Rewiring my brain- My experience with Vipassana
Hi everyone, I’m Lisa. I am an integrative health coach, foodie, outdoor enthusiast and team member at Atlas, where we are dedicated to holistic wellness as a foundation for leadership excellence. My work is centered around helping people care for themselves and develop professionally so that they may grow their companies in a sustainable fashion. Ironically, I suffer from many of the same ailments as our clients; depression, self-doubt, massive imposter syndrome, stress and anxiety, and not making time for my physical and mental needs to name a few.
I’ve been feeling for a while that I’m having a harder time focusing. I couldn’t get through a simple list of tasks without getting pulled away by another email or project. I started lots of projects but finished very few. This, in combination with being constantly pushed to the edge of my abilities and beyond, increased my anxiety about not being good enough and not feeling like I could succeed. Which in turn, made it difficult to focus on and complete tasks. A vicious cycle.
Now, this is the part of the story where I would love to tell you I learned to manifest success, or went on a mescaline journey in South America that totally changed my outlook over night and I’m now working half time and making twice as much money, all while living in total alignment with my values.
Tending to my mental health has been a process and it can be slow, painful and sometimes it feels like I’ve gone backwards. For years, I’ve been aware of the extensive benefits of meditation, but found it difficult to start up a practice of my own. I did finally find a therapist with whom I connect and have been working with her for about a year. The relationship with her, and setting the time aside to explore where my tendencies and self talk come from has been invaluable, BUT, still my incredible self doubt persists. I even have felt inadequate in therapy. “Where do you feel that in your body?” “What part of you is telling you that?” “What is coming up for you right now?” The answer was almost always “I don’t know”.
Our cognitive landscape is littered with introjects (things we learned and just accepted, usually even when they’re not true or useful) that go against our better judgement. Many of these things are deeply ingrained in my childhood, things I was told, behaviors and consequences I observed. Through some awareness, I have been able to identify when these introjects pop up.
I need to make a phone call to customer service.
Interject pops up- “If you ask those questions the operator is going to think you’re stupid”.
Rational brain says- “Never has anyone berated or embarrassed you over the phone for asking a stupid question. And who cares what they think?”.
Even though rationally, I know asking the question is fine, I can’t bring myself to pick up the phone. Why?
In a moment of psychological distress recently, I finally signed up for a 10-day Vipassana course in the hopes that the retreat would jumpstart a complete rewiring of my brain.
Long story short:
10 days didn’t fix my brain (not yet at least!). But, it did do some things I didn’t expect…
If you don’t know about Vipassana, here’s the skinny. You sit on the floor for 10 days without talking or looking at anyone, observing your breath and the sensations of your body.
One thing that I realized in the 10 days is, that most of what holds me back is the fear of non-existent future scenarios. I spin out all of the possible successes and failures., and inevitably, I can stack up enough evidence that it’s not even worth trying. The funny thing is that I’m not clairvoyant, at all. I have never accurately predicted the future! No matter how many times I rehearse an uncomfortable conversation with a friend or partner, the actual conversation always goes a little (or a lot) differently than I expected.
Vipassana technique is largely about mindfulness and acknowledging what is happening now without judgement. Simply the practice of saying, “This right here, right now is reality.” “Am I in danger? Am I ok?” “What do these sensations feel like?” “How are they changing?” without applying good or bad labels to anything has given me a tool to prevent the mental spin-out. The basic law of the universe is that everything is always changing this is true in a micro-DNA degradation, atoms changing energy states-and a macro sense-the expansion of the universe, shifting tectonic plates. Therefore, the good and the bad things in my life are also always changing, shifting, growing, retracting, it’s just the nature of things.
The underlying theory of Vipassana is that all suffering is caused by sankharas, a Pali word roughly translating to volitional formations or basically our brain habits. These sankharas manifest as cravings or aversions. Through experience, you develop cravings for the good sensations and aversions to the bad. Vipassana teaches you to observe your body at the sensation level, to stop forming these attachments to outcome or aversions.
I went into this process hoping that meditation would give me a sense of ease and peace with my decisions and allow me to move forward without resistance. But, if there is one thing I’ve learned about health and wellness it’s that it takes some tending to. You can’t look like the Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson by spending one week in the gym.
What Vipassana gave me is a tool that I use to move forward where, before, I was frozen in place by the fear of my created, hypothetical future.
So, what did I get out of this experience?
I’m better at therapy. No judgement about the way, I used to show up in therapy, but I’m more in touch with the sensations that arise when I access memories, fears and frustrations. I can feel where they are, what their qualities are and how they are changing in real time. This has allowed me to get in touch with my own desires, protections and resistances better than ever before.
I’m having more real conversations about my problems. A 10-day silent meditation retreat is by far the best conversation starter for talking with my friends about my struggles and theirs! These conversations have given me perspective, a sense that I’m not alone, confidence, reality checks, and a deeper sense of connection to my people.
I’m less reactive. Already, I’m noticing that the sensations attached to the things that hold me back are lightening, giving me a little more space to say “what is really happening?” “am I really in danger?” What do I want to do”.
My focus is better. It’s hard to say if this is the meditation or the fact that while I was meditating, I dedicated myself to sticking with some new time management tools that are totally working. Either way, it’s a win!
I’m practicing self-forgiveness. I set aside an hour in the morning to sit and meditate. Most days, I only get in about 30-45 minutes(is that a failure...or a success?). Quite often, my mind wanders away from the meditation, When this happens, instead of being frustrated that im failing at meditation-“Why can’t you focus?!”, I practice acknowledging the reality “Oh! We wandered off. There must have been something to see there. Alright brain, come on back now. Let’s try again”
BONUS- When I’m failing at Vipassana, my mind freely sorts through the things that are present and I’m in a state to sit without judgement, giving me another way to reflect on how I show up and if that aligns with who I want to be or who I know I can be.
Meditation is a tool and a practice. It takes time, and I can’t wait to see how my practice grows and changes with me as I continue to sit. If you’re interested in trying Vipassana for yourself, you can sign up for a free 10-day course at dhamma.org. It’s a donation based organization, with the mission to share the practice of Vipassana and the benefits of dhamma (the teaching of Buddha).
Do you have a meditation practice? I’d love to hear about it! How do you practice? What challenges have you encountered in your practice? How has it benefited you (or not)?