10 days is a lot longer than you think.
I got stuck in the one room in the basement with no windows and no attached bathroom. I went from constant stimulus of reading and podcasts and emails and audio books and conversations to nearly nothing.
3:59 AM, my roommate’s, alarm goes off. 15 seconds later he jumps out of bed, turns it off, and jumps back into bed. He won’t wake up until 7:45 AM.
3:59 AM and 30 seconds, my watch alarm starts vibrating and I hang my arm over the edge of the bed so that the vibration against the bed doesn’t bother roommate.
4:00 AM my alarm goes off and I jump out of bed to turn it off. Then turn around, make the bed, get dressed, grab my bad of toiletries and head for the bathhouse.
4:04 AM On the way to the bathhouse I run into the old student (anyone who has done a retreat before is called an old student) who is making the rounds and banging the gong to wake everyone up. He hits it softer and softer every day. Days 5-8 he doesn’t bother to come to the basement dead end hallway where my room is. The course manager reprimands him and he makes a concerted effort on days 9-11.
4:15 AM I’m the only one showering at this hour, everyone else is hitting snooze, slackers.
4:28 AM On the way back to my room I pass other students heading to the meditation hall. We all look at the ground. Noble silence means no eye contact, no gestures, no communication of any sort.
4:34 AM I’m sitting cross legged in the meditation hall. Repeating in my head:
“Day 7, 3 more days to go.”
“Day 7, 3 more days to go.”
“Day 7, 3 more days to go.”
4:39 AM I start practicing the meditation technique. It goes very well. I’m focused and aware. I make it 50 minutes without changing posture.
6:00 AM The recording of Goenka chanting in Hindi starts. He’s the original meditation teacher of this group.
6:30 AM Breakfast. Oatmeal, prunes and apples.
6:55 AM Straight back into bed to nap.
7:45 AM Gong goes off in the hallway for the first group sit.
7:55 AM Ok, if I don’t get out of bed now I’ll be late.
8:00 AM Group sit without changing posture for an hour. My back is in major pain. I make it through without changing posture.
9:00 AM Break and then instructions. We listen to Goenka. “You must work diligently …. scRUPulously … VIGilantly .. PAitently … PERsistantly … ” It gets extremely repetitive. I get the fucking point. Its a lot of work its hard. I make it through to lunch changing posture only a few times.
11:00 AM Lunch. Its the last meal of the day. Brown rice and vegetables of some sort again.
11:34 AM back into bed.
12:45 PM gong goes off, ignore it, keep sleeping.
2:15 PM gong goes off.
2:25 PM jump out of bed and head to meditation hall.
2:30 PM another 1 hour group sit. Back is in pain but I make it through without changing posture.
3:30 PM more instructions. “You must work diligently …. scRUPulously … VIGilantly .. PAitently … PERsistantly … ” Fuck this guy. I get the point. Why do I need to be here for another 3 days? I struggle through the next hour of meditation. Mostly just thinking negative thoughts.
5:00 PM tea and apples
6:00 PM another 1 hour group sit.
7:00 PM a discourse. Goenka rambles on for an hour. He alternates between being a riveting story teller and talking nonsense. Over 11 discourses there are half useful things. Like the explanation of why we react automatically to insults or how to be compassionate and want to help people . And there is nonsense. “Everything is based on science, there are 4 core molecules: fire, earth, air and water. Everything is a mix of those 4 elements.” But none the less, he manages to be inspiring. To get me motivated again to focus.
8:30 PM the final group sit of the day. Its only 30 minutes and I’m motivated and I feel great.
9:00 PM head to the bathhouse and then to bed. I’m excited for the next day.
And this is how it was nearly every day. Morning is strong, afternoon is weak, and then the motivation comes back in the late evening.
Days 1-3 are a constant yo yo of highs and lows. It takes me a few days to find a sitting position that isn’t so painful that I can’t even make it 10 minutes without changing posture.
Day 4 we’re taught vipassana. A lightbulb goes off. This is pretty fucking cool.
Day 5 and 6 are not bad, I hit a stride with vipassana.
Day 7 was the absolute bottom. It was where I thought I knew everything I needed to know and why was I wasting another 3 days here?
Day 8 and 9 were much better. There was a new piece of the technique added and I was able to focus, to meditate consistently.
Day 10, the silence was broken in the morning and other than the 3 group sittings nobody meditated. It was an easy day. Everyone just chatting.
There was no reading, writing, or communication of any kind allowed. Its eerie to have no intellectual stimulus other than the 1 hour of discourse a day. You cycle through thoughts on every possible topic.
By the end I had a list in my head 50+ items long of things to do after the retreat.
I had planned several possible lives out for myself.
I had drafted designs for a house I want to build eventually.
I had scripted conversations I wanted to have with people and practiced them in my head over and over.
It was an extremely positive experience.
My two main takeaways are:
1. The technique of Vipassana.
The way they taught vipassana is much clearer than anything I’d experienced before. I had read about it in the past and didn’t get it. They walk you through it and have you experience the technique. The theory is that your reactions are driven by sensations in the body. If you are angry there is a biochemical feeling you have. By observing these sensations and being aware of them, without reacting negatively or positively, you can make them have less impact over time.
These sensations can be anything from feeling clothes or air on your skin to pain or numbness from sitting to feeling the blood flowing through your veins.
Theres more to it but thats the basics. Scan you body for sensations and observe them without feeling negative or positive about them.
And it seems to really work. I am WAY more mindful after the retreat. I don’t react as quickly. I don’t crave things as much. I have much more control over what I do in any given moment. We’ll see how long it lasts, but I’m excited.
2. Everyone has their own struggle.
This I already knew but the retreat put into strong perspective. Since the retreat is silent I didn’t get to talk to people. But I was already seriously judging them based on looks and movements and demeanor.
Then, when you hear people talking to the teachers about their practice you realize, yes they have problems, but they’re just trying to get better.
There are so many other things I got from it but otherwise this would turn into a book.
Should you do it?
1. It going to suck. You are going to be bored out of your mind. Be prepared for that. If you go into it knowing that you’ll want to leave after a few days it will be easier to stay.
2. There are two ways people deal with trauma: 1. By facing it, processing it and becoming ok with it. 2. By sweeping it under the rug with distractions like friends, drinking or eating and pretending they didn’t happen. By the 4th day you will run out of things to think about in your short term memory. Long term traumas will come up. If you swept them under the rug it will be HARD. You will be sitting there for hours with nothing but pain to think about. In the long term this is a good thing. You’ll come away more at peace with your past. Happier. But it will be a painful process. Facing your fears always is. So, if you have major trauma and are not self-reflective about it, you may have trouble.
If you’re curious, you can read more at dhamma.org.
^Day 274/90 1445 words