Reflections from 10-day silent meditation retreat
Reader’s note: If you plan on attending a Vipassana retreat then consider not reading this or at least skip the bits on my interpretation of the theory. Reading this could set an unproductive expectation and personal bias for what should be an individual experience.
I recently completed a 10 day silent meditation retreat; a Vipassana retreat. Calling it a retreat suggests that this was something glamorous — a meditation on a beautiful beach under the cooling shade of a palm tree with the soothing sounds of ocean waves. This was anything but that. This was hard work. There are no distractions whatsoever. Just enduring quiet stillness for 11 hours a day. Day after day. I like to push myself physically through marathons, triathlons, bike races, skiing and mountaineering. Vipassana was one of the most challenging physical and psychological experiences I’ve endured. I am writing this primarily to help me comprehend what I went through and secondarily to share my experiences with those who want to learn more.
Upon emerging from Noble Silence, I found myself at a total loss of words. I couldn’t articulate what it felt like. The default reaction of ‘good’ or ‘great’ didn’t do the experience justice — that’s how I’d describe an ordinary day. But these were no ordinary days. Perhaps inspiring and profound are more suitable adjectives. But when I’d try to explain why I fumbled through words. I attempted to articulate my thoughts but it came out disjointed. I’d lose my train of thought in mid-sentence. I hadn’t spoken in ten days.
I knew very little about Vipassana before I started the course. However, I felt compelled to go for a number of reasons. First, I had been meditating almost daily for 18 months during 2016 and 2017. My introductory experience had a positive soothing impact on me. I became able to brush aside small irritable things that previously mounted into larger frustrations. Second, a number of people in varying fields whom I admire, such as Yuval Harari, Ray Dalio, Sam Harris and Jerry Seinfeld, all attribute part of their insight to their meditation practice (although these individuals meditate regularly, they don’t necessarily practice Vipassana meditation). Third, I became consumed by the challenge and mysticism of Vipassana in particular. It’s a notoriously challenging meditation practice. But what is it? Could I endure it? How would I react? Like any challenge, I wanted to see if I could actually do it. Fourth, I like to regularly experience being way outside my comfort zone. Finding comfort in the unconventional has been a tremendous source of personal growth for me. Fifth, when I decided to take time off in early 2018 there were a handful of experiences I wanted to have, including Vipassana. Although I purposely did not have a set itinerary, nor was I looking to check the proverbial box on a to do list, nearly a year had passed and it didn’t sit well with me that I had not done a Vipassana retreat; that had to change. It was a mental block preventing me from moving onto my next phase.
From the outset, I had to step out of my normal self. For 10 days I had to practice Noble Silence, which means absolutely no communication whatsoever; no speaking, no eye contact, no physical contact, no gesturing. I also vowed to abide by five precepts: 1) abstain from killing any being (which in writing this I realized I broke. I killed a spider one morning in the shower), 2) abstain from stealing, 3) abstain from all sexual activity, 4) abstain from lying (which seemed unnecessary to me given I couldn’t speak), and 5) abstain from all intoxicants. Men and women were segregated for the duration of the retreat. I relinquished all electronics. Physical exercise is not allowed. Reading and writing is not permitted. For the 10 days I was totally isolated and disconnected. Although there were other people around, it was a completely solitary experience. The purpose of this is to eliminate all distractions and allow the mind to quiet down. This sensory deprivation inevitably forced me to look at the only place left, the last place I tend to look — inward. And for 10 days I went deeper and deeper.
My daily routine consisted of a gong waking me up at 4:00am; though I quickly learned I didn’t need to get out of bed until the second gong at 4:20am. By 4:30am I was in the meditation hall for a 2 hour silent meditation. At 6:30am the gong ringed again for breakfast. I ate oatmeal and toast every morning. A shower followed breakfast. At 8:00am another gong for the first group sitting of the day. The determination sit as it’s called requires you to be totally still for the duration. It starts with some chanting in Pali followed brief English instructions on what to focus on, such as the sensation of your breath through your nostrils and sensations in your body. Then back to total silence for the remainder of the hour. The determination sit would end at 9:00am for a brief break. Then back to the meditation hall for brief additional guidance on the next meditation, which consumed the next two hours of total silence. At 11:00am the gong sounded for lunch. A vegetarian lunch was served. By 11:45am I would be outside walking the forest path and staring at the wind blowing through the trees and at the sun. I’d return to my room shortly before 1:00pm to stretch and be ready for the next silent meditation starting at 1:00pm. At 2:30pm the gong would ring again for our second determination sit. At 3:30pm we would break briefly. And then, what else, another meditation until 5:00pm at which point we’d break for dinner. Dinner was a cup of ginger tea. At 5:30pm I was back outside walking the snow covered driveway sipping my tea. At 6:00pm time for our third determination sit until 7:00pm when the discourse started. The discourse was a video recording of the Vipassana teacher, S.N. Goenka, who charmingly discussed the theory of what we were doing. By 8:30pm the discourse ended and it was time for the last meditation of the day. By 9:00pm I was exhausted and crawled into bed, fell asleep and did it all again the next day. If I strictly followed the schedule, I would be awake for 17 hours and meditate for nearly 11 hours a day. In reality, I usually meditated for 6 to 9 hours a day, mostly in the meditation hall and occasionally in my room.
They were long and painful days. It doesn’t matter what position I sat in or the arrangement of pillows I organized, sitting for that long and extended periods where I sat totally still hurts. At times it was agonizing. Vipassana is a sensory meditation. You are meant to experience sensations at the physical level as opposed to intellectualizing thoughts at the mental level. Other forms of meditation encourage the meditator to visualize something or verbalize a word. Vipassana does neither. By visualizing something the meditator focuses their attention on an external object. By verbalizing something the meditator introduces another external thought. Vipassana attempts to purify the mind and for this, as Vipassana preaches, focusing your attention on something external is counterproductive. The meditator needs to focus all of their attention internally. The external objects are simply triggers. The root of misery is buried inside at the deepest levels of your mind; that is what Vipassana is trying to excavate. Vipassana means to observe things as they actually are, not as they appear to be. The Vipassana theory suggests that only when we experience things as they actually are — the actual truth — can we learn to stop reacting blindly and stop creating negativities and ultimately become liberated from misery and experience true happiness. The first step in practicing Vipassana and beginning to learn how to see things as they actually are is to abide by the five precepts and Noble Silence in order to quiet the mind. The second step is to develop some mastery over one’s wild mind by training it to remain fixed on something specific, like the breath.
For the first three and half days during every meditation all I did was focus on the sensation of my breath going in and out of my nostrils. That served to quiet my mind and focus internally. For the following six and half days I gradually moved through feeling sensations throughout my body. It is incredibly hard to focus on one specific thing, like my breath, for hours and days on end. I had considered myself someone who knew what was going on and thought that I was in control in my environment. But within a few days, I realized that I’m not at all in control of my mind. Thoughts come and go in no discernible fashion. Sometimes I couldn’t stop my thoughts when I tried. Unpleasant thoughts would arise and I couldn’t shake them. It’s as if I was being held hostage by my own thoughts. It could be infuriating. It would send me in a tailspin. If my thoughts were holding me hostage, then who was I and who were my thoughts? Who was in control? Vipassana helped me develop awareness of this phenomena and enabled me to develop equanimity.
But that awareness and equanimity did not come easily. In hindsight, it’s easier to tie the dots together and develop a linear narrative of how it gradually developed. But in the moment, I was totally lost. Thoughts emerged constantly to distract me. Pain became agonizing. Frustrations overwhelming. I often reminded myself of Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I felt like I was banging my head repeatedly against the wall and expecting a different outcome. But what outcome was I even expecting?
I didn’t go to the retreat with a specific intention in mind. I purposely left myself open to accept whatever was to happen. Another way I had to step outside myself, which proved more difficult than obeying Noble Silence and the five precepts, was accepting the unknown. I had no idea what I was doing there. What was the point of this? I was totally in the dark on the theory, the practice, the outcome, the purpose. Was this even working? What is it supposed to do? How is it supposed to feel? When do I know it’s working? Am I doing it right? Am I the only one thinking about this? Is that person over there meditating the right way? What is the right way? Is there a right way? Arghhhh what is going on here!?!?!?!
I felt like I had voluntarily checked myself into a mental asylum. I’m used to questions followed by answers, KPIs, OKRs, leading indicators, solutions and results. There was none of that. I slowly learned that this was done on purpose. Although I could speak with the teacher for 5 minutes a day if needed, I found myself not wanting to. I’ve gone so long without speaking that I pondered whether or not certain questions were worth breaking my silence for. Perhaps if I sit on it another day maybe I’ll discover the answer. Or maybe I’ll actually become comfortable not knowing the answer. Those were all foreign feelings to me. A totally new approach. It forced me to develop confidence in myself and more importantly shifted the focus of my confidence from an arbitrary outcome to a confidence in my journey.
Vipassana is an individual experience. I learned that the purpose is what you make it. The theory is there for you to accept or reject. I admire Goenka’s teaching because he does not try to convert you — there is nothing to be converted to. He encourages his students to question everything. Dogmas, scriptures, beliefs are not to be accepted because someone said so. The individual must objectively rationalize a theory for themselves. But what Vipassana teaches, at least my interpretation of it, is that emotions, thoughts and feelings must not only be intellectualized but must be experienced at the physical level. Wisdom is created by bridging the intellectual to the experiential. Said differently, intellectualization creates knowledge, experiences develop wisdom. The meditation I did for hours on end was to feel the sensation of those emotions, thoughts and feelings at the experiential level. Vipassana suggests that the physical sensation your body creates from meditating with those emotions, thoughts and feelings is a manifestation of your subconscious reaction to them.
My understanding and interpretation of the Vipassana theory, is that humans develop at the subconscious level a habit of reacting to craving and aversion. This habit compounds from birth. Craving and aversion are the source of misery because neither can ever be satisfied. Vipassana attempts to break the subconscious habit of reacting to craving and aversion to free oneself from misery and live a happy fulfilling life. In order to break that habit, you meditate at times it seems endlessly. But eventually, I realized that the pain was not that bad. Although the physical pain was present, it was amplified by my mental reaction to it. The aversion I had to the pain amplified the pain I felt. The physical pain plus the subconscious reaction to that pain created misery. However, after lots of practice, I could sit with the physical pain and not react with aversion, which made it much easier to bare. I was no longer miserable sitting still for hours on end. Vipassana forced me to sit totally still, endure physical pain in one part of my body, wonderful tingling sensation in another and my mind off on a random thought tangent yet I would remain equanimous. It’s as if I could step outside of myself, realize this was going on and not be agitated by the pain, frustrated by the thought tangent or crave the wonderful tingling sensation. The experience inculcated that whatever I was feeling in that moment was temporary and would pass.
So did I actually break a 30+ year habit in 10 days? Who knows. In reality I was only able to remain equanimous to the pain, thought tangents and wonderful tingling sensations a handful of times in over 100 hours of meditation. I suppose time will tell if I really did break a habit. However, I now have a better awareness of my reactions to craving and aversion. That’s an improvement.
But what’s wrong with craving and aversion? That’s a philosophical debate I kept having with myself. If I have no craving, then taken to the extreme; why am I getting out of bed in the morning? Why did I come to this retreat? Without a craving for purpose and fulfillment I would be a vegetable. I have an attachment to family and friends. I don’t crave their love, but I seek it. Surely some craving is okay? And what’s so bad about aversion. There are certain social groups and situations that I don’t like and so I stay clear of them. What’s wrong with that? I stewed on these philosophical questions and it made some of my mediation sits miserable. Then it dawned on me, is the misery I’m feeling as a result of indulging in this philosophical debate instead of focusing on my body sensation, as I’m supposed to be doing, substantiating Vipassana’s claim that reacting with aversion is a source of misery?
To move on and not torture myself further. I reconciled the shortcomings for myself in the following ways. First, it’s the reaction part that is critical. Setting a specific purpose is different than reacting to something. Reactions are rooted in insecurity and ego, whereas a purpose is hopefully rooted in inspiration. Second, the Pali translation of the Vipassana teaching into English is not a direct translation. Craving can be more like clinging. Clinging to an expected outcome and then not getting it can be the source of misery. Third, reacting to cravings such as I want this or that because it will make me look better and if I only I had this then I’d be fine are ego driven. By not reacting to those cravings, I’m reducing the size of my ego and making room for others to occupy that mindshare, which will hopefully enable me to love and be more compassionate.
What I’ve articulated is my own interpretation of my experience. Since Vipassana is an individual experience I’m certain others who have sat a Vipassana course can’t relate to what I’ve described. I would encourage anyone who is interested in Vipassana not to go with an expectation and allow yourself to craft your own experience. As torturous as that may be, I think it’s the only way to truly get the most out of it. Writing this has been helpful for me. But I fear it could plant an expectation in someone else’s mind of what to expect at a Vipassana retreat.
I think time will be the ultimate barometer of how profound this experience was. There are certain things that I learned during my experience. I developed an acceptance of and a comfort in the unknown. I learned to shift the focus of my confidence from an arbitrary outcome to the path of my journey. I improved my ability to focus intensely on one thing without distraction. I have a greater awareness of my conscious and subconscious reaction to my environment; particularly in regards to craving and aversion. I developed an acceptance that nothing is permanent. I learned to sit with and objectively observe my emotions and thoughts and not only intellectualize them but to truly experience them. I believe there are other insights from the experience that have yet to percolate.
Perhaps I will do it again. I’m not chomping at the bit to get back. I was glad to walk out of there on the twelfth day — it’s actually 12 days long; 10 days of meditation and a shoulder day on both ends. I would not recommend it to others. This is not an experience you should be convinced to do. You need to want to do it and seek it out for yourself. But anyone can do it. Sure at times it’s hard. But the ‘pain’ and ‘misery’ I endured pales in comparison to the real suffering countless people go through regularly with unfortunately no end in sight.
And no, I didn’t get bored once. Boredom didn’t even cross my mind. Yet that’s been one of the most common questions I’ve been asked. The internal framework of the mind and body is a fascinating place; with so much to discover how could I get bored?
A special thank you to those who supported me in this endeavor and who encouraged me to continue on this journey and to write about my experience and share it with others.
I’d be curious to hear any feedback, insights or personal story by email or on Instagram @sam.m.andrew.
Whistler, British Columbia, Canada