Returning from my 10-day vipassana retreat, it feels strange and foreign to type on a keyboard and process words on the screen. My aim for this post is to share what I can about my experience with this beautiful method of self-discovery.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is a 10 day meditation retreat. You take yourself away from society, normally to a beautiful natural environment, and agree to get up at 4am every day to meditate in silence for hours on end every day. Oh, and you don’t get any dinner. Also you hand over any electronics, and they don’t allow books or writing implements.
Sounds fun right?
If it sounds gruelling (or even maddening), that’s because at times it can be. There is a lot of pain involved, but also a lot of self-transformation, and self-realisation.
Having returned home yesterday from intense meditation, solitude, and personal growth, I feel its my responsibility to share what I have learnt from this beautiful, challenging experience. Here are three key points that I now feel are very clear to me in my life.
Routine is important
Routine is important because it lets our minds focus on the task of meditation, and an old and deep part of our brain seems to become very satisfied when each day is relatively uniform.
Once I got used to the timetable, by day 4 or 5, it was very satisfying to be able to leave your watch behind and know what each gong signified. ‘Next gong is lunch,’ I would often think to myself.
This frees you up to look inward, and to work while you have the opportunity. We can bring this kind of routine into our own lives in some small way, even if it is just getting up at the same time and going to bed at the same time each day, or perhaps having a ritual of meditation just before bed, at the same time every night.
I know this probably seems obvious to a lot of people, but for me (and I am sure many others) it has taken years to truly realise the importance of routine.
If you allow your mind and body the chance to sync up with a rhythm in your own life, it will hone your attention and awareness that small amount more. You will be one step closer to a personal peace.
You’re much stronger than you think you are
Day 4 they introduce the technique of vipassana. By that stage, you have been sharpening your mind and your awareness down for what seems like an eternity.
Then, after they teach you vipassana, they announce that you must now sit each group sitting in ‘strong determination’.
This is a generous way of saying don’t move for an hour.
At first, it’s a nightmare. The pain is almost unbearable, and you want desesparately to get up and briskly walk out the door, collecting your things as you pass, and offering nothing more than a curt goodbye.
It was day 5 that I first starting planning my escape.
But I stuck with it. I had made a promise to myself. Also they had my keys.
After a few days of completing this sitting of strong determination, you realise, through the immense effort of sitting still and focusing inward, that you are actually far stronger in both body and mind than you originally thought. The limitations of what you thought you could accomplish fall away, and what’s left is the calm, sincere respect for the stillness of your own mind. A stillness that knows no boundaries other than what we assign to it.
That day, the moment you first feel that sense of peace within the pain, is an amazing and beautiful experience. I will never forget that lesson, and that calm and peace will follow me in my daily life – so long as I keep up my personal practice.
You can’t rush time
Time seemed to slow right down. At first this was a welcome relief. Day 1 I remember thinking ahh the serenity, followed immediately by day 2’s can we hurry this along now please?
We are all guilty of this one from time to time. Wishing that the control we exert in our own lives could somehow speed up time, make things that we don’t like pass us that fraction quicker.
In the sittings of strong determination, I found this desire to manipulate the flow of time to be the strongest. The chanting would start 5 minutes prior to completion of the hour, and I remember early on mentally bartering with time (how ridiculous it seems!), suggesting that if the chanting just hurries up, well, that would very much be to my liking.
I found myself trying to force time to go faster every hour.
At one point, it clicked. This pattern of behaviour, this impatience, has deep roots in my mind, and goes all the way back to my childhood. In that moment I realised that I had been struggling to try and fast-forward the uncomfortable stuff for years. I decided then and there to do my best to sit with it, and to stop torturing myself.
Obviously things went much smoother after this point.
By day 6 or 7 I stopped playing this mental game of trying to complain to nature and convince it to hurry up. I haven’t played it since.
A World Apart
I feel miles apart from the person I was before I completed the vipassana. But also I am deeply connected to myself, which feels like a strange paradox of changing but also not changing.
I am still me. Perhaps just a slightly wiser version.
It was one of the hardest thing I have ever accomplished, but also one of the most rewarding.
The whole process is too complex and ineffable to explain adequately. I feel that no matter what I write on my experience, it will never truly explain how it was. You need to experience it for yourself.
My take home message for anyone considering a retreat like this: it will change your life. If you don’t want to throw yourself in the proverbial deep end, or you’d like to try mindfulness before committing 10 days to prying open your mind and tinkering with the insides, then perhaps start with the Conscious Beginnings course (there’s another one in Feb, found here).
I promise, you will not regret it.
Stephen is a budding counsellor, avid craft beer enthusiast, and part-time Buddhist. He enjoys hiking, connecting with nature, losing himself in deep conversation, and contributing to the Conscious Beginnings blog.