I just got back from my first Vipassana retreat, and I wanted to jot down some thoughts and reflections on how it went down, what I learned, and what I’d recommend for others who might be asking themselves “Should I consider doing a Vipassana Retreat?”
I’m going to be breaking down this essay into two sections:
- What it was like
- What I learned
Read What it was like if you’re interested in attending and are curious about the experience. If you’re not, skip to What I learned to get the complete rundown of my insights from the process.
1. What it was like
First of all, what is Vipassana?
Vipassana is a style of Buddhist meditation that is intended to help you explore the nature of reality.
That’s a lofty goal, which I’ll talk more about in a bit. but I think it’s important for people to understanding the difference between Vipassana and meditation generally, of which there are many different kinds (some of which focus on visualization or mantras rather than just what’s going on in your body), and also between Vipassana and Buddhism, of which there are also many different kinds (many of which don’t even involve meditation).
Vipassana is intended to be non-religious and non-dogmatic, meaning that it’s views aren’t supposed to conflict with any other religious beliefs (whether this is true or not is up for debate, but that’s what they tell you anyway).
What happens at a Vipassana retreat?
In short, the idea of a Vipassana retreat (often colloquially referred to as a “sit”) is that you sit around all day long and learn to sharpen your awareness of what’s actually going on inside your body at the level of sensations.
And when I say that you sit around all day long, I really mean it.
There are many different lengths of Vipassana retreats — from 3 days to 3 months, with 10 days being the most common — but they all involve at least 10 hours of meditation a day.
Here’s a common schedule:
- 4:00am: Wake-up Bell
- 4:30am — 6:30am: Meditate
- 6:30am — 8:00am: Breakfast
- 8:00am — 11:00am: Meditate
- 11:00am — 1:00pm: Lunch
- 1:00pm — 5:00pm: Meditate
- 5:00pm — 6:00pm: Tea
- 6:00pm — 7:00pm: Meditate
- 7:00pm — 8:15pm: Lecture
- 8:30pm — 9:00pm: Meditate
- 10:00pm: Lights Out
If you add it up, that’s 10.5 hours of meditation right there.
Most of it is loosely structured, meaning you can meditate in the main hall (a big room where you’re assigned a spot and a mat) or in your room.
Later on you’re also given a small meditation cell that you can choose to use during these periods. It’s quieter but also more claustrophobic — it reminds me of being in a sensory deprivation tank, or solitary confinement, which oddly becomes sort of comforting after a while.
But then there are also three mandatory hour-long meditation periods throughout the day (8am — 9am, 2:30pm — 3:30pm, and 6pm — 7pm) where you have to be in the main hall with everyone else.
During the lecture portion we watched a recorded video of S. N. Goenka (a pretty influential meditation teacher who helped popularize Vipassana throughout the world and emphasized the non-religious and scientific nature of the teachings). This lecture portion often helped to provide context for what we’d worked on that day and also set the stage for the next day.
Note: My friend Casey Rosengren points out that there are many different styles of Vipassana. Goenka’s style (the one I did) is somewhat dogmatic and emphasizes a lot of sitting, while some others are less rigid and include a variation of walking meditations and yoga as well. In Casey’s words, “I would highly recommend Vipassana retreats, and highly recommend people staying far, far away from Goenka.” (Alternatives include Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society)
I did my retreat in North Fork, California at the California Vipassana Center.
I flew in to San Francisco the day before, and then coordinated a ride-share with some of the meditators. They have a pretty good system for figuring out who’s driving and who needs a ride.
When you show up it’s technically Day 0. You can talk to some of the other meditators and introduce yourself.
I was surprised how many people had done it before. Many of the people I talked to had done two or three sits before. A few had done more than 10.
One pretty special guy told me he had done over 40 Vipassana retreats and meditated twice a day for two hours. He said he had only missed one meditation in 15 years and that was due to a car crash.
On the evening of day 0, you’re given a light dinner. Then everyone is taken to the main hall and each person is assigned a spot to sit in.
There’s an evening meditation that day, and then the noble silence begins. A vow of silence for 10 days.
For most people, when I tell them about the retreat, they get stuck on the silence part. Which is funny, because it’s by far one of the least difficult parts of the whole thing.
That being said, human beings are social creatures, so there’s a strong temptation to make eye contact with others and try to communicate non-verbally through gestures, all of which is discouraged.
It’s explained later on that there are a few reasons the organizers insist on silence. One is that it allows you to focus more of your attention on the experience of what’s going on inside your body.
Another is that if you could talk, you’d probably start comparing your meditations with others and then judging your own experience against theirs. “You see a bright light? I’ve never seen a bright light…” or “You experienced the feeling that your body dissolved? I’ve never experienced that…”
I actually think the silence makes the whole experience much better.
Separation of Men and Women
I’ll briefly comment on the fact that men and women are mostly separated from day one.
Sleeping facilities are separated, dining is separated, and there are even separate areas of the grounds where men and women are allowed to walk. The only place where both men and women are present together is in the main hall, and even then they’re on different sides of the room (though there’s no physical divider or anything, so you can get a peek if you want).
I imagine this is to avoid temptation or craving — either attraction, flirting, or trying to communicate with a partner you might have come with — though obviously it’s archaic and heteronormative, I have to admit that it definitely works.
That being said, after a week of not masturbating, you could imagine that people start behaving a little strangely. Oh did I mention you aren’t allowed to engage in any kind of sexual activity, including masturbation?
Speaking of which..
Other Things You’re Not Allowed to Do
You give up your cell phone at the beginning, so you can’t use that.
You’re not allowed to read or write — no journaling.
You can’t use intoxicants — though there is tea and coffee for those who really need their caffeine fix.
You can’t lie — which is easy when you can’t talk.
You can’t kill — also pretty easy.
And you can’t steal — fine.
I’ll talk more about pain later on in the What I learned section, but I wanted to comment quickly on the fact that 10 hours of sitting per day generally produces an unbelievable level of pain for even the most experienced meditators.
While it’s somewhat the point to observe the pain and discomfort, and develop a sense of mental calm and composure under pressure, the point is not to torture yourself.
Everyone starts off with a mat and cushion set up that looks kind of like this:
But by the end of 10 days, most people have created an elaborate setup for themselves consisting of 4+ cushions arranged in all sorts of funny ways.
The most comfortable option is to request a plastic chair to sit in along the perimeter of the room — which the center readily provides. The downside is that this significantly increases the chance of falling asleep during your meditation.
Trust me, no matter what you do, it will not be comfortable.
However, I found that I really enjoyed using a meditation bench (which they had available as well):
The meditation bench reduces the pressure and strain on your upper thighs and back, though it does shift it slightly towards your knees and ankles. If you’re at a retreat and have trouble sitting for long periods of time, I’d highly recommend trying out a meditation bench.
2. What I learned
I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy the experience, but looking back I feel like I got a surprising amount out of it. Here are a few insights that I’m left with:
- The root of all human misery is craving and aversion. We’re miserable when we crave something (like money, love, or health) but we can’t get it and we’re miserable when we feel aversions (to things like pain, uncomfortable situations, or bad behavior) but we can’t get away.
- Even when we are able to satisfy a craving or aversion, the satisfaction you get is always fleeting and is never permanent. Cravings are replaced with new cravings (the good feeling you get from buying a new piece of clothing quickly disappears) and aversions are replaced with new aversions (you get away from one uncomfortable situation only to find yourself in some new uncomfortable situation). As they say, “There’s no such thing as an itch you can permanently scratch.”
- The world is constantly changing. Everything is impermanent, including everything about us. We don’t just wake up at 30, 40, or 50 feeling ten years older. Our bodies age every second of every single day. When we wake up, we’re literally different people from when we go to sleep (our cells, molecules, and atoms are constantly shifting), but we forget this fact.
- We understand these things conceptually or intellectually, but it’s not until we have actual tangible experiences of them in our bodies that we really, truly understand them at a deeper level. In Vipassana, the idea is to use our bodies as the framework through which to understand the world.
- Every part of our body is constantly experiencing sensory stimulation all the time, but the small stuff gets tuned out so that our conscious mind only has to be aware of the big stuff like major pains or discomforts.
- We can train our conscious mind to become more aware of the subtle sensations that are constantly going on. But it takes time.
I find this last point to be really important in the modern age of technology and social media. As my friend Yogi (who I met on the retreat) says,
“Computers and smartphones literally suck the consciousness out of our minds and into the screen.”
- Our subconscious minds are constantly responding to these subtle but non-conscious sensations all the time. When we’re sleeping, if a fly lands on our face, then our body can swat it away without us ever being aware that it was there. When we have an itch, we scratch at it without even thinking about it. Almost like auto-pilot. Most of our actions are like this.
- It’s possible to separate a sensation (i.e. trigger) from our automatic response to it. For example, if we feel an itch but don’t scratch it, we start to get better at and more comfortable observing it. We also start to realize that every stimulus actually goes away on its own. That’s what they call the “Law of Nature.” No itch lasts forever.
- A special case: it’s possible to separate the sensation of pain from the suffering an discomfort associated with pain. In other words, we can feel a pain without necessarily being bothered by it, which is a weird concept for most people. This is supported by studies of people who are given painkillers, and they report that they still feel the pain, but are simply not bothered by it anymore.
- This last point is especially relevant for people who experience chronic pain. We tend to feel like most pains are always there and somewhat fixed and permanent, but if we actually observe closer we can realize that pain actually comes and goes in waves and it constantly changing. For people with chronic pain, studies have found that a lot of the suffering comes from anticipating future pain (like thinking about how much your back is going to hurt once you start walking) and that anticipation activates parts of the pain matrix where pain processing takes place. Meditation has been shown to be helpful for many people with chronic pain conditions.
- We’re not addicted to things, we’re addicted to the sensations those things produce. For example, an alcoholic isn’t addicted to alcohol, they’re addicted to the sensation they get when they drink alcohol.
- Our mind spends much of the time either in the past (reliving past events) or the future (imagining future events). These thoughts can be categorized as either pleasant or unpleasant. You can think of this as a two by two matrix:
- If you combine the last two points together you’ll find that many of the reasons we spend so much time thinking nostalgically about the past or pleasantly fantasizing about the future is that it produces subtle, good sensations in your body.
- Our mental states (such as attention and motivation) are as fleeting and changing as the physical sensations in our bodies. I found that my ability to focus during meditation and the things I would think about changed almost every time I sat down to meditate.
Some meditation sits were horrible — really painful and uncomfortable and I couldn’t keep my attention focused. Then the very next meditation (later that afternoon) would be amazing — truly deep and engaged, with my mind seemingly able to focus for minutes at a time. When the very next meditation might be horrible again. Everything is always changing.
Tips for people considering a Vipassana Retreat
While I was supposed to be meditating, I thought a lot about what I’d write in this blog post afterwards.
I even came up with a term I call Procrastitation — when you do things that you feel are helping you to be a better meditator (like stretching), but really you’re just procrastinating because all you should be doing is sitting and meditating.
So would I recommend it?
That’s a hard question. Up until Day 10, if you had asked me if I would do a Vipassana retreat again I would have said, “I’m glad I did this — no regrets — but I’ll probably never do it again.”
And then my mind changed.
(Which is obviously reflective of the fact that things are constantly changing, even your own feelings and dispositions.)
Recommending that someone do a Vipassana retreat is like recommending that someone run a marathon. A meditation retreat is basically a marathon for your mind. (And there’s definitely a physical component as well.)
Not everyone is ready to or prepared to run a marathon. And not everyone wants to run a marathon.
If, after reading this post, you’re not at all curious about it, I’d say, “Don’t worry about it.”
But if you read this article and went “Hmmm…,” if you’re the kind of person who is interested in self-improvement, new experiences, and challenging yourself, or if you’re at a major crossroads or are struggling with a major issue and would like some perspective, then I’d consider checking out a Vipassana retreat.
And if you do decide to go, my biggest piece of advice is…
Stay for the whole thing.
Don’t even give yourself the option to leave (because there will definitely be times where you’ll want to). That means arrange a ride-share so you don’t have your car and also give up your phone in the beginning.
It’s a pretty terrifying at first, but it makes the whole experience way easier in the long run.
So that’s really all I have to say about that. I’m considering doing a follow-up post on Hacks for Your Vipassana Retreat that I discovered — things to bring like compression socks and Salonpas. Let me know if that would be interesting or if you’ve got any additional questions you’d like me to answer.