Just over a year ago, in Battambang, Cambodia, I was taking part in a most torturous task that I'd actually been looking forward to for a very, very, long time—my first Vipassana. For those who may not be familiar, a Vipassana, which literally means "to see things as they really are," is a 10-day retreat in which one takes a vow of noble silence and practices meditation for a minimum of 10 hours per day, every day. No use of electronics, reading, writing, exercising, speaking, touching, or even eye contact is permitted during this time. From 4:30 a.m. until 9 p.m., with a few breaks for meals or tea in between, you are expected to sit cross-legged on the floor, not allowed to move even a finger during "strong determination" sittings, attempting to solely focus on the sensations of being alive.
I was drawn to the idea of a Vipassana retreat because I wanted to see how it would feel to be truly and utterly alone with myself—just my mind and me, not a thing to busy ourselves with; a kind of "come to Jesus" meeting between my physical and mental self, as never in my life have my mind and body sat together in silence with absolutely no distraction for anywhere near this amount of time. I am also a steadfast believer that the human mind is capable of so much more than we give it credit for and is an incredibly powerful, yet misunderstood, vehicle for creativity, spirituality, healing, peace, love, and understanding—in ways we as individuals have yet to realize. I thought hanging out with just my brain for 10 days might help us become better friends and might help me better understand its potential.
And it begins.
I arrived at Dhamma Latthika midafternoon, the pastures on all sides of the center filled with grazing animals—an incredibly Zen-like setting almost too stereotypically perfect for a silent retreat. For the rest of the day, we handed over contraband (books, pens, paper, phones, etc.), set up our rooms, reviewed the retreat rules and schedule, and enjoyed our last few hours of vocal cord use. After a light dinner (the food was all vegan and absolutely delicious), the men and the women divided into their separate living quarters, which consisted of small cement cells with thin mattresses, open roofs, and mosquito nets. Lights were out around 9:30 p.m., as our lovely wake-up gong would be rung at 4 a.m. sharp the next morning, and the next, and the next.
For the following 10 days, this was what my schedule looked like:
- 4 a.m. - Morning wake-up gong rings
- 4:30 - 6:30 a.m. - Meditate in the group meditation hall or in your room
- 6:30 - 8 a.m. - Breakfast
- 8:00 - 9 a.m. - Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00 - 11 a.m. - Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. - Lunch
- 12:00 - 1 p.m. - Rest and interviews with the teacher
- 1:00 - 2:30 p.m. - Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 2:30 - 3:30 p.m. - Group meditation in the hall
- 3:30 - 5 p.m. - Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 5:00 - 6 p.m. - Tea break / a bit of food for first-timers
- 6:00 - 7 p.m. - Group meditation in the hall
- 7:00 - 8:15 p.m. - Teacher's discourse in the hall
- 8:15 - 9 p.m. - Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00 - 9:30 p.m. - Question-and-answer session
- 9:30 p.m. - Bedtime
Since writing was not allowed during the retreat, I wasn't able to log my activities, thoughts, or mental state (I strongly feel that this fact alone led to a lot of the insanity I felt). However, my memories of the retreat are incredibly vivid, such as the annoying, yet strangely soothing, sound of the gong at 4:30 a.m. and the hustle and bustle that followed, the booming, pre-recorded chants resonating through the meditation hall, walking in endless circles around the courtyard trying to get even the smallest amount of exercise, waking up in the middle of the night to a bat flying around inside my mosquito net (a whole other story), seeing the same faces for 10 days straight without being able to say so much as "hello," and of course, the regular struggle with the constant meditation.
A whole lot of meditation
The meditations ranged from one to two hours, and took place in a group meditation hall—or you could meditate alone in your room. When given the option, I almost always chose to meditate in the hall, as I feared I might fall asleep if left on my own in my little cement cell. People who were over it (mostly first-timers) definitely took these opportunities to nap. The meditations were led by a recording of S.N. Goenka, the world-renowned Vipassana meditation teacher credited for establishing multiple centers throughout the world.
Each session began with him explaining the goal for each session, whether that was to focus on the space below your nostrils, focus on your breath, do a body scan, or practice addhitana (aka "strong determination"), which means you cannot move or open your hands, eyes, or legs for an entire hour. After about five or so minutes of instruction and requisite chanting from Goenka, it was up to you to hold your focus for the next hour or two—about eight times throughout the day.
There were sessions when I felt like I couldn't possibly sit another second—I just needed something to do, anything. In this case, I'd have to resort to discipline and self-control to stay in my cross-legged position, eyes closed, mind calm. I had to keep going "back to the breath." A few people did indeed crack, having crying fits in session or deciding to leave the retreat (highly discouraged).
Some days were harder than others. There were days I couldn't believe I was being subjected to another 12 hours of meditation, and there were days that I was excited by the challenge. One day, I could sit and meditate for two hours and not move; other days I was very tempted to get up and go outside after 10 minutes just to be able to look at something.
Though as tough as it often was, while in the walls of Dhamma Latthika, I must say I felt a more true reality than I feel normally. I couldn't look into a screen or have a conversation or busy myself with quite literally anything other than my mental chatter or being present. When those are your two options, are you really going to pay as much attention to your pestering thoughts?
So, did I have a breakthrough?
The lack of any outside stimulation for my brain was torture at times, but I made it through. I wouldn’t say I had a specific "breakthrough" during these ten days, but I’ve definitely felt the effects since, and am still very much consciously and subconsciously processing what I’ve learned about myself. As you might expect, trying to get your mind to calm down in this way really freaks it out, and all it wants to do is think, and it will. It will think some weird shit. However, you begin to see these thoughts for what they really are–just thoughts. They’re happening all the time, they come from far and wide corners, and deep and dark depths of your brain. They pop up for a reason, and when you guide your attention to them, and then away, you can make a mental note of why these thoughts are coming to light. You also really realize that they do indeed go away, because they’re impermanent, and not reality. More often than not, they mean nothing – yet they can cause us so much strife. Once this realization occurs, they have so much less power over you. When you diminish their power, you can be grateful for what you don’t normally notice—silence, air, wind, sound–all amazing pieces of life that our brain often conditions us to miss because it’s too busy worrying, likely about nothing. Taking 10 days, at least once in your life, to move past this, is an absolutely beautiful thing.
More Vipassana, please.
Did I enjoy it? Not so much when it was happening. My brain wanted to fight the stillness and silence tooth and nail. I wanted to be able to exercise and read, at the very least. But there is definitely something enjoyable about really being part of the stillness. It’s not a feeling you often feel, but it’s probably one of the most peaceful. Though (mostly) incredibly difficult, I will complete more Vipassanas when I have the time, and I’m already looking forward to what I will continue to uncover through my practice.
Should you do a Vipassana?
Many people have told me that they don’t think they’d be able to complete a Vipassana—that they would get bored, fall asleep, go crazy, experience too much discomfort from all of the sitting, etc. etc. If this is you, I truly believe you’re just not fully aware of what your mind is capable of, and what you have stored up in there that you’re just completely oblivious to. If you’re at all interested in trying it out, I would highly, highly, recommend doing so. Check out www.dhamma.org for more info and retreat schedules. Also, it’s quite affordable. A true Vipassana retreat is 100 percent donation-based, with all proceeds paying it forward for a future attendee (just as a kind stranger did for you).
Get acquainted with your brain. It’s not as scary as you might think!