I’ve always had a deep desire that I could hardly put into words. A profound longing to find “something more”. That feeling brought me to a 10 days Vipassana meditation retreat.
And it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
How I heard about Vipassana meditation retreats
I heard about Vipassana meditation retreats on a forum. People shared reviews of their Vipassana experiences and reported getting incredible results from the 10-day retreats offered by Vipassana centers around the world. I looked into it, fond a center close to my home in Eastern Canada and subscribed for a 10-day meditation retreat. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. I read it was considered one of the most challenging meditation retreats available to westerners. I saw it as a great personal challenge and an incredible opportunity to fully focus on meditation. Besides, the retreats were free of charge; they’re solely financed by voluntary donations, so I really had nothing to lose except 10 days.
In Vipassana retreats, all forms of communication with other students are forbidden (including eye contact). Practitioners are only allowed to bring necessities, this means nothing to read, watch, listen to or write with. Cellphones and other electronic devices are also prohibited. The rules are strict, but they are helpful and force you to fully concentrate on your meditation practice without distracting yourself when things get tough, because they will get tough, trust me.
Day 0 – Arriving at Vipassana
Upon arriving at the Vipassana center in the afternoon, I was pleasantly welcome by a friendly and warm atmosphere. Since the meditation retreat only officially began in the evening, we were allowed to talk. There were participants of all ages (not under 18 though, since they aren’t allowed) and from various backgrounds. About half of them were new students and the other half were returning students. One man was even at his twelfth 10-day retreat!
I was assigned a bed in a shared bedroom and had a chat with my two roommates. Both of them in their early twenties like me. One was a chemistry student while the other was homeless. We got along well but couldn’t talk for long, and had a light dinner at 6pm. We were then reminded of the retreat rules and proceeded to the meditation hall. This is when the rules officially started to apply.
We got into the meditation hall and were each assigned a place on the floor. A great variety of cushions were available so that everyone could sit as comfortably as possible. The instructions were given by audiotapes recorded by the leading teacher of this Vipassana movement, S. N. Goenka. An assistant teacher was also present to answer questions and to give further instructions.
We were given a set of simple meditation instructions: mindfully following the breath. When awareness wandered away, we brought it back to breathing, firmly but without anger or disappointment. We were told that the purpose of this first exercise was to sharpen our mind to become more sensitive to subtler realities. We weren’t given specific instructions on meditation positions, but were told to keep our backs straight.
The instructions were simple, but the practice itself was another story…
Day 1 to 3 – The meditation retreat begins
The following morning, we woke up to a gong at 4 am. The first meditation was scheduled at 4:30am and lasted two hours. I got into the meditation hall early, sat down and began meditating. I could barely manage to focus my attention for even a few consecutive breaths. My mind was looking for a pretext not to obey: irrelevant memories and potential future projects kept coming up. Everything was a good reason to wander off. At some point, I wondered how much time was left before the end of the meditation. I had actually brought my watch, which was a terrible idea. After what I thought had been at LEAST an hour, I looked at it: 4:38am. Oh shit…
I was discouraged, but eventually I surrendered to the idea of sitting there for a LONG while. From then on, meditating wasn’t as challenging. At 6:30, the gong rang, we headed to the dining room and had breakfast. The food was vegetarian but still, I was impressed by the variety and quality of the food offered, especially considering the center is only financed by donations. We had some free time until the next meditation and I went for an outside walk since there was a small wooden area to walk in.
Here is the Vipassana retreat schedule:
4:00 a.m. Morning wake-up bell
4:30 – 6:30 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30 – 8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
8:00 – 9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00 – 12 noon Lunch break
12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher
1:00 – 2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
5:00 – 6:00 p.m. Tea break
6:00 – 7:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
7:00 – 8:15 p.m. Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:15 – 9:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights out
As you can see, we often had the option to meditate in our rooms. Still, I still mostly meditated in the hall. I felt more comfortable and most importantly, less distracted there.
When we meditated in the hall, instructions were often reiterated as not to leave anyone behind or in doubt. We were told to focus on our breathing for the rest of the day, which, frankly, I found boring. At 7pm, we watched a videotaped discourse by S.N Goenka explaining more theoretical aspects of our practice, answering frequently asked questions and informing us of the next day’s practice. These discourses strongly motivated my practice, and I couldn’t wait to go back on the cushion and meditate. I also found that the evening was the period when my meditation was the most focused. Since I don’t sleep much, I usually practiced in bed after the last scheduled meditation.
The next morning, we started our next practice, a simple extension of the previous one. It consisted of being aware of the sensations produced by our breathing. We focused on the triangular nose area and gradually reduced the region. The main idea is that by concentrating on a smaller area, we notice subtler sensations and sharpen our awareness. My meditation was interesting ; I felt stuff I didn’t even know I could feel, including slight vibrations, subtle temperature fluctuations and feelings of heaviness and lightness. Although my mind was still often wandering off, I usually noticed it quickly and came back to my practice within a minute or so. We were also told not to look for particular sensations but to simply acknowledge them objectively. This is so hard when you have an irritating itch!
On the third day, we reduced the region of concentration even more and focused on the small area below the nostrils (mustache area). Again, very subtle sensations I had never noticed before emerged. My concentration was strengthening! I also resolved not to bring my watch in the meditation hall as it only made meditation seem longer and harder. I felt like I had practiced well on these first three days. Admittedly though, I was a little bored and wondered where these simple exercises were leading us. At that point, we had watched our breath for about 35 hours! However, I was definitely not considering leaving. I wanted to experience everything Vipassana had to offer.
The evening discourse told us that until now, our practice was only a preliminary step and that tomorrow was “Vipassana day”. The real practice was going to begin. Finally, was I going to focus on something else than my breath? I was eager to learn what the Vipassana technique was all about!
Day 4 to 5 – Learning Vipassana
Waking up on the fourth day, I was eager to learn the Vipassana meditation technique. In the morning meditations though, we were given the same instructions as in the previous days: we kept watching the sensations produced by our breathing. A billboard note informed us that Vipassana meditation would be taught in the afternoon, in the meditation hall.
The Vipassana technique was surprisingly simple. At first, we moved our awareness from the mustache area to the top of the head. The top of my head initially seemed to be a “blind region”, but I gradually felt subtle sensations popping up. Eventually, we progressively move our awareness from head to feet and watching the sensations in every part of our body. We were instructed to look at those sensations objectively, without labeling them as good or bad. The key was to observe reality without developing desire or aversion.
A new practice was also introduced: “meditation of strong determination”. Oh boy, this is a tough one! For three hours, each day (three times one hour), we had to stay absolutely still while meditating. We couldn’t move an inch of our body or even open our eyes. What a challenge! We were strongly encouraged to stay still for the whole hour, we weren’t actually punished if we didn’t succeed. At first, I could barely manage to stay still for half an hour; my legs and back were killing me.
I was eager to watch the evening discourse to learn the idea behind this practice. How was this simple exercise going to allow me to get the incredible results reported by other Vipassana students? And why were we torturing ourselves with the “meditations of strong determination”?
In the discourse, we were first told that nothing justifies losing our peace of mind. Goenka also told us that practicing Vipassana meditation would help us reach true peace; happiness. As I understood it, the theory behind the practice is that every situation can be broken down into four steps:
- We perceive something with one of our six senses (the five sensory inputs + cognition).
- We identify and judge that “something”.
- We get a physical sensation according to our judgement of that “something”.
- We label that physical sensation as positive or negative and develop craving or aversion towards it.
Let’s take a look at two typical situations and break them down using the above-mentioned steps. Keep in mind that these steps happen very quickly and most of the time, subconsciously.
Seeing someone you hate:
- Your eyes perceive photons and send signals to your brain, which processes them.
- You label this perception as “someone you dislike”. You remember why you hate him and why he is such a “*%?/!!”.
- Physical sensations arise from these thoughts. You perhaps feel a tension in the upper chest or a general feeling of uneasiness.
- You label these feelings as negative and develop aversion towards them. You also associate this aversion with the person; you therefore reinforce your hate and loop the cycle again and again.
Remembering a pleasant souvenir:
- You think about a past event. (We could also say that you perceive it with your cognition).
- You recognize the souvenir and label the event. You remember how much you enjoyed it.
- You get a physical sensation that accompanies these thoughts, maybe a feeling of lightness or a slight flux of vibrations across you skin.
- You develop craving for these sensations that you identify as positive. You associate this desire with the souvenir. Again, you loop the cycle again and again.
Craving and aversion are two sides of the same coin. When you’re averse to something, you’re also craving its absence. In my opinion, the most important point is that we don’t desire things in themselves, but only the sensations we associate them with. A heroin addict isn’t addicted to heroin, but to the sensations produced by heroin.
We were told that this process resulted in perpetual dissatisfaction; suffering. By practicing Vipassana meditation, we train the mind to be more aware of subtle sensations (acknowledging the 3rd step) and learn to see them with equanimity (without judgement). This way, we can transcend the 4th step and thus break the loop of craving and aversion; suffering ends. At first, I found this counter-intuitive. We naturally tend to focus on the object of our sensations (first or second step) and not on the sensations themselves (third step).
Perhaps you can already see why the meditations of strong determination are so useful. By remaining still for a whole hour, a ton of unpleasant physical sensations are produced, and this forces us to practice equanimity. If you can keep your peace of mind while your whole body is tortured by horrible sensations, daily frustrations will become easy to deal with!
The evening discourse motivated me to practice Vipassana persistently. Although the last meditation wasn’t one of the “meditations of strong meditation”, I stayed absolutely still for about 30 minutes and then kept meditating in my room. I felt a warm flux of vibrations across my skin and felt like unpleasant sensations were “dissolving” into subtle and pleasant ones.
The next day, we began moving our awareness from head to feet and then, from feet to head. If we wanted, we could also move our awareness continuously, as opposed to part-by-part, on the surface of our skin. Since I easily felt subtle vibrations, I found this easy, and the rest of the day went fairly well. I often had thoughts about the external world but I tried my best to ignore them and I kept practicing. After the evening discourse (5th day), my meditation was fantastic! I experienced profound peace and happiness. When I went to bed, I was feeling too ecstatic to even sleep! I had fun sitting in various uncomfortable ways and just looking at the “unpleasant” feelings with objectivity. I felt like I was in the Matrix, I could handle anything!
This was put to the test the next day …
Day 6 to 9 – Equanimity and determination put to the test
On the 6th day, I woke up sick. My throat hurt, my head throbbed painfully and my nose was clogged. I had a cold and couldn’t distract myself from it. I had to meditate through it.
The meditations were very hard and paying to my sensations made them seem a worse. I had no trouble feeling sensations every part of my body, but I couldn’t maintain equanimity. My cold bothered me, especially when coughing during the group meditations. I barely managed to stay still for more than about 15 minutes during the “meditations of strong determination”.
I slowly made it through the day, but my condition wasn’t improving. I made it clear to myself that I wasn’t leaving the Vipassana course. Unpleasant sensations were not going to win!
On day 7, I was feeling even worse. Despite this, I was strangely enthusiastic at the idea of meditating through my bad feelings and saw the cold more as a challenge and opportunity than an enemy.
Meditating was challenging and I still failed miserably the “meditations of strong determination”. However, my shift in mindset helped me look at sensations without labeling them as “undesirable”. We were also instructed to try sweeping awareness “inside” our body parts, as opposed to on the surface. After a few meditations, I could feel sensations inside most of my body parts. In fact, the cold made it easier to feel subtle stuff as I was experiencing hyperaesthesia. As the day progressed, I felt my equanimity gradually getting better and for brief periods of time, I was able to fully experience my “unpleasant” sensations with full acceptance. They just seemed as they objectively were: information sent to my brain. This didn’t last long though, either because I got excited or because a particular sensation became overwhelming. Here’s what my thought processes looked like:
- “Okay, I know I have a cold and stuff, but if I’m able to meditate through it without judging it, I’ll be able to go through a lot of other things, so I have to do it!”
- “These are only sensations, these are only sensations…”
- *Watches sensations, start perceiving them in an objective way*
- “YEAH! I’m doing it, %?/* YOU, COLD!”
- *Loses peace of mind, sensations become overwhelming*
- “Ah, crap. Back to square one!”
I really enjoyed the 7th day’s discourse. It discussed about daily life applications of the technique and how it was going to help in the “real world”. I went to the last evening meditation strongly determined to maintain perfect equanimity. While meditating, I gradually felt a vibration taking over my whole body. Every gross sensation dissolved ones until there was nothing left but a flux of tiny vibrations. At 9pm, it was bed time but I went for a walk in the woods. While walking, I felt vibrations pleasantly moving through my whole body. An incredible sense of peace and joy emerged, nothing like I had ever experienced before. I’m getting shivers just thinking about it!
I was feeling way too good to sleep. I meditated for what was probably a few hours, playing with vibrations and enjoying immense peace and joy. This is a bit hard to explain but I still felt my negative symptoms as clearly as before. However, the way I mentally perceived them was radically different. There was no sense of me being sick, or of me suffering because these feelings.
When I woke up the next morning, there was absolutely no trace of my cold.
In the next two days of meditation (day 8 and 9), I didn’t experience anything close to what I felt the previous night. The general sense of peace and happiness was still there though, albeit less intensely.
As suggested by one of the evening discourses, I also strove to remain fully aware of what I was doing at all times, even when not meditating. While walking, I tried to be aware of the sensations produced by walking and to be conscious of what I was doing (e.g. “I’m walking in the woods”). This is way harder than it may seem! When I could remain aware and concentrated, I instantly felt a subtle peace emerging from within. This is what Eckhart Tolle teaches in A New Earth.
As the 9th day came to an end, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. The Vipassana retreat was coming to an end and technically, the “heavy duty” meditations were over since only a few hours of meditation were scheduled for day 10. Moreover, on the 10th day, after the morning meditation, the prohibition to talk would be waived. I couldn’t wait to discuss with other students!
I was upset about one thing though: I had not yet been able to sit still for a full hour in the “meditations of strong determination”, and there was only one meditation left on the 10th morning.
Day 10 – The end of the Vipassana retreat
Day 10 was my last chance at completing a “meditation of strong determination”. To succeed, I had to stay still for a full hour. My cold was gone and I had come up with a comfortable arrangement of cushions in the meditation hall. Moreover, my concentration had greatly improved and I easily felt subtle sensations almost everywhere in my body.
In the previous meditations of strong determination, I usually failed around the 30 to 40 minutes mark. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t physical pain that became unbearable, it was mental distress. At some point, my mind became so agitated that I couldn’t bear not to move. It was intolerable and felt like every nerve in my brain was tightening itself painfully. The best comparison I can come up with is being highly anxious. I went into the meditation hall determined to break through these negative feelings and succeed.
The beginning of the meditation went well. About 45 minutes into the meditation though, I started getting those weird anxious feelings again. I did my best to continue practicing, trying to acknowledge the feelings without being “disturbed” by them. It felt like every cell of my body was trying to throw me off track.
As I kept meditating, there was a point where these feelings stopped overpowering me. When the recorded chanting began, I knew there was only 5 minutes left I definitely wasn’t moving. I had succeeded! After the meditation, the prohibition to talk was waived. Even though I hadn’t said a word in ten days, I still felt a sense of friendship with other meditators. Human connections can form without words. I found it fascinating to share experiences with other students.
Of the about 40 men who participated in the retreat, only 4 or 5 had left. I was pleasantly surprised, considering how hard this is.
We enjoyed a great meal and spent the rest of our day chatting. There were two other mandatory meditations, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. The afternoon one went fine, but I did notice my mind being more agitated because of the chatter. 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 shared our experience and he mentioned that while meditating, he was constantly distracted by the sound of our “swallowing”, as it was noisy (likely caused by the cold). For most of the retreat, he told me that he thought of us as the “toad brothers”. The mind can indeed get very creative when trying to distract you from meditating. I found his story hilarious.
I also spoke to a guy who had been, for the last 10 days, trying his best not to laugh during the group meditations. He was sitting close to me in the meditation hall, and I previously noticed him trying to hold himself from laughing out loud. He told me he couldn’t control it, and that he found the retreat’s strict rule on silence incredibly challenging.
Beginning the last evening meditation, I soon heard my “toad brother” being noisy. I figured it would be funny to out-noise him in a “toad contest”. Stupid idea.
I expected him to laugh, but he didn’t flinch and remained still. I found the whole scenario so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but feel laughter come to my cheeks and tongue. I managed to hold it back for a while, but at some point I couldn’t help. I burst out laughing. Chaos followed.
As soon as I began laughing, the guy who had held his laughter for the whole retreat burst out laughing hysterically. Right then, another guy started laughing too. I didn’t want to bother more serious practitioners, so I left the room, and the two other guys joined quickly. Our laughter was unstoppable!
I went for a walk in the woods alone and eventually, my laughter did diminish. To stop laughing, I tried to “force myself to laugh”, which ironically made it stop. After about 10 minutes, I went back in the meditation hall and resumed meditating. 20 minutes later, one of the guys came back meditating but the one who had been holding his laughter 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 discussing life purpose, meditation and relationships. I met fantastic people. I went to bed at about 11pm and next morning, we watched a discourse about how to continue our Vipassana practice in daily life. We were strongly encouraged to meditate at least two hours a day. This sounded like a lot.
We then had breakfast and then were allowed to leave the center. It felt strange to finally be allowed to go back into the real world; a part of me didn’t feel ready. We could make a voluntary donation, and I decided to donate 200$, which amounts to 20$/day. I volunteered for cleaning, so I left a bit later, at about noon.
It felt weird to re-enter the “real world”. I felt detached from the events surrounding me. I couldn’t process seeing people getting angry at the bus being a few minutes late or at traffic being jammed. Complaining was totally outside of my reality.
Looking back at my Vipassana experience
Reading the review, you must have noticed that my retreat wasn’t easy. Regardless, going there is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My Vipassana experience was tremendously positive.
It’s been a while since I came back but nevertheless, I still notice major improvements in my overall well-being. I’m definitely a happier person than I was before the retreat. I’m increasingly drawn to the positive, hold less judgments and have an easier time letting go of concerns about the past or the future. Most importantly, I am absolutely certain that I will be able to deal with whatever life brings my way. I still meditate almost every day, although generally not for two hours.
Edit: I went to another 10-day Goenka Vipassana retreat a year later: Second Time at a Vipassana Meditation Retreat
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