Well… nothing happened. That’s kind of the point. To have no distractions. I just sat in a meditation center with my eyes closed and observed my bodily sensations, meanwhile trying not to react to them. But let me tell you, it was A H – M A Z I N G.
Now, listen. I’m just a regular 21-year-old, who happens to like yoga and has dabbled around with some self-help methods here and there. Not particularly flexible, not particularly zen. Just a normal girl with a habit of trying new things. I heard about this retreat thing from some friends, who had always seemed mysteriously peaceful (despite being in their early twenties like me!), so I figured they knew what they were talking about. The participation fee was an affordable pay-what-you-can donation, which fit perfectly into my broke college student budget. It seemed intriguing and non-secty enough and I happened to have some free time on my hands. So I decided to give it a go.
When I arrived to the center, I realised I was one of the youngest participants there. Then again, I saw people older than my grandparents. Most were somewhere in between. All genders of all ages were welcome, as long as they were capable of doing the work and submitting to the rules. Even though this meditation practice grew out of Buddhism, it is entirely universal and non-sectarian in its nature. You can be a Christian, an atheist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or an agnostic like me. Pretty much whatever you believe in, it will not intercede with the teaching, because all you need to accept to use the technique is that 1) you have a body and 2) that body breathes and feels things.
„Change comes from within.“
„This too shall pass.“
„You reap what you sow.“
„Treat others as you yourself wish to be treated.“
„Live in the now.“
You’ve probably heard at least some of these during your life. Yeah, me too. They always sounded very wonderful and true, but thinking they were nice didn’t really help me with my everyday life. I would still get upset with the outside world if things did not go as I wanted and always have my head either in the past or the future, but never the actual present. During those 10 days, all those smart words developed an entirely different meaning to me. I was finally practicing what all the books and articles and people had been preaching for years. I was finally getting it.
Sounds too good to be true, right? What’s the catch, you ask?
Well, it was sort of a challenge. We weren’t allowed to speak. Or touch. Or even look at one another. The entire time. Oh, and we were scheduled to meditate 11 hours a day, every day. The only outside stimulus for us was a nightly hour-long lecture to explain the method and that was it. The rest of the time – complete silence and isolation from anything external.
I don’t want to get into the details of the actual tehnique. People devote their entire lives to teaching this method and there’s no point in attempting it in one article. Besides, it’s more about learning it for yourself as you practice anyways. I do however really feel like sharing my own personal experience. So here are a few observations I made during my course.
1. Meditating is hard, yo
There’s a reason why a lot of people fail to start a meditation habit, even though everyone has heard about how fabulous it is only about a few hundred times already. That’s because it is really, and I mean r e a l l y, hard. I dare you to right now, as you’re reading this, not think about anything for 60 seconds. To just focus on one thing for one fucking minute. How did you do? Was that easy?
I feel ya, I really do. In the age of multitasking and listicles, our brains are NOT used to this. Focusing on one task, for hours at a time? Let’s just say, I felt pretty hopeless at first. After every session my brain was so exhausted from this new type of strange and mysterious activity, ~concentration~, that I would just pass out as soon as I reached my bed during all the breaks. And I wasn’t the only one.
2. You will get annoyed
People will cough, sneeze, burp, yawn, crack their knuckles, crack their back, crack their neck, fidget around and generally be distracting, noisy creatures. It’s what people do. And now you’re sitting in a huge hall full of them, just trying to get some quiet so you can focus. For the first three days of my course, I was convinced that the universe had manifested the loudest lady imaginable to sit right behind me, just to mess with me or something. But day by day, I kind of started noticing less and less of her. And more and more of the endless distractions another person in the hall was creating – the distractions created by myself. Now I was really pissed. My only job was to quiet my mind and observe my body. Why the f*** is this so difficult??? After a while, probably because the teachers were constantly reminding us to be patient and accepting, I eventually grew to be more patient and accepting. Even of myself.
3. You aren’t allowed to communicate with others
I’m a naturally extroverted person, an ENFP, if you’re curious. I love expressing myself and listening to other people’s points of view. And when you’re working through some seriously heavy mental baggage, it would have been so easy for me to seek comfort, support and distractions in others. But the rules said otherwise. And after a while, I really understood why. We were all there to work with ourselves and learn, and a quiet environment supports that. It won’t allow you to quit, even when it gets tough. It takes away all the crutches and you have no other option than to just be self-reliable and independent, 100%.
4. Your body will protest
It might be because you have to sit on the floor all day. I personally found a fully comfortable sitting position (and pillow combination) only about halfway through my course. Or maybe I just finally broke in my hip flexor.
It might be because the wakeup bell is at 4 AM. You heard me! Do you know anyone sane who wakes up at 4AM every day? Yeah, same here. But lights out is at 9:30PM, so that helps. My regular sleep pattern is something similar to the opposite, but I adjusted surprisingly fast to this one. Probably because I was so worn out by the nonstop intense meditation all the time anyway, so whatever chance I got to sleep, I took it.
It might be because you’re not used to an all-vegetarian diet. I was already a semi-vegetarian, so I actually really enjoyed the menu, but I heard getting used to beans and lentils are often an issue for newbies.
It might be because you’re used to being physically active and sitting perfectly still for days and days just seems impossible.
It might be because you aren’t allowed to smoke, drink or take any other drugs (except the ones a legit doctor has prescribed you) while you’re there.
Whatever the reason, it will probably happen in one form or another and it will suck. But you’ll survive. In hindsight, I can honestly say that all the rules make sense now and are just there to help you concentrate and get maximum results out of your time. (Stockholm syndrome, anyone?)
5. You have to know whether this is something you are capable of right now
During the application process, among other things, you are asked to describe what is going on in your life. If you are in a position at the moment, when you really should be in serious therapy or rehab or in the hospital, this is not the place for you. This meditation practice is all about creating your own support system within yourself, but you need some amount of stability to exist there beforehand.
6. You have to leave everything going on at home, at home
Similarly, if you’re business is in a crisis or your family member is seriously ill or you’re failing at school etc, this is not the place to come and escape your worldly problems. It is good to find time to look within and work with yourself, but your responsibilities need to be taken care of before you do that. Naturally, you will think about your job and your loved ones now and again, but you need to have things arranged so that after a few minutes of thinking about stuff at home, you can come back to your meditation without a guilty conscience.
7. You will miss your freedom
By most standards, this is beginning to sound like prison, right? For those 10 days, you are essentially surrendering yourself to some outside rules. You move, when the bell tells you to move. You don’t get to eat, when you’re hungry – you eat when the schedule says so. Et cetera. On the surface, not a lot of free will going on. The only difference is that you know you came here voluntarily. And day by day, you see the rules working for you.
Potential benefits, tho:
1. Your body will get a break
You’ll be sitting most of the time. Almost everyone will just be on floor cushions, sitting crossed legged, but if necessary, you can get some extra pillows, back supports or even a chair. It will get some getting used to, but sitting, for the most part, is pretty easy.
Since you aren’t allowed to bring any laptops, tablets, cell phones or books into the retreat with you, your eyes will definitely get a nice vacation.
The food served is very simple, wholesome and entirely vegetarian, therefore very easy on your digestive track. Because you have zero distractions during meal times, you can pay attention to the food you’re eating and will actually stop when you’re full. Mindless stress eating is a very real coping mechanism for many of us, so it is pretty nice to come out of that for a change. Plus everything on the menu is so nutritious and good for you anyway, so even if you eat a little more than is necessary to satisfy your hunger, it’s still pretty healthy. How often do you hear someone say: „OMG, I binged on an avocado today!“?
And for all the ladies out there, this is the ideal place to do all those no-makeup, no artificial shampoo and conditioner, no heat styling #cavewoman experiments with yourself, because zero communication, remember? Everyone is so busy with themselves anyway and even simple eye contact is prohibited. Ergo, you have absolutely no pressure to look presentable and for those 10 days you can blissfully walk around amongst other humans with no makeup, your pillow as your hair stylist, wearing the most comfortable clothes you own. (It was essentially a congregation of sweatpants, old sweaters and top buns.)
2. You will learn to pay attention to yourself
Becoming more attentive will happen pretty naturally, because you can’t really meditate without it. You start with the breath and keep feeling subtler and subtler sensations day by day. Developing that skill is usually pretty easy, but what happens next is a bit trickier. Being mindful with your body, your emotions and thoughts can be a gift and a curse. The more you are able to feel, the more important it becomes that you can handle all those feelings too. Sure, if you experience something pleasant now, it will be way more amazing than before. But that is a slippery slope to getting addicted. Likewise, now that you’re more sensitive, the things that sucked before, will be even harder to endure now. That is why it is so important not to react or get attached, to the good nor the bad.
3. Your will experience what it’s like to have your mind working at its maximum capacity
Remember all that frustration about concentrating I described earlier? Well, when it starts getting better, it will get really f*cking awesome pretty quick. After a mere few days, you’ll start getting these glimpses of immense mental clarity. Ever seen that movie, Limitless? That is pretty much how I started feeling (but just for a few moments or a few minutes tops!), within reason of course. I’ve never had a problem with gathering information, it is finding the connections and making the right decisions that’s the hard part. Well… The best way I can describe it is that it was like a fog got lifted and I could suddenly access all the knowledge I have and actually use it. I went in with a lot of questions and doubts about my life, and day after day, I just kept getting answers for everything. After a while I felt like I didn’t even have anything that needed resolving anymore, so just brand new ideas started appearing out of nowhere. Basically, forget Adderall and the like, meditation is waaay more effective. Of course, even the most experienced meditators can’t master their thoughts all the time and in the beginning the ratio of time spent quieting your mind and actually experiencing that sweet mental clarity was like 99 to 1 or something. Still totally worth it though.
4. You will learn to be happy with less
You don’t really have a lot going on during those days, so entertainment-wise you’ll become pretty desperate pretty soon. Staring at a tree for like 15 minutes will become a completely acceptable activity. You’ll appreciate the way a fabric feels on your skin or what your tea smells like or how yours salad crunches in your mouth. You’ll become your own personal radio and stand-up comedian. And after you come out of your own rendition of The Simple Life, everything you had to give up for that short time will feel like a small miracle again.
5. An opportunity to meet wonderful, like-minded people
Even though you’ll feel super alone most of the time, you are really not. Although in silence, you’ve been going through similar struggles with a large group of people together, side by side, for 10 days. And when it’s all over, you finally get a chance to talk to with them. You already have something really intense in common, so it’s not really awkward at all. Even though you might be from completely different walks of life and the person you’re talking to might be double your age, you’ll find it really easy to connect and share.
6. It is a great way to jumpstart a daily meditation habit
I think I’ve promised to start meditating regularly at least in three of my New Year’s resolutions and countless times during those classic 2AM „TOMORROW-I-WILL-CHANGE-MY-LIFE-WOO!“ moments that you have and laugh at the next morning, when you’re late for class and all you want is to find a pair of clean socks. After you’ve been forced to practice this habit for almost two weeks in ridiculous quantity, finding the time and sticking with it becomes so much easier. Especially because you’ve already started feeling the results.
7. You will learn to let go
When you start living in the moment and accepting things as they are (and working on your meditation game of course), you will eventually reach a point, when you can start letting go of all your past bullshit. Buh-bye, complex no 248! See ya never, grudge no 4! And my, oh my, you can’t even remember when you felt this light in your life. (This is the point where you realize you’d be insane not to continue with it.)
Again, this was just my personal experience and obviously, results will vary from person to person.
If you’ve found this interesting, you can just Google ’Vipassana meditation’ and see what you find. The organisation, which organized the specific course I took in my region has a website at www.dhamma.org.
Thanks for reading!