In October 2017, I had one of the longest weeks of my entire life. There was nothing particularly traumatic about it or anything, it was just long. It felt like time was stopped and each tick of the clock felt like an eternity. At times, I felt like I was surely losing my mind.
I’m not sure if this is a common experience at a Vipassana Meditation Center, but I would imagine it is. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and is an ancient meditation tradition in India and among Buddhists. In today’s world, these meditation practices typically take place over 7-10 days, although there are shorter and longer options available, and are practiced in complete silence.
That’s right – no talking. For seven days.
I’ve read about this meditation practice several times since I began my own spiritual journey and it became a sort of bucket list item for me. I had several friends and acquaintances tell me that the experience changed their lives and that I must try it while I was in Thailand.
I took their advice. I saved up a week of vacation time and booked my spot at a meditation center on a beautiful island on the southern end of Thailand, called Koh Samui. I surprised myself and others that I had very few concerns before heading to the island.
While I do not consider myself a religious person, I have leaned towards the teaching of Buddhism for some time and was excited about diving deeper into the practice. As a yoga teacher, I was not worried too much about long hours of meditation or sitting on the floor all day. As a vegetarian, I was not worried about the plant-based diet and limited meal times that we would experience.
I was more concerned about having the right clothing – legs must be covered past the knees, upper arms must be covered, and the clothing must be lose. Needless to say, my wardrobe selection was rather limited.
Of course, I was also very concerned about not talking to seven days. My entire family laughed at the idea of me being quiet for that long. In fact, my father used to try and pay me to be not talk on family road trips. He would pay me one dollar every minute that I would be quiet. Unfortunately, I don’t think I ever made it past $2-3…
Apprehensions aside, I was ready for growth and transformation!
About the Vipassana Retreat
The meditation center follows very strict guidelines. As mentioned before, silence is very important and talking is not permitted. The dress code is very strict and I have even heard of some retreat centers requiring participants to wear all white. This was not the case at my retreat, but it is fairly common. It is also important that you follow the schedule each day.
I spent my retreat at the Dipabhavan Meditation Center. This is their daily schedule:
- 4:30 – Wake up bell
- 5:00 – Morning reading and sitting meditation
- 5:45 – Yoga
- 7:00 – Sitting meditation
- 7:30 – Breakfast, followed by chores
- 9:30 – Meditation instruction (lecture)
- 10:30 – Walking meditation
- 11:00 – Sitting meditation
- 11:30 – lunch
- 14:00 – Dharma talk (lecture)
- 15:00 – Walking meditation
- 15:30 – Sitting meditation
- 16:00 – Walking meditation
- 16:30 – Chanting and metta meditation
- 17:30 – Tea
- 19:30 – Sitting meditation
- 20:00 – Group walking meditation
- 20:30 – Sitting meditation
- 21:00 – Bedtime
It was the same schedule every day. We were each assigned a chore to do every morning after breakfast. Mine was to sweep the dining hall, while others would sweep walkways, help with dishes, clean the toilets, etc. I enjoyed the work each day, as it was something to do.
While the schedule remained the same, my experiences each day were quite different. We were encouraged to avoid journaling or reading while on the retreat. However, I allowed myself to write six bullet points each day in hopes that it would help me to remember my experiences.
Here is a break down of my activities, thoughts, and important moments of the week:
Arrival – Phones off, mouths shut
As soon as I arrive to the pickup location, I tell all my friends/family goodbye and shut off my phone. I socialize a little bit with the others who are waiting, but avoid too much talking. I am already getting myself in the zone.
We arrive to the meditation center and are showed our sleeping quarters. I am somewhat shocked when I am handed a thin straw mat and a wooden pillow. These will be to provide cushion to my wooden bed. We are also given a blanket, but as it is quite warm out, I opt to fold the blanket up to place beneath me while I sleep. I am grateful that I brought a giant scarf I can use as a sheet and a packing cube of clothes that I can use for a pillow.
We all get together in the meditation hall to discuss the rules and the schedule for the week. I can feel the rebel spirit within me start to awaken at the strict guidelines and lectures on morality. We are told that the men will always sit on the left side of the room and the women on the right. This will help us avoid sexual tension. I nearly laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of this rule. I want to be a pain in the ass and ask about where the non-binary people sit or how to avoid sexual tension if you are gay. However, I am a good girl and hold my tongue.
I realize quickly that I am going to struggle with not talking strictly because of my constant need to be polite. Within minutes of announcing the start of silence, I graciously thank someone for holding the door open. Oh, the horror.
Day One – Everything is fine
Turns out, sleeping on a wooden bed is not really comfortable. It feels like I hardly slept for more than an hour when the 4:30 am bells go off. There is a bit of panic in the girl’s dormitory because someone let the cat inside and it decided to rip the head of a mouse off in the middle of the night… Lovely.
Someone asks me a question about the schedule as we are heading up to the meditation hall. I stare at them, bug eyed, and hope that my telepathy is working today. Um, we are not supposed to be talking, but breakfast is after the second round of meditation… hopefully you are getting this, because I am not effing up and talking again…
Meditation. Yoga. Meditation. BREAKFAST.
I nearly jog to the dining hall, grab a mug, and greedily scan the counters for coffee. No coffee?! The disappointment is unrelenting. I dig through the tea bags for something caffeinated and find one last bag of English Breakfast. I am not quite sure what I will do tomorrow, but at least today is somewhat saved. Breakfast is some kind of rice soup, some veggies, and bread. I skip the bread and jam, as I am trying to avoid processed foods.
I nap after breakfast. In fact, I nap during every single break time (a routine that continues for most of the week). I am absolutely exhausted from jet lag and lack of sleep on hard surface. I also go through serious caffeine withdraws all week. Plus, sleeping makes the time pass by faster.
I go to take a shower and realize I did not bring a towel… my scarf now doubles as a towel by day, blanket by night. At least I am getting my money’s worth.
The rest of the day is full of sitting meditation, walking meditation, lectures, and chanting.
I keep accidentally muttering “thank you” and “excuse me”. My eye rolls are so loud, they can probably be heard across the hall.
Day Two – Rebel life
4:30 am – Bells are ringing and everything hurts as I force myself out of bed. Ready to get modest and begin again.
After the first meditation, I follow the guidance of the Irish yoga teacher for the second morning in a row. He is teaching yoga that is supposed to make it easier for us to sit, but I am not a fan of the poses. Plus, everything hurts and I feel annoyed with him the entire time he is teaching. Just savasana already! Savasana is the only time we are allowed to lay down on our backs when not in the dormitories and it is my favorite thing every day.
After another round of meditation, I find my way to the hall for breakfast and find green tea. Praise the caffeine gods! I am so hungry, I think I am going to puke. It turns out, monks are not allowed to eat after noon, so we aren’t allowed to either. So today, I eat the damn bread.
Today’s lecture really triggers me. I feel like I am stuck back at bible camp, getting preached at about how awful of a person I am. My childish temper boils. The Buddhist monk who leads our lectures was originally from England, but left his materialistic life to become a monk in Thailand. His favorite thing to talk about is the evil of the Western world and how ridiculous our lives are… It’s a lovely experience.
Lunch is typically some kind of rice and two different vegetable dishes. I am grateful for the hot sauce they place out each day and enjoy seeing how far I can test my limits with the spices. It brings me some small entertainment, but we have been told that entertainment is wrong. Whoops.
We learn about the defilements or poisons of the Buddhist faith, including greed, hatred and ignorance. The monk explains to us that it does no good to punish ourselves for these thoughts, but rather treat them like a Labrador Retriever and gently ask them to go to sleep. I honestly have no idea what the monk was talking about, but I am amused for the rest of the day. I keep picturing my old lab puppy destroying everything in sight, like a tornado rampaging through the house. I cannot remember anything from this lesson accept puppies.
Before bed, I decide to break off a piece of the dark chocolate bar I buried at the bottom of my backpack. This will be my little secret, my small taste of rebellion. I continue this habit every night for the rest of the retreat.
Day Three – Let the tears flow
While I am still super annoyed with the early wake up call, I am encouraged quickly when I experience the first meditation session that I actually meditate. Buddhist meditation strictly focuses on the breath, not anything else, and I usually get a little bored of the practice. However, this morning I sink in and enjoy my emptying brain for a small time.
I decide the guided yoga is not really my jam. Instead, I take the time to enjoy my own practice with a few others who also decided it was not their jam. I am feeling much better about being here and think everything is on the up.
Omg! There are muffins at breakfast! Day = Made.
A couple girls decide the retreat is not for them and leave today. This somehow forms a small group of girls who enjoy whispering in the corner of our dorm. Right by my bunk. They annoy me so much that I am pretty sure I am going to do permanent damage to my jaw from clenching my teeth so hard. This goes on for the rest of the week and I find myself constantly thinking, shut the f*** up! Trying to practice non-judgement sucks…
One of the common themes that this Buddhist monk particularly likes to preach about is sexual thoughts. Not only is having sex terrible, but thinking about sex is just as bad. It is a pleasure, and pleasures are stimulants that should be avoided at all costs. I find that the more the monk condemns it, the more my mind wanders back to it. My mind is shockingly graphic, which makes me feel equal parts freedom and guilt.
Weird tip from the monk: If you find yourself thinking about sex, picture a rotting corpse instead. (Nope, not making this up. This was actually part of the lecture.)
Day three was also the first time that I cried. Turns out, being a yoga teacher does not help one little bit when sitting on the floor for hours on end every day. By the last meditation of the day, I could not find any way to sit down that did not cause extreme pain. I cried. Not because it hurt physically, but because my ego was bruised when I walked to the back of the hall and sat my ass down in a chair.
Day Four – Break through
I woke up feeling very convinced that I was going to quit by the end of the day. I was tired of being lectured to and my body was conspiring against me.
I had decided by this point that I am definitely not Buddhist. Therefore, I could sit through the teachings without feeling so horribly offended. I could allow myself to take what works for me and leave the rest. More like, eye roll at the rest. Yes, I was still feeling like an unruly 12-year-old at this point and smiled every time I remembered the bar of chocolate lying underneath my DIY pillow.
Ready to give up Buddhism entirely, I finally had my break through moment. I decided I was going to do my own kind of meditation practice and stop trying to force myself to to it their way. I settled into my seat and began focusing not only on the breath, but on the energy of the breath. I began to sit with my hands rested just beyond the knees, left palm down and right palm up. I would think, breathing in, I am taking in energy, and bring my awareness to the left palm. On the exhale, breathing out, I am giving energy, and I would bring my focus to the right palm. With each breath, I began to experience what felt like electricity moving into my body through the left hand and exiting my body through the right.
My mind stilled. My tense muscles relaxed. I began to feel my upper body slightly spiraling. It felt like an extreme body high. Everything was great! I didn’t want the meditation to end. In fact, I stayed seated, spiraling, while the rest of the group began their walking meditation.
I just hoped the monks wouldn’t notice my spiraling and condemn me for it. I wouldn’t let them take this away from me.
To make the day even better, it rained! The rain offered a beautiful noise to focus my attention on. Plus, it helped drown out the noise of the annoying girls who still enjoyed whispering in the corner during my nap time.
Today, we got to have a one-on-one talk with the British monk. I explained to him how frustrated I am with my inability to sit. In fact, I am quite convinced that I have pinched a nerve at this point. I also tell him that I constantly find myself drowsy and sleepy during meditations. Sometimes, I am unable to stay awake and I have to keep my eyes open. He tells me to get over the pain and it will eventually get better. Also, I need to eat less if I am feeling drowsy.
We are only eating twice a day and the meals are pretty light… However, I keep my eye roll to myself and thank him.
I decided I would break code and ask to speak with the yoga teacher. I mean, why not? I am already breaking a million rules with my chocolate and sexual thoughts.
He asks why I want to talk and I told him about my spiraling during meditation. He smirks and suggests we walk away from the meditation center for our talk. He tells me that the meditation center would really not condone me practicing my own form of meditation because they would see the “high” I was experiencing as a pleasure, which is to be avoided.
According to the lessons I had been given all week, the point of Buddhism was to avoid attachment to anything, which not only includes suffering, but also pleasure. The aim is to be consistently neutral. In fact, the monk even mentions how terrible adventure seekers are because we are constantly on the search for some kind of pleasurable experience. How dare we!
Anyways, the yoga teacher was cool about it. He said that he feels it is important I find what I need out of the meditation retreat and that it may not align with the Buddhist teachings. He said I should just honor myself.
Hell. Yes. He was speaking my language.
I decided that I didn’t need to run away. I would stick it out and make my own path.
Day Five – La La Land
I was shocked when there was a mass exodus so close to the very end. I woke up thinking, sweet! I am only trapped here for two more days. However, we had five or six people drop out that morning. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were sick of the monk’s teachings too, but hadn’t found their own path yet.
Half of me felt jealousy that they were brave enough to leave, the other half of me had pride that I was brave enough to stay.
Day five was as long and uneventful as the rest. Although, I did enjoy a long meditation in the garden for over an hour. I found it much easier to settle in and enjoy the stillness underneath the warm sunshine than in the meditation hall. I also felt like I was escaping from the harsh eyes of the leaders in the event I started a Kundalini spiral again.
I am very glad that monks are not mind readers though, at least I hope they aren’t. I found myself very lost in thoughts and not so meditative.
In fact, my head would bounce back and forth from vicious Eminem raps from my adolescence to my favorite songs from Pocahontas. Oh man, I wanted to sing so badly. I wanted to frolic through the meditation grounds and sing Colors of the Wind at the top of my lungs. However, I would just sing it in my head during walking meditations. The triumph of my rebellions had me constantly smirking.
I also found myself drifting into thoughts on how I see myself as a business woman and what I want to be doing moving forward. I knew that I was definitely not supposed to be thinking about anything, let alone about business planning. But I couldn’t help myself. I was coming up with so many new ideas and I just ran with it most of the time. It was great for brainstorming…
Oh my goodness! They served cookies with the afternoon tea today. Hell. Yes.
I praised myself when I found an ingenious way to hack the cold shower BS. Apparently, monks aren’t allowed running hot water, so we aren’t either. I HATE being cold and showers were miserable for me each day. By day five, I had figured out that I could fill my aluminum water bottle with hot water from the tea station and take it to the showers with me. Then, I would fill a bucket with half cold water and half of my boiling hot water. This allowed me to enjoy a lukewarm bucket-style shower instead.
Side note: This is particularly amusing now because I recently started taking cold showers in the morning as a way to wake up…
Day Six – Final Day
I wake up pumped about the final day and the achiness is finally starting to fade.
In morning meditations, I found myself enjoying another Kundalini spiraling session. I also walked myself through a meditation to clear the chakras, or energy centers, in the body. It was a good morning. I was grinning ear-to-ear.
I decided I had not broken the rules too much all week and could enjoy a little extra rebellion on the final day. I took my GoPro around the grounds to snag some pictures. However, my anxiety about someone noticing my complete disregard for the rules resulted in some pretty poor quality photos… but oh well!
I also found the energy to nap less during break times today and spent more time doing yoga. One of the other girls practiced yoga rather regularly and we would head nod to each other. Good job, we are going to freaking make it through this.
Today’s lunch had a super special surprise! They served these sticky rice snack thingies. I am sure someone is going to correct me and tell me what they are really called, but in my head, they will always be sticky rice snack thingies. That looped in my head over and over again for most of the afternoon meditations. I think I was on a sugar high.
On the last night of the meditation retreat, they invite each of us to come up and share a little bit about who they are, why they are at the meditation center, and what they experienced over the week. Each person anxiously cleared their throats, ready to speak aloud for, perhaps, the first time all week.
We all came from different countries, with different backgrounds, and very different reasons for why we were there. Some of the participants had been to several retreats prior to this one. Some were working through trauma, others were ready to make serious changes in their life, and a few were Thai locals who routinely visit Vipassana centers. We all laughed together, cried together, and were united in the struggle we experienced all week.
This connection was the best part of the week for me. The feeling that while we all had our own experiences, we were banded together through it all.
Final morning – Do you have wifi?
On the final morning of the retreat, we hold our silence for the morning meditations and while we packed up our stuff. When we get to the dining hall for breakfast, silence is broken! Thank goodness.
We all begin to charge our phones in preparation for rejoining the real world and begin to converse with each other. I was shocked at how different people were when I actually talked to them. It seems that I had painted vivid pictures in my head of people throughout the week and what they were like.
For example, I had imagined this bigger, bearded man as this tough guy from Scotland and pictured him in a kilt all week. (Yes, I have been watching too much Outlander). Turns out, he is from San Francisco and was super chill.
Another girl, whom I had silently befriended all week, completely shocked me when she told me about how many times she wanted to quit all week. I was convinced that she was this tough meditation goddess who wasn’t struggling at all. In fact, she had actually been hoping all week that someone would just hug her. I was shocked. I had been encouraging myself to be more like her all week and she had been doing the same with me!
Transitioning back to the real world was tough for me. Sensory overload is a real thing! I was so overwhelmed by the cars and noise and people. I quickly escaped to a massage parlor to correct the harsh treatment of my body all week. It was my reward for making it through.
Mindfulness was out the window as soon as I stepped back into the chaos. I quickly lost my debit card, missed my flight off the island, and calmed my anxiety with a giant glass of red wine while waiting for my new flight. In fact, I completely avoided meditation and mindfulness for about a week after the retreat. It took me a long time to figure out the balance again and how to release some of the old angst I had activated.
I am incredibly grateful for all of the friends who were around me at this time. I am pretty sure I talked a mile a minute and their patience should be applauded.
As much as I would like to tell you that I had some incredible awakening or felt like I experienced something that changed my life forever, that would not be true. I learned a lot about Buddhism, I battled through some tough emotional shit, and I learned a little about myself. However, I was not radically transformed.
I think everyone takes away something different. For me, I learned some basics:
- I still have a major rebellious side that has not faded with adulthood
- I actually enjoyed not talking. This was the biggest shock of all.
- I am definitely not Buddhist… at all
Okay, but seriously… I did take away some powerful lessons from the experience.
Metta Practice – I fell in love with this daily meditation focusing on Metta, or the development of unconditional love for all beings. It is really a beautiful practice that filled me with joy each evening. We would focus our meditation on embodying the feeling of love and compassion for five different things: A group of people who have positively impacted our lives, a single person we admire, ourselves, a complete stranger that we would picture clearly, and an enemy. The last three are the most challenging. It can be hard to find loving thoughts to focus on about ourselves or someone we hardly know. It is even tougher to send love to someone who has personally done you wrong.
Follow your own path – This experience reaffirmed a lot of my own personal beliefs through the rejection of the monk’s teachings. It was very powerful for me to feel to strongly convicted in my opinions and was a fairly new encounter for me. I have always preached that people need to do what feels best for them, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” It was such a great experience to actually put these teachings to good use and honor myself.
I am very glad I completed the meditation retreat, even though it was not what I was expecting at all. I also want to point out that each person has their own experiences! A lot of my angst and anger was a result of my need to work through some of my childhood trauma related to church and religion. Plus, every monk is different and I might consider doing a different retreat down the road.
Is the meditation retreat for everyone? Perhaps not, but I would try it at least once! You feel such a sense of accomplishment and peace when you make it through the week.
I would love to hear from you!
Have you ever done a Vipassana or meditation retreat? How did your experience differ from mine? What teachings did you take or leave? Do you have any other questions about my experience?
Comment below and let’s keep the conversation going!