I spent 10 days at the Northern California Vipassana Center practicing meditation in complete silence, and it was a life-changing experience. In addition to not being able to communicate with others at the center, we were also prohibited from having any contact with the outside world, reading, listening to music, or even taking notes, so I’m writing this from memory. My intention was to write this for my own benefit, but I decided to publish an edited version since others might find it useful.
If you’re considering doing a course, I’d highly recommend you do it. You can find more information about these courses and centers near you at http://dhamma.org. The act of self observation is what is taught, and it’s not a religious indoctrination. While there were hints of philosophical discourse at a few times, the core of the philosophy is, “take this technique and observe for yourself,” and everyone who took the time to do so has come out with great benefit.
It was a trip into the depths of my mind, and it was amazing. It’s impossible to rank order or pick a few things to represent my experience, but in short, I left with:
- A practice that helps me maintain a sharper, calmer, more equanimous mind, which helps me be more aware and be more objective in everything I do.
- A deep, experiential — not just intellectual — understanding of how to let go of attachments, aversion, and cravings and not being bothered by things I can’t control.
- A release of things from the past that I didn’t realize were affecting me.
Throughout the meditation sessions, my focus was on my respiration and sensations. All of these thoughts and insights came as byproducts.
A fuller explanation of my experience is below. Feel free to jump around to whichever day interests you; this is written from the perspective of a personal journal, so it’s not perfectly formatted for readability.
A few words of caution: if you are embarking on a retreat for the first time, do not expect to have the same takeaways and/or results. The path is different for everyone, and it will adversely affect your experience to draw comparisons or hold any expectations.
Day 1: Observing Respiration is Hard Work
The wakeup bell rang at 4:00 am, after which I heard my roommates rustling to get out of bed. I’ve meditated before, but never like this.
We were dropped straight into the rigorous timetable, but the feeling wasn’t that of a cruel bootcamp, but rather it felt like a nurturing sanctuary conducive to learning about yourself and cultivating wisdom. Following a strict code of conduct, we started meditating in the morning from 4:30 am to 6:30 am, followed by a simple breakfast. We meditated for the rest of the day, stopping to rest for 2 hours for a light vegetarian lunch at 11:00 am and 1 hour for a tea break at 5:00 pm. There was no eating after noon, which new students were exempt from, but I abstained from eating anyway to further challenge myself.
All in all, we meditated for 11 hours a day. We capped off each night with a 1.5 hour lecture to help us process what we experienced.
It didn’t feel like a vacation, but it was still refreshing.
The schedule and rigorous rules weren’t hard to follow. The act of meditating itself was hard work.
It was an exhausting day because I wasn’t just sitting there. I was taking my full attention and focusing it on the sensations on a small area as I breathed in and out. All the while, my mind was given the ability to go deeper and work on itself. As the day progressed, I observed my mind becoming more and more at peace.
Day 2: Observing Anger Arising, Passing Away
I consider myself a generally happy person, but a lot of anger bubbled up for me on the second day. Scenes from both my work and personal lives kept replaying vividly in my head, but armed with the technique of observing everything objectively, I watched these thoughts arise and pass away, each time becoming less painful. And eventually, they went away completely, one by one.
The idea is simple: everything in nature arises and passes away, and these negative thoughts were no different. I observed first hand that each thought created a sensation within me, and I watched that sensation go away after a while. I also observed that the sensation lessened the next time the thought came back. Putting two and two together, I experienced how little power these thoughts actually had over me, which sped up the letting go process. (I’m not qualified to teach the technique, so please don’t take this as instruction.)
It was amazing how the mind was able to untie knots by itself under the right conditions.
Day 3: My Mind Settles
When you’re on one of these retreats, there’s very little to distract your mind or entertain you.
I realized that if you’re bored, the only thing you can do is meditate.
After three days with no talking, no communicating of any kind, no internet, no stimulating inputs, the mind starts to quiet down, and the more superficial negative thoughts start to resolve themselves. My leg cramps from sitting started to bother me less.
Settling of the mind was peaceful, and I was incredibly grateful for the environment created at the center.
Day 4: The Itch Scratches Itself
Our instructions throughout the course were to observe sensations and not react, as the act of observing may lead to gaining wisdom. Deprived of entertainment and sensations of other types, I was excited to observe on Day 4 a light itch above my lip during a meditation session. I challenged myself to observe and not react, just to see what would happen.
What ensued was 10 — 15 minutes of an almost unbearable desire to scratch the itch, something that my hands would do unconsciously in any other situation. I resisted with all my determination, and sure enough, it went away just as it had arisen.
My takeaway was a deeper, experiential understanding of anicca, the natural phenomenon that everything is impermanent, even the burning sensation of an unbearable itch.
Having not eaten meat (or dinner) for so long, I think this is the day I started having recurring thoughts of bacon. I let those go, too.
Day 5: An Out-of-Body Experience
Something crazy happened on Day 5. After being formally instructed on the vipassana practice of scanning the body up and down, observing the flow of sensations, I got so deep into it that my mind starting doing some crazy stuff.
All of the sudden, I couldn’t feel my body. It dissolved, and I wasn’t in it. My vantage point was about 30 degrees off center, looking over what would be my left shoulder from a third-person perspective at a network of pulsating nerves against a dark abyss.
There wasn’t anything else but peace. No thoughts, no ego, no emotions.
I stayed in it for about 15 minutes until the meditation time was over. I didn’t have any desires or strong attachments to stay in it, but I was entirely content staying there for longer. There was just so much peace. It took me a while to adjust to the material world after coming out of that state. An incredible sensation.
Day 6: Fully Understanding Letting Go
After my out-of-body experience the previous day, I immediately said to myself, “Don’t get attached to this and expect it to happen every time.” I shared this experience with the teacher on Day 6 (you can ask questions during certain times), and he told me two things:
- That’s not the goal of your meditation, though it does signal you are on the right path. The yardstick of success is equanimity of mind, not any particular sensation.
- To reach this level on Day 5, you have the good karma to have experienced meditators in your past lives.
I wasn’t sure if I could accept the idea of reincarnation, but the first thing he said provided the reaffirmation I needed to practice.
Starting the meditation sittings on Day 6 with a calm mind, the thought of the out-of-body experience would pop up every once in a while. Instead of reacting to it and craving that surreal sensation, I decided to just watch it and see if the thought and desire would pass away. Sure enough, it did. And its passing made the desire go away. This cycle happened over and over.
Observing this cycle over and over weakened the power of craving.
Having this experience on Day 6 started to liberate me from craving anything or being overpowered by any thought or experience.
Day 7: Watching Viruses Without a Microscope
When you’re sitting in a room of ~60 people for 11 hours a day, and you hear the percussion of people coughing and clearing their throats the entire time, you’re bound to get exposed to some bugs. On Day 7, I started feeling a little light headed, a little harder to concentrate, and I figured I was getting sick.
At first I was annoyed, but then I figured I was fortunate to have the experience of observing my impending sickness in my meditation and see what would come out of it. As I was scanning my body for sensations during my vipassana practice, I noticed the part of my throat that was feeling a little tighter.
Upon closer observation, I realized I could feel and see what seemed like each individual cell in my throat as it was becoming infected.
It was a surreal experience, and I was amazed by the power of self observation.
Day 8: Hitting a Wall
My meditation practice became less focused on Day 8. It was frustrating that I could no longer feel the free flow of sensations during the body scans. Concentration was harder, and I didn’t have any major breakthroughs on this day that I could remember.
I might have thought about cooking delicious meals more on this day. The thoughts didn’t cause cravings as much as they were entertainment for my mind.
Day 9: Crazy Meta Shit
The frustrations got worse on the morning of the 9th day. I couldn’t follow the simple instructions to focus and observe my sensations. It was incredibly frustrating to lose a skill so simple that I’ve been able to do so easily for the past few days. Thoughts of leaving came and went. Worst of all, I knew intellectually that the feeling would pass, and I kept saying to myself that it would resolve itself, but it never did.
I talked to the teacher at noon, and he suggested I keep meditating, but just focus on my palms and the area under my nose. It wasn’t a satisfying answer, and I wasn’t convinced it would work.
I thought, “How do you meditate to get over not being able to meditate?”
I gave it a shot that afternoon when I reached my roadblock. It was painful, and after 5 minutes of frustratingly observing the unpleasant sensation of not being able to observe sensations, the tension started to ease. As the teacher said, it went away. A huge relief came over me.
I won’t go into details, but some deep personal stuff was released in that meta experience of meditating on meditating. I learned to not be so attached to being able to do everything well, which I hadn’t realized was so core to who I had become. This realization won’t lessen how intensely I will work — I enjoy working and doing things well— but it will help me stay equanimous in good times and bad.
It was the biggest weight lifted off my shoulders during the entire 10 days.
Day 10: Understanding Love and Forgiveness
I heard the words “unconditional love” and “forgiveness” in a lot of conversations over the years. I’ve heard time and again how good it is and how it’s important to practice it, but I will admit that I never really understood these concepts until I experienced them in my 10 days of meditation.
My wife and I had done the course together, and because men and women were separated for the entirety of the time, our car ride home was an unforgettable, lively but tranquil conversation of sharing some of the deepest, most personal parts of our experience. This 10-day course is the start of a longer journey, and we both decided to keep practicing.
That evening, I realized I developed an experiential understanding that if the world has carried on for 10 days without me, being instantly reachable can’t be that important. When I held my phone for the first time in 10 days, I felt no craving to turn it on and check my email or notifications. In fact, at the time of writing this, it’s been more than 24 hours since I’ve had access to the Internet, and I have yet to open my emails, Facebook, or anything else I’d normally unconsciously crave in the past.
Of course, as it is deeply ingrained in me now, this too may change.