keep developing myself in order to not only keep up with the demands of my work, but also to go even further. To develop, I read books and other materials that I thought could be of use to me, falling mainly into the fields of neuroscience, psychology, behavioural economics and sociology.
As I have learned, I have come to understand the severe fallibility of the mind but also to accept it as part and parcel of who we are, and in turn more accepting of myself and of people around me. I cannot speak for everyone else, but my mind is a restless animal. One of its defining shortcomings is its inability to focus its attention for an extended period of time on any particular topic and that is what eventually led me to Vipassana meditation.
I cannot say precisely how I found Vipassana. I think it may have been while reading Cal Newport's book "Deep Work" and later confirmed by conversations with other people about Vipassana and the general purposes of meditation along the lines of "it's great, dude". My interest in it grew and eventually I decided to pursue it further. My initial understanding of it was that it would help calm the mind as well as learn to be more compassionate to those around you. For me that was good enough to try it.
I arrived at the camp on the evening of the 17th. The camp is in the New Territories of Hong Kong. It is in a secluded, green area off a small road and near a river. The camp itself is basic. Much of it is only partially covered, only the meditation halls and the dormitory are covered rooms. Although there are beds, you are recommended to bring a sleeping bag, sheets and pillows. The bed is inside a bug net as there are a lot of insects and small animals around. Students are split by gender and kept separate for the entirety of the course. There are around 15 male and 15 female students, as well as a few “management” volunteers for day to day running of the center and one teacher. All students observe "noble silence": which means no communication, either by speaking or contact or gestures, with any other student. Although there are people around, you are there to be by yourself.
The day I arrived was orientation. Noble silence started at 7pm, we filed into the meditation hall and were introduced to initial concepts. We had "precepts", i.e. rules, that we were to abide by. The five precepts are:
To not kill any living creature. I did my best to avoid harming any insects during my time. The center provided me a surprisingly delicious and varied vegetarian menu.
To not steal
To not engage in any sexual activity
To not lie
To avoid intoxicants. I was supposed to avoid any intoxicants for two weeks prior and I successfully avoided alcohol and coffee for the entire month of April.
The center was very helpful in that it isolated us and helped us remain in accordance with the five precepts. We completed our introduction to the precepts, formalities and then we were taught our first step of meditation.
I have never meditated before so this is very much a view from the very lowest rung of the ladder. The first step we learned was anapana, which is a type of breathing meditation where you focus your attention on the presence of your respiration in the vicinity of your nose and nothing else. You are not meant to breathe in any particular way, you are not meant to count your breaths, you are not meant to do anything other than exist and notice the existence of your respiration. We left the meditation hall at 9pm and I slept soon after.
The daily schedule was not easy for me. It was as follows:
4am - rise
4.30 - 6.30am - meditation (2 hours)
6.30 - 8am - breakfast
8 - 11am - meditation (3 hours)
11 - 1pm - lunch
1 - 5pm - meditation (4 hours)
5 - 6pm - tea break (there is no dinner)
6 - 7pm - meditation (1 hour)
7 - 8pm - discourse (1 hour)
8 - 9pm - meditation (1 hour)
9.30pm - lights out
For the first day, I was just meant to notice my respiration around my nose as well as my mind's desire to wander. As my mind wanders, I should try to bring it back to my respiration. By the end of the first day, I was shocked at how bad I was at focusing my attention. I had no way to tell how long I was focusing for, but it felt like seconds. It was fascinating to see where my attention would wander to. Endless topics would pop into my mind briefly and my mind would tussle with them. Questions about my work, my relationships with people, my family, I would process them whenever I was not focused on my respiration. By the end of the day, I was exhausted.
I discovered with great pleasure that there is a session at 7pm called vaguely: "discourse". It was actually a video the center would play to us of the late great teacher of Vipassana meditation: S. N. Goenka. At the time, there was a disembodied recorded voice that would play instructions to us. I did not realize that it was he who was speaking. The discourses were a time for him to talk about what we were doing and why we were doing it. I will come back to the discourses later.
Living with ten other men in a room was surprisingly less difficult than I expected. I found myself curious about my fellow meditators, why they were there, what was their story, etc. Nonetheless, we all strictly observed noble silence and so I could do nothing about it. The only snag was that one of the men in the room had a very, very loud snoring problem so I was sleep deprived for the first day. You are allowed to speak to the "management" of the camp for simple daily-life type requests, so I asked for some earplugs. I nicknamed that roommate: "Snorlax".
Part 2. Day 2, 3, 4, Exit
The second day, I was to notice more than the presence of my respiration. I had to focus my attention on the touch of the breath. The feeling of air coming in and out of my nostrils and as it passed above my lips. Beyond respiration, I was to focus on sensations. If I felt a tingle, an itch, etc, I was to try to focus on it, but to not act upon it. Again, it was a struggle. If anything, I felt my mind was even more agitated than before. I also started to grow a little frustrated at an apparent lack of progress or even competence at the task at hand. The end of the day discourses were however a good pick me up and I entered day three.
During the days, I paced the yard a lot. We had a yard of around 800 square feet and a long path to the meditation hall in a corner of the compound. Other than sleeping, showering, eating or meditating, the only thing you could really do was walk. I made laps from the meditation hall to my bunk in the dormitory. I remembered clearly the precept to harm no living creature and I took extra care while walking to observe the ground, making sure I did not crush anything. I remember distinctly one of the students accidentally stepping on half of an earthworm that was crawling across our path. He drew back his foot quickly, I imagine in shock and regret, as the earthworm writhed frantically.
Day three added a new part to our meditation. Whereas previously I was to pay attention to the area of the nose and around it, now I was to pay attention only to the space at the nostrils and above the lip. Again, I was to focus on respiration and/or sensations in this limited area. The idea is that the smaller the area, the more focused and sensitive the mind can be. These three days were in effect mental training, building up how long I could focus for and how sensitive I could be. Day three was when I really started to worry if I could complete the ten day course. My mind was more agitated than over and it caused anxiety at levels I had never felt before. I started to become desperate to get out. The discourse that evening was a helpful pick me up, I felt better by bedtime but worse overall than the previous nights.
Despite my frustration with my mind wandering, I often was delighted by the ideas I could come up with in this state. I was surprised by how many issues sprang to mind and it seemed my mind relished the opportunity to process them. I thought a lot about work, imagining different possible scenarios in great deal. At the same time, being able to make plans and not being able to have any outlet for them, to be able to put them into action in some way, was very hard to bear and it contributed to why I eventually left.
Day four was spent continuing anapana meditation in the first half of the day, and then starting to learn vipassana meditation in the afternoon. This meant I would have to stay almost entirely still for two hours at a time, making little to no adjustments to my posture for comfort. Instead of just paying attention to respiration at the nostrils, I was now to scan my body for sensations in small one inch square chunks at a time, starting from the head and working my way downwards, torso, left, shoulder, left arm, left hand, right shoulder, right arm, right hand and so on until I had completed the entire scan of the body. I dreaded having to sit still for two hours but I followed the instructions and managed to complete a scan. I then understood why it was necessary. The scanning required me to be subject to as little external stimulation as possible in order to focus. It also required two hours of time as I moved my attention inch by inch across my body. I was surprised how quickly the two hours passed. As I scanned my body, I don't think I picked up any significant sensations from it. It is possible to detect sensations in the body and I had been successful during day two and three when I had to just focus on my nostrils. However, having to move my focus around the body while trying to keep my mind calm became too much for me to handle. I could feel my mind banging wildly on the bars of its jail cell.
When I left the meditation hall at the end of the afternoon session, I thought about if I should stay another day. In the end, I caved to my mind’s discomforts. At 5.30pm, during the break before evening meditation, I spoke to management and requested to be released. They calmly agreed and asked me to wait until everyone had gone back into the meditation hall at 6pm. As I packed my things, I chatted briefly to the old man who was among the center's management. He said he had come because in his old age, he found it was helpful to his health. Vipassana is used for mental purification which has physical benefits as well. I asked if students left mid-course often. He said it was not uncommon and I was probably not ready for it yet. I could not surrender myself to the technique. I still had too many attachments. I asked him why he could do it. He said he was old, his attachments were not strong anymore. He walked me out, saying he could only take me up to the gate, beyond that was off limits for him until the 10 day course was over.
Part 3. Leaving, Discourses, Vipassana, Dhamma
The moment they agreed to release me, I felt my tension and anxiety subside. As I walked up the path that led me back to the main road, I wondered why it had built up in the first place. Funnily enough, it would make most sense to explain it via what I learnt from the discourse sessions we had every evening. I am recalling what I learnt, it is incomplete and may be inaccurate. If you are interested in knowing more, Google is your friend!
Vipassana meditation is about observing yourself in order to achieve “equanimity”: a mind that is balanced, neither having attachment to pleasurable feelings nor being averse to unpleasant feelings. They had had this printed up on a little sheet in the dormitory and I would look at it several times a day. I doubt I will ever forget it. During the discourses, the concept was explained further. Attachment or aversion eventually lead to negativity, or defilements in their nomenclature. If something is too pleasant, you become attached, then you crave it and then you become desperate for it. You feel misery when you cannot have it. If something is too unpleasant, you will feel averse to it. Eventually your aversion will turn into hate. That hatred is as toxic to you as it is to what it is directed at.
How do you escape attachment or aversion? You recognize the impermanence of all things. All those pleasant things you are attached to will disappear. The same goes for all those unpleasant things you wish to get away from. Given that all things will disappear, why obsess over them anyways? The logic is comprehensible but how do you truly understand it? You must experience it and that is what the vipassana meditation helps you with. Why were there so many exercises to build up awareness of sensations? In the discourses themselves, Goenka even explains that if you just wanted to have mental focus, there are better ways of doing it. Focusing on a word or an image will calm your mind much faster. However, Vipassana meditation is actually about being aware of the sensations in your body and then being able to not act on them. This is different from ignoring them, instead you are choosing to be aware but to understand that they will pass. Thus, the measure of success is not your ability to feel sensations but instead to let them pass you by.
As part of understanding something will pass, you need to become aware of the present. It sounds so obvious yet it is so elusive. When my mind wandered, it was not wandering to the present. It was wandering to memories: pleasant or unpleasant, or to plans: what I wanted to do in the future. It was a eureka moment for me when I realized the first anapana meditation that I was taught was also about how to recognize the present. Respiration is an essential and virtually uncontrollable function of our bodies, which is why it can be used to keep you in the present, and thus make you able to recognize that something now will no longer be in the future.
There is a curious intersection of modern science and spirituality. We now scientifically understand that everything is composed of particles, subatomic particles and so on. Essentially everything is tiny vibrating bubbles and our reality is just an illusion our minds put together. Referring to a concept in behavioural economics (check out Thinking, Fast & Slow by Kahneman): your mind will always try to put everything into a coherent, acceptable order, regardless of its accuracy. Goenka talks about this, too, as do many strands of spirituality and religion. The idea that all things are one is absolutely plausible because at the most fundamental level we are all protons, neutrons, electrons and whatever makes those up as well. As I came to understand this, I remembered the scene in The Matrix where Neo comes back from being shot dead and becomes "The One". You see what he sees from his perspective: not a world of people and things but as purely green 1's and 0's endlessly moving in innumerable columns.
On this Vipassana journey, I also learnt an interesting concept that I thought was admirable: "Dhamma", the law of nature. If you are able to observe yourself via Vipassana meditation, you will be able to understand how negativity hurts you. When you are angry, maybe you can see the externalities of your anger but you don't realize what it does to you internally until you are able to properly observe yourself. Thus if you have this realization, and you start to alter your behaviour, then by default you would move towards actions that are wholesome, such as compassion and love. What I really admired about this concept is that it is fully universal. It could apply to any race, any country, any religion, any sect, any class, any caste, etc. I am not religious, I participate in no organized religion and as I get older, I have become more suspicious of people with strong views on morality. However, I can get on board with "Dhamma".
Going back to the original question: Why did I leave? I think the old man who let me out of the center had it right. I was and am too attached. In a place where I was meant to clear my mind, I was involuntarily thinking incessantly about everything: new product ideas, new things to work on, time I wanted to with others, relationships I wanted to build and so on. I was desperate to cling to these things. I don’t think any of these things are negative but I am now very aware of how much I could not let go. I am attached.
Part 4. Miscellaneous Thoughts
I discovered a lot of things and I found a lot of new questions for myself to answer. I am not sure how to tie them together coherently so I will just present them as is.
No longer connected by phone
Strangely, two days before I was to start my Vipassana course, my phone stopped turning on. It was quite a coincidence and looking back, I consider it a blessing. By the time I arrived, I was already used to not having something peck at with my fingers. I found that I did not miss being able to WhatsApp people, read and reply e-mails, scroll through instagram, etc. If anything, I started to realize these were just obligations and often unnecessary.
The early days of the Vipassana course were about trying to achieve mental silence to better conduct the meditation required. I think that although I may not have been able to find the mental silence necessary to truly engage in Vipassana meditation, I realize very clearly now that the phone generates a series of distractions that help drown out your own thoughts. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I left because my mind became louder than I could bear. However, for the duration I could bear it during those first three days at the center, I thought about more, more deeply and more rapidly than ever before. Why should I compromise my mind’s ability for … so little? The phone is similar to alcohol in that it has some great benefits, like being able to share an enjoyable time with friends, but really: less is better.
Since returning back to normal life, I went another few days without my phone. I was still technically “on holiday” so it was fine to be less connected anyways. I had arranged for a replacement phone but on a whim, I decided to give my phone another try. It sprang to life and has been working normally ever since. Strangest thing.
I will find a new way to balance my phone use. I only have limited need for the connectedness of the phone and it simultaneously creates so many distractions. I do want to stay on top of my work, though, and I would like to continue to take photos. So, I am going to trial only using my phone every other day and just carry my Ricoh GR camera with me all the time instead. I also moved app shortcuts for things like Instagram and Facebook off the main screen and way off to the app screens on the side that you have to scroll to. That has already helped disrupt my habits.
Vipassana, nihilism and maybe coming to terms with it … ?
Especially right after I got out of the center, I felt nihilistic. What was the point of anything? Everything is all bubbles anyways. Why do people, including myself, get worked up over ultimately trivial things? Our modern way of life sits in almost direct opposition to what Vipassana has been talking about, generating endless things to be attached to and endless things to have aversions to. However, this extreme reading of Vipassana did not sit well with me either. I have a very deep respect for work, by my own hand or by other people’s. I think our ability to:
Create (for each other), be it goods, food, art, literature, etc
Serve, to be helpful to other people
Interact, to be engaged, to be served
is a fundamental part of our existence. I think often we go into extremes but it is still worth trying to find a balance. In the reading of what is an idealized way of living, there has to be moderation. It’s like a fashion show. You wouldn’t wear exactly what’s on the runway as-is, but you could take ideas away from it and interpret them in your own way. Sorry, I work in clothing, it was the first metaphor that sprang to mind.
Harming Living Beings
I was tasked with not harming any living beings during my stay. It was a constant struggle given the area I was in was dense with insects and other life. In the course of those efforts, I now feel differently about certain things that I used to take for granted. I find eating meat, especially in the amounts I used to eat, a little unpleasant now. I also think a lot more about exotic leather products. Whereas something like beef is both eaten and its skins used, exotic skins are a much more grey area. We seem to just use that type of animal for purely aesthetic pleasure. I will try and spend more effort looking for alternatives to exotic animal skins.
Why was I not able to do such a simple thing? I just had to focus on breathing and do nothing else. Why is this so hard?
When my mind felt trapped, it must be because it felt limitations against it. I had so many thoughts but I could not act on any of them. I could not realize any of the plans I was making and that was ultimately a huge frustration for me.
Is the mind like an animal that needs to be fed? Are distractions from your phone like junk food? Are substantial topics like real meals? Does it even matter what you are getting fed as long as you are getting fed?
Part 5. Closing Thoughts
Impermanence and Equanimity
I think the greatest takeaway of my short time at the Vipassana Center is: Developing a basic understanding of Impermanence and Equanimity. When I view my life through the lens of these two important and joined concepts, I feel like a weight has been lifted. Enjoy what pleasant things you have now, don’t become expectant of endless mores. Try and bear with unpleasant things in a calm manner. They cannot be forever.
Misery is self generated. Someone or something can create the conditions that could cause you misery, but for you to acknowledge and succumb to those conditions will be the actual cause of the misery, not the conditions themselves.
Technically, 4/28 was the day I was meant to have finished, instead I ended it early. I thought about what those extra seven days of normal life got me. I was able to see my family, friends and work colleagues for an extra seven days. I was able to attend Yoshimi Hasegawa’s book signing event at our store in Hong Kong. I wrote this journal of what happened in those four days at the Center. I have updated it numerous times over the last week and have circulated it with my colleagues at The Armoury and now you the reader.
Before I left, a close friend of mine, a very accomplished professional as well as a very good person in my eyes, said to me: “Beware of your own desire to “fix your life”. The reasons why you are successful are as much about your strengths as your demons.” I understand that a little more now. I would add that growing up is always about gaining perspective, and along the way, you will naturally shed some things, no need to become too attached.
I went on a meditation course expecting to be able to do more and freak out less. Instead, I ended up with a new outlook on life. I am curious where I will go next.
p.s. put your damn phone away.
Some Helpful Links
Thinking, Fast & Slow
HK Vipassana Center
Goenka Discourse Day 1