My 10-day Silent Retreat Yo Self

Alex Hardy
Jan 11, 2018 · 15 min read

I finally did it. After 18 months of dabbling with iPhone meditation apps, I took the plunge.

I’d be upgrading my meditation routine from 10 minutes per day to 10 hours per day. I signed up for a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat.

And after hearing their pitch, can you blame me?

Narrator [In dramatic documentary voice]: What if I told you, there was a place where networking is strictly forbidden, #Athleisure is the required dress code, no email is allowed, and bedtime is 9pm.

Athleisure and 9pm bedtime? #MillennialHeaven

Me: Sounds like paradise. What’s the cost?

Narrator: It’s free. And as a bonus, we’ll show you how to permanently liberate your mind from suffering.

Me: Wow. But what’s the catch? Do I donate a percentage of my lifetime earnings? Abstain from sin forever? Pledge myself to Buddha?

Narrator: No catch. It’s completely free. Use what works for you and discard what doesn’t. Oh btw, the self doesn’t exist. But we’ll cover that later.


Soooo WTF is Vipassana?

I’ll keep this short. There are many good resources to learn more about Vipassana meditation. I link to a few at the bottom of the article. If you want to dive deeper, consult one of them.

A Vipassana TL;DR (Paraphrased from the Buddha)

  1. Most human beings are constantly suffering 😫😫😫
  2. We suffer because we’re always craving for something we don’t have or craving to get rid of something we don’t want.
  3. To end your suffering, you must become aware of what’s happening in your body and mind and become equanimous towards it all.

Equa·nim·i·ty: Mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. “she accepted both the good and the bad with equanimity

4. The Vipassana technique: develop awareness and equanimity by carefully observing 🔍 every breath you take 💨, every thought in your head 🤔 and every sensation on your body 🤸‍

5. Observe, but don’t react.

6. (Repeat Step 5).

By remaining equanimous instead of reacting, you realize that all sensations are impermanent. They arise. And then they pass away. Life is impermanence.

It sounds deceptively simple. But these 10 days were some of the most physically and mentally grueling of my life.


Observational Humor re: the Human Condition

Before I dive into the heavier stuff, let’s cover some musings I had while silently observing others for 10 days. A quick refresher on the rules of the retreat:

  • You remain completely silent for the first 9.5 days 🤐🤐🤐
  • You don’t make eye contact, physical contact, or gesture to anyone 🚫👀 🚫🤼‍ 🚫👋
  • You do not exercise 🚫🏋️
  • You wake up at 4am every day 🌄
  • You meditate for 10+ hours per day
  • You may not access electronics, the internet, reading, writing, or the opposite sex

The World’s Comfiest Slumber Party

The Meditation Hall — more precisely, the floor of the Meditation Hall — felt like the comfiest sleepover ever. For 10 hours per day, everyone sat on the floor, head-to-toe in blankets, athleisure and pajamas. The room felt womb-like.

Nightly Video Lectures: Pritt-ay, Pritt-ay Good

Every night, we watched a video lecture from a man named S.N. Goenka. Goenka brought the Buddhist Vipassana tradition the West.

Perhaps it was Stockholm Syndrome, or perhaps that I heard no other words spoken ~2 weeks, but I found him hilarious.

Comedians in Cars Getting the Meaning of Life

Losing the Battle of the Sexes?

The 40 men on retreat were prohibited from any interaction whatsoever with the 40 women— We lived and slept on different campuses. However we did meditate in the same hall. The women were clustered on one side, men on the other, and a 10-foot wide aisle separating us. In periodic observation 👀 🕵️ , it seemed like the women were adapting much better to our conditions than the men. The women were always on-time and seated as the meditation began, didn’t make noises, and never left the lights on or doors open in the hallway outside the main room.

Meanwhile, the men’s side felt like a postapocalyptic wasteland.

Live look at the men’s side of the Meditation Room. Except no Physical Contact allowed.

Chaos reigned supreme. People were chronically late. Half of the men were coughing relentlessly 😷😷😷. We were also sneezing, grunting, smacking lips, or worse. Someone always left the distracting hallway light on outside the main room 💡💡💡. And 10% of the male participants left the program after conceding mentally or physically to the challenges of the retreat.

A Dentist’s Dream

My oral hygiene has never been better. When you’re not allowed to read, write, or use electronics, amusement is hard to come by. Brushing and flossing became a large part of daily entertainment.

The Usual Suspects: Not Everyone is Who They Appear to Be

One of my favorite parts of the retreat was when it ended. Just kidding. Kind of.

Aside from the obvious relief of completing it, I loved interacting with everyone I’d been observing in silence for almost 2 weeks. During the silence, I had come up with elaborate nicknames and backstories for everyone I saw. Some of the nicknames:

  • “Old man woke bae”
  • “Foreign or weird?”
  • “Crunchy Lebowski”
Who knew?

In speaking with people after the silence was broken, everyone sounded completely differently than I imagined. And had totally different life stories than what I’d concocted for them in my head. Dispelling the myths I created was fascinating. This sheds light on the power of myths we make up every day to explain the people and world around us.


My Own Experiences on the Retreat

Disclaimer

I imagine that listening to other people talk about their meditation experiences is like listening to them discuss a vivid dream, a vacation, or their Fantasy Football team. Unless you’re actively involved, you don’t really care. Regardless, I’m diving deeper on my experience below. You’ve been warned.

Jumping Off the Deeeeeep End: The Swimming Pool of Meditation

Before this trip, I “meditated” for 10 minutes daily using the Headspace app. I’ve found it useful, but I put “meditated” in quotes because this retreat showed me that what I had been doing was not really meditating. Rather, I was “sitting restlessly for 10 minutes with my eyes closed, allowing my thoughts to run wild through my head.”

The retreat opened my eyes to that truth, and sparked a metaphor for the different levels of meditation: The Deep End of a swimming pool.

I vividly remember the day my parents let me swim in the deep end of the swimming pool. I was initially terrified of the murkiness beneath the surface. What was down there? Danger? Death? Sharks?

I came to view meditation like the deep end of the swimming pool. And the mind is infinitely deep.

Here’s how I visualized the different stages:

Rolling in the Deep. End.

Using an app like Headspace is the equivalent of sitting at the edge of the deep end, dangling your feet into the water (1). Yes, your body is technically in the pool and getting wet 💦. It might cool you off and provide relief, but you’re not really experiencing anything below the surface.

Over the course of the 10 day retreat, I was able to progress through various levels of the pool. At first, I thrashed around, treading water on the surface (2) 🏊🏼🏊🏼. It wasn’t elegant, but I wrestled with the ability to survive in the deep end.

By Day 3, I was able to put on a snorkel (3). I could submerge myself briefly into deeper levels of consciousness, remaining calm. However, I could only go so deep without having to resurface — running out of air after a few minutes.

Toward the end of the retreat, I was able to Scuba dive (4). I could penetrate very deep levels of the subconscious, and stay meters below the surface for 30 minutes or more at a time. ⏳ Before, every minute felt like an hour. Now, every hour felt like a minute. ⌛️

I imagine that trained meditators can reach far deeper levels. Their daily meditation is like being in a submarine (5). They’re able to go hundreds of meters below the surface, Marianas-Trench-level-deep. And stay for long periods of time. They’re hardly affected by the pressure and perils of these deep dives. It’s a depth that I may never reach, but an interesting goal to ponder.


Better than Netflix: The 🐵Monkey Mind🐵 run wild:

The most common question I received before leaving for the retreat was: “Won’t you be completely bored?”

I experienced many feelings on this trip: pain, love, anxiety, gratitude, frustration, and more. Boredom, however, was not one of them.

In fact, being alone with my “Monkey Mind” for the first few days provided some of the best entertainment of my life.

Netlflix is lauded for making customized recommendations to you based on what you like, and automatically begins the next episode while only giving you 10 seconds to opt out.

Who among us hasn’t binged?

The Monkey Mind is like Netflix on steroids. Imagine viscerally reliving the most impactful and important events of your life. Accomplishments. Failures. Friendships. Romances. One after the next without stopping. It’s a never-ending entertainment feed that hooks you in and keep you riveted. I relived the happiest days of my life and was transported to experiences that profoundly shaped me as a person. I could hear sounds, smell aromas, and see scenscapes and faces in vivid detail of things that happened 20 years ago. Reliving the beginning, middle, and end of every past event and relationship was powerful and addicting. But alas, it was not the purpose of this form of meditation.

Oh yeah, my mind on retreat was also like Netflix because I replayed nearly every episode of WestWorld, LOST, Game of Thrones, and Black Mirror in my head.


The Breakthroughs and Realizations:

No Itch Lasts Forever: Learn to be Equanimous with Discomfort

This retreat involved a lot of sitting. We’d meditate for 1–2 hours at a time, and were directed to remain still. On Day 1, I was in a lot of back pain after 20 minutes of sitting cross-legged on a pillow with no back support. I had seen others relocate to the back of the room, to lean against the wall, so I did the same.

On Day 2, I was called in to see the meditation teacher. He curtly told me that working through the pain was part of this experience. There was going to be pain no matter what. And that the back of the room was reserved for people with medical conditions. So I should return to the cushion in the middle of the room, and deal with it.

For the next couple of days, the experience was physically grueling. I had sharp shooting pains in my upper right back. And my knees and ankles would alternatively fall asleep and then awaken in searing pain.

And then, on Day 4, I was simply able to deal with it. I’m not sure exactly how or why the switch flipped, but I was able dispassionately observe the pain.

On retreat, I reminded myself of Buddhist monks’ method of protesting. Occasionally, they protest violence by assuming their meditation pose somewhere public, lighting themselves on fire, and not moving a muscle. If they can be equanimous in those circumstances, I can sit for an hour or two.

On a lighter (see what I did there?) note, as our meditation teacher put it: “No itch lasts forever.”

Stop Living Life Braced for Impact

This retreat helped me build heightened awareness of the relationship between my body and mind — something that had been sorely lacking.

Importantly, I noticed that much of the suffering I experienced on retreat was not the pain itself, but the anticipation or expectation of pain. I found my body consistently “bracing for impact” from the pain, even though there was no pain to be experienced. This amplified and multiplied my misery.

Realizing I was doing this allowed me to stop clenching so hard. And to consider other areas of my life where I might be “bracing for impact.”

Not an ideal way to live life.

Doctor, I’ve Got a Case of the Wind Chimes

You know how if you accidentally and annoyingly walk into some wind chimes it can be jarring? You’re surprised by the physical contact as well as the noise. In reality, however, the physical contact isn’t painful (just surprising) and the noise is actually quite tolerable (just startling).

When I observed the part of upper back that had sharp pain, I envisioned myself walking through a bunch of wind chimes. I realized it was a little jarring, but it was just a sensation. When I moved past that point in my back, and scanned other areas of my body, the pain faded to the background of my awareness. And then disappeared altogether. Eventually, the wind chimes stop moving.

Walking through wind chimes

Full disclosure: I booked a deep tissue massage immediately after returning to civilization. And it was glorious. Does that make me a bad Buddhist?

Finding the stress ball in my stomach

Forget death & taxes, the one constant in life is stress. I initially turned to the Headspace meditation app as a form of stress relief — with decent results.

On this retreat, however, I reached a whole new level. As I scanned up and down my body, I was able to locate the precise point in my abdomen where the stress lives. It was small sphere, maybe 6 cubic inches. And when I stopped to observe it during my scans, it would get smaller and smaller. And at times, it would completely dissipate. It’s a powerful visual that I hope to bring back with me to the ‘real world’ anytime I experience stress.

I know nothing about Harry Potter, but visualized my anxiety to be like this Snitch thing.

Gratitude for Sinus Problems: The Bass Drum in my head

These retreat experiences are supposed to cultivate gratitude, but even I’m surprised to be writing this part. There were times on the retreat, where I was actually grateful for my deteriorating sinuses. I’m getting sinus surgery in January 2018, and have been living in a state of constant pressure, congestion, and general discomfort for the past year.

However, on this retreat my sinuses enhanced my awareness of the mind-body connection. We were asked to focus on sensations in our head. Not only did I feel some tingling, itching, and tickling, but I I felt a deep, pulsating, sinus pressure with every heart beat. My sinuses throbbed as if someone was hitting a bass drum.

My sinuses IRL

But when I dispassionately observed it, I found equanimity. It didn’t even hurt. I was grateful and receptive to just experiencing the sensation. But don’t tell my ENT that.

Maybe there’s a metaphor here: that we could change the way we view physical pain, as something to be averted and avoided at all costs. Instead, use it as an opportunity for awareness, equanimity, and gratitude.

Emotions, Emotions, Emotions,

By this point you may be thinking — okay, you’ve shared the (literal) symphony of physical reactions you experienced, but how about the mental breakdowns? We know you weren’t just sitting there pondering a possible case of scoliosis, right?

Right.

Over the 10 days, as I replayed major and minor events from my life, the emotional response was strong. I was brought to tears multiple times. Interestingly, these were never tears of sadness. I cried because I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for kindness of people in my life.

It was all love.

And if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance I was thinking about you specifically! After spending a few hours in my Netflix/Monkey Mind, I frequently looked something like this:

Yes, I cried. Like this. Multiple times.

Six Surprises From the retreat

In order of least surprising to most surprising. Drumroll please…

6) 10 days of silence was really easy to maintain. In fact, given the concentration required and mind-body rollercoaster I rode, the silence was preferred.

5) I was rarely bored — maybe a total of 30 minutes or so during the entire 10 days.

4) S.N. Goenka, via grainy videos recorded in 1991, was hilarious and engaging.

3) Waking up at 4am was not really difficult. This is surprising since as a teenager, I could rarely be awakened for High School without parents throwing cold water on me. Seriously.

2) The food was really, really, objectively good.

1) My company, family, and the United States of America did not self-combust while I was on retreat. 🔥🌍🔥


So, did it change you?

Maybe? This is a tough question to answer.

For one, I’m still processing a lot of what I experienced during the retreat.

For another, in the real world, Vipassana students are supposed to meditate for 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening, every day. It’s TBD whether I can maintain that.

And finally, I wonder when the current “honeymoon period” I’m in will wear off.

Regardless, here are some concrete changes I’m experiencing:

  1. Increased equanimity: It’s impossible to ignore that I can more easily stay calm in the wake of negative events that occur to me on an emotional or physical level.
  2. Increased awareness of the mind-body connection: I spend most of my time various digital worlds. Slack, email 📧 📧, text messages, and social media are most of my interactions with others. This retreat made me aware of of how I’d overlooked the magic of the mind-body connection. Our bodies are trying to tell us things. Maybe it’s time to start listening. I’m far less reliant on my body for daily survival than a factory worker 100 years ago, or a hunter-gatherer 10,000 years ago. 21st Century life is better by nearly every measure, but there’s some value in maintaining the mind-body connection of our ancestors. Many people discuss powerful meditations as “out-of-body” experiences. I found the deepest levels this trip to be the ultimate “in-my-body” experience.
  3. Softening / urge towards generosity: Anyone who knows me knows I’m a typically a Type-A overplanner. However, after the trip was over, I softened a bit. I resisted the urge to meticulously plan the rest of my travel and simply trusted that it would take care of itself. And it did. I spent an incredible day exploring Joshua Tree with a 58-year-old French adventurer who lives out of his van. I met an amazingly friendly couple at the campground and ended up bumming a ride around Southern California with them. In a complete about-face for me, I let my inner vagabond breathe free. And it felt liberating. Additionally, I feel an increased urge for generosity. Giving joy to others feels like a natural extension of taking care of myself. This comes in the form of material things, like buying someone lunch unexpectedly, and intangible things, such as stopping to chat and truly engage with a complete stranger.
  4. Comfort with treating yo self: The premise behind Vipassana: to be a force for good in the world, you must first be a force for good within yourself. In short, you must put on your own oxygen mask before helping out those around you. This lesson is a powerful one, and one that I too-often write off.

5. What’s the Secret to Happiness? I don’t know and I don’t care: On retreat, I didn’t find bliss, happiness, fulfillment, or a a portal to another dimension. All of these are fleeting. I found something far more durable: a blueprint for equanimity.

In addition to those major discoveries, it was certainly refreshing to disconnect completely for 10 days. And doing this at the end of the year gave me the timely opportunity to reflect on on how I’d spent the previous 355 days (and previous 31 years).


Are you a Vipassana Missionary spreading the gospel to anyone you meet?

No.

I received a lot of benefit from my 10 days on a Vipassana retreat. I think the theory and results are provocative and warrant further exploration.

With that said, I can’t, in good conscience, recommend this for everyone. The experience is incredibly taxing on your body and mind. This is not a purely relaxing, blissful, 10-day vacation. But for me, it was far more restorative than 10 days on a beach.

I plan on doing a retreat again in the future, and hope to incorporate this meditation into a daily technique. But before you rush off and try one of these yourself, appreciate what you’re about to undertake. It’s not for the faint-hearted. ❤️💛💚💙💜🖤


P.S. It has come to my attention that Twitter Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey participated in a 10-day retreat during the same timeframe as I did. Unless he was wearing a really really ridiculously good disguise, he was not on my retreat.

P.P.S.: If you thought this was hardcore, Yuval Harari (author of Sapiens) goes on a 60 DAY Vipassana retreat every year 😳😳😳.


Additional Resources:

h/t Tiago Forte, maria luisa lambert, Steve Schlafman, & James Allworth

h/t Vince Horn


HUUUGE thank you to Michael, Eric R. Jared, David P., David G., and Eric W. for the copious and helpful feedback!

Alex Hardy

Written by

Thinker. Reader. Figuring it out.

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