By Tiago Forte of Forte Labs
10 days, 11 hours of meditation per day.
No talking or communication of any kind, not even hand gestures or eye contact. No reading or writing materials of any kind.
No exercise, no entertainment, no physical contact, no leaving the grounds, no food or drink besides what was provided.
These were the rules of the vipassana meditation course I attended in California wine country last month.
This is the true story of what I experienced, and what it taught me about the nature of attention.
Day One: Chaos
We awoke each day at 4am for our first 2-hour meditation session of the day.
The first three days were dedicated to calming our minds and focusing our attention, which is even harder than it sounds. Sitting and closing my eyes on that first day, expecting the serene environment to calm me, I instead opened the door of my mind to find utter chaos.
Distracting thoughts fell like hammer blows, crashing their way into my awareness with ferocious determination. Any attempt to suppress them only made them stronger. I became distracted from my distractions by new distractions, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch, never resting anywhere for more than a few seconds.
In those first hours, I discovered my mind to be a machine finely tuned for the main task I had assigned it for many years: the task of generating new, exciting things to think about. My inner voice excelled at talking, but I’d forgotten how to listen.
We were given only one instruction at first: to pay attention to a small triangle-shaped area between the corners of our mouth and the bridge of our nose. We were to do nothing but simply notice any sensations we found there — hot or old, itching or tingling, numbness or heaviness — anything.
Day Four: Sensation
On the fourth day, we were asked to shift our point of focus from our upper lip to the top of our head.
My expectations for this second phase were low, because I felt I had already failed the first phase. My mind had calmed down slightly, remaining focused for up to about a minute at a time. But I still found my thoughts constantly wandering.
But when I moved my attention to the top of my head, I was surprised to feel a tangible pressure at that spot. We were instructed to expand our attention to the rest of the scalp, and it felt as if someone had poured a jar of thick honey on my head. I could feel the weight of it, the heat and the texture, oozing slowly and tangibly down my scalp.
Next was my face. Again, a dripping, oozing feeling down my forehead, over my eyes, down my nose and cheeks, past my mouth to my chin.
We proceeded to examine each part of our body in the same way. In each case, to varying degrees, an intense tingling radiated out from my point of focus after a few seconds of observation.
I’d never experienced anything like it.
We were told that nothing about these sensations was mystical or supernatural. They are always present — we just can’t perceive them most of the time. They lie submerged just beneath our conscious awareness, influencing our reactions and perceptions while remaining all but invisible.
In three days of mental effort, my attention had become so focused that these subtle sensations became as tangible as electric shocks.
Day Seven: Awareness
After a couple days spent exploring the surface of my skin, we were again given new instructions. We were told to use this new method of observation to examine the inside of our bodies.
Again, few expectations, and a number of surprising discoveries.
I learned that I could “sweep” the sensations from one area to another, building waves of sensation across my body. I found I could intensify my attention by focusing on a tiny spot — like the spot just behind my ear — and when I expanded my focus, the sensations would burst outward.
I pooled my attention around my ear and felt it slowly trickle down, becoming aware of sensations in my inner ear I had never felt. I explored the inside of my mouth, feeling attention trickle down my throat, where I experienced the feeling of swallowing from the inside, a violent sensation.
I realized I could hear my heartbeat, and feel it in any part of my body I paid enough attention to, no matter how small. I followed my pulse from my wrists to the ends of my fingers, where the beating was so strong it felt like 10 miniature hearts at my fingertips.
I followed my pulse to the heart itself, wrapping my attention tightly around it. Slowly, either because my heart rate slowed down, or my perception of time slowed down, or both, I realized I could feel the single beat as two separate contractions. The contractions became more and more distinct, until I could feel the impact of the first at the top left of my heart, and the second at the bottom right.
Never have I so directly experienced the wonder and fragility of this little meat machine beating furiously in my chest, knocking back and forth uninterrupted for years on end.
Day Nine: Bliss
By the end of the course, I no longer had to single out a specific body part to feel the sensations. Where before my body was like a pond in a light rain, an unexpected droplet hitting every few seconds, now it was a thunderstorm.
Waves of pleasure started throughout my body completely on their own, colliding and building on each other as they swept through me. The feeling was intensely physical but not sexual, and one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had.
My senses at this point felt like they were sharpened to a fine point. Stepping out of the meditation hall into the sunlight, I could follow the path of a fly in almost slow motion. I found myself watching things as simple as a steaming cup of tea with the rapt attention of a child, and any tiny pleasure — a warm shower, a clean shirt — somehow brought me immense joy.
Day Eleven: Mindfulness
Although these physical experiences were interesting, it was the changes in my perception and awareness that I valued the most.
Returning home, I felt a kind of hypermindfulness. Everything seemed imbued with warmth and meaning, like I had removed a black and white filter from my vision. The world seemed encoded with a hidden message — that everything was exactly the way it should be — a thought I didn’t think this Type A overachiever was capable of having.
The day after I got back, I stood in front of the ferry building on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Standing in the middle of the crosswalk gaping like a tourist, I was overcome by the beauty of the clouds in a bright blue sky, and the way they moved behind the clock tower I had never really stopped to notice.
I felt a newfound desire to connect with people, and not just to impress them or get something from them. Speaking with a young man who told me he lived out of his car, I was surprised to feel no reaction in my mind — no aversion, no pity, no feeling of superiority followed quickly by shame; only a subtle feeling of compassion and curiosity.
Gaps of time I had found unbearably boring and quickly filled by fiddling with my phone — waiting for the train to arrive, waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting in checkout lines — suddenly became precious moments of calm, allowing me to stop and reflect on what I was doing and feeling. The pull of my phone and email were magically gone, and I saw them clearly as the clumsy distractions they’ve always been.
Lastly, and I hesitate to mention it because it is such a cliché, I was happy. Happier than I could remember, more so than after any achievement or vacation.
I knew that this happiness was different than any I’d felt before. It had nothing to do with a particular set of circumstances, set no conditions or criteria. Making no demands on the world, the world couldn’t shake it. Accepting the bad along with the good, it stripped the bad of its power.
Sitting in a dark room for 10 days and peeling away layer after layer of my perception, I had discovered first-hand a truth that seems both obvious and far too good to be true: that the default state of the human mind is happiness. This is why happiness is not an achievement to be attained — every single thing you add merely obscures what is already there.
What I learned
1. Attention is a skill — if you don’t cultivate it, it will atrophy
We assume that if we are simultaneously looking at, listening to, and thinking about someone, then we must be paying them our “full attention.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.
I am convinced, based on my own anecdotal experience, that most of us don’t use more than a fraction of our attention on anything, ever. If I can discover a whole new world of sensation just within my own body in just eight days, how much more must be hiding just under the surface of our awareness?
And this is no accident. It became painfully clear to me, upon returning, how much our modern world is designed to erode this capacity. Advertisements, videos, mobile apps, commercials, social media, the news, email, notifications — these are the forward operating bases in a concerted campaign to fragment, subvert, and monetize our attention, a resource even more scarce (and therefore more valuable) than time or money.
We call someone who is not in control of their mind insane. What do we call someone who is not in control of their attention, which is the gateway to the mind?
2. 80% of happiness is just paying attention
A team at Harvard recently conducted a large-scale study on happiness, polling more than 60,000 people three times daily for a one-month period on numerous factors related to their happiness: exercise, sleep, social interaction, satisfaction, use of technology, and many others.
Do you know what they found to be the #1 predictor of unhappiness across the entire study?
Not paying attention to what you were doing. And it didn’t matter if the thing you were thinking about was more positive or negative than what you were doing. Just the fact of not being present was the cause. Now think of the implications for a society where none of us is truly paying attention to anything we do.
It’s true, happiness comes from within. But if you can’t perceive it, it is invisible to you. If “80% of success is just showing up,” then I believe that 80% of happiness is just paying attention.
3. Distractions are a lasting, subconscious mental habit
Every time you respond to a distraction — a new email in your inbox, a notification on your phone, a red badge in your dock — you are training your mind to value the new at the expense of the important.
Every time you interrupt the important and focused work you have consciously chosen to do to check what has just arrived, even for a second, you are telling your mind that this new thing must be more valuable, just because it is new.
This is why the effect of distractions lasts far longer than the environment that produces them. Even if you lock yourself in a dark, silent room for days, your highly trained mind will start to generate its own distractions — random musings and imagined scenarios — in a desperate attempt to produce the new information you treasure so much.
Once this habit is ingrained, like all habits, it happens mostly outside your conscious awareness. And the end result is that we can’t read a book because of that constant itch, that knowledge that there are so many new things accumulating all around us, in our phones and inboxes and feeds, and soon in our smart watches and smart glasses.
How can we ask our mind to focus its resources on something printed months ago when we’ve spent the whole week reacting to every retweet?
4. Paying attention to something takes away its power
On the fifth day of meditation, we began a practice known as Adhiṭṭhāna, or “Sittings of Strong Determination.” We were asked to sit for one hour at a time without moving, for three of the daily sessions.
This turned out to be more difficult than expected. After about 30 minutes, my knees would ache and legs go completely numb. My back and shoulders would burn and cramp, and the stiffness when I finally stood up took minutes to shake out.
But some interesting things happened when I started observing these pains and becoming aware of their complexity. The intense aching in my knee had a core and periphery, areas of heat and areas of cold, and reacted to sensations in surrounding areas.
I held the pain in my mind, and dissected it. I was surprised to find that it was empty. Not physically, but substantively. There were few layers and no root to this sensation that felt like it would overcome me, that felt like it would last forever. I understood then that pain, like everything else, is an impermanent phenomenon. It is here one moment and gone the next, a brief flutter in the mind.
What is the point of reacting to, much less worrying about, something so impermanent?
So much of our lives is dominated by fear of pain. We take a job out of fear of the pain of not finding something better, or we turn down the job out of fear of the pain of uncertainty. We start a company out of fear of the pain of working for 40 years with nothing to show for it, or we don’t start a company because of the fear of the pain of failing.
But what if depriving pain of much of its power was as simple as paying attention to it? Anger, doubt, shame, envy, vengeance — all these feelings have such a hold over us only because they operate in the dark. Shine a light on them, and they wither.
At this point you’re probably wondering, have the effects of this experience stayed with me?
I waited two weeks to write this, because I wanted the initial euphoria to wear off. I have indeed felt the heightened perception and mindfulness slowly fading away. Old habits and reactions are returning with the environment that hosts them, and I catch myself not practicing the mental attitude I have learned.
But I don’t believe everything will return to the way it was.
I feel the importance of relationships, balance, and “unstructured time” growing in my mind, and for the first time I don’t believe pursuing these things will hurt my business or dampen my ambition.
I’ve noticed that many things that once seemed so enticing have lost much of their appeal — caffeine, sugar, alcohol, television, social media, junk food. I’ve tried them all since being back, but they pale in comparison to the sensations I know are already going on in my body at this very moment.
I feel like a drug addict who has tasted a new elixir so potent that the old stuff just doesn’t cut it anymore.
It’s tempting to look for life-changing epiphanies in experiences such as this one. With that extra dose of motivation, it seems like an opportunity to change everything all at once, to become my ideal self so suddenly that my bad habits are shocked into submission.
But in my work with behavior change, I know that such approaches are bound to fail. I see it instead as a shifted trajectory — a tiny course change now will be magnified over time, until one day I will indeed be a different person as a result of small habits I have built into my thinking, my environment, and my life.
For now, that means one hour of meditation per day, in the morning. It is less than the two hours they recommend, but still a challenge. I have a nice comfy couch to meditate on now, but there are other pains for me to explore: the pain of ignoring stimulating new information waiting in my inbox, the pain of observing my boredom instead of running from it, the pain of acknowledging inner turmoil I would prefer to ignore.
My hope is that this small daily habit will slowly start to change the way I think, and that by changing the way I think, other changes will radiate outward in an organic, sustainable way. The initial results are promising, but I have faith that the journey will be much more difficult and complex than I imagine.
And that’s ok. Because the journey is the reward, as long as I’m paying attention.
P.S. Most of the ideas I discuss in this post come directly from the teachings of S.N. Goenka. I have, at most, rephrased them in my own words.