When I first told people I was going to attend a 10-day silent meditation retreat, I didn’t hesitate using that word: retreat.
However, that word evokes images of a beautiful view, feelings of comfort, and a do-whatever-you-want type of experience. And that was NOT this!
This was a challenging course designed to train the mind, and it IS referred to as a course on the website. But now you know it’s true. You’re welcome.
In this post, I will offer some background on what the Vipassana meditation course (aka 10-Day Silent Retreat) is like and expand on my own challenges and insights over the 10 days.
What is a Vipassana Meditation Course?
The 10-Day Vipassana Meditation course was created by S.N. Goenke (pronounced GWEN-KUH, I think). It’s a non-sectarian approach that welcomes people from all different backgrounds, regardless of faith. It doesn’t require prior knowledge of meditation or the Vipassana technique, or a commitment to any set of beliefs.
From the website…
What Vipassana is not:
• It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith.
• It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment.
• It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing.
• It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
What Vipassana is:
• It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.
• It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
• It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.
One of the things I appreciated most about Goenke’s teaching was the emphasis on having a direct experience. While the technique doesn’t require a commitment to any deities or rituals, he does ask you to refrain from all other spiritual practices during the course and follow some basic rules in order to increase your chances of directly experiencing the benefits. For example, the rule of ‘noble silence’ means no talking, reading, writing, or non-verbal communication.
Having a direct experience was the main reason I took a leap into silence for 10 days. It’s easy to focus too much on strategy and technique when trying to accomplish any physical, mental, or spiritual goal. We often would be much better off doing anything, assessing our results, and using what works. How much time do we spend learning about personal development vs actually taking concrete actions to further our development? At the end of the day, one has to do the work. In the case of a silent retreat, that means sitting and focusing your attention (over and over and over).
A 10-day course isn’t the only way to have a direct experience, but it’s an excellent structure designed to help you see results (which is one of the reasons Vipassana Meditation Centers have opened up all over the world and run based on donations only).
Let’s get into some of the challenges…
The Physical Challenges
As I mentioned, there is a LOT of sitting. I considered myself to be prepared since I have been practicing meditation and yoga for over 6 years, and I’m at a point where I sit for meditation around 30-45 minutes per day. In addition, awhile back I attended a 3-day Sesshin at a Zen dojo where I sat for long periods of time (45 min to over an hour) consistently over those three days.
Here was the simplified schedule:
Wake up at 4am.
Meditate for 2 hours. Eat + rest.
Meditate for 3 hours. Eat + rest.
Meditate for 4 hours. Tea + rest.
Meditate for 1 hour.
Listen to 1 hour video teaching.
Meditate for 30 minutes.
Go to bed around 9:30pm.
I saw the schedule beforehand, but for some reason, the 8+ hours of scheduled meditation didn’t really sink in until Day 1.
“I guess they really meant we are going to sit on this cushion and nothing else the entire time. Damn!”
Even with all my preparation, the pain of sitting for long periods of time is, umm… REAL.
There are many people that jump into a 10-day course without a lot of prior experience. All I can say is…
On Day 4 we began Adhitthana sittings (“sittings of strong determination”) where we were encouraged not to make any major movements for an hour. We continued to have three of these sittings each day for the remainder of the course. My body felt like it was on fire during a few of these. There was a constant sharp, hot pain next to my left shoulder blade, on my lower right back, and my butt bones were throbbing with waves of pain. Pure bliss?
Everything is impermanent, as they say…
Our mind is very tricky. About 35 minutes in things start to get uncomfortable. About 45 minutes in, the sensations of heat and throbbing (aka pain) have intensified to the point you feel like there is absolutely no way you can hold out for the rest of the time. And then usually about 5 minutes or so after that, intense sensations begin to subside. All of a sudden your back feels the same as it did 30 minutes ago! And then a few minutes later it comes back. And then it goes away! You begin to realize that these sensations are ever-changing.
I had a mini breakthrough during one of these sessions. It was a very direct experience of using the breath to move through pain. At one point I suddenly felt like I “latched on” to the breath while my body was aching and throbbing. All of my concentration was on the breath and I was “riding the waves of sensation.” I was aware of the pain, but it felt distant. It was like I was using the pain to enhance my concentration on the breath, following it in and out, and staying with it as it got more shallow or deeper. It was quite the experience to feel like I had found a place of calm and peace amidst all the unpleasant sensations.
The Mental Challenges
Overall, the course was more of a mental challenge than anything, and it’s a bit difficult to capture in words. Many people imagine it being incredibly hard to go 10 days without talking. As an introvert who enjoys the quiet, I never had a strong urge or desire to be able to speak. However, the mind was in no way following the rule of Noble Silence, and that was the real challenge for me.
From a mental perspective, I found days 2-3 as well as days 7-8 to be the most challenging. My mind was constantly thinking about the number of hours left to sit for that day, and when it started multiplying this feeling by the number of days left…. “dread” is the best way to describe it. My mind would ruminate on how much more physical pain, anxiousness, boredom, and isolation I would have to endure. Thinking ahead caused me to feel very trapped, and it was on these days that I found it hard to not dwell on the future.
Notice how I used the words “have to” and “trapped.” The reality was that I could leave at any time. However, my mind had made such a strong commitment to completing this course that it seemed like leaving wasn’t an option – I was trapped by my ego. How could I go to the teacher saying that I wanted to leave when there were 60+ people on the waiting list for this course and I had agreed multiple times that I would not leave before the 10 days were complete? Also, how could I go home early and tell everyone I didn’t last the 10 days?
Since I wasn’t going to, the mind was stirring up drama and resisting as much as possible. Disappointment in the location, judging the style of teaching, and being critical of others were a few of the tactics used.
When you commit to living like a monk for 10 days it’s hard not to have an expectation that you will experience some type of breakthrough or profound moment. That said, my expectations were curbed based on my own experience with meditation over the years. For me, the effects are almost always subtle and the realizations show up spontaneously, often well after periods of practice.
I did experience a few periods of deep meditation during the course, but nothing that led me to quit my job and go to Costa Rica (been there, done that). However, and more importantly, there were a few dawning realizations that surfaced throughout the 10 days.
When it’s “not working” you’ve lost equanimity
One of the main lessons reiterated throughout the course was the importance of equanimity – remaining free from craving and aversion. Periods of meditation provide a time for practicing equanimity. Can you observe sensations without clinging to the ones that feel good, or resisting the ones that are unpleasant?
I was reminded that hoping for a particular experience during meditation or becoming frustrated that your mind has been all over the place for the last 45 minutes are signals you have strayed from equanimity. Observation. No judgment. No attachment. As Goencke says, “Remain equanimous.”
This is so easy to forget when trying to commit to a regular meditation practice. Sometimes meditation really sucks. It’s boring. It stirs up feelings of anxiousness. It doesn’t feel helpful AT ALL. And when this happens, it’s an opportunity to come back to a state of equanimity!
Don’t expect the mind to be quiet
I think I subconsciously went into this retreat believing that eliminating all distractions, practicing silence, and meditating all day would help quiet my mind.
The mind was always chattering, day after day, meditation after meditation, walk after walk. So what the heck is the point of all this meditation?
It is about noticing these thoughts; that is, becoming the Observer of your thoughts versus being IN them. I was constantly catching myself being caught up in the mind. I was able to observe my thoughts about someone else’s clothing, planning my next breakfast creation, counting the days left. By observing what the mind is thinking you can return to a place of equanimity and choose your response instead of falling into our habitual reactions.
Trying to quiet the mind is a recipe for losing your equanimity. There is no need to try and quiet your mind, cause guess what? You can’t. It’s not something you can do. All you can do is create the circumstances (continuing to notice and allow sensations) that will eventually allow the mind to settle.
It’s OK to be judgmental
Speaking of noticing my thoughts, I was also noticing how judgmental these thoughts were. Like, damn! My mind had an opinion, critique, or evaluation of everything.
Did you need 3 bananas with your oatmeal?
I soon noticed how I was constantly evaluating everyone, especially around the food. When you eliminate other stimuli, thoughts of food quickly become front and center (what up, primal brain?). I was basically in survival mode, hyper-alert to the food source and evaluating tribe members. What is he doing? How much does he think he needs? That’s just ridiculous.
After being frustrated with how much of a pompous ass I was being, I realized how OK it is to have judgmental thoughts. I don’t have to stop it. It’s the primal brain at work, doing what it was designed to do. As long as I’m noticing it, I can come back to choosing how I want to respond. Noticing and coming back to the role of the observer is how we break free from our habitual patterns.
We’re experiencing all types of sensations ALL of the time
The actual Vipassana technique is similar to a body scan meditation where you bring your awareness to different areas of your body and notice any sensations that arise. At first, there were many areas where I didn’t feel any sensations. The realization: that doesn’t mean there AREN’T any sensations. Your ability to notice these sensations depends partly on how sharp your mind is – hence why we train the mind by focusing our awareness. Through this practice, we can become very perceptive of the various sensations that come and go all over our body (it will take another post to explain the point of this).
Quick Practice: I find it easiest to notice sensations in the hands and feet. If you’re curious about this, bring your awareness to your hands right now. Don’t try to do or feel anything, just try to bring all of your concentration to your hands. Do you feel a tingling, warmth, or soft vibration? Just think… similar sensations are occurring over all parts of your body right now.
How is this helpful? Become attuned to this has the potential to open up an entirely new world, where you begin to notice things happening on an energetic level. This is how you start to break free from “being in your head” and stop constantly wrestling with your mind. Decisions become easier, stress is reduced, and you find it easier to connect with people.
How My Life Has Changed
OK, that header is a bit dramatic.
The truth is, not much has changed. I certainly felt a sense of accomplishment after completing the course and am very glad that I had the experience.
I also have a renewed desire to continue sitting for meditation and increasing the amount of time I devote to this every day. The only reason I have continued to increase the amount of time I sit every day is that I have directly experienced a deeper sense of peace, relaxation, and release of cravings. I don’t have to force myself to sit when I know the benefits. This course reminded me of that.
From a practical and scientific perspective, we know that meditation changes our brain. It is, quite literally, the doorway to becoming happier, in addition to becoming a more compassionate person. In case that doesn’t excite you, you’ll also become MUCH more productive in anything you do.
The best part about meditation is that you can experience the benefits from a very SIMPLE practice, i.e. 5 minutes per day. The most important part is consistency.
If you have any questions on how to get started with a meditation practice, or how you can combine meditation with coaching to achieve WAY more with less effort, I would love to chat. Get in touch with me here.