What is a silent Vipassana meditation retreat really like?
Two months ago I went on a silent 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Poland. Since so many people have asked me about it, I want to put my thoughts down here.
What is a Vipassana meditation retreat like?
Essentially, you go somewhere outside of your normal life for 10 days where all you do is meditate. The retreat is structured to take you away from the urgent details of living life so that all you can do is focus on what is inside yourself. In a way, it’s quite selfish. How often can you focus just on yourself without thinking about your work, your family / social obligations, your social media feeds, the daily news, or even the basics like when to go to sleep or what to eat or what to do next? Without having to think about such things, I could finally focus on the important but not urgent things.
What showed up in my mind at the Vipassana retreat?
The biggest gift the retreat gave me was seeing what was important to me. When I signed up for the retreat, I wanted to make big decisions about my career, but in reality I didn’t think about work at all. Instead, I remembered the people I had met and what I experienced with them. I met again strangers I met while traveling who left an impression on me without me knowing it at the time. Scenes from movies I had watched replayed in my head just as real as memories of real events. I realized then that the movies did happen to me like real life.
The face of my beloved partner haunted me constantly. I was anxious to get home to him before it was too late to show him how much I loved him. It was already too late; how many times have I spoken out in petty anger at him? How many times have I leaned on him without being grateful? I wanted to rush home, ask for his forgiveness, and get to know him all over again. My teeth ached when I thought of all the moments I’ve missed to show him how tender my love could be. Instead, I had chosen to stew in anger or a grudge.
The second biggest gift the retreat gave me was a much bigger perspective. I came to the retreat thinking of the next 1-2 years. I left the retreat focused on the next 10 to 20 years. “Long-term” no longer meant months but decades. I pulled back from the thick of thin things, from the pale busyness that a life even full of meaningful work and good friends can be. I experienced inside my body, not just knew as dry fact, the impermanence of my life, how fleeting these memories go. For the first time in a long time, or maybe ever, I sat cross-legged to watch memories go by like snowflakes dancing with gravity in the wind before surrendering to the ground. And I experienced, not just knew as dry fact, that snowflakes will go on dancing even when I’m no longer here to watch them.
Third, I found myself better able to focus. Previously, I had many todo lists in my head. After meditating for 10 days, I was able to focus my thoughts.
My long-term takeaway: Surround myself with good media, good stories, and good people. Meet good people and have good experiences with them.
What about the Vipassana meditation experience didn’t work for me?
One minor aspect of the teaching that gave me pause was the purported origin of the meditation style. We were told that the Vipassana meditation practice comes straight down from the Buddha Gautama through the text Satipatthana Sutta. But Gautama has written nothing that has come down to us. The Satipatthana Sutta seems to be an anthology of different texts written by different authors. So even if the Vipassana teachers believe that the Satipatthana Sutta was uttered by the Buddha Gautama himself, I don’t believe it.
That said, almost all yoga and meditation styles claim to be descended from some partially divine teacher way back in time. For example, the author of the Yoga Sutra Patanjali is depicted in some Indian temples as half-snake. Some Indian gods have animal heads. No one can prove this; no one can disprove this either. Who really knows the truth of history? To me, the origins of the teachings doesn’t really matter if the teachings help me in any way.
The major aspect of Vipassana that didn’t work for me was that Vipassana is no longer a living tradition. They are led by a teacher S.N. Goenka who passed away in 2013 and lives on in books and videos. This means that not only can the teachers of this tradition not progress deeper than those recordings over time, but also the teachings themselves cannot adapt to the times.
S.N. Goenka popularized and spread the Vipassana meditation style from the north of Burma to India, and then from India to the rest of the world. In both Southeast Asia and India, people are used to sitting on the floor instead of on chairs, so their hips are already open enough to sit on the floor. Almost everyone who normally sits on chairs has tight hips. During the retreat I saw meditators using cushions, pillows, and cloth bands to build miniature forts to support their knees and back. If the teachings could adapt to the needs of meditators, then teaching us how to sit comfortably on the floor for a long time would have made the actual meditation technique much easier to digest for people who struggle to sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor.
In addition to adapting the teachings to the physical needs of new audiences, the style of communication would be more effective if it could adapt to the times. Every evening we watched videos of Goenka explaining our meditation practice during that day and giving a preview of what we’ll be doing tomorrow. Since Goenka made the videos in the 1990s, these evening lectures address an audience from almost 20 years ago. Maybe 20 years ago, sermonizing and lecturing made sense. But today people don’t want to be told exactly what to do; people want to be guided to make the right decision for themselves. Even if the message is timeless, the way Goenka communicated in some of his lectures sounded too much of a micro-manager to me. How can these teachings and lectures stay current as they age without a lead teacher to evolve them?
Again, this is an issue that all traditions have to address, so the Vipassana style is not alone in this.
How does the Vipassana meditation technique compare to other kinds of meditation techniques?
For context, I’ve learned meditation styles from only India. Many Indian-origin meditation styles involve vocalization, visualization, and breath control. For example, in yoga nidra, a voice leads the meditator through the rotation of consciousness through different parts of the body, the counting of breaths, and ends with a visualization. Since Vipassana explicitly asks meditators to not vocalize, not visualize, and not control the breath, I find the meditation style precise, dry, and logical. It cuts like a scalpel. For more details about the Vipassana technique, you should learn it from a Vipassana teacher.
The teaching of the Vipassana meditation technique is progressive and systematic. Meditators start with 3 days of foundational work to build up to the real meditation technique. Each day they teach one more step to go one level deeper. On the last day the rules are eased so that your re-introduction to the ‘real’ world on the 11th day doesn’t come as a shock to the system.
What are the long-term effects of the Vipassana meditation retreat?
For the first two weeks after the retreat, I did everything–sitting, breathing, eating– with intention. As I was more conscious of all the details of my life, everything I previously did on automatic became a real choice. I could choose to be attentive of how the sidewalk felt under my feet as I walked to the bus stop in the morning or I could choose to be in my head, planning my upcoming work day. I could choose how I reacted to people instead of just blurting out whatever comes out.
Over time, I slowly lost this awareness. It is recommended that after leaving the retreat, one meditates one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. I aimed for just 20 minutes a day of sitting meditation, which was something I personally could commit to doing daily. Eventually I want to meditate longer.
Two months later, I am using the Vipassana technique in my everyday life, while walking down the street or when dealing with uncomfortable feelings. I concentrate on how it feels inside my body rather than the drama of other people. I remind myself that this too will pass. And so it does. I find that being able to use this technique outside of sitting meditation have been the most valuable part of the technique for me.
On the last day of the retreat, I decided that I will go back to the retreat again, ideally every year.
Do I recommend doing the Vipassana meditation retreat?
I definitely recommend trying the retreat if you are at all curious. Even if you can only judge whether the Vipassana meditation technique works for you when you do it, eating healthy food regularly, sleeping regularly, being away from the stress of daily life and internet media will improve your physical and mental health.
There is almost no financial risk. Because the retreat is by donation only, you can decide at the end how much it was worth to you.
There is almost no time investment risk, because you could leave the retreat early if you really wanted to.
So if you’re curious, just try it out. You only put in the time or money you want.
When is a good time to do a Vipassana meditation retreat?
Over lunch a friend told me that he has always wanted to do a Vipassana meditation ever since he traveled around in India, but he’s afraid of what will bubble up–all those things in his life that he didn’t make time to process. I asked him: Who doesn’t have things that will bubble up?
Vipassana gives you a set of tools and the perfect setting in which to work on what bubbles up. The set schedule of when to wake up and go to sleep, the food prepared for you at regular hours: you have everything you need physically and mentally to deal with the things that bubble up. It’s better to deal with these here in this supportive environment than in your normal life. If you are thinking about it, then do it now. Even if you are afraid, now is the right time.
What is the schedule of a Vipassana meditation retreat?
I loved this schedule. You wake up to ringing gongs at 4am, and lights are supposed to be out at 9:30 or 10pm, so this meant that one slept about 6 hours a day. Since a sleep debt financed my normal life, however, the first few days I slept a lot more than that. I fell asleep repeatedly during the meditation times, because I couldn’t stay awake with my eyes closed. I felt guilty about this, but the meditation teacher said falling asleep is totally ok and that many people do this.
Starting the first days of the retreat getting all the sleep I needed to catch up on left me feeling refreshed and ready for the next part. After a few days I didn’t need to sleep anymore during meditation. In fact, the teacher told me that when you meditate more, you need less sleep.
In addition to the sleep schedule, the meal times are also regimented. We ate breakfast at 6:30am, lunch at 11am, and dinner at 5:30pm. Since dinner was only fruit and as much herbal tea as you wanted, that meant we were only eating solid food during an 8-hour window and fasting for the other 16 hours. We were pretty much fasting intermittently but without noticing it.
Was I hungry going without dinner at the Vipassana retreat?
I was never hungry, even though I was afraid that I’d be. Instead, it was more of a mental challenge for me to accept that my body didn’t need dinner. I skip breakfast in favor of brunch during the weekends, so why was it so hard to wrap my head around to cancel dinner? Especially since we weren’t expending many calories by meditating all day and we were in bed at 9:30pm?
In the beginning I ate double portions at lunch because I wanted to ‘save up’ enough food to last through the night. Over time, however, as my stomach learned how much I needed to eat to last until the next meal, I tended to eat about 75% of a portion for lunch. Eating at the same time every day helped my stomach learn what is “enough” for me.
My takeaway: My normal habit of eating dinner whenever I felt it doesn’t help my stomach learn what’s enough.
What was the food like at the Vipassana meditation retreat?
Experienced Vipassana meditators told me that the food at every center is different, as it is influenced by the local culture. The food is always vegetarian. At this retreat the homemade, Central European food was healthy and simple. For example, breakfast was millet or oats porridge with milk, yogurt, and jam. My mouth waters when I remember the thick cherry jam with whole cherries I had there every morning. In addition to the hot porridges, there was also bread, butter, oil, sprouts, sunflower seeds, and ground flaxseeds. Eating this healthy for 10 days reset my digestive system. At this retreat, they labeled the dishes with milk and provided rice cakes so that I could stay vegan and gluten-free during the retreat.
Can you exercise or do yoga at the Vipassana meditation retreat?
They recommend not exercising during the retreat. You could stroll in the woods right next to us, but that was not meant to get you into a sweat.
They do say that yoga is compatible with Vipassana meditation but ask that you do not practice yoga outside of your room. They don’t want you inadvertently teaching people yoga. I did some yoga in my private room by myself.
Without reading or writing materials, what can you do if you get bored?
Because we were not allowed to bring reading materials, I thought I would get bored. Instead, my mind brought things to my attention that would not have popped up had I been focusing on other people’s words. Being without reading materials really helped me focus on my own thoughts, especially the ones that are important but not urgent.
Since in my normal life I journal every morning and write a list of things for which I’m grateful, not being able to write anything down was the only challenging part of this retreat for me. I worried that I’d forget all the things I ruminated about and resolved to do. In the end, the ideas that were really important came back to me, over and over, sometimes even with more fleshed out details than before.
How was it being silent during the retreat?
Silence was very broadly defined at the retreat: in addition to not talking, making eye contact or gesturing with your hands were taboo. I loved this; I found staying silent liberating. Because I didn’t have to interact with people around me, I didn’t have to worry about harmonizing social interactions like I normally would — for example, normally I would be conscious of people’s reactions to my actions and words.
How difficult was not having contact with the outside world?
We all leave our phones in little lockers for the entire retreat. Meditators couldn’t even get letters. I did miss not being able to connect with my partner, but shutting down this down helped me focus on what was inside.
In addition to not having access to our phones, we also did not have internet. Again, no daily news or social media feeds distracted me from concentrating on whatever showed up in my mind.
At which Vipassana center should I meditate?
On the global Vipassana website, you can find meditation retreats at centers and non-centers all over the world. Centers are permanent centers where they host many meditation retreats all year-round. Non-centers are temporarily rented spaces like a campground or hotel room where volunteers organize 1 or 2 retreats a year. I would recommend trying to meditate at a center where possible, because the infrastructure for meditation is better set up.
I had always thought I’d do the Vipassana meditation retreat in India or Thailand, where they have centuries-long meditation traditions. After my interview with another Vipassana meditator, I was especially tempted by Wat Suan Mokkh in Chaiya, Thailand, because they have a hot spring on site! Since I was impatient, I decided to go to the next available meditation retreat within Europe, so I ended up doing my first Vipassana meditation at a new center that just opened up in Poland, Dhama Pallava.
I really lucked out, because this center can host everyone in a room of their own with an individual attached bathroom. I had expected to have at least one roommate and to share the bathroom with many people. In some centers people have to sign up to take showers, whereas I could decide to shower whenever it suited me. I could focus much more on my inner experience in this way.
How much does it cost?
Nothing. Literally you don’t have to pay for the food, the lodging, the teachings. You do have to pay for your transportation to the meditation center, and they ask for donations at the end so that you enable future meditators to come. But you don’t have to pay anything.
I hope this post has been useful. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to answer.