I was at a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation retreat from June 1 through 12 in Onalaska, Washington!
And let me tell you… It was super intense.
I did my first Vipassana course about 3 years ago (you can read my experience here) and was able to release and heal from so much pain and anger that I didn’t even know I had.
I just remembered how light I felt physically and mentally afterwards and had kind of forgotten how hard it was to get there!! 😀
During the 10-day retreat, you work very hard from 4:30 in the morning till 9 pm every day. It’s a “silent retreat” because you can’t have any verbal or non-verbal (no eye contact, gestures, or writing etc.) communications with your fellow students.
In case you’re wondering why I was gone for 12 days instead of just 10, it’s because the first and the last day and a half is not totally silent (= 10 days in the middle is the “silent” part). It’s a transition period so-to-speak, and I’m glad we had that time to transition to and from the retreat.
Here is what a typical day looks like:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
Each day, you learn the technique and practice, practice, practice.
I found the first 3 days to be the most challenging because we just sit and practice the foundational breathing technique the whole time. Yup, sitting, breathing through your nose, and noticing your breath for like 10 hours a day…for 3 days.
I kept thinking “Wait, was it this hard last time?? Oh man, maybe I wasn’t ready for this… this is SO HARD!!! How many more days do I have to do this??”
And then on the 4th day you actually learn the Vipassana meditation techniques and start practicing them. And it starts to all make sense and becomes more engaging. It became more of a whole body experience, and all of a sudden, the time seemed to go by so quickly.
You build on the techniques every day, and at the end, you learn a slightly different meditation technique called Metta (= loving kindness, compassion) to close your practice, which is my favorite part!
During the 10+ days of sitting silently, I had many thoughts and reflections. Here are some of them:
1. It was not as earth-shattering as the first time.
Don’t get me wrong – it was still very challenging and amazing – but it didn’t feel as life-changing as I’d remembered my first retreat to be.
It makes sense because I knew what to expect, and I’ve been doing a lot of cleansing and growing in the last 3 years.
I didn’t have nearly as many dark painful thoughts that came up during the meditation and did’t have nightmares like I did last time (I was waking up in the middle of the night terrified from a nightmare pretty much every night during my first retreat).
My life has changed a lot in the last 3 years – getting married, quitting my job to pursue art etc. – and though my life still has plenty of ups and downs, I wonder if these changes have helped me to keep my inner peace more than I realized?
2. I examined my relationship with food.
It may sound kind of silly, but I was so afraid of being hungry during the retreat.
When you’re an “old student,” meaning this is not your first course, you don’t get to have dinner. During the tea break at 5pm, you get to have tea, and that’s all you get between lunch and breakfast the following morning. I’ve been on a restricted diet as well and was afraid there wouldn’t be much I could eat.
They also recommend you only eat until 75% full at breakfast and lunch. It’s really hard to meditate when you’re full. This made my fear of being hungry even worse, but I followed the advice to see how it went.
To my surprise, it wasn’t really an issue.
Since we were not physically active, I just didn’t get very hungry. They serve delicious organic vegetarian meals for breakfast and lunch, and with slight modifications I could eat almost everything. I occasionally got hungry later on in the evening, but by that time I was so wiped and just went to sleep no problem.
I survived just fine with two modest meals per day. Me not eating something every couple of hours. That’s wild.
It made me realize how much I’m tied up emotionally with food in my regular life.
I’ve been a little obsessed with food and diet for the last year or so. My intentions are good: I just want to improve and maintain my health through a healthy diet.
As a result, I think and read about food a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I just ate, what to eat next, and how I’m going to prepare it. And I end up eating something frequently even though I’m not physically hungry. I often eat when I’m stressed, tired, or bored. And I feel bad when I do that even though I generally eat pretty healthy stuff.
Naturally, I thought about food a lot during my meditation 😀 I had all kinds of cravings and ideas of things to cook once I got home. And whenever I caught myself thinking about food, I tried to observe them without any judgement and notice my thoughts go away like the clouds passing through the sky.
I didn’t have to force it out of my head or feel bad about having those thoughts. I just sat with the thoughts and learned that they were just thoughts. They don’t have the power to make me do anything if I don’t give it.
Letting go of the control over food during the retreat was so freeing.
It’s interesting how you gain more control over yourself by caring a little bit less about things you’ve held on to so tightly.
3. No-speaking part was more difficult.
During the last retreat, not being able to speak was not very difficult for me. In fact, I felt like I was in an introverts’ heaven! No small talk with strangers. No chit chat during meal time. I could just sit with my thoughts alone, and people didn’t think I was being rude or weird!
But this time it was more challenging.
It has a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t have a roommate last time (my roommate left on day 2…) so I wasn’t even tempted to talk to anyone really. But this time, I had a roommate, and when we met on the first day while we were still able to talk, I really liked her and wanted to get to know her better.
I wanted to ask her how she was doing and wanted to tell her what I was going through. I wanted to vent to her at the end of a long day and tell her about the beautiful snakes I saw on the walking path.
But I had to ignore her and keep everything to myself. And it was SO HARD.
I was very happy to finally talk with her after our noble silence was lifted on the 10th day, and we got to talk about our lives and laughed about certain annoying things people around us did during our meditation 😀
4. I learned to be OK with not remembering/knowing/sharing everything.
When your mind gets uncluttered, you’re bound to come up with brilliant ideas.
I had many ideas for creative projects and my business during the meditation, and it was painful not to be able to write them down! You see, not only can’t you speak to other students, but you also can’t write, read, or draw during the retreat!!
At first I tried to hold on to all the cool ideas I came up with in my head, but it was just too difficult.
So I decided to trust that whatever I needed to remember would be in my head when I need it and let go of the rest.
And often an idea would pop in my head during the meditation, and I’d think, “oh, I need to look it up!” and realized I didn’t have my phone… Or I’d see a perfect pantone-colors-of-the-year evening sky and think “oh, it’s so gorgeous! I need to share it on Facebook!” and realized I didn’t have my phone… 😀 Or I’d be thinking of an Instagram caption to describe the delicious marinaded tofu I had for lunch…
This happened more times than I want to admit. It made me realize how much I relied on the technology to give me an answer to everything and how I’d become addicted to the instant gratification of sharing contents on social media.
Technology and social media are not evil. They can be a very useful tool, and I’m grateful for them! Being without them for 10 days just gave me a pause to notice how I’d taken it for granted. I’ll be more mindful about my relationships with these tools as well!
5. It helped me to create more space for love and compassion in my heart.
The main goal of the Vipassana meditation is to learn that nothing is permanent and develop your ability to see thing as they are, not as you’d like it to be.
By experiencing the law of impermanence through your continued practice, you’ll be able to detach yourself emotionally from things that cause you cravings (e.g. “This cake is delicious. I wish I could eat it every day for the rest of my life.”) or hatred (e.g. “Why did Betty in accounting have to make that snide comment during the staff meeting last week? What did I ever do to her? Does she think I’m incompetent because I made that one mistake a couple of months ago? Grrrrr!!”).
The less reactive you become towards these situations, the happier and more content you will be in the moment.
Late Mr. Goenka, the foremost lay teacher of the Vipassana meditation techniques, talks about how it’s easy to care about and feel compassionate towards those who you perceive to be your friends, but the ones who need it the most is those who you perceive to be your enemies.
Have compassion for people who have done harm to others, he says, because they live in such misery, holding on to tremendous amount of anger, hatred, and fear.
And when you harm others, you’re actually doing more harm to yourself.
This is such a powerful and healing message. It’s definitely not an easy thing to do, but it’s something I’d like to live by. I know that meditating for 10 days won’t change anyone into a saint, but it’s a start.
For instance, I noticed a slight change in my reaction to a dreadful situation right after I left the retreat. I was driving back up the I-5 towards Seattle and saw a billboard sign that’s always been there for as long as I can remember. It stands right by the freeway and always has a pretty racist or homophobic message on it. It’s bothered me whenever I drove passed it.
It makes me very angry that some people feel OK to act out on their blatant oppressive beliefs, and I don’t get to choose if I’m being subjected to it or not.
But this time, my mind was calmer – I saw the sign, read their racist message (and they’re on top of updating their messages regularly, too) and felt sad towards whoever put up the sign. Whoever this person is lives in such fear and anger that they feel they need to do this. They’re so ignorant and choosing to stay miserable. How sad to live like that??
While I don’t approve any acts of violence or oppression, I was able to keep their nasty message from entering my heart. I didn’t want to allow them to plant a seed of hatred towards them inside me. In that moment, I was able to fill my heart with compassion, and it acted as a radiant shield. It was a very powerful experience.
So, now what?
After you finish your 10-day course, they encourage you to continue your practice at home. They say you should do one hour of sitting in the morning and one hour of sitting in the evening every day so you can continue to receive the benefits from it.
After my last retreat, I was diligently following that for about 3 months. Then life happened (namely my wedding!) and it was too stressful to fit in two hours of meditation every day. I was sleepy, tired, and grumpy, which is opposite of what you want to happen! So I quit practicing all together and felt guilty about it for a while… 😦
This time I’ll do my best to continue my practice but with more flexibility and grace. I’ve been waking up one hour early to meditate in the morning and doing a shorter sit in the afternoon-evening, usually between work and dinner.
If I can’t do it every day, though, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I figured it’s more important to continue the practice long term even if it’s in less-than-perfect form than quitting all together.
I also found a new Vipassana community in Seattle that does a weekly group sit at someone’s house and plan on joining them from time to time. It’ll be a good way to build a supportive community and will provide on-going accountability, too.
I’ve been gradually transitioning back in to my “normal” life and taking it a bit slow this week even though I have a ton of work to do. Fortunately, my meditation is helping me not to freak out about it. At least for now… 🙂
Are you a meditator? If so, I’d love to hear how you incorporate your practice in your regular life. Do you have a favorite time/place to do it? What motivates you to keep practicing? Please tell me in the comment!
p.s. if you’re interested in the Vipassana meditation retreat, they have many retreat centers all over the world! You can check them out here.