I recently completed my first ten-day vipassana silent retreat. Situated in beautiful Pomona on the Sunshine Coast, Australia I couldn’t really imagine a more appropriate setting. We were off the grid and it was absolutely tranquil. By the end of it, I left feeling more peace and happiness then I’ve ever felt in my entire life and that’s not to say I wasn’t happy prior to going there. I just felt, well, better. Overall I’d describe the experience as sensational! It wasn’t easy by any means, but it was pretty life changing stuff.
Vipassana, a Buddhist insight meditation technique, refers to seeing things as they are. It aims to reduce suffering by helping you see your true nature. I’ve dabbled in all kinds of meditation techniques over the years and this one was very effective in helping achieve equanimity, helping provide insight and a great tool for learning to live in the moment, where peace can only be found.
Vipassana is not for the faint hearted. I won’t lie, physically, at times, it was grueling. My back and neck have only just recovered after leaving the retreat almost two weeks ago. Mentally, at times, it was pretty intense too. Funnily enough, being in ten days of silence wasn’t hard like I had anticipated. In fact, it was really nice, even for a total chatter-box like me. No iPhone, no iPad, no Internet, no reading material of any kind- nothing that can form a distraction. Surprisingly, being away from all forms of technology was soothing and I suffered no withdrawals at all.
You are literally sitting on your butt for about eight hours a day, with hourly breaks in between. This is no ‘retreat’, it’s hard work and it’s taxing on the body. However, it also feels great to do it. Every session you ‘survive’ feels like an achievement. S.N. Goenka compares the technique to having a deep brain operation, it hurts and it’s difficult, but ultimately it’s good for you. For me it was a brain cleanse, a spring clean if you will, working on stuff that was buried deep in my ‘brain wardrobe’, stuff that I’d pretty much forgotten about. Once it simmered to the surface and I was able to let it go and make peace with it. It was unbelievably therapeutic experience.
All the learning is scaffolded so each evening during the discourse more knowledge and understandings about the technique are given. The technique is non-sectarian and not overly complicated. As with all techniques, practice makes perfect. The retreat gives you a taste of it, the challenging part will be implementing this for the rest of my life, but I can already see the results and it’s worth it. Goenka recommended two meditation sessions a day, one morning, one night. I’ve been able to commit to one hour a day so far, sometimes I squeeze in a second one.
The first couple of days I struggled with earworm issues, you know catchy songs playing over and over at the most inopportune times, such as when sitting in a quiet room and trying very hard to meditate. I’d be meditating and a random thought such as ‘Oh gosh, time is going so slowly’ would pop into my head. Then without even trying, I’d match my thought to a song with similar lyrics. Queue Madonna Hung Up “Time goes by, so slowly, so slowly”. That was really, really, ridiculously annoying. Thank God I was able to replace crappy music with Goenka’s chanting, which I initially despised, yet grew to love. And don’t get me started on the Dad Jokes! I’m not a funny person, I leave the hilarities to my quick-witted husband, but wow, while in ten days of silence, I became the most talented comedian in history (as voted by myself at the time). The one liners were coming thick and fast and I had no-one to share my new-found comedic prowess with. Again, this passed after the second day.
While weird and crazy experiences aren’t the purpose of doing vipassana, they can and do happen. I did have a couple of experiences that fit into that category. I won’t share it on here, not because I’m embarrassed, but I don’t want to influence any one into thinking that will be their experience. I will say it was eye opening and enjoyable, but it may never happen again. Therefore I am not clinging to this part of the experience, it is what it is. It was a pleasant sensation, but as I learned all sensations, pleasant or unpleasant will pass. All are impermanent in nature. Anicca, Anicca, Anicca.
After ten days of Noble Silence, which includes no talking, no touching, no eye contact, no gestures, all with the aim of you getting your Zen on, I broke the rule. On the second last night my room-mate got the giggles while not so quietly drinking her tea. She set me off and we both ended up laughing so hard it actually hurt and man, it felt so freaking good! After ten days of silence and no laughing it was like I was making up for lost time and I couldn’t actually stop laughing for quite a few minutes. We ended up staying up late chatting, whispering like 13 year olds. Oh how I’d missed connecting with another human being! Honestly though, my meditation post our chat was rather crap as I wasn’t as focused, nor as sharp. So yeah, my bad. I don’t recommend you break the silence rule.
I met some amazing girls while on retreat. You start to come out of Noble Silence on the 11th day and it was nice to learn their actual names, as opposed to the names I’d given them such as Little Miss Giggles, Sniper and Nicole (the chick totally looked like a Nicole to me, turns out it she was named Katie). We were from all walks of life, yet I felt like I connected to most of them. I guess when you take time to nurture your soul, you look at people with love and stop looking for differences. There was a lot of love being shared. We had all survived 10 grueling days!
The food was excellent and I consider myself a very fussy eater. We ate three times a day and all meals were vegetarian. Dinner was two pieces of fruit. The fruit part was way easier than I anticipated, which is weird because I used to hate fruit. I did lose 2 kilos and now my husband and I continue to eat fruit for dinner for some nights of the week. We’re also eating vegetarian for many of our lunches too. I feel so much healthier this way. The bonus is that all the recipes for the meals I had on the vipassana website so I’ve been using the ones that I particularly loved. Winning! Time will tell how long this actually lasts.
I left this retreat feeling an unbelievable amount of love and peace, as did everyone I spoke to. Almost a fortnight later and it has decreased a little but I still feel wonderful. I have a greater level of patience and love for others and I just feel more at ease, more balanced. I highly recommend it.
No money is paid up front and they don’t ask for a specific fee. You are welcome to donate money after the course and you should donate as the money goes towards the cost involved in the enlightenment of the next group of students.
At times I wish I was back there to be honest. I wish everyone I know, and even those I don’t, would give this technique a go. What a happier, more patient and peaceful society we would be if we all learned this technique. Prior to vipassana, I would describe myself as very quick-tempered and someone who gets annoyed very easily. Post vipassana, it takes more to rile me up and things just don’t seem to annoy me any more like they used to, except for when my husband interrupts as I’m writing my first blog, that annoyed me. Sorry darling! Hey, I’m no monk, I’m on a spiritual journey.
May all beings be happy!
For more info on Pamona Meditation Centre: http://www.rasmi.dhamma.org/
*Update: Whilst I am still committed to meditation, I am no longer practicing the vipassana technique exclusively. I found sitting still and meditating whilst pregnant very challenging so I opted for other techniques. I’m also now more focused on living a mindful life and work daily on having insight into my thoughts and emotions. Vipassana was a wonderful platform in getting me started into mindfulness in general. I have no regrets in doing the course and would like to go back for a refresher at some point. Oh, and I’m no longer eating fruit for dinner!