10 days of silence, no reading, no writing, no electronics, not even gesturing. Hours of meditation a day with other people. And it’s somehow related to Buddhist teaching. That’s all I knew at the time before I went on the 10 days Vipassana Meditation by dhamma.org. But boy, was I in for a surprise.
As a personal development junkie, anything that makes me grow kind of fill me with excitement. Especially if it sounds challenging, I tend to gravitate towards it even more. I know, what a weirdo. So this retreat fits the bill. There are ample time to look within, to discover myself and hopefully find some inner peace.
Plus, it’s FREE. I am more careful with my spending now since I discovered FIRE. (Check out my section on financial independence HERE.) So this can’t be more perfect. It’s also very hard to get a spot and people seem to be fighting for it. If it’s THIS popular, it must be good, right?
Developing more of a loner personality (ambivert towards more introvert) over the years, not talking to anybody wasn’t really the issue. However, I am the type of person who needs constant mental stimulation. Not being able to read or write? That’s going to be rough. AND there is no dinner? Ahh I kinda eat a lot… Plus, I have never sat more than an hour meditating (I only did that once). So I have to do that for 10 hours a day? In the same crossed legged position with my back straight with no back support? I have chronic pain in my left bum, occasional knee pain and a very tight back (Yea, not young anymore). Ummm this is going to be fun…
Well, since I was there for a challenge, I was just going to try and see what happens. You always have the option to leave if you really can’t stand it. And if you feel guilty and want to donate, they won’t even accept any until you finish the whole course.
So nothing to lose!
Everyone will experience this differently and most people I have talked to or read online have said this is one of the hardest things they have ever done. So I was expecting it to be excruciating.
It was definitely a challenge, but not in the ways I imagined. I actually never felt once that I wanted to leave, or I needed to talk. I was surprised I could sit for that long (stiffness in the right leg for the first 3 days) and I didn’t starve (hungry at night around the 7th day). However, I did start to count down the days halfway and got through it one meditation at a time!
The hardest part for me was actually getting the technique down, which will be a lifetime practice.
Despite the challenges, I can tell you. the course wasn’t just great, but it was LIFE CHANGING. It was the BEST thing I have ever done so far in terms of personal development.
Without further ado, here is a summary of what happened during the 12 days, including Day 0 and the last day.
04:00 Gong rings
04:20 Gong rings again
04:30-06:30 Meditation in the Hall or in your own room
08:00-09:00 Group Meditation in the Hall
09:00-11:00 Meditation in the Hall or in your room according to instructions
12:00-13:00 Assistant Teacher’s interview
13:00-14:30 Meditate in the Hall or in your room
14:30-15:30 Group Meditation in the Hall
15:30-17:00 Meditate in the Hall or in your room according to instructions
17:00-18:00 Tea Break
18:00-19:00 Group Meditation in the Hall
20:30 – 21:00 Group Mediation in the Hall
21:00 Q&A if required, or rest time
Basically, you meditate 10 hours a day! However, there is time in between for you to stretch, and walk around.
There is really only three mandatory sits in the hall. The rest you have the option to meditate in your room, or wait for further instructions.
I arrived in the afternoon and filled in some paperwork. Talked to only several fellow meditators, and had a wonderful dinner and info session. This is also when they confiscate your phone. Then we were assigned a seat in the meditation hall for the duration of the course. The hall was sitting around 80 people at the time. Men and women are separated from now on. Noble silence started that night at 8pm.
Dong….dong… A gong rang, twice. I looked at my clock (that I borrowed from the centre). It said 4am. My roommate switched on the light immediately. Slightly irritated, I turned on my side and kept sleeping. Technically, you could “meditate” in your room the first two hours from 4:30am to 6:30am, so the temptation to continue sleeping was huge. But I have been kindly advised by several fellow students before to resist the urge and get up to the meditation hall. So I kept that at the back of my mind.
Twenty minutes passed, another two gongs. Alright, I might as well get up, and start the course right.
There was a pre-recording, of the late S.N. Goenka, guiding us through what to do. We were instructed to observe our breath, and that was the only task! But it proved to be very difficult.
Naturally, the mind wanders, like a lot! Observe my breath, ok, 2-3 breaths later, umm I wonder what we are going to eat for lunch. Wait, go back to the breath. 3 breaths later, my right leg starts to hurt. Then the thought starts jumping, all over the place, with no logical sequence, and I don’t know how many minutes passed, oh shoot, I am supposed to observe my breath. Oops. Basically, that cycles went on and on, jumping from past memories to future plans.
The whole day went on like that. Every time I sat, I just tried to come back to the breath as much as possible.
Food was surprisingly delicious. It was a buffet style vegetarian fare, with labels to show if you have certain allergies. Special requests could be made. We had a pregnant lady and a girl with low blood pressure, so they do cater dinner if required. Tea and coffee were also available. There was technically no dinner, just tea, milk and fruits (for new students only, old students got only tea with lemon!)
Since this was hosted in Ontario, I did find the food quite multicultural. There was even desserts on alternative days!
A pretty accurate menu can be found HERE for the Ontario Vipassana Centre Website.
Every night, around 7:15pm to 8:15pm, there was a discourse. An hour long pre-recorded video with Goenka giving us a talk to recap the day and guide us in the teachings.
That became the highlight of everyday. His sense of humour, and the insights just made it such a delight to keep me going throughout the course.
By some magical powers, the first few days were surprisingly painless, at least mentally. Yeah, my mind wandered off, but I know that was part of the deal. My right leg though was another story. There was pain and I did have to switch positions now and then. But we were permitted to do so, as quietly as possible of course.
There were lots of cushions available at this centre where you could use for extra padding. I used some soft blocks under my knees and two cushions on top of the mat to sit on. You could also request a back support after your first day of sitting.
I thought I slept horribly throughout the nights. Most of the time I was in that half asleep, half awake stage. But I had so many vivid dreams, and woke up refreshed. I usually need 10 hours+ of sleep because of my perpetual jetlag, but I was surprised I woke up everyday energized!
Pretty much the same deal as Day 1. We also started to observe the triangular area of the upper lip below the nostrils. We were told to concentrate in this small area so we can feel more subtle sensations of the body later. At first, I didn’t feel anything at all. After awhile, I started feeling tinging or numbing sensations here. But in order to feel such a subtle sensation, the mind has to be very quiet.
Today I felt great difficulty with separating the observation of breath versus controlling it. Every time I observed my breath, I immediately breathed harder or paused it. I still have difficulty with this one, to this day!
We also had our own shower time slot. We were only given 20 minutes each. People shuffled their times around throughout the week, but I kept mine the same at 5:30pm, after “dinner”.
We were told to scan our bodies from head to toe, and feel the sensations throughout the body. THAT’S IT! That’s essentially the technique you learn for Vipassana. Way easier said than done though. At first, it was easier to feel the obvious ones, but the key was to feel the very subtle ones.
We know that through science, we are made up of subatomic particles, and they vibrate. Basically, we want to feel these vibrations. This trains the mind to be extremely quiet and concentrated in order to pay attention to details.
According to Buddha, any emotions that we feel are accompanied by body sensations, if we can be equanimous (not clinging onto pleasant or avoiding unpleasant sensations), then whatever sensations that come our way will no longer bother us. Then we will be free from suffering. However, this is EXTREMELY difficult.
Starting in the late afternoon on Day 4, during the three mandatory sits in the day, we were instructed not to move. For the entire hour, you were encouraged not to move your hands, legs, or open your eyes. The first time I did this was quite uncomfortable, but by the third try, my body got used to sitting in the same position for the hour.
Someone once asked me upon knowing I am about to do this retreat: “Isn’t this like solitary confinement?” And when I saw that I got assigned a cell, I bursted out laughing (with my inside voice of course). At first, it did feel claustrophobic and uneasy as I stared at the 4 walls and the very dim light, but as I closed my eyes and meditated, that feeling quickly transitioned into a strange kind of calm.
At the 9-11am sit, we learned this meditation technique called Metta, which focused on love and compassion. After that, we could start to talk again! This was an amazing day because we finally get to talk to everybody who I was silently judging and had them prove me wrong! When people are quiet, and we are not supposed to look at each other or gesture, we all have our bitch face on. But of course they were the loveliest people and I learned so much from them.
Also, I could finally talk to my roommate and she was so lovely! I went to a bilingual English and Mandarin class, so a lot of people came directly from China. Since I straddle between the two cultures, it was interesting to hear different perspectives on how people perceive this practice and what they got out of it. I also made some friends and will have more people to meditate with!
Overall, a blissful experience, but not without some pain, but these are the most rewarding ones, isn’t it?
Most successful people meditate. Knowing that the benefits are now proven scientific, being able to master the mind and emotions brings us back to the present and help us become happier.
If we can be equanimous with any sensations, that translates to not being attached to anything. We can still feel them, but we won’t create an illusion in our heads to want to continue the good feelings or want the bad ones to stop. Heck, you won’t even label it good or bad.
So! Do you think this course is worth the discomfort? I definitely think so! I have to say, I am now hooked! I am looking forward to doing more courses maybe in India and Nepal, where this technique originated.
I understand this can be very intimidating for those who have little experience with meditating. The following resources and tools are the ones I personally used before I joined the course, to better prepare you mentally for this challenge.
I DO NOT have any affiliate links with these resources, just what I have found useful!
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N.Goenka by William Hart- The philosophy and teachings behind this meditation technique.
10% Happier by Dan Harris – The skeptic who turned into a believer of meditation.
Headspace – 2-60 minutes guided or unguided meditation with skill demo in animation. I have only done the 10 minutes intermittently for 2 years.
Bali Silent Retreat – You can book by the day, with farm to table vegetarian meals, yoga and meditation, books you could read. A great intro to silence. I did 4 days and it was SOOOO lovely.
Website for the 10 days Vipassana Retreat: dhamma.org
*This article is based on my experience at the Ontario Vipassana Centre, experiences may vary depending on which site you visit.
There you have it! Please don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions. I know it can be very daunting but it’s well worth the experience!