Vipassana, a 10 day silent meditation retreat – I don’t know when I first heard about it, or when I first committed to doing it.
I was working at a retirement home at the time. I was 6 months split from my ex, and just wanted something challenging, insightful, and new. Perhaps abit outlandish, someone who had barely meditated felt ‘called’ (obsessed, convinced, hopeful, gambling, etc.) to try it out. So I went, to 10 kilometers from a small Northern BC town called Merritt. I had to take a rideshare to get there. I recall the drivers were speeding the entire drive. What a way to go, I imagined, if we crashed. A car accident en route to a silent hippie retreat..
The property was wide, quiet, and had a giant hall where everyone lived and stayed. The facilitator was named Goenke, he was speaking over videos each day about Vipassana. On day one he said “if you are feeling like leaving then you definitely should stay”. I can’t remember how he supported that statement, but somehow it did inspire me to really try and go for it. I’m sure everyone in some point of their experience at Vipassana second guesses it. I confronted many moments where I just wanted to up and leave. 10 days of watching paint dry is how you imagine it at times. It was remarkable how an environment of silence, lack of stimulation, can bring about so much restlessness, disorder, and chaos within. Yet I chose to be here, along with probably 40 other people who were mostly young and split evenly between men and woman. Clearly I wasn’t the only willing to try something out of the ordinary. Clearly I wanted this for a reason…
The idea of Vipassana is to mimic a monk life. Typical scheduling for those in Asia would be getting up around 4.30am, meditating nearly 10 hours a day, with short food breaks and rests in between. Putting a Westerner into that lifestyle can feel overwhelming, and much too restrictive, and the commitment to meditating so many hours can be daunting. Yet, when I experienced glimpses of doing it, of succeeding within this crazy schedule, I would feel very capable, hopeful, and surprised.
Vipassana had moments of real astounding insight. It was dead silent – and I learned I really loved that. At times that was the best part. To just not be distracted, or interrupted, it felt like the newest form of liberation. We are free in the city, sure, but are influenced, and co existing with many forces. Here it felt like we had committed to all practice existing in this environment, and the ability to live in that container was very serene at times. It snowed during my time here, and being in a meditative state watching the snow, and the outdoors, was very magical. I felt I had nothing else to do but appreciate it. That was the value of this – the capacity to be fully able to experience something.
This meditation method is not new. It is claimed to be the same technique used by the Buddha 2500 years ago. To detail it briefly, its intention is to be focusing on sensations, witnessing them, and not reacting to them. The application of this ancient method however I had a considerable amount of struggle with. It sounds easy enough, yet I found myself overrun by backpain and thinking about all the things I could be doing instead. I don’t know what was worse, the physical pain, or the thoughts of better things I could be doing. How unfair and conflicting it can be to have so many ideas and options, meanwhile not choosing them. FOMO or ‘what if’s’ were like coping mechanisms. Justifying my lack of focus. So many places I could go. Micro sensations felt unimportant too, overshadowed by true pain, and never ending thoughts. Pain > sensations felt like an undeniable hierarchy. I think on that and realize at times I simply endured the retreat, rather than experienced it, or thrived in it. I prided myself on being there, but I wasn’t able to consistently integrate to the goal at hand. I ended up just experiencing the silence and my attempt at their meditation. I feel I didn’t get the benefit of the technique, more so just survived the challenge of adapting to this new environment.
Despite that, I for sure had some profound experiences. I remember in the span of moments, seconds, switching from struggle, mental fatigue, and unacceptance, to total calm, effortless blissed serenity. There were no “outside changes” to spark this shift. The same silence and nothingness facilitated both reactions. Who knows the what or the why behind why these emotions come and go, but there it was, happening undeniably before my eyes, within me, for only me to feel. Still it seemed more like I was watching this experience rather than making it, and there was a sort of powerlessness of sitting in a meditative state for so long, witnessing whatever arises. A false sense of creation, it happened in me, but I didn’t create it, it just bubbles to the surface automatically. It showed how much is invisible internally even to ourselves, and not caused by what’s outside of us, and perhaps not even chosen by us.
Then that would switch again, feeling the mayhem of restlessness rising slowly in this quiet, safe place, with its stimulus devoid environment. Then few hours later everything would click again, and I’d be feeling like I’m in a Zen oasis. Then out of nowhere, suddenly I was riding a rollercoaster. The transitions were impossible to predict. All of a sudden I’d be in something new. It was so hard to brace oneself for it. To control, predict, or expect it. Reality can give checkpoints. When work is over we can ‘transition’ emotionally, from responsibility to rest. Or when vacation begins. Yet those aren’t always true. Many can go on vacation still stressed, get off work rattled for traffic. The checkpoints, and indicators to shift emotions, how real are they? They are hopes, intentions to change. Not true places of shift. With always meditating, there was no checkpoints. Just enduring constant silence, and my inconsistency.
I felt simultaneously more responsible and less responsible after that.
When I feel the same things in the city, the ups and downs, how much of it is because of the city? Are the addictions, bad habits, things I love, things I resisted, are they the cause of my highs and lows? Without any stimulation or sensory, I still felt the high and lows.
To what extent can we blame our circumstances for our suffering? And when does the scale tip? When is it our internal world more responsible and less so the external?
That gave me empowerment, trust, to focus within, after seeing how much of the same feelings came up during those meditations in new environments. Yet, in me things were happening unexpectedly, seemingly uncontrollably, and invisibly. Emotions are a purely feeling based reality. I felt a bystander to my own subconscious, only a tourist to my reality. It all felt like such a mysterious nothingness. Eyes closed 10 hours a day. Yet, I was finally looking in the right place. In the dark of space within, searching for answers.
I talk about at the beginning how I was inspired by things with my ex, and how that gave me courage and hopes to show up here. During Vipassana I got deep levels of gratitude about that history between us. Thank you’s, and real feelings of luckiness and appreciation for good times we had and moments we shared. I felt I was looking for inspiration and new ideas to see our past, but really that insight summed it up. All the processing and thinking was just hoping to eventually get to that. Gratitude.
I finished Vipassana, I lasted the 10 long days. I think by day 6 or 7 I knew I can do it. For me, if you can make it to 7 you can make it to 10. It’s easy to look at it like a marathon rather than a moment by moment experience. I have a lot to learn in that sense. To enter something like that and to really experience it, rather than only complete it. I may go back, id actually like to volunteer, however lately meditation feels so inexistent in my life. Ironic too, to be able to do that, and then live the same as if you never even went. The impact and results were short lived. It didn’t make ‘lasting’ changes in my life. Who I am today has no relic’s of Vipassana. Perhaps subtly, but not definitively.
When day 10 came and we could finally talk it felt so unfamiliar. I stumbled and forced those first words. Slowly returning to the world I’ve spent my whole life in. Small chat felt so big. I recall speaking with another person there who was planning to be there for months. He wanted to do a mix of volunteering and being there as a sitter (term for someone who is attending the Vipassana), and I imagined what a vision of peace he must be chasing. This event was a challenge for me, and for a lot of people who haven’t gone it is unthinkable, yet here was this young early 20’s guy, with every option before him, choosing this. What a rare story people like that are. I never kept up with him, but would have loved to know how he changed, grew, learned. What he found in his internal journey.
The ride back from Vipassana to Vancouver was glorious. Never have the mountains along the Coquihalla highway felt so high and large. Even returning home, sitting and doing nothing felt so fulfilling. It’s so hard to understand that feeling, just a looming afterglow. After living in the dark for so many hours the past 10 days, everything was so huge. That stayed for many days. I was the topic of questions at my work for next few weeks. People were really curious how it was and I shared my experience.
I think back during Vipassana that during the ‘high’ moments I wished everyone could feel that. Yet during the everyday life I live now, I see no natural gravitation towards that. Feels ironic. For me to sign up today for a sit would feel shocking in ways. My back pain is still hard at times and I’m sure would feel very painful there again. They also encourage you not to do yoga, read, or write while there. The philosophy is nothing but meditate and rest. No distractions.
I remember the food being delicious. I also realize food was one of the few places where I felt I had individuality. I could eat what I want, and as much or as little as I want. I would emotionally eat if I had a bad meditation, or I would lightly graze if suddenly I felt complete and little need for food. They encouraged no one to fast, and to try to just eat a healthy diet. Nice to only focus on food for once, rather then check email and eat. Read and eat. Watch something and eat. Finally it was simply eat.
I don’t know what else to say about it. There are Vipassana centres all over the world, and they can be booked months in advance. We are the civilization who in part craves comforts, all inclusives, food deliveries, and at the same time is willingly going to sit in silence and strict scheduled meditations for 10 days. It’s a duality we may learn more about, but shows comforts aren’t the only remedy to struggle or suffering. Clearly too much comfort gets uncomfortable.
Writing this today, the idea of spending so many hours in the dark sounds so mystical and mysterious, but at the time was just the next step I took. How our perception of meditation changes over time. Back then I was just following the next idea, maybe times haven’t changed all that much. I remember returning home from Vipassana around December 22nd, the darkest days of the year, and some friends and I went to watch the new Star Wars movie. It felt like the most overwhelming cinematic experience after living in my head and a room for the past 10 days. It was such a theatrical way to imagine the struggle of bliss and suffering, easy thoughts and hard thoughts. It was all so symbolic. It felt ironic and funny to have that as a first initiation back to civilization. To create Star Wars probably costs millions and 1000’s of people, and to delve deep into the abyss of my mind felt like such different extremes. But there was a unified journey there. The struggle was grueling, but any journey worth walking is. Vipassana and its story are steeped in everything. Star Wars, relationships, work. Different contexts for the same thing. Reflecting on this has given me more appreciation to revisit things. If I were to do Vipassana now it would seem like a whole new person is going. Finishing it once doesn’t give me much more confidence that I can do it again. But, I think if I went back today it would be in a state of wonder. Watching a dark screen inside my mind’s eye for 10 hours. To choose that channel, it’s so contradictory. Nothing itself was the greatest freedom. How has my subconscious changed over the past 4ish years since going? How do we evaluate that? Sometimes the only way to see is to close ones eyes and go to the place inside where all you see is black. To really listen maybe it helps to spend time in the room where there is no sound. To find ourselves only when we are in an environment that is the most unfamiliar. Maybe that’s Vipassana, maybe that’s what I was chasing.