Vipassana retreats will never be a wildly popular vacation package, Vipassana is not a vacation at all. A yoga retreat is a vacation, a vipassana retreat is 11 days of boot camp for the soul.
Prospective Navy Seals are put through “Hell Week” in which they train for about 5 ½ days without very much sleep, it pushes the recruits to the limits of human existence.
In a Vipassana retreat, you spend twice as much time pushing the extent of your limits in a completely different direction, from sun up to sun down the time is spent meditating. No talking. No eye contact.
No communication whatsoever besides essential conversation with the instructors. No intoxicants. No sexual activity. No lies. No killing of any living being. No stealing. Think you can handle that? Here’s what to expect, if you are willing to leave your old self behind.
1. The only way to get ready for Vipassana is to do it
One doesn’t make the decision to do Vipassana lightly. Even if you find a center in a town near you, the 11 days it takes to complete the retreat is a fair chunk of time off.
In the east, a monastic life is far more common. Because of this, Vipassana retreats are common, many of them offer easier courses for children.
The role these establishments play in society might be comparable to a well-catered campground in ours. The kind of campground where you find glampers pulled up in their RVs forming a wagon round, fishing poles and kayaks for rent at the lake, and maybe an archery range too. All that excess to help people find just one word. Peace.
Admittedly, the campground sounds like a lot of fun to me. There is stuff for the kids to do, most likely I will be able to find some photogenic flora, and I love tending a campfire as much as the next guy.
But I know that after I leave, the campground will more or less be the experience I expected it to be and I will remember it the same as all the other campground experiences from before. Vipassana, if nothing else, will be something completely different. So don’t start a retreat with any expectations. Just start a retreat.
2. Your training won’t save you
The first thing you will notice is the different skill levels of meditators who come to do Vipassana. I did my retreat in Lumbini, Nepal and there were over 100 of us at the center during my class. There were Nepalis, Indians, and tourists from a swath of different countries, each with a different level of familiarity with meditation.
The first day is a crash course in basic meditation techniques. You don’t have to be extremely familiar with meditation before you start a Vipassana retreat by the end you will be.
Now, if you’re like me and thinking that you’ll have an edge because you’ve sat lotus pose once in a while before. You’re wrong.
What makes Vipassana different is that you will be meditating for 10 hours every day. You will meditate as if your life depended on it and at times it may feel as if it does. Those are the moments you get the most out of.
3. The existential crisis is coming
I highly recommend traveling to do your retreat. If it doesn’t make sense to pack your bags for the Himalayas, even just a town you haven’t been to before will do. Just find a way to detach yourself from your normal way of life. It will make the meditation that much easier when it gets hard.
For me, this happened on day 3. I wanted to jump up, run around, scream, lay down, go to sleep, hop on the first bus out of town and check my email all at once. The funny thing was that many of my retreat mates felt the same way at some point but I had no idea until after. I didn’t really even know what they looked like.
Sometimes when I was at my most distracted I would see their faces turned away from me, deep in meditation. Since we were not making eye contact I thought this an allowable sin, but as I started to guess at what they looked like and what they were thinking I had to reel myself back in.
This happened mostly during the one-hour sessions of “strong determination” I consider myself in pretty good shape but I was not prepared for so many reps of good posture sitting for a set of 10 days.
The pain was maddening and it was part of the process. Participants are instructed to observe the pain from a detached viewpoint. The end result for me was a sort of utilitarian thinking.
Here was this selfish little man complaining of pain but he is in no harm, he is fed, he is safe, he will be fine in an hour when he gets to move again and an hour is such a short amount of time.
4. The food is the best in the world
I can feel your doubt already, but I’ve checked with many classmates and friends. The food you eat while on a retreat tastes like manna from heaven. This could be because you are taught to spend the majority of your time focusing on the senses.
This could be because in a day of meditation a dinner is unquestionably the most energetic time of the day. What do I think?
I think the food was so good because we were really living. In our day to day lives, so much weight is given to applying your time and energy to the constructs of our society. Unhook, listen to your body, listen to your soul, and enjoy every grain of rice that you consume.
5. You never know what you have until it is gone
At some point, things start to get better. The pain that I had come to associate with “strong determination” felt more manageable. I had learned to recognize the slightest of sensations and emotions and of the latter there were plenty.
Recognizing these shifts in myself served to give me more control. When the noble silence was lifted on the 10th day we were allowed to converse with each other and I expected myself to rush at the opportunity to do anything and everything besides sit and scan my body for sensation.
I found myself stretching my last meditation as long as I could remain calm. The thoughts that ended my final session took the form of a laundry list of things I needed to do when I got back home and just like that it was over.
I left my retreat with a better understanding of who I am and a better grasp of my own feelings. Everyone experiences their time differently and with the deep lows comes exhilarating highs.
If you are curious, take a moment to explore the many retreat locations worldwide. If you have already experienced a Vipassana retreat, I would love to learn from your experience on social media!