We are worrisome people.
We worry about what we will eat tomorrow, where we will sleep, what she thinks of me, will I be accepted, can I be loved?
Now imagine a place where you can learn the answers to these questions and many more without having to utter a single word. Were you are fed, and sheltered. A place of no words, only love and compassion; welcome to the Dharma teachings.
I’d like to share an account of my first silent meditation retreat. From nonverbal wars over bananas to the weariness of just being alone with myself, A silent meditation retreat taught me that meditation could be something more than just a tool used to de-stress. It taught me that through meditation I can begin to understand how I think about myself, and how to maneuver the world I reside in.
To Start I think it is best if we talk about what Vipassana even is. What does it mean? What do we use it for?
"Vipassana is… a process of self-discovery, a participatory investigation in which you observe your own experiences while participating in them as they occur.”
-Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Vipassana or insight meditation is one of the oldest techniques of meditation taught by the Buddha which focuses on developing our capacities for mindfulness and concentration to reach profound levels of insight into the internal workings of ourselves.
The foundation of Vipassana is taught with little spiritual underpinning, meaning that anyone of any secular decent can learn and use the technique; you don’t have to be a Buddhist.
As I said Vipassana is sometimes called insight or liberation, but what are we really achieving here? What is this insight we are seeking?
It is an insight into ourselves. Insight into our minds and
There’s an Ancient Pali narration that explains what I mean. It goes something like this:
Meditation is likened to taming a wild elephant. The method for taming an elephant in ancient times involved tying a freshly caught wild elephant to a post with the strongest rope you had available. The elephant would shriek and trample with all its might for days on end. Until one day, the elephant accepts its fate and clams itself.
With the elephant is clam, tamers would begin tending to him. They would feed and wash the elephant, gradually developing a relationship, but still on guard against to wrath that could arise at any moment.
In due course tamer would dispense rope, giving the elephant space to roam free; the elephant has now become accustom new life to leave. Now the tamers were free to teach the elephant various tasks, tasks that would be very useful and couldn’t be done without the abilities of the elephant.
This story is an analogy for Vipassana and meditation generally for that matter. Our minds are the elephants, the tamers are Vipassana, and tools used to tame the elephant are synonymous with a meditation practice.
So to answer our question about how to use Vipassana, we use it to train our minds. With a trained mind we can begin to observe the world less judgmentally and reactionary. We stop creating a world to view and start to just observe the world as it is; for lack of a better term, we can stop and finally smell the roses.
All of this and more has come to me all thanks to a few days sitting in silence. But that isn't the entirety of the story.
My experience at my first 10-day Silent retreat
I had just graduated undergraduate and had been seeking for a powerful experience that would challenge me. I pondered the idea of going abroad, getting lost traveling America, or even just going into the wood and only coming back when 'I knew'—whatever that means.
So got to googling. I discovered that there was a meditation center only three hours from me that ran ten-day retreats. Ten days initially sounded like a lot of time, but I didn't have plans anyway, so it didn’t make much of a difference.
When I started to fill out my application I did so with the intention to do it with a friend as a support method for the daunting experience that I had assumed was to come. But when I completed my application and as accepted before my friend even applied, I took it as a sign that this would be a solo campaign.
I arrived on day zero and was asked to sign a slew of forms asking me mental health questions. I choose not to talk to anyone directly, as a way to get used to the not talking thing. I did end up ease dropping. I overheard people talk about silent retreats of the past and the great horrors they had personally experienced. All of which just expatriated my own fears about what was to come in the up and coming days.
Days 1, 2, & 3: Just Breath.
I barely slept the first day due to excitement for what is to come. I could only imagine what my first formal teaching in meditation would entail. But how could I be surprised that the first few days would only be breathing exercises whose goal was to develop focus and concentration on a single object; in this case, the object was the breath. So over the next few days, we only practiced breathing. But something strange began to happen, I began to feel really alone and extremely bored. I began creating narratives for all the other students. I made up past afflictions, their hopes and dreams all in my head. I made enemies and friends without having ever said a word—more on this later.
Day 4, 5, & 6: My Mind Reaches Critical Mass.
The day felt similar to the day prior except that this time at night, in my dreams I had lucid experiences that spoke to me. The messages my dreams brought where terrifying to keep it short. The message was I was only a puppet and the mysterious force up top—whatever that is—would ruin me. I spoke to the assistant teacher about how I was feeling, and he told me this:
The mind is really good at playing tricks, next time just observe the sensations on your hands and feet, do this and let me know what happens.
The dreams happened again the next night. So in my frantic state, I go ahead and give his advice and try. Now I am simplifying, but low and behold, the feeling of fear passed. This battle went on for several hours, back and forth between the feelings of fear in my mind about and a more objective observation of my body. Like the night before, I didn't sleep much, but this time I had learned a lesson, one that changed my perspective on feelings. I came to see that feelings can be overridden if you accept them fully, but do not engage. This was the first great lesson of my retreat.
Days 7, 8, & 9: The Great Banana War
Most of my last days on the retreat were very similar and I cannot recall any distinct differences. But I can remember one particular incident that bled into the last few days and taught me the most valuable lesson of the retreat.
It all stems from a strange source; Bananas
Each day when I entered the dining hall for food I noticed that, like clockwork, the bananas would be one of the first snacks that everyone would grab. So quickly that someday I wouldn't get the chance to grab have one for myself; I had enough-especially since I could point out several students who were notorious for taking multiple bananas.
Here I was about to sit in my regular seat in the dining hall about to dig into a mesh of yogurt and bananas—I spitefully took two bananas today—and it hit me. How could I know anything about anyone in this room? I am making judgments on their character from what? Only from my own thoughts. The whole banana fiasco is just an ongoing conversation with myself trying to convince me to be irritated or annoyed for a made-up reason. I was trying to justify anger and selfishness to myself. And I finally caught myself in the act; a breakthrough in the making. I learned a lesson in prejudgmentive thinking and my predisposal personal predisposal to selfishness. Crazy as it seems, bananas helped teach me one of the most valuable lessons of my meditative practice; you are not your reactions, nor do you have to feel bad about the reactions that come to mind.
Day 10: Noble Chatter Begins
We are taught the technique called Metta or love and kindness meditation. Love and kindness meditation tend to be undermined because of how ‘fluffy’ it can seem compared to the other techniques we learned. At this point in time, I had not learned much about it. But is worth mentioning that I did experience the pleasurable feelings Metta meditation is supposed to bring. But I attribute these sensations to my excitement to talk again. Day ten we were allowed to talk with all the fellow students sitting the silent meditation retreat. I connected with a group of guys around my age and we hit it off—they had also banana-based epiphanies—talking for hours into the night and leaving no room for sleep.
I still do keep in touch with that group of guys. It is strange to think I made life-long friends with people I spoke with for less than 24 hours with one another. The next morning, we cleaned the center, exchanged our contact information, and said our goodbyes.
What I learned
I would not change a thing about what happened during those ten days. Here are the main takeaways from my first silent meditation retreat.
Silent retreats are imperative
If you have a deep interest in developing a meditation practice, sitting a silent retreat is imperative. The world is very noisy, and it would be difficult to create a similar environment surround by the love and support of the dharma. Whether you attend to bolster your practice or re-center yourself, a meditation retreat provides the environment to work with as little interruptions as possible to reach deep meditative states. I now plan on sitting at least one ten-day silent meditation retreat every year.
Thoughts are constant
My mind just wouldn't shut-up. Each day as I started to have less recent memories for my mind to grab on to, I became more aware of how my mind wants to add its two cents to everything. It became almost debilitating to listen to myself go on and on about nothing! Thoughts became just a garble of excess sense-making.
I Don’t Have to Be My Feelings or Thoughts
I had been struggling with a series of nightmares for over two years. Learning Vipassana taught me how to live with the ongoing narrative of my life. I used to be scared, terrified even of what a night of sleep had in store for me. Now I have the tools to accept whatever gifts my mind has to offer me, especially in the form of dreams. By observing how my body feels after traumatic memory, paying attention to ebb and flow of bodily reactions, I learned what the events are and not what I was making them out to be.
Consider Learning Vipassana
I will be writing more about Vipassana in the up and coming weeks. But if you’re sold already, I’d encourage you to check out the Vipassana website. Through the love and kindness of others, a network of centers all over the world is able to offer millions of people an introduction to the art of living at no cost to the students.
A silent meditation retreat is a challenging and well-deserved feeling of accomplishment for anyone who can endure it. You will learn something about yourself, and if not, you now have the tools to do so.
Perhaps you’re looking for a smaller place to start? Check out my post on developing a meditation practice through small wins.