10 things I learned from a 10-day meditation retreat
Last month I did a Vipassana meditation retreat. The pitch is fairly simple: No talking, no writing, no reading for 10 days, meditating 10 hours a day. This is the moment where people usually ask me WHY I would inflict that kind of torture on myself! But before I tell you about the 10 things I learned during this atypical experience, here’s some (short) context to get a sense of why I decided to give it a shot:
For the past 3 years or so, I’ve started a daily meditation habit. At first it was just about starting the morning with — what I would then call ‘Seated Thoughts’ — a 5-minute session of reflecting on my thoughts, crossed-legged on my bed. It quickly evolved in a 20-minute morning meditation session everyday (or so…) and became a lasting life-changing habit. I started sharing my experience, meeting new people and at some point heard about ‘this pretty badass’ meditation retreat: Vipassana. When you start a new habit and you’re pretty pumped about it, there’s always this ‘how cute’ annoying moments that goes like this: “Oh, you’re *insert new habit here*? Cool! I have a friend who *insert super-hardcore-habit-that-makes-yours-look-just-cute here*”. “Oh you started running? I have this friend who did a triple IronMan running backwards!” “Oh you started meditating? I have a friend who did a 10 day meditation retreat without talking!” Ugh.
That’s how I decided that me too, someday, would be that friend. Joking aside, around that period I also decided that I would travel for a few months across South America. So after two amazing years at TheFamily, I was ready to go explore the world, alone. It made sense to start this outward exploration with a deep inward one, Vipassana.
Here’s 10 lessons I learned during this retreat:
1. Context is key
One of the things that struck me most is mastery of the context. Vipassana is a 2500 years old technique that iterated to fit modern lifestyle as well. Nothing is left to chance, they have declared a war on distractions, and they are amazingly good at it. Everything is aimed at helping you focus your attention on yourself. Here’s how it’s done:
- Location: The meditation center is miles away from any city-noise, located at the edge of a forest. No wi-fi for sure, not even cellphone reception!
- Interactions: You can’t talk to anyone during the retreat, you can’t even look at each other! Men and women are separated, thankfully.
- Amenities: Everything is taken care of. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you don’t wonder. After having organized thousands of retreats, they know what you’ll need & when you’ll need it. It’s impressive.
- Routine: It’s all about the gong. You wake up with the 4am gong, meditate for 2 hours, eat breakfast at 6:30am, rest until 8am, meditate for 2 hours, lunch break at 11am, rest for 2 hours, start meditating again at 1pm for 4 hours, tea break at 5, meditate for 1 hour, then listen to the evening discourse and meditate for another hour. It’s 9pm. Time to go to sleep. Gong. Repeat 10 times.
That’s just the context, not the technique. This is so important. When you meditate 10 hours a day — without being able to escape the struggle, the never-ending stream of thoughts, feelings, fears, regrets, angers, suppositions, regrets, fantasies, visions — you start to hang on to whatever distraction you can find. Operating a 10-day self-surgery requires the environment to be 100% sterile of outside distractions.
2. Nothing lasts forever
This is the key teaching of Vipassana and by extension Buddhism. The technique is about realizing that by your own personal experience. It’s sequenced in two parts:
- Sharpening the mind: Vipassana is a drilling technique to access the darkest roots of the unconscious, so the mind needs to get as sharp as possible. The first part of the technique is to focus all the attention on the area between the upper lip & the nostrils, acknowledging every bodily sensations. Whether it’s cold, heat, numbness, pain, tickling, tension, or throbbing, the goal is to just feel and observe all these sensations and realize they are constantly arising and then passing away. For three days. 10 hours a day.
- Observing the ever-changing nature of the body: Then starts the actual Vipassana Meditation. Now that the mind has been sharpened on a super-small area of the body, next begins the body scans. From head to toes, observing every gross or subtle sensation with equanimity: Without craving for pleasant sensations and aversion for unpleasant sensations. For 7 days. 10 hours a day.
During the first couples of day, the mind goes crazy and gets remarkably restless. The initial 10 hours are lethargic, each minute passes like an hour. Thoughts fly like bees around flowers, completely out of control. Visions are projected onto consciousness, causing the baffled eyelids to shut, though the eyes are already closed. It’s comparable to locking up a wild animal in a dark cage. Just like a wild animal has never been tamed in his life, the mind has never been cut out from distractions that long. Ever. Think about it, what was the longest time you stayed with yourself without any distractions to escape?
Eventually, the restlessness passes away. Maybe that low pain too, at some point. Against all odds, these sensations felt during the illusion of an eternity (2 hours) are passing away. The mind calms down, quietly sinks into bodily sensations and the awareness starts to become more and more subtle. Slowly arising from a mild meditation, I went for a short walk in the woods, aware of the ever-changing nature of life, my body & mind harmoniously thinking, “I got it!”. 5 minutes later, entering the meditation hall, I sat and closed my eyes and… BOOM, the war was on, again. I was struggling more than ever, escorted by a restless mind and a aching body, FUCK.
‘Anicca’ they say, nothing is permanent. Well, I realized it the hard way.
3. Wisdom is to be experienced
Not solely understood or believed. I guess that’s a rather common lesson that I’ve heard many many times. And that’s the point. Helped by Buddhist teachings, I found out that there are 3 levels of wisdom, one erected onto the former:
- What you believe: Because you’ve been told something by someone you instinctively trust, frequently family members, teachers or spiritual/religious leaders. “Don’t eat pork, it’s bad” / “Iran is a bad country”.
- What you understand: At some point in your life, maybe, you’ll question these former beliefs, trying to make sense out of what you’ve been told, analyzing the concepts and understanding the teachings. Digging deeper and further is key to make the teachings one’s own.
- What you experienced: It’s the purpose of the first two levels. Not only rationally understand something, but to experience it with the whole body as a witness. Two examples: Knowing everything about Guatemala — the history, the geography, the distance and itinerary from Antigua to San Pedro — doesn’t make you a traveler. Just because you have Google Street View doesn’t mean you’ve traveled the world. These are two very different things, two different levels of wisdom.
The same goes with ourselves. During these 10 days, the intention is not to understand something about oneself, but to experience the reality as it is. Unearthing this feeling of truth acutely differs from psychotherapy, just like Google Street View differs from traveling.
4. You are not that important
Being offline for 10 days is a refreshing experience, something I haven’t experienced for 10 years or so. This is incidentally what I highlighted on a Facebook post before the retreat. The idea of a digital ramadan was pretty exciting, as this theme is one of my favorite!
So I gave up my phone on the first day, and got an immediate sense of relief. The first couple of days are so intense that not even the idea of your smartphone comes to mind. What arises after a few days though, is whether people outside are thinking of you or not. This retreat feels like fighting a war and you feel so lonely that you’d expect people to think about you. “If they only knew what I’m going through”.
But guess what? They don’t! If the ego is an effervescent tablet and Vipassana acts like a glass of water, the end of the meditation finishes the dilution! Actually, people check in on you during the first 3 or 4 days, then you’re quickly forgotten. These people can be counted on the finger of one hand. How many people actually care isn’t expressed by how many people like a Facebook posts. It’s way more precisely defined by how many people send you uninterested & unsolicited messages to check in on you.
And that’s okay. This realization serves both as an ego softener & a good reminder on how friendship works. Both ways. It also highlights some unbalanced expectation we sometimes might put on others through Facebook.
5. Jokes are the foundation of shared experience
The question I got the most was what I missed the most for 10 days. Making jokes, that’s what! Not being able to talk is quite frustrating, but the stories can always be told later. Jokes can’t, they are so contextual that they lose all their substance in a few seconds and vanish into the fun-void (I’m sure this is a real thing). And because everything is so contextual during that kind of singular experience, it’s even more frustrating not being able to make a joke about something that just happened!
For example, the first meditation session starts in the morning with this (weird) chanting. The first time I heard it, I almost burst out laughing, looking at 100 people quietly crossed-legged in the dark, listening to cow-chanting asking myself “WTF am I doing here?”. I didn’t even try to furtively take a look at my neighbor face, for I would have exploded if I had seen a even just a smile. We eventually got the giggles around day 4, best feeling ever!
Jokes are the foundation of shared experience. In addition of being one of the most accurate social gauging technique, humor is the cement stabilizing the bricks of a shared experience. To my mind, it’s impossible to erect complex and extensive networks of relationships without the settling virtues of humor.
6. Body language can create love, or hate
Spending 18 hours a day for 10 days with 50 people without having talked to them is a special experience. It has this back-to-school feeling, these first days discovering your new classmates and suspiciously evaluating who’s a potential friend & who’s a potential foe. Remove the verbal communication and you’re stuck with body language to assess the people around you. Lots of research shows that 80% of our communication with others is nonverbal, I would say that body language provides a 80% accuracy whether you’ll hate or love someone.
In about a couple of days, I came to viscerally hate one of my neighbors in the meditation hall. His face, bearing, behavior, noises, and moaning were to profoundly irritate me. But here I was, in the middle of a non-judging meditation retreat, not being able to detach myself from this feeling of aversion. So I would calm down and tell myself that I didn’t even know the guy, he might even be the coolest guy ever, who knows? Refocusing, breathing in and out, and BOOM (again), I got involuntary visions of me smashing his head on the pavement with a huge mace. Not really Vipassanesque. Well, the guy ended up actually being kind of a prick. Same things happened with a couple of other neighbors, where on the contrary, I was positively convinced they would become friend. They did.
It’s not always 100% accurate much more complex than 300 words on Medium, but it felt like the unconscious already knows who’s good & bad for us, just by the way people behave non verbally. We often have the limited illusion that we like people mostly because of what they say, but the unconscious brain already knows.
We just need a tangible & conscious excuse.
7. We get used to (almost) everything
“Go to you edge. Regularly” is a mantra I try to live by. I’m often baffled by the resilience I find inside when going to the edge. During these 10 days, I got used to many things in ways I wouldn’t have imagined:
- The hardcore schedule: Around day 6, I got used to the schedule & it became how I lived without too much hassle. Waking up at 4am, no eating after 11am, 4-hour session of meditation, it started to become habits, punctuated by the usual gong.
- 10 days: This is longer than what we’re used to mentally represent. A week is definitely easier. The first days were a torment because I was counting down the hours, trying to have a sense of progression and control. Once I let go of the counting and surrendered to the present, each hour went faster.
- Not talking: That also became an habit! I was starting to get used to it by the end of the retreat. To cope with this withdrawal, I started sharing in unconventional ways with different things: The morning stars, the forest sounds, myself, the sole presence of others. It’s fascinating observing your body & mind surviving loneliness.
- Not moving: On day 4 there’s a new rule: 3 times a day, you cannot change position nor open your eyes during the whole one-hour-session. The first session is a torture. My knees were hurting so bad after just 20 minutes, I thought my tendons were about to snap. Every minute lasted an hour. But then again, to my great surprise, I got used to it after a couple of days.
Resilience is also found through others. At times I wanted to quit & leave. But it felt like I would be abandoning my neighbors, who I didn’t know that much, but with whom I had shared something unique. I persevered so we could share our experiences later on, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do that if I had quit.
8. Assuming is suffering
The non-talking rule has a nasty by-product: Not knowing how how bad or good you’re doing compared to the others. Remember these times after an 4-hour long exam, where you uncontrollably debrief & compare your answers? It feels good to get an idea on how you performed compared to the others. That’s because you don’t have to avoid the feeling of uncertainty. Enduring an experience so unfamiliar, for so long, without being able to compare, is torture, as it provokes something even more malicious: To assume. Assuming is suffering. Assuming is not getting a response to a Facebook message, getting pissed of at the “Seen at 3:25pm”, and wondering why.
In the context of Vipassana, it’s not being able to compare your struggling to the other participants. During a one-hour session, you keep your eyes closed 99% of the time. But for these couple of seconds of awareness, you get a whole deal of supposing: “Nobody moves a finger, am I the only one struggling?” It felt like everyone was a Buddha, 100% concentrated and in perfect flow, probably experiencing total liberation & subtle sensations where I was just getting pissed of at my head aching & my knees hurting. Then the vicious thoughts start crawling in: “Maybe that’s not for me, I’m obviously the worst.”
It turned out everyone was actually feeling like frauds, and my neighbors thought I was a real Buddha for 10 days.
Do. Not. Make. Any. Assumptions.
9. Your ego is a fighter
The ego is a fighter, a skillful and insidious one. He won’t just come straight to you and try to reason you out of this mess, invoking very simple reasons, like “Why are you sitting crossed legged for 10 hours a day with 99 other silent people, only reacting to the sound of a weird eastern gong?”.
No, that would be too easy.
Instead, the ego fights a more subtle battle, and incited me to gradually question things like the intentions of the “non-profit organization” behind Vipassana: “Why is this whole thing free? If something is free, that means I am the product! Is that a cult trying to convert me?” I started to misinterpret every little detail through this new ego-filter, and created more complex excuses to just quit.
Hopefully, I understood on time that the battle I was fighting was against myself. Fighting against yourself is the longest and hardest battle for a very simple reason : It’s a level playing fight.
I was pissed off and frustrated. Some people sob, cry, scream, someone even hit a tree trunk with a branch during a quiet break while walking in the woods.
Going on a retreat really feels like fasting, except you stop feeding your ego, not your body. And the ego is a fat cat, he will fight for every ounce of food he can get from you. Once you stop feeding it, only the essential remains. Just like with our bodies, ego-fasting for some time is good once in a while!
10. Don’t take yourself THAT seriously
That kind of experiences makes you think “That’s some serious shit”. It is to some extend: The 10-day Vipassana retreat is not something you get into without some form of preparation and it’s also something you can never really be prepared for.
The spiritual path sometimes sounds a bit too serious, and I used to get afraid that I would drawn my frequent absurd wittiness into a bottomless ocean of seriousness. I was a bit apprehensive about being mainly surrounded by austere monks and prepared myself for some solemn conversing at the end of the retreat.
How shallow of me, for three reasons:
First, even though I was one of the youngest ones, there were other like-minded people and we had a blast afterwards. We talked 30 minutes about our respective experience and then endlessly joked about shallow matters, balancing the deepness of the practice that we were just liberating from.
Second, there weren’t any spaced-out people, here for a transcendental experience, overflowing with apparent mysticism. Nope, these were people definitely connected to the “real life”: teachers, businessmen, entrepreneurs, professionals yogi, students. All of them were getting ready for a fight, not just a curious adventure they could lightly mention at the next diner en ville.
Third, even the actual monks — who already did ten Vipassanas — were freely joking about each others, like you would in playgrounds, only with a profound sense of respect and care. But man, it was a relieve to see a monk joke about another one, calling him “Jacky Chan” over his obvious Asian looks, and see everyone burst into laughter after such an abyssal trip!
I guess spiritual depth is naturally balanced by simple-minded lightness :)
I hope you enjoy the story and the few lessons I learned during these 10 days, feel free to share/recommend it and ping anyone who might be interested by giving Vipassana a shot, I’d be happy to help out!