Welcome to my blog, I’m Thomas, the happiness nerd, and I’m here to discuss my thoughts and experiences on my path to happiness. I’ve looked wide and deep, read a lot, discussed a lot, practiced some, and want to share with you what I’ve learned so far. In my content I’ll focus on scientifically sound and/or logically coherent approaches to happiness, which are grounded in “reality” (or what we can grasp of it). I hope that you will engage with me in the comment section, so I can learn from your knowledge and experience! Everybody with decent manners is welcome!
The idea of starting a blog came to me during a Vipassana meditation retreat (for details: dhamma.org), so I’ll dedicate my first entry to describing this experience. It was my first ever and it was a hardcore initiation: Getting up at 4 a.m. in the morning to sit and meditate for 12 hours every day for ten seemingly never-ending days in a row. No speaking, no reading, no writing, no contact with the outside world, no news, no entertainment, no sports, no sex (not even masturbation), no nothing. Just practicing and learning about meditation, eating, and sleeping (and of course keeping up one’s personal hygiene). Why would anyone go through such an ordeal, let alone voluntarily? The answer, like arguably the ultimate answer to everything we ever do: Happiness.
I wanted to see, if meditation could make me happier and boy was I surprised by how much it did! I can honestly say that during these ten days, while they were also among the most challenging of my life, they were among the happiest. And to put this into perspective, I was very lucky in life, so I should have – and in relative terms probably do have – experienced happiness in abundance. I was born with a cheerful and calm temperament, had a happy childhood, always had and still have many great friends, got an inspiring and debt-free education including an exchange year in Cambridge, and even my first job, while not perfect, had a lot going for it. Still, those ten days of deprivation, back-pain, and hard work were among the happiest. How? Why?
First the “how.” For this, let me describe what kind of situation the meditation experience improved upon. You probably know this feeling: You’re finally getting something you wanted or you’re witnessing a unique moment, but you’re kind of underwhelmed, not really there. If you haven’t, I’m genuinely happy for you, please teach me your secret! For me, unfortunately, this happened way too often and it seemed to happen more and more in recent years. Receiving the diploma I worked for so long just to think “I thought this would feel better.” Or flying to a distant continent, experiencing exciting flavors, impressive works of art, and majestic panoramas, yet with the experience always staying behind my expectation of how I thought it should feel like. [On a side note: I mostly stopped flying, because I’ve already done too much harm to the planet. Please consider doing the same.] One might criticize that my expectations for how life should feel like are unrealistic and that I should adjust them. There might be some truth to that. But I do know those other moments, too, where I’m fully there, feeling alive, immersed, and present. The timeless bliss in the arms of a loved one. The deep calm on a misty November morning. But also the adrenaline rush after realizing a horrible mistake made or the overwhelming grief at the funeral of a loved one. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, significant or mundane, for me, such moments are characterized by undivided attention and a sense of immediacy and “realness.”
During the retreat, I had those moments way more often and longer than ever before. I saw a tree swaying in the wind and I experienced it so fully that I was almost swaying with it, the distance between us reduced to zero. Another time it seemed like I could feel the touch of my clothes against every hair on my body, the tiniest movements, the subtlest sensations. Later, I would take a few steps and would feel the stones under my shoes, the air against my palms, and the sun against my ear. Like, really feel them. And if these things sound trippy to you, well, they sometimes were. On one morning, it was just like my first MDMA trip, just like it and just as good, but without having taken the substance. Other times were more like “regular” peak experiences that I had sober. And yet other times were like the overall positive mood of a really good day, when things have been going great and one is just “in the zone.”
Now the “why,” which is the more difficult question for me, because it goes beyond my immediate experience. Ultimately, I don’t know why I was so much happier during those ten days than during any other ten days of my life. I’m not denying that the circumstances of the retreat likely contributed their part. I was on holiday in Japan, one of my favorite places in the world, I did not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, travelling, working, or interacting with anybody. I was cared for. [I’m forever indebted to the selfless helpers in the meditation center, who made my experience possible with their voluntary work. I will repay my debt by serving the same way in another center in the future – something I would have never considered before this retreat.] The social media detox definitely also played a role. But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. As I mentioned, we got up at 4 a.m., were deprived of our usual pleasures, had to spend almost every waking hour silently with ourselves without distraction (and you only know how hard that is once you’ve tried), endured significant levels of back-pain most of the day, ate only twice a day and only what was served, had hard beds, cold feet, short showers, and almost no autonomy over our time. In some ways, it was harder than prison (in others definitely not, let’s not kid ourselves). Thus, pleasantries couldn’t be the whole story of why the retreat did such wonders for me.
If you’d ask teachers of this Vipassana tradition, why this kind of meditation makes you happy (other kinds may or may not), they’d probably give a two-part answer (even though there are some more parts to it, but they’re less easily summarized): First, you train your ability to focus on the present moment, making you less distracted, agitated, worried, neurotic, and “all over the place.” Hence, you’re calmer, which is one important ingredient of happiness. It also makes you more grounded in reality and hence less anxious, as it’s harder to spin off into catastrophic fantasies of what could go horribly wrong, if you truly only focus on what is evidently real right now (note that thinking about what could go wrong per definition shifts your focus into the future, not the present).
Second, you train your ability to accept the present moment as it is, no matter if it’s pleasant or unpleasant. This means that you don’t strive to get somewhere you currently aren’t and you don’t fight any unpleasant circumstances that may otherwise bother you. You’re fine, no matter what. You’re reasonably happy without even having to move a finger. I know, this isn’t necessarily the ultimate answer towards complete happiness, because you aren’t fantastic, no matter what. The meditation technique also doesn’t tell you what to do with your life. Still, being just fine, no matter what, is better than only being fine, when everything’s fine, which is likely how most of us feel. Because let’s be honest: When was the last time everything was fine, that is, you had no desires, no worries, no hunger, no discomforts, not even an itch? Btw, this ability to accept the present moment bears strong resemblance to the concept of ataraxia, which is a goal state both in Stoicism and in Epicureanism. So there seems to be some cross-validation between philosophical traditions here (something I always look for, but more on that maybe another day).
Training to focus on what is and be fine with that changes our deepest habit patterns. Because, by nature, we’re looking for what’s wrong, so we can avoid it or fix it and what’s pleasant, so we can make it ours. Noticing a potentially dangerous rustle in the grass and running away from it was adaptive for surviving in the savannah, and it was naturally selected for. After all, during the evolution of our species, the unagitated buddhas tended to get eaten. Likewise, if you could get your hands on some ripe fruit or an attractive mate, you tried to do so. We evolved towards survival and procreation, not happiness. But we aren’t in the savannah anymore and mere survival and procreation just wont’t do anymore, we want happiness. Which is not to say that you should accept that car driving towards you as the reality of the present moment and just stay still. You actively change your life towards the better if you can. But having the strength and tendency to not be bothered by every small inconvenience does wonders for your happiness. And it makes you feel self-efficacious: You know you’ll be fine, no matter what. As a psychologist I’d say that all these ideas are largely consistent with what we scientifically know about the mind and how psychotherapy works, but more on that in a future post.
Let me conclude with some rapid Q&A:
So, should you sacrifice your next vacation for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat?
Not quite. I’d advise to leave a couple of vacation days for some real recreation before and after, because the retreat itself is 120 hours of hard work.
Will it pay off?
If you manage to complete the ten days, then almost certainly yes. I had my personal goal met at day three, the following seven days were just an added bonus in terms of happiness, self-growth, understanding, etc. (I haven’t spoken about the self-growth and understanding aspects yet, but there’s a lot to be said).
Do you need any previous meditation experience?
No. If you want to prepare, do some physical exercise to strengthen your back.
Can I get started with meditation without having to invest ten+ days?
Sure. There are some great apps out there, but you generally have to pay to unlock enough of the contents. I recommend the Waking Up-App by Sam Harris and the Ten Percent Happier-App, which includes some guided meditations with Joseph Goldstein. You can also find some guided meditations by these teachers on Youtube. In my experience, though, there’s nothing like a retreat. It pretty much takes ten days to really learn the techniques correctly and to witness the strong immediate benefits. I think this makes it the easiest way.
How much does the retreat cost?
No money, just time. After you successfully completed the course, you’re allowed to donate as much as you want (your participation was made possible by previous donations and voluntary work).
Is Vipassana meditation the answer to all your problems?
Definitely not. In my experience, the path to happiness is not that simple.
Does the Buddhist philosophy behind it get everything right?
Definitely not. Karma, rebirth, and their atomic model, among others, do not convince me one bit.
So, considering everything, should I do it at some point in my life?
That’s a definitive yes from me. The retreat was one of the most transformative experiences in my life. As I said, it’s not the answer to everything, but it’s one of the biggest puzzle pieces that I have encountered on my journey to deep and lasting happiness so far. Also, I haven’t seen anything else yet that does what Vipassana does, neither in theory nor in practice.