I’m unsure why I was so insistent on doing a 10-day silent meditation. Before vipassana, I was perfectly happy with following along Headspace and 10% Happier’s easy-to-digest guided tracks and reading spirituality books. I felt like it made a difference, but clearly my unconscious mind disagreed. Have you ever felt a calling to do something that you didn’t quite understand? This felt bigger than me: something I had to do at this age to ensure my mental health could keep up with my lofty ambitions. It was time to address all the unhealthy thought patterns I’d inadvertently nurtured since youth.
Vipassana means “seeing things as they really are”. It was taught by Siddartha Gotama the Buddha 2500 years ago and passed down, pristinely preserved, to S.N. Goenka who spread it internationally in the 90’s. It is intended to be a universal remedy to universal human problems. It is irreligious, that is, non-sectarian.
“It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
The scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.” From their website.
The vipassana schedule is full-on, which they don’t deny. We’d get woken up by a gong at 4am every morning and meditate 10 hours a day. No dinner ensured a mild level of hunger that would be more conducive to meditation. All this was done in Noble Silence – no speech, gestures, writing or sensory entertainment. You were to be kept slightly uncomfortable at all times to train your mind’s equanimity.
4:00am – Wake up gong
4:30 – 6:30 – Meditate in hall or room
6:30 – 8:00 – Breakfast and rest
8:00 – 9:00 – Group meditation
9:00 – 11:00 – Meditate in hall or room
11:00 – 1:00 – Lunch and rest
1:00 – 2:30 – Meditate in hall or room
2:30 – 3:30 – Group meditation
3:30 – 5:00 – Meditate according to instructions
5:00 – 6:00 – Group meditation
6:00 – 7:00 – Meditate according to instructions
7:00 – 8:15 – Discourse in hall
8:15 – 9:00 – Group meditation
9:00pm – Bedtime
For the first three days, they teach you nothing else but to bring awareness to your breath. This sharpens your mind to be able to feel the subtlest of sensations. On the fourth, you bring this awareness slowly from head to toe – the technique of vipassana is basically a body scan, which is surprisingly simple, but the heart of the practice is doing it for long periods. Your body begins to experience aches, itching, sweat: discomforts that we would normally soothe right away, but you must refrain from in meditation. No matter how uncomfortable, all sensations pass after a while. The direct realization of this over and over again is what detaches your unconscious mind from blindly reacting in the future.
After training my mind for six days, my entire body had melted into the mass of vibrating subatomic particles it actually is. How crazy, because nothing had changed apart from my awareness of it growing more nuanced. At some points of intense concentration, it was like I was ‘going in’ on my consciousness (this feeling is impossible to describe!)
When you starve your mind of external stimulation, it begins to populate itself with all the deranged thoughts you didn’t know you had. Our unconscious minds are a stranger to us. I was agitated at everything at first. Loud breathers, people who kept walking out of the hall, past partners, certain ways I had been raised, past interactions with people I didn’t particularly like. Physically, intense hot flashes of sweat would follow my awareness around my body. I was the only one in a t-shirt while everyone else was swaddled up in blankets.
“Is this normal?” I asked the teacher in one of the interview times. “Yes, perfectly,” she smiled. “It’s your old sanskaras (blind reactions) arising to the surface. Sometimes they manifest themselves in different physical sensations. Don’t think too hard about why it’s happening – that’s not important.”
I realized I had strong attachments to self-understanding and would psychoanalyze my thoughts as a form of comfort. My truest self became glaringly clear. When you sit with yourself for 10 hours a day for 10 days, there is no escaping who you really are.
I saw everything I craved: acceptance, importance, comfort, intimacy, flesh, love. Everything I was attached to: my creative identity, my physical form, money. Everything I feared: rejection, being misunderstood, being disliked, being ostracised. The ways I’d try and obtain what I didn’t have and frantically change what I didn’t want. I wasn’t sure what to do with these realizations. The vipassana technique does not acknowledge any emotions or thoughts that arise, so I decided to apply the teaching of non-reaction and just observe them.
By the seventh day, the natural world magnified like an acid trip. The first dawn light would refract the fat dew beads on the tree branches, turning them into gold and pink sparkles. A heavy mist always clung to the tops of the forest like a collective exhale from the towering ferns. By 11am the sun turns on its intensity, scorching the moisture from the grass into giant clouds of vapour that’d waft back to the sky.
Our 5pm tea breaks coincided with golden hour, the most beautiful time of the day. The valley turned golden, the trees backlit. We’d drink our tea on the porch where white butterflies and bees would pollinate the flowers, a task they were innately engineered for. It was a true spectacle of the universal law of nature at work: so unassuming, so perfect. Some girls would take off their shoes and walk eyes closed across the grass, savouring every step. Every sound became louder, more distinct, everything heightened.
I’d walk in the native bush to study how the fern fronds unravel. They get it right every time so each frond gets optimum sunlight. Moss crawls up the trunks of trees like a soft green sock. The intricacies of nature became so painfully beautiful I almost cried at their perfection.
This wouldn’t be a millennial article without a list, so I’ve condensed my biggest learnings below.
We breathe without realizing, but once we’re aware, we can control its pace, length and even hold it for a while.
As soon as the mind’s calmness gets disrupted with agitation or excitement, the breath changes. Therefore, we can reverse engineer equanimity by observing the breath when we recognize we’ve entered an agitated state to return to one of calmness.
Sensations are made equal in the sense that they are all impermanent. If you think about it, as sore as your leg might get, if you wait long enough, that pain actually goes away. It isn’t infinite. Nothing is in this universe. We were made to sit in addithana – a ‘sitting of strong determination’ – three hours a day without moving our posture, opening our eyes or hands to experience the true transience of discomfort (and on the other side of that coin, pleasure).
We know we should exercise, eat well, wake up early, but it’s really habits that dictate your actions. Apparently 40-60% of our daily lives are ruled by subconscious habits. Sitting with yourself for 10 hours a day really makes your cravings and aversions clear. Cravings and aversions are the causes human suffering, as essentially it is a state of either wanting what is outside the present, or avoiding the present entirely.
Turns out simply understanding this isn’t enough to change anything, especially the habits or cravings we’ve been ruled by for years.
I’m big into books, podcasts, talks and articles on spirituality, and before vipassana I’d consume them hungrily, thinking they’d sink in and be enough for me to grow. However, it’s the actual practice of consistent meditation that slowly begins to unknot the deeply rooted complexes of our mind. I personally think intellectual understanding in general is incredibly overrated, even though that’s super hypocritical because I dabble so much in it. I expect that to slowly change in the coming months.
My ten days at vipassana was the first time I’d worked hard that consistently, which is shocking, I know. In high school and university I’d leave projects to the last day, sometimes even the morning that it’s due, and get away with it. I used to Photoshop bus tickets so I wouldn’t have to pay for transport and once even convinced my English lecturer I’d already handed in an assignment I never did. A combination of ego and sheer laziness had made me make a game out of ‘how hard can you hack this’ but in reality I was just holding myself back from my own potential.
Not surprisingly, there’s no way to ‘hack’ meditating. The long hours won’t go by any faster no matter how you tried. And so I sat, for a total of 100 hours, and learned the hard way that hard work is the only way.
Have you ever wondered if human nature is inherently good or bad? We’re good. So good! It is only by our own ignorance that we are functioning with that makes us feel otherwise. By day seven, I’d felt true inner peace for the first time in years. I felt no need to speak, any hostility I’d previously felt for other beings melted away. I truly wanted all living creatures to feel free, happy and contented. In other words, I went full hippie. I’m a week out of vipassana now and I still have retained this goodwill.
A person’s actions are just a reflection of their mental state. A peaceful being will always act in accordance to love: true compassion.
In reality, ten days of meditation is simply a scratch on the surface of what is a long road ahead. There will be no miracles performed in such a short amount of time – rather, it’s the continued daily practice that will sustain results. Vipassana taught me firsthand the importance of our own true experience; that intellectual understanding means nothing against actual practice. More than any formal education I’ve had, it showed me the true fruits of consistent, earnest effort. I can’t believe it took me 25 years to learn this lesson.
Our true good-naturedness also became obvious, and I will use it to serve as a compass for the rest of my journey here.
They recommend two hours of meditation daily, which I haven’t kept up with. I find half an hour in the morning and evening to be sufficient for now, and prioritizing consistency of practice over length.
I did vipassana at Dhamma Medini, an hour away from Auckland, New Zealand. If you would like to do vipassana but anticipate it being difficult to randomly take 10 days off, I would recommend doing it internationally at the end of your next travels. They have 185 meditation centres around the world: the States, Canada, UK, Australia, India, Nepal, South America. It is free; being supported purely on donations from old students and is free from commercialism.
The rules may seem a bit archaic and extreme (isn’t 4am too early?) but they are ultimately there to facilitate the most effective meditation atmosphere for you. It’s becoming a monk or nun for ten days: as equally as difficult as it is rewarding.
Loved reading your article. I was very much looking forward to it since you briefly described the experience on your insta-stories. Over the Xmas holidays last year I went on a 6 day silent fast. Many things you described happened to me as well, except that I didn’t have any teachers or people to guide me. I spent most of my day in meditation and contemplating nature. It is true how perfect and awe inspiring the simple observance of plants is. Thanks for sharing your experience, I never got around to doing a write up of mine, but this resonated a lot with me.
Thanks so much Sarah, that’s incredible you were so proactive about it. I don’t think I could have done it without the teachers tbh! With the natural world, I didn’t think I could ever experience their beauty to that level without an external stimulant haha – it definitely changed how I see substances too.
Beautifully written, thanks for sharing!
You might be interested in Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s story.
Thanks so much, Euan! Oooh I’ll Google it now, thanks for the recommendation <3
Jen, great write up. I loved it – really appreciated the insight on hard work and that most of the excuses we make came from Ego (hacks etc)
Thanks Kale, love you <3