On My Vipassana Retreat

~4,500 words (Updated: 9/27/2017)

For ten days, I became a monk.

And it was life-changing—in a good way. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I first applied for the course. I knew a little about meditation (sit and stuff, right?), and had dabbled a few times informally, and always alone. But this was a beast all its own.

During those ten days, I did not speak, write or read; had no access to electronic devices; did not make eye contact with the other students; and did not touch a single person. I meditated for ten hours each day. We isolated ourselves in a campground smaller than two football fields and within three building types: cabins, bathrooms, and Dhamma hall. The schedule:

4am: Wake up bell
4:30 – 6:30am: Individual/Group Meditation
6:30 – 8am: Breakfast of boiled prunes, plain yogurt, oatmeal, fruit, bran cereal, and bread
8 – 9am: Group Meditation
9 – 11am: Individual/Group Meditation
11 – 12pm: Lunch
12 – 1pm: Teacher Interviews
1 – 2:30pm: Individual/Group Meditation
2:30 – 3:30pm: Group Meditation
3:30 – 5pm: Individual/Group Meditation
5 – 6pm: Tea break of fruit and tea
6 – 7pm: Group Meditation
7 – 8:15pm: Teacher Discourse
8:15 – 9pm: Group Meditation
9:30pm: Lights out

This schedule was grueling, and it wore at the students, experienced and new.

The day I arrived at the retreat, our reserved space felt enormous. The Dhamma hall filled the central lawn and the cabins and bathrooms splayed from it like the blades on a propeller. The cabins sat on long tanbark paths shaded by beautiful oaks and birches with leaves of green, yellow, and red. Hand-sized red chipmunks scurried from rock to log and chittered at you to stop watching them. Crickets did their cricketing melodically.

Whatever. Screw crickets.

We ate a light meal of cheeses, soup, and bread; turned in our precious phones and any means of communication (pens, papers, souls); then, as the registered cohort, took a simultaneous vow to follow the rules of the retreat, of Vipassana living. This felt meaningful in our synchrony and also very cultish. But then we promised things that make sense when you’re looking for a better way to live your life: abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and all intoxicants. Don’t do these. They’re kind of rude. Ok, done.

We did thirty minutes of guided meditation in the Dhamma hall while our teacher, S. N. Goenka, spoke softly over speakers. (He’s dead, by the way. All the discourses were through audio and videotapes. Great dude though.) We received the basic tool of meditation: breathe only through the nose and observe your breath. Then, go to sleep as soon as you can. The bell rings at 4am, sleep willing or not.

Day 1

The bell is a hunk of aged bronze shaped like a sunset with a frayed strap for the holder to beat the hell out of it with a hammer. The ensuing ring is either calming or blasphemously too early in the morning. Shuffling a hundred yards in sweat pants and sandals, I think, Oh weird, stars. I make it into the Dhamma hall and plop onto my assigned mat and cushion. Remarkably, everyone has shown up. Gotta impress the teacher. (We do have real breathing human assistant teacher too. Reminds me of an old porcupine that lost all his quills. He doesn’t give the main lectures, but he still provides essential daily guidance to questions and problems.)

Women and men sit on opposite sides of the hall, but we can still see one another, though not well in the dim lighting of why-are-we-up-at-4am. I have an aisle seat where ten feet separate the two sexes. This is the closest we’ll get for ten days. There are two assistant teachers: one male, one female. The students are arranged in six columns of eight before the assistant teachers.

For two hours, I cannot focus on anything because I’m so sleepy. I nearly crash into the man ahead of me several times. So bad is my drooping and head twitching that I adjust my posture often. In the silent hall, the gentle shift of cloth against mat is jarring.

When the bell rings to signal our meditation session is over, I feel as though I’ve wasted my two hours. What a failure. The others seem absolutely fine—like they’ve already mastered the technique. Everyone winds their way from the cushions to the dining area, which is separated from the meditation area by an ad-hoc screen of furniture runners and blankets. The dining area is then also physically divided in the same way between the sexes. Servers (volunteers who have attended a 10-day course before and are not primary students on this retreat) have prepared breakfast for us. We’re not allowed to speak to them either (which sucks because they’re amazing people).

I eat boiled prunes (no thanks ever again please) with oatmeal and some buttered toast. The others are piling their bowls and plates with food. There’s a tea table with hot water, milk, and honey. We sit in abject silence and the dining hall becomes clattering silverware and munching and screeching chairs. We’re fuming over the dawning realization that now we can only speak when we have an issue with the retreat (and then only with staff), or have meditation questions for the assistant teacher at the end of sessions or during the interviews. I’m not adding much to these fumes.

After eating, I rush to my cabin, shared with six other men, though most aren’t there when I arrive and slip under my mosquito net and into my sleeping bag. I pass out, have horrific dreams, and wake up feeling as though I never slept. The bell is being rung. The next meditation doth approacheth.

For Individual/Group Meditations, students are allowed to meditate on their own and without going to the Dhamma hall (but only after the assistant teacher has announced it and says which of the experienced or new students are released). The assistant teacher releases the new students to meditate on our own. I wander around the grounds, while other students go to the cabins or walk the same paths as me. Eventually I sit on the side of a road looking into a stand of birches and think, This is so peaceful. I should meditate here. My back does kind of hurt though. Maybe I’ll lie down.

Boom. Dead asleep.

I wake up with half of the session still left and I return to the Dhamma hall. No more solo “meditation” for me. Before applying for this course, I told myself I would only do it at my very best. And already in Day 1 I had lapsed? Ugh. I return, shame-faced, but energized to sit (which sounds totally ridiculous). With adrenaline pumping, I can’t keep my mind from racing through ideas. How soon until I’m doing better? Why haven’t the crickets stopped since… ever? Oh right, observe the breath. How do I do that? Why is my heart pumping so fast? I’m sweating.

At lunch, the students mound their plates with rice, steamed vegetables, and lentils. Again, the mournful gazes as forks shovel to mouths. I can sense that people are fighting the urge to talk. There are furtive glances at others. I don’t have that urge. I’ve been waiting 26 years to be excused from society as I eat.

The assistant teacher interviews are optional. I skip interviews because I’ve honestly yet to have a session meriting questions. I simply haven’t done my meditations correctly.

My next three sessions feel awful. I’m not even 1% on target for correct technique. Also, a man in the Dhamma hall is belching and farting. He sits two rows behind me. At the first belch, several people react. A woman groans. Several men can’t suppress chuckles. We’re given brief breaks in between the sessions to rise, stand, use the bathroom, drink water, etc. Return when that damn bell rings.

Prior to the tea break, experienced students are told that they aren’t allowed to enjoy the material pleasures of the break. They may rest, but no tea or fruit. The new students seem elated by this, but I have only that assessment from their heaps of apples, bananas, and oranges. I steel myself to be as strict as the older students and reject nourishment.

My next meditation is horrible. I’m exhausted and my stomach rumbles for food. Again with sagging head and back, and the sensation of gravity’s magnification upon my body. The crickets are nonstop. I realize that I ate dinner at 11am. Woe is me.

The teacher discourse is a video of Goenka discussing the first day of meditation. It’s strange at first to listen to him because I know he’s dead. Most of the students remain on their meditation mats to watch the video. Some of the older students have retrieved chairs from the dining hall sit in the back.

I had several thoughts going through my head before the discourse. Why can’t I focus on the technique for longer than two seconds? Are we just going to be observing our breath for the entirety of the retreat? How are we going to get better if our teacher is dead?

Goenka has a deep voice and it has a rumble to it even through the video (recorded in 1991!). He’s a great speaker and has serious poise. You might think that he’s falling asleep at times while he’s talking. With each eloquent sentence, he addresses every single one of my concerns. There is no reason to be worried. It is Day 1. Take heart at your effort and the fact that you have come here and placed your betterment as top priority. The difficulty of the day is that our minds are struggling to adjust from the noise of the outside world to this quiet place. It is not normal for us to behave as we are doing. The chatter will quiet.

I complete my last meditation feeling very in touch with my breathing. It’s strange but very heartening. I go to sleep with a strong determination to do well tomorrow.

Day 2

Another night of horrible sleep. Every dream is so real and vivid and I’m constantly jolting awake. But I’m still elated by the idea that this day will be better than the first. And it really is. We’re told that the next evolution in the technique is to observe not only the breath, but also the small space between your nostrils and upper lip. Try to feel any sensations there in that space.

My meditations are a mixed bag of attention to the breath and rampant ideas of all the projects that I’ve wanted to do in my lifetime. I want to go on this trip. I want to write this novel. I want to do this work. All the ambitions of my life come surging to the fore of my focus and it scares me that there are all these things that I may not be able to do. I spend more time in these fantasies than on the meditation.

The day is slightly easier than the first but I’m still tired and my mind feels frayed. Like I’ve run through a sprint of brainstorming sessions, my head is crowded.

In the intervals between sessions, the students walk the grounds. There is the path beside the cabins and a short trail that goes behind the cabins. Each one is about the length of the grounds. You could walk back and forth within ten minutes. It’s so strange to see everyone walking alone. In the city, you get used to groups, but here, the students walk somberly, almost like zombies. One of the students is striding up and down the paths and doing pushups after each round. He does those hidden behind a cabin. The floorboards creak beneath him as he exhales sharply. We aren’t supposed to do strenuous exercise or be obvious about it to the point of distracting the other students. Other students are standing up against the ropes and caution tape demarcating our boundary. They look out at the nature that they cannot explore. I guess that’s the point. I daydream and watch the clouds. I wish sorely for pen and paper.

The discourse that night discusses the impartiality of Vipassana. There is no sectarian nature to it. One must simply observe the breath. What does this have to do with religion or faith or rituals? Nothing. Breath is universal, as is the pain and misery that humans suffer. With this technique we can confront that misery.

Day 3

We aren’t supposed to determine whether we are having a good meditation or not. Every moment is different, one from the next, and the moment that you start to value a meditation as “good” you grow too attached to it, and you become dismayed when the meditation eventually sours. This turn from “good” causes sorrow. You feel bad that you’re doing badly. You bring misery on yourself. As such, I bring quite a bit of misery upon myself. Especially today.

I’ve started to realize that other students are leaving the Individual/Group Meditations early to line up for food. The line is often a fifteen minute wait. This irks me. It gets under my skin. Around this time, I also notice that not all the mats are filled. Some students have dropped out, while others just sleep in instead of attending sessions. For some reason, I get frustrated at their lack of dedication. Why come to this if you aren’t going to put in your best effort?

My own technique begins to suffer. Our new step has been to observe the sensations that occur throughout our body. Those areas where you don’t feel a sensation, you classify as “blind spots” and it turns out I have hard time feeling my body parts. I doubt if I can do this. For the first time, I think to myself that I cannot do this. I should leave.

And then I understand how this cycle of thought is destroying me.

My last meditation of the evening clears this anxiety from me and at the end, I feel confident about going forward with the rest of the retreat. The technique is so practical and effective—I can’t help but feel a little awestruck how I’ve worked through my issues. Then again, with 7 full days left in the program, I’m worried about the other demons that I will have to wrestle. Or more aptly, with those I must sit.

Day 4

Adhitthana means “strong determination” and on this day, we’re taught the meaning of that phrase. The day is structured a little different in the afternoon. Two of the sessions are combined. I’m anxious to learn what we’ll be doing. The message board where the management staff posts updates has been adjusted with two new sheets. The students crowd around it. The session is about to start and I don’t have time to read the message. My nervousness makes my muscles tense.

In this session, for one and a half hours, we are not allowed to shift our posture, except slight adjustments (e.g. if your back is slumping, you can straighten). We make a promise of strong determination not to open our eyes, or move our legs or hands. For the past three days, I’ve been blaming my bad posture (and meditation) on the cushion that I’ve been given. If we’re going to be doing this, I don’t want that cushion to mess things up. I put it aside and sit cross-legged with nothing beneath me.

The first thirty minutes (or whatever I perceive as that amount of time) are fine, but then the pain starts to seep into my legs. Since we’re supposed to be feeling these sensations and confronting them, I think that this will be just fine. But I am not prepared. The pain increases and seems to magnify with each passing minute. At one point, I count out the seconds for an entire five minutes to take my mind off the pain. It doesn’t help.

I have no idea how much time has passed when my legs begin to shake. It is the worst sensation I’ve felt in a very long time. I keep telling myself that I’ve made a promise to not move and I will not move. It feels like I’m trapped in a coffin and furiously beating at my body to let me out. I have this ripping desire to scream. This is a real feeling, an actual sensation of my chest growing and expanding too large. My belly is a furnace of heat and spasms quiver throughout my back. Sweat is beading on my brow and back and instantly dripping. I’m about to give up. It actually crosses my mind that I will die this way—that eternity will be me shaped like a lumpy pretzel.

The end of the meditation session is signaled. I instantly release my posture and open my eyes, falling onto my hands and knees. Everything that had felt so unsteady is suddenly real and solid again. And all the pain has evaporated like it never was. Honestly, I’m not even as sweaty as I had thought. I look wildly at the other students. Most of them seem unfazed. Not as if they’ve just endured one of life’s most limb-twisting pains. But I don’t care anymore. This isn’t about comparing myself to others. It never has been. My experience is mine alone to believe and understand. For this knowledge, I’m extremely grateful.

Pain is strong, but it is not forever. The mind is more powerful.

I finally read those posted updates. In them, Goenka warns us that adhitthana sessions can bring about intense pain, but torture is not the point of the exercise. It’s about commitment and awareness. I’m gonna use a cushion next time.

From Day 1, I’m amazed how Goenka’s discourses answer all of my meditation questions. After centuries of practice, meditators have tracked and analyzed the pathways of a chaotic mind as it navigates to calmer waters. It turns out that newcomers invariably sink and float upon the same waves. Goenka has absolute confidence in his advice to us because he’s been there—done the same thing. For every person, the first step is the same step. Forward.

Days 5 through 9

The principle behind Vipassana meditation is very simple. The law of nature is one of impermanence. The desires and aversions within your life are impermanent. An objective mind can watch these problems with a critical eye and allow them to flow away. In practice, we observe our bodies for sensations because every desire and aversion has an equivalent bodily reaction, and when we meditate, we realize that these physical manifestations appear and vanish. Always. They are never eternal. Gradually, as we realize that our body’s pains and joys are ephemeral, we also come to accept that our desires and aversions are the same. We can allow our insidious cravings and hatreds to vanish.

Each time that you meditate, these issues arise, and you face them and allow them to fade. In the aftermath, you feel cleared of the problem, having identified it for what it is.

This realization was the critical turning point for me, but it could only have happened once I experienced it myself, which is the whole point of these retreats. You must take that first step. No one else can make you.

During one adhitthana session, a fly lands in my ear. The urge to flinch is so insanely strong. I have an incredible fear that this bug will find its way inside me. The fly crawls across my face, rests on my nose, explores around my nostrils, then makes its way to the other ear. My body is shaking from the strain to not slap at the bug; my fear is clawing at my brain. Do I realize what I’m doing? Do I realize how horrible this moment is? Why have I let it get to this stage? All I need to do is shake my face. Then the fly is gone, and all of those thoughts vanish. I’ve made it to the other side and it is not horrible. I am still me. I will be fine.

From here onward, my efforts in meditation become clear and the days pass without serious hurdles. Before, I was counting them out after every single session feeling like the course would never end, but now I am aware that this is a precious opportunity to make the most of my free time to meditate, to clear my mind. Each difficult problem you encounter is just as impermanent as your joys. Experience and understand each of them as moments.

During this period, I notice more and more students missing sessions. (For the record, male attendance dropped to around 60%, while female attendance remained steady around 85%.) In the breaks, some students start going beyond the borders. It is just a rope, after all. Stacks of balanced rocks appear throughout the grounds.

Remember the man who belched on the first day? For several days, I’m angry with him. Why is he being so rude? Why can’t he keep that to himself? The man beside me finds the belches hilarious and always chuckles at the sound. Both of these men are generally among the first in line for meals. Eventually, I come to understand the plight of the Belcher. Perhaps he doesn’t digest the food well. Perhaps a million other things that don’t matter. His burps don’t harm me in any way. There is no need to be annoyed.

But the Chuckler continues to bother me. Why can’t he get over it? Is his humor so easily pleased? The Chuckler also has a habit of staring past me, across the aisle, and at the female students. He gazes at them for minutes, and only stops once the meditation begins (though I’m not sure since my eyes are closed so for all I know he keeps looking). He mutters to himself. He laughs at Goenka’s lectures, slapping his knees. He obtains a chair and uses this on top of his mat, squeaking on its faulty base, luxuriating without the pain of a meditative posture. I find it so hard to meditate; for too much time, I curse him—angry, bitter child that I am.

So miserable. Finally, I realize: the Belcher and Chuckler are the same issue. These men are dealing with their own issues. They are not my battles. This seems so obvious but took days for me understand. My meditation immediately improves. I have released one of my own problems. I legitimately hope that the Chuckler finishes the course and gains some of its benefits. I’m not surprised to find his cot empty and belongings gone on Day 9, but I really wish he would have stuck around until the end.

My back and shoulders have been aching and burning every meditation session. Those pains don’t go away in the sense that the muscles relax, but the sensation of pain throughout a session ebbs and flows. I do my best to find a practical posture (i.e. don’t slouch) and also try different set-ups with my legs. I never thought I would spend so much of my life considering how to sit.

The desire to overeat at mealtimes is exceptionally strong, but heavy meals have a negative effect on my ability to meditate. (Goenka even says so on Day 2, but I keep overeating until I reach the same conclusion myself.) My body feels heavy and the mind sluggish. It’s hard to stop eating when everyone else around you has more food. It’s hard when you realize that you will be hungry later. But you won’t starve. The next meal will come. You’ll still be you, but a little different because you have resisted your craving, and you are stronger for that moment.

The best part of Vipassana meditation is that it doesn’t require any kind of belief. It’s direct experience. Meditate, analyze, and make your own decisions. I highly recommend taking a 10-day course. They’re entirely free and there are sites throughout the world. If you’ve made it this far you’re either interested in meditation or enjoy reading about my misery. In the first case, here’s how you can find a center or course near you: https://www.dhara.dhamma.org/about/international/. If you want to talk more about it, absolutely reach out to me!

By the ninth day, my mind feels incredibly clear. When I sit down to meditate, at times, it’s like floating on perfectly still water. Of course, this sensation never remains throughout an entire session, perhaps barely a few seconds. The only choice is to treasure the moment.

We’re also instructed to attempt meditation whenever our eyes are open. Objective observation remains the goal: be aware of what your body is telling you as you interact with the world. It’s an incredibly difficult task. The activity of life beyond the meditation hall produces solid sensations within my body. I’m calmed by the familiarity of these feelings because many of them I’ve encountered while sitting. This is when I understand the practical application of meditation in my life and the long road to improve my technique.

Day 10

In an effort to reduce culture shock for students returning to normal life, the tenth day allows talking between students, male and female. At first, everyone is unsure of themselves, of their rusty vocals, but once we start, it’s unstoppable. People are laughing and crying and apologizing about things from days before when they couldn’t say a word. No one cares about apologies. Whatever happened is in the past.

There are fewer meditations this day. The first session after renewed talking is absolutely brutal. My brain feels physically different. I’m unable to focus, as thought after thought from every single conversation floods me. We had barely been granted two hours of talking and yet the noise it creates in my mind is astonishing. Here I was on Day 9 thinking the noise would only begin after we had left the retreat. I can only imagine what awaits in normal life, society, and problems more complex than people sitting next to me.

But for today, I only worry about talking.

The students share our experiences. We have learned the same technique and come out with various understandings. It’s a relief to finally discuss what’s been going on in our heads. We believed ourselves alone when we were really together.

Life

A meditation retreat is not meant to be an aberration from the norm. It’s a step toward a new awareness of yourself and the world, providing a tool that can be used as a practical way to live morally and understand the endless ways our lives tangle.

To close the course, Goenka told us that continued improvement in meditation requires at least one hour in the morning and another in the evening. If this habit is carried for a year, it will carry for life. My life has its own times of chaos, but I’m optimistic that the next year won’t contain a day requiring constant movement for me.

But first: today.