I survived Vipassana, but it wasn’t easy! Read my breakdown of my first 10-day silent meditation retreat experience and how it changed my life.
Everyone I knew scoffed when I announced I was going off to do a Vipassana retreat, barely able to withhold their laughter and judgment. You see, I like to talk. In Vipassana, not only are you required to maintain ‘noble silence’ for 10 days (it’s really 11 days, they don’t count the first evening – nice), but you are also expected to live in the same dormitory as other people (like 12 women in mine including an Olympian snorer), you are not to engage in any eye contact (not even if you bump into someone in the bathroom, which happened multiple times), and you must give up all your possessions at the door (no books, no notebooks, no pencils, no phone, no teddy bears, aka no entertainment or distraction from hours of self-contemplation…yup) bar the clothes in your backpack and a sleeping bag.
To be honest, the first time I went off to Vipassana my kids were three and five years old and I was going through a really tough time in a toxic marriage, so I was bloody excited to get away and not speak to anyone for a couple weeks. Not to mention they cook for you, and I’d heard the vegetarian fare is brilliant. By the time I hopped on the train following a flight from Byron Bay to Sydney and ready to board my train to the Blue Mountains bound for the Blackheath Vipassana Centre, I was salivating.
I read the schedule at the time of applying, so I knew what I was in for. Well, I didn’t know at all, it’s impossible to truly understand both the brutality and importance of the schedule until you are in the thick of it, or out the other side and still waking up at 4am to meditate months later.
4:30-6:30am - Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00am - Breakfast
8:00-9:00am - Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00noon - Lunch break
12noon-1:00pm - Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30pm - Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30pm - Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00pm - Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00pm - Tea break
6:00-7:00pm - Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15pm - Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00pm - Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30pm - Question time in the hall
9:30pm - Retire to your own room–Lights out
The first few days were hell. We learned a basic nose breath ‘awareness’ meditation and I was truly terrible. The best record I set for maintaining concentration was around five seconds. I absolutely sucked. My naturally yang mind was more agitated than ever with no signs of slowing down. “What the hell am I doing here?” I thought to myself, every time I focussed my attention back to the little skin patch under my nose. The only things that kept me going were my pride (no way I was going home early as everyone expected I would), my shitty marriage (this torture was probably better than being home, honestly), and the tease of learning the actual Vipassana technique on day three or four. Oh, and the evening recorded video discourses with the Vipassana godfather, S.N Goenka. I was as excited about those evening videos as a bear coming out of hibernation next to one of those rivers with jumping salmon. Or is it trout?
This technique of meditation and the purpose of the course is to learn to observe the body. It teaches you to increase your awareness of bodily sensations and the connection between what goes on in your mind and how your body reacts, to practice equanimity (or “objective” observance) or those sensations (rather than craving or aversion, that is, pushing the feeling away), and to sit and just observe those sensations, not trying to change them or cling to them, so as to experience impermanence, with an overall goal of strengthening your capacity to objectively observe what happens in your life without being reactive.
Does it work?
Each experience is different for every individual. By days five and six, I was having instances where I could experience free flows of energy throughout the body scan meditation practice, thinking I had totally nailed it and had become the Queen of Vipassana. All my friends would be jealous at how zen I had become. Then on day seven, I experienced nothing but physical pain, which I had suffered through in the first four to five days, similar to someone repeatedly stabbing me all over my back with an ice pick. I had so many crazy thoughts running through my head that first week, from being bullied in school to my poor relationship with my father and completely picking away at my marriage. Old shit was coming up, and smashing me in the face – no, the back! – like a freight train.
But days nine and ten, I had begun to actually understand the practice, and that the of the meditation is that you will never only experience a free flow so long as there is stuff running through your mind, and because we have become so conditioned to living in our minds, it’s extremely rare to completely silence them. On my many daily short walks around the women’s compound, which had sweeping views over the Blue Mountains, but the walks were about as minimal and repetitive as you can get, I drafted film scripts in my mind and would get immensely frustrated that they didn’t allow us pen and paper. Would these brilliant ideas ever return to me? (They didn’t.) But then something magical started to happen…in those last few days of the course my senses were working in overdrive. I saw morning dew drops on the tips of leaves as I had never seen them before. Colours, smells, textures, details I had never noticed in nature were popping out at me and I would cry at the sight of a bird rummaging through a flower. The world was beautiful, and I was a part of it and nothing else mattered! It was an absolutely liberating experience, and I was in awe of the transformation that was happening to my awareness.
When I came home (Yes, I survived all 10 + 1 days!), I continued in my practice twice a day for an hour in the morning and an hour each night for months. I stopped drinking alcohol, I had more patience for my kids than ever before (no whinging “mama carry me” could shake the smile off my face), and I launched my first production company, wrote my first documentary script, and filed for divorce. My friends were ecstatic I’d survived and couldn’t believe the changes in me, and I had so many comments that I was ‘glowing’ and looked ‘fresh’ and ‘rejuvenated.’ That’s exactly how I felt. I was a new woman.
Would I go again?
I’ve since gone back to a different centre to do a three-day course, available only to old students (you really have to suffer the 10-days first to truly learn the practice), and Vipassana has become a part of my life. Life definitely gets in the way over time; I don’t practice two meditation sittings per day and can barely get through 30 minutes at the moment, but the technique is like riding a bike so once you have it you can dive straight back in anytime, and even 15 minutes is beneficial. While the health benefits of meditation are worth a whole separate post, what I got out of Vipassana was priceless. And it’s charged only by donation! You can take courses all over the world, but they book out months in advance so if you are planning to schedule in some time off or a trip with your course then I suggest booking it in asap.
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