When asked to share about my first vipassana experience I was hesitant for three reasons. First of all, everyone has their own experience. Of the many friends I know who’ve sat a course, reported experience range from physical uncontrolled purging, to being cured of life long asthma or feeling that their bodies had never been so supple and at ease. Secondly I don’t want to share too much because it’s deeply personal, and again, everyone has their own unique experience. You don’t need my story or anyone else’s influencing your attitude or filling you with preconceived expectations. In order to sincerely commit myself to being open to having my own experience, I had to repeatedly put aside all the stories I had previously heard. Lastly, I’m still processing. I’m not yet fully aware of how this experience has affected me and what role if any it will play as I return to daily life.
So with that being said, please take what I have to say with a grain of salt as it’s just one person’s experience. Also, I’d like to note that even my friends that had the most gruelling and unpleasant of tales to tell, ALL still insisted that it was something I should experience for myself. Enough with the disclaimers. Here’s what I’ve got to share:
Logistics: You wake each day at 4am and meditate on and off, (mostly on) from 4:30am to 9pm each night sitting for over 12 hours each day. Scrumptious satvic vegetarian meals are served twice daily and dinner is replaced by light fruit. You take a vow of noble silence agreeing not to communicate with fellow meditators in any way shape or form. This means in addition to not speaking you don’t smile, acknowledge, or attempt to express yourself. You basically avoid eye contact and work diligently as though you are meditating and existing in isolation. There is a strict code of conduct, with each rule serving and explained purpose.
My Experience: I went into this endeavoring to adhere strictly to all rules, by 4:05am the first morning I had broken the most important one: Sila - morality - I will do no harm. There was a spider in the shower and as I spastically splashed it toward the drain, my sleepy brain said “wait, darn, noooo!” Another rule is not to practice any other technique, physical or spiritual. No mantra, no prayer, no mixing methods, no pranayama, no exercise (other than slow walking during break), no asana, no….well, you get the point. You must follow the directions closely and maintain purity of the practice. I watched myself regularly wander into prayer, mantra, breath work and the like. My years of varied practices made the first few days an exercise in observation of these habitual practices popping up. By day 5 I gave myself permission to enjoy the relief of prayer and practicing gratitude. I also began sneaking in asana practice when the opportunity arose as they said yoga was complementary to vipassana however it isn’t permitted do to lack of private practice space; I justified my movements by reserving them for when I had the dorm to myself.
Two things kept arising for me: Discipline & Discomfort. I didn’t find this particular method of meditation enjoyable. I struggled with the intensity of being awake but sedentary for long periods as well as lack of sleep. Night 3 I cried so hard my eyes got sore and I worried I might have to leave the next day. Day 4 I experienced dreadful flashbacks to repressed memories of things that left my skin crawling. By day 7 I had transitioned into belligerence. It’s a funny thing to watch yourself vacillate between “Awesome, I can do this, as long as I do my best, Enlightenment here we come!” to “This is crap, pure propaganda, I’m so over it!” I got a crystal clear view of how I handle various situations as well as how I treat myself during each one.
I kept coming back to trying to do my best, mustering up varying degrees of discipline throughout each day. Discipline to keep practicing, discipline not to move during meditation, discipline to get through the physical pain without judgement. On day two I felt as though my knees were actually going to physically explode. Luckily my mind stepped in and reminded me of logic (my knees can’t explode, right?) It also told me that nothing lasts forever and this too shall pass. It did, and then it came back again. Sometimes I experienced this impermanence with grace, sometimes it was a combination of gritting my teeth and shouting internal profanities. (I was highly amused that my internal dialogue landed somewhere on the plain of sailor meets Wayne Dyer.) Sometimes I broke down, physically rearranging even though I wasn’t supposed to. When I was asked by the teacher how my equanimity was I answered “it’s a great idea. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying”.
As for discomfort, I kept wondering if I had ever felt like this before in my life? I had 3rd degree burns once, but I don’t remember the feeling really. In rehab I was pretty uncomfortable, but I had a host of support, distractions and resources then. Here I had only my mind. Only looking inward. And sometimes that just isn’t pretty. When I was six-years-old I had 3 cavities filled with no anesthetic. That was dreadful and I still remember what it felt like, Ugh. But you know what? That only lasted a few hours, this was 10 days! Yup, I’m going to parallel this to extensive dental work that never ends. Who said I was dramatic?
Touching on the silence, I loved it. It’s a gift to enjoy community without having any of the social requirements. The silence for me was the easiest and most pleasurable part. On the 10th day we were allowed to chat and everyone was thrilled to share everything they had experienced. One question that was asked of the people who attend these retreats repeatedly was “does it get any easier”. No one said yes. Each individual, paused and contemplatively replied “it just gets different”.
Would I do it again? Possibly a 3-5 day stint, but I don’t think I could manage another 10 days. Do I regret it or would I not have done it had I know what I was in for? I don't’ think so. I had been curious about it for years. I’m glad I made the commitment and that is no longer a mystery for me. But I did seriously consider leaving twice. Once around day 3-4 because I felt mentally unsound and considerably like I was doing psychological damage in an professionally unsupported environment. (There is support in that you are able to ask questions of the teacher related to the meditation & your experience). And later around day 7-8 because by this point I was fairly sure this was not my path. That day I asked the venerable Yin Kit & her understudy “What do I do when I think it’s all crap?” To my delight they both used the word “crap” in their answer which made me feel lighthearted again.
I love meditation. I love spiritual practice. But I believe there are many paths to enlightenment and there are other methods I practice that resonate more kindly with me. Do I think it was beneficial? Yes in some ways very much so, however I still feel quite raw and not yet aware of all the effects it may have had. There are some things that still aren’t sitting right with me and if they persist, I may seek help from outside sources. Would I suggest it to others? If you’re interested - Absolutely, with the caveat that your intentions are pure and that you are in good mental health. Don’t got with the intention to escape or cure anything. Go with an open heart and open mind.
WHY? Now the most common question I get is WHY? Why would you participate in this, what’s the point and what were your benefits? Our Western analytical mind wants to quantify, explain and prove its value. I did it primarily because I thought it would deepen my spirituality. I thought it would help cultivate my connection with what I call God or the Universe. I did it out of curiosity - I’d heard so many stories that I wanted to have my own first hand experience. I did it in hope of personal growth. I don’t think I’m enlightened just yet, and the practice of Vipassana might not be my way of getting there, but it’s another step on the path to feeding my soul, to staying open and to challenging myself.
As for the benefits I’m not sure. I imagine I cultivated more discipline and gained more insight into myself, my habits and my reactions. I don’t say this flippantly, but for me I find I don’t see this progress in myself immediately. It’s more of a slow, developed, hindsight experience. I learned another language/method, which for me always helps clarify others. For example, whether I’m reading spiritual texts like the yoga sutras, practicing the principles of recovery from addiction or listening to inspirational speakers or religious philosophy, the message I hear is always the same: Love, Integrity & Faith. And when I gain better understanding and experience of one, it translates into simplifying the other.
Now I usually like to wrap up my writing in a neat little package, but much like this experience, I don’t think I can. So that’s all I’ve got. If you want to learn more head to https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index and if you have more in depth questions, feel free to call me and I will do my best to be an open book. Until then:
May all beings be happy,
May all beings be loved,
May all beings be healthy and
May all beings know peace
***It took me some time to feel "normal" again after this retreat. I felt quite sensitive, exposed and mentally disturbed for a couple months after returning to my usual routine. As more time and space passed between my experience, I began practicing the vipassana technique simply out of habit. I returned about 11 months later for a 3 day sit and had an entirely different experience. I quite enjoyed it, slept much better, and found I was much kinder with myself the second time round. I would like to return annually in the future.