In the last 5 years in various forms (mostly books and podcasts) I had been hearing about the life-changing benefits of Vipassana meditation. The idea intrigued me. Many of the people praising it were top-performing athletes or running big businesses, and everyone seemed to be managing their high-stress lives. I joined several of the Oprah-Deepak 21-day meditation challenges over the years, but I could never get the habit to stick, and then finally the time had come to take the plunge.
As I’ve been collecting birthdays, my hormones have changed (darn perimenopause symptoms – hello hot flashes and belly fat), my stress levels have increased, and my sleep has become more finicky (and then went off the rails about 6 months ago). My diet gradually became less ‘clean’ with all the running around in my life, and the glass or two of wine that was a once-pleasurable habit had stopped serving me. I needed to reset my brain so I signed up for a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. It was not a vacation – it was VERY challenging – and yet it was exactly what I needed.
Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” It is about learning to observe our natural breathing patterns and sensations on the body to experience inner peace and harmony. You practice equanimous reactions to physical and mental situations instead of the usual agitation or frustration. After giving up your phone and taking a vow of ‘noble silence’ on the first night before the official start of the retreat, you turn your attention inward and focus solely on yourself. My only job for the next 10-days was to show up in the meditation hall and do the internal work.
Day 1 - The gong rung at 4:00am and the first meditation began at 4:30am. The next 2 hours was sitting on your little meditation cushion and focusing on your breathing (although some people chose to meditate in their room, which meant a bit more sleep!). 6:30am was breakfast and a short break (where I walked in the forest right out of the door). 8:00am was a group meditation in the main hall (where a total of 70 meditators gathered – almost a 50-50 split of men & women). Following this group sit, we had some small group coaching with the meditation teachers until lunch at 11:00am. This break was 2 hours, so after I ate a wonderful vegetarian meal, I headed out for more walking. 1:00 – 5:00pm was more meditation (with a group sitting at 2:30pm). Then tea and more walking, followed by the evening program: 6:00pm was the 3rd daily group sitting, followed by an hour lecture/discourse by the renown teacher S. N. Goenka, and a final meditation. This all wrapped up with the final chant at 9:00pm, and then I was in bed at 9:10pm.
Days 2-9 – repeat the above schedule and meditate for approximately 10 hours/day … plus sleep a lot, eat 2 meals/day, drink tea and water as much as possible, and do it all in silence. There was a change in the meditation focus on day 4, as we learned to move our attention around our bodies and focus on the physical sensations in a pattern, but other than that it was the same. It was routine. And wonderful.
The whole program and schedule is designed so that your entire focus is on yourself and learning this technique of meditation. I gave up sugar and coffee, walked daily for 2 hours, gave no consideration to food (this time is considerable in our regular lives – groceries, planning meals, preparing, cooking, cleaning up … and it just goes on-and-on three times per day, every single day … so much bandwidth is used on food … how tiring), and slept like a stone most nights.
But the meditation was a lot of work, both physically and mentally. Sitting down on the mat is taxing on your back and hips, and sitting still during the group sessions was VERY challenging (no moving, squirming, adjusting – just perfectly still). Mentally, it is frustrating to work on training your mind to first recognize when it’s veered off course from focussing on your breathing or scanning your body, and second to keep bringing it back to the singular task. It’s exhausting. I am not special because of any kind of mental abilities; I was simply willing to sit and work on this skill. It is a super-power and I wanted to improve my focus and being present, so I went with curiosity and enthusiasm.
On the morning of day 10 we were able to break our noble silence and it was interesting to talk to people, especially my two roommates (which is awkward to share that space and not speak at all). It was such a shock to my system to get to know people and hear their stories, but it was so difficult to meditate after that. It is a great reminder that life is like this. We internalize all the outside noise and inputs, and then attempt to keep our focus and attention on the right things. Not an easy task. I enjoyed living in my simple, little bubble for 10-days. I missed my family, but I was able to reset my brain and my body with the clean eating, the right hydration, walking, and so much sleep (and no phone or internet … it was much easier than I thought it would be, truthfully … and I should do it more often!).
I’ll do another one at some point, but for now, I am going to try and bring some of those self-care aspects into my busy life … starting with some stillness every morning for about 30 minutes. That seems more practical and doable for me.
In the meantime, I am sending you all loving kindness!