Throughout the world, there are centers that do 10-day silent meditation retreats. They are called Vipassana Centers and they are all absolutely free.
They are also not associated with any particular religion, don’t sell anything and don’t try to convert anyone.
It’s like the unicorn of spiritual endeavors.
Use the previous link to see if there is a center near you.
There are centers throughout the US and neighboring countries so with a little travel, you can find yourself in this experience, which was beautiful and painful..
I have wanted to do one of these for 5 years now.
I wanted to do it because I thought it sounded like such a profound experience, and yet it was so simple.
In science they always say the simplest explanation is probably the right one. And the opportunity to be distilled down to nothing but my own thoughts seemed like an opportunity to do some mental house cleaning.
Sort of like the Marie Kondo approach to your mind.
Can you imagine what 10 days without anyone else’s input would be like?
Ten days without advertising, opinions, and all the meaningless small talk that is constantly happening around us?
I wanted to feel what that was like. I wanted to strip away all the excess nonsense and see where I was at the end of it.
When I first started talking about wanting to go, it was 2014. I was travelling Thailand with my sister Molly. She said, “What do you do for 10 days?”
I said, “Sit in a hall and meditate.”
“Do you at least get a chair?”
“So it’s pretty much sitting uncomfortably for 10 days?”
She thought for a minute and then said, “I’d do it if I could get a recliner.”
My boyfriend Karl has done 3 Vipassanas within the past two years and is a big believer in the process. So before I left I asked him what advice he would give me. I was surprised when he responded, “Pain is our greatest teacher.”
At this point you probably recognize the foreshadowing here. I however, did not.
So, it happened that right now, I have some time. Despite the many centers throughout the world, the one that I was able to get into on short notice was in Sri Lanka of all places. And so, I got on a plane and went to Sri Lanka.
I arrived at the center jet-lagged and car sick. The group was immediately separated between men and women. We even checked in at different sides of the building. It was about half Sri Lankans and half western travelers.
I checked in, turned in my laptop, phone, camera, and wallet. Then I was instructed to use some clothes from a large closet since we would be required to all wear white. This is something that is unique to centers closer to India. We are supposed to dress to indicate purity.
I went to my room which contained a bed with a thin pad on a wood frame, a mosquito net, a communal bathroom with cold showers. I put on my borrowed white clothes and began 10 days of silence.
The first three days of Vipassana, your entire attention is focused on your breath and the sensations you feel from your nose to your upper lip. That’s it. There is nothing else. You meditate on it for 10 hours a day.
It sounds so boring that you’d want to die, and it is.
But there were also moments that I couldn’t believe how much I learned about myself by just watching how I breathe. I stopped breathing all the time. Every time I got nervous or had an uncomfortable thought, my breathing changed.
Then I started realizing just how much we can feel and notice in that small area of the body from my nose to my upper lip. It was as if every single pore was sending signals to my brain. How could my brain handle all these inputs at once? It was like the sensory overload of shopping at Christmas times ten.
It was also within the first three days of the course that I began to feel excruciating back pain. We were sitting in a large hall with a hard floor on cushions. I’ve had back pain for most of my life, starting around the time I was eleven. I don’t notice the pain that much any more but it’s a near constant presence. But suddenly, the pain was front and centered and couldn’t be ignored.
My thoughts shifted from focusing on my breath to focusing on getting through one breath at a time, then another, then another. Out of everyone in the hall, I was moving the most, changing positions and trying to find a way to be comfortable through the pain for ten hours of meditation a day. I’d count five breaths, take a deep breath which felt like a knife being plunged between my ribs and start again.
By lunch on the third day, I was worried that I was going to miss out on all the benefits of the course because all I could do was try to survive the pain one slow, excruciating breath at a time. I went to the teacher’s table and asked her what I could do about my back pain.
Her English was difficult to understand, but she replied, “No, this your reality. You must accept.”
“I’m just worried I can’t meditate right because it is so bad.”
“Back pain is past karma and money worries. This is reality.”
In my pained state, I wondered if this meant I was poor and also a bit of an asshole?
Every night, we would go to another hall to watch S. N. Goenka, the man responsible for spreading Vipassana meditation throughout the world give instructions for the next day. Goenka was like a Muppet character to me. He had a funny croaky voice and we had to listen to his chanting daily on recordings. It was like if Yoda sang silly little nonsense songs to Luke Skywalker.
His voice would come crackling and croaking out of the speakers in the hall several times a day, in the tuneless drone that was painful to listen to. Just when you thought it was over he would give a long groan or hiccup, indicating another round of warbling was about to begin (listen here).
During the videos, he acknowledged that pain is what happens when mind and matter meet. And since we were spending so much time being aware, focused and attentive, many people were feeling pains in the body or the emotions. I occasionally heard sniffling and crying quietly around the hall.
Every day it was the same thing, “These are just sensations arising and passing, arising and passing.”
Our job was just to observe them. We weren’t supposed to run from the pain or run towards pleasure. We were just supposed to be what they called “equanimous” accepting of both ends of the spectrum and not desiring either.
This was nice in theory, but I was still stuck on one side of the spectrum and by the end of the fifth day, was getting desparate.
What in my life had I done to deserve this pain?
Osho says that karma isn’t a punishment for bad deeds but more of a reminder of things in life left unsettled.
What hadn’t I settled?
Could I relax it away, feel it away by plunging deep into it? Could I just be at peace with it? Could I ignore it? Could I drug it?
No, I couldn’t do anything but sit with it. In the silence my pain was like a demonic gremlin for a companion. It was the vicious, bone against bone, grinding kind of pain that only really happens in the back. Each breath, at the bottom of the breath it was stabbing, sharp, hot and vicious. I spent breaks lying on my back in my room. During meals, my back was hot and pulsating.
All the old ladies got to sit with their backs against the wall. I was told this wasn’t for me. I needed to feel my pain. So I did. All the while wondering if I was going to get anything out of this other than an exceptional pain tolerance.
After a particularly brutal afternoon in which it felt like there were three knives between my ribs on my right side with every breath, I caved and took 3 ibuprofein which did absolutely nothing.
And the show went on…
The entire idea was that we had to train our brains to stop seeking just for pleasure and be in the moment, accepting that there is always some pain and misery in life. Although we are conditioned to look for good feelings, there is always pain and misery present.
It is life.
Pain and pleasure are always together, the balance just shifts. Even if something really good happens, you will feel pain in letting the moment go, so you must accept both the good and bad feelings without preference for one or the other. This is what gives you peace in life.
And we would find a way to accept it, by sitting quietly, not moving when we were uncomfortable, not resisting bad feelings and not clinging to good.
Vipassana was such a mechanical solution. And the idea was, if you can train your brain in physical pain, it will respond the same to emotional pain as well, because pain is pain, no matter the source.
Around this time, I also realized that I could train my brain to stop thinking. It turns out, we are the masters of our minds and I could tell my brain to stop.
One night I went to bed and woke up suddenly from a nightmere. “Stop!” I commanded the right side of my brain. And went back to sleep. Later I woke up again and the left side of my brain was going crazy. “Stop!” I commanded it.
When I woke up the next morning, I not only had to remember where I was, I had to remember who I was. My conscious brain had stopped and apparently taken the night off.
The vast majoriy of a Vipassana course, you mentally scan the entirety of your body, noticing any feeling objectively. You realize quickly how many things you can feel at the same time, both physically and emotionally. And without realizing it, you start sort of cleaning up places that are dense or feel blocked.
I was still in such pain that my attention got focused on my back over and over and over. I couldn’t leave it. I just had to try to survive it one hour at a time.
In the moments when the pain was less severe, I scanned my body. Each time I mentally found a dense or dead place I noticed it, smoothed it out if I could and moved on.
Moments would come where areas of my back started to loosen. An area on my left shoulder would suddenly relax, letting go of pain and in it’s place would be a cool, bubbling feeling that would trail up my skin, like carbonation in a soda.
Day after day were spent in pain with glimmers of other things interspersed. I still didn’t know if I was doing it right. But as my instructor said, “This is your experience, this is reality. Don’t wish it was anything different.”
During the last half of the course, I realized the things I thought would be difficult about it, weren’t. And the things I thought would be easy were not.
For example, ten days without coffee and with plain vegetarian food was no big deal. I didn’t miss the comfort of good food or have caffeine withdrawals.
I thought I would miss the entertainment of the internet and of my cell phone but I never thought of it. There wasn’t one night I wished I could scroll through Instagram or check my email. I did miss contacting people in the outside world but the rest of technology wasn’t an issue.
There was however, the surprising side that I occasionally worried that something tragic could have happened on the other side of the Vipassana walls. You know, something like someone you know getting elephantitis or a world war starting, and here I’d be sitting in my borrowed white clothes completely unaware.
The last thing I thought was that my experience would be one of intense physical pain. I didn’t anticipate that at all. I also felt confused by the simplicity of the meditation method. I kept thinking, “Is that it?”
The other thing that surprised me in all this, is that not talking is so easy. They emphasize that is silent meditation, but that’s not the difficult part.
By not talking, I started feeling a sort of sisterhood with all the other women there. It felt like such a friendly, quiet environment. We all cleaned our dorms and the bathrooms on breaks. We were kind to one another. And suddenly the smallest thing like someone putting your sandals inside when it’s raining seemed like the most loving gesture.
We got to know eachother’s patterns and habits. And without being aware of it, we got to know eachother. There really is so little need to talk to explain who you are. We were each communicating it all day, every day.
The woman who sat next to me in the hall was also having back pain. And we developed a friendship despite not being able to talk or make eye contact. Every time I would see her I would think, “Oh, there’s my friend.”
As the end of the course approached, it slowed to a crawl. I sat with the pain moment after moment after moment. At the end of the 10thday, when our last hour of meditation was over, my back pain had reduced in size but was just as acute as ever. The pain had gone completely in my left side and my right shoulder. But from my right hip to my right shoulder blade, I felt like a metal spike paralleled my spine.
We spent the last hour meditating on love and sending love out to the world. I cried silently with closed eyes, feeling of failure that I had spent 10 days in excruciating pain for nothing.
I felt a bit depleted of everything. Just empty.
But as the hours passed and I came further and further out of my head and back into the world, I felt deep-seated, buoyant joy. It had nothing to do with relief that my pain was over, because it wasn’t. But I felt relieved and renewed at a deeper level.
As the next few hours unfolded and we could talk, I saw the women I had been meditating with light up. It was as if years had been taken off of them. One particularly sour looking French woman had suddenly been illuminated. Her eyes were clear, she smiled easily and seemed to float on a cloud as she moved.
I felt like nothing had changed in the last hour of meditation, and yet, coming out of it, it was like the place I saw the world from had shifted. I had shifted. I felt a softness and compassion in my heart that reminded me of being a little kid. I felt hopeful and happy and just so full of love. Every gesture, every movement, every action of other people even felt filled with love.
Despite my worries that I was failing completely at Vipassana, I felt completely different when I left than when I arrived. I understood things in a different way. In the airport on the way back to Europe, I signed up for another course.
I thought the process of Vipassana would be more enjoyable. I didn’t think it would be so intensely painful, especially in a physical sense. But I also didn’t realize what was waiting on the other side of pain if you’re willing to walk through it.