Vipassana Retreat: Reflections

I’m freshly back from my first ten-day vipassana retreat. Vipassana meditation is about as old as the hills and has been continually spreading for centuries, so I feel trite explaining what it is, but in case you’re new, too, here’s a brief intro: 

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana is said to be what Buddha taught. It is observing sensations in your body without any reaction to them. The purpose is to get the mind out of the habit of craving and aversion, which is what brings about desires, which are what keep one tied to the cycle of reincarnation. Vipassana was so different than what I’m used to that I wouldn’t even call it meditation. But I suppose the focus on the sensations that arise is what makes it meditation. The teacher, S.N. Goenka, said something that stuck with me: the teachings in the scriptures and philosophies are not for you, what somebody else experienced is not for you. In other words, you have to experience truth for yourself, and the sensations you feel in your own body are your own personal truth. It’s experiencing reality as it is and not as you want it to be. 

The Cost

I think it’s so amazing that the retreat is completely free, such is the generosity of India, where it started. ✨ A private room (depending on the building), the program itself, and three delicious meals a day were all included. You can leave a donation at the end of the course, which I did, but they do not try to force you to do so. 

How I Heard About It

A common question I got at retreat from the other attendees was how did I hear about it. I thought I read about it in Jen Sincero’s You Are A Badass (YAAB); however, I actually looked into it after reading James Altucher’s 50 Alternatives to College. 🤷🏾 He recommends going on four vipassana retreats a year, in part because they are free;  college is expensive; and perhaps one would learn more by going inward first. Apparently, I noted it under my YAAB notes . . . I take notes as I read. Anyhow, they both contain excellent advice!

Getting In

I applied a couple weeks later on 5/30 as soon as the application window opened and heard back the next day that I was placed on a waiting list. I’ve read that it’s pretty common to be placed on the list and still get in, and that was my experience. I heard back on 7/24 that I got accepted to the program, and it started on 8/28.  It ended 12 days later on 9/8. The first and last days aren’t full days, and aren’t regarded as part of the “10 days.”

Over the Moon Excited

Even though I’d basically just heard about it, I was so excited to be going on a vipassana  retreat! It gave me something to look forward to while I had so much down time this summer. My job is project-based, and each project has lasted anywhere from four days to six weeks, and I’ve been spending most of my time at the library studying for a certification that I believe help with getting the job I really want. So, the retreat was a welcome distraction, and perhaps I would have some deep insights about what’s next.  

Finding out a month in advance that I would be going gave me plenty of time to hype myself up and over-prepare. 🤗 I read everything I could find about it — Yelp reviews, blogs, and articles. Well, I read everything except the Art of Living by Goenka, because more than a couple Yelp reviewers said not to. 😂 And now that I’ve been, I’m glad that I didn’t read it. Words don’t quite do it justice, and I’ve certainly not described everything about it here.

The center I went to is only 4.5 hours from me; however, I left out early the morning before to do other things in the area. I had many synchronous things happen, but I digress . . . 

Long Days

I completely lost track of days of the week there! The first day was called Day 0; the next, Day 1, and so on. I was super pumped for the first full day, Day 1. I got up at the wake-up gong at 4 am, took a shower, and made it to Meditation Hall by 4:30 a.m. Yeah, no. 😑 That was the first and last day I did that. I was so cold, uncomfortable, irritated, and tired. My body was not having it! I went back to my room. Since being up before the birds is not mandatory, when I went to the early morning sessions, I would go around 5:30 am and practice for 30 minutes to an hour. 

Days 2 through 4 were incredibly dry and boring. The discourses that we listen to in the evening and that describe the techniques we are to practice got interesting on Day 5, as it is the day the technique of vipassana begins. The initial practice (anapana meditation) builds up to it. Anapana reminded me of Hong Sau. I had to be careful to not start doing it while practicing anapana, i.e. simple observation of breath.

Only a couple of days were emotionally challenging for me. That was probably around Days 5 through 7. Day 7 and up, I felt hopeful and looked forward to practicing more. 

It may’ve been a meditation retreat; however, we were fairly busy from 4 am to 9 pm every day! For a couple of hours here and there, I’d manage to ‘be’, but as I got into it, I wanted to experience the practice as often as I could.

To Be Concerned or Not . . . 

I think I was most focused on what to wear. Modest attire — no leggings, no sleeveless tops — what?? That’s my whole closet, plus jeans and jeggings! So I took to Amazon. I found the most comfortable pants! And these super cute ones.  I searched terms like “banded bottom pants for women”, “meditation pants”, “loose-fitting yoga pants”, “harem pants”, “lounge pants,” in case these links break, and went with the banded-bottoms ones. I wasn’t sure where I’d be walking and didn’t want them dragging the floor or ground. Great choice because fire ants were everywhere outside. 

Then I wondered if I would have a roommate, so I packed a robe with that in mind. I actually had my own room and a shared bathroom; however, my bathroom buddy left before Day 1! And so I had the restroom to myself, like everyone else in my building. I happened to be in the one room with a shared bath. The rest were completely private. I’m thankful for that because ten days, really twelve, is a while to me, and I already crave my own space as an introvert. Additionally, with all the vegetarian and vegan food, I had so much gas!! 😷 The door to the room opened to the outside and had a lock on it, but no keys are given out. The check-in volunteers collected our valuables on the first day and put them in a large safe inside a locked closet. Additionally, the entire property was gated and locked for the duration of the course. I didn’t even see the gate until I left. The restroom had no locks on either side, so after this lady left, I walked over and locked her door to the outside. I guess I did expect us to have a key, but we didn’t, and that was okay. I felt perfectly safe. 

One thing I was not at all concerned about were the discourses. I love learning, so I was looking forward to them. I later began dreading them. They ran long — 1.5 hours long to be exact, which wouldn’t be bad if they weren’t so repetitive! The discourses could have easily been 20 to 30 minutes long. On a side note, I’m so glad this place has real, caffeinated coffee and black tea. ☕ 🙌🏾 Seeing as how the discourses are solely videos of Goenka leading a class, the footage is not likely to be cut down or redone since he passed in 2013. I heard so much deep sighing and shifting around, so I don’t think I was the only one who felt they were too long. I tried to remain upright, still, and engaged out of respect for the teaching and the process . . . and out of respect for the fact that it is completely free to be there. And Goenka does drop mad wisdom! For example, the bit about scriptures not being for you and experiencing truth for oneself. It particularly resonated with me and made me kinda realize why I stall with my own study of the Lessons at times. He wanted to tell us just enough to be able to practice. There’s no need to go into a lot of theory or do a lot of intellectualizing. And that’s one of the reasons why journaling and reading are not allowed at the course. He also said to practice what you know. And as one continues to practice, realizations will increasingly occur; that knowledge is yours. You didn’t have to read it in a book first, then strive to realize it later. You consciously began to experience truth right away as the sensations in your body.  I found that explanation real and appealing.

Those first few days though, I wondered if this course was a rouse to rally people together to listen to Goenka’s terrible, off-key chanting! He sounded like his lungs were giving out or like a motorcycle sputtering. 🤭 It was very unpleasant and sounded completely strange! I kept in mind that they were in a different language, the words of which were not explained, and still found them bizarre. I thought about the documentary film Kumaré, where a man presents himself as a guru. He seems to fit the part outwardly — has Asian Indian heritage and wears religious clothes. He then goes around teaching complete nonsense to demonstrate how willing we are as a people to give our power away and believe anything. 

At retreat, we were told to accept the chants as blessings being spoken over us, so hopefully I won’t go to hell for mentioning how awful they sounded. And it’s not like Goenka couldn’t chant well. Later on, they were times when his chants sounded clear, powerful, and harmonious. I thought wow, he can sing!  So, I don’t know what was up with the guttural chanting in the beginning and randomly interspersed throughout the rest of the discourses and instructions. Perhaps it was a test? I also thought of a story about Guruji (Paramahansa Yogananda): One time he was dedicating some property by walking around and uttering blessings over it. Several people were gathered there to be with him. His dedication went on for so long that people started to leave. At some point, Guruji said, “Good, now that the curious onlookers are gone, we can begin the real work!”

I also wasn’t concerned about sitting on the floor, but after doing so for three or four days I requested a chair for the rest of the course. It ended up being very hard on my back. My lower back felt like cement. Between the hard bed and hard floor, something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my back. Several others seemed to have no issue with sitting on the floor, or perhaps they powered through it. 

There wasn’t anything I was so concerned about that I reached out to the Center. I wanted to be as prepared as I could while putting expectations aside. Nothing beats experience! They have details and instructions on their website, as well as a list of what to bring and what to leave once you confirm your acceptance. I took my own everything — clothes, shoes, toiletries, a pillow, sheets, a blanket, towels, a water bottle, but they do have all of these things (well, except for shoes) and more, like umbrellas, flashlights, & hats. You can borrow anything they request that you bring and return it on the last day if you need to — they had plenty. It was easy for me to take what I wanted to take since I drove myself. Some people packed extremely light, like my rideshare buddy, who showed up with two half-empty backpacks! I, on the other hand, had half a car-trunk full. Some  wore an outfit or two the whole time. I took five pairs of pants and wore them two or three times each, but I had enough shirts for the duration. I even took an egg-crate foam mattress pad for the bed. I haven’t used one of those since college! I think it helped only a little though. The mattress is quite firm and sits atop the hardwood frame of the bed. 

The People!

The people were wonderful: from the volunteers (servers & teachers) to the other participants. There were at least 60 of us — half men, half women — but it didn’t seem like it. I met maybe ten people when it was all said and done. Everyone was so lovely and like-minded. I regret not getting contact info or at least a picture with those I briefly connected with. We only had a couple days (really just a few hours) to talk to one another. And after being silent for ten days, for me at least, it took a little more time to come out of it, but I still managed to connect with a few. 

The Results

I wish I could say I was blissed out the whole time or even for one day, but it wasn’t like that! Some days were downright challenging, but I’m glad I went. I think it was on Day 6, when Goenka was describing the next instruction, I realized I’d already been practicing in that way. This jumping-ahead occured two more times. As much as I read prior to going, I didn’t come across anything too particular about the practice, yet there I was practicing what had not yet been taught. Perhaps, they were natural progressions to switch up the practice on my part, but I got the distinct impression that I’d practiced vipassana before in a previous life. It felt so familiar. 

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