No talking. No eye contact. No tight clothing. No dinner. No phones, books, pens, paper, or music. Five people to a bedroom. 4 am wake-up call, and lights out by 930 pm.
As soon as I arrived, I was thinking about how to describe this place to people back ‘in the real world.’ The best I could come up with was: “imagine a mix of boarding school, no-frills detox centre, nice prison (but with no library), and a psychiatric ward in the middle of the countryside, and you’re getting close.”
I was far from civilization, embarking–as a now-and-then meditator–on an intense 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, in silence, with 75 other women. Why? Good question.
I’ve been keeping up with the neuroscience over the years, and it’s clear that meditation is beneficial for most of us, but I’d had trouble finding the motivation to practice consistently. I figured that committing to something like this, where I’m isolated from distractions and taught a “scientific approach” to meditation, might make it more likely that I’d start a regular practice at home.
Also, I love a challenge. Especially a short-term one. Tough obstacle race, yes. Months of training for a triathlon, nope. So curiosity, the challenge of it, and a vague sense that it would be good for me were my driving factors. I just didn’t know if that would be enough to keep me there…
Day 1: Irritation
Yesterday, day zero, it all got real. We handed over our phones, books and any writing materials, and were assigned a small section of a dorm room, with a basic bed, chair, bedside table, lamp and cubby for clothing, all partitioned off with a wooden divider and curtain. We chatted over dinner, which seemed extremely loud with 150 men and women in the hall, and after two hours of small talk with strangers, I was ready for the silence to begin.
The rules had already been handed over to us in a pamphlet, and after dinner, we sat through a serious talk on the same rules – with an emphasis on the fact that we really, really shouldn’t leave before the ten days are up.
I had heard both good and worrying things about people coming back from these retreats either renewed and inspired or in a dark place. My curiosity was at an all-time high.
The first meditation session began after dinner, and it was as uncomfortable as I had expected. The voice of our teacher, S.N. Goenka, came over the speakers (as it would for the next 10 days, as the ‘father of Vipassana’ passed away in 2013) with simple instructions to concentrate on our breath. My body is pretty young and limber, but sitting in any position for an hour will test your joints, muscles and spine, and mine were all straining by the end of the evening.
Lights out by 930 pm and I’m wide awake, staring at the ceiling.
A gentle gong rouses everyone at 4 am on our official first day; I’m not a happy camper. Three of the five people in my room snore loudly, so I slept very little. I drag myself out of bed and into the meditation hall for the first morning session. I’m drowsy and don’t do very well when it comes to focusing on my breathing but hey, I’m there, and I stay awake for the two hours until it’s breakfast time at 630. I’ll take that as a win.
Meal times are when you really start to understand that “people not talking” doesn’t necessarily mean “silence.” You hear every fork scrape the plate, every loud slurp of tea, every vaguely concealed burp, throat clearing, knuckle cracking, yawn, tummy noise (and worse)…amplified!
That was my first challenge: extreme irritation. I vowed to do terrible things to my roommate if she kept making that noise after each sip of water. I wondered what the hell my other roommate was doing when she opened and closed, opened and closed the bedroom door at bedtime. I was sure I’d be able to meditate if the woman behind me would JUST STOP SNIFFLING!
The first time I think, “Oh man, this is gonna be long” is 11 am on day one.
Day 3: Anger and Denial
We’ve all settled into the routine now – wake, meditate, eat, rest, meditate, eat, rest, meditate, eat, meditate, sleep. There are four times throughout the day where we have to be in the main hall meditating with everyone else, the rest of the time you’re allowed to meditate in the hall or in your room. For my own sanity, I count these as “optional meditation times,” and when I’ve had enough of sitting with my breath, I take a nap, or stretch, or take a shower. It’s a lot. Irritation turns into anger.
Why can’t I read a damn book? Why are there regulated times I’m allowed to go out for a walk? How is watching my stupid breath going to change my life? Why do people have to eat so loudly? And how do you expect ordinary people like me, who are coming to these retreats with zero daily hours of meditation, to suddenly do over 10 hours a day? Who came up with this shit?!
Denial kicks in. I decide that I don’t really need this. Or at least, that the other people here must need it much more than I do.
I’m a contented, well-rounded person who’s pretty darn happy with her work, relationships, and everyday life, and who experiences many small moments of joy throughout the day. This is for people with issues. Then I realize I’ve spent the past 72 hours cursing everything and everyone around me and I have to grudgingly reconsider.
Maybe there are a few things I could work on…
Day 5: Boredom
Things are starting to look up, slightly. On day four, we learn the real Vipassana technique (turns out the first three days of focusing on the breath are just preparation – not really the ‘hard work’ we’ve come here to do).
This is actually a welcome development because now my mind has a job to do – observing the sensations of my body in a slow, systematic way, which means I’m no longer wondering if I’ll be mentally checking out the inside of my nostrils for ten days.
I’m still far from focused for the full hour sessions, but I have to admit my body has become accustomed to sitting for long stretches, and my thoughts have calmed down. Earplugs help when I can’t tune out the noises of the room, and the pillow fort I’ve constructed around my butt, knees, and back (we’re all now up to an average of about eight pillows) is helping with the posture.
The boredom, however, is excruciating. I realize that back in ‘the real world’ when we’re stressed and busy, and we think “ah, just give me a day with nothing to do, bliss!” we don’t actually mean ‘nothing.’ We mean a book, a movie, a bath, a hike, or a nice cup of tea looking out the window at the world outside.
Here, if you’re not eating or showering, you’re sitting on the floor of the meditation hall or sitting on the plastic chair in your room. Being disconnected from my phone is nice. But staring at the ceiling or the wall or the inside of my eyelids for dozens of hours is really, really hard.
Inner peace still feels far away.
Day 7: Gradual Understanding
The days start to blur together. It really helps that the vegetarian food at the centre is delicious, and – most importantly – different every day. It’s the only thing that is. I feel nourished and healthy, and surprisingly ok with nothing but green tea and fruit as an evening meal (not expending any energy definitely reduces hunger.)
What’s also pretty amazing is that all this is free. One of the principles behind Vipassana centres is that the retreats cost nothing, so that whoever wants to learn the technique can. Afterwards, participants are welcome to give a donation or come back and work another course as a volunteer.
This system of ‘paying it forward’ works. People give what they feel is right, and Vipassana centres are expanding and opening all the time. It’s a beautiful ray of sunshine in an overwhelmingly commercial world (plus it helps reassure skeptics that there’s no wealthy guru behind all this).
Over half way through and the middle days are full of self-bargaining. Like there’s a rebel me and a conscientious me in my head. “Ok, I’ll get up early, but then I’m going back to bed for a bit before breakfast.” Or, “Ok, I’ll shower and walk outside instead of doing this session, but then I have to do the long session in the hall after lunch.” But most often, “I’ll be good and focus on the technique for 3 full body scans, and then I get to design my future tiny house in my head.”
But while all this negotiation is taking place, there’s also a growing understanding of the technique (aided by the video lecture from Goenka each night, and conversations with the assistant teachers during ‘office hours’). We’ve settled into a much more silent silence, periods of what’s called “strong determination” where we resist the urge to shift, itch, yawn, or reposition. Now the quiet feels deep and luxurious.
I notice a newfound ability to focus, to observe sensations, both strong and subtle, and to really absorb, understand, and accept the central teaching of Vipassana: everything changes, nothing is permanent. Physical and mental discomfort comes and goes, and I let it.
Also, my tiny house is looking great.
Day 9: Enlightenment…?
Craving and aversion. Buddhists believe that’s the root of all suffering, and after ten days in your own head, it’s hard to disagree. Wanting things to be different from the way they are. Wanting them to stay the way they are. Wanting them to be the way we want them to be.
In saying that, one of the things I really appreciate about Vipassana is that – despite its Buddhist origins – you don’t have to ‘believe’ anything. It’s a secular technique, so there are no monks in robes, no statues, no special prayers to chant. You learn the technique, practice it, and, hopefully, see that it makes sense and helps you in your daily life.
The idea is not to become totally free from any negative emotion, which is almost impossible for humans, but to be able to notice when these feelings come up and not amplify the emotion by focusing on it. Just let it be, wherein it often passes away more quickly.
After almost ten days of struggling with this idea, it makes sense. The hard part is also having to accept that positive emotions and situations are just as impermanent, and to learn to enjoy them while they last, and accept when they change.
The teachers get many whispered questions: whether it’s bad to want and work towards things, how to think about love and happiness, which we all crave, and why our minds refuse to cooperate, even after all this time (we’re looking at a hundred hours of meditation at this point.) They are calm and explain the difference between wanting, liking, and craving while assuring us all that anything the mind conjures up is entirely reasonable, and to just keep trying.
Some of the sessions seem like they now pass faster. I can sit still for two hours, bring focused awareness to every inch of my body, and feel a magical tingling from head to toe… sometimes.
I need fewer pillows. I start thinking of the place less as a detention centre and more of a superhero training camp. We’re all essentially told that we have this buried super power inside of us (the ability to be more in control of our emotions, and ultimately happier people) and we just need ten very concentrated days – no books, yoga, music or writing – to work hard and uncover this.
I think I get it. I’d also love a bag of salt and vinegar chips, but I’m enlightened now, so I decide I can wait one more day.
The End of the Beginning
The silence is lifted for the second half of the last day. I hear a wave of noisy conversation as I head towards the dining hall, but I’m not sure I’m ready to re-enter the real world again.
Chatting with some of the other women, I hear familiar experiences and some unexpected ones. One younger woman dealt with a lot of crying. An older lady was there for the fourth time and seemed like she was born calm as a saint. I spoke to people I had felt real irritation towards (knowing nothing about them), and they turned out to be wonderful people with whom I shared a lot in common.
But now it was time for the next real challenge – bringing this new tool home and working with it daily. At the end of the retreat, we’re asked to try to incorporate two hours of meditation a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. It’s a lot. I don’t manage quite that, but I do commit to a session most days and some smaller ‘check-ins’ throughout the day. I feel that it’s a tool I have and can use, in conjunction with other mental health routines, to slowly work on becoming the best version of myself.
A ten-day meditation retreat is not a panacea – at least not in the short term. You’ll need to be prepared for the emotions that come up. You’ll spend hours and hours in your own head, and most of us spend our whole lives distracted from what’s in there!
But in the end, it’s a precious technique and one that I’ll come back to again and again. It’s one I encourage others to try. The part that seems to scare people, the silence, was actually the most natural for me.
Sending loving kindness to snorers….well, I’m still working on that one!
There’s a lot about the technique itself that I haven’t had the space to explain in this story. If you’re interested, check out https://www.dhamma.org/en/index where you can find the retreat centre closest to you.