In February I spent 10 days on a Vipassana meditation retreat. 10 days without entertainment, without communication and 10 hours of meditation every day. You can imagine that it was a rather extreme experience that lead me to face myself in ways I usually don’t have to. Even though it was a tough time and more than once I felt like quitting, having gone through it was a valuable experience that I’d never want to miss. Some of the lessons I learned there I want to share with you in this article.
Before I go into them let me outline the retreat a bit and why I chose to enter it. About two years ago I discovered meditation and its benefits. Since then it has become an integral part of my life and invoked some profound changes on how I relate to the world and myself. The retreat was an attempt to dive a little deeper with my meditation and find out more about my inner workings. 100 hours of meditation in 10 days, waking up at 4am, 2 meals a day, no entertainment and communication whatsoever, following the same timetable every day – it was quite a contrast to my usual lifestyle. I wanted to find out what an experience like that would do to me, what I would learn, how I would cope and adapt. As so often, curiosity paid off and it turned out to be very rewarding and enriching. Most of the changes I experienced in myself during and after the retreat happened on a subconscious level and are hardly tangible. A few of them stood out though, so I could already start to get my head around them.
Pain and suffering are not the same
This is actually one of the key lessons this retreat is intended to have you experience. 10 hours of sitting daily with a straight back and minimal movement comes with quite some pain in the back, knees or shoulders. At the same time, we were instructed to just keep sitting and watch our sensations with equanimity. While this may sound like self-torture at first glance, it’s really a chance to actively engage with physical pain in a different way. With acceptance of and surrender to the pain slowly but surely it lost big parts of its power over me. Yes, there was physical pain. But after observing it for a while my mind stopped turning it into mental suffering. Sometimes then it transformed into heat, or just dissolved into a flux of rather pleasant tingling sensations and eventually, it always passed.
How does this experience help me in life? Well, modern society is trying hard, but it’ll never be possible to avoid physical pain entirely. It is an inherent part of our reality and we somehow must deal with it. I now can say that I started to understand by experience that embracing rather than neglecting it turns out beneficial for the quality of my life.
All these memories are still there
Sometimes my mind felt like a random jukebox. Songs from my entire life had their comebacks in my head during those 10 days. From a song we sang in English class when I was nine to a techno track I discovered recently, they seemed to appear randomly. Sometimes just staying for a few minutes, sometimes for hours. But it was not just songs. Various memories from the distant past came to the surface, some that I had long forgotten. Happy, precious moments but also sad or uncomfortable ones. So, these 10 days were also a travel into my past. A travel that let me encounter parts of it that I thought I had buried for good. There was nowhere to go. I had to sit there, try to meditate and just deal with the confrontations. This experience in itself turned out quite therapeutic and it made me realize that I rarely take my time to dive into my memories with the accompanying feelings and really embrace them. I felt lighter afterwards, as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Our past is always with us. The decisions we took, the struggles we went through, the joy we felt – they all sum up to form our beliefs, our preferences and aversions. Being aware of my memories means for me now to be more aware of my character – with its good and bad parts.
The overstimulation is real
This very much connects to the lesson before. Old memories could enter my conscious because the constant influx of information I usually expose myself to just stopped. Moreover, it made me realize just how much stimulation I’m confronted with in everyday life. On my way home, I spent some time waiting for the train in a smaller city, and even there it became very apparent. Commercials wherever I looked, traffic, people rushing, stores advertising themselves – there was little space for gaps and silence. Of course, that particular experience was highly biased as it’s natural to be overly sensitive directly after some time with an absolute minimum of stimulation. Nevertheless, this extreme demonstrated in an impressive manner how normal it has become to be almost constantly stimulated by something.
There is an inherent value in these gaps and moments of silence. It’s like were running upstairs the whole time, without stopping or looking left and right. Only in those moments of calm we take our time to look at the whole staircase and where it leads us. A personal conclusion I made accordingly is to create more time and space for these gaps. It can be something as simple as taking an aimless walk or having a meal without sitting at the computer. I don’t always think of it and I still find myself doing a lot of mindless crap, but it’s slowly getting better and better.
I’m more adaptable than I thought
Although my struggle with getting up at 4am didn’t subside during the 10 days, in all other areas I found it surprising how swiftly my body and mind got used to the situation. Following a strict timetable? No phone? The last proper meal at 11am? Not a problem. Not having to decide what to do was rather a relief. I didn’t miss my phone at all and I was never beset by hunger in the evening. Even the lack of communication became normal after a few days. This showed me once again, how flexible my comfort zone can be and how quickly we as human beings can adapt to new situations and environments. Honestly, I was a little scared before the retreat and I doubted my endurance and ability to pull through such an extreme experience. Fortunately, I did it and demonstrated to myself once again that I’m more capable than I thought. Ever since I feel empowered to believe in my decisions and my ability to reach whatever goal I set in my life. Whether it’s a travel adventure, a new job or the retreat – trying something unpredictable and unfamiliar can seem scary, but so far it eventually always made me grow as a person.
I’m sure the experiences I made at the retreat will stay with me forever and I can very well imagine doing something similar again. If this article sparked your curiosity and you’re thinking about joining a retreat as well, I can very much recommend dhamma.org, the organization I made it with. Why? Because:
- Courses are completely free of charge, you don’t even pay for accommodation and food
- The organization and courses run entirely on volunteering and donations made by people who attended courses in the past
- The technique and the whole teaching are non-religious and non-ideological (see an introduction to it here)
- No blind belief or faith are involved
- Their founder is a cute, old cuddle bear (you get to see videos of him in the evening)
Demands are high, so you have to sign up a few months in advance. If the 10 days and the tough timetable sound too extreme for you, there are countless other organizations that offer different forms of retreats. With some research you’ll surely find something that fits you.
Either way, thank you so much for reading the whole article! I hope you could find some food for thought and inspiration. Feel free to ask questions, open a discussion in the comments or message me directly. Any feedback means a lot to me!