In the world of nutrition, I see many people trying to end their suffering through diet. Now, there’s no doubt that diet can greatly enhance wellness and health. It’s certainly helped me, and now, as a Nutritional Therapist, I help others make dietary changes to improve their health.
But I also see many people who are trying to end ALL of their suffering through diet and exercise. They become obsessed with daily exercise routines and adhering to what they see as the “perfect diet.” This could be veganism or it could be a meat-centered diet such as the Paleo diet. They think they’re going to live to 100. Some even make it their life’s purpose.
And this of course is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because of these three words:
Life is suffering.
I truly feel sorry for anyone who disagrees with that statement. I know they have not yet looked deep inside themselves to see the truth in that statement. But I think most people would agree with it, especially the older we get.
So on that note, I ‘d like to share my experience with suffering and a way I’ve found to escape it. In so doing, I ‘d like to offer a perspective that can ease the heated arguments between plant-based diet advocates and meat-based diet advocates.
First, a little personal background.
In the fall of 2000 I became a vegetarian. I did it for a lot of reasons, but at the top of that list were health reasons. And then, over the course of the next seven years, my health declined dramatically. Fatigue and digestive issues became my everyday companions.
In the fall of 2007, when I learned that meat from the right sources can be incredibly healthful, I returned to eating meat. And my health improved greatly. Fatigue lessened, and over the course of the next six months my digestive issues vanished. But I did not go back to eating meat right away. It took me some time to deal with the conflicting thoughts and emotions about it.
For me, the hardest part was the conflicting messages I had to process as someone who had become involved in the practice of meditation.
In meditation circles, there is a very strong bent towards vegetarianism. Many styles of meditation say you will progress on your path better as a vegetarian. Some say it helps to develop compassion and kindness to all living beings. Some say it helps to develop higher levels of awareness in meditation.
And this is certainly the case with Vipassana meditation. Vipassana stands for “insight” and it’s a non-secular form of Buddhist meditation that has become very popular. Vipassana is taught in 10-day residential retreats in over one hundred centers around the world.
In 2001, I did my first 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Thailand. There are many similar but different styles of Vipassana. The style I became involved with is known as the “Goenka” style, so named for SN Goenka, the Vipassana teacher who brought the technique from Burma to India, from where it began to spread around the world starting in the early 1970s.
When I tell people that I’m going away for a 10-day meditation retreat, a frequent response I get is, “Sounds wonderful! I wish I could get a 10-day vacation!” And then when I say what I do on the retreat, many say, “Oh my god. I could NEVER do that.”.
I vehemently disagree and always try to explain why they could and should do it. But it is true, Vipassana retreats as taught by SN Goenka are no joke. They are a serious undertaking. And they are brutal – the most brutal physical thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve never been to a boot camp, but many folks wind up at Goenka retreats because of the intense psychological suffering they endured while in the military. And they always say that boot camp was nothing compared to a Goenka retreat.
These 10-day retreats challenge you on every level – physical, mental and emotional. They do this not to test your will or your strength but to bring about a radical new understanding of who you are and what life is about.
So let me explain a little what happens on these retreats and the inner shift they bring about and how that perhaps can relate to diet.
The retreats are silent. That means no talking. One is permitted to speak with the teachers at certain times of the day, but there is no speaking with the other meditators. The men and women are segregated. There is no reading. No writing. No listening to or playing music. No computer use. All cellphones must be turned in before the retreat starts. So there is no contact with the outside world.
During the 10-day retreats, one eats all vegetarian food for breakfast and lunch. The first time students are allowed a light snack at night while “old” students, those that have done at least one retreat, do not eat anything after noon.
The daily schedule is as follows:.
4am: morning wake up bell.
4:30 -6:30: meditation.
6:30 -8:00: breakfast and rest.
8:00 -11:00: meditation.
11:00 -1:00: lunch and rest.
1:00 -5:00: meditation.
5:00 -6:00: tea and/or light snack.
6:00 -9:00: meditation and nightly discourse.
All meditation is done in the sitting position. There is no standing or walking meditation allowed. No one ever sits longer than one hour at a time, though the breaks are short, five to ten minutes at most. During the rest periods, walking is permitted outside. Students are asked to suspend all other forms of exercise for the ten days, including yoga.
Though the schedule seems intimidating, it’s structured to turn our attention within ourselves, something we’re never taught to do and something that can be quite awkward at first.
The first three days are spent doing a simple breathing meditation called Anapana. This serves to calm the mind so that one can go deeper in Vipassana. Though this proves to be quite difficult at first, over time, tensions start to ease. We start to feel good, sometimes even blissful as our minds become quieter. For all you scientifically-minded nutrition nerds out there, one could say that we start to heal our adrenals and reduce our cortisol levels.
But stress-reduction is not the purpose of true meditation. The true purpose is to root out deep psychological complexes that live within us in the form of conditioned mental and emotional reactive habits such as anger, depression, lust, anxiety, negativity, fear, worry, etc. These habits cause us pain. Intense pain. And we all have them in different degrees.
Vipassana intentionally throws us into the fire of our pain and shows us how to start extinguishing it.
So how does Vipassana do this?
Through physical sensations on the body. On day four, students shift their attention from their breath to their body. Meditators are guided each day how to systematically go through each part of the body and become aware of the different sensations without reacting to them. And what one finds is all sorts of sensations. Pain, pressure, lightness, heaviness, heat, cold, tingling, vibration, etc
. Sitting for long periods, physical pain is there for sure. One is asked to be aware of physical pain as just a sensation. Sharp pains in the back, heaviness in the legs, burning in the feet, throbbing in the head, etc. Oh so much pain!! But when one truly starts to observe it without reacting to it, it begins to lose its power. It literally starts to melt away. We start to sit for longer and longer periods without fidgeting. This is fascinating to watch in oneself. And this helps sharpen our awareness of the subtler sensations that are at the true root of our suffering.
Through constant self-observation, hour after hour, day after day, we begin to literally feel our thoughts and emotions as sensations as well, in particular, very subtle but painful ones. Past hurtful experiences bring up various uncomfortable sensations in us. And we begin to clearly see that our conditioned reaction is to run away from the pain. And outside the retreat, there are endless ways to do this – drugs, alcohol, food, even minor things like watching TV or doing crossword puzzles.
But now, without outer distractions, these conditioned patterns become intensified as our attention goes to their associated physical sensations. We feel mental and emotional pain as we’ve never felt it before. We feel the heaviness of depression. We feel the burning of anger. We feel our negativities as actual sensations. And it hurts like hell!
But then something magical starts to happen. By not reacting to them, they start to unravel. Tensions we’ve held for years start to crumble. Our body softens. The painful sensations start to turn to pleasurable sensations. And we have moments of great bliss. And what happens is we start to crave them. However, those pleasurable moments, as powerful and transformative as they are, are still temporary.
The next time we sit for meditation, we’re looking for pleasure but instead we’re faced again with painful sensations – heaviness, pressure, burning, and we see how it intensifies when we try to push it away and react negatively to it again.
So we start to see more clearly that we’re always craving pleasure in some form and we’re always running away from pain. Both pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin.
Which is suffering.
The insights that come out of this are nothing short of remarkable.
We see clearly how our pain is self-created through our inner reactions to things that happen outside of us. We see how we’re never really satisfied with the present moment. We see clearly that when negativities arise in us, we are the first to suffer.
And we see clearly how to free ourselves from suffering. Anger subsides. Depression lifts. Anxieties fade. Many overcome their addictions in the ten days.
These insights also begin to transform our relationships. No longer can we blame anyone outside ourselves for our suffering no matter how horrible the things they did to us. We learn to forgive others. No longer can we blame ourselves for some of the pain we may have inflicted on others. We were unconscious. We learn to forgive ourselves. And no longer can we see other human beings as separate from ourselves. We see the universal nature of suffering. We learn to be more compassionate.
These insights also begin to transform our understanding of religion. For many, religion is no longer needed. The present moment becomes the true savior, the true path to free oneself and to help others free themselves. But for many others, they embrace a newfound understanding of their religion. Texts from religious scriptures start to make more sense not as literal interpretations but as metaphors to bring about a new consciousness, a new awareness within oneself.
Of course, no one becomes enlightened after 10 days. Stresses will overwhelm you again. Anger will re-emerge. Depression will re-emerge. Our conditioned mental and emotional patterns don’t completely evaporate. They will steer us off course time and time again.
And so we go back.
Next week I’ll be returning for another 10-day retreat. I go every year to re-center myself, to chip away at the rough edges that live within me.
And this means that every year I go back to being a vegetarian for ten days.
But when I leave the retreat center, I return to eating meat. I learned the hard way that vegetarianism does not work for me outside the retreat settings. For seven years, I thought vegetarianism would strengthen my meditation practice and make me more spiritual, so to speak. None of those things happened. I learned to be gentler with myself and honor my physical needs through my diet.
But after the retreats, I don’t go back to eating just any meat. I follow the dietary principles of the Weston Price Foundation, which supports animal products from small, pasture-based farms that treat their animals well. And in my nutrition practice, I use them to help others address their health issues.
That being said I am not anti-vegetarian. I know many who do well on a vegetarian diet, and I do think such a diet can promote health. But I don’t get bogged down in the plant vs. meat-centered diet debate. Yes, I promote animal-based diets, but in the end, both will fail us!
And of course, so much of the plant-based vs. animal-based diet arguments revolves around which one better promotes longevity. And both sides have studies to prove their point. And that’s the problem.
Scientific studies can’t change your inner world. No matter how much they prove your diet is best, they won’t change your reactive patterns. They are the realm of the intellect. They observe the outer world but they can’t teach you how to observe your inner world. They can’t free you.
In my opinion, the undercurrents of these diet debates are really about the fears behind aging and death. No one wants to die. So we use our intellect to think ourselves into various life philosophies. And we protect our beliefs by arguing, criticizing and preaching. Because if we’re wrong, we have to face the unknown and that can be scary. Our egos don’t like the unknown.
Meditation practices that bring about a shift in our inner world also help us to loosen our fear of death.
As the great spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says, “It is not life and death. It is birth and death. Birth and death are the two poles of life, which is eternal.” That realization, that Life is eternal is not something I have experienced. But there’s something about Vipassana retreats and the insights they bring that start to orient us towards a greater dimension beyond our thinking minds.
Yes, diet is important for health. But it’s not everything.
If there is one gift I could give to anyone, it would not be improving their physical health through diet. The greatest gift I could give anyone would be improving their “spiritual” health, that is, to learn to stop the unconscious inner forces that promote suffering. To me there is no price on that.
And that is why Vipassana retreats are free. For 10 days, you are fed and given comfortable accommodations for absolutely no charge. As Vipassana has spread around the world, so too has the gratitude that people feel for the experience. People donate money based on what they can give so that others can benefit. I’ve seen people give ten dollars, and I’ve seen people give thousands of dollars. Regardless, the retreats run on donations, and this never ceases to amaze me.