10 Day Silent Vipassana Meditation Retreat: My Experience(s) + Q&A
Quick business: If you’re already convinced on going to a Vipassana retreat: don’t read this. Just go. Before attending my first retreat I had absolutely no idea what it was all about, other than the fact we would be ‘meditating’ for 10+ hours per day. I didn’t even know they taught you a technique. Going into it blind like that, I was able to embrace the experience with (almost) no expectations… and it was magical. If you’re not convinced or need more information before committing 10 days of your life, read on!
This article is based on my two experiences at 10-day Silent Vipassana Meditation retreats. I attended my first in October of 2016 at the Dhamma Bhumi Vipassana Centre at Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains (NSW, Australia). My second retreat was at the end of April at the centre in Markopoulo (near Athens, Greece). Both times have completely shaken my world for the better— I wish for everyone to experience these transformative retreats, to learn this meditation technique, and be given this framework for living a truly happy life.
10 Day Silent Vipassana Meditation Retreat: My Experience(s)
What is Vipassana
(A big chunk of this comes directly from the official Vipassana website. I’ll unpack it below)
Vipassana is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all.
What Vipassana is not:
It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith.
It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment.
It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing.
It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
What Vipassana is:
It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.
It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life's tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.
Vipassana meditation aims at the highest spiritual goals of total liberation and full enlightenment. Its purpose is never simply to cure physical disease. However, as a by-product of mental purification, many psychosomatic diseases are eradicated. In fact, Vipassana eliminates the three causes of all unhappiness: craving, aversion and ignorance. With continued practice, the meditation releases the tensions developed in everyday life, opening the knots tied by the old habit of reacting in an unbalanced way to pleasant and unpleasant situations.
Vipassana in my words
Ok, so basically over the 10 days you’re learning the Vipassana meditation technique, within the framework of a larger way of life known as the pursuit of Dhamma. All of this is relayed to us through S.N. Goenka, a Burmese man who left his big business life to walk the path of Dhamma and escape the madness/ misery of the unconscious life. Vipassana is the wisdom that caused the Buddha to become enlightened, and he teaches the technique as a direct pathway to Nirvana (enlightenment, or whatever else you want to all it), and the technique was mostly ‘lost’ for the better part of the the last 25 centuries. Although Vipassana spread like wildfire through India ‘back in the day’, it started to get corrupted by greed, or diluted/ modified with other techniques. Goenka came into contact with the technique in its pure form in Burma (one of the only places where it remained unspoilt) through his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin. After practicing the technique for 14 years, Goenka took a trip to India to teach Vipassana to his sick mother and a very small group of his acquaintances. It was so transformative that the group begged Goenka to teach one more course, so that their friends and families could benefit from the technique. From there Dhamma spread like wildfire and the technique was revived not only in India but across the world.
One of my favourite things about Vipassana is that it is not just theoretical information. Goenka repeatedly says (and it’s true) that simply hearing knowledge or regurgitating knowledge doesn’t actually translate to embodied wisdom. As you practice this technique of meditation, your innate divine wisdom starts to emerge and you start to understand the law of nature and the greater cosmic wisdom without any formal teachings. This course defines intuition and the power of the individual in healing themselves. Quite often there is reference to humanity living under a cloak of misery, and you may think “I’m happy, do I need Vipassana?” And my answer to you would be how real are you being with yourself? Look I am about as stable as they come, and yet still my internal dialogue and self-judgement is incredibly self-deprecating. Although I am relatively patient and calm, there are still times I get frustrated, hurt, or feel sad. This technique is there to elevate your vibration and take you to higher degrees of consciousness, without using anything from the outside world (no mantras, no visualizations, no prayer, no blind faith whatsoever).
The Vipassana meditation technique teaches you to observe what is, not what you wish was. In developing equanimity you quickly see this non-reaction, and calmness spill out into your everyday life— and a completely new, more harmonious way of living emerges.
Every night of the 10 days include a “Dhamma talk” by Goenka; video recordings of Goenka explaining the technique and the various teachings of the Buddha that explain the reasoning behind the technique. The technique itself is mostly explained via audio recordings played at the beginning of the group mediations. No matter where you attend the course, all the recordings (audio and video) are the same (albeit they vary based on language dub). And indeed there are centers all over the world!
The course progresses in a way that everybody can participate, no matter their understanding of Buddhism, spirituality, or meditation. Truthfully, I would say it’s actually better to have no previous mediation experience because you won’t be tempted to confuse the technique with any other.
Unlike many forms of meditation that include visualisation or verbalisation (mantras, etc), it’s really important to attend a 10 day course to properly learn this technique. One example Goenka gives is of men who decided to get in a boat in the fog of the night and row to the other side of the body of water. They sweat and rowed all night long and when the daylight broke they realised that they hadn’t gotten anywhere: they were still tied to the dock. You want to make sure you’re not rowing in the dark— you can do the work but if you’re working improperly: you won’t get anywhere!
Not to mention immersing yourself in the serenity of a Vipassana course (no speaking, meditating 11 hours a day, not focusing on anything but the technique)— it really gives you an opportunity to surrender and experience all that the technique has to offer.
The retreat teaches you a lot. More than I could do justice to in an article. But one of the fundamental teachings is equanimity. Equanimity is the ability to observe a situation without reacting to it (whether it be good or bad). The teachings understand that all of life’s miseries are rooted in craving or aversion— the clinging to good feelings or fear of bad feelings. Because life is impermanent (everything rises and passes away), when we live from a place of craving or aversion, we are bound to be miserable.
The technique teaches you to go to the very root of this addiction to craving or aversion: the sensations on the body. You will learn that our reactions are rooted in tiny subtle sensations on the body, and learn to observe them as opposed to react. This microcosm will translate into the macro eventually (and the results come very quickly). As above, so below.
Most importantly, though, is that you learn equanimity not just in theory: you experience it with your own body. We often ‘know’ things on a surface level, but without experiencing the truth of a deep intrinsic level- we fail to actually apply them to our lives in the long run. The theory you learn in Vipassana is only as useful as you understand it through experience, which is why simply reading about the technique or listening to the Dhamma talks are not going to bring you any lasting results.
What happens during a Vipassana Meditation Retreat: Externally
The schedule of the retreats is streamlined across all locations, the schedule is the same no matter where you attend in the world.
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
12 noon-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 room (Lights out)
The meditations are silent, but the technique is taught progressively throughout the 10 days via audio recordings at the start of each meditation. The first 3 days are spent learning (and practicing) anapana meditation, which simply focuses on observing the breath. On day 4-10 you learn (and practice) the Vipassana technique.
Each meditation starts and finishes with Goenka chanting for the class. You will learn to relish these chants, and progressively through the nightly Dhamma talks he shares the meaning behind all the chants (which are ‘sung’ in Pali— a native Indian language spoken by the Buddha. This is the sacred language of some religious texts of Hinduism and all texts of Theravāda Buddhism).
The meditation hall is divided in 2 (men/ women) and each person has an assigned seat that is just a square cloth on the floor. Then you have the option of sitting on any amount of cushions (or bring your own); some people also use backrests and chairs. It’s important to note that experiencing ‘pain’ is a part of this. You will understand more when you get there, but essentially you are here to cultivate equanimity which means non-reaction. Feeling pain (numbness, tingling, heat, etc) from sitting for a long time on the floor is one of the most powerful ways to learn to observe the pain instead of associating with it.
Along with the teachings by Goenka (audio and video), there is an assistant teacher (often two- one male, one female), who are there to assist you throughout the course. They sit at the front of the class during all meditations and are available for questions daily during the midday rest period. You sign up if you have any questions about the technique and are allotted a time slot. You can also ask questions every evening between 9-9:30 pm after the last meditation of the day.
The nightly discourses (Dhamma) are given 7pm each night, and last about 1.5 hours. They will no doubt breath life into you every night. The talks are seriously incredible. Even on the hardest of days, he speaks to your Soul and is also a fantastic (and hilarious) story teller.
The discourses put a lot into perspective regarding the technique, not only in practice but more so how it relates to life outside meditation.
There is not much free time. This isn’t summer camp! 1.5 hours during breakfast, 2 hours for lunch, and 1 hour for afternoon tea, for a total of 4.5 hours including all your meals. You can essentially walk, sit, hang out in your room, or nap. I often slept the first break (following breakfast) and sometimes also napped (or sat it the sun) around the midday break.
Yoga, running, or any intense or distracting activities are banned to prevent distracting other students. This might seem extreme but it is very fair— and if you find yourself ‘freaking out’ at the no intense exercise for 10 days: congratulations! This is a form of craving (attachment) that is bringing you misery. Identifying these things that trigger craving or aversion in our lives allows us to work on developing equanimity (freedom).
The foundation of the practice is sīla — moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight. All three are like legs of a stool, and although they kind of build upon one another, they are all equally important to achieving freedom through the technique.
The precepts set to develop sīla (morality) enforced for all students during the course are:
to abstain from killing any being;
to abstain from stealing;
to abstain from all sexual activity;
to abstain from telling lies;
to abstain from all intoxicants.
On top of that, old students (who have completed at least one 10-day retreat) must also observe:
to abstain from eating after midday;
to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations;
to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
What happens during a Vipassana Meditation Retreat:Internally
Although the structure of the course is a set structure, what goes on inside is a whole other story. You are going to have your own experience, but I’ll share a few of mine because from what I hear— many people have similar experiences.
Crazy ass thoughts: Honestly I brought myself to tears of silent laughter at some of the thoughts that came up while in meditation. Things like where do sesame seeds come from? Or wondering what my arm hair looks like and how weird it is women shave their legs but not their arms. Also why does leg/arm/ eyebrow hair only grow to a certain length but hair on the head grows indefinitely? May times I imagined myself singing along to the chanting in my head and imaging myself perform in a full blown bollywood music video. Like total madness. The key is that when you catch yourself going down one of these rabbit holes, go back to your breath (anapana). It’s impossible to completely eradicate your monkey brain, but when you catch yourself don’t continue to indulge, and get back to work.
Flashbacks: memories of childhood, all my ex boyfriends, past friendships, memories you haven’t thought about in DECADES just come flooding back. Vivid memories of childhood, seemingly unimportant things (like the creek that ran behind my childhood home) that you haven’t thought about in 15 years come rushing to the forefront of your mind as if they were yesterday. Conversations, people, places… it’s truly incredible what happens when you quiet the mind from the chaos of new inputs.
The mind quiets wildly in 3 days: You will no doubt see this happen. From day 1 to 3 your brain goes from total ADD to much more quiet and settled. Days 1 + 2 the thoughts come flooding through at 100 miles per hour, inconsequential, and you’ll realise you don’t even even complete a thought before the next one comes rushing in. By day 3 most of your thoughts (during meditation) pertain to the technique, to Dhamma, to how you can better your life and overall be a better person.
Wild dreams: sex, theft, violence… honestly it seems my dreams during Vipassana are like an unleashing of all the deeply repressed (maybe?) impurities. I don’t even know, but my dreams (and ‘real life’) are normally very peaceful and for some reason both times at retreat I’ve had wild dreams. It makes you really wonder what dreams are all about. I also had vivid lucid dreaming one night, which is always a welcomed experience.
Profound realizations/ clarity: If there’s something going on in your life giving you qualms, surrender to the technique completely and know that you will figure it out while there. But don’t spend meditation time consciously thinking about the situation. The more you do the work and dedicate yourself to the technique, the more clarity you will get. During my first Vipassana I had total revelation regarding a hard situation I was going through with a friend. During this past retreat in Greece I heard one of the men got up mid-meditation and left the centre to end his engagement with his fiancé. When you stop overwhelming yourself with distractions, the Truth becomes becomes crystal clear.
Feel like you’re going insane:/ feel like you’re in an insane asylum (in a somewhat hilarious way). Trust me, you will walk into the meditation hall around day 3-5 and laugh your a** off; seeing everyones seat, progressively collecting more and more cushions and pillows as the days goes on… it’s hilarious to see.
Really hard day(s): Goenka says that day 2 and 6 are the hardest but personally I did not feel that way at all. During my first retreat, I actually didn’t have any hard days (believe it or not). This second time around, I felt like I got hit by a truck on day 9 (day nine!!!!!). No matter what, it’s important to realise that the experience is a rollercoaster of emotions and sensations, and the key is to just embrace the highs and lows, and try to stay equanimous.
How much does a Vipassana meditation retreat cost
Vipassana is technically free, in that you don’t pay anything to attend. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that it allows you to develop the Pāramī (aka ‘mental perfection’) of nekkhamma, or renunciation. When you pay for a course, the ego takes over and you start to have expectations about what you are owed. These courses are run 100% by volunteers (old students) and even the teachers volunteer their time, because Dhamma is too important to set a financial restriction on
Donations are pure and are only accepted by old students, who have completed at least one 10 day Vipassana. They are based on means (you donate as much as you can afford), and they go to provide a course for a student after you. I invite you to be honest with yourself about how much to donate, because although nobody will know— it is an opportunity for you to participate in dāna (generosity) which is one of the fundamental pillars on which enlightenment is founded.
My Vipassana MEDITATION Experience(s)
I don’t even know where to start here… the experience you have at Vipassana is life changing. Both my experiences were similarly transformative, and within a few days your mind quiets to degrees you probably haven’t experienced in this life. You start to notice things you would never notice. You’re flooded with memories from the past, which is fascinating; it’s like floodgates of your subconscious are open wide. You begin to tell yourself stories about everyone around you (for the better or worse) and you will undoubtedly make profound connections without actually speaking to anyone. I made friends for life both times; one girl in particular is my literal soul sister— we fully connected without any eye contact or speaking. Your intuition and divine nature really take over.
Both times I felt very safe and taken care of. The first time I was in a large dorm with many women (each beds divided by sheets) and the second time I shared a room with one other girl (who was awesome). Despite eating a diet I’m not accustomed to (oats, lots of grains, rice, etc) I felt so good.
I had profound out of body experiences both times. The first time it was related to a friend of mine who had gone off the rails and I was hurting a lot from it. I realised mid-mediation that I had to truly deeply forgive her to free myself, and in that moment all the intense pain completely disappeared and exploded into vibrations, and my whole body basically felt like a wave of energy. The second time I was having pretty weak first 3 days of meditation, and the first night practicing Vipassana double sided full body scan (not even sure what to call it, you’ll learn it on day 5 or 6), anyways the short evening mediation after implementing that technique my whole body went into flow mode again. It’s insanity. Achieving out-of-body states like that simply through observing the body… I can’t even put it into words.
Understand that this technique doesn’t induce states of flow by any breathing techniques or anything else. You’re just observing what is. And when you quiet down the mind, you will quickly see that life, as it is, is magic.
During the course I felt like I was experiencing all life had to offer. Seeing the stars, seeing plants, just walking barefoot on grass. I cried multiple times (of joy) especially on my first Vipassana. At the Dhamma Bhumi center we saw the most beautiful sunsets and even got to see wild kangaroos (with their babies!!).
If you have any other questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section at the bottom of the article.
How did you discover Vipassana?
A woman that used to come to the health store I managed in Australia told me about it, and from what I can remember I signed up the same day (or not long after). Goenka explains that Vipassana basically finds you when you have good karma, and that for many people they hear about it and just know they need to go— that’s how I felt. I heard about it and just knew I needed to experience it.
My first time I knew basically nothing, I didn’t even know you learnt a technique. On day 1 when we first hear Goenka’s voice at the very start of the first meditation, and he started to give instructions— I was amazed! I guess I thought we would be left to our own devices for some reason. On day 4 when you get the Vipassana technique, my mind blew all over again (I didn’t know we hadn’t been practicing ‘it’ until then). There’s something special about experiencing it blindly like that, and just taking it moment by moment.
Why do you go to these retreats?
Ten (well, really twelve) days is a lot of time to take out of your life when you’re a “householder” (the Eastern term for someone who earns money), but the teachings you learn here are transformative. It’s more than a meditation technique— it’s a life path. I feel deeply that Vipassana calls you when you’re ready (“when the student is ready, the teacher will come”), and I wish everyone find this path.
For my first course I took most of my vacation days to attend the course and people were horrified to learn I would be spending my vacation in some sort of silent insane asylum (truthfully, it feels like one at times). Although it’s a lot of work, you leave feeling refreshed… nay, reborn.
I will continue to attend them (hopefully) yearly, because it’s a great refresher. Already my second one I learnt so much more about the technique and the path of Dhamma. Goenka recommends attending a course 1x year to reconnect with the technique. I attend these courses because they truly make me a better person.
Is Vipassana a cult?/ Is Vipassana Buddhism?
It couldn’t be farther from it. In fact, Vipassana is not associated to any religion, guru, right, or ritual. The principles are those of nature— universal truths. As you will learn during the course, all the teachings are universal, in that they apply to all beings (irrelevant of race, gender, religion, etc). This is what make the technique so pure; unlike many religious rites and rituals that create a you vs. me, Vipassana applies to all.
The teachings are based on the enlightened teachings of the Buddha, 2500 years ago— but he preached then (as Goenka preaches throughout the course) that neither of them are interested in being idolized or praised. To live in the morality and in pursuit of the wisdom of these noble figures is the ultimate goal. Less believing in them (blind faith), more acting like them (true wisdom).
Isn’t alL meditation the same?
No! They really are not. I will work on a separate article comparing and contrasting meditation techniques— but essentially every other technique uses external ‘objects’ or unnatural breath work to reach peace. You may be chanting a mantra, repeating the name of a guru or visualise a colour or shape or place to find ‘freedom’. But Vipassana teaches you to observe what is. The key difference is that when you use anything exogenous, you’re only fixing your problem at the surface level. Your ‘peace’ comes from something outside of you, and so you develop this craving to a word or some technique that gives you salvation. If you want to truly change the habit pattern of the mind, you must see the world as it is— and Vipassana teaches you to find true peace by addressing ‘misery’ at its root. By using any exogenous tool to mediate (even simple words or visualisations) you are indeed technically creating a dependence on something impermanent, and signing yourself to more misery.
I keep seeing the word ‘Dhamma’… what does it mean?
Dhamma is part of the ‘triple gem’ which includes:
Buddha: anyone who is fully enlightened
Dhamma: the law of nature; the teaching of an enlightened person; the way to liberation
Sangha: anyone who has practiced Dhamma and has become a pure-minded, saintly person
All Pali words are explained during the course, as their relevance becomes necessary.
What is the hardest part?
Feeling like a useless ADD/ confused/ loser at times— but that’s part of the experience (you learn to develop equanimity). My first time was easier, but my second time I thought I would have some sort of advantage going into it… but I didn’t. Since I didn’t maintain my meditation practice, I was essentially starting over and that was hard. In fact, I was so on-the-go for the previous months that I was probably in a worse place than the first time.
Surrendering to things out of your control is also ‘hard’ (like the unusual 4am wake up, and the food that you don’t control) but that actually ends up being a positive because you realize how unnecessary OCD you can be in everyday life. We create prisons for ourselves, thinking we “need” this or that, or that we are incapable of doing this or that.. when in reality we are flexible and capable beyond means. When you truly surrender to the experience, this ‘hard’ part becomes an invaluable gift and lesson.
Oh, dealing with other people’s BS is definitely one of the harder parts for me. You don’t actually interact with anyone (well, you shouldn’t be) but some people inevitably make their quirks benounced to the rest of the group. During my last retreat one woman in particular acted like she owned the place. She makes large donations and as a result did everything her way: went beyond the course boundaries, went through doors and took routes we aren’t supposed to take, got special food, saved seats for her friend, was so noisy during meditations, was snarky to the woman who ran the English Dhamma talks… it took a lot out of me to try not to judge her, and actually I failed often in my efforts. But ultimately I still saw moments of her ‘humanity’ and made a conscious effort not to let her experience influence mine. My best advice is to keep to yourself as much as you possibly can. Avoid distracting yourself with anyones quirks.
I think it’s useful to note the 5 hindrances (or enemies) of Vipassana (as taught by Goenka during the course):
thīna-middha— physical sloth and mental torpor (ie. too tired to meditate)
uddhacca-kukkacca— agitation or worry (ie. too distracted to meditate)
vicikicchā— doubt, uncertainty (ie. not having faith in the technique)
You will be supported throughout your time here to break free from these essentially self-sabotaging difficulties that you will probably incur while at Vipassana. It is very useful to see these as ‘enemies’ and fight to overcome their ability to sabotage your progress.
No speaking for 10 days WTF do you lose your mind?
Haha, kind of, but it’s amazing. When you live your day-to-day life constantly thinking and communicating, its near impossible to realize the madness going on in your head. We have so much stimulus that our thoughts actually jump from one thing to another without ever taking a breath. This is so apparent during the first 2 days of the retreat. As you quietly observe your breath, the mind is running at 100 miles per hour like a total spas.
When we speak, we automatically start telling ourselves stories, about how we feel, what other people are doing and saying and our assumptions on their intentions and what they might be thinking. It’s an added layer of information that just crams into our internal dialogue and generates information overload. Not speaking for 10 days is so relaxing and regenerative. It allows you to focus on observing your mind as opposed to multitasking between that and navigating the outside world. It really gives you a chance to go inwards.
What is the best part about Vipassana?
Oh, so much. The information, the technique, the Dhamma, the discourses, the wild transcendental meditation experiences, the clarity, the disconnection from the material world, the lifelong relationships/ bonds you make, a profound appreciation for the beauty of life. So often we work our physical bodies, but rarely do we get to really push the boundaries of our own mind. There’s no feeling like finishing a 10 day Vipassana, the bonds you make with those who sat in that room with you for 10 days are for life.
How were your first and second course different from one another?
Facility comparison (non-centre and real centre)
My first time was at Dhamma Bhumi in NSW, Australia which is an official centre and the second time in Markopoulo was a non-centre (which means they rent the space to hold events semi-regularly). Downside of the non-centre in Greece was that other things were happening around the property. For example we could hear people in their houses occasionally playing music; the farmers were around and sometimes machinery etc/ cars would drive through the property; the goats and cats made lots of noises. I enjoyed having cats around but there is some sacred energy and deep vulnerability that happens during Vipassana and I think it’s “safer” to frequent an official centre where no outside energies are coming in. You also learn the power of energy when it comes to the place which you meditate in (the room) and so having one meditation room that is used exclusively for Vipassana meditation 365 days a year holds a much more powerful and supportive/ inspiring energy than a centre that is used for other activities/ purposes for most of the year.
Official centres tend to have better facilities too (always very basic, not fancy) but in Australia, for example, there is a pagoda facility for old students to meditate in, with small individual dark rooms. Because they own the land, more can be invested in the centre and indeed, it often is.
Humble living: you will be living like a monk/ nun— on the charity of others. These ‘free’ retreats are not like your lavish 2000$ vacation retreats, you are here to live humbly, and do the work. Materialism ain’t no thing here, so leave your ego at the door and find deep gratitude for how purely this organization is run.
It was great at both centers, but the Aussie location (truthfully) had much better food. I think the food somewhat depends on the budget, and I can only assume that an official centre has more donations coming through. From what I hear Vipassana centers around the world always serve oatmeal and stewed prunes for breakfast (I never eat oatmeal but it was so welcomed during these 10 days. Like seriously the best mediation food), and at the non-centre they served dry cereal and fruit (I’ve never had so many bananas drowned in tahini in my life). Either way though, it’s generally vegan food- full of vegetables. Lots of herbal teas (which was awesome in Greece because the local wild herbs in Greece are #nextlevel).
We drank tap water in Australia and it tasted so bad that I could only drink tea to mask the taste. I would fill my glass water bottle with tea and drink that throughout the day hot or cold because the taste of chlorine, etc, made me (literally) gag. Greece was well water on the property (a biodynamic farm) which I (literally) yelped for joy when they announced it.
At the centre in Greece, the meditation instructions were in greek following the initial english instructions, which was distracting. It’s definitely not the end of the world, and a necessary evil to ensure that this marvellous technique can be learnt worldwide.. but if you speak english, try attending your first course at an english centre. If you’re taking the course somewhere where the main language isn’t english, they play back-to-back the english then other language, and so when you’re supposed to start your practice, there’s another 1-10 minutes of instructions in the other language. Also the nightly Dhamma talks they separate the group to listen to the original video (in English) and an audio of whatever the other language is. If you can, it flows better to be at an English centre.
Similarities: despite the differences, there were mostly similarities between the two courses. Don’t get me wrong, the non-centre was amazing and I actually connected with the administration and people overall on a much deeper level (Greece will do that to you).
Uncontrollable absurd laughter: both times I had these deep, uncontrollable (silent-ish) laughter fits, the kind you have as a kid when you’re not supposed to laugh in school. The first time it happened on day 10 when you’re allowed to speak again (but not in the meditation hall) and my friend (who I made on day 10) that sat next to me the whole time and I laughed so hard we got kicked out of the meditation hall. I made an inappropriate joke (oops!) and we just cracked up like school girls. The second time it happened a few times throughout the course, one time the assistant teacher played the nightly video and didn’t realise it was playing without volume (she was behind the TV) and since no-one could talk and tell her, we all sat here for over a minute waiting for her to notice. Eventually most of the class burst out laughing. Another time in Greece a car was coming onto the farm property and accidentally tore through the rope demarking the property, and it like bounced off the car and ripped and my roommate and I watched it happen and again, died of laughter. Normally this would not be funny, but you have so much pent up energy in an environment that is so unnatural to our modern lives that you will no doubt start to find humour in weird places. And gosh, it felt so good to laugh.
Meditation highs and lows: my first time at Vipassana was actually easier. The second time around I was expecting to kind of fall back into it (expectations are killers of success at Vipassana!) and I didn’t I really had to go back to the start and when I did, it all started flowing again. The second time also, I was coming into Vipassana with vertigo and I was pretty burnt out from 5+ months of non-stop travel and freelancing (living in 6 countries, always on the go), so I was much more disconnected from my body. This makes a huge difference in your experience. The more sensitive and still you are going into Vipassana, the more deeply you can work. This will make more sense once you learn the technique.
New student vs. old student: a few differences between being a new (first time) and old (second time +) student, whereby old students are given slightly different instructions, and cannot eat after 12 noon. New students have fruit and tea at 5pm, and old students lemon water (although many also had other teas).
Which course was better?
I don’t think anything will beat my first time because learning the Dhamma, the technique, “meeting” Goenka, the whole thing was just like coming home. Like taking a first breath of life. But both were profound and my second course I learnt SO much more about the technique, the theory, it really settled in much deeper. If I could advise it would be to try and sit your first time at an official centre, because things are simply more streamlined and together. Official centers are simply centers where the land is owned by Vipassana centre and they run courses all year round. Non-centers are also amazing (my second course in Markopoulo, near Athens was a non-centre), but there is much more stress/ work involved in setting up the course and if you want the most ‘authentic’ experience, try and sit at an official centre your first time.
Can you bring your own food/ make dietary requests?
No to bringing your own food, and *kind of* to making dietary requests. Understand that if everyone did this, the courses could not exist. Distinguish between dietary requirements and dietary preferences. Do I eat gluten in real life: no. Am I allergic to gluten: also no. There are often options, and you can navigate the meals to avoid certain things, but unless you’re allergic: don’t make requests. Doing so will absolutely harm your practice, because living like a monk/ nun means living on the charity of others. If you want to truly surrender to the experience, you need to let go of your daily life neuroses. Beggars can’t be choosers, and when you accept the free food prepared by love by volunteers who are serving you selflessly and preparing food made with love, the alchemy is incredible and you will feel wonderful, I promise.
What is the food like?
Mostly vegan, served family style (in large dishes) that you walk up to with your plate and serve yourself with. Usually there’s oatmeal for breakfast with stewed prunes and lots of fruit, as well as bread/ jams, butter, peanut butter, tahini, etc. Lunch is lots of vegetables (cooked), salads, rice, lentils. Totally delicious both times. Always lots of tea in large cauldrons (Greece was next level with local tea selections),
Did you/ how was it eating vegan for 10 days?
It was great. I consume a lot of animal products and have no qualms about taking 10 days off to honour Sila. But I actually spoke to the assistant teacher about this (yes, you have a whispering optional q&a session) and he agreed plants are alive too. Both times I felt amazing on the Vipassana food; I truly think the most important thing is being fed from a place of love— and the food being given there is about as high vibrational as it gets.
Did you microdose while there, or take any psychedelics?
I considered it, but no, I did not and I will not. It’s a rule not to take any drugs, and although I don’t consider it a “drug” — psilocybin does alter your state of consciousness. The reason I wanted to microdose while there was to lower my sensory gate perception, because mushrooms do that, and a key part of Vipassana is the ability to feel subtle sensations on the body. It would no doubt help, but the more important part of Vipassana is observing life as it it, not as you wish it were. So, in weighing the pros and cons, it was quickly clear to me that using any external ‘aids’ to achieve deeper states of meditation was actually completely against the purpose and would set me back. You want to honour where you’re at in that moment, and watch your success come from doing the work.
Where do you sleep?
The facilities vary, but in general new students are usually in a large room together (supposed to have dividers between beds) and older students generally have a private room (or perhaps a shared room with one other old student). This depends wildly on the facilities means. In Australia, we had a room with about 12 beds but each has a small dividing wall and curtain. It was awesome to have a bit of privacy and yet feel the comradery of new students also experiencing the madness. There was a bathroom (4 or so showers, 4 or 5 toilets, multiple sinks), shared for the room. In Greece I shared a room and bathroom with one other old student, we had our own bathroom.
Below are some images from the sleeping quarters in Greece (Markopoulo) which is a non-centre. This facility is used for other retreats throughout the year (various organisations) and is on a biodynamic farm property. I found the sleeping quarters at the Australian location ‘better’ in that the property was more intelligently divided between men and women, and there was less makeshift boundaries for the two groups.
Did you break any of the rules?
Technically, yes. But I didn’t break Sīla (morality), at all. Both times I broke the same two rules: no writing, and no sun tanning.
I understand the no writing rule as a self-distraction, but the first time I was learning information that blew my fucking mind. Vipassana and the Dhamma teachings are a framework for life, and I felt like I was heading information for the first time in this lifetime, that I had studied for many previous lifetimes. It was like coming home, and as a writer I couldn’t help but take notes at night to remember things. I didn’t know all the recordings were online nor that much of the Dhamma talks and teachings are written about in depth online and in books. I felt like I was given this speech that I had to remember, and like life and death I would run home from the final nights meditation and jot down a few things.
I had no intention of writing either time, I knew the rules and didn’t bring a journal or any writing material. But I was overwhelmed with the need to take notes and tore open a box of organic tampons I had with me and took bullet point notes “borrowing” the pen that was in the shared room attached to a sign-up sheet for the daily q&a with the assistant teachers.
The second time around, again I had no intention of writing but I realized I wanted to share my experience with you all on the site, and so I took small notes again to have some sort of a clear timeline of my 10 days as well as some key moments/ stories I wanted to share with you.
I think the rule in general is a good one, journaling is a distraction. You don’t have much free time anyways, and so yeah although I did it I would say try not to.
As far as suntanning goes, I understand they don’t want to turn the course into a summer vacation and have people lying out in their bikinis. But sunshine is life, and I spent my afternoon break in the sun, anytime the sun was out. I kept it highly PG (just wore a tank top and raised my pants to my knee. I also tried to stay as hidden as possible. Ultimately the sun for me is a non-negotiable, more important than food when it comes to nourishing me. I think, like all things, intention is key here.
Check in with yourself before breaking any rules and realize that the rules are there for your benefit. Sīla are the ‘morality’ rules that ought not to be broken under any circumstance, they include:
to abstain from killing any being;
to abstain from stealing;
to abstain from sexual misconduct;
to abstain from wrong speech (lying);
to abstain from all intoxicants.
What should i bring to vipassana?
I decided to make a separate article with a Vipassana packing list (+ what not to bring). Click the button below to have a read!
I’ve never meditated, can i come to Vipassana?
YES. This was my experience going into my first retreat. In fact, I think you’re better off not having any type of meditation practice because it allows you to experience the technique without other conflicting styles of meditation. Don’t be intimidated, if you wanted to learn to surf— you would have no qualms about going to a surf camp to learn. You cannot practice Vipassana properly without attending a course, so just go!
Do you recommend everyone do a Vipassana?
I think everyone can benefit deeply from the teaching and practice of Dhamma and Vipassana meditation, but I think it’s extremely important to check in with your intention and state of mind going into it. These 10 days are not easy, it’s a lot of work and the experience is full of highs and lows. If you are mentally unstable, it could be very traumatic for you. I’m in no place to judge or say who should or shouldn’t go, but the institution is very clear that since they are run by volunteers are are not equipped to deal with such situations, they do not accept anyone participating who has a mental disorder.
Although Vipassana targets the removal of impurities of the time at the root level, and this results in many profound changes and triumphs, the course is not intended to treat any disease or condition. Goenka explains that he himself found Vipassana because he was dealing with chronic debilitating migraines, but that the teacher would not accept him into the course if curing his headaches was his primary intention.
I see many people going to Vipassana for their significant other, and I think that is equally problematic. The experience is intense, and if you’re there for anything else than to explore the Truth of yourself and nature, you’re probably setting yourself up for a terrible experience.
I would say go to Vipassana if you are called to it from a higher power, and go only when you are ready.
What advice do you have for anyone considering a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat?
Again, I decided to turn this question into an independent article. Click the button below to read.
Will you continue your practice?
The suggested protocol following a 10 day course is the following:
One hour in the morning and one hour in the evening of Vipassana (followed by a couple of minutes of Metta)
Five minutes of Vipassana in bed after you wake up and before you sleep
Attend one group meditation session each week
Attend 1x 10-day course once a year (as a server or student)
After my first course, I did not. Although I was totally mind blown by the whole experience and gained so much knowledge and benefits, the thought of 2 hours of daily meditation was daunting. I attempted some casual sitting but did not maintain it. I was not ready, and I do fundamentally believe the will has to come from within.
This second course inspired me deeply, and took my practice to a totally new place. This time yes, I do. So far I have been practicing my 2 hours daily (1 hour morning and evening), and although I’m island hopping, I hope to connect with a Vipassana community when I get back to larger towns and sit in group sittings too. I have already applied to serve a course a few months from now.
The technique cannot work unless you give it a fair trial. I know what I have to do, I see the value, I am deeply inspired and excited to see my relationship and understanding of Vipassana deepen with practice.
Truthfully, I don’t know how sustainable the PM mediation will be in the long run because I go to bed very early. Finding my timing for what time to meditate in the evening is something I think will be a trial-and-error kind of situation. But as far as the AM meditation, I’ve just been doing it as soon as I wake up, before anything else.