Have you ever heard of a Vipassana retreat? The first time I had ever heard of it was in New Zealand in 2019. One of my housemates decided to take one purely out of curiosity and with no previous meditation experience. I vividly remember my thoughts and reaction when he started explaining to me how everything was structured. 10 full days in complete silence, no phone and 10 hours of meditation per day?! Whaaaaattttt?? It seemed both insane but also interesting.
Time passed and I started thinking more and more about this very unique experience. I felt like I wanted to try it to learn more about my brain and my whole self without any distraction. By this time I was living in Australia due to the pandemic and found a centre close to my house. However, the 10-day course for the new students was always full.
Let’s now fast forward to the beginning of March 2022. I was living back home in Italy and going through a rollercoaster of anxiety, doubts, uncertainty, sadness and procrastination. I wanted to escape but didn’t know where and wanted to try and find some answers. This is when the thought of doing this retreat came back.
I found a centre in Italy, in Lutirano, with a course starting a week later and with some spots available. My overthinking mind started going crazy and it took me 2 days to actually book it. Let me tell you that even after confirming my booking I was uncertain and still scared of it. The long hours of meditation, silence, no access to a phone and last meal at 5 pm seemed too crazy to me but I still went ahead.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is a type of meditation that was once very popular in India but then people forgot about it. It was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha 25 centuries ago who taught it to millions of people. However, the person who made it so international was S. N. Goenka, an Indian teacher who learned it from a monk in Myanmar.
The word Vipassana means “to see through things like they truly are”. It’s a process of self-purification through self-observation. It’s not really a guided meditation though. You get some instructions at the beginning of it but then the rest is done in complete silence. It is a Buddhist meditation technique but these retreats are open to everyone no matter their religion, sex or race because it doesn’t have anything to do with religion or else.
Day 0 of my Vipassana retreat started at around 5 pm when the other participants and I got there. This is when we had to leave our phones and other valuables, fill out some forms, learn all the rules and get assigned to our rooms. At around 6 pm we had a very light dinner consisting of soup and bread. We were still allowed to talk so we all tried to get to know each other a bit better. Then, from 8 to 9 pm we had our first meditation and the Noble Silence began after it.
At this point, I was feeling good and excited. It was weird being somewhere new without having my phone with me but that was about it. The only concern I had at this point was the silence around me. I kinda struggle to sleep when it’s too quiet around me and often listen to soothing music while in bed but not here.
The gong rang at 4 am and outside it was still pitch black. For some meditations, you can choose whether to do them in your room or in the hall. At first, I thought about going into the hall but then decided to stay. I admit that I didn’t meditate for the whole 2 hours but still tried my best to do so.
Breakfast was from 6.30 am to 7 am. It consisted of a variety of bread, jam, soy and rice milk, oatmeal, yogurt, cereals, fruit and kompot which was a mix of cooked fruit in a sugary syrup. In addition to this, there was a wide selection of tea and coffee. On day 0 they told us that, normally, meals are buffet style but we were being served due to Covid.
From 8 am to 9 am we had our first group meditation in the hall. Everyone had their own spot and you were allowed to get more pillows or blankets if needed. I probably used all the tools they had to try and sit straight in a somewhat comfortable way. In fact, after only a few minutes my back and neck would start feeling sore and very rigid. I somehow managed to get through this meditation and was very happy about it.
For the first three days, you focus on your breathing and on the area between the beginning of your nostrils and top lip. The goal is to sharpen your brain for Vipassana which will start on the 4th day.
It’s easy to say that this wasn’t easy for me.
I wasn’t new to meditation and I try to do it every day but my average is 20 minutes per day at most, not 10 hours! After the first 30 minutes, my mind would start wondering like crazy and coming back to reality was a challenge.
From 9 am to 11 am there was another meditation according to the teacher’s instructions. This meant either staying in the hall or being allowed to go to your room.
Lunch was at 11 am which for me was early but you get both hungry and used to these times very soon. I admit that I LOVED the lunches I had there. There was always a wide selection of soup, pasta, rice, beans, salad, bread and even dessert (a few times). You were also allowed to fill your plate multiple times if there was any food left.
Between 12 pm and 1 pm, there was a Q&A with the teacher if you had any questions about the meditation. You’d write your name on a sheet and then had 5 minutes with the teacher.
After the Q&A, 1 pm to 2:30 pm was meditation time either in the hall or your room, then group meditation from 2:30 pm to 3:30 pm, 3:30 pm to 5 pm meditation time according to the teacher’s instructions like in the morning.
Tea break and rest were from 5 pm to 6 pm. This was their dinner! Some tea and fruit!!! If you are an old student you don’t even get to eat the fruit. Even before starting this retreat, my mind was always focused on this.
“NO DINNER??” How are we ever gonna survive?? To be honest, though, I quickly adapted to it. Yes, my stomach would growl at around 8-9 pm but I rarely felt like I was starving.
The last long group meditation is from 6 pm to 7 pm, then you have to listen to Goenka’s daily speech for around 70 minutes before ending the day with the final meditation from 8:30 pm to 9 pm.
Finally, 9 pm to 9:30 pm is another Q&A with the teacher but you can go to your room if you don’t have questions.
Lights out at 9:30 pm.
I couldn’t believe the first day had passed. My body was already in a lot of pain, I was questioning why the hell did I come here and I wanted to leave immediately. Moreover, I was truly struggling with not being able to talk to my friends or escape from my mind. In fact, during this retreat, I realised how much I use my phone as a distraction from my mind and dealing with it.
Day 2: I’m probably going insane and a new room.
On the second day, the routine was absolutely the same as the first one. I sort of meditated in the morning, had breakfast, more meditation, walked around the garden, more meditation and even more meditation. By this day though, I was already thinking about leaving. The fact of not being able to be in touch with my friends or escape my mind was intensifying any feeling inside me. I remember having a few mini panic attacks throughout the day because I felt completely lost in time and that it was never moving forward.
Moreover, I didn’t know if I was working as I was supposed to or if I was actually ready for this or not. I kept telling myself to try and past at least the third day before thinking of quitting and that I was able and strong enough to do so.
On the positive side though, the male manager asked me if I wanted to change room and move into a private one! I was sooooo happy about this and this truly helped me move forward with the retreat.
Day 3: No idea what was happening in my stomach!
This day went relatively okay even though my abdomen and stomach were hurting and I was digesting very badly which worried me. I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t getting any nutrients from the food I was eating due to everything that was happening in my mind.
This one was the first time I ever spoke to the teacher. She asked me how I was going and told me that everything that was happening in both my body and mind was a good thing. She said that it was because I was working well and all the worries, anxiety, stress, and tension I had kept inside me were slowly coming out. I wasn’t sure if it was actually what was happening but hearing that helped me.
Finally, on this day I had a thought that never left my mind. I often complain about the fact that I’m both wasting times and running out of time. There are times when I feel like I don’t do enough during the day and others when it’s like I’ve done so many things which were only to fill in space and time. On this retreat time became relative. It reminded me that I do actually have time and that it’s up to me how I use it. We all have an infinitely finite amount of time to use on this planet. It’s definitely a finite amount because of the cycle of life and death but it’s also infinite because it’s impossible to quantify when it will end.
On the fourth day is when you start learning Vipassana and when you also do a 3-hour long meditation from 2 pm to 5 pm. I was feeling very happy with myself for having made it this far and still, couldn’t really believe it. However, the day started a bit crazy because the manager stormed into my room at 4:50 am to check if I was awake or not (I was) which sent me into panic mode thinking I was missing a group meditation or such. Also, he asked me if I was willing to change room and move with other people but luckily that didn’t happen until the 7th day.
At this point, my back and neck were one whole block of pain and stiffness and I was trying to convince myself to get to at least the 7th day. I wanted to start learning this Vipassana and give myself a few days to get into it.
The afternoon came, we get on our pillows and Goenka starts talking about Vipassana for what felt like a whole day. We basically had to use our mind to scan our body piece by piece and observe the feelings. We had to do this while trying to sit straight and not open our eyes or move out hands and feet. A real torture!
I probably managed to not move for 5-10 minutes and then hell paid a visit to my body. It was so painful that I could not not move. At the end of the 3 hours, I had reached a level of pain that I wanted to both cry and throw up at the same time. For this reason, I asked to speak to the teacher which said that I was working well and these feelings were normal. However, she gave me the green light to use a chair for the following meditations. This was the point when I seriously thought about packing and leaving.
The day finally ended and the chair was a massive help for my back. Plus, I was feeling proud of myself for having made it to the halfway mark of the retreat.
Day 5-6-7: Getting to the end
During these days I was feeling a bit better than in the beginning. Starting from day 4 the weather had been consistently beautiful to the point that it felt like summer. Therefore, most of us males used to spend hours of “self-paced” meditation outside even though Goenka didn’t recommend it.
There were moments during the group meditation where I concentrated so much that I felt my body as a single block. Nothing was moving and the only thing I could hear was my breath coming in and out of my nostrils. Other times, however, I struggled to stay still and would constantly move, scratch and look at the clock!
This is also when I started taking a few quick naps during the day. I don’t nap because I don’t like it but I was sleeping so little that my body truly needed them!
On day 7 I changed room and moved into a shared one because one of the servers got COVID and needed to go into isolation!
Day 8: I actually broke the Noble Silence
Now, let’s talk about the Noble Silence for a second. From day 1 I started talking to myself, especially while walking around the backyard or in my room. I’d sing some songs or just give me strength and support. I don’t think that counts as breaking the Noble Silence but I’m not 100% sure. The rule of it said not to talk to others using our voice, body or gestures but didn’t say anything about talking to yourself.
However, on day 8 one of my roommates talked to me so we had a very brief but needed chat. We mostly talked about the weather and the location but this truly helped me mentally and boosted my morale.
This day ended in a very unique way as two guys almost got in a fight at the end of the last meditation. From what I understood, a man in the front wouldn’t stop farting so the guy behind him tapped his shoulder and asked him to stop. The first man got very angry and started shouting at him which led another one to try and calm him down by threatening to punch him! Both the manager and the teacher tried to calm them down and told them to stop.
That night I only slept 2 hours because I was feeling pretty agitated.
I woke up feeling very tired but also very happy. This was the actual last day of the intense timetable and I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like a month ago when I started this experience on day 0 and now here I was on day 9!
The weather was beautiful and I spent a lot of time sitting on the grass soaking in the warmth of the sun and listening to the birds singing. Meditating for an hour or more straight still felt difficult to me but the body pain started to faint.
Many thoughts that I had at the beginning of the retreat started to change.
- “Maybe I will try another retreat in the future”
- “I can actually do everything I put my focus and self into”
- “I have time”
Day 10: THIS VIPASSANA RETREAT IS DONE!
THIS WAS THE DAY!
After the two morning meditations, you are finally allowed to move from the Noble Silence to the Noble Chatting.
This is the day you also learn a new type of meditation to do at the end of your hour of Vipassana. It consists of the desire to want to share your happiness, calm and joy with all living beings. Goenka says that it only takes a few minutes but with his singing, it got to 21!
I admit that from around day 8, I was struggling so much to deal with his singing and speeches. Especially his singing was just too much and not very melodic. I know that there were people who enjoyed it but for me and others was just too much.
When we got out after the 8 am to 9/10 am meditation, it felt so good yet so weird to be able to talk freely with everyone. We all felt like old friends and a sort of superheroes for having got to the end.
What I really enjoyed was being wrong about many assumptions I had made about other people. When you can only see people without talking to them you might start making up so many stories about them. There was a guy that to me looked very serious and a sort of serial killer who was in reality a truly helpful and kind man.
We were also allowed to meet with the girls and then did a tour of the property which is massive! They told us about what they are planning to build to expand and how this place came to exist.
Moreover, we talked about what we felt during these 10 days and it was interesting to hear other people’s answers. Many said that they started remembering things from their childhood that completely forgot about. Others said that they felt free from past weights they were carrying with them. Personally, I didn’t have these experiences but had my own realisations and that’s absolutely fine. Vipassana retreats are such personal experiences that you will feel what is meant for you.
This final day truly made the whole journey worth fighting for. I loved every second of it and my soul and body were filled with just positivity and happiness.
The timetable was also more relaxed compared to the previous days. There were only the afternoon and evening meditations to do and the speech. The rest of the time was for all of us to enjoy and be together. We also had a proper dinner on this day which I really appreciated!
Day 11: Back to the outside world
The actual final day started in the meditation hall at 4.30 am to listen to the last speech of Goenka. No meditation after or before it. We then had breakfast and helped the staff with cleaning the place for the next students.
On day 10 Goenka focused on the theme of giving back to the retreat. Whether it was through a donation of money or time which was very lovely and insightful.
Final thoughts on this 10-day Vipassana Retreat
So, what did I learn from these very long and tough 10 days?
Well, quite a few things actually.
- Vipassana retreats are not a cult.
- Vipassana meditation is not a magical cure or the only one to our misery or problems.
- Is it a powerful and interesting experience to try? I think so.
So, what lessons am I taking with me?
- First of all, the fact that I can believe in myself. These 10 days have reminded me and demonstrated that I can achieve any goal I want, that I have much more willpower than I think and that I am really capable of believing in myself.
- It created in me an awareness of the fact that we all have an infinitely finite amount of time and that it is up to us to decide how to use it. It is already available to all of us and it is finite but also infinite because it is almost impossible to calculate its end. We can use it the way we want to and, perhaps, the phrase “I don’t have time” is now very overused. During those 10 days, I felt like I had all the time in the world.
- I learned to focus more on what I feel in my body without trying to judge or act on it because this will start a process of multiplication. I now try to see what’s happening in my body and remind myself that these feelings will die off the same way they were born. Whether it’s a panic attack or the best feeling ever, it won’t last forever and that’s okay.
Will I do it again?
Maybe I will. Not soon but I’m open to trying it again in the future.
Do I recommend it?
Sure! It’s a unique, interesting, intense and tough experience that could benefit everyone. You will definitely live it your own way and it will teach you things that are meant for you.
Among the many rules in place, there are a few that say you shouldn’t bring books, diaries or food with you or do yoga. Well, I broke them and find that this helped me not give up on this experience.
I found it very valuable and helpful to have a diary with me where I could write down my feelings and thoughts. I also had a book with me called The Bhagavad Gita which is one of the oldest Hindu books. The funny thing was that most of the chapters I read while at the retreat covered the same topics as the daily Goenka speeches!
Finally, I also had a pack of cookies with me for the night which put a smile on my face.
I think that some of the rules do not always benefit everyone who goes to a Vipassana retreat but I’m not sure. Breaking them worked for me and I’m ok with it.