Vipassana Silent Retreat- Level Up Your Mind

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I just completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. What’s that? Oh, just 100 hours of meditation over 10 days without speaking or communicating to anyone whatsoever. It was one of the toughest things I’ve done… and I feel like I just leveled up my mind. No, I’m not going to become a monk or hermit, and no, I’m not joining a cult. I’ll unpack the juicy details of the experience in a minute, but first I want to lay the groundwork to better understand meditation or mindfulness in the first place.

What is mindfulness/meditation?

Buddhism sparked some of the oldest meditation traditions in the world into existence and can be viewed as a treasure trove of wisdom when it comes to mindfulness. The majority of the original Buddhist texts were written in a language called Poly, and the closest word for mindfulness in Poly is Sati- which means clear awareness. Sati refers to a clear awareness of all aspects of consciousness- sensations in the body, feelings and emotions, thoughts, and objects of thoughts; So for the purposes of this post, we will refer to mindfulness as a practice of gaining clear awareness of one’s conscious reality.

What is ego?

We oftentimes throw around terms like egocentric or ego-maniac, but what exactly do we mean by ego? This is a tough nut to crack in my opinion, and when I contemplate on the nature of ego I usually end up in some vague, esoteric deep space, or falling down a misanthropic rabbit hole full of all the problems of human society. You might define the ego simply as the sense of one’s self. You might define it as the selfish nature of humanity. You might also define it as the elaborate self-portrait we paint in our minds of who we are, how we belong, and why we matter. For the sake of finding our way out of the weeds and standing on some common ground, I’ll use my favorite definition that I have found so far:

“Having an ego is the feeling of thinking without knowing you are thinking.”

-Sam Harris, Waking Up

When I first read that quote it was like a spark of genius lit up the dingy corridors of my mind. The more one becomes aware of their own unawareness, the more brilliant Harris’ statement seems to be. It’s an important statement because so much of our existence as humans is absent of any awareness whatsoever. In fact, it might astonish you when you come to realize how much control of your thoughts you really have – absolutely fucking none. You might want to click out of this article because you disagree with me or because I dropped the abominable “F-bomb” (oh no, a bad sequence of letters!)- but if you stick around, I’ll prove it.

Stop Thinking

Let’s play a fun little game. Just sit still with eyes closed for 60 seconds and try to stop thinking. This is actually an exercise that’s essential to understanding the ego and the current reality of your mind, so if you’re that person who is saying to themselves, “Ah that sounds boring as hell, I’ll pass,” you might as well quit reading this post now, because you’re missing the entire point. If you don’t have 60 seconds to close your eyes and chill, you truly must live a tortuously strung out and reactionary existence, in which case, I pity you. So go ahead and just observe your mind for 60 seconds, and see if you can stop any thoughts from coming in.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.

So, one of three things just happened:    

  • Either you quickly realized after just a few moments that thoughts began forcefully entering your consciousness like the U.S. entered the Middle East after 9/11
  • OR you were so deep in autopilot thinking that you managed to convince yourself that you had actually stopped thinking (trying not to think is itself a form of thinking)
  • OR you didn’t close your eyes because you’re in Starbucks and don’t want to look like you’ve totally lost your shit, and who the hell am I to tell you what to do anyway, right?
Trying not to think is still thinking

Hopefully, the point is obvious by now- If you have control of your mind, why can’t you stop thinking? The reality is, none of us have any control over what rises and passes through our minds. And why should we? You can’t “control” a mind. What’s more, you aren’t even the “thinker” of your thoughts. What you perceive of as “you,” is as Harris puts it: “the feeling of thinking without knowing you are thinking.” If there is one thing that mindfulness will teach you, it’s this: thoughts, objects of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and impulses come and go as they wish. As you progress further and further into this practice of mindfulness, what you view to be “you” is bound to change drastically. Harris elaborates on this topic in detail in his book, Waking Up – which I highly recommend to anyone seeking a more clear understanding of mindfulness and spirituality outside of the outdated mainstream stories that organized religion has spoon fed us.

The Science of Vipassana

I’m referring to Vipassana as a science because it is essentially just a method of inquiry into what is- here and now. Vipassana is a Poly and Sanscrit word that translates into insight. The Vipassana meditation technique is a practice of developing clear insight into the present moment, and the goal is to experience reality as it truly is in the present moment. There’s some Buddhist philosophy sprinkled into it as well (which I’ll cover in a bit), but at its core, its simply a method of clearly seeing what the hell is actually taking place from moment to moment. Let’s break down the technique and what a 10 day Vipassana retreat looks like.

Below is a breakdown of the essential rules or precepts that each individual must undertake to practice Vipassana during a 10-day course. This will give you a scope of what you would be in for if you decided to do a retreat yourself. The precepts:

  • to abstain from killing any living creature
  • to abstain from stealing
  • to abstain from all sexual activity
  • to abstain from telling lies
  • to abstain from all intoxicants.

In addition to the precepts you undertake, you also have to keep the “noble silence” for the first 9 days. No speaking, writing, gestures, or communication of any kind (other than clarification with the teacher about the technique itself). When was the last time you shut the hell up for 10 days?

Here is the daily schedule. Some days very slightly, but overall the routine is very consistent.

  • 4:00 a.m. ——————— Morning wake-up bell
  • 4:30-6:30 a.m. ————– Meditate in the hall or your own room
  • 6:30-8:00 a.m. ————– Breakfast break
  • 8:00-9:00 a.m. ————– GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
  • 9:00-11:00 a.m. ———— Meditate in the hall or your own room
  • 11:00-12:00 noon ———-Lunch break
  • 12noon-1:00 p.m. ——— Rest and interviews with the teacher
  • 1:00-2:30 p.m. ————– Meditate in the hall or your own room
  • 2:30-3:30 p.m. —————GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
  • 3:30-5:00 p.m. —————-Meditate in the hall or your own room
  • 5:00-6:00 p.m. ————— Tea break
  • 6:00-7:00 p.m. ————— GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
  • 7:00-8:15 p.m. —————-Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
  • 8:15-9:00 p.m. ————— GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
  • 9:00-9:30 p.m. ————— Question time in the hall
  • 9:30 p.m. ———————– Retire to your own room — Lights out

Days 1-3: Anapaña Meditation

“This mind that wanders wherever it wishes, wherever it desires, wherever it sees pleasure, I will first make it steadfast.”

-Dhammapada 326

Anapaña is defined as the observation of natural respiration. This means observing your breath as it comes in and as it goes out, without judgment or without changing it… for 3… goddamn… days. This meditation is very simple and easy for anyone to learn, but very difficult to practice- you simply just start noticing your breath, as the breath is something that is always available to observe. You start with a single area of your body- the nose and upper lip- and focus all of your attention on that area. You observe the sensations of breathing as the air comes in and out of the nose, always bringing your attention back to the breath whenever you realize you have become distracted or lost in thought. The goal is to also try and maintain total equanimity- awareness without craving, aversion, or ignorance. So basically, you just sit there and pay attention to your nose for 10 hours per day, trying with all your might not to get distracted or freak out from the psychotic circus that’s going down in your mind. As you continue this practice over the first 3 days, your mind becomes sharper and sharper, and you shrink your attention down into a smaller and smaller area. Eventually, you are honed into a tiny triangle encompassing your nostrils and just above your upper lip.

Days 4-9: Vipassana Meditation

“-Make an island of yourself, make yourself your refuge; there is no other refuge.”

-Mahā-Parinibbāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya, 16

On day 4 you finally get to do what you came here for- learn Vipassana! Now its time to play with that razor-sharp focus you attained from 30 hours of observing nose hairs. With your new capacities, you begin to scan the body for sensations, from head to feet, then feet to head. As each sensation comes into awareness, its typically accompanied by some monkey-brain thoughts, emotions, or impulses. The idea is to not attach yourself to anything whatsoever- neither trying to avoid the unpleasant sensations or seek out the pleasant sensations. You try to stay equanimous and just observe every sensation, thought, emotion, or uncomfortable boner as it arises and passes away from consciousness. Whether it is pleasant, painful, itchy, throbbing, annoying, erotic, blissful, or just plain confusing- you observe it with equanimity.

As one becomes more and more aware of each sensation in each individual part of the body, one begins expanding awareness to multiple parts of the body simultaneously. At around day 6 you practice scanning the body symmetrically as if there were a line cut down the middle (scanning both arms at once, both legs at once, etc). By day 8 you then begin spreading your awareness throughout the entire body all at once, feeling sensations from everywhere simultaneously. If you make it to the point where you can actually pull this off, you can then begin exploring sensation inside of the body, rather than just sensations on the surface of the body. The idea is that you “map” your entire being and become aware of every single sensation, no matter how subtle, that is taking place in your body. The craziest part about all this is the sensations are actually all there, just waiting for you to notice… and when you focus in, you begin to notice some really weird, and sometimes really profound shit.

Day 10: Mettā-Bhāvanā Meditation

On the final day of the retreat, not only do you get to fire up the ol’ pipes again and begin speaking, but you also learn the practice of Mettā-Bhāvanā, which is a meditation of loving kindness. This consists of getting into a calm and equanimous state through Vipassana meditation and focussing all your attention on sending love and kindness to all beings on Earth. This is believed to charge the atmosphere around you with positive vibrations of love and compassion.

The Buddhist Stuff

The technique of Vipassana was believed to be established in northern India by Gotama the Buddha about 2500 years ago. Buddha used the technique to completely eradicate his suffering and attain enlightenment while sitting under a tree- or so the story goes. It’s believed that the technique was lost to most of the world, but maintained by a lineage of monks in Myanmar, then eventually passed down to S.N. Goenka, who brought it to the more mainstream world. There’s quite a bit of storytelling, culture, and religious fervor woven into the Vipassana tradition in Myanmar, but I’ll break down the essentials for you so you don’t have to wade through any bullshit.

“Practicing purity of mind–this is true Dhamma.”

– S. N. Goenka

Dhamma (Dharma in Sanskrit) is a Poly word defined as the law of nature. Its one of those terms like ‘God’ or ‘Truth’ that seems to be bent and stretched to mean whatever it needs to in a particular situation, but as far as I have gathered, it refers to the path of liberation from suffering – AKA enlightenment. As one matures in their practice of pure insight and pure living, they progress down the path of Dhamma. Its understood as a natural law in the sense that if I lend my attention and willpower to negative shit, my life becomes negative, and if I do the reverse, it becomes positive. The more one has pure insight into oneself (Vipassana), they can recognize the impurities and negative aspect of their mind and actions, and gradually eradicate them. This process begins at the surface level of the mind and gradually moves into deeper levels of the subconscious mind as the meditation practice progresses. The old conditioned thought patterns (Saṅkhāras in Poly) of the mind naturally dissipate as you observe them with equanimity and without attachment. For instance, the more I can observe anger without attaching to the anger, seeing it as MY anger, and letting it consume me, the less of an angry person I will gradually become. Allowing the uncomfortable shit to come to the surface of the mind while simply observing without craving or aversion allows one to become more and more free from their suffering.

The path of Dhamma is broken into three main parts: 

  •  Sila- Morality- Simply put, any action or speech done with a pure mind is Sila. Conversely, any action or speech that is made with an impure mind or impure intentions in NOT Sila. During the 10 day retreat, you undertake the 5 precepts and the noble silence I mentioned earlier, and this essentially brings everyone into compliance with Sila, as you aren’t committing any impure action or speech- or any speech at all for that matter.    
  • Samadhi- Concentration of Mind- Concentration is an essential tool if you are going to stop the neurotic psycho-shit-storm raging in your mind, and through the practice of Anapaña breathing mentioned earlier, this tool is sharpened significantly in the first 3 days of the course. You constantly bring your attention back to respiration and work out that “muscle” of concentration.    
  • Pañña- Wisdom– With the practice of Vipassana beginning on day 4, you gain first-hand experience of what is coming up in your body as sensation first, and in your mind as thought second. You observe truth that is not based on faith or belief, but direct experiential knowledge of what is. Becoming fully aware of everything you are doing, feeling, and thinking then allows you to gradually eliminate the old programming of craving and aversion that is the root cause of suffering. This is done by remaining equanimous and not reaffirming or continuing in the old pattern or programming and by understanding that everything is impermanent.

Progressing in Dhamma as it is spelled out here is believed to be a path that will lead to the full eradication of all suffering and the liberation of the self- whatever that means. The more one practices Vipassana, the more impurities will rise up into consciousness and then be exfoliated away. This process gradually goes deeper and deeper into the mind as the sensations become more and more subtle. It is said that eventually, you get to a point where you are experiencing everything as pure vibration at the most fundamental and subtle physical level. Progress on this path is totally up to the individual, as nobody else can walk it for you or stop you from walking it yourself.

My Experience

Flying into Myanmar was a trip- and I mean that in two ways. We landed in Yangon in our rickety twin-prop airplane, to find that the airport was almost completely deserted. This is the largest city in Myanmar (5.2 million) but somehow the airport was a ghost town. After a couple days of wandering the trash strew streets and touring massive pagodas, we met our guide that would take us on a 2-hour journey by ferry and minivan to the little village of Maubin.

In Maubin we found the very (and I mean VERY) quaint Dhamma meditation center waiting to keep us as silent prisoners for the next 10 days. I use the term prisoner because the center resembled a prison in almost every way. The accommodation was primitive, with very little separation from the outside world of insects and incessant Buddhist chanting over loudspeakers. Seriously, the chanting never ended. The men and women were segregated right away into separate living quarters, phones and technology were collected, and the “noble” silence began. I will say, however, the staff and volunteers of the center where unbelievably kind and hospitable the entire time I was there.

The first 3 days were absolutely brutal. Adjusting to the rigorous meditation schedule and monk-like living conditions were no easy tasks. Every reprieve that  I would normally have used to cope with the uncomfortable circumstances (reading, writing, social media, conversations with others, violently masturbating, etc) was nowhere to be found. The only thing more annoying than the unbroken chain of religious chanting from nearby megaphones and tower speakers was the horde of mosquitoes and insects invading the entire prison- but that wasn’t even the hardest part. Sitting for 10 hours per day (1-2 hours at a time) and doing absolutely nothing but observing your nose for sensations of breathing was torturous in the beginning. I came in with a fair amount of meditation hours under my belt due to my passion for float tanks and yoga, but nothing could have prepared me for this crucible of boredom and mind-fuckery. My earliest meditation sessions went something like this:

Sit cross-legged on a cushion. Observe breath. OK, now narrow it down to just my nose and upper lip. OK, good. Now just ignore the jibberish that’s blaring through the streets outside and filling the meditation hall. Shit, I’m not supposed to be judging it, just observe, just observe. I can’t really feel anything on my nose, focus on it harder. It’s hot as balls in here. Fuck my hip is killing me, how much longer? Oh wait, is that a fart? Oh shit….. that’s definitely a fart. This Burmese food is launching World War III inside my stomach right now. Do they know it was me? I would hit a small baby in the face with a pillowcase full of bars of soap for one refreshing cold beer right now…. aaaaaand I forgot all about my breath… this is impossible.

The good news is, by the end of 3 days, I actually saw progress. The periods of time that I could sit with unwavering concentration grew substantially- from periods of just a few seconds to longer stretches lasting several minutes at a time. My awareness of the sensations of respiration grew as well, and now I could feel the hairs of my mustache rustle slightly as air came in an out of my nose. At times I could feel tingling, pressure, and even the difference in temperature from air coming in vs air going out. I could always tell which nostril the air was passing through, left or right or both. I was less stir crazy and dying to get out of there, but I still would have messed that baby for a cold brewski.

The screw I got removed from my hip

On day 4 we learned the Vipassana technique, and my experience shifted radically. As I observed the sensations in my body, I was faced with all manner of different sensations, including a glaring pain coming from my left hip and lower back. You see, I was born with a genetic hip condition and literally got screwed when I was 14 years old. I had a 4-inch metal screw surgically pinned into my left hip, and the hip has been out of true alignment for the 12 years since. This has caused an array of back problems and lower body injuries, leading me to recently seek alternative healing methods to fix the problem. My discovery of float tanks, yoga, and psychedelics (weird I know) resulted in my decision to get the screw removed. I’ll elaborate on this in a later post, but I just wanted to give a short background here so this next part isn’t totally confusing.

Using the Vipassana technique, I was able to get deeper and deeper into that pain originating in my hip by breathing deeply and removing any attachment to the pain. It sounds oversimplified and probably a bit ridiculous, but I was able to withstand much more pain than I normally would have. I kept reaffirming that every sensation was neutral and impermanent, and I kept a fair amount of equanimity as I observed it. As I got deeper and deeper into the pain, my hip slowly began to open up and loosen, releasing tension and tightness in and around the hip joint. Over the next few days, I became much more aware of my body and mind, and I was also able to sit for longer and longer periods at a time- withstanding the pain with a calm mind, and much more free from distraction.

Photo Cred: www.oxygenmag.com

The 7th day was one of the hardest of my life. Over the previous days of sitting cross-legged and gradually opening my hip, I got to the point on day 7 where I could get both my knees to touch the ground while I sat. This is something I have never been able to do before, as my left hip was locked in the wrong alignment from 12 years of being screwed in place, and it simply didn’t have the range of motion to let my knee fall to the ground on the left side. I got into a very focused state where the only object of my awareness was the painful sensations originating in my hip and lower back. This is a very difficult state to explain in words, but it was as if my rational thinking mind almost stopped altogether, and some other intuitive mind took over. I wasn’t “thinking” about what to do, my body just started moving. With both knees now on the ground, I used my breath to stay calm through the pain and I began to slowly lean forward until I was bent all the way over my crossed legs with my forearms touching the ground in front of me. As I reached the full expression of the pose and my forehead touched the ground, I felt a burst of energy originate from the base of my spine, and I instantly knew my root chakra had just opened for the first time since childhood. (I won’t go into detail about chakras here, but I’ll expound on it in my next post after my yoga training is completed.)

I then twisted my upper body slightly away from my left hip joint and slowly moved back up to a seated posture, then leaned backward, pulling my upper body away from the hip. These movements moved the head of my femur bone ever so slightly within my hip socket, aligning it incrementally back towards its natural state. This was one of the most intense and excruciating experiences I’ve ever undergone, and I continued with this process a couple dozen or so more times over the following three days. Each session ended with me dripping in sweat, and limping out of the meditation hall, favoring my tender hip.

After 3 days eternal days, I was able to finally get my femur bone to “click” into its natural home within my hip joint on day 10. The second I felt the pop in my hip, I knew all the painstakingly hard work had just paid off. My eyes filled with tears of joy and I couldn’t hold the smiles back for the rest of the day. Walking around between those final meditation sessions felt like learning to walk again for the first time. It felt so alien but somehow better than before. Reuniting with my girlfriend on the final day was also one of the best feelings ever. Experiencing the embrace of a lover after 10 turbulent days of silence, separation, and agony, filled every fiber of me with joy and warmth.

My Take

After having completed the 10 day Vipassana retreat, I can confidently say that the technique has a very practical and obvious benefit that is hard to quantify. Any practice that leads to increased awareness and the ability to exist more in the present moment, is very valuable in my book. At its core, Vipassana is simply a scientific method for observing the reality of the present, from moment to moment. Over just one 10 day course, I found myself much more aware of thoughts and emotions rising in consciousness, and I grew in my ability to not be a reactionary slave to whatever arises. I’ve become more tuned into the deeply rooted elements of my mind that are driving me to action in one direction or another. I’ve noticed that I focus much more attentively now, with less impulse to seek out distractions on my phone like social media. In fact, I’ve turned my phone service off and only use my device over wifi here and there, and to take pictures while I travel. I’ve really enjoyed being disconnected, or you might say- reconnected. Reconnected to the simple pleasures of life- a sunrise, a stimulating conversation with a stranger, or the complex flavors in a glass of wine. These seemingly trivial and mundane experiences satisfy me in new and unexpected ways. Aside from the ongoing benefits of increased focus, awareness, and equanimity, I’m absolutely thrilled about the current state of my hip, which progress I don’t think I would have been able to make without the stoic ability to withstand pain that I gained from Vipassana.

With the benefits of the technique appearing obvious, the only issue I have with the Dhamma lineage of Vipassana that I imbibed in during my time in Myanmar is by nature, philosophical. The entire course is pitched in a very serious and somewhat depressing light. The world is seen as being full of endless misery that needs to be eradicated, and only the secret sauce of True Dhamma can lead to liberation- which they’ve conveniently obtained. Meditators are instructed upon their departure from the course to stay diligent and meditate two hours every day, as well as to come back for annual 10-day silent retreats. There seems to be the mindset that one has to work continuously all their life long, and maybe- just maybe, you can be liberated from the chains of your suffering. To me, this is all a bit hilarious, as I feel like they are missing the fundamental point of Buddhism altogether. The more one identifies with a ‘Self’ that needs to work continuously to become liberated from suffering, the more one is reaffirming that they are in fact suffering. Other disciplines of Buddhism such as Zen or Dzogchen, simply affirm that the self is an illusion altogether, and there is nothing one can do to “work” to be free from suffering. They have different practices for realizing this paradox of the self, resulting in the awakening to the reality that you are not just a poor little suffering ego, but actually the very fabric of reality itself. There is no self to do the self-improvement. This is a very fuzzy esoteric topic that tends to get sticky quickly, so I will defer to some dudes much smarter than myself if you want to dive deeper. Alan Watts and Sam Harris both elaborate on this in great depth, and it is truly worth looking into if you want to glean some of the ancient wisdom of the East. You can listen to Watts here, and Harris here. As far as Dhamma goes, it seems to have established itself as the religion of non-religion… but is still somehow coming across really religious-y??

All that being said, the world is in desperate need of mindfulness. We can’t go without our technological devices for more than a few minutes- its really quite sad. I’m not sure if we saw this coming when we gave everyone nonstop access to endless stimulation and instant gratification, but now we are living in the fall out of the iPhone wielding-status updating-squirrellike attention spanning-HD porn streaming revolution. I don’t think any two people will have the same experience when undertaking Vipassana, but almost everyone could benefit. If the 10-day retreat sounds way too intense, go jump into a float tank– its a neat little shortcut to the apocalyptic badlands of the mind. I think we could all stand to benefit from closing our eyes, shutting the world outside off, and taking a look under the hood of our minds once in a while. You might find as I have, that this game of ego has gone absolutely bananas.