In the beginning of December I did a ten day Vipassana retreat. I have wanted to do one for several years, but never had the opportunity to get away and cut myself off from the outside world for ten whole days, until now. My reason for going is mostly that I was curious about what would happen to my mind when being away from the outside world and totally quiet for 10 days. Below is a summary of my experience.
The meditation center is located outside of Ödeshög, right in the middle of nowhere on a large field in the central parts of Sweden. After taking a four hour bus ride from Stockholm to Ödeshög, I switched to a pre-booked taxi for the last 15 kilometers. In the taxi I get to meet some of the other students of the course. A few of them have been there before, and I curiously ask what days are the most challenging. I get the answer that all of the days are challenging, but in different ways.
When we get to the center the first order of business is to turn off and turn in your cellphone and any textbooks, writing material etc. There can be no contact with the outside world while the course takes place, and to avoid distracting the mind from the meditation practice you are also not allowed to read or write. I ponder for a moment that this is the longest I've ever been without my smartphone or internet. And I am one of the pathetic people who check my phone 100 times a day. At least. This will be an interesting challenge.
Since it was so long ago I added the Vipassana retreat to my bucket list, I had almost forgotten what it means to sit still for longer periods of time concentrating the mind. And six or seven years ago when I did meditation regularly, I only sat for maybe 20 minutes at a time, not 11 hours per day.
On the evening of arrival, as the introduction speaker gives us a briefing on the course, I start to wake up to the reality that maybe this will not be a relaxing vacation-like getaway;
I need you to make a firm decision here and now, to stay here for the full ten days. No matter what happens and no matter how hard it feels.
At 8 PM on the first night after arriving, the noble silence starts. The introduction speaker notifies us that it might be a good idea to use the 30 or so minutes of being allowed to speak with the roommates, to sort out what rules we want to have for when to turn on or off the lights, as well as what policy we should have when it comes to opening windows to ventilate. So I say hi to my six roommates, get to learn their first name, and we decide to keep the windows closed as much as possible, and to turn off the lights between 9.30 PM and 4 AM – which are the official hours for sleeping. Then the noble silence begins, in which you are not allowed to communicate with anyone in any way. No gestures, no eye contact, no speaking.
Life at the Vipassana center
At 4 AM the next day the gong gong rings, and it is off to the meditation hall. Out of the speakers we hear the Indian teacher's calm but somewhat funny sounding voice, with a distinct 'rrrrr' at the end of each sentence. We get to learn that our assignment for today is to focus on our nostrils as we breathe. That's it. For 11 hours today, we will sit absolutely still focusing on the air going in and out of our nostrils.
So far I am pretty pumped up about the whole thing. Before going here, people have told me that when leaving a Vipassana retreat, you will have changed on a deeper level. You will never see the world in the same light ever again. Before going here I felt a bit uneasy about this, as I really like how I am at the moment, and how I see the world. I am a happy person. In what way could a change like this possibly be any good? But then I also remember all the testimonials from people who have been here before me, and how all of them are glad they came here. I also remind myself of the fact that these courses are 100% financed by voluntary gifts from previous students (who are explicitly asked not to donate anything unless it is from the pure wish of helping other people).
At 6.30 the gong gong rings again, and it is time for breakfast. We are served very good vegetarian food, as one of the rules we must accept while staying here is not to kill any living being. Some of the other rules are not to lie (which the teacher jokingly says he saves us from inevitably breaking by forcing us to be quiet), not to engage in any sexual activity, not to steal, and not to practice any religious activity or other meditation techniques while here.
At 8 AM it is time to meditate again, after the breakfast break. The meditation goes on until 11, when we have a 2 hour break for lunch. If anyone at this point wants to ask the assistant teacher anything (the assistant teacher is the teacher who is present at the facilities, the actual teacher is the recorded voice of S. N. Goenka), it is possible. In the living quarters there is a list on which you can put your name if you want five minutes with the assistant teacher at noon the next day.
On the premises of the meditation center there are two houses that constitute living quarters. One house for the women, and one house for the men. There is a strict separation of men and women, presumably to avoid distracting thoughts of the more amorous kind. Then there is the main building which has two lunch rooms, one for the women and one for the men. Attached to the main building is also the big meditation hall. Both men and women are welcome here, but each gender has its own entrance, and inside the hall men and women each have their own side. There are around 80 participants in the course. I've heard that it is always fully booked. Besides these three buildings, and a couple of buildings for the servers and the assistant teacher who work here (all of them without any compensation) there is also the small forest paths, again one for women and one for men. Nobody is allowed to go outside the meditation center area, and the main gates are closed as long as the course is ongoing.
I use the lunch break to take a brisk walk in the small forest area that is part of the meditation center. As I walk on the short elliptical path in the forest, delimited by blue rope indicating the limits of my new world, I think to myself that this is probably how it must feel to be in prison. A small area on which to live. Small windows of time when one is allowed to be outside. Strict schedule and rules of conduct. No contact with the outside world or other "inmates". But at the same time it feels quite relaxing, not having to deal with other people and their drama and just sink into one's own thoughts without any distraction.
Dinner is served at 5 PM. It consists of two fruits per student. The teacher says that one meditates better on an empty (or at least half-empty) stomach. This is emphasised even more strictly for students who have been here before; they only get to pick between tea or juice for dinner.
Then the meditation resumes at 6 PM and goes on until 9 PM. However, between 8 PM and 9 PM each day we get to listen to a translation of S. N. Goenka holding a lecture about Buddhism and Vipassana to provide some degree of context for what we are experiencing.
The rest of the ten days all follow the same schedule and pattern as the first day. Rise at 4 AM, meditate until 9 PM, with a few pauses for eating and some relaxing. But as the fellow student I met in the taxi on the way here said, what aspects of the experience that is challenging vary over the ten days.
For the first couple of days I learn that it is very, very hard work to meditate as much as one is asked to do during a Vipassana course. Before going here, I was like "what could be so hard about sitting still and relaxing for a few days?". Well, for one, it requires immense concentration. The mind gets tired of concentrating on the breath, or later, various parts of the body. It is strenuous to keep concentration and not start thinking about a bunch of other things.
During the 11 hours of daily meditation, on many of the hours we have the option to retire to our living quarters to meditate there. I do this a lot of times, only to get a bit too relaxed and starting to sleep instead. I tend to think that it is hard to sit up straight for so long, my back starts hurting, and I think "I'll just meditate laying down for a few minutes". Then I wake up 30 minutes later. And I realize why it actually is a good idea to sit up with no back support while meditating. When you meditate you are in a state where you are kind of half asleep, and it does not take much to go from half asleep to full asleep.
The effects of meditation and solitude
During the first few days hundreds of thoughts from my daily life flew through my mind. I missed my girlfriend, my friends, my family. I was thinking about the outside world a lot. What if something important happens while I am here? What if my apartment gets broken into, who would tell me? What if World War III breaks out? Would I first notice by the tanks coming rolling over the fields? All sorts of unreasonable thoughts like this flew through my mind.
However, after about two or three days, the thoughts in my head started to soften and quiet down. It started becoming much easier to concentrate on the meditation. Since I hadn't gotten any new input from the outside world, I had kind of processed all the current things that was going on in my life. And since there isn't anything else I can do about these things, the mind left these thoughts alone. I guess the meditation helped with this as well.
They say that during a Vipassana retreat, your unconscious starts to float up to your conscious mind. Through meditation and quietness you peel off the layers of thought that make up the conscious mind – all the thoughts about your every day life, about work, relations, worries etc. Then all that is left is the unconscious, and it starts to vapour up from the inner depths of your mind so that you may observe it clearly.
I noticed this. After a couple of days I started to relive all sorts of memories from my life. Everything from my earliest childhood, through my teens and university years up until now. I relived memories that I had forgotten I had. This combined with the fact that I, for the first time in my life, had no contact whatsoever with the outside world, made it feel almost as if I had died. I had died and left the world, and could now look back at my life. This was actually a very soothing feeling, one where you really can take a few steps back and evaluate what the hell you are doing with your life, and make plans going forward. I really appreciated this aspect of the Vipassana retreat.
Another thing that happens after a few days of silence and meditation, is that your mind gets very sharp and focused. During a lunch break I could easily stay in one single thought for one hour, without any other distracting thoughts or emotions disrupting my mind. I can imagine that a major motivation for people doing daily meditation is this sharpening of focus.
After about three days I started to settle in to the daily pace. The schedule is basically the same every day. I still find it very hard work to sit still and concentrate on the meditation for hours on end, and I find myself cheating a lot. I ended up actively meditating on average 7 hours per day out of the 11 hours that one was supposed to meditate. What comforted me somewhat was that I found I was not alone in this, as evidenced by the occasional sounds of snoring in the living quarters during meditation hours.
One thing bothered me a lot though. I had a really hard time sitting still for more than five minutes with crossed legs and a straight back. After around 4-6 minutes my legs and/or back started hurting so much that I had a hard time focusing on anything else than the pain. And if I would push myself to sit for 7-8 minutes the pain would become almost unbearable – the sensation that something is about to break in my body.
When peeking at the other students now and then (even if you are supposed to have your eyes shut the whole time while meditating, so that you won't get distracted) I noticed that most of them sat perfectly still with good posture for lengths of time much longer than my personal record of 7 minutes. So my tactic would be to try to push myself to sit longer and longer, but as soon as the pain became so intense so that I couldn't focus on the actual meditation at all, I would switch to a sitting knee-hugging position for a few minutes until that one became just as unbearable as the original position, and then switch back to sitting cross legged again. I would do this over and over, trying to reduce the number of switches per hour.
On the evening of day five, at 8 PM (the time when we get instructions for the next day) we receive the uncomfortable news that there is a concept within Buddhism called adhitthana. It means to sit with strong determination, which translates to a commitment from now on, to sit without uncrossing the legs, opening the eyes, or opening the hands for the whole hour-long session. We must do this every day from now on, on the three compulsory communal sittings we have throughout the day.
I felt a cringe and almost panicked. I can sit for 7 minutes before experiencing excruciating pain, and now I must sit for 60 minutes?
I decided to do it. No matter what. The pain was so intense that it was impossible to focus on anything but the pain. I was shaking. My arms where shaking. I was sweating heavily. But I did it! I actually had the discipline to impose this pain on myself for an hour straight. I was proud. But terrified of the prospect of having to endure this kind of pain three hours a day for the rest of my stay.
The next day there were a few empty cushions on the floor in the big meditation hall. I don't blame them. But I figured that I already invested five days of hard, hard work into learning this supposedly magical and liberating technique of Vipassana, and I don't want to throw that away. I'm going to go all in for the rest of the stay, and do whatever is needed to complete the course.
I realized two things about pain in the coming days of adhitthana. Firstly, the pain becomes somewhat more bearable with every day that passes because the legs actually get more flexible, and I suppose also that my self-discipline is toughened so that I no longer care about numbness or certain aspects of the pain.
Secondly, I think the teacher's reason for making us go through this pain, is to understand this: If I stop reacting to the pain – ie. focusing on how much it hurts, and instead just acknowledge that my body is in pain and that it is likely to stay that way for an hour, and just accept that that is the way it is with a calm and completely equanimous mind – then about 70% of the pain goes away immediately. Another point with actually forcing oneself to sit for an hour without moving is that it is needed to have a stable position for extended periods of time to be able to practice Vipassana in an efficient manner.
Why practice Vipassana?
This brings us to what the point of practicing Vipassana actually would be, a question whose answer I grew increasingly curious about as the amount of hard work and pain I had to put up with during the ten day course compounded.
As mentioned earlier, when you go into a ten day silent retreat, the subconscious starts to vapour up to your conscious mind. You start to relive all sorts of memories and experiences from your past life. According to how I interpreted the Buddhist doctrine as explained by Goenka, these do not only make themselves appear as normal memories but also as physical sensations in your body.
The practice of Vipassana is actually to scan the body for sensations that come up, and in doing so retaining complete rock-solid 100% equanimity towards these sensations, no matter how unpleasant or pleasant they might be. This is my interpretation of Vipassana practice: the whole point is to condition your mind in retaining presence and eqanimity towards sensations that pop up inside you, and in doing so you are not reacting to them, which prohibits escalating these sensations into full blown destructive emotions or patterns such as anger, drug abuse, abuse of your sexuality etc.
This is another important part of the Buddhist doctrine; all of these destructive emotions that can captivate our mind begin as small sensations in our body that we react to mentally, creating a spiral of intensity by reacting to the sensations until they become so strong that they enthral us and we lose mental equanimity and self-control – which of course leads to us making decisions that are bad for us long term. By practicing Vipassana we strengthen self-discipline, presence and equanimity – conditioning us to have a balanced mind in everyday life.
Prejudice and creating a social universe
It is funny how the mind adapts to life at the Vipassana center. I didn't have any social connections at all, since it was impossible to communicate with the outside world, nor with any of the students. Still my mind seems to have an innate need to identify, map up and analyze the personalities around me and how I relate to them.
My mind started imagining all the other student's personalities. Some of them I started to like, and some of them I disliked.
I found my mind giving names to everyone around me. Next to me in the meditation hall sat Captain Jack Sparrow, a guy that happened to look a lot like Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In front of me sat "The Gokart Driver", a guy who had amassed several meditation pillows which he had placed around him like a small fort to support him during meditations. This fort had a car-like shape, and it made him look as though he sat in a Go-kart. Most of the first time students seemed to be having trouble finding a comfortable sitting position, just like me. People constantly tried new positions, and new pillow configurations. But I think most people (me included) realized about halfway in that comfortable pillows will not help, you must train yourself to just endure sitting. That's all there is to it.
On the tenth day we are allowed to speak again. According to Mr. Goenka it is so that we can get accustomed to normal life again before getting thrown back into reality. It was exhilarating, finally being able to talk to all the people around me.
I learned how my prejudices about all the other student's personalities were in almost all cases totally wrong. Some of the people my mind had decided to dislike during the quiet days were often the people I had a lot in common with and that I ended up liking, and vice versa.
It was also funny to share stories with one another about events that had transpired during the course. I found that I was in fact not alone in giving names and imaginative personalities to all the other participants.
Anecdotes were shared. One guy had a nightmare and started screaming with fear in his sleep one night. His roommate who was waken up by this instinctively jumped into the screaming guy's bed, holding him and asking "what's going on? are you in pain?". Then realising that his newly-awakened self maybe had overreacted just a tad, and that he had just broken the rule about not talking. Shocked by this insight, swiftly returning back to his own bed, he left the screaming nightmare guy scratching his head. Both of them now laughing at this awkward episode, after finally being able to talk about it.
One thing I had really, really longed for during my whole stay was my iPhone. I have a severe case of information and social-media addiction, and that was probably a big part of why I was curious about trying the Vipassana retreat. Once finally being reunited with my beloved iPhone, I found that I hadn't missed nearly as many things in my 10 days without it as I had imagined I would. After checking messages and social media for a few minutes, I was like "meh" – how can I be so addicted to this? How stupid. In the weeks since I did my Vipassana course, I have been less addicted to my smartphone, and above all I have realised how pointless and mind-distracting it is to follow the news too closely. Over-consumption of useless information is something I do less of now. I don't want to pollute my mind as much as I did before.
It felt really, really great coming home again. It felt like I had a warm ball glowing with happiness in my stomach for the first two days after leaving the meditation center. I don't really think the meditation itself did this though. A more likely cause is my sudden transition from living conditions mimicking a isolation cell to a normal life.
So what did I learn by doing a 10-day Vipassana course? Some of the things right off the bat are
- Emotions and addictions start small, and get stronger as we feed them by reacting to them. If you want to stop a destructive emotion or an addiction, learn to notice it early and stay completely equanimous to it.
- Buddhism in its original form can be very secular, and I view it almost like a school of psychology rather than a religion.
- Meditation is good for increasing focus of the mind and calmness.
- Sitting cross-legged for extended periods of time can hurt a lot.
- Pain can be lessened by just observing it without reacting to it.
- I discovered that I want to read more and write more.
- A key to peace of mind is to avoid over-consuming information.
- It is totally fine to be away from the phone and e-mail for an hour or two. Nothing bad will happen. You can even be away from the phone for 10 days and nothing bad will happen :)
- Besides all of the above, I don't think I changed in any big ways. Presumably part of the reason for this is that I already before the course lived with values and habits that are quite Buddhist-ish already.
I also started meditating regularly again. Goenka suggests we do Vipassana meditation two hours per day, but I don't want to spend that much time. I currently do 20 minutes 3-4 times a week, that is enough for me at the moment.