There was a level of anxiety and fear about what a Vipassana retreat could uncover for me. For years, I had been wanting to do it but there was never a good time. Lots of excuses from my part justifying why I couldn’t go but this time I was all-in. This time I put the fears aside.
Disclaimer: this post is very personal and as such, it means that my experiences doing Vipassana might be very different for other people. I share this because I want to encourage others to take action, face their fears and show that there’s an opportunity to learn from discomfort.
My first impressions were good. It was a cold sunny afternoon and the meditation centre seemed nice and the Suffolk countryside very peaceful. I noticed that there was a LOT of people arriving which took me by surprise, about 150 or so between new students (like me), old students, servers, teachers and other volunteers. All of these people willing to lock themselves in, in a sort of prison for ten days without any contact with the outside world, mindblowing. I wasn’t going to be alone after all!
No devices were allowed, no writing materials or recording tapes. Nothing. So, I was literally on my own… own mind. I was concerned that not being on the same mental state and atmosphere during the course, everything that was to be written about it would be decontextualised. After a couple of days when the course was finished, I realised that that wasn’t the case.
My agitated mind and physical pain
To say that the first 2 days were VERY rough seems like an understatement. Nothing could prepare me for it. The technique was too difficult. At the end of Day 3, I felt trapped, suffocated and I wanted to escape. In fact, I had packed my bags and was ready to walk out. My whole body was in so much pain from sitting for long hours. I got very impatient from the lack of sleep and thought, I don’t need to do this to myself. This isn’t for me. I’m out.
Somehow, the little voice inside became stronger and reminded me that nothing is permanent. All I was experiencing at that time was eventually going to end, and that I was a coward because I wanted the easy way out. I said to myself mumbling that I was staying until the end to give the technique a chance, and so, I did.
I persisted but it was too hard. My mind was racing. During the first couple of days, I fantasised with standing up in the Dhamma hall (meditation hall) and screaming out loud. The idea of shouting bad words and disturbing the peace of others crossed my mind, many times. I couldn’t comprehend how are people supposed to transcend physical pain. How are you going to access the deepest levels of your unconscious mind if you can still hear someone coughing and fidgeting in their seat?
I had no idea I could be so resilient. I was waking up at 4:00 in the morning, sitting up straight to meditate. Each day we had to work for almost 12 hours. On the morning of Day 4, I discovered that whatever I had been doing before was not even Vipassana. That it was only the preparation for the real thing. I cried.
If before I had felt excruciating pain now it was agony. Not moving for an entire hour three times a day. Then more meditation in between the main group ones. What am I doing? But now that it finally began I can’t give up. It only got more intense. Pain, frustration, exhaustion.
I continued and surrendered. I didn’t move. Didn’t react. It went quiet. I could feel everything else besides pain. Nothing is permanent, nothing is permanent. Change. I could feel my own energy. I began to see what was there without wanting to change it.
Is easier to look elsewhere. Distractions are like painkillers.
Sharing personal spaces like your room and bathroom with complete strangers was very challenging for me. One of the biggest obstacles indeed. It was impossible to be really alone. We were asked to work in isolation surrounded by people.
“Distractions are like painkillers”
Since pretending no one was around was impossible, I started carving out images of the people there. I gave them personalities and sometimes names. It was a coping mechanism. Since we didn’t have physical distractions, I realised I was finding distractions like thinking about irrelevant things because focusing on what really mattered is usually painful.
Trusting that intentions are enough when you can’t communicate
I experienced how deeply conditioned humans are to the culture they grow up in. Practising Noble Silence (which means no speaking, gestures or signs to communicate with others) every day wasn’t really a problem for me but I really struggled when I couldn’t say words like “thank you”, “I’m sorry” or when I had to look the other way when someone seemed distressed and suffering.
It took me a while to understand that I wasn’t being mean or rude. No one felt offended and it made me realise that everyone there is battling something and whatever that is they need to be on their own to grow from it.
The things I learnt at an experiential level
Through real reflection I understood that words are trivial, unnecessary and forgettable. I felt so much peace and calm sitting next to someone in silence, simply being or contemplating nature. No one had to break the silence or think about what to say. For the first time, I was not thinking, there was no need for small talk. I could enjoy the silence 🙂 It was truly a beautiful thing.
Patience, tolerance and compassion won’t manifest naturally unless they’re felt. As concepts, they are understated and trivialised by the intellect which explains why we fail miserably putting them into practice even when we know intellectually their meaning. The work in the mind needs to be done, one must see these at the experiential level. Only then, it flows naturally.
Through surrendering, I found myself in a calm state, open and willing to accept anything.
I learnt what it feels to be truly grateful. It hit me hard to realise that this level of gratitude I had never felt before. It’s difficult to explain, but it was as if everything that came my way mattered so much, especially the things I would have problems with or dislike.
I’m an old student now, I experienced the Law of Nature, the impersonal changing phenomenon. Not a partial dogma nor a Philosophic belief or religion. Just the only truth that anyone can agree on.
Lastly, I would say this experience has changed something in me and will continue to do so. Nothing is permanent. I am very grateful to have found a way to master my mind. After all, if you can’t control your mind, you are a prisoner of your own thoughts. I hope that by sharing this very personal experience something sparks in you to take action, whatever that means for you.