Updated: Jan 20, 2020
A 10 day Vipassana Retreat Experience
You might find the idea of 10 days of silent meditation unthinkable, undoable, maybe a little crazy? And you might ask yourself, "why"?
Meditation is not new to me. I have been practising and teaching meditation consistently for around 15 years and been on a few weekend retreats. This was the first time I'd embarked on a 10 day Vipassana retreat. It is something I have thought of experiencing for some time. It came from the wish to immerse myself in a deep dive experience of meditation practice, to retreat and take time out to nourish my mind & soul. I chose to take time out over Christmas, with the support and blessing of my darling husband and sons, I thought it would be a great way to end 2019 and a great way to start 2020.
Lots of people have asked me about the retreat, “Which Vipassana retreat did I go on? What was it like?”.
The International Meditation Centre, UK
The centre I went to was the International Meditation Centre in Wiltshire, which was established in the UK in 1978, to promote the teachings of the late Burmese teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, by his disciple, Mother Sayamagyi. Sayagyi U BA Khin was said to be the first layman to be taught the teachings by a Buddhist monk in Burma, he realised the importance of these teachings and had a gift for passing on these teachings to others.
The style of Buddhism is in the Theravada tradition, also known as "the traditions of the Elders" and is said to be more conservative than the Mayhayana tradition (the other main branch of Buddhist philosophy). Theravada Buddhism abides by the Buddha's teachings by following the Noble Eightfold Path. Theravada Buddhists strive to be Arhats, who are perfected people who have gained true insight into the nature of reality. Vipasanna means "insight", by practising meditation regularly and consistently, a calm mind and clarity of awareness is developed.
When The Buddha became enlightened, he had a realisation about suffering. That in this life we all suffer and that the suffering happens in the mind. He named the Four Noble Truths: There is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there is an alternative to suffering, there is a path or way out of suffering. The objective of meditation - (which is the path out of suffering) - is to reduce suffering of the mind and to cultivate calmness, steadiness and peace.
Arriving for dinner on the Friday, I checked in and handed my mobile phone over. No contact with the outside world, no texting, emailing or google. What no phone for 10 days??? - I hear you gasp! I was relishing the digital detox!
We were allowed to speak to fellow meditators and meet our room mates. Then for the rest of the time until the afternoon of day 9 we observed noble silence. In order to take part in the training we are asked to adhere to the 5 precepts, i) No killing of sentient beings, ii) No stealing iii) No lying iv) Observe celibacy . v) No drink, drugs or other intoxicants.
The objective of observing noble silence is that we can also observe the precept of right speech, which means we are not indulging in idle chat and therefore there isn’t an opportunity to say anything thoughtless or to offend. In the dining area women and men sit separately, as in the meditation hall. This is to observe the precept of not indulging in sexual relations so that celibacy can be maintained and one is able to concentrate wholly on the practice of meditation.
The morning began early, the bell went at 4am :-
4:00 am Wake up
4:30 Meditation in hall
5:30 Morning discourse
6:30 - 8:00 Breakfast and rest
8:00 - 9:00 Group meditation in hall (for all)
9:30Individual instruction (for all)
11:00 - 1:00 pm Lunch and rest
1:00 - 1:45 Meditation
2:00 - 3:00 Group meditation in hall (for all)
3:30 - 5:00 Meditation, and interviews for new students
5:00 - 6:00 Tea and rest
6:00 Evening discourse
7:30 - 8:30 Group meditation in hall (for all)
It was an intense training in meditation with a daily regime of 10 hours meditation a day. I know! That sounds a lot! Which it was, however nicely divided up through the day with plenty of breaks. It was intense, the phrase that comes to me is “eat, sleep, meditate”.
Getting down to the practice
For the first 5 days we learnt Anapana meditation which is a mindfulness practice on the breath. This is to train the mind on one-pointed focus and concentration. Once we are well practised in Anapana, from day 5 onwards we were instructed in Vipassana insight meditation on Impermanence, where we broaden our attention on changing sensations of the body.
I was pleasantly surprised about the Vipassana meditation as it seemed to me to be so similar to yoga Nidra! In the Vipassana though, the intention is to experience Anicca (A- knee-cha) impermanence which based on Buddhist philosophy, is the nature of reality. We are constantly changing, just as life cycles do, it's our attachment to things that give us false illusion of stability, This creates craving to seek satisfaction externally in order to satiate the craving, however this leads to more suffering. So a cycle of suffering ensues. The practice is there as a way out of the suffering.
At times I found the experience challenging, mainly from a physical aspect. It wasn't the meditation itself, there were a few aspects that stood out. One of them was the inevitable discomfort that occurs from sitting cross legged or kneeling on the ground for any length of time. However, we were given options to meditate in a chair, to get up and stretch, to take a walk and come back to the meditation. I was able to work out two postures that worked for me and alternate the sittings between the two. Kneeling using a wooden meditation stool was comfortable once I put a cushion on the seat and the other position was sitting in Siddhasana cross legged posture.
A few days into the retreat, I began to notice as soon as I settled in to meditate my nose would start to run and I would sneeze and have to blow my nose, which was odd as I didn't have a cold. It distracted me quite a bit and I am sure my fellow meditators! I wondered if this was part of the clearing process?
Then I began to be bothered by the noises around! This might seem paradoxical as were in silence! When there is no talking, other sounds become even louder which is ok whilst I was outside in the gardens listening to bird song, however in the meditation hall, the shuffling, the coughing, nose blowing, could be heard clearly, and in the dining hall, the scraping of chairs, and cutlery against plates! I began using ear plugs when in group meditation so I could go inwards (I noticed other meditators had them). That was a big top tip and helped also in the room I shared with three other women.
On day 5 I experienced some of my senses being amplified, sound in particular and my sense of smell and taste became really acute. In one meditation sit I had a very dull ache across my right shoulder and neck and it felt as though my arm weighed a ton! All of these sensations did pass, thankfully and in keeping with the practice of impermanence and change!
We were discouraged from reading and writing, however I did take a journal and make notes and I am glad I did as I enjoyed putting my thoughts on paper about my experience and also notes on the dharma talks which were fascinating and gave a good background on the Buddha's teachings. There were explanations of the Triple Refuge, The Noble Eightfold Path, The Four Noble Truths, Mindfulness of Breathing, The Five Hindrances, and stories of the Buddha to illustrate the teachings.
I really enjoyed the discourses as they gave a good background and understanding of the Buddhist philosophy and the Buddha's teachings. I found them really interesting and it really helped with the actual practice.
What also helped get through the intensity of the practice and being in close proximity with others whilst not speaking, was the warmth and comfort of the centre. The helpfulness of those that worked there, who we could talk to if we felt the need. I appreciated the lovely pillow, the warmth of my bed, the incredible variety of delicious vegetarian food, the choice of herbal tea and coffee. Sayagyi U Ba Khin didn't believe in depriving comfort whilst undertaking the 10 day retreat.
Some people have also asked me if I had any revelations. What was revealed to me more clearly were the habitual patterns and thought processes of my mind - the distance away from regular life, also enabled me to see patterns reflected in my family dynamics. What has been useful about this clarity and awareness, is the choice that has opened up to me in how I wish to handle these dynamics in the future. At the heart of this lies conscious intention, the wish to come from a place of love and understanding, yet hold my own, in terms of setting clear boundaries of communication, that is kind to all.
What I came away with, is that the mind thinks and judges too much. We place so much importance on the thoughts that we think, yet they are so intangible and really don't matter. This idea is hard to accept when we become very identified by our opinions, our likes and dislikes. There is this inner "chitter chatter" of the mind that has a habit of commenting and judging, "I like this.....I don't like that" or "I'm a morning person, not a night person", (or vice versa), (Attraction and Aversion - two of the 5 hindrances in Buddhism, or Kleshas in Yoga Philosophy).
Thinking has value and we do need the cognitive mind to organise, plan and get things done so we can get on with life, however, we also have the capacity to recognise when we are over-thinking and how this can lead to anxiety, stress, worry and how it gets in the way of feeling well, how it blocks us from our inner peace.
It was interesting being in noble silence and being with people everyday who became so familiar yet I knew nothing about. At times I caught myself daydreaming and wondering about someone, if their voices would match the way they looked, or where they were originally from, (projection into the future)then when I realised, I would come back to the breath. Other times I would see my thoughts drifting back into the past, fragments of conversations coming up and being replayed. It was interesting to observe how the mind would vacillate in this way.
Away from meditation practice in the Dharma Hall, we were encouraged to "Not think, You have plenty of time to do this when this course is over". I took on board the advice, taking the opportunity to embrace the experience, to come back to the breath again and again. We were always encouraged to test it out for ourselves and not to believe or not believe what we heard or were taught, the proof would be in the practice.
Reintegration back to normal life!
On reflection, it was helpful that on day 9 after lunch, we were allowed to speak to other students. It felt like a relief, yet quite intense to be able to have a conversation after silence. At times I just wanted to listen and not say much. I did go out and have a walk after a few conversations so I could process the interaction. I became acutely aware of how much energy it takes to actually interact with others through speech.
I left the next day straight after breakfast, leaving just a bit earlier, as I had to make my way to Worcester to the funeral of a friend straight afterwards. I was reflecting on the irony of the last few day's Dharma talks, which were on impermanence and the cycles of life and rebirth. I didn't know how I was going to be, when it came to getting back to "normal" life. I felt surprisingly in the moment. I wasn't phased by people around me or found anything jarring. At the funeral I did feel very sensitive to other people's emotions and saying goodbye to my friend was an emotional experience. At the same time, I could feel a deep sense of gratitude that I had known him and the service that honoured and celebrated his life was very beautiful.
When I got home it was lovely to see my husband, son and cats. I felt a sense of lightness and clarity of mind, though in terms of pace, I felt like being very slow and not in a rush to do anything in particular. My husband said I seemed surprisingly 'normal'.
My meditation practice for the last 15 years or so, is Metta Bhavana, the cultivation of Loving Kindness. Since coming back I have found I have been able to incorporate the Vipassana meditation and I feel the retreat experience, has deepened my practice.
Would I recommend a Vipassana Retreat?
Yes. Is it for everyone? No.
However, I think you will know if it is the right thing for you! Even if you didn't go on a Vipassana retreat, there are many meditation retreats and paths to Samadhi, through recitation of mantras, chanting, visualisations and different approaches and traditions. I have always been interested to explore different paths, as I find it deepens my learning and understanding of meditation and practice and also informs my teaching.
What I do recommend, is starting a daily practice, unplugged, and self-guided if you don't already, and keeping it up if you do have a practice. When we meditate in this way, we connect to an inner resourcefulness that is not dependant on any outside source. In order to know the mind, we have to be with the mind and this is what brings true insight. A sense of peace and equanimity arises, even in the face of challenging times. By sitting in stillness, staying with focus on the breath or sensations we can experience flashes of samadhi, oneness and complete absorption. Maybe, even some moments of bliss!