For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from arachnophobia. When I was two, a family member unwisely took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had nightmares about spiders for years, and would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. My arachnophobia never waned, and I am ashamed to admit that it has dictated some of my travel plans.
In January 2015, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in a bird sanctuary outside Auckland. Before the course began I worried about whether I could handle ten days of total silence, especially as someone who had no experience with meditation. What I did not worry about was spiders, because I had barely seen any during my months in New Zealand.
This was a mistake.
When you are deeply afraid of something, your mind is accustomed to seeking it out as a potential threat. Horrified, I arrived at the course and found spiders everywhere. They surrounded the porch lights in the wooden cabins that housed me, they lined the walls and ceilings in the common areas, and some were inside my tiny room.
I was already concerned about the coming days of discipline. My mind drew a blank about my strategy for facing this additional, visceral phobia.
Studies have shown that people who are blind or deaf have heightened ability in other bodily senses. When the brain is deprived of one input source, it is capable of reorganizing itself to support and augment other senses, a phenomenon known as “cross-modal neuroplasticity.”
I felt a small, temporary version of this phenomenon at the course. I could not speak or write, but my mind was whirring away at an alarming speed. Trapped in a cognitive cycle of shame and blame, my phobia of spiders was magnified.
An Arachnophobe Walks into a Vipassana Meditation Course
When you take a Vipassana course, you commit to staying for the full 10 days. You also agree to abide by 5 precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxicants. Thankfully this does not include a morning coffee. It does, however, mean that you leave your phone and any pen and paper at the front desk. No writing, no talking, no eye contact, no communicating.
You and the prison of your mind.
At the end of Day 1, I noticed a daddy long legs struggling on the carpet, heading toward the door. My instinct was to smush the spider with the course schedule, only to realize I was about to kill something with a document that says you won’t kill anything. But phobias transcend logic; there is a reason they are referred to as “irrational, unreasonable fears” that make us unable to function normally.
Instead, I took a deep breath, skirted around the spider, and opened my door. I crouched down to the floor, silently cheering its departure from my room.
I put my head in my hands. The same woman who threw up in an outhouse in Siberia because it was full of spiders was now facilitating a daddy longlegs’ safe passage. What had I become?
I had many more opportunities to face my arachnophobia. In the meditation hall, daddy longlegs occasionally dropped from the ceiling, feeding my anxiety. Huge black spiders dotted the corner of the room where we picked up our pillows, watching over us as we dutifully shuffled into yet another meditation session.
In response, the organizers provided us with a “spider catcher”. This was a Tupperware container plus a piece of paper to slide under it for ease of transport.I hoped someone else would avail themselves of this spider tool, because no amount of meditating would allow me to do so with grace or equanimity.
And then on Day 5, I hit peak spider.
I made it through my second day of strong determination sittings, hour-long meditations where you were not allowed to move no matter the pain or discomfort. I darted to my bed to avoid the small but alarmingly hairy spiders outside my room. As I was about to turn off the light, I caught a glimpse of a huge bulbous black spider in my periphery. It was dropping out of a tiny hole above the window near the ceiling.
I leapt out of bed in a panic, unsure of what to do. When I tried to reach the spider, it would crawl into the hole again and disappear effortlessly. I left the light on, drifting off to sleep only to dream about spiders and wake up breathless. Finally I shut the light off decisively, drawing on everything I had learned thus far. Impermanence! Equanimity! I struck a mental deal with the spider: I’d leave it alone if it left me alone.
At 2am, I awoke to a feeling of deep alarm and I rushed to turn the light back on. The big bulbous spider was dropping from the ceiling, right above my head.
Gasping in horror, I fell sideways out of the bed. The spider, as startled as I, hastily clawed its way back toward the ceiling. I watched in horror as it spent the rest of the night eating other spiders in my room. The minutes went by slowly, soundless but for the slow clicking of the dying victims as they were eaten by my new dormmate.
The next day I swallowed my pride and broke my noble silence. Mortified, I begged the female volunteer leader to please let me switch rooms. “It’s the silence, isn’t it?” she asked gently. “No,” I sobbed, “it’s the spiders.” At that point in the course several people had left, and I was able to move to a different cabin further away from the meditation hall.
For the rest of the week, as everyone else sat on the grass enjoying the sun between meditation sessions, I sat in my room, watching them from behind my window screen, too scared to leave. My fear had consumed me.
It’s funny what your brain can do to you.
A friend once said that in life, worrying ahead of time was futile, because what you are scared of never manifests. Instead, what you least expect creeps up behind you and scares you out of your mind.
Or in my case, drops down from the ceiling in plain view.
Why A Vipassana meditation course?
I signed up for a Vipassana course in a moment of quiet desperation. I was coming up on close to a year of insomnia. I found myself exhausted by the panic of not sleeping yet unable to find any meaningful rest. I would lie down to sleep only to dread the inevitable insomnia. For the first time in my life I was having panic attacks. Nightly, they were triggered by the dawning realization that sleep would elude me yet again.
At the same time I was dealing with chronic pain in my back. This was due to a bad accident as a kid followed by a series of rib fractures and motorbike tumbles as an adult. Between injuries and an autoimmune disease, my day-to-day involved a lot of hurt. It was simply getting worse with the lack of sleep and an excess of cortisol.
Despite the trendiness of glamorous classes and meditation apps, Vipassana is a different beast. No one I knew who took a Vipassana course emerged feeling refreshed. “It was so impossibly hard,” said one friend. “I left on day 4,” said another. But I was starting to crumble under the weight of my insomnia and the magnified aching. Even though I wanted to write, I couldn’t concentrate on work. Mornings bled into each other, and by midday my mind would be completely distracted, filled with anxiety about another long night of no sleep.
At the end of my rope, I decided to sign up for a 10-day silent Vipassana course in New Zealand. I was not a meditator, but I saw the course as a glimmer of hope. Plus, a friend who dealt with chronic pain recommended meditation as a way to distance myself psychologically from it.
When my best friend Nadia asked me why I signed up for solitary confinement, I told her I wanted to break my brain and put it back together again. “I need to defrag my hard drive,” I quipped. “It isn’t running efficiently.” I compared it to hiring a personal trainer to help me at a first-ever gym session.
“No, it’s like running a marathon when you’ve never run before. Jodi what are you doing to yourself?”
The Appeal of Vipassana Meditation
When I announced the Vipassana course, several friends asked if I was joining a new religion. While the history of Vipassana includes that it was used by Buddha, it was — and remains — a non-sectarian technique. The father of these courses is the late S.N. Goenka, who was raised in Burma and learned Vipassana from Sayagi U Ba Khin there. Despite originating in India, the technique was lost over the years, and monks in Burma preserved it, teaching it quietly to monks. Eventually, it was passed onto non-monks (laymen), including Sayagi U Ba Khin. In turn, Ba Khin founded the Vipassana Association of the Accountant General’s Office in the newly formed Union of Burma, and taught Goenka the technique. Goenka spread the technique to India and elsewhere through courses like this one.
Throughout the discourses, Goenka’s nightly lectures about the technique and the troubles of the modern mind, he reiterated that Vipassana is non-sectarian. It provides students with a tool to purify their thinking of recurrent obsessive loops. Instead of quick solutions, Goenka spoke of the hard work required to retrain habit patterns that devoured us.
Or, my version: the Vipassana technique cleanses your mind by making you suffer mentally and physically in total silence. I chose Vipassana as a tool because it was all about discipline and neural pathways. I am not the most woo woo of humans, and the idea of a giant drum circle of positive thinkers made me want to run away screaming.
Vipassana dictates a blanket command of non-reaction. You do not react to the pain as you sit, nor the fact that your hands and legs fall asleep and your brain cries for release. You are instructed to refocus your attention on the objective sensations in your body, arising and falling, as you do a scan of your limbs in a specific order. By doing so, over the course of the long 10 days, you train yourself to stop reacting to the vicissitudes of life.
The technique is different to mindfulness meditation, which focuses on awareness, or to transcendental meditation, which uses a mantra. The relaxation or mindfulness techniques that are advocated in some of the resources at the bottom of this post are only part of the battle. The harder part is to stop reacting, to break the cycle of anger and emotional explosions. This is where Vipassana comes in.
As sleep ebbed away in 2014 and my pain levels increased, I found myself far more reactive than I wanted to be. Pema Chodron calls this reactivity shenpa, the hook that triggers our habitual tendency to close down or react. It is the feeling that “has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”
I tried to keep low expectations about the 10 days. My only goal was to complete the course. I kept telling myself that if my brain reset, it would be a bonus. I just had to make it through – and what was 10 days in the grand scheme of things?
A Descent into Pain
At 4am daily the first bell rang outside my door, reminding me that despite the darkness, it was time to wake up.
I was not, nor will I ever be, a morning person.
During the first mornings of the course I felt a rush of anger rise up in me when I heard that sound. I fantasized about taking the gong and flinging it into the forest.
So much for equanimity.
Wrangling my anger back from where it came, I tumbled out of my cot and grabbed my headlamp, flip flops and toiletries. With trepidation, I peered out at the inky air unsure of how many spiders were between my face and the end of my porch. Taking a deep breath I slunk out, hoping for the best, and darted up to the bathroom to brush my teeth before the 4:30am session in the meditation hall.
The focus on Day 1 was on awareness of breath. That’s it. Just awareness that you happen to breathe. When your mind moved from that awareness you were supposed to gently bring your mind back to the fact that you breathe. The simplicity of this instruction felt incredibly futile.
I had a hard time focusing on my breath because of the persistent burning in my back. Regardless of how many pillows I piled under my knees, it bubbled up until it hit a crescendo.
You are allowed to speak to the teacher during office hours, and I went that first day, knotted in pain and panic. I was convinced that I had made a mistake and that my back would continue to deteriorate until I left. I sought the teacher’s counsel, explaining why I had attended in the first place.
Eyeing me serenely, he asked how long I had been meditating. Sheepishly, I explained that I hadn’t actually meditated before but that I was clearly doing it wrong and I was totally going to die of back pain so maybe I should go?
With total calm, he said that I needed to disassociate my panic from the pain, because I was making it worse for myself. Focusing on the hurt only magnified it for me. He told me to do my best, whatever that was.
I snorted before I could help myself.
“Oh, you’re one of those,” he said with a soft smile. “Perfectionism won’t help you here.”
I trudged back out of the meditation hall and into the bright sunlight, reeling. The teacher offered a wooden L-shaped contraption to help prop up my back during the meditation. As to whether I was meditating correctly, he was silent. The message was clear: I was competing against my best self, not anyone else’s.
Learning the Vipassana Technique
After the first three days of focusing on breathing, Goenka introduced us to the Vipassana technique. This involved sequences of long body scans in a specific order. Throughout, we were instructed to be aware of the sensations or pain we feel, but not react to them. Anicca, he said, they are impermanent.
A simplistic example: if your leg falls asleep as you are scanning your neck for objective sensations, your mind may wander to whether you’ll ever stand up again. You don’t move your leg to compensate. Instead, you refocus on the neck and ignore the part of your brain that is begging you to give attention to the leg pain. You remind yourself that the pain is temporary, just like everything else.
Goenka’s evening discourse from Day 4 explains this technique further:
“When one is ignorant, sensations are a means to multiply one’s misery, because one reacts to them with craving or aversion. The problem actually arises, the tension originates, at the level of bodily sensations; therefore this is the level at which one must work to solve the problem to change the habit pattern of the mind.
One must learn to be aware of all the different sensations without reacting to them, accepting their changing, impersonal nature. By doing so, one comes out of the habit of blind reaction, one liberates oneself from misery.”
In addition to the body scans, Day 4 marked the beginning of those “hours of strong determination”. These sesssions were scheduled three times a day, during which we were not allowed to move whatsoever. Your leg hurts? Too bad. You itch like mad on your nose? Can’t scratch it. For the entire hour, you sit and you scan your body from top of the head to the tip of the toes, then the tip of the toes back up to top of the head. Along the way if there are points of pain, you observe them impersonally as your scan reaches those points, knowing they are impermanent. There is pain. This has pressure. And then you move on without reacting further.
In response to these new requirements, a wave of people left the course. It took all of my energy not to walk out myself.
The entire experience felt like Groundhog Day without the ice sculptures, and a 4am wake-up gong instead of Sonny and Cher.
The Rest of the Meditation Course
I wish I could say that the spider incident was a turning point. It was simply a bump along the way. I did fulfill my goal of making it to the end. The Vipassana course remains one of the most difficult things I’ve ever chosen to do.
By Day 6, I felt exhausted by the pain, the sleepless spider-filled nights, and a mind slowly unspooling. Some people talk about intruding memories of childhood or overly sexual thoughts during their Vipassana experience. For me, the challenge was curbing the urge to run around like a toddler. “Look at me! I’m not meditating! I’m freeeeee!”
Instead of doing a body scan during the hours of strong determination, I skewed toward disruption. I daydreamed of flinging off my pillows, running through the empty space in the center of the hall and screaming like a banshee. I wanted to lie down on the floor in the silence, doing snow angels on the worn carpet, making a mockery of the process. Those urges crept up aggressively, and they were hard to suppress.
I recognize that this was yet another example of what Goenka calls “craving and aversion”, the twisted narratives we use to justify reactive behavior.
Day 8 was the first time I sat through a “strong hour” without moving. I was sweating from the effort of trying to move past the pain, but I made it. When I stood up after the gong rang, I fell over because my legs had stopped functioning. But after 10 minutes they were normal again. It calmed me, reminding me that pain is not always permanent.
Late in the course, Goenka talks about, “feeling your awareness dump on your head and fall to your feet like a bucket of water.” I did not feel this, nor the full body vibrations he spoke of in the last discourses. All I could encounter were shelves of pain along the way, no fluidity between them. By the last day I could scan fluidly through arms or my right leg, but my back was a solid mass of knots. By that time, I was also able to refocus my mind from the pain, and I saw a difference in how I perceived the permanence of the sensation.
It was progress.
I emerged from the course a calmer, temporarily less anxious version of myself, one that surprised people closest to me.
I did start to sleep again. The relief of rest was so palpable that sometimes I would wake up in the morning mystified, unsure of how I felt so refreshed.
I wrote down the following takeaways once the Vipassana ended and I was reunited with my pen and paper.
1. Our collective obsession with finding happiness is not a reason to meditate.
Logic and neuroscience might ground the modern rationale for mediation, but to meditate in order to be happy is counterintuitive. Vipassana provided me with a counterweight to the jagged peaks and valleys of the human experience. A tool that let me minimize those fluctuations without sacrificing my integrity.
In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman says:
“The idea of using meditation to make your life ‘better’ or ‘happier’, in any conventional sense, was a misunderstanding. The point, instead, was to learn how to stop trying to fix things, to stop being so preoccupied with trying to control one’s experience of the world, to give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts and emotions with more pleasant ones, and to see that, through dropping the ‘pursuit of happiness’, a more profound peace might result. It wasn’t about escaping into ecstasy – or even into calmness, as the word is normally understood; and it certainly wasn’t about positive thinking. It was about the significantly greater challenge of declining to do any of that.”
Vipassana teaches you to be as you are and trains your mind to remain equanimous despite pain or emotional trauma. To remain stable when life goes awry is a happier result than grasping for whatever society tells you will make you happy.
2. So much of what complicates our lives comes from assumptions we make and our reactions to them.
In the quiet of those 10 days, you see how much your mind distorts the reality you perceive. For example, you don’t know the background of the people taking the course with you. As you watch everyone get on with their meditation, you create lives for them in your mind. You project your fears onto their perception of you.
For me, this meant creating life stories for the other participants — as well as their reactions to me. I kept falling asleep during the first meditation session. Unused to 4:30am wakeups, I would draw my knees up to my chest, wrap my arms around them, and tip into the person next to me while fast asleep.
Each day that this happened, I could hear the snickers of the group as I righted myself again. “They must think I’m terrible at this,” my brain would say. Each morning I would vow to end my noble silence with an apology to the woman next to me.
In the strangled silence, my brain had lost perspective. When I did apologize, the woman looked at me askance. “Why would you apologize? It was the only thing that made me smile during the last 10 days!”
So much of the anger or fear we feel are reactions to a reality we have created in our own minds. A reflection of the stories that we tell ourselves. We take sensory input as objective, but what we see, hear and feel is not objective at all. It is colored by what we have known, and the grudges we hold without even realizing them.
The Vipassana course, with its focus on objectively noticing our constructed realities, helped me hone in on what was worth fighting about. It helped me delineate between “worth it” and my reactions borne of habit, craving, or aversion.
3. You have to do the work.
Shortcuts exist in life, but to train your brain you need put in a significant amount of effort. Goenka reiterates this throughout. The first few days are devastating because the work is both mindless and extremely taxing. But you can see a change in a mere 10 days, with disciplined practice. If you do the work, you will see the result.
4. Perfectionism can be dangerous.
I was brought up believing that doing your best wasn’t good enough. That is a dangerous lesson to bring into adulthood, because it translates to a goal that will never be achieved. There is no perfect, and there is no objective measure of what ‘right’ can be. The course reminded me that if you have a value system that thrives on making decisions with integrity and for the right reasons, doing your best is good enough.
5. Training yourself to stop reacting can, despite my suspicions to the contrary, help in handling pain.
As someone with chronic pain, this lesson was important. I would not have come to this conclusion without the course because I’m far too stubborn. With hindsight I can see that by obsessing over the pain I felt, I exacerbated it tremendously. The story I told myself was that I was a human built out of the defective parts of other humans, that it marred me indefinitely.
By focusing my awareness on the painful sensations I felt in a neutral, detached way, I was able to wedge a corridor of relief between the pain and me. Goenka would repeat that the burning sensations felt during meditation simply rise and fall, that they are impermanent – just like everything else in life. By shifting my attention to the precise body scan order and ignoring any other pain, I was able to stave off defining my reality by what was going wrong.
We hold on to what we love with fierce attachment, but this course made me see that we also hold onto what we fear and hate. In my case, I learned that while I still ache, that ache has less power over me.
The distinction sounds slight but is of paramount importance.
One Year Later
The Vipassana did not cure me of insomnia or anxiety permanently. Instead, it provided me with a valuable tool: it showed me that I could manage my mind more than I realized. By doing so, I felt more in control of the catastrophizing, despite the fact that it is always there.
A full 10 days of constant meditation created a barrier between the worrying and me. It allowed me to observe the anxiety more objectively even when it threatened to engulf me whole. That distance allowed me to live a more peaceful life. The anxiety is there, but it is less urgent because of the objectivity.
In late January 2015, once the course was over, I committed to reading any book that a friend said changed their life, and I’ve become a better person for it. For some of those books, see this post.
The whole process calmed me on a deep and inexplicable level. Despite the fact that I am still as neurotic a Jodi in some ways, those 10 days of brutal silence instilled in me a sense of perspective that I now maintain and am deeply grateful for.
Several of the women in the course have also become friends. We’ve met up since and called from afar when we couldn’t. A friendship built from the place you’re most vulnerable is a wonderful thing to have.
Would I do the course again? Definitely. Goenka recommends a yearly 10-day silent course for those who meditate. Given the way that this one tested my body and mind, I suspect I’ll wait a little longer.
Maybe 2017 is a good year to schedule my next brain defrag.
Further Reading and Questions about Vipassana
Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This was the book that a friend recommended a few years ago, setting me on this journey of meditation and mindfulness. If you are dealing with a long-term illness or immune disorder, or are in pain, its principles and firm but compassionate outlook are important.
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka. A full-length study of the teaching of S. N. Goenka, prepared under his guidance and with his approval. It includes stories by Goenka himself, as well as FAQs from students along the years.
The Discourse Summaries, by S.N. Goenka. Goenka’s end-of-day lectures were a huge part of what made this course transformative. I do not recommend buying this book until after you complete a Vipassana, as hearing them as they arise in the sequence of meditation instructions was critical to my ability to get through them. That said, if you’re interested in Vipassana or you did the course and want to refresh your thoughts about the messages of equanimity and objectivity, this is a great purchase.
Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, by Pema Chodron. Extrapolating on the Buddhist concept of shenpa, this book helps recognize patterns that then lose our hold on us when we objectively acknowledge them. An interesting read and one that I found really helpful.
Sex, Drugs and Meditation, by Mary-Lou Stephens. A very quick beach-type read, one that I got through on a short flight, but a funny outlook on the Vipassana course.
Where to take a Vipassana meditation course: See Dhamma’s worldwide directory.
Other Vipassana Course Writeups:
- Will Peach on Vipassana (part 1 of 2)
- Shannon from A Little Adrift
- Dan from Uncornered Market
- Torre from Fearful Adventurer
- An entertaining Men’s Journal piece with a very different viewpoint.
What is the Vipassana schedule?
From the Dhamma.org website:
4:00am Wakeup Bell
4:30 – 6:30am Meditation
6:30 – 8:00am Breakfast
8:00 – 11:00am Mediation
11:00 – 12:00pm Lunch
12:00 – 1:00pm Questions for the teacher in the Meditation Hall
1:00 – 5:00pm Meditation
5:00 – 6:00pm Tea-break
6:00 – 7:00pm Meditation
7:00 – 8:15pm Video discourses by Goenka
8:15 – 9:00pm Meditation
9:00-9:30pm Questions for the teacher in the Meditation Hall
9:30pm Lights out.
Is it true that there is no dinner? HOW DID YOU DO THAT?? YOU EAT FOR A LIVING!
Yes it’s true. Dinner was tea, and two pieces of fruit. Somehow I did not even get hungry. Like the silence, it was a part of the Vipassana that I made larger than life in my mind, only to find it was actually fine. I wasn’t hungry.
How did you sit through discourses for two hours after sitting all day?
I squirmed a lot. The pain didn’t end when the meditating ended! But at least I was allowed to move during these two-hour lectures. I found them interesting and inspiring, and I looked forward to Goenka’s voice and playful expressions each night.
How much did you pay for the course?
The courses are all offered on a donation-only basis, including time – the kitchen and other staff are all former students volunteering their time. I donated at least what it would cost the center to feed and house me, as well as extra to support future attendees.
Should I do a Vipassana Meditation?
It’s truly up to you. Everyone who attends is fighting their own mind and a tendency to react to life instead of observing it with equanimity. I am extremely grateful that I did it, and would go back and do it again despite the pain and spiders.