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Reflections on a 10-day Silent Meditation Retreat

I just came back from a 10 day silent meditation retreat and wanted to share a few thoughts on my experience.

The retreat took place an hour outside of Toronto at the Ontario Vipassana Centre and was taught (through recorded instructions and video lectures) by S.N. Goenka. The course consists of a rigid schedule of 10 hours of meditation per day, and a strict set of rules each students must follow (ie no communication for the entire time, no dinner, gender segregation). All courses are completely free and supported by donations from previous students.

How I Got There

In 2016, I travelled in Asia for 5.5 months.  Throughout my trip, and especially in India, Nepal and Myanmar, backpackers kept telling me the highlight of their trip was attending a silent meditation retreat. What! You just hiked to Mount Everest Base Camp, and preferred spending 10 hours per day meditating, eating two bowls of rice, and going over ten days without talking?! You’re crazy!

Yet, somehow, here we are.

After returning from Asia, several friends recommend the meditation app Headspace. After discovering how supported meditation is by empirical scientific research, I decided it was worth trying out. Over the past year, I meditated 2-3 times per week for 10-20 minutes and found it very valuable.

On a physical level, meditating makes me feel more blissful, calm, and in tune with my body. Meditation also resonates strongly with me on an intellectual level. The idea of thinking clearly is tremendously important to me, and meditation helps with this is in two key ways.

Our thoughts are often impaired by our physical bodies. When you are hungry, tired, angry, exhausted, your thoughts are greatly affected; meditation helps you free your mind from the influences of your physical body.

Meditation also allows you to be more in tune with your innate preferences and helps filter out society’s influence on you. Imagine if you lived in a different setting, 10,000 miles away, or 100 years in the past/future. The things you think you like would be drastically different; ranging from your preference for food, music, fashion, optimal house size, optimal work schedule, range of luxuries etc. Meditation reduces the influence society has on our preferences.

Over the past year, I stumbled across several testimonies of people sharing similar experiences to the backpackers of Asia – “Wow!, I had such a transformative experience on my retreat; everyone should do one!”. It’s one thing for something to be positively reviewed by hippie backpackers in Nepal, but it is much more meaningful when touted by academics, writers and business people I respect

In March, I started seriously considering the idea of attending a retreat. The centre offers courses every month, but due to high demand, you must sign up for a retreat months in advance. In April, I put my name on the list for an August retreat. This was my thinking:

  • Based on the glowing reviews, I estimate there a 10%~ chance of having a transformative experience. Given how rare and valuable transformative experiences are, a 10%~ chance of experiencing one is highly attractive.
  • Even if I don’t have a transformative experience, the retreat will still likely be mildly valuable.
  • If I don’t enjoy the retreat,, I can leave at anytime. The retreat is free, so there is no cost to going and leaving.
  • I think it’s important to put myself through difficult challenges. Mental fortitude is an important skill and overcoming something challenging in one domain can make one better in all domains.

The Retreat

The centre is located at a former boy scout camp in the middle of the woods. The large property is very scenic and feels like you are a summer camp.

After arriving at the centre, the staff asked me to hand over my phone for the duration of the retreat. Phones are against the rules of the course, and it probably is better to give it away to avoid temptation, but it feels like there is something a sinister going on. By taking your phone, the organization is establishing control over you and making it harder for you to leave. Now, if you want to leave, you need to “get their permission”, and leave on their timetable.

After dropping off my phone, I get my first two shocks of the trip. I’m told I can’t wear basketball shorts. The second surprise is that the course is actually 12 days, not 10. The first and last days consist of some meditating, while the 10 in the middle are jam packed with nothing but meditating. The rules are explained: no looking at other people, no physical contact of any sort, no rituals or religious acts, no yoga or exercise, no writing. I accepted their rules – no pens, books, or anything else distracting. The only contraband I have is my star of David necklace.

Next is the first (and I later find out, only) dinner of the retreat. A delicious lentil soup. All the meals are cooked by the volunteer past students. The food is vegetarian, and consists largely of Indian recipes. This isn’t because of Vipassana’s connection to India, but because each meal has to be appetizing to the 100~ students, so nothing too spicy or niche, all vegetarian (because one of the precepts of the course is not kill any living thing), and very affordable, as the course is funded by donations. All of the meals were delicious.

I head to the meditation hall for the course to formally begin. The meditation hall has mats waiting for each student and what must be a $100,000 air filtering system, as the hall always had the perfect temperature, and the highest quality air to breath. An imaginary line divides the hall to separate the men from the women. I soon find out the entire property follows a similar imaginary line. Half of the property is for men, and the other half for women. The meditation hall is the only place men and women are able to see each other, and even then, at a distance.

Things are a little weird and stricter than I imagined, but I’m not fazed.

The first meditation is ready to begin. There are no instructions, just silence for what turns out to be 60 minutes. I was confused. Aren’t they going to tell me how to meditate? Prior to the course, I had only ever done guided Headspace meditations while sitting on a chair. I didn’t actually know how to meditate on my own for 20 minutes, let alone an hour. There were no chairs here, just a mat on the floor – I had no idea how I was supposed to sit.

That first hour was hard. This felt 10x longer and more challenging than my 20 minute meditations at home. Doubts began to develop; if meditating for one hour is that difficult, how will I survive the 10 hours of meditating tomorrow… and the next day… and the next day etc.

The schedule of the course is posted everywhere. Each time I look at it, I shudder.

meditation schedule

I wake up the next morning at 4:00AM to the sound of a large gong and make my way over to the meditation hall. Still with no instructions, no idea how to sit, and no clue how to meditate, the next two hours slooooowly go by with me oscillating between a half-sleep, and lingering doubts about what I was doing there.

After breakfast, we finally receive some instructions; watch your breath… and then one hour of silence. I still don’t know how to meditate or sit. At least it feels like I’m not alone, as almost all of my fellow meditators have added a vast collection of pillows to their stations to make them more comfortable.

As 7:00pm arrives, I’m excited to watch the first video discourse of the retreat and finally have some external stimulation. After hearing so much about Goenka, it was nice to finally see what he looks like and get a better idea of who he is. S.N. Goenka (1924-2013) was born in Burma to a very wealthy Hindu/Indian family. After becoming a successful businessman, he developed chronic migraines. Unable to find a cure in medicine, Goenka went to a Vipassana retreat and gets cured. He falls in love with the practice and dedicate the rest of his life to spreading the technique. Goenka is an incredibly charismatic speaker, and wonderful storyteller. He is very smart, and seems sincere in his desire to help all other humans live a better life.

goenka

Goenka advertises Vipassana as a secular, scientific enterprise, but this isn’t entirely true. Yes, Vipassana doesn’t rely on any blind faith, isn’t dogmatic, is open to people of all backgrounds, and is supported by science. Yet, the video lectures are filled with non-scientific views, and frequently references concepts like reincarnation and karma. Still, the video lectures are fun to watch. As an India-enthusiast, I loved hearing Goenka’s folk tales about ancient India, and the lectures taught me a lot about Vipassana.

The first day was very hard, but due to the novelty of the situation, went by quickly.

Day two was similar; a little less exciting but very tolerable. At this point, I started yearning for the course to be over. I didn’t want to leave the retreat, but I became more and more eager for the course to be over. In my head, I began organizing the remaining days of the retreat to make it more digestible (days 1-3 should be easy because everything is still new, day 4-5 should be difficult and I need to persevere,I’ll reach nirvana on day 6, they serve chocolate cake on day 7 – so it should be a great day, day 8-10 will be easy because it’s so close to the end).

Day 4 comes and the program marks its first shift. Instead of focussing on the breath, we are now instructed to scan the body for sensations. The idea of Vipassana is to experience sensations in the body, and to become equanimous with them. If you experience pleasant sensations, not to crave them; if there are unpleasant sensations, not to ignore them, if the sensations aren’t coming at all, not to wish for them; to just observe the body without any judgments.

By day 4, I was getting much better at meditating. I was able to focus without distraction for an hour (the longer ones were still problematic for me). At this time, I decided to make two changes. I stopped attending the 4:30-6:30 AM meditation sessions because they made me too fatigued. I also decide to start meditating in a chair.

On the fourth day, each student picks one sitting position and vows to not move for the entire session. Sitting on the floor made me sore, and the pain was impairing my ability to meditate. I was reluctant to request a chair. I thought sitting on a chair was a sign of weakness and would make me look like a poor meditator. In retrospect, this was a stupid belief. Sitting on a chair allowed me to meditate more effectively. 

By this time, two people had left the retreat. The way we discovered this was very humorous. At the beginning of a meditation session, the assistant teacher would drag a mat from the floor to the closet (indicating it wasn’t needed anymore). Without knowing who left, everyone would glance around the room to see who was missing. It felt like a scene from a reality tv show, and one of the few points of humour throughout the retreat.

I survived the first four days and felt okay. The boredom was getting intense, but I didn’t miss anything at home, and knew I could persevere. I spent my free time walking through the property, reflecting on life. I had no profound insights, or new deep perspectives. My thoughts were mundane – I should sign up to join this tennis club, I should stop using my computer so much, I should go to Mexico this year, I should email this person etc.. All good productive thoughts, but nothing novel or interesting.

Days 5-7 proved to be much more challenging. The boredom became insufferable. After four days, I already thought of all of the surface level things in my mind and had nothing new to contemplate. I also started experience sleeping problems. I have a sleeping disorder, which I normally manage by a combination of sleeping pills, exercise, and reading in bed. As all three of those things were prohibited, I ended up lying in bed for hours after the 9pm bedtime. Each night was miserable.

I also started experiencing congestion in my nose throughout days 5-7, which made meditating very difficult (given the importance of breathing to meditation, I’m shocked they don’t have wasabi sitting around to clear up people’s noses).

For about an hour in the afternoon on days 5-7, something took over me that made me feel awful. I knew there was nothing at home I specifically missed or craved. I also knew there was nothing wrong with me being there. Yet, my body was overtaken by the feeling that something was wrong that I couldn’t fight. This feeling terrified me. I love travelling and going on long hiking trips. What if I experienced something similar on a trip and had to go home. What if this feeling wouldn’t go away. I just sat there feeling miserable, thinking I had lost it. I now better understand how miserable our mind can make us, how crippling it can be, and how little control over it we have.

Despite the aforementioned problems, I still was happy and doing well most of the day. To deal with the boredom, I developed a mantra. I must have sung the words “just relax you’re doing fine” to myself over 1000 times (lyrics from the Phish song Strange Design). I did everything I could to pass the time; I started creating Seinfeld skits in my head, reciting every fact I knew about anything, going over all events in my life, and singing the lyrics to every song in my head. I even invented a game to pass the time called rock-golf (where I threw rocks at different targets on a field, trying to reach the target in the lowest amount of throws possible).

The biggest surprise to me was how sexual my thoughts became. Around 25% of all of my thoughts were sex related. Maybe these thoughts are there all along and the external stimuli of normal life distracts us. Maybe it’s because it’s the one thing I could think about which my mind could create new things to think about. Either Way, it proved to be a valuable distraction from the boredom.

In the meditation hall, the women sit 10+ feet away from the guys and the room is dark. It didn’t matter. After each meditation session ended, I would look to the other side of the room and think each woman looked like the most beautiful model I’ve ever seen. After the course ended, I got to meet the female cohort, who all looked like normal people. I couldn’t help but laugh at how deranged my mind was. At first, I thought gender segregation was antiquated and regressive, but after having completed the retreat, I think it was necessary.

In addition to the anxiety and sexual thoughts, during this time, I started becoming more in tune with myself and had more meaningful insights.

A few examples

I saw someone’s tattoo which I found to be very funny. Before laughing, my first thought was “I wish Rory were here to see this” (one of my best friends, who I just recently spent a month travelling with). I couldn’t be present and just enjoy the moment for what it was – it always had to be something more.

When I contemplated leaving the retreat, one of the factors I thought about was how people would judge me for leaving. I then realized that if I left, nobody would know, and even of the people who did know, none would care. It then hit me that in many of past decisions, I deviated from what I truly wanted in order to satisfy what I thought other people wanted to see. Nobody cares what I do, so I should stop making sacrifices for an imaginary reward.

There is an often quoted line in the book Infinite Jest: “you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do”, which I read many times before, but this was the first time I fully internalized. Nobody thinks about what I do, and it makes no impact on my life. I could work at Google or Starbucks; nobody would care. I could spend the next year volunteering in a war torn country, or I could spend the next year sitting in my room doing nothing; nobody would care. I should free myself from my desire to impress others.

From 9:00-11:00, there is two hour “optional” meditation. I would typically meditate for one hour and then find an excuse to leave and walk around the centre for the next hour. On the 7th day, after meditating for an hour, my mind came up with some silly excuse as to why I should stop meditating. I normally fall for that excuse, but this time felt different. I actually questioned the excuse and it seemed illogical. I realized that whenever I am doing something difficult/requiring concentration, something in my head tries to escape from it. It’s like my brain wants me to quit difficult tasks, so it offers me a hit of serotonin masked with a bad excuse. After internalizing this, I continued meditating for the whole two hours without a single distraction.

This gave me mastery over my mind in a new way. I frequently am working and without thinking, will open a new tab to check facebook, or pick up a guitar,  or check my phone, or a million other things. I do these things without thinking because my mind wants to quit my activity, and I never really question the excuses my mind comes up. With this realization, I feel much more confident in my ability to stay focussed, more disciplined and overcome distractions.

Eventually, the boredom started to make meditation more tolerable. Not meditating was so boring that meditating actually passed the time faster and more pleasantly.

By day 8, things started becoming easier. With the end in sight, I felt motivated to finish strongly. On day 8, I experienced my best meditation yet, giving me one of the most sensational highs of my life. For the next hour, I was overtaken by a feeling of ecstasy, grinning from ear to ear. Everything in the universe seemed to make sense, and I finally became equanimous with the idea of being on the retreat.

At the retreat, ages were pretty evenly distributed from age 20-60. Of the participants in their 20s and early 30s, it seemed as if everyone except me was an avid podcast listener, and attending the course on the recommendation of someone like Sam Harris, Tim Ferriss or Joe Rogan. 

It seemed most people enjoyed their retreats. My impression was the more people meditated before the retreat, the more they got of it. There were a handful of repeat students on my cohort, with some people having attended 3-20 retreats. Unsurprisingly, they all loved it, but they still found it very challenging. Despite not talking for 10 days, everyone on the retreat felt an immense bond with the other participants. Afterwards, people were giving out hugs, expressing their love for everyone, and making plans to hang out in the future.

When the program finally ended and leaving the centre, I had a huge smile on my face and felt great. I’m still adjusting to being back to normal life, and I’m sure my thoughts will change and become more nuanced as time progresses, but I feel comfortable giving my overall impressions.

Impressions

This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m reminded of one of my favourite scenes from the TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm. A contestant from the TV show Survivor expresses to a Holocaust survivor how difficult his experience was, while the Holocaust survivor tells him his experience was much worse. I know my experience in the grand scheme of things is trivial, and doesn’t compare to anything really difficult in life, but just like the person from the TV show Survivor, it was still difficult to me, and I can’t minimize that.

In the end, I feel neutral to slightly positive about the experience. I experienced nothing transformative; I had a lot of highs and learnt a lot about myself, but the difficulties were real and severe. I don’t feel like a new person upon being back home, and have no desire to meditate any more than I did before leaving.

In retrospect, I don’t think I was in a good position to get as much out of this experience as others might have. Before the retreat, I travelled for 2.5 months. I’ve spent much of the past year reflecting on my life. That is to say, I already was in a position of minimal stress, aware of myself, and had thought deeply about most of the important issues in my life. Further, I’m not working now and don’t know what type of job/lifestyle I’ll have when I start working again. This gave me a lot less to dive into. In contrast, someone with a busy life who hasn’t spent much time reflecting, might learn a lot more about themselves during a retreat than I did.

Since being home, I feel much more focussed, disciplined, and in tune with myself. I hope to remain as equanimous, controlled and calm as I can going forward, and I think continued meditation will play a large role in that.

On the 7th day when I was feeling very low, I made a mental note to myself that if I leave the course feeling positive, I need to provide an explanation as to how I can reconcile these feelings. After reflecting on this for the past few days, I don’t have an answer. I’m aware of how defeated and down I felt, but looking back, I still have positive memories. I liken this to setting an alarm clock for early in the morning. It feels terrible to wake up, yet, you’re happy you did it, and will set the same alarm the next morning. This is something that concerns me though; that I’ll remember all the good experiences and forget all of the bad, and eventually create a false impression of truly loving the retreat. The bad experiences were real. It’s also possible the experience was so difficult, most of joy I experienced comes from the course simply ending.

The focus of the course is meditation, and I’m lead to believe my positive and negative experiences should relate to my experience meditating. Unfortunately, I have no idea how much I was impacted by meditating, or all of the other new things I experienced. How much was I influenced by not talking for 10 days, being away from all distractions (screens+books+exercise), eating a vegan diet, because I didn’t eat dinner for 10 days, what about the theanine from the 45~ cups of green tea I drank; I have no idea how much all of these things influenced me, so it’s hard to make a judgment on the meditation in isolation.

Before going on the retreat, a number of my friends were excited to hear about my experience so they could decide if they wanted to go on one. I believe I’m just an anecdote and the statistics are what they are, but here are my recommendations. If you really enjoy meditating, have been meditating semi-seriously for over one year, and are interested in going, I think you will likely find it worthwhile, or at the minimum, tolerable. For those who have a very stressful life and feel unhappy, unfulfilled, or wanting to make serious changes, you may gain a lot of valuable insights from attending. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend someone attend unless they find themselves with a lot of time off and a strong interest in the program. A final note, I would strongly recommend people do their retreats near their home. The retreat was difficult enough as is; to do an identical program in a third world country, where the food might make you sick, the weather is 100+ degrees, the mosquitos are vicious, or you may not be able to leave the centre is simply not worth it.

If anyone has any questions, I’d be happy to answer.

Daniel