Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Experience at 10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat

The Compound

If you could see through the fence and into the courtyard you would think you were gazing upon rec time at a loony bin circa 1953. The nearly 2-acre compound holds 5 buildings and is filled with towering pine trees. It is a pleasant setting. 

Inside the yard a few dozen adult humans wander about. They wear loose-fitting clothing and walk slowly, heads down, not making eye contact with each other. Men and women are segregated, separated by a demilitarized zone 3 meters wide.  Over there a woman wearing a shawl on her body and a scarf on her head appears to be caressing a tree. Over here, a disheveled man is simply staring at a stump.

But this is not a mental ward. It is a 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat.


Why go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat? Here are the overarching reasons that I've been meditating for the past 3 years. My hope was that 10 days of intensive meditation would hasten my journey down the path to being a better human. Specifically, I want to:
  1. Show more love and compassion to people (and animals, too)
  2. Become less frustrated with people or situations
  3. Thoughtfully respond to external stimuli, not simply react
In the past three years I've seen good progress in these areas and meditating for 10 days and 10 hours per day would more than double my lifetime total of meditation time.

Arrival and Initial Impressions

I arrived at the facility the afternoon of Day 0 to get signed in and to turn over all non-essential items. No electronics, no journal for writing. No alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. I took only clothing, toiletries and a sleeping bag.

Participants were asked to arrive between 2 and 4pm on Day 0. After registration we just sat around in the shade waiting to get started. There wasn’t much conversation as the participants seemed to be mentally steeling themselves for 10 days of Noble Silence.

At 5:30 stragglers were still arriving and I was already bored and restless. It was going to be a long 10 days.


I’ll never get used to a 4am wakeup call, let alone a 2-hour meditation beginning at 4:30am. Even the roosters weren't awake yet.

And I hadn’t sat cross-legged for longer than twenty minutes since participating in the YMCA’s Indian Guides program with my dad in the 1970s. About fifteen minutes in my right foot fell asleep and a few minutes later the pain in my left knee was unbearable. I constantly wriggled and shifted in order to maintain some level of comfort. Later I would learn that discomfort is a critical part of the process.

Seventy meditators sit in a hall, women on the left side and men on the right. Each has an elaborate system of pillows, blankets, shawls and stools that indicates they’ve done this before. I am sitting on the very pillow I rested my head on last night.

Some people have little stools upon which they place a fitted pillow. They kneel, their feet under the stool and sit on it, wrapping the entire throne in a blanket. Others use multiple pillows and blankets and wraps to build a nest upon which they will perch for the next hour or two. A scarf hangs over many of their heads, mimicking a monk’s hood. They sit, rigid as a Buddha statue, while I shake in physical pain and mental strain.

At the front of the room on a small dias sits Isabella, our teacher. All in the room, including me, want to be more like her. She is calm and compassionate and loving. She smiles a lot and is an excellent listener. She is wise and has the glowing face of someone who has found the key to the meaning of life and is desperately trying to give it to you. Why do you refuse it?

On a chair in the back of the room sits a 70-year old gentleman who has done this before. He is solemn now but after the course he reveals his bright smile and cheerful voice. About every fifteen minutes he emits a sound that is too soft to be a cough, more nasally than a throat clear, but still forceful and determined like a grunting calf. After a few days of this I decide that he’s probably In a state of meditational bliss and feels as if he’s being pleasured by a young Audrey Hepburn. 

Of the 35 men here, I am the only one without facial hair. I stand out like a razor salesman at a shaggy beard convention. 

Vipassana Meditation Technique

The purpose of vipassana meditation, to my understanding, is to reach enlightenment by understanding all sensations as neither positive nor negative. It was developed by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2500 years ago and his contribution to the world is that he realized that we are the master of our own emotions. When we become angry, for example, it is we who make ourselves angry and cannot be blamed on anyone else. By learning to control our reaction to external stimuli we are masters of our own happiness.

The first three days (thirty hours of meditating) we focused on the inside of our nostrils and the spot just below the nostrils and above the upper lip. With each normal breath we focused our attention to feel how the incoming breath is colder than the outgoing. Sometimes your breath only goes through one nostril or the other. I could feel the stubble on my upper lip as my gentle breath passed over it. I could feel my nose hairs sway in the breeze of each breath.

After honing our attention for thirty hours we turned our new sensitivity to full body scans. The next seven days were spent slowly scanning our body with our mind and honestly feeling whatever we felt, with no regard for good or bad feelings. You know how you can feel your heart beat? And you can feel your pulse in your neck? That same pulse is in every artery, vessel & capillary in your body, just to a lesser degree. By honing our observation skills we can feel it and we can feel every part of our body with our mind. Advanced practitioners can also feel the inside of their bodies.

This was a revelation to me. I learned to focus my attention on my ear, for instance, and could feel it tingling and vibrating. It was pretty cool to get myself into a full-body tingling experience -- like smoking legal Colorado weed but without the brain fog.

Why do this?
The idea is that by closely examining our own body we will come across different sensations like the pain in my knee of the aching in my lower back. And by simply observing these sensations with a neutral mind we will re-wire our brain to also not react negatively to challenging or offensive words hurled at us, for example. The absence of negativity in our minds leaves us left only with joy and love. This is why the Dalai Lama and other seasoned practitioners are always smiling and so gracious to everyone they encounter.

For the past ten years or so, science has been studying Buddhist monks and its findings support what the Buddha discovered 25 centuries ago. From the BBC:

"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn't know previously was possible."
When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.

Daily Schedule

4am  Wakeup
4:30-6:30  Meditate
6:30-8:00  Breakfast and break
8:00-9:00  Meditate
9:00-11:00 Meditate
11:00-1:00 Lunch and break
1:00-2:30 Meditate
2:30-3:30 Meditate
3:30-5:00 Meditate
5:00-6:00 Snack
6:00-7:00 Meditate
7:00-8:30 Lecture
8:30-9:00 Meditate
9:05 Goodnight, Kirk

Where you see multiple meditation sessions back-to-back, they were broken up by a 5 or 10 minute break. It was all run very efficiently. Volunteers worked in the kitchen and served us two meals per day, breakfast and lunch. The afternoon snack was only one apple or one banana. I got a little hungry at times, but actually skipped breakfast on days 3-8. Hunger is another of those sensations that we often don't just sit with. We think we need to overfill our stomach the minute it gurgles. I basically ate one meal a day, a full plate of rice/beans/salad/pasta, and was satiated.

My Experience

The first six days went surprisingly well for me. I thought that by day three I might be running for the exit (there was a tiny brewery just down the street), but I started off strong. The days actually went by fairly quickly because they were broken up into 60-, 90- and 120-minute segments.

Day seven is where I began to crack. Ten hours a day of focusing the mind is quite difficult and my mind was now all over the place and I didn't care to reign it in anymore. Day eight was similar and day nine I mostly mailed it in. On day ten we finally got to speak so there was much less meditating and a lot of sharing with the other participants. We stayed over the night of day ten and had to get up at 4am again on day eleven, so, in actuality, it was a twelve day experience.

Boring. Difficult. Emotional. Inspirational. Informational.

Those words pretty much sum it up for me. Some of the lectures given over audio tape by the program founder S.N. Goenka were quite inspiring and very informational. Others made me feel as if he were a smooth salesman trying to sell me the best thing in the world - enlightenment and eternal happiness - but that it would cost me a lifetime of one hour meditating every morning and one hour meditating every evening. A stiff price.

I learned a lot and am thankful that I am in a place where I have ten days I can just throw at an experience like this. As of now I highly doubt I'll do another one of these, but who knows. There are centers in virtually every country of the world so perhaps in my travels I will try again.

Would I recommend it?
Only to someone who is serious about meditation. Talking with the other participants it seems the ones who got the most out of it, like anything I suppose, were those who were most committed going in. I was only semi-committed and I think that's why I petered out after a week.

Location of vipassana centers

What's Next?

Stay tuned in a couple weeks for a report from an eight day ayahuasca plant medicine experience in Peru...


Ann Vinciguerra said...

I was wondering how this would go. Glad you made it through and good to hear your insight. Onward and upward!

Jill Deuel said...

Thank you for sharing your experience! I think the mind does have a way to heal itself and the body. I heard someone speak at a conference that has proven that thoughts create physical 'nodes' in your brain. :)

Kirk Ahlberg said...

Yeah, Jill. It's cool to see that science is now supporting what monks have known for thousands of years.

samh said...

I'd say you came out of it pretty well, Kirk. I have been very much looking forward to finding a few minutes to read how this went and I'm glad to see how it turned out for you.

Gaia Sagrada said...

wow very nice your blog and blog pic i am so happy...

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