“Your mind is the garden,
your thoughts are the seeds,
the harvest can either be flowers or weeds.”
- William Wordsworth
It is important to note that a Vipassana retreat is deeply personal experience and therefore each experience will be unique.
Driving through the countryside on a sunny Spring morning, I had no idea how my life would change in 10 days time. One thing I did know, a Vipassana retreat would likely be one of the biggest challenges I would ever face.
In a moment of questionable sanity, I had decided to sign up for 10 days in a sort of silent, solitary confinement. No speaking, no phones, no reading or writing, no entertainment, no exercise. I still can’t pinpoint what motivated me to sign-up to this journey within, because before the course, I had never actually meditated...
Details of the retreat:
There are no phones, computers, books, pens… or any entertainment at all
Although there is a Buddhist framework, the course is not associated with any organised religion. It is described as a universal remedy for universal problems for all
Each day begins at 4am with lights out at 9:30pm
Food is restricted with the first meal at 6:30am and the last meal at midday. New students can take tea and piece of fruit and old students hot water and lemon at 5pm. All meals are vegetarian
The course, including meals and accommodation, is free and run on donations. Cooks, cleaners, gardeners, etc. are all there on a volunteer basis
When day ten is up, you will have completed more than 100 hours of meditation
Speaking to the teachers or the staff is permitted if you have any questions or require any assistance
The view from outside my room
What is Vipassana Mediation?
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
Day 0 (Arrival)
We are shown to our rooms and given an allocated space in the meditation hall that fills out with around 120 people. 60 / 60 split of men and women. A recording of Goenka asks us to recite the code of discipline:
1. to abstain from killing any being;
2. to abstain from stealing
3. to abstain from all sexual activity
4. to abstain from telling lies
5. to abstain from all intoxicants
The vowel of silence is made
To my surprise, I broke the first code of discipline on the 2nd day after I walked into a swarm of gnats with a face full of coconut oil. Sadly. few survived.
Days 1 – 3 (Anapana)
For three days we are asked to observe the natural breath, the sounds and sensation, to concentrate the mind (a technique called Anapana).
As predicted, during days 1 - 3 my ego went. to .town. It followed it's usual unhelpful pattern, setting up a cinema screen in my minds-eye and projecting made-up stories of potential situations I could fuck up in the future, and replaying the awful, cringe-worthy moments of my past.
Using the breathing technique, I was able to disrupt the ego midway through it's story by bringing my focus to the natural inhalation and exhalation of my breath.
Days 4 – 9 (Vipassana)
PLANNING MY ESCAPE
The central technique of Vipassana is to scan the body for sensations and to avoid reacting to them. Sensations range from the itch on your nose, to the unbearable ache in your back from prolonged sitting.
By day 6 I was planning my escape.
I thought I was slowly losing my mind, it seemed even my ego didn't want to play ball anymore. It had grown tired of it's taunting just for me to cut it out mid-story, so instead it played the Beauty & the Beast soundtrack ON REPEAT. Every time I thought it was over, I'd step into the gardens and.... "Be... our GUEST, be our GUEST" - How did I know all the words to all of these songs?! Where had my mind been storing all of this useless knowledge without telling me!
We grew tired of this game after 3 solid days of it. As I sat down at my allocated spot on day 6 at 4:30am, out came a scream, NOPE, NO MORE OF THIS BS. Followed by a defiant and deafening silence. I spoke to the leader during my lunch break to air my grievances, and she calmly told me that something big was coming, that I had reached a blockage and I was ready to shed a layer of sankara (a positive or negative attachment).
I got through the day of meditation, the hardest day yet, and what followed was a rush of free-flowing energy through my entire body, I saw flashes of green light and felt such immense and genuine peace like never before. This lasted 5 minutes I imagine, but I had a new found confidence in the process, This wasn't BS after all.
Day 10 (The Noble silence is lifted!)
On the final day you are able to speak to your fellow meditators. Phones are still not permitted, but I could finally speak to Sabrina, the girl I had silently shared a room with for 10 nights. It was so interesting to speak to people and find out their motivations for attending the course. Even more interesting to hear what their voices sounded like and if they were similar to the stories I'd created about them in my head...
I have never slept so soundly. A year on and this still rings true, I believe it comes from my ability to ‘switch off’
The grounds are so beautiful and you start to notice the birds, the changing of the plants and the weather. With the silence comes an increased and intense attention, and I began to understand the interconnectedness that Buddhism speaks of. A bold robin was actually landing on people's shoulders in the dinner queue!
The food is delicious, I spent more time than I should have thinking about what the next meal would be. One day I believed I'd straight up manifested a jacket potato
This is by no means a typical 'retreat', nor does it pretend to be. The day starts at 4am, and at best, the day will be intense, confusing and frustrating
The days are LONG and 10 days (11 if you count day 0) is a long stretch of time. There really is nothing to do (which is the idea). I began to look forward to needing the toilet or running out of water because it meant I got to walk somewhere with purpose
I thought about food almost the whole time. The restrictive diet helps you to meditate because digestion is uncomfortable and takes up a lot of your energy, but man, I was hungry (and lost almost a stone)
The changes have been subtle and gradual, but it's over a year on, and overall, I have noticed major improvements in my overall well-being. I am more disciplined, I hold less judgments, I’m more patient, I’m less afraid to take risks and I feel more connected with everyone and everything around me. The course has given me a framework on how to approach life and awarded me the tools to deal with whatever life brings my way.
Most importantly, I’m not as often falling into the negative mind trap when unpleasant situations come my way. I can usually maintain the balance of my mind by observing the sensations in my body and by having the wisdom to know that they will pass. By no means am I enlightened, far from it, but my intuition leads the way rather than being dictated to by my ego. It has allowed me the strength and wisdom to leave a bad relationship, start following my dharma (life purpose) and make better life choices.
On reflection, it was largely my ego that got me through my first retreat, I wanted to show myself and others than I could survive the 10 days and I'm glad I did! I’m planning another retreat this year and I’m excited to learn how my experience will differ attending as an ‘old student’.
To book onto a course, visit the website here.