“Those who maintain their practice for the first year maintain it easily for their whole lives.”
~ S.N. Goenka
But what's so hard about the first year? Why does it take a strong act of willpower (adhiṭṭhāna) to meditate for two hours a day for a year, after which it becomes easy? The majority of students leave their first ten-day course of Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka (in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin) feeling somewhere along a spectrum between inspiration and transformation. These new “old students” feel energized by their ten-day glimpse into a changed way of being in the world. They often see the possibility of a happier life that is less reactive, and less at the mercy of the twists and tugs of their mind, of their "inner monologue." However, Goenkaji, as he was commonly known by his students, was explicit that the first course is merely an introduction. He spent ten days teaching you how to walk on this path, “but the actual benefit you get will be from daily sittings, morning and evening," after the course is over.
Nevertheless, most students will not return for a second course, and far fewer will maintain their practice in the way that Goenkaji described. It's not hard to understand why. Most non-meditators find spending two hours a day “doing nothing” difficult to fathom. Among work, family, chores, socializing, enjoying “downtime” or other familiar activities, coming up with two extra hours a day seems somewhere between challenging and laughable. Yet tens of thousands of busy people have incorporated these two hours into their routines. It seems safe to assume that they are happy they did.
Could more students make the transition that many hope to make—the incorporation of the practice into their lives—with a little more support? I've met a few people who walked out on Day 11 into a life of strong sīla (morality) and meditating two hours a day. I married one of them. She had a background in dance, i.e., hard work, was not particularly drawn to intoxicants, and had Dhamma friends to greet her at the end of the course. My entry point, however, was different.
In September 1998 I completed my first ten-day meditation course at age 27 and left feeling elated and grateful. In my playwright/actor’s mind, I kept imagining the major media glued to these Vipassana centers with regular headlines: “A Way Out of Suffering!” “Finally, happiness available free of charge!” Part of me was actually baffled why this was not the case, such was my post-course glow. But then I went back to work. First stop, an acting job in a regional theater in western Pennsylvania. Many of the younger actors had been at this resort-theater since June. The patterns of drinking and recreational drug use were well established. Fortunately, a friend whom I had made at the course came to visit me and wound up being hired as a carpenter. For several weeks we meditated together twice daily, and then he moved on. I continued to meditate, but gradually dropped to only one hour a day, and then from one to zero.
continued in this vein when I took another acting job in Florida. There
was no one to sit with. Again, the atmosphere was not particularly
inspiring. But what had been a semi-frequent habit before my first
course—smoking cannabis—had somehow now become an irregular habit
without a specific decision on my part. I became less interested in the
experience. Sometime that spring, I smoked for the last time. Following
my return to the Northeast, doctors determined that I needed to have
part of my intestine removed following a decade of inflammation and
scarring resulting from Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the
gastro-intestinal tract. During my two-month recovery, I had time to
meditate again, or, in my case, to lie down for two weeks. I began
planning a return to the Vipassana center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
Coincidentally, a conference on Vipassana and health was planned there
for that September. I went to the conference and stayed on for two
months, alternating between sitting and serving courses. Many things
changed in my mind and body during that time. It was a period of
healing—physically and emotionally—without “healing” being the reason I
was there. I was there, as the story in one of Goenkaji's discourses
goes, to tread a “high spiritual path.” Jonathan Mirin
If I had not had the opportunity to stay on for two months, if I had simply sat a ten-day course and returned to New York City, I might still be struggling with my practice. Goenkaji said that “continuity of practice is the secret of success.” Remaining at the Center for a longer period is one way of cultivating that continuity when you may not be able to ensure it in your home environment. But it was also the specific act of serving a course, and then another, that helped solidify my inspiration.
The first time was on par with my first time sitting, in terms of the new “angles" from which I viewed my mind, my relationship with the world, and Vipassana itself. An extended period interacting with others, in a kitchen dedicated to helping make the transformation occurring in the meditation hall possible, while meditating three or more hours a day, helped me redefine "work" as joy. Instead of the "deep surgical operation" of sitting a course, I learned what a prolonged "light-to-medium operation” was like. Meditating with new friends, while processing the evolution of those friendships and the challenges of working together towards a shared goal, was not just a metaphor for the years to come, it was a springboard into those years. The happiness of helping to give this technique to others carried directly into the next time I sat. It couldn’t have been any other way: I remained at the center serving until that second course started.
But many new old students have jobs—real jobs. And families. And dogs. And …. All I can say is that’s what it took for me. There are other ways to get support: a group sitting once a week, serving a three-day course, etc. But even after my two months at the Center, it was still hard, very hard. I returned to New York City without a great deal of meditation-related support, besides the once-a-week group sitting that was an hour subway ride away in Flushing, Queens. But the adhiṭṭhāna to make it through that first year was just barely sufficient to make it work, messily, sleepily, even once or twice after drinking alcohol—an experience so unpleasant that giving up alcohol became easy. I meditated in churches, on the subway, in Central Park. Although Goenkaji recommended not to meditate in public, I took his “anyplace, anytime” advice to heart in order to make it through that first year. I remember traveling in Italy, and when the hostel where I was staying offered no privacy, I found a comfortable spot between two dumpsters in an alley in Rome.
During this period, I gave preference to quantity over quality. Even if I was half-asleep, or completely asleep and propped up, I kept sitting. Effort became a place-marker for me. I knew part of my mind was still looking for a way out of this new routine. If that part of me found a way out once, then it could find it again. The unpleasant experience of “sleepitating,” with my neck at a painful angle, helped motivate better planning for the next time. Almost a decade later, when I had a son, although I had maintained my practice and sat various long courses, I downgraded the quality standard for those place-marker sits to my head being on the cushion, body outstretched towards my bed. Whatever works. Although the time spent meditating while raising my son was time away from him, my impression is that he understood he was also benefiting. Our being just a little less reactive when tensions rose in the house or the supermarket or the car has helped him to trust his parents more. They might not be perfect, but when they lose their equanimity they quickly recover, and even apologize.
I have now been practicing Vipassana meditation regularly for close to two decades. My life would be hard to imagine without it. I am grateful to this practice for a good share of whatever "success" I have had keeping our family together through difficult times, for positive experiences as an artist and activist , and for continuing t o offer insights into the ups and downs of this existence, often the same insight over and over again. Anicca!
Looking back on those first two years of struggle—the first when I was unable to maintain my practice, and the second just barely—I can see more clearly the relationship between sīla and paññā (wisdom). Although I was not in the habit of killing, lying or stealing, my sīla was not particularly strong when I sat my first course. I came to understand that sitting two hours a day is not simply about the physical activity of meditating; it requires a simultaneous encounter with what I am doing the other twenty-two hours a day.
What I have written is not meant to arouse guilt or perfectionism, or to add additional stress to overfull twenty-first-century lives. But if any of the above has any value for you, I’m glad. I wish you luck, equanimity and courage. And I wish you all success on this Middle Path—a rudder in a world that can itself sometimes feel unmoored.
Shelburne Falls, January 1, 2023