I recently spent 2 weeks volunteering at a Vipassana Meditation Center in Southern California. In this post I’m going to talk a little bit about meditation techniques, my experience as a volunteer and what has been going through my head lately.
What is Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is a meditation technique that was taught in India some 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills. The technique is taught through 10 day courses administered by volunteers in centers funded solely through donations.
The 10 day course is conducted completely in silence. No talking, no eye contact, no physical contact, no phones, no internet, no reading and no writing are allowed. Every possible distraction is eliminated so that students can go deep into themselves through 10 hours of meditation every day during the course.
Meditation is often misunderstood as some kind of mystical activity involving strange head garbs, chants and incense. Some people mistake it for a religion and think that you have to be a monk or forsake a material life to engage in this activity. While there are people who meditate that do these things, they are not prerequisites for one to be able to benefit from meditation.
Vipassana centers were established to teach a simple meditation that anybody can learn without having to join a religion or change their lifestyle. The two techniques they teach are Anapana and Vipassana meditation.
Anapana meditation is quite simply the practice of sitting in silence and focusing your awareness on your breath without any effort to change your breathing. Every time your mind wanders you try to catch yourself and bring your awareness back to your breathing. Through this simple practice you can shake up the roots of mental impurities in your mind and begin to cleanse yourself from them.
After one has sharpened their mind’s ability to concentrate through practicing Anapana, one is ready to start doing Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is practiced by scanning your body for sensations, acknowledging them as they arise and letting them go without judgement. This technique digs up the mental impurities in your mind and transforms them to a higher vibrational state.
These meditation techniques really aren’t any more complicated than that. As is often the case though with simple teachings, they require a lot of practice before they are fully understood. As anyone who has tried sitting still and focusing your attention on your breath for a few minutes without getting distracted knows, developing a consistent meditation practice is a lot harder than it looks.
In a 10 day Vipassana course, Anapana is practiced for 4 days before they even begin to teach Vipassana. We have to fight against so many distractions in our daily lives and it usually takes a few days in a distraction free environment before one can really clear away the mental fog and focus on their meditation practice.
In a world that seems to move at hyper speed where multi tasking on a million things at a time seems normal, the idea of doing just one thing for 100 hours over a 10 day period seems like madness. And to go 10 days without saying a word? Have you ever tried going just one day without having any type of interaction with anyone, be it in person, virtually or through written medium?
My Experience Meditating In Silence for 10 Days
When I first sat a Vipassana course in Rio de Janeiro I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make it through all 10 days. I had my apprehensions about taking the course especially with no meditation experience. My friends Justin and Trevor had both previously sat courses and they spoke of it’s positive benefits, so I decided to give it a try. I signed up for a course 2 months out then started meditating for 20 minutes every day so that I wouldn’t be a complete beginner.
My only goal for the initial course was to stay the whole 10 days without leaving. My mind revolted against me intensely on day 6 and I spent half the day thinking about leaving. In order to get to the center though I had to take a train for 2 hours until it ended, then take 2 buses through the mountains for an hour and a half, then walk 45 minutes on a dirt road to get to the center. I stuck it out mostly because waiting until the end and getting a ride from someone seemed easier than trying to find my own way back.
That initial experience was incredibly valuable to me, as it brought to the surface a lot of thoughts that I didn’t know I had. These were deeply embedded thoughts that I had mistakenly believed were part of who I really was. Through practicing Vipassana I was able to detach myself from these thoughts and see them as something separate from what I really am.
In the 2 years since I first took that course I’ve maintained a daily meditation practice, meditating between 10 minutes and 2 hours every day. Through this ongoing practice I have gone deeper and deeper, each time unveiling more and more thoughts that I realized were not a part of who I am.
My Experience Serving a Vipassana Course
Though I learned a lot from my first course I never felt like I truly got the hang of the technique. Many students attend several courses before they really start to get it. After 2 years of practicing on my own I decided it was time to return to a Vipassana center to learn more.
I checked online and saw that there was an upcoming course in Southern California that was in need of servers. Old students who have completed at least one course are eligible to serve a Vipassana course. People choose to volunteer because they understand how important this technique is and how impactful it can be in someones life to learn how to practice it properly.
I was especially looking forward to serving so I could be around people who meditate, and be in an environment that was built for us to get the most out of our meditations. Everything about the center, from the way it was designed, to the food that they serve, and the schedule people at the center keep has been carefully thought out to ensure that the technique is taught without distractions.
Through 10 days of service at the center I gained a newfound appreciation for the word ‘work.’ Though the work we did at the center isn’t any different than what you would do working a kitchen job anywhere else, the way that we did it taught me a lot.
The job of a server is to facilitate the experience of the students so that they can focus entirely on their meditation without any distractions. Tasks involve kitchen work, keeping the dining area clean and tidy, and preparing the center before their arrival so that they have a comfortable stay at the center.
The centers run with a tight code of discipline and servers are expected to abide by the same rules as the students (no killing, no stealing, no sensual misconduct, no false speech, no intoxicants). Though servers are allowed to talk to each other, we were encouraged to keep discussions to a minimum to avoid disrupting the atmosphere of the center.
My specific job was to keep set up the food stations before meals, keep the dining area tidy and help around with dishwashing and other meal preparation tasks when I had time. I made sure that every detail was accounted for so that they wouldn’t face added distractions or annoyances. I worked diligently to make sure that every spec of salad dressing, every crumb and every drop of spilt milk were cleaned up so that they students could focus on their meals without distractions.
When I sat my first course they were short staffed for servers, which meant that they weren’t always able to attend to every detail. Sometimes the tables weren’t wiped down thoroughly between breakfast and lunch. One time I sat down for lunch and saw a sticky stain that was left from breakfast. I stared at that thing the entire meal, thinking all sorts of nasty thoughts about the servers, about the person who made the stain and the center in general.
When you’re in a highly sensitive state of mind, every minor detail becomes a huge deal. The mind fixates on things that would otherwise be ignored because it is trying to distract itself from the task of focusing. If a server doesn’t do their job with diligence and fails to clean up a honey stain on a table, they could end up causing suffering to the student who is deep in their meditation.
I started to think about what would happen if I applied this same mindset to other areas of my work life. How I do anything is just as important as what I do. The amount of vigilance and care I bring to my service influences the experience of the person that I’m serving. A failure of vigilance on my part can lead to distractions that prevent the person being served from doing whatever it is that they’re supposed to be doing.
The Importance of Having A Mission
At the meditation center we were all there because we believed that the center was doing important work with its mission of spreading the Vipassana technique. We understood how all of the tasks that we performed were in the service of that mission.
The group of people that I met in the kitchen were a diverse and interesting group of spiritual seekers who all put aside our lives for a few days so that we could work on the center’s mission. Half of them spoke English as a second language. Had we met under any other circumstances we probably wouldn’t have said much to each other.
In the kitchen there was a strong sense of cooperation and teamwork amongst the servers. Instead of looking for ways to get out of doing work, we were always looking for more work that we could do to help out. If there was something that needed to get done at 5:30am there were always several volunteers eager to help out. I wonder if it’s like that at other restaurants?
The first few days we were still learning the ins and outs of our jobs, but by the fourth day we were working as if we’d always worked there. This happened even though the managers who usually train servers were sitting that particular course. The secret for how people with limited experience became effective servers in such little time was through the use of standard operating procedures.
Every single task down to the minor detail about how to run the kitchen has been codified into a series of handbooks. For each job there is a binder that explains step by step how to do every aspect of that job. This removed all guesswork about how to perform our jobs. If we had a question all we needed to was consult the binder.
This also eliminated the need for having any boss figure telling us what to do. We knew what we needed to do because it was written in the book. From conducting thousands of these courses over the years, these guys have it figured out down to the salt shakers how to train their volunteers. Paying this much attention to detail makes for a very smoothly run operation.
How I’m Applying What I’ve Learned
Since leaving I’ve made a few dozen changes to this site that I’ve thought about doing for a while. Some of them are details so minor you’d think I was crazy if I told you about them. One individual detail might not matter that much, but changing a series of details can have a huge difference on the user experience and could ultimately change the outcome of someone’s experience in Brazil. I’ll continue to make changes as I become aware of how they impact peoples’ experiences.
I’m generally pretty mindful about the words that I publish, but every now and then I let something fall through the cracks. In the dining room I would check everything several times before unlocking the door for students to make sure that everything was perfect. Sometimes I’d ask someone else to check too, just to be sure. What if I did that for my writing?
I’ve been mostly playing around with my Youtube channel, not taking it seriously enough to make it something that makes a difference in peoples lives. A hungry student at the meditation center can count on showing up at the dining hall at 6:30am and walking away a few minutes later having eaten a satisfying breakfast. In the same way curious students should be able to show up at my site at known times and expect to leave a few minutes later having learned something new.
These are all just optimizations though, and what does it really matter if I don’t have a very clearly defined mission. The motivations and intentions behind this site have evolved many times over the years and I’ve yet to clearly articulate the soul that goes into everything I do on this site.
This site was originally born to fill a hole on the internet with regards to information about how to succeed as a foreigner in Brazil. Aside from a handful of websites and books, there really isn’t that much practical information that helps foreigners make a smooth transition to Brazil, if such a thing is even possible. The need for this information is only going to increase as time goes on.
The initial audience for this site came to read content about English teaching, Portuguese learning and moving to Brazil. While I’ve written a fair amount about these topics I’ve still just barely scratched the surface of everything that needs to be said to make sure that people are prepared to handle the unique challenges they’ll face in Brazil.
I’m far from the only person that has this information, but I am one of the few that has taken the time to codify it and organize it in a way that is easy for people to digest. There is no need for every single foreigner to have to go into Brazil unaware of the challenges they’re going to face. It would be a lot better if more people stepped up and started blogs and shared their experiences of navigating the muddy waters of Brazil.
There needs to be more people blogging about Brazil in a positive and helpful way, whether on this platform or their own. Starting a website is ridiculously easy these days and can be done in as little as 5 minutes.
Brazil faces some serious problems and a lot of well intentioned people who have tried to help out through the years ended up going home because they lacked support. The more people that share their experiences of doing things in Brazil, the easier it will be for others to win battles that make a difference in peoples lives. Doing anything in Brazil is already ridiculously hard, why not make it easier for people?
I believe that Brazil is going to see a lot of positive changes in the coming years, and that these changes will be lead mostly by Brazilians who lived abroad and saw a different way of doing things and by the foreigners who call Brazil their home and were crazy enough to try.
It’s a long road to the future. We’ll get there eventually with patience and persistence.