Vipassana Meditation Retreat

The 10 days I’ve been awaiting since before I left home for Australia have come and gone, and what a wild, crazy time it was. Well, as wild and crazy 10 days of silence and meditation practice can be! I’ll start off my confirming: I did not become the Buddha after 10 days of practice and I don’t necessarily feel like some “new person” who has emerged back into the world. Also, the whole no talking thing wasn’t really that hard. I spent a few quiet days in Brisbane after the retreat, really reflecting on everything and journaling my thoughts so that I could begin to piece it all together. I have some funny stories to tell and some new insight that I think many of my friends/family would enjoy hearing, so that’s what I plan to share here.

I’ll start off by saying that I discovered the world of Vipassana meditation through a simple Google search back in October(ish). One night in RI, Cameron said that I should look into “one of those silent meditation retreats”. I agreed that the concept sounded intriguing, although I had literally ZERO experience/knowledge about meditation at all. After a quick search online, I discovered that these 10 day courses are held literally all over the world. They are also free; run on the donations and generosity of old students wanting to share the experience with others. Back at that time, I found the location in Pomona with the earliest availability in March, which was along the east coast where I figured I would generally be come that timeframe. I submitted my application and figured I would make the decision on whether or not to actually go once I knew more about my circumstances and commitment level in March.

Well, March came quickly and I found myself with firm commitment to the course, after having shared the plans with many other travelers and thinking that it was a pretty rare opportunity to have 10 days to completely be away from everything. I bought a few pairs of long, flowy pants (there’s a requirement to wear pants that cover the knees), a sheet and blanket as required for the accommodation and found myself a ride to the center which was only 40 minutes away from Noosa (shoutout to my Noosa roomie Esther, the real MVP). On the afternoon of March 13th I handed in my wallet, phone and big backpack filled with my other valuables and and clothes. All I had was some toiletries and a few comfortable outfits for 10 days. I won’t bring attention to the few granola bars I had hidden in my bag 🙂

Arriving at the center was pretty funny, as I noticed that everyone was really quiet during the registration process. It was almost like we all weren’t sure whether or not the Noble Silence was already in effect and didn’t know if we were allowed to communicate with each other. Time also seemed to come to a complete stand still right away. It was like we had entered some kind of time warp; I felt like a crazy person if I walked at a speed higher than a leisurely stroll– very difficult for me. That night we had a brief introductory meeting and at 8:00 PM the course/vow of Noble Silence officially began with a 8:00-9:00 meditiaion sitting in the hall.

Here is the schedule that we followed for the majority of the 10 days:

  • 4:00 AM- wake up bell
  • 4:30- 6:30 AM- meditation in the hall or at your own place
  • 6:30- 8:00 AM- breakfast and rest
  • 8:00-9:00 AM- meditation sitting of “strong determination” in the hall (you are asked to not open your eyes or move your arms and legs. Basically, sit as still as possible for the full hour)
  • 9:00-11:00 AM- meditation in the hall or at your own place
  • 11:00 AM- 1:00 PM- lunch and rest
  • 1:00- 2:30 PM- meditation in the hall or at your own place
  • 2:30- 3:30 PM- meditation sitting of “strong determination” in the hall
  • 3:30- 5:00 PM- meditation in the hall or at your own place
  • 5:00- 6:00 PM- tea break (fruit/tea only)
  • 6:00- 7:00 PM- meditation sitting of “strong determination” in the hall
  • 7:00- 8:15 PM- video discourse/teaching
  • 8:15- 9:00 PM- final meditation sitting in the hall
  • 10:00 PM- lights out (I was in bed every night by 9:15)

So! If you do the math there, thats about 10 hours a day of scheduled meditation. I’ll go ahead and say that this did not happen for me/or probably anyone else. During the long sittings, you were allowed to get up for a bathroom break, to take a quick walk, drink water, etc. There were also 5-10 minute breaks between each of the scheduled sitting times. In the hall, there were cushions lined throughout and we were given an assigned seat on the first night. One of my biggest questions before starting was about my own ability to actually sit for this long. After finding my own comfortable posture/sitting method, I actually found that my back and neck pain dissipated over time and my posture improved. This was probably my most proud achievement haha.

The center itself was a really nice facility. There was a dining hall, bathroom/shower building, large meditation hall and a good number of small cabins that served as accommodation for the students. Pomona is located inland, amongst green rolling hills, mountains and trees. There was beautiful gardens all throughout the facility and walking paths that cut through the area. It’s not a large space, but it was perfect for what we were there to do. Being where we were, the wildlife was plentiful. Everyday we watched a family of 6-8 kangaroos eat and play both morning and night. They are so cute! They eat with their hands, scratch their bellies and roll around in the grass. They made me laugh and brought me joy daily. I saw lizards, bugs, birds of all kinds. It’s a really serene and peaceful place, which provokes the atmosphere of reflection and harmony.

Here is an explanation of what the vow of Noble Silence means. It covers silence in every sense of communicating: no speaking, eye contact, sign language/gestures, etc. Pretty much no interaction with others at all and definitely no physical contact. Of course there is good reason for this, and I came to understand it over my time in the course. You really need to have practice in achieving relative mental silence in order to adequately focus on the meditation itself. This requires you to withdraw deep into yourself and time has shown that this silence is the most effective way in which to learn and commit to the practice. I’ll say that it was pretty easy for me to not talk for this long, but towards day 7 onward I began to struggle with feeling isolated and almost invisible for lack of a better word. I had not really been awknowledged as a person for a week and it started to wear on me mentally; my inner voice seemed loud as ever and I even began to question the status of some relationships in my life. Though deep down, I know this is simply a flaw of the mind; of course my loved ones were thinking about me and wishing me well. The mind can go to dark places when left with minimal outside stimulation and without regular affirmation from those around you. Luckily, the point of this practice is to acheive happiness and wish happiness upon others, so I was able to generate some “feel good” energy this way.

For the first three days of the course, we focused on a meditation practice called Anapana, which is the observation of your breathing. As simple as it sounds, we literally spent the time focuing on and becoming aware of our natural breath and the sensation it creates on the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. This sounds funny at first, until you think for a minute and realize how you actually never realize this or think about the fact that you are constantly breathing at every moment of your life. Focusing here for three days allowed for our minds to quiet down and become sharper (apparently).

On the fourth day we were officially taught the method of Vipassana. I’ll give a brief description of the practice in my own words, but if you’re interested in reading about it in more detail, check out the website. Vipassana is a practice based on universal scientific law which centers around the interaction between our mental and physical structures. It involves the simple observation of different sensations in our body, and our ability to observe those sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, with a completely equanimous mind and understanding that everything we are experiencing is also in constant motion and change. The ability to do this is meant to free us from deep rooted miseries and mental impurities and lead us to a mind free of suffering and filled with love and compassion for others. In your daily life, it can positively effect your awareness, ability to control your emotional reactions, and lead to a generally more peaceful and fulfilled existence.

The teaching in all of our sessions was delivered to us in the meditation hall through an audio recording and the video discourses held at night were a more detailed account of some of the things we may be experiencing at various stages and general history of the practice. Additionally, there were two live teachers and two course managers (male and female) that were present throughout the course. As someone who is openly non-religious, one of my favorite aspects of the teaching is that it is completely non-sectarian, and repeatedly emphasized that this practice is not rooted in religion at all. It is a scientific method of purifying your mind, finding inner peace, and wishing happiness upon yourself and others. What is more pure than that?? What excites me about my new knowledge of Vipassana is that it gives me something spiritual to grasp at, that I cannot argue it’s truth or proven effectiveness towards bringing positive change in life. There is no blind faith and literally anyone from any background can practice and receive the benefits.

Hopefully that overview provides you with a better understanding of what I actually did for 10 days, and why I chose to attend the course. It all sounds simple and straightforward enough, but the daily ups and downs were of no shortage. This past week I spent time writing down and laughing about some of the small things that I did/happened to me over the 10 days and I can share some of those with you now:

  • On day 1 I made it through the 4:30-6:30 AM sitting but was very tired after breakfast. I went back to bed and set my watch alarm for 7:40, to give myself time to prepare for the first 8:00 sitting. I guess my alarm didn’t go off, and I also didn’t hear the loud GONG signaling the start of the sitting because I shot out of bed at 8:02 in a full fledged panic. As I was opening the door of my cabin, the course manager was about to knock on my door to see where I was. She was like “you need to be in the hall for 8:00” and as I’m profusely apologizing she goes “were you asleep? Good for you” hahaha. I was so embarrased! Nothing like oversleeping into the first day of class.
  • I ate a granola bar on the first and third nights. Worth mentioning here that you’re obviously not supposed to have outside food, but I was hungry! We had breakfast and lunch every day (all vegetarian food, surprisingly good! I felt that these meals were actually higher quality than the food I’ve been cooking for myself while traveling) but our 5:00 tea break was only for fruit and tea, and we did not eat again until breakfast at 6:30.
  • Rule #1 of the entire thing is “To abstain from killing any being”. On the first night I killed two mosuqitoes in my room and on night 7-8 (?) I killed a daddy long leg spider that was in my bed. I felt really bad about the spider and apologized to it out loud.
  • On day 3 and a few other times, I noticeably overate at breakfast. This caused me extreme discomfort for the rest of the morning sittings… but I needed the food to “feel better” lol.
  • *This is my biggest regret/biggest challenge from the entire 10 days* Starting on day 2 through day 9, I took at least 1 nap during scheduled sitting times, sometimes two naps. Drowsiness was my #1 biggest challenge for the entire course, which I did not expect at all. I would be stretching, drinking water, all hyped up mentally for a sitting and within 5 minutes of silence my head would be doing the droop/jerk forward that happens in the car or on an airplane when you’re trying to sleep. It was brutal. I was so frustrated with my body in these instances, and would deliberately return to my room to end up falling asleep. My alternative to napping was coming up with an exciting day dream or trip down memory lane and I would let myself get lost in thought. If you read the paragraph I wrote about Vipassana, you will understand that that is the literal dead opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing while practicing. Sigh.
  • On a similar note, when I was using the thinking method to stay awake, I would sometimes still be positive enough to do the practice. I would do like one or two body scans for sensation and then reward myself with a train of thought. If I was not feeling particularly positive, I would say F this and immediately just start day dreaming. I never thought about leaving the course (it’s not like I had anywhere else to go) but I did use this method of detachment when I was feeling particularly discouraged or down.
  • My thoughts had massive range: from going back to my earliest memories as a human, to middle and high school, the friends I had, every boy I’ve ever had a crush on (this one makes me laugh), my time in CT and RI, my AUS trip so far, what I want to do for a career/life in general, etc. Of course it also went down the path of some of my darker, personal troubles and life traumas/experiences and gave me a chance to do some reflection there as well.
  • The voice inside my head was LOUD. I was in constant communication with myself. Also, I had music stuck in my head for the entire 10 days, it was relentless. Most notable was the Mac Miller’s album Swimming, and I also spent time reciting the entire Wicked song Defying Gravity on multiple occasions. I think I nailed that one.
  • I had comments and ideas come to mind that I wanted to share with specific people. I’ve shared some of these already, but if I randomly reach out with a thought or comment, it was most likely something from this timeframe that had already left my mind before I had the chance.
  • I fought “imposter syndrome” for the majority of the 10 days; questioning whether or not I’m the type of person who can pull this off, if it’s really “me” (don’t get me started on the whole concept of the self being an illusion, that’s another struggle lol), etc. On the last day when we were able to talk with the other women, I turned to the ~80 year old who had sat next to me in the hall. I told her she was so strong for doing this and she told me, “So are you”.
  • I began to crave physical contact towards the end of the course. Those who know me know that I am not a particularly physical person. I came to the conclusion that I want to give more hugs. If anyone reading this is a hugger, feel free to help me achieve this next time I see you 🙂
  • My dreams were very vivid! I don’t normally remember my dreams often, and so I’ve contemplated why I had such crazy, strong dreams every night. It must have something to do with my increased brain activity. In the beginning, I actually had 1-2 nightmares, but most nights I was excited to go to sleep to see what my mind would come up with that night.
  • There were some crazy lightning/thunder storms in the area through the first 5 afternoons and evenings. I found this very symbolic and beautiful. I also blamed my struggles towards the end on the full moon.
  • One of the funniest concepts is that I slept next to and sat next to (ironically, this wasn’t the case for everyone) the same girl for the entire 10 days without any communication whatsoever. When the silence was lifted she was the first person I went up to. I told her I wanted to give her a big hug.
  • I created life stories and personalities in my head for the women around me without knowing them. When we had the chance to talk at the end, it was funny to see the differences. There were some women I was particularly drawn to, and one that I had a major lady crush on. She was so graceful and filled with beauty. You know those people you just immediately want to be around?

Of course there are many more little stories and things that I experienced over the 10 days, but these were some of my highlights and ones that I thought my family and friends would get a kick out of, knowing me! I’m not sure if anyone I am close with would actually consider doing a Vipassana course, but I also don’t want to give away every little detail, as there is something exciting about discovering and having the experience with some unknowns along the way.

One final takeaway I want to share has to do with gratitude. Because I am an ego-centered, selfish human being, I bascially incorporated zero gratitude into my entire 10 days. When I realized this, I felt shame and I still feel feel regret for not being more aware of my surroundings. I was literally served amazing food, given a comfortable place to sleep, had a clean bathroom, etc. FOR FREE for 10 days and I was too focused on myself to realize how my experience relied 100% on the generosity of others.

Therefore, I need some daily gratitude in my life. I want to give thanks for my food, for my shelter and my surroundings. In my current situation, this should be particularly easy considering I am fortunate enough to be traveling and experiencing new things every single day. But I think you’d be surprised at how the novelty of this wears off after several months of travel and it is easy to just feel like “this is my life now” as if this is totally normal and everyone around me is experiencing the same. I am thankful for my mental and physical health and my ability to travel, for my (relative) financial security, for the constant love and support from my family and friends who are thousands of miles away. If there ever comes a time when I am acting ungrateful, I give you all permission to put me in my place! Sometimes we all need a reminder 🙂

On that note, thank you all for reading my story! I hope this brought you some smiles and even provoked some thought and self-reflection. If anyone is interested in talking more about Vipassana, I would be more than happy to have the conversation. Though I am definitely no expert, I am excited to now have something that I feel is unique to me and that I can share with those around me.

Bhavatu sabba mangalam | May all beings be happy ♥

 

 

 

 

 

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