Reflections on a 10 Day Silent Meditation Retreat
I recently completed a 10 day silent meditation retreat at the Ontario Vipassana Centre. It was something that I had wanted to do for a while but was never able to fully commit to. A few months ago I decided to go for it and chose the first available course in the middle of February figuring I wouldn’t be missing out on much at that time of year (besides Valentine’s day, but I was sure to get Marissa’s approval first!).
I had minimal preparation going into the course. In a perfect world, my plan was to gradually start meditating more and waking up earlier in the weeks leading up to the retreat in order to prepare myself for the 4AM wake-up bell. The reality was that I probably failed to wake up earlier than 7AM on a single day in the weeks prior to the retreat, and my meditation practice consisted of roughly 10-15 minutes per day, 5 times per week if I was lucky….woops.
View this post on Instagram
Today marks day 1 of Andrew’s 10 day Vipassana Meditation Retreat where he will be observing “Noble Silence” of the body, speech and mind for the entire time. Yes, that means no speaking, eye contact, body language, or really doing ANYTHING except observing the breath and concentrating the mind for 10 full days. This has been on his bucket list for a while. After dropping him off, I watched him and the others head to their rooms to await their first meditation. I cried with pride for all of them. This journey won’t be easy, and they all know that. But they’re all willing to put in the work and dedication to deepen their spiritual practice, battle their demons, and ultimately learn and strengthen skills like mindfulness and breathe work that they can integrate into their lives post-retreat. Raise your vibration, and you raise the vibration of the planet. Heal whats within you, and you will heal the world. Of course this can be done through many different ways, but Andrew chose this specific journey for him at this time. And I am so damn proud.
Vipassana Retreat Overview:
4AM: Wake up bell
5-6PM: Tea break
6-7 PM: Meditation
7-8PM: Video discourse
Go to bed. Repeat for 10 days.
So, in a nut shell, all you do is meditate for 10-11 hours each day, eat 2 meals, and sleep. This is not exactly my definition of a “retreat”. During this time you are not allowed to speak, hence ‘silent meditation’. With the exception of asking the teachers for guidance at a set time of the day, there is no communication allowed whatsoever (verbal OR non-verbal). You are also not permitted to do anything that may serve to be remotely distracting to yourself or others including eye contact, physical contact with others, exercise, reading, writing, exercising, listening to music etc. You’re stuck with your mind and your mind only.
The course is taught by an Indian Guru, S.N. Goenka.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
I am certainly not an expert or a seasoned Vipassana meditator, but I will give you a quick summary of what the technique is and how it may differ from other types of meditation. This technique was discovered and passed down by the Buddha 2500 years ago. Vipassana means “seeing things as they really are.” There are 3 pillars to Vipassana:
This is a commonality between most types of meditation and religion: be a good person. Engage in loving, wholesome acts and avoid sinful ones. During the 10 days you are asked to follow a code of conduct which is in line with good morality:
No sexual misconduct
Mastery of the Mind
This is also a central pillar to most meditation techniques. Basically it is the practice of focusing and concentrating the mind. Most of us can relate to having a seemingly untameable monkey mind. There are actually many ways to tame the monkey mind including: breathing techniques, mantras, and movement practices like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. Each of these practices have been used for thousands of years to achieve mastery of the mind. The first 3 days of this retreat were focused entirely on awareness of the breath (called Anapana) with the goal of strengthening this pillar.
Wisdom, Insight, Purification of the Mind
This is the distinguishing factor from many other forms of meditation. Mastery of the mind is extremely important but it usually works at the conscious level and does not penetrate deeply into subconscious behavioural patterns and conditioning. The Buddha realized that something was missing and this was the pillar that he discovered ultimately leading to his enlightenment. Days 4-10 of the retreat were focused on this pillar using a basic technique (Vipassana) to become aware of different sensations in the body and observe them objectively without any attachment to positive or negative sensations. By repeatedly remaining equanimous (emotionally balanced) to different arising thoughts and sensations in addition to recognizing the changing nature of all things, you slowly reprogram your body to release it’s old subconscious patterns of craving and aversions allowing you to always be calm and content with the present moment.
Spoiler alert: This doesn’t happen in 10 days.
*please note, if you plan on attending a Vipassana meditation retreat in the near future, refrain from reading further in this blog as it may act as a bias or place expectations in your mind. Each experience is unique and can vary drastically from person to person. On day 0 of the retreat (when we were still allowed to talk to one another upon arrival), the hosts even encouraged us not to talk about past retreat experiences for those who had them as it may influence the new students.*
What I Learned
I think too much
Most of you can probably relate, and I already knew this but it became very evident during the first few days. All I was instructed to do was focus on the breath, simple enough right? It was actually extremely difficult due to the fact that I would rarely go even 30 seconds without having a distracting thought pop into my head. And it wasn’t like these thoughts were relevant to the meditation, they were literally the most random things: memories of my high school badminton partner, desires to bake sourdough bread for my neighbour (even though I have never successfully made a good sourdough loaf), I even had the Mario Party theme song stuck in my head for 3 DAYS STRAIGHT. Great tune though… I observed that not only was I thinking about random, non-productive things constantly, but the majority of these thoughts were about the past or future, rarely the present moment. As the days progressed these thoughts decreased substantially and I started to recognize when my mind was drifting and was able to return back to being present. The real challenge is to continue with this task of taming the monkey mind in the real world where you aren’t able to meditate for 10 hours a day.
Cravings and aversions = misery and suffering
The above “equation” was a central theme to the teachings of the course. All suffering and misery is a result of cravings and aversions. What does this mean? A craving is an attachment to a positive sensation. Whether it’s drugs, food, shopping or gambling it’s all the same in that you want something that you don’t have in this present moment because it will make you feel good. An aversion is attachment to a negative sensation. Physical or emotional pain, feeling too cold or too hot, or ‘annoying” people in your life are all examples of things that you can develop a negative association with.
Both cravings and aversions prevent you from being in a state where you can accept and be content with reality the way it is at the present moment. So long as you have them in your life, you will experience misery and suffering. The first few days of the course I was in a lot of physical pain from sitting in the same position all day. At certain times each day you are required to sit for an hour straight without changing your posture. I fought through with will-power until I started to understand that I have a deep aversion to this pain (likely from an old back injury). Once I started to observe these unpleasant sensations equanimously, that is to say without an aversion to them, the pain simply became just another temporary sensation and melted away. By the end of the 10 days I was able to sit for an hour straight several times per day with minimal to no pain.
The law of impermanence
Another key teaching was that things are and always will be constantly changing. Nothing in life is permanent. This becomes very applicable when applied to cravings and aversions. With the understanding that both the craving itself and the satisfaction that you get from fulfilling the craving is temporary, there’s really no sense in craving something in the first place. If I have a sugar craving, eventually it will pass or I can give into it but then I’ll soon end up where I started with another craving for sugar. Similarly, an aversive or unpleasant sensation will not last forever and with acceptance of the present moment as it is, the aversion will always pass. Therefore just like cravings, developing attachments to negative sensations is also senseless.
I experienced this during the retreat with repeated aversions to sitting for long meditations because I was so bored. I was craving the end of the meditation, the next meal, the day to be over, the retreat to be over etc. The hour long meditations appeared to be never-ending. It took about 7 days for me to really understand that whatever unpleasant sensation or thought I was experiencing at the present moment was not eternal and once I stopped focusing on it so much, it went away. This seems obvious intellectually but I’m sure you can relate with the negative ruminating thoughts of being stuck in traffic or anywhere that you don’t want to be, thinking that it’s never going to end. After I had my light bulb moment, for the remaining few days whenever I had the slightest craving for the meditation to be over, or the slightest aversion to what I was doing in the present moment, I recognized that these phenomena are so temporary and they quickly disappeared.
Knowing at the intellectual vs experiential level
This was especially applicable to me as a left-brained intellectual person who is always stuffing my brain with more knowledge. Most of you are probably already familiar with the above concepts, or at least understand them intellectually, yet unless you are the Dalai Lama, I doubt you can admit to having complete mastery of your mind, elimination of cravings and aversions, and a constant sense of well-being in the present moment with the understanding of impermanence. Why is that? You can’t fully know or understand something until you have experienced it. It’s like reading a book on how to swim, you could know every possible intellectual detail on the technique of swimming but you can’t learn how to swim without actually doing it. Mastery of the mind, liberation from cravings and aversions, and wisdom can’t be learned from studying them. Sure the knowledge base can help but you need to have your own experience, and this experience takes much longer than 10 days to master. Someone can show you the path to enlightenment, but you have to take each and every step yourself to get there. True wisdom comes from experience, and in today’s world of never ending information, we often place importance on knowledge and intellect which is only part of the puzzle.
For anyone who is interested in embarking on a meditation retreat, I would highly recommend it. Don’t expect it to be a walk in the park, I wouldn’t compare it to a 10 day vacation in any way. Also don’t expect any miracles in 10 days, this is a lifelong path for most of us. Perhaps you can reach enlightenment by sitting under a tree for 49 days without moving like the Buddha, but I wouldn’t count on this method either! If you aren’t ready to commit to a retreat, start with a daily practice. 10-20 minutes each day can go a long way, the key is to find a technique that works for you to start gaining control over your mind and changing your subconscious patterns of cravings and aversions. Equanimity in the present moment + understanding of impermanence = less misery and suffering = more peace, love and happiness.
A special thank you to those who supported me in this endeavour and who continue to encourage me on this journey.
Dr. Andrew Chelladurai, ND
Check our our blog to see other articles