“Mind Surgery”: My 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat
What I learned from 10 days in solitary confinement
I just spent ten days in what could only be described as a kind of prison. For these ten days, I was not allowed to speak or make eye contact with anyone. I meditated for 11 hours per day. I had no access to phones, computers, books, paper, pens, or any entertainment. I was woken up at 4am every day by a gong. All day every day, I was alone with myself and no distractions.
…believe it or not, I willfully signed up for this.
I’ve been a meditator for a couple of years now. My daily practice has wavered, but in the last year or so I noticed a few of my friends doing these free 10-day silent meditation retreats in the tradition of Vipassana, a body scan technique. I had never heard of it. But when I was sick last year with an undiagnosed chronic illness, and a friend suggested that Vipassana could help me, I immediately signed up for a retreat in Massachusetts in March.
overview of the course
The course, created by and taught using recordings of the late S.N. Goenka, is a rigorous 10-day mental training intended to turn students into “masters of their minds”. Though the technique of Vipassana is initially from the Buddha, and Buddhist philosophy certainly guides the course, Goenka insists that the course is entirely nonsectarian, universal, and scientific in nature, as its aim is to create mental peace, rather than worship any higher being.
The word “Vipassana” means “to see things as they really are”, and the technique therefore stresses both developing acute awareness of bodily sensations and developing equanimity towards them. The central technique is to (1) scan the body for any and all sensations and (2) avoid reacting to any of them. As sensations arise, pleasant or unpleasant, your job is to notice them and remain neutral to them. This is to begin the process of dissolving the ego’s identification with the body’s sensations and eradicate the seeds of craving and aversion in the mind.
Goenka claims that this practice builds equanimity towards not only the itches on our cheeks and tension in our backs, but all situations in life, because all emotions begin with a sensation on or in the body. Because we are unaware, we unconsciously interpret that sensation as a specific emotion and react to it with craving or aversion. But if we can instead simply observe the sensation with awareness and no judgment, we can find peace and stop the cycle of misery.
Of course, Goenka warns us, coming to this wisdom is not easy — these 10 days are a “deep surgery of the mind”, intended to bring some of our deepest complexes to the surface and ultimately eliminate them at the root level. He wasn’t kidding; I didn’t know it yet (and sometimes didn’t even know it at the time it was happening), but these 10 days would bring up some of my deepest fears, anxieties, and aversions.
The daily schedule is … intense. Students are woken at 4am, and the day consists of: three hour-long group meditation sessions in the Dhamma Hall, two meals (only breakfast and lunch), eight hours of solo meditation, an hour-long discourse in the evenings, and a few hour-long breaks interspersed.
how it went
The Vipassana experience is entirely a personal journey, so it will be different for everyone. That said, here’s how it went down for me:
(note: we weren’t allowed notebooks, so this was all written down to the best of my memory after leaving on day 10.)
Arriving at the Center, I immediately filled out paperwork and relinquished my phone, my journal, my pens, my favorite necklace, and, hesitatingly, the Benadryl that I use to fall asleep sometimes. I had a funny feeling I was going to miss that Benadryl during this course, but directions are directions, so I left it. After that, the Noble Silence began — no speaking or eye contact for 10 days. Here we go.
This day felt IMPOSSIBLY LONG. We learned the technique of anapana, focusing exclusively on our respiration as felt in the nostrils, continuing to bring the attention back to that tiny area, building discipline and focus. I had so many thoughts, so I could never hold my attention there for long. Also, I ripped my pants, which I borrowed from a friend for the retreat, and I obsessed over it, imagining how sad he’ll be. I felt like I was failing in every way. Bed couldn’t come soon enough.
I got no sleep. I was so tired. I had to nap during a lot of the solo dorm meditation sessions, which made me feel like even more of a failure. In the Meditation Hall, people are constantly making bodily noises (especially burping), and it grosses me out so much — I never realized I had such an aversion to burps. Also, everyone looks so miserable. This place feels like a veritable prison.
The Discourses are what keep me going every day. Goenka is both wise and hilarious, and it’s our only source of entertainment all day. Thank god for the Discourses.
I barely slept again, though the dreams I do have are crazy vivid and seem somehow meaningful. The anapana meditation technique was getting super boring at this point; I was so done focusing on my nostrils for 11 hours a day. Also, a growing anxiety about my legs was beginning — the point is to not react to sensations, because “all sensations pass”, but I felt seriously worried that all this sitting was bad for my legs, and these sensations were new spider veins developing (I have a family history of spider veins, and I’m terrified of them.) Those aren’t impermanent, and if I developed them at this retreat, I was going to be really upset.
Also, I went to the assistant teacher in tears tonight before bed, mid-anxiety-attack, begging for my Benadryl back so I could finally get some sleep. She gave it back to me with a friendly smile. Here’s hoping it works.
Meh. Slept slightly better but not much. Because of my vein anxiety, the teacher said rather than sitting cross-legged, I can sit in a chair along the back, with the old people. This was a serious blow to my ego, but I accepted the offer gratefully.
Also, today we learned Vipassana, the full body scan. Thank god — finally something new to focus on: the whole body! No more focusing on my nostrils! My mind is incredibly grateful for some new material to keep it busy.
I started going on outdoor walks during every single break, and it easily became the best part of my day; I noticed so many connections between nature and the teachings we were learning. Impermanence is the nature of everything. Anitya, anitya, anitya.
I was really impressed by how the Discourses and meditation directions always seemed to mirror my personal experience. It’s like I was always one day ahead — Goenka seemed to read my mind about what had been preoccupying me for the last day or two, and conveyed wisdom to help with my struggles.
Also, today I noticed a hair growing out of the mole on my face, and I didn’t have scissors or tweezers with me to remove it. I obsessed about it, supremely unhappy that I had to live with it for another five days. Five days felt like it might as well be five years.
All retreat long, I counted the days by my birth control pills. Every day felt like an eternity. How was it still day 6??? How was it not day 10 yet???
I SWEAR MY SPIDER VEINS WERE GETTING WORSE. My anxiety had completely taken over my brain. Also, these meditations were getting extremely boring, which made my brain even more likely to switch into anxiety-about-my-legs mode instead of focusing. I would spend five minutes with my legs up the wall every chance I got in a desperate effort to minimize damage.
Also, on day 6, the three group sittings turned into “sittings of strong determination”, which meant we weren’t allowed to move for the whole hour. I realized how little discipline I have — I moved every time.
I did make a serious breakthrough today, though — during a solo meditation lying down in my room, I achieved the “full-body vibration” that Goenka talks about! My body felt like it was buzzing! I know I’m not supposed to get attached to this feeling, but it’s pretty freaking cool. How did I never know my body could do this???
This was the worst day. Full-on anxiety had taken over, and I therefore spent most of the day sobbing— about my legs, about impermanence, about memories from my childhood that kept coming up, about how trapped I felt.
I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror anymore. Was I getting less attractive? Had I always looked this way?… Also, I found myself missing physical contact — specifically hugs — a lot. I spent a whole hour’s break just hugging myself in my room.
Day 8 was a pretty good day, all things considered. It was sunny and warm, and I made a serious breakthrough during one of my meditations — I went above and beyond the “subtle vibrations” on the surface of my body and actually could feel inner structures in my body! The vibrations and sensations were so strong I actually got kind of scared. It was like a non-sexual full-body orgasm that was so strong I started shaking. I shut it down before it got to its pinnacle (if there was to be one), but in retrospect I wish I’d just surrendered instead of letting fear get in the way.
I felt a sense of “senioritis” on Day 9 — I had no inclination to give my hardest effort since the light at the end of the tunnel was finally, finally visible. I was just surviving, in an effort to get to tomorrow. I WAS ALMOST OUT OF THIS PLACE.
Day 10 was amazing!!! Noble silence was lifted, which brought such a profound joy to me it surprised even myself. Speaking with the other participants and beginning to deconstruct our experiences together was a source of such comfort, a “balm on the deep wounds”, as Goenka says. Also, it was refreshing to realize how friendly everyone was; my mind had invented some unpleasant judgments and stories about the other students when we were all giving each other the silent treatment all week. I really need to remember not to do that; my first impressions are so often dead wrong.
Also, I recognized myself in the mirror again! I think it was just that all week I had never been smiling, so my appearance did not reflect my vitality, and I didn’t recognize the neutral face and body that was left behind. Interesting.
Now that I’ve been back in NYC for a week, I’ve been excited to find that the “benefits” of the course are absolutely real. Besides having clearer skin and markedly better posture, I still feel my body buzzing (I’m trying not to get too attached to that crazy-cool feeling…) and I generally feel super sensitive and attuned to the sensations that I experience throughout the day.
More importantly, I find myself feeling much more peaceful and equanimous to life’s unpleasant situations. I catch moments when I would usually react negatively, and instead I simply observe the sensations in my body and allow the moment to be, knowing it will pass. I feel more able to simply observe others’ negativity rather than internalize it myself — “rejecting the unwanted gift someone is giving you”, as Goenka puts it. I feel less anxiety around my health and body than I historically have. Obviously I’m by no means 100% enlightened — I still freaked out with anxiety last night when insomnia hit— but I’m walking firmly on the path to tranquility.
Also, my intense spider vein fear evaporated almost immediately once I was back in the real world and had other things to think about. That said, I know my body-related fears and attachments aren’t gone — they’re just hiding. I’m eager to explore further my ego’s attachments, especially to my body and its youth, and slowly begin to degrade those sankharas (mental formations) through gentle observation and awareness.
The version of me that was suffering deeply on Day 4 would think I’m crazy for saying this, but I think I might do another one of these in the future. After finishing it, I truly see why this practice is beneficial, and I want to keep growing in peace and equanimity towards life’s ups and downs. We’ll see!
If you’re interested in doing a Vipassana retreat yourself, I highly recommend it. They’re held around the world and are completely free, even for food and housing (the whole organization runs solely off of voluntary donations from previous students), so all you need is ten consecutive days to dedicate, and a willingness to endure a hell of a lot of discomfort to ultimately become a better person. What are you waiting for?
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