Few self-discovery experiences make me smile more than Vipassana. It’s not the nostalgic smile of a long past holiday, more like the knowing grimace of someone that has climbed to Mt. Everest on the inside.
If nothing else, surviving 10 days of not speaking will leave you with a lasting, indelible insight into your soul – and that’s precisely why I think you should consider it.
Vipassana is a slow-drip sojourn into the far recesses of the mind – and it’s pretty amazing what lies there for all to see.
In 2017 I undertook my first Vipassana in Northern Sri Lanka. It was a profound, battle-scarring voyage into my own character and one I’ll never forget.
In this article I wanted to write about the reasons, the process, the journey, and the results, so you can decide whether 10 days with just your thoughts for company is worth what lies at the end.
What to listen instead? Check out the podcast here:
Vipassana means to “see things as they really are.”
What Is Vipassana?
Vipassana, which means to “see things as they really are”, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago and used as his primary meditation technique for coming to enlightenment.
Having fallen into relative obscurity through the passage of time, it was discovered again in the 1950s in Burma by S.N. Goenka. A successful but stressed out businessman, Goenka was struggling badly with health problems and despite trying everything, found nothing to cure his ills in the traditional Western domain.
In a chance meeting with a teacher – Sayagyi U Ba Khin – Goenka went on to study and master the ancient meditation technique, curing himself entirely of chronic physical pain. The experience led him through 14 years of practice before dedicating the rest of his life to spreading the technique worldwide.
This simple meditation technique has become something of a legend now, helping thousands of people heal from debilitating physical and mental conditions as well as come to profound insights about the nature of reality. On my retreat there were people there that had cured everything from skin inflammation to tinnitus, and even improved their eyesight.
It’s actually more common though for people to come at the retreat looking to pierce more deeply into negative thought patterns and belief systems that are recurring for them. Vipassana gives you the time and space to look deeply into the mind and understand its conditioning.
How Does It Work?
Vipassana involves something of a two-way commitment. To begin with, you surrender your phone, journal, and potentially your sanity at the door, and take on a noble vow of silence for 10 days. This vow also means abstaining from alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity, for the time you’re in the retreat.
This is the beginning of creating the conditions for the ‘purification’ of the mind.
At the heart of Vipassana is the philosophy that everything that arises in us that causes suffering (physical or mental) is to do with impurities in the mind. These impurities arise from the two tendencies of our ego, to attach and to avoid experience. Simply put, as things come by in life that we like (and we identify with), we get attached to them. Conversely, when things come along that we dislike, we look to avoid them. The trouble is these two conditions clash head on with a primary law of the universe: impermanence. Everything in the universe is constantly in flux, life is change, everything that arises will also (eventually) pass away.
This somewhat faulty (and entirely commonplace) state of mind works fine as we succeed in our attempts to control life but of course life doesn’t always go our way. Often it can go quite considerably in the other direction!
What Vipassana does is use the body, and use the physical sensations within it, to retrain the mind back to its original state of zero-preference about what’s going on. This is what the Buddhists call ‘equanimity’ which is essentially coming to an appreciation of things just as they are, without seeking to add anything to it through clinging or aversion.
You see all of what we’re trying to avoid in life are specific feelings that are triggered by the situations around us, not the situations themselves. Much of what we attach to is often to run away from something else (e.g. relationships for the sake of avoiding loneliness).
The key to retraining the mind lies in the appreciation of the impermanence of everything. It doesn’t make sense to get attached to anything that will pass away, or to look to avoid it instead of just accepting it for the time being.
But guess what? It turns out retraining the mind is a pretty tough bootcamp in counter-habitual behaviour. In order to come to peace with yourself, you have to sit and become completely equanimous with all of the feelings that we try to avoid and on Vipassana, they are stirred up as poetically as hitting a hornets’ nest with a baseball bat.
What Happens On Retreat?
Day 0 of Vipassana sees you hand in your personal affects at the door and get assigned to a room that you’re usually sharing with another attendee. Men and women are split for the duration the retreat, but typically share the meditation hall.
You get given a cursory introductory chat (including about etiquette with snakes if you’re doing it in Sri Lanka) and then the gong goes to initiate silence. The silence actually makes complete sense later in the process, because as your mind becomes more and more sensitive, you see how much speaking with others fires up mental activity. The other thing as well is that Vipassana is an intensely personal experience that varies for everyone, so talking about it half way through really litters the mind with expectation and needless thinking.
Every day the schedule of Vipassana is the same:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
Day one kickstarts with simply placing your attention on your breathing for the entire day. Usually the mind is still racing with the thoughts of the outside world, so this is a day for calming things down and focussing on breathing alone. Its also the beginning of the battle ground for noticing just how restless the mind is. If you’re anything like anyone else, the legions of smartphone notifications we deal with each day has made your brain quite expert at shifting its focus every 10 seconds. Asking it to concentrate on your breath for the next 10 hours straight is a constant and very tiring process of continual refocus.
Day one also introduces one of the first major battles to go through, physical discomfort. Most of us aren’t used to sitting cross-legged for up to two hours a session and guess what, it is fucking uncomfortable. Add to that the need to keep your mind focused on your breath (instead of your knees, ankles, hips and back), and you’ve got yourself quite a recipe for discomfort for the first 10 hours. You’re allowed to shift around over the first 1-2 days but from day 3-4 onwards, its strongly encouraged that you stick to a position and keep it.
Whilst this doesn’t paint a pretty picture to kick things off (I had my bags packed to leave at 5pm on the 1st day), it does set you up for a major insight in days 2 + 3.
Days 2 + 3
On the second and third day you start to refine your area of attention to the breath coming in and out of the nostrils. Whilst it sounds pretty dull to spend 2 days with your mind focussed on the 2cm of skin below your nose, its actually in this refocusing and concentrating of the mind that you start to feel deeply relaxed.
Moving the mind’s attention into a laser beam of concentration blocks out all other stimuli and brings a sense of deep calm over you. This is of course happening whilst the drama of chronic knee, hip, back, and shoulder pain is playing out through your body.
What you soon realise is two things. What you pay attention to through attachment or aversion (in this case the latter), magnifies and gets worse. What you surrender to and let be, moves into harmony, and the same holds exactly true for physical pain.
What you learn through judiciously retraining the mind back onto the breath during this period is that, all pain is in the mind. Everything that is arising in the physical body is just a representation of the unconscious mind. As you begin this calming and quieting exercise, the mind rebels through the body, showing you what you’ve been ignoring. Its both a profound liberation and a powerful insight to behold that you hold the keys to transforming your perception of physical pain. Sidenote: if you have major bone/ligament damage (pressing on your nervous system etc), you’re probably not going to becoming equanimous with that. Change position 🙂
About 10-20% of people quit Vipassana and day two is where most people run to the exit. The primary reason is giving up before coming to the insight that you’re not a victim of what’s happening to you (in this case physical pain), but your attitude towards it.
Days 4 – 9
With the mind focussed and calm, Day 4 introduces the vipassana meditation technique which you adopt for the next five days. The technique involves sweeping your body limb by limb (e.g. fingers, palm, lower arm, upper arm, neck, back of head, top of head etc), observing for sensations as they arise. When you observe a sensation (hot/cold, sharp/soft, fast/slow), you simply sit and observe it until it changes in some way.
This simple exercise actually triggers a phenomenal amount of activity inside of you and as always your reaction to it is the most interesting aspect because your mind usually runs the gambit of:
- “This is boring” = distraction = having to refocus back to the area
- “This is a nice feeling” = attachment = catching yourself, letting go and moving on
- “This is extremely unpleasant” = aversion = letting go until you’re neutral
- “I can’t feel anything” = forcing = resting gently and patiently in the experience without expectation (the sensation is there you just can’t feel it)
- “This isn’t doing anything” = expectation = letting go and moving to neutral mind
This is just a sample of the thousands of thoughts you tend to repeat over and over again over the next 5 days, sometimes to the point you think you’re losing your mind with the repetitiveness. In fact a lot of the Vipassana experience is realising just how much the ego mind is constantly trying to change the experience you’re having.
What’s amazing though is that through each tiny correction in approach, you move past a bad habit (distraction, attachment, aversion) and further into a deeper peace and insight. You’re bringing discipline back to the mind by bringing it into true alignment with life.
The Magic Of Vipassana
The whole experience is quite similar to a video game as you go further into the mind using the body and its sensations and the vehicle of exploration. And just like a video game, there are levels and then there are boss levels. As you go deeper into the process, you go deeper into the mind. Days 1-3 are surface level operations, days 4-9 are deep-sea exploration. Down in the depths of the mind lie the real knots of attachment and aversion, the kinds of things that got cemented in during childhood. These energy blockages are the weeds of the mind that the Vipassana process looks to pull up into consciousness and out of use entirely.
Coming with them though is a whole raft of psycho-emotional drama from the past that surfaces as pretty intense emotional waves. By day five, I was sat in a 4 hour long anger-storm, the likes of which I’d never encountered before. With no recourse to shout, swear, punch, or blame anything, I simply sat through an extremely exhausting effort to come to peace with the experience. It’s not uncommon to see others going through the same thing as they too hit upon their own knots.
The beautiful thing of course is that everything passes eventually and by evening I was left with a profound sense of peace, beaming with a lightness I hadn’t experienced for a long time. One of the most powerful aspects of this experience though is that you truly get to see that nothing that happens outside of you is the reason for what is going on within. I had sat still and not spoken to anyone for five days but managed to become more angry than I ever have in my life (at my parents of course, how original). After moving through that and coming to peace with the experience, you can’t help but laugh about it all really.
As you get deeper into the process and navigate a few of these icebergs (‘sankaras’ as they call them in Buddhism), you start to open the mind up to real insight. Scanning the body part by part, piece by piece, nuggets of wisdom start to pour into the mind about your life. New insights and fresh perspectives about past situations that ailed you start to come in. As you sit through the feelings that arise and remain neutral, your equanimity increases and your insights become deeper and deeper.
In every case, as you let go of feelings, the hidden learnings behind them follow through. You see with kindness, compassion and forgiveness, why or how certain things happened to you and how you’ve been looking at them incorrectly, perpetuating your attachment or aversion (and thereby your suffering).
These insights are hard-won but enormously empowering. The weight of the things we hold onto drops away and is replaced by fresh perspective, a lighter heart, and so much more physical energy. You also see slowly and surely how life truly is a benevolent force looking to teach us through love, it’s just a matter of shifting your perception to orient with it.
Here too lies the healing effects of vipassana. As this purification process takes place; old, negative thought patterns and belief systems start to crumble away with newfound insights. Not only does the mind become clearer, but the body, which is the physical representation of the unconscious mind, starts to become less tense, and physical disease (which is blocked energy), starts to heal as you become equanimous with the dis-ease you felt before.
Finishing Up (Days 9 & 10)
The last day or so of Vipassana wraps up with a shift in meditation technique to ‘metta’ meditation which is a technique designed to cultivate loving-kindness in the mind through sending love out to other people (so you give, you receive in equal measure).
The process involves inwardly saying “may all beings be happy” whilst directing your conscious attention to begin with on yourself, and then on your family, your friends, associates, and then people you actively dislike(!). It’s quite funny actively contemplating people you have been in conflict with and then sending them as much love as you can muster. The mind throws up a raft of excuses for avoiding it but after 8 days of vipassana insight, you know that what you’re really doing is sending love to yourself and the parts of yourself that haven’t forgiven yet.
The process primarily serves the purpose of closing up the mind from the soul-surgery that’s been going for the last week or so. By day 9 and 10, your senses are incredibly heightened and your perception extremely sensitive, so metta helps seal things up a bit before heading back out into the real world.
100% of all your suffering comes from resistance to what happens in your life versus your expectations of it.
Finally breaking silence on Vipassana is like a holy rite of passage and fascinating to see how fast the mind becomes busy again once you start to speak,
They say your first vipassana is often the hardest. It’s impossible to know what it will be like (hopefully better now you’ve read this), how hard it will be, and how strong you are at dealing with it. As Joseph Campbell says, “The world is a match for us and we are a match for the world. Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”
Looking back, I learnt a few things that have kept me in good stead for future vipassanas.
Self Forgiveness – If nothing else, Vipassana taught me the importance of relentless self-forgiveness and self-compassion. Sat there struggling to the point of tears with my personal emotional struggles helped me see how hard we can be on ourselves. We live for such a short period of time and the only thing that we really want is love, so bringing it to yourself in this arduous process is both fundamental and absolutely transformative. Apply the right amount of discipline, but don’t crucify yourself in there. I tried to sit for 2 hours without moving in the first few days and all I got for my troubles was a bruised ego!
Equanimity – Some meditation sessions suck, some are wonderful. Sometimes you want to run away and never come back (ok, a lot of the time), and other times its not so bad. The equanimity training is in the micro and the macro, on the mat and off the mat. Just remember its an experience of constant ups and downs.
Be Playful – It actually is a privilege to lock away the phone for 10 days and be with yourself. Some of my fondest memories were finding different animals in the clouds during lunchtime, just try to remember not to take it too seriously and you’ll be well on your way 🙂
Booking & Resources
Vipassana is now taught in many forms across the world and with varying degrees of discipline and duration. The Goenka format is the most popular and probably the most arduous. His style is quite authoritative (read: yang), which suits some people and turns others off.
You can book it almost anywhere in the world through Dhamma though note that its availability varies massively by country (the UK centre is very busy for example).
A classic text of the Goenka tradition can be found online for free here: