Vipassana Meditation Retreat

What I learned from my first 10 day silent retreat

Haley Linnet

2021-02-21 9 min read

5 Important Things I Learned at My First Vipassana Course

 Vipassana Meditation Courses are 10 day retreats to establish participants in a specific meditation technique developed by Gautama Buddha. The course is facilitated virtually by S.N. Goenka, who is largely responsible for a revival of the Vipassana technique in modern times. During the course, students practice Noble Silence, which is a renunciation of all communication, including speaking, eye contact, reading, writing and physical touch. Practicing Noble Silence is aimed to make the retreat a solitary journey, where you can focus internally, building a relationship with your Self, rather than on forming external relationships. When I told people I would be doing a ten day, silent meditation retreat, they reacted most to the silent part. It turns out the silence is the easiest part, and facing your own mind is the most difficult. 

This is about as much as I knew when I arrived at the centre for my ten day retreat. I knew it would be difficult, by I was excited about all the benefits of inner peace I had heard the retreat can provide. It’s safe to say I vastly underestimated the amount of work it would require, and I was overconfident in my ability to achieve what I came there to do. My ego was inflated and I told myself that as a yoga teacher and occasional meditator, I would be able to work hard and excel in the technique. 

I learned a lot at my first course. The first thing that became crystal clear was my own hubris, and my ego quickly deflated. There is no amount of preparation that will make hard work easier. No matter where you are in life, this course will be challenging, because it demands all of your effort. We all have different starting points, these are arbitrary. What mattered was how hard each of us could devote ourselves to the work. There is always more room to grow. Here are five main takeaways from my course. It’s hard to describe experiential learning in writing, because you have to experience it to really learn it. However, I hope these will give you some insight as to what the retreat is like, and why it might be worth doing, because it is worth doing. For all of us.

1) My mind is wild.

It’s not until you try to tame your thoughts do you realize how scattered, chaotic and often destructive they are. I’m a daydreamer, and find my mind wandering through scenarios of disaster, and “what if” rabbit holes. Such negative thoughts and reasonings do not serve me. To paraphrase our teacher Goenka,

Nothing can harm us as much as the untamed mind. Nothing can help and support us as much as the trained mind. 

When we hear a person speaking without a logical sequence of thought, jumping from one subject to another without reason, we think, “That person’s crazy”. Yet our own minds are in a constant state of irrational spiraling. A monkey mind, grasping one branch then the next without pause. It was shocking to sit down and observe this chaos.

At first, I thought I was the only one in the room experiencing so much trouble focusing. Inevitably, I would peak my eyes open and see all the other meditators sitting quietly, apparently in states of zen. Later though, during evening discourse, Goenka talks about this, and how we’re all having a common experience. The whole room laughed with relief as we all became aware that we’re not alone. We’re all working with untamed minds and fighting wild trains of thought.

2) Simple isn’t easy. 

Awareness of the breath is a very simple concept, yet incredibly difficult in practice. After focusing on the breath for a few minutes, the mind has wandered, and the body is aching, demanding a chair. Course teachers told us it's normal to make the mind focus on one breath, maybe two, and then the mind is already gone on a tangent. This was the case for me. A few minutes later, I was able to realize my mind had wandered, and draw it back to monitoring the breath. Then it was gone seconds later. The monkey mind is grasping the next branch, desperately trying to remain wild and free. 

Our purpose in these ten days was to get our own minds on our side. To retrain them to our advantage so that we stop living a reactionary life. Our thoughtless reactions of anger and impatience harm us. When we’re able to pause and take a breath, we can handle things calmly and invite more peace to our lives. 

If we can control how we react to things, nothing can cause us harm. Thus, if the highest levels of practice are achieved, meditation can end our suffering, because it removes the ability for external factors to hurt us. Goenka says, 

“The amount of attachment we give to something is equal to the amount of misery it will cause us”.

When I buy a new gadget, like a laptop, I become very protective and attached to it. I perceive that I’ve traded a lot of time and hard work in order to obtain it. If something happens to my laptop, I become miserable. I’ve allowed a lifeless object to have more importance than my own happiness. The more importance I give to it, the more unhappiness it can cause in me. Only by practicing nonattachment can I release myself from this cycle and control how I react when negative things happen.

Sounds much easier than it is. In ten days, if you’ve worked very hard, you’ll start to be aware of your anger and impatience arising. This will help you come out of it perhaps a little sooner. Maybe. Maybe you’ll just be aware of it, and unable to stop it. It isn’t until years of practice that we’ll be able to use our practice to avert the anger and impatience altogether. 

Goenka uses the metaphor of throwing water on hot coals. At first when the water connects with the coals, there is a loud sizzling reaction. This is the mind rebelling against you. Again and again as you throw handfuls of water, this reaction will occur until finally, the temperatures balance out and there’s no sizzle. There’s no reaction, just silence, just peace. The mind, if you keep calling it back to the breath, again and again, eventually will become more balanced, and will wander less frequently. 

3) My negativity is rooted in fear.

Taming the mind is like undergoing a deep surgery. The wound you create during this operation will release some pus. During meditation, I experienced memories I hadn’t thought of in years, and faced emotions that arose without connection to my surroundings. These are symptoms of the operation, of purifying my mind of things I’m clinging to. It was necessary to face some things in order to let go and make space for my meditation practice. 

The purpose of operating on the mind is to purify the mind. To cut out the negativity at the root. The mind fights back and we have to face some things.

I found that the root of my negative thoughts is fear. I’m sure different people may identify different root causes for their own negative thoughts, but I definitely found it helpful to place a name to something I never understood before. I never bothered to wonder why I catch myself daydreaming about an apocalypse or other disaster befalling myself or others I love. Knowing that it’s rooted in fear helps me to identify those thoughts as harmful to me, baseless, and futile. This awareness now helps me to dedicate myself to eradicating them.

4) Everything stems from the mind

Learning that our trained minds have the power to help us, and our untrained minds are hurting us, led to the lesson that everything stems from our thoughts. When we spend our time entertaining thoughts, these will inform our  words, actions and our intentions. If we let our minds be ruled by fear, our actions and intentions may be paralyzed. 

Goenka told us a lovely story about a farmer who planted bitter seeds and expected sweet fruit to grow in his life. The farmer kept planting bitter seeds, more and more, and was wondering why nothing ever sweet would grow on his land. The farmer didn’t realize that in order to eat mangoes, he had to plant mango seeds. We too are failing to realize, that if we want positive things to happen in our lives, we must plant those seeds first in our minds. 

Wholesome thoughts and actions come from seeds that we plant, care for and cultivate in ourselves. How can a mind plagued by fear and anger bear fruit of kindness and happiness? We must plant mind mangoes. 

5) Continuity of work is the key to success. 

During the course, our teachers constantly reinforced the idea that we must work hard in this practice. We had to really want to succeed in the practice and have integrity in our meditation retreat. 

If you don’t truly want to be there, if you don’t actually believe you can change for hte better, a Vipassana retreat will quickly become torture. There’s no respite from the work. No distraction, not even talking or eye contact with peers. There are no books, no tv, no phones. There is just you, and your mind, and your intentions to tame your mind. If you give up on the course, and fail to work hard, you’ll find yourself falling endlessly down rabbit holes in your mind. There's nothing else to do. There’s wrestling with your thoughts, or being swept away by them. 

Only through constant practice did I start to see any progress. This took days. I had actively commit to working harder than I ever had before. Vipassana courses are true immersion. Humans have always learned best through immersive experiential learning. We learn languages best and most quickly when we are living in it, surrounded by it. In Vipassana you are meditating for 15 hours per day. You’ll advance. This is true for all things.

I had an epiphany during the course that this level of dedication and hard work is true and necessary for all things we do. If we really want to be good at something, to dedicate ourselves to something, we must work diligently, without distraction, and with the purest of intentions. If I want to be an artist, I need to make art everyday. I have to truly want it, which means I must be willing to work hard for it. This translates to practicing constantly in order to master my craft. 

If we want to be kind, we have to work at it. If we want loving relationships with ourselves and others, we have to set our minds to that end. Eradicate negativity, plan and put to practice wholesome actions and complimentary words. Intentions without concrete strategies to make them a reality are empty and bound to fail. Set your goal, and then map every action necessary to get there.

Vipassana mapped out our paths for us. First, meditate constantly for ten days under our guidance, so that we have a strong foundation in the practice. Then, return to your daily lives, reducing your meditation to two hours per day, one in the morning, one in the evening. Stay connected to the community, attend local group sittings, come back to the center for an annual ten day course, or a shorter 1-3 day course. Notice the difference in yourself as you expand the places of peace inside you. Basically, it’s a way of life, not a two hour daily commitment. Every breath is striving to be more and to be better.

In many ways, I’ve failed to reach the goal the Vipassana course set for me. I don’t meditate twice a day, or even once oftentimes. But I do feel more dedicated than ever to the things I want in my life. Vipassana showed me I can work hard not only for peace in myself, but for my art, my yoga practice, and my relationships. I’m so grateful for all I learned at my first retreat. I hope to return, and to continue to expand my capacity for hard work, so that I can achieve my meditation goals, and also my personal goals.

You can learn more on the Vippassana Center website, and find a Center near you! Also feel free to reach out to me with any questions, or if you are an old student, to share your experiences. I’m grateful to be a part of your community.

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