I first heard about Vipassana retreats on a forum where people from around the world shared their experiences and claimed to have got incredible results from it. I looked into it just to make sure it was not some brainwashing sectarian nonsense and then signed up for a 10-day retreat.
What these retreats are
Vipassana meditation retreats are offered worldwide by a non-profit organisation. They are open to all and are strictly supported by voluntary donations. The teachings come from the Buddhist Theravada tradition, more specifically by the tradition of S N Goenka, a Burmese-Indian meditation teacher, but are presented in a universal manner, making them accessible to everyone. In these 10-day retreats, we are not allowed to communicate with the outside world in any way nor speak to the other participants. We can’t even bring anything to read, watch, listen to or write with. We are woken up every morning at 4am and, apart from brief interruptions to eat and listen to instructions, we meditate all day long until sleep time, at 9.30pm. The schedule is strict, but it enables you to experience the retreat with minimal distractions. If you can do this without the need for a rigid schedule you probably don’t need to come to a vipassana retreat.
Arriving there in the late afternoon, I was assigned a room, and shortly, we—a group of about 30 people—entered the meditation hall. There, we received the first instructions: “focus on the breath, at the entrance of the nostrils”. That was all for the first evening. Day 1 of the 10-day retreat actually begins the next morning.
Next morning, we were woken up by a gong at 4am for the 4.30am meditation, which would last two hours. I got into the meditation hall at about 4.20am, sat down and began meditating. I had brought my watch to the meditation hall, which was a terrible idea. After what I thought had been an hour, I looked at it: 4.38am! I couldn’t wait to get further instructions. However, as the day progressed, the same indications were given again and again, until the evening discourse: to focus on the breath. Admittedly the technique seemed boring to me then.
The schedule is strict, but it enables you to experience the retreat with minimal distractions
The evening discourse was great though and it clarified my doubts and motivated me to keep practising. I learned that this technique was designed to sharpen our concentration so that eventually we are able to practise the meditation as precisely and efficiently as possible.
For the next two days, we kept focussing on the breath, and I felt the mind getting much more malleable and aware of subtleties. At the end of the 3rd day, we were told that the next day, we would learn Vipassana—which means “seeing things as they really are”. On the 4th day, after more than 35 hours of watching the breath, we now directed our attention to our sensations, scanning our body from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. The technique consists of watching these sensations with equanimity—without craving or aversion—to develop insights concerning the ultimate nature of reality and ourselves.
All the subtle sensations I felt amazed me. So much was happening, yet I was never aware of it! At the end of the 5th day, I felt great; I felt like my awareness and equanimity were solid. But this was put to test the next day…
Sick on the sixth day
On day six, I woke up sick. My nose was clogged, my head pounding and my throat burning. I couldn’t divert my attention, I had to watch these sensations patiently, hour after hour. Although I didn’t consider leaving at all, I was annoyed by my condition. I saw it as a burden. This mental annoyance lasted until the end of the 7th day, when my mindset totally changed.
This technique is designed to sharpen our concentration so that eventually we are able to practise the meditation as precisely and efficiently as possible
I realised that the sickness was there, whether I wanted it or not. The only constructive thing to do was to observe the sensations fully, with acceptance. I now saw my condition as an opportunity, and approached my last evening meditation with strong determination.
Ardently watching the sensations arising and passing away without reacting to them, I perceived them with unprecedented clarity. Suddenly, they melted down completely into tiny vibrations. When it was time to sleep, I had no interest in doing so, and meditated for the most part of the night. The peace of mind and joy that was arising was nothing like I had ever experienced before. Even the ‘unpleasantness’ of the symptoms was seen with humour and happiness.
Ironically, waking up on the 8th day, the symptoms were gone.
Day 10 – The last day of my Vipassana experience
For the last few days of the retreat, meditation was mostly effortless for me. On the 10th day, the schedule is loosened and you are allowed to talk to each other. Day 10 was my last chance at completing a meditation of staying absolutely still for a full hour. In the previous such meditations, I failed around the 30 to 40 minutes mark. It was my mind that, at some point, became too agitated. It’s hard to explain, but it wasn’t a physical sensation. The best comparison I can come up with is being highly anxious and stressed.
The beginning of the meditation actually went pretty well. About 45 minutes into the meditation, though, I started getting those weird anxious feelings again. I did my best to continue practising, trying to acknowledge the feelings without being ‘disturbed’ by them. It was like every cell of my body was actively trying to throw me off track.
Even the ‘unpleasantness’ of the symptoms was seen with humour and happiness
Very surprisingly, after enduring those horrible feelings for a few minutes, I sort of ‘forgot about them’ and kept on meditating. When the recorded chanting began, I knew there were only five minutes left and at this point, I definitely wasn’t going to move.
When the meditation ended, the prohibition to talk was waived. Although I hadn’t said a word in the whole retreat, I still feel like I developed a strong sense of friendship with other meditators. I learnt that human connections are much more than words!
I talked with a handful of interesting people. We enjoyed a great meal and spent the rest of our day chatting. We also had two other mandatory meditations, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. The afternoon one went well. The evening meditation was… a different story.
After the afternoon meditation, I talked to one of the guys who had been sitting next to me in the meditation hall. We discussed about our experience and he told me he noticed that while meditating, our swallowing was way noisier than others [on my part, that was probably due to me having a cold]. For the whole retreat, he said he thought of us as the “frog brothers” [The mind can be very creative when trying to distract you from meditating].
Next, I spoke with a guy who had been, for the last 10 days, trying his best not to laugh during the meditations. Since he was sitting close to me in the meditation hall, I had already noticed him trying to hold himself from laughing out loud. He’s a guy who, in daily life, loves to tell jokes, laugh and talk to people. The ‘silent’ part of the retreat was highly challenging to him.
After enduring those horrible feelings for a few minutes, I sort of ‘forgot about them’ and kept on meditating
Finally, as we sat for our last meditation, I started to meditate normally, but soon I heard my ‘frog brother’ being pretty noisy. I thought it would be funny to try to beat him in a ‘frog contest’ by being noisier than him. Stupid idea!
Although I expected him to laugh, he didn’t flinch and remained still. Reflecting on what I had thought and sort of ‘visualising’ it, I found it funnier and funnier and eventually felt laughter come to my cheeks and tongue. I managed to hold it back for a while, but at some point I couldn’t help it and burst out laughing. Guess what happened next?
The guy who had been holding his laugh for the past week burst out laughing as well, and did so louder than me. A few seconds after, my roommate started laughing too. In order not to annoy everyone, I left the room. The two other guys joined me outside quickly afterwards. Our laughter was unstoppable!
I went for a walk in the woods alone and eventually, my laughter did diminish. In order to stop laughing, I tried to ‘force myself to laugh’, which ironically, made it stop. After what had been about 10 minutes, I went back into the meditation hall and resumed my meditation. 20 minutes later, my roommate came back to meditate but the other guy never came back. When we got outside, he was lying in the grass, still laughing his head off.
We spent the rest of the evening having great discussions about life purpose, meditation and relationships. We were strongly encouraged to meditate at least two hours a day [which sounded like a lot to me] and to keep a healthy lifestyle.
I went back home—after more than 120 hours of meditation—with happiness, joy and enthusiasm.
The guy who had been holding his laugh for the past week burst out laughing as well, and did so louder than me
It’s been a while now since my first Vipassana retreat and I can say that it represents a turning point in my life. I’m more grounded, less judgmental, more ‘in the present moment’ and, most importantly, I have the absolute certainty that I can deal with whatever may happen in life.
The technique is so simple that one may wonder how it can produce such incredible results. But year after year, hundreds of thousands of people attend them, and no one leaves unchanged. Suspending daily routines and habits for a while and undertaking this practice is something I recommend to everyone.
Tips and encouragements
If you go on a retreat, be sure to follow the rules and instructions to the letter. People who twist the rules and do it ‘their own way’ end up either not receiving the benefits, or leaving early, rationalising that the technique doesn’t work for them. Also, I would recommend setting some time off after the experience. Your return to routine life will be much less uncomfortable if you allow yourself to progressively come back to your obligations.
Such intense retreats shouldn’t be taken lightly, and leaving halfway could prove to be quite stressful for the mind. Making a firm resolution to stay in the retreat until the end is very helpful in staying focussed in your practice; if you leave the door open, the mind may convince you to simply leave because it’s hard. If possible, I would recommend starting to follow the retreat’s sleeping schedule and to eat lighter evening meals a few days before going. That will get your body to gradually adjust, and will make your retreat less uncomfortable.
Lots of people wonder whether they should practise meditation before the retreat, and are scared of the ‘meditations of strong determination’. Although it is definitely beneficial to practise meditation and to get used to sitting on a cushion, there is a level of discomfort that is inherent in such practices, and that can’t be avoided. The goal is not really to minimise the physical discomfort, but to learn to deal with it. Also, in the retreats I’ve been to, a variety of cushions, benches and chairs were available for practitioners. The goal definitely isn’t to torture yourself but to take the opportunity to look at various sensations, including pain, and develop understanding and wisdom.
Don’t be scared; millions of people have been through these retreats before, and returned home with immense benefits. You’re not less able than them, and you can certainly do this; it could even change your life.
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