The Vipassana Retreat

Oh, so you want to meditate.

You’ve heard so many good things about this older-than-Planet-Earth technique, you just can’t contain your excitement. You’d love nothing more than to get on the mat and sit in stillness and silence, reaping in the sweet, sweet benefits. It was beneficial, you heard. It was life changing, they said.

Meditation is war. Meditation is like entering battle against two enemies who are completely hell-bent on destroying you and the self-help bandwagon train you rode in on. It’s you against both your mind and your body. Meditation is about being in the present moment, but the only thing snapping you back to the current moment is your legs falling asleep and your back asking for a refund from the years of horrible posture you subjected it to. This is meditation; this is reality for a lot of people starting. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is start sitting for a daily practice to see for yourself.

As you’ve probably seen from one of my previous posts, I think meditation should have a place in everyone’s life. I’ve explored a few different kinds over the last year. But something else was calling my name, so I decided to put my money where my mouth is and attend a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat. There’s a chance you’ve heard of it; if you’ve ever Googled “meditation retreat”, it’s a top hit. What is it? Think of a strictly donation-based experience where you are given a room, vegetarian food, and instruction/guidance on how to meditate, all for 10 days.

Free food? Let’s do it.

What this article is not

I am going to refrain from talking about any details regarding the specific type of meditation it is and how it works, or what kind of revelations I had. Everyone processes it differently, and there’s a reason you can’t talk to one another for the entire duration, save for the last day (more on that later).

What this article is

This is going to be about my overall experience at the retreat, from what to expect, what I saw, tips I have, and any daily musings I see worthy of writing here. It’s geared towards anyone thinking about taking the plunge. This article is also going to be pretty long.

Let me start by saying that meditation “retreat” is by no means a luxurious and smooth vacation. In fact, it’s like the trip that just won’t end. With about 99.357% confidence, I can say that overall, it will probably be the slowest 10 days of your life. Not only that, but it will probably be the most mentally and physically demanding 10 days of your life, too (I’ll also go ahead and use the same percentage of confidence above – 99.357% if you have trouble remembering one sentence to the next).

So you heard all this crap, nothing I said above was new, and you’re still hyped to give it a try and experience true misery that will help you grow as a person. If you decide to go, there’s a few ground rules that are put in place that you should know about. To start, there’s no forms of entertainment besides your own mind. And that juicy three pound chunk of meat sitting atop your neck creates some rad entertainment when it’s the only source of distraction. No cell phones, no TVs, no internet, no books, no writing material. No nothing. You’re probably wondering how you’ll have the willpower to avoid your phone; don’t worry, you turn all that in when you show up. You aren’t allowed to talk to one another either, or even make eye contact or gestures to get a point across. The idea of noble silence, as they call it, is not taken lightly. A couple guys got chewed out for breaking it. It’s also a 100% vegetarian diet, and dinner is omitted in favor of some tea and fruit. Men and women are separated for the entire duration, only getting together on different ends of the meditation hall to meditate together. You are not to take any intoxicants and you must practice celibacy. Lastly, there are over 10 hours of meditation scheduled each day – 10.5 to be exact. So how strict are they on all these rules? You could totally sneak in a phone, a laptop, a book, a journal, or any combination thereof. You could also talk to one another when management or the teachers aren’t around. You could skip out on more than half of the meditations or take care of “business”. But do you want to cheat yourself out of the experience? Then go for it, break the rules. Want to actually get as close to 100% out of this experience as possible? Stick with it. Live like those Buddhist monks you always hear about. Because this is as close to it as you’ll ever get, unless you buy a one-way plane ride to the mountains of Nepal and take the pledge.

You’ll want to walk away about 243 times
Because why not? When it’s just you and your thoughts, someone doesn’t play nice. You begin thinking why in the fuck you picked this as your time off from work when you could be sailing the Galapagos Islands or hanging out with your crew in some foreign country. You begin thinking that taking 10 days off to meditate from 4:30 am to 9 PM is crazy (and it is). You begin to realize that meditating daily for 30 minutes at a stretch of 200 consecutive days doesn’t even surpass the amount of meditation you do in these 10 days. If you decide to drive to the retreat, your car is just outside your reach, and all you need to do is tell management you’re done and you’re home free.

Your mind will rebel
Just know that, and act accordingly. Unfortunately, humans got the shitty draw of the hand, and we let everything bother us. Our mind, a tool that let’s us send satellites 1.6 billion miles away to orbit Jupiter, also causes a ruckus. And when you’re forced to sit down and try to get out of your head, it’ll do the only thing it knows how: throw a fit. You will think of everything but meditation: your 401k, who wronged you, who righted you, what color you want to paint your walls, whether your job pays enough, whether you even like your job, your next Amazon Prime order, whether you should ever attempt that homemade lasagna again, and so on. Know it, own it, and be patient.

Everyone is struggling
Here’s how you can easily spot someone freaking out just by looking at them: they stare incoherently without moving. It’s like a fake meditation. Yeah, I got you bro – you feel my struggles and I feel yours. On about Day 6, an older gentleman sat across from me during breakfast. About halfway through, as he looked down at his vegetarian breakfast, he stopped and starting shaking his head. This went on for a good 30 seconds, all the while I couldn’t peel my eyes away. After what seemed like forever, the poor guy could only meekly utter “damnit” under his breath. You think you’re the only one having trouble? Don’t be so selfish.

Nature takes on a different light
It started with the ants, and only expanded from there. First off, ants are everywhere, and they eat anything. I can’t tell you how many times I just sat there and stared at ants for minutes at a time. I saw them eat a mosquito, which means that yes, something in this world actually eats those useless schmucks. On Day 2, I froze for about 15 minutes, watching a snake napping on a tree. This snake happened to be in the presence of about eight birds, who were all making it well known there was a snake napping on a tree. I lost track of time watching this National Geographic moment. You start noticing all the sounds: birds. Wind against the trees. Crickets and grasshoppers. Annoying insects. Your own footsteps. The retreat also backed up to a pasture, so there were plenty of chipper cows that looked like they came from those commercials. You know, the ones where they claim happy cows make happy milk, or some crap. That said, a big F you to the companies that treat their cattle poorly. There’s no need for that in this world. More importantly, another big F you to the uneducated public sector that continues to support these companies, since without customers the company would shape up or cease to exist. Get knowledgeable on your sources of meat. You want to eat red meat? Go for it, just get a better grasp of where it’s coming from. Change starts with knowledge. This goes for absolutely anything in life.

Your emotions take a quick turn
Some mornings were awesome and felt great, while the afternoons sucked. Some mornings sucked, while the afternoons were productive and felt great. That time frame could even be shortened from one hour to the next. At one point, I had a great morning; I was focused and making my mind my little bitch. When the afternoon rolled around, the roles completely reversed and it made me theirs. I was frustrated and genuinely angry. Then somehow, within the next few minutes, the laughter came. I tried to contain it, but ended up having to get up and leave the hall because I couldn’t.

You look forward to the little things
Food became a happy time. When I heard it was going to be vegetarian cuisine, I figured we’d be eating small portions of bland rice and beans. To the contrary, the meals were buffet style, and ridiculously hearty. Spices and fiber galore, the sheer number of choices also made it worthy of potential seconds. One morning for breakfast, I had some bread toasting its little heart out to a satisfying crisp. Out of nowhere, some guy walks over to the toaster, hits the button to cancel the toasting, and proceeds to touch my toast to see how done it was. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of stuff you get your ass beat in prison for. The little things, like perfectly crisp toast that no one else touches, are not to be fucked with. Why this guy touched it, I’ll never know. Worst part is, I couldn’t say anything or even motion to him. So, for the other seven days of the retreat, he garnered a nickname in my head: Toast Toucher. I judged him hard for that one, and I know that goes against the very essence of meditation, which is having compassion for others. I had it, until the moment he touched my bread. Side note: on the last day, we ended up chatting and he turned out to be a very nice guy. Second side note: I never brought up the toast incident.

Somehow, bedtime at 9:30 PM was also a thing to look forward to. It was like another day ended, which meant there was one less, and then that meant you were that much closer to completing this 10 day mistake you committed to. The breaks you’re given, which include lunchtime and a tea break in the early evening, are also highlights. Meditating is hard. Meditating for 1 hour and 45 minutes (the longest single stretch) is super hard. Break time, where are thou? Bring it on.

So about that retreat..
As much as I sit here and crack jokes in an effort to make this entertaining and hopefully win over some readership, the 10 day experience was absolutely worth it. Fact is, barely anyone walks away from it. Be it ego (no one wants to be “that” person who leaves) or the ability to just say you completed it, you’re in it for the long haul and it’s not that simple to just walk away without a really valid reason. I can’t speak for the women overall, but I would assume it’s generally the same.

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever done before and will probably do again in a very long time. Enjoy it while it lasts, because chances are you won’t find yourself in this same situation. Naturally, it’s not the easiest to enjoy being physically and mentally tortured in the moment. But with time, self-reflection will show you that it was worth it.

Everyone has a different experience too, and that’s the biggest reason you aren’t allowed to talk to one another until the last day. So, don’t be upset or think you did anything wrong if you don’t have these huge revelations or light bulb moments while taking it. Some might have it, some might not. One thing is for certain – you both got the same out of it, assuming you applied yourself.

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