Have you ever thought it’d be nice to get away from the world and rejuvenate with a meditation retreat? Maybe throw in a bit of morning yoga, a green juice or two, and a back massage for good measure? Well unfortunately you’re looking in the wrong place!
I recently attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation course, and while it was many things, relaxing isn’t really one of them! To be honest, I’m struggling to describe it – I think it’s one of those things that you can’t fully understand until you’ve experienced it yourself. I’ll do my best to do it justice though!
A few months ago, I had never even heard of Vipassana meditation – I’m guessing most of you guys haven’t either. I came across the course in a somewhat roundabout way. I did a mindfulness course last semester in college, and got pretty interested in meditation. And by ‘interested’, I mean that I meditated for 10 minutes a day. Sometimes. Despite being woefully inexperienced, I decided it would be cool to do a meditation retreat. At first I had it in my head to do one combined with my trip to Thailand. How nice would it be to do a few days of yoga, meditation, and relaxing massages before hitting up the Full Moon Party? I started looking into the different retreats – they all sounded incredible! The only problem was, most cost close to €1000 a week! Not exactly within my price range. I was beginning to reconsider, when I saw the Vipassana course mentioned on Rough Guides. A free meditation course, eh? I looked into it further, and decided it might be worth doing. It was still in Thailand though, and somehow I don’t think my mother would have been cool with me flying to Thailand alone to some vaguely cultish retreat. Just a hunch. With some further digging, I realised the organisation ran retreats all over the world, and one happened to be taking place in Ireland in July! I applied without thinking too much, and promptly forgot all about it.
A few days later, I got an acceptance email. I was doing the course. This was still only April, so I still didn’t think too much about it. Besides, I could just drop out if I changed my mind! Literally a week before the course was due to begin, I was still doubting my decision. I read blog posts about other people’s experiences – they did little to soothe my nerves! Everyone pretty much said the same thing – it’s really fucking hard! I barely mentioned it anyone, so it’ be less awkward if I decided not to do it. I didn’t say anything on social media until literally the day before, as I still didn’t want to commit to it! In the end, I just went for it – and I’m so glad I did!
So why was I so apprehensive about doing a meditation course? Well for starters, it’s completely silent. No eye contact, gestures, or smiling kind of silent. You get 2 meals a day of vegetarian food, and a snack of fruit in the evening. The only exercise allowed is walking – no yoga, jogging, home workouts etc. There’s no phones, books, writing materials, or pretty much any form of entertainment allowed. If you’re curious the full code of discipline is here. Best of all, let me show you the daily timetable:
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 Teacher’s 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
Yup, I voluntarily signed up to wake at 4am and meditate for 10 hours a day. Suffice to say, I was terrified.
I’ll freely admit that it sounds a bit like a cult – there’s chanting, your phone is taken, and you can’t leave for 10 days. I promise it isn’t though! Vipassana meditation is a secular practice, and is supposed to be completely non-religious. While this is mostly true, there is still a heavy emphasis on Buddhist teachings and stories of Buddha. From the outset, you are encouraged to think rationally about the teaching, and choose to accept whatever makes sense to you. I liked this approach – it meant I could accept all the sensible teachings on morality, living a good life, not being a shit person etc., and gloss over the parts about past lives and reincarnation.
Here’s how the days went:
I left my house at 9:45am, and arrived at Drogheda Grammar School, my home for the next 10 or so days, at 16:30. I love public transport. I was tempted to hop on every bus I saw headed back to Galway. The fear was setting in. Once I got to the centre, my fears lessened a little. Everyone was super friendly, and I began to think I might be okay. The silence didn’t begin until 8pm, so I had a few pleasant hours getting to know the girls in my dorm room. At 8pm, on entering the meditation hall, the silence begun.
I sat in the hall, slightly uncomfortable from sitting cross-legged, but hopeful. Then the chanting started. A man’s voice chanting in some unknown language comes blaring out of the speakers. I am convinced I have joined a cult. The fear returns.
When the chanting finally ends, we are given instructions for the meditation. We are instructed to just concentrate on the breath, and feel it along the nasal passages. I did a similar technique at my mindfulness course, so this is okay. My mind still wanders like crazy. The first meditation was thankfully just half and hour. While I wasn’t used to sitting cross-legged for that length of time (or any length of time), it wasn’t too bad. Fairly manageable really. I settled in for the night fairly optimistic about the next 10 days.
I didn’t sleep at all the first night. Like, not even a few minutes of shut-eye. Despite that, getting up at 4am wasn’t actually that bad. The novelty of it all kept me going. Maybe I’ll keep getting up this early when the course ends – it’s not even that hard! I picture the smug snapchats of me hustling along with a timestamp reading 04:00, and am devastated I don’t have my phone. I head into the meditation hall with high hopes.
I sat on my mat and waited for instructions. None came. Not even a bit of chanting. After a few minutes, I realised that everyone else was already meditating, so I began to do the same. Just focus on the breath. Focus on the breath. The first half an hour was fine. My leg goes dead but a change in position provides relief. Time passes. I regret not bringing a watch. More time passes. The pain sets in. Everywhere hurts – my back, my shoulders, my knees. Every injury I’ve ever had decided to back a comeback. Even more time passes. This is awful. After what feels like an eternity, the teacher presses ‘play’ on the stereo, and the room is filled with the sound of chanting. I breathe a sigh of relief – chanting means there’s only a few minutes left. But it goes on. And on. As it turns out, this chanting is a good 15 minutes long – not the 2 minute chanting from the previous night. I despise the chanting more with every passing second. It does end though, eventually. When I can finally get up and leave, I feel like I’ve aged a few decades. I hobble out of the room, stiff and sore. The worst part is that I can’t even complain to anyone.
After the meditation, we have a well-deserved breakfast. There’s a decent spread of porridge, fruit, cereal, toast etc. There’s also coffee, which soon is promoted from occasional pick-me-up to daily saviour. After breakfast I head back to my room and nap, desperately trying to catch up on sleep. A gong wakes me from my slumber, signalling that it’s 10 minutes until the next meditation sitting. Great. I suffer through the next sitting. At the 9am sitting, the new students (most of us) are sent to our rooms to meditate, while the old students (those who have done the course already) are given more instructions. I last a few minutes meditating on my bed, then fall asleep – this soon becomes a recurring theme.
Next comes lunch – a similar affair to breakfast, with a very decent spread of food. There’s some sort of lentil Bolognese with brown pasta, and then biscuits for dessert. I’ve never been as happy to see a custard cream. I nap again after eating. I survive the next few hours of meditation. I learn that you can actually leave the meditation hall during the mediations, as long as it’s not during one of the 3 group meditations in the day. Basically, I sat through the torturous morning meditation when I could have left!
Tea was less exciting than the first two meals. Instead of dinner, we got 2 pieces of fruit. The old students had to make do with just herbal tea. I survive the next meditation, still sore and stiff. At 7pm, the discourse happens in the hall. This is basically a recorded lecture explaining the theory behind the meditation techniques. It’s actually really interesting – the discourse is probably my favourite part of the day. Apart from meals, obviously. There’s another short meditation after the discourse, then it’s bedtime. I have survived the first day!
The misery sets in. I wake up at 4am miserable. I trudge around, dying to complain to someone, but can’t. I resent the noble silence. I resent everything. I wallow in misery all day, as the reality of what I have signed up for sets in. Everything begins to annoy me. I start hating people for the slightest things – the girl who eats too loudly, the one with the resting bitch face. No one is safe.
I’m still pretty miserable, but less than the previous day. I have found a slightly more comfortable sitting position, using extra cushions. I start doing half of the meditation in the hall, then returning to my room for the latter half when it gets too uncomfortable. There’s only 7 days to go. You can talk again on the 10th day, so that doesn’t even really count. More like 6 days, I tell myself.
The actual vipassana meditation technique is taught on day 4. For the first 3 days, the meditation is just focussing on your breath, preparing your mind for the actual technique. The evening discourses have talked extensively about how great the proper technique is, and all the benefits practicing it brings. I’m quite excited to learn it. Mid-way through the day, we have a special two hour sitting to learn the technique. I sit uncomfortably through the chanting, eager to learn. As it turns out, the technique is actually just a glorified body scan. If you’ve ever practiced mindfulness or used headspace, you’ll probably know what a body scan is – you scan up and down your body looking for sensations. I feel let down. I’m pretty certain I will not learn to levitate from a body scan.
The next meditation session brings an added bit of fun to the day. For the three 1 hour group meditations a day, we will now be practicing ‘strong determination’. That means no moving your body at all, for the hour. You’d be amazed how many time you want to scratch your nose in an hour. I still move.
DAY 5 – 8
The days all merge into one – each passes like the last. On day 7 I officially run out of interesting things to think about. My life goals, fitness regime, and potential plot lines of Game of Thrones have all been thoroughly thought through. That shouldn’t be possible.
Day 7 also marks the day I make a great discovery. I accidentally sleep through the wake-up gong, and wake in a panic at 05:57. I have completely missed the first meditation, and no one has even noticed. The next day when I sleep in until 6am, it’s no accident..
We continue doing the body scans, getting better and better at them. To be fair, they turn out to be a lot more intense and complex than the ones I used to do. There’s also a lot more meaning behind them. The basic premise of Vipassana meditation is to observe the sensations in your body equanimously, without reacting. All sensation are viewed as equal – pain, itching, numbness, tingling – you are to just observe each of them, and avoid attaching labels like ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’. They are simply sensations. The thought is that if you can do this with your bodily sensations, you will eventually be able react less to external events and situations in life. The goal is to view the world how it truly is, as opposed to how we want it to be. In 10 short days I didn’t exactly make it that far though! I’m not really doing the philosophy behind it justice – that’s a very shortened version!
One day left. I can taste freedom. So close. I fantasise about what I will do once free. I’m pretty sure that’s what people do in prison? I dream about chocolate and Netflix and Game of Thrones. I’m still shallow as ever, clearly.
The silence is finally lifted after the morning meditation. Talking has never felt so good! I have great conversations with so many people – there’s such a sense of camaraderie after the ordeal we survived together! It’s cool to have proper conversations about things you wouldn’t normally talk about, like religion, mental health, or belief in the afterlife. Being asked if I believe in reincarnation was a completely reasonable question.
Everyone has completely different experiences of the time. For some, lots of emotions surfaced over the few days, for others old memories. Everyone seems to have got a lot out of the course. Personally, I feel I deserve a medal for lasting. The talk about ego was clearly lost on me.. We still have a few meditation sittings on the last day, but it’s crazy hard to concentrate. All I can think of is heading home the following morning. And food that isn’t lentils.
The day finally comes! We still have to get up at 4am to meditate, but the course ends at 7am and we’re finally free to go. Sweet relief! It was an amazing experience, but I’ve never been so happy to leave a place in my life.
I’m still not entirely sure what I got out of the course. The evening discourses spoke about a lot of philosophical things that resonated with me. I’d like to hope that they change how I live my life, but honestly I think it might be too early to tell. I’m going to try to keep up the daily meditation – though I doubt I’ll do the 2 hours a day they recommend. 30 minutes seems more reasonable to me – if I do that I’ll be doing well! I’m not sure that I had any big revelations during the course. I pretty much just felt the pain of sitting cross-legged, along with general anger and misery – which seems pretty reasonable considering! I had a lot of time to think about my life, which was definitely beneficial. One very real difference was being without my phone for 10 days – I am certainly less attached to it now than I was before! In the last few days, I’ve often left my phone in another room for hours, and not checked it. I certainly wouldn’t have done that before! I hope that’s a permanent change, but we’ll see.
I think that’s all I can really say about the benefits so far – I’m still processing a lot of it. I think the real test will be to see if I have changed when I’m back in college and under tonnes of stress!
And now to answer the real question you have – would I recommend it? Honestly, I think it depends. You have to be a pretty strong person to handle it mentally – some self-discipline is required! It’s also not suitable if you have a major mental illness – the course is really intense, if you hadn’t noticed! Also, it is not a treatment for mental illness. Yes, if you attend the course and start practicing meditation you may see improvements in your mental health, but it is not a panacea for all ills. If you go to a course with the goal of curing your depression or anxiety, you will likely be sorely disappointed. Other than that, if you think you could handle it, go for it! It’s crazy tough, but worth it in the end.
Courses are held worldwide – you can find your closet one here. The courses are run solely on a donation basis – you can donate as much as you like once you complete the course. Also, for the record, I am in no way affiliated with the organisation!
Also, I’m posting a lot on my Facebook page these days, be sure to give it a like if you haven’t already! 🙂