“I can’t believe you aren’t going to talk for 10 days. I would go crazy.”
That was the response I got from roughly 95 percent of people whom I told I was going on my first (and only, thus far) 10-day silent meditation retreat. It’s also basically what I had said to my boyfriend when he attended the same retreat a couple years ago. But after having a fairly consistent meditation practice for a year and a half, I decided I was as ready as I could be for such an experience. Turns out, nothing can truly prepare you for the continuous rollercoaster of emotions brought on by 10 straight days of silence, meditation, and abstinence from technology (and all things). Still, despite the bumpy ride, I learned not only could I do it, but as long as there are will and determination, anyone can do it.
While meditation may seem reserved for peaceful monks who have given up all worldly possessions, or even hippies living in Boulder, the practice is accessible to everyone. The retreat I attended teaches the style of Vipassana meditation, which is a practice for achieving liberation (freedom from impurities of the mind) taught by the Buddha. The late meditation teacher S.N. Goenka helped establish over 100 Vipassana centers throughout the world that use his recordings and are taught by his assistant teachers. Though it’s based off the Buddha’s teachings, it’s not associated with any religion and is open to all. Additionally, it’s completely donation-based.
But even though anyone can attend, there are still a few rules everyone must follow: Participants have to abstain from killing (yes, mosquitoes included), stealing, lying, sexual activity, and intoxicants. On top of that, there’s no reading, writing, talking, technology, or even eye contact permitted. Men and women are also completely separated, aside from when in the meditation hall; so even though my boyfriend and I had decided to attend the same retreat, we wouldn’t be speaking for almost the entire time. All of this is to remove distractions and help individuals stay focused on their own internal journey.
Knowing full well that I would have to be e-mail and Twitter-free for 10 days, but not being fully aware of how I felt about it, I packed my bag with conservative clothing and headed to the Vipassana retreat center in Shelburne, Massachusetts (the closest center to NYC). At check-in, feeling a mix of nervousness and excitement, I apprehensively handed over my phone and journal, and made my way to the meditation hall for the first of many meditation sits.
From Dusk till Dawn
The schedule for each day is mostly the same, with a gong at 4 a.m. and the first meditation lasting from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Each day is then filled with both a breakfast and lunch break, a dinner of tea and fruit, and a roughly 75-minute discourse video on the technique and philosophy by Goenka — with a lot of meditating in between. Students who follow the schedule will end up meditating approximately 10 hours a day — whether in the meditation hall, personal cells in the pagoda, or their own rooms. Before the retreat the most I had meditated in one day was 40 minutes. So in one day at the retreat, I had essentially meditated what would have typically taken me three weeks.
During the first three-and-a-half days, students practice Anapana meditation, where focus remains on the breath or on a small area around the nostrils. This is to help train our wild and easily distracted minds (commonly called “monkey minds”) to become sharper and more focused, before learning the Vipassana technique.
Those beginning days were rough, to say the least — I was beyond exhausted, needing to take a nap during our hour rest break; my knees and ankles were in tremendous pain from sitting for hours on end; and on top of that, I found myself crying one evening for seemingly no reason. At the start, all I could think was, “I can’t believe I have (insert number) more days left of this.”
Initially, five minutes or so would pass before I realized I was deep in contemplation over something from my past or imagining a future scenario. The hardest part wasn’t to bring my attention back, though; it was actually not becoming frustrated at myself when I would lose concentration. I kept reminding myself that it was routine for my mind to meander and I needed to be patient. Then what originally seemed like an uphill battle, slowly but surely began to feel like progress as I started to notice within a minute or two when my mind wandered.
Learning the Vipassana Technique
Once our minds had been sufficiently sharpened, on day four we learned the actual Vipassana technique, which includes scanning the body for subtle sensations. More importantly, the practice involves regarding those sensations with total equanimity — meaning nothing is good or bad, it just is — and then moving on.
As I practiced the Vipassana technique, I realized the intense pain I had been feeling those first couple of days had transitioned into simply a tingling sensation. Now I was able to observe sensation on my ear, shoulder, wrist, and everywhere in between, ranging from slight vibrations to powerful pulsating. Without the option to check Instagram or watch an episode of “Veep” at every occasion of boredom, I could solely observe what was happening throughout my body.
Of course, the thoughts still came as I reminisced over time spent with friends, relived painful fights, and, like in our daily lives, felt a multitude of emotions that could be overwhelming. The only difference was that now, I was aware when I was wallowing or fantasizing about something more pleasant. And whenever I was standing in line to serve myself vegetarian chili or to clean my dishes, my slight irritation at waiting would turn into laughing to myself over how absurd it was; I had nowhere I needed to be, but I was just used to feeling annoyed when waiting.
The Good, the Bad, and the Hungry
There were moments throughout the 10 days that — to put it bluntly — sucked; looking across the meditation hall and not being able to talk to my boyfriend; confronting an ingrained fear or insecurity head-on; and feeling so agitated during a sit, but not being able to move. Plus there were some mornings where I was so hungry, I would torture myself by daydreaming about the breakfast I was going to eat shortly thereafter — yogurt and granola, with peanut butter, ground flaxseed, and banana! Mealtimes basically became the most stimulating and exciting part of my day.
But also within the 10 days were moments of total calm, hour sits where I had under five thoughts, and feelings of immense gratitude and love for the people and things in my life. Occasionally I walked away from the meditation hall feeling like I was significantly lighter from shedding some negativity. I also found that I never craved my phone or computer, a welcome surprise as I almost always have my phone within arm’s reach and suffer from phantom vibrations.
Connecting with the Retreat Community
Then after what felt like eternity, Day 10 finally came; men and women were desegregated and allowed to talk to one another. On what I would say was a spiritual high, I was smiling ear-to-ear as I found my boyfriend and we recounted our experiences. Though I didn’t have a huge revelation, I was able to see certain issues more clearly and better understand things I wanted in my life.
It was also inspiring to talk to other students — who spanned every generation and came from all walks of life — and hear about their difficult days and profound insights that those days revealed. Despite that we hadn’t muttered as much as a “hi” to each other for a week and a half, we were all instant friends, bonded by the shared accomplishment of completing what was essentially a meditation marathon.
Reentry into the Real World
Now that the retreat is about a month in the past, I can say that I almost instantly jumped back into the daily grind of my life in New York. While looking at emails the days right after my retreat felt overwhelming, soon reaching for my phone in line at Trader Joe’s was instinctive once again. However, I’ve (mostly) maintained a practice of meditating in the mornings and evenings, and when I do, it’s extremely obvious that I’m much more calm and mindful throughout the day. Now a taxi cab can pull out in front of me or a tourist can stop in the middle of the street without me cursing under my breath.
While my only goals for the retreat were mainly to make it to the end, and to make meditation a daily habit, I received so much more; I acquired a toolset that I can use to react more consciously to both positive and negative events.
A year ago I thought I could never get through a 10-day silent meditation retreat; fortunately, one day I thought maybe I could and I signed up. Sure, I cried and it was taxing, but it was the most powerful experience I’ve had — and easily the best use of my vacation days.
All photos courtesy of Dhamma Dharā Vipassana Meditation Center. To find a Vipassana center near you, check here.
If you’re apprehensive about a 10-day silent retreat, my colleague detailed her experience at a three-day silent retreat.
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