Warning this is a very long blog post but 10 days is a very long time! I’ve tried to condense it as much as I can but I also want to give as much info as possible. I’ve broken it down into parts in case you want to skim it and find the info you’re interested in.
Sometimes in life there are certain things we all want to do but avoid doing for one reason or another, a 10 day silent meditation retreat was one of those things for me.
When I see something as scary or intimidating I know that I have to overcome it one day and really truly challenge myself. I’ve found that when you achieve the things you’re most scared of in life you feel so immensely proud of yourself on such a fundamental level.
But kay, what is Vipassana?!
Ok, so, vipassana is something I had never heard of up until last year and then once the seed was sown it kept popping back up all over the place tempting me to go more each time. Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique used by Buddha many centuries ago. Over time it spread from India into the western world with the help of the wonderful S. N. Goenka and has helped hundreds of thousands of people all over the world to liberate themselves from misery and live a happy and truly meaningful life.
It is a meditation technique that focuses your awareness inwards and brings any negative thoughts or emotions to the surface. You concentrate on the body’s sensations and over time certain problems arise and manifest themselves as intense pain or sensations on different parts of the body. The basic concept is to remain equanimous (at peace) with the feeling and try to find the center of the pain. Over time the pain passes and one by one you work through all of the misery you have gathered and stored in your unconscious mind throughout your life, leading to you feeling happier and more at peace within yourself.
Ok so all seriousness put to one side, it’s one of the most intense and challenging things I’ve ever done, I’m not going to sit here and say it’s easy, it’s sooooo not easy. First of all it's10 whole days of silence, 10 days! That’s hard in itself never mind including more than 10 hours of meditation a day on top of that. You can’t take your phone, listen to music, read, write or do strenuous exercise (you’re allowed to stretch and go for long walks). You basically become removed from any type of sensory entertainment and have to be with yourself and your own thoughts. It’s. So. Boring. Men and women are segregated and have separate dorms and dining halls but all meditate together in the same hall. You are served breakfast and lunch but you can only eat a maximum of two pieces of fruit and tea or coffee after lunch, bed is at 9:30pm and then you have to wake up at 4am and do it all over again, eek!
Here’s what the daily schedule 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 instruction
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 - 10pm Retire to your own room–Lights out
Looking at this now I have no idea what came over me when I decided to book onto the course… so many days I would wonder if we’d be doing something other than meditating and then I would remember “Kay. This is a meditation retreat, you’re here to meditate…” Calling it a retreat makes it sound like it’s going to be so much fun and so relaxing but the actual reality is it’s 10 days of pain and a rollercoaster of emotions. Every day I would wake up and think “only x many days left of torture” I can laugh at it now but at the time I wanted the world to swallow me whole! It’s basically boot camp for your brain and it’s mentally draining as well as physically exhausting, but as with any intensive thing you do it has so many benefits that eventually outweigh the negatives.
I wasn’t able to document my experience while I was there but because I had nothing else to occupy my mind with, I was able to retain a lot of the things I wanted to share with you. I would spend my loooooooong walks thinking about writing this blog post, what I wanted to say and I would recite how each previous day had gone and smiling to myself as my awful memory improved. You do anything to keep yourself sane.
This is the day you arrive, you can arrive any time from 2-5, I did a lot of overthinking and asked many people what time they thought I should arrive (the curse of an over thinker) and eventually decided to arrive at 3:30. It turned out to be a good time to arrive, busy but still quiet and I got there before the bus loads of people turned up at 4:15 and managed to avoid the long queues. Everyone was really friendly; I was given an alarm clock and a hot water bottle (I would later become very fond of this heat source and was so thankful for its existence: Note: It’s very cold in winter and they don’t put the heating on very much) and went to my dorm room. The dorm was a long corridor with rooms on each side, I think 8 rooms on each side, the rooms were separated with walls and there were curtains across the front instead of a door. I was amazed, I thought I would be in a bunk bed but I actually had total privacy, score!
I set to work making my bed and making it feel like home and all was well until I finished and sat down on my bed wondering what to do next. I burst into tears. “What am I doing here.” “I cant do this.” “It’s not too late to just leave.” I eventually consoled myself and went to explore the grounds; it was set in such a beautiful remote location. We were served a light meal of soup and bread before going to the first evening discourse. (Every evening there is a 1-hour video of Goenka speaking about the technique) Once it had finished I felt pretty upbeat and went straight to sleep ready and mentally prepared for day 1… or so I thought
This was my worst day and probably the longest day of my entire life. I spent the whole day plotting my escape, I came up with so many fool proof plans and nothing was going to stop me from leaving, I didn’t tell anybody how I felt because I didn’t want them to change my mind, genius idea, I thought. That was until I watched the evening discourse. He spoke about how most people want to leave and spend their time imagining up ways to leave rather than doing what they came here to do… meditate and I just laughed to myself. Oh the human brain is a wonderful and complicated thing.
I tried to stick to the schedule and tried to focus on my nostrils or in the words of Goenka “nosetrills” I laughed inside every time he said that word, which was a lot. “fooooocus on your noseeeetrilllls” “feel the breath coming in and out of your noooooosetrills”. In the group sittings it was torture, a whole hour and no way of being able to get up and procrastinate, I just had to sit there. Why did I think this was a good idea? My brain did everything other than meditate, I was imagining all sorts of wonderful and also awful situations and reacting to them all but the most entertaining thing of all was having “5,6,7,8” by Steps stuck in my head ALL DAY. That’s one way to make your self go crazy, for sure.
This was my best day, I felt like I made a huge breakthrough and felt positive all day long which didn’t happen on any other day while I was there. I realised he’d been letting us move during the sittings and so I needed a new mental challenge other than focusing on my nosetrills. I decided to challenge myself to stop moving during the meditation sessions, no other meditation I’ve ever done has allowed me to move so this was my new mission. It was very hard and so so painful but I managed to do it for one whole hour, so then a new challenge was set, to stay still for the rest of the group sittings that day. I did it. I pushed myself really hard and was SO proud of myself!
DAY 4 / Torture day
This is the day he told us we were no longer to move during the group sittings and they were to become “sittings of strong determination” and even though I’d achieved sitting still for an hour the day before, now it seemed so much harder because I’d been told not to. I had intense burning sensations in my left hip/bum cheek. A deep searing pain that spread throughout my whole lower back. Sitting was unbearable and at some points nearly brought me to tears. I kept hearing him in my head “stay equanimous” “this too shall pass” and I think that’s the only thing that got me through! The teacher asked me if I was feeling sensations and aggressively whispered “SO MUCH PAIN” she smiled and unhelpfully but lovingly told me to focus on the pain and remain equanimous… as if it was new news to me.
I’d been looking forward to day 5 for so long, day 5 meant I was half way. Well that’s what I thought until I got to the end of day 5 and then I STILL had 5 days left, nooooo. I spent day 5 focusing on the intense hip pain I was experiencing and tried to find the center of the pain, every sitting was pure torture and I couldn’t wait to get up and leave each time the sessions ended. By the end of day 5 in the last meditation session, my hip pain had disappeared, like, completely vanished. I didn’t want to get too excited in case it came back the next day but I was so freaked out about where it had gone. It unnerved me a little.
My hip pain never resurfaced; gone forever (or for now at least, as Goenka says nothing is eternal, remember) That pain was replaced by a deep throbbing sensation in the middle of my head behind my nose and also in the middle of my forehead. So intense. So painful. It made focusing on any other body part really hard but I tried to not run away from the pain, to stay equanimous. Easier said than done that’s for sure.
I think of this day as the day we all went crazy. Everyone started acting so strange, we all started stroking the trees, picking up leaves and looking at them so intently as if we’d never seen a leaf before. There must have been 8 of us stood watching a little robin in the tree for at least half an hour totally transfixed. I spent a lot of time outside watching the wildlife, I squatted down after hearing rustling in the bushes and saw an adorable tiny mouse running around. Every time a big blackbird would jump around it would scurry and hide and then eventually get the courage to run around again. It kept happening and I kept watching, feeling like I was David Attenborough and part of my own wildlife show. I told you we all went mad.
It was an interesting day, all of our social barriers were broken down, people no longer cared how they looked they just did what they wanted to do. Be that watch a bird for half an hour, stand and sway, lay in the middle of the path and watch the clouds or stand staring at a leaf. We were just, being. It was so childlike, so innocent and so beautifully grounding.
These days were very challenging, he called them “days of strong determination” we were to stick to the programme as much as possible and stop allowing ourselves from becoming distracted. It was torture. My headaches were so intense, every time I closed my eyes BAM it was there. Throb, throb, throb, throb. He kept telling us not to crave, that craving leads to misery but I was craving so much.
On my afternoon walk I found myself fantasising about leaving, all the things I was going to do, the people I would see, the delicious food I would eat. I thought about the future and how I wanted life to work out and got so beyond excited. I was giddy. I had so much energy and excitement I didn’t want to meditate anymore I wanted to LEAVE. Day 10 couldn’t come fast enough. I even hovered and cleaned my home room on the afternoon of day 8. I did it so frantically, as if doing it so fast would make day 10 come faster.
During the meditation afterwards my mood slumped, I became so deeply depressed and sorrowful. I reflected on my day and realised the extreme emotion I had felt of happiness had lead to an extreme emotion of the opposite, sadness. I couldn’t let myself do that again. Craving for something you can’t have on such an intense level really does lead to misery, he was right. Equanimous Kay, stay equanimous.
On the evening of day 9 I was happy that it was nearly over but felt so grounded. I wasn’t giddy I was just at peace with it all; it was a really strange feeling after craving to leave for so long.
After the morning meditations and breakfast we watched the day 10 discourse and then the vow of noble silence was lifted. I’ve never felt so much energy in my whole life. As I walked out of the meditation hall it there was such an overwhelming buzz in the air. Everyone was talking, smiling, laughing we were all so happy and so jolly and excited. I was nearly shaking I had so much energy. It was weird hearing myself talk again; I had almost forgotten what I sounded like. Most of all I was happy I could still talk… it had become a concern of mine at one point.
I met some truly wonderful people and spent a long time chatting to people and finding out how their time had been, everyone had found it challenging but we were all so happy with ourselves for completing it.
We still had to do two more hours of meditation before the day ended and my headache was still there, although not as bad as it had been. He included a new type of meditation at the end of the Vipassana called Meta meditation. It’s the meditation of love and compassion. You spend 5-15 minutes thinking about the people you love and wishing them well, you even send love to those who have done harm to you; you love everybody equally and send out all of your love into the world, unconditionally. You could feel the difference in the energy of the room after we’d finished, it was amazing.
What I learnt
- Meditation is actually a rewiring of your brain. You rewire old negative thought patterns and replace them with new positive ones. You stop your mind from becoming distracted and over time your mind comes back to the present moment quicker and quicker giving you more focus and a longer attention span.
- That pain is a sensation and that it comes in waves, it isn’t eternal. All pain passes eventually, all itches go away if you leave them. As Goenka says “this too shall pass”. Pain from sitting won’t kill me but if I sit through the pain I not only improve my posture I also improve my will power and determination which I turn creates more positive pathways for my brain to keep improving in those areas.
- I’m a morning person! I felt so good every morning, I’d leap out of bed at 4am with so much drive and would find the morning meditations the easiest of the whole day. I could concentrate so much better in a morning and found that as the day went on it got harder and harder to stay focused.
- That making up imaginary situations in my head causes so much anxiety and sadness. I would find myself thinking up my worst nightmares and would then play through them in my brain reacting to them as if it was a real scenario. He explains in one of the discourses that if a man painted a picture that showed a horrible scene, a scene from his worst nightmare and he was so terrified of it, he would show it to people and cry and become hysterical they would say “you fool! It isn’t real why are you crying!” I do the same thing every day in my head and somehow have come to accept that it’s normal behaviour, but it’s not normal it’s completely mental! I’ve learnt to realise that when I go into those thought patterns that I can bring myself back back into the moment by becoming aware of my breathing and and focusing on the sensations in my body.
- There are 4 elements in the world, water, air, earth and fire. I need all four of them to maintain balance in my life and my emotions. Whenever I would start feeling down I found that taking a hot shower or splashing my face with cold water (Water & Fire elements) and then going outside for a walk and breathing in the fresh air (earth and air elements) would make me feel so peaceful, it would dissipate any negative emotions I was feeling. I’m so thankful to have found this wonderful tool and feel like now I have a way of lifting my mood whenever I feel low.
Have I noticed any changes?
- I feel so peaceful, I feel so content in my daily life. I haven’t had an overwhelming feeling of sadness or excitement since coming home, I’m just happily content. I’m not as anxious and my resting heart rate has come down from 60+ to 54. (I was able to wear my fitbit and so I’ve been able to see my heart rates throughout the day and compare it to my past heart rates, super interesting.)
- I’m no longer attached to my phone or social media, I have no interest in consuming I just want to create. I want to read and write and be outside. I don’t want to watch mind-numbing things, I want to be productive. I want to truly live. Before I would spend so much time jumping from one app to another while watching youtube and googling this or that. I was never content with what I was doing in that moment.
- I’m focused and driven, I seem to have so much more time than I did before even though I spend two hours a day meditating! (Morning and evening Is the goal but we will see how it goes!)
- My hip pain is gone and I’m beyond ecstatic about it.
- I’m so much more flexible than I was before from all of the yoga I did at the beginning of the course while trying to do anything other than meditation, haha!
- I’m aware of my tension headaches and I’m learning to observe what triggers them and when they are at their best and worst.
- I’m not as attached to sleep as I was before, I always got so annoyed when I couldn’t get 8+ hours sleep and even after having that much sleep I’d still be tired. Although the 10 days were difficult I found my energy levels stayed consistent throughout the day. I’m trying to find a routine that fits my current lifestyle so I can reach maximum productivity throughout my day and not spend most of it unconscious in bed! Life is for living, not sleeping.
- I feel really social, I want to talk to people and share my experience but I’m also more aware of how their energy and words affect me. I’m able to understand when somebody is projecting onto me or is causing me to become unhappy because of the mood they are in. I’m a really sensitive person and so I’ve always been one who is affected by other people's energies, my mood can quickly change as soon as someone unhappy talks to me, I take on all of their emotions. I’ve found that now I’m more aware of it I’m going to try and work on letting it go and trying to stay balanced rather than letting them drain my energy.
- I have a deep appreciation for life and all living beings. I have more understanding about why people are mean, why people kill, why people cause suffering. I aware now that I should have compassion to all beings not just those who wish myself and the world well. If somebody does something negative it’s because they’ve been through something negative themselves and they don’t have the understanding that they are continuing the negative loop and causing themselves and others more suffering. Now if somebody causes an argument and I become involved I will diffuse the situation, arguing back makes them more angry and the situation will continue. If I’m able to raise their vibration if might break the loop and they won’t carry on with their negative words or actions.
These words really resonated with me, we all deserve true happiness, we all deserve peace, but if we are never nice to ourselves we are not living what we believe. If each person loved themselves they wouldn’t want to cause pain and suffering to anybody else because they would want it in return. What comes around goes around. How can you be happy if you cause somebody pain? If we are all more aware of our thoughts we will be less likely to act upon them, if we do that all of our peace, harmony and happiness will overflow into all aspects of our lives. We will raise each other up instead of bringing each other down and it will have such a powerful and profound effect on the people and world around us.
Now that the experience is over it’s easy to feel positive about it but in all honesty I had more bad days than good. It was really hard, probably one of the hardest things I’ve done in my whole life but now that it’s over I can safely say I’m happy to have experienced it.
Somebody who sat the course with me likened it to childbirth, it’s unbelievably painful but you get such an amazing outcome and forget all about the pain… until you do it next time but each time you get such an amazing outcome. I think that’s such a beautiful way to think of it.
To any of you are thinking about going you should definitely go. When the time is right, you will go and you will grow so much and be so so happy with yourself and proud of what you’ve achieved. Thank you so much for reading my thoughts. I wish you peace, I wish you true happiness.
Sending so much love and light to each and every one of you