BE HERE NOW: Notes From a Ten Day Silent Vipassana Retreat

“The truth will set you free, but not until after it’s done with you”
– David Foster Wallace

Burma 1995 - when I first learned that pretending to meditate was a whole lot easier than actually doing it.

Burma 1995 – when I first learned that pretending to meditate was a whole lot easier than actually doing it.

DAY 0

(31.10.2015, Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage, Thailand)

We’re not supposed to write anything, but I’ll be damned if I subject myself to another one of these without some sort of record. Keeping it brief though… silence starts after lunch.

The whole set up looks much more relaxed than Kathmandu, but makes up for it with concrete beds and wooden pillows… sadists.

Kicked off the retreat by accidentally drowning a family of fire ants when doing laundry. Well done.

DAY 1

Itchy body, itchy mind. Mosquitoes, flashbacks & rampant daydreams galore.

Than Medi during chanting re: Buddhadasa: “He’s a good monk- he has no emotion.” Right.

DAY 2

Wet cold miserable morning, less than awful evening session. Time in between spent cursing the mosquitoes, the bell, my rabidly disobedient mind. At the sound of the bell we prick up our ears & mindfully trot off to the meditation hall like a pack of Pavlovian dogs.

So much rain. I can feel my pre-frontal cortex hurting.

DAY 3

Interview with Nun Rung: “I came here to meditate.”

My mind is a small puppy chewing up the cables & pissing on the carpet.

6pm: Tea instead of hot chocolate – TREASON!!

Dealing with sleepiness during meditation according to Buddhadasa’s ABC of Buddhism: “If you’re really tired, hit yourself on the head with a stick.”

DAY 4

1 step forward, 3 steps back.

Afternoon dhamma talk: “To retreat means to lower your battle flags.” Only good thing to come out of that onslaught of garbage.

Emotional shit hitting the fan in an epic fashion, like breaking bones.

Hot chocolate again! Everyone lights up with mute smiles of delight like we were just served truffle tiramisu sprinkled with angel dust and blood diamonds.

Great evening meditation! Must. Not. Attach. Too late.

DAY 5

Feeling good. Covert mosquito killing spree continues.

Don’t know if getting better at this or just more resigned to the situation.

Having trouble coming up with people I hate for loving kindness meditation. Er… Joseph Kony and Dolores Umbridge?

Always last in Q during night-time walking meditation – if there is an axe-murderer roaming the grounds I’ll be the first to go.

DAY 6

Announcement at breakfast: “We are half-way through the retreat – and if you haven’t experienced any suffering so far, you sure will now!”

Can’t deal with the rice soup any more… load up on bananas and foliage.

Puppy’s happily running around gnawing on the furniture & ripping up the upholstery. Even the eve session was hopeless but am too zoned out to care – progress of sorts, I suppose.

DAY 7

Gut-wrenchingly awful morning. Exhausted, fed up, everything hurts.

Empty mats in the meditation hall leave us guessing who’s left – no tearful goodbyes around here. Dale, the American that arrived on the same bus as me, vanished around day 5. French girl that looks like pocket-sized Demi Moore gone today. Smart girl.

Note to self: NEVER DO THIS AGAIN

DAY 8

Tiny itty-bitty frogs in the grass – Chanting on the grass by the lake today – field trip! Everyone quite giddy & on the verge of hysteria I think, prone to bursts of uncontrollable laughter when we screw up the chants, which is constantly. Than Medi: “Who can follow 10 breaths without the mind wandering?” No one raises a hand. Good. At least we all suck at this together.

Tomorrow is the day of hardcore mindfuckery – only one meal (breakfast), no dhamma talks or chanting – just endless meditation, straight up. Absolutely no writing or reading.

DAY 9

…..

DAY 10

Spent a good half an hour torturing myself with a very realistic daydream of smearing Nutella on fresh white bread.

Are we there yet???

Sharing in the evening: everyone hated the dhamma talks, everyone was struggling, everyone thought that they were the only ones – go figure. Looking forward to the end of silence tomorrow so I can actually meet some of the people I have been creepily staring at over the past 10 days.

DAY 11

FREEDOM! Bring on the beer.

*         *         *          *

In Vipassana centres around the world new and old meditators are welcome to learn the meditation technique originally taught by the Buddha and get intimately acquainted with their personal brand of crazy during a 10-day silent retreat.

Setting aside the theory and the teachings, the goal is simple, but not easy: All you have to do is remain completely present in the here and now, without attachment or judgement.

If you’ve ever dabbled in mindfulness meditation you know how fiendishly difficult this can be. If you haven’t, give it a go now: sit up straight, close your eyes, and try to follow ten long breaths, focussing your mind on the breath, only the breath and nothing but the breath.

Done? Now imagine doing this for ten days straight… and no, I don’t know why I do this voluntarily either.

Whether you approach meditation as a path to spiritual enlightenment or an effective way to sharpen your cognitive toolkit, the early learning process will inevitably be a deeply unpleasant one.

Not only will you not enjoy your Vipassana retreat – you’re not meant to enjoy it. Buddhists, generally a very cheerful and benign bunch, have a thing for dukkha (suffering) and believe that, since everything is impermanent, everything in life is a source of suffering until we learn to stop craving it and clinging to it. During the course of the ten days you inevitably go through all manner of mental and physical pain, and it is by learning to observe it without engagement or judgement that you strengthen your practice and gain insight into the impermanent and constructed nature of reality.

The schedule gives the first clue to the retreat’s challenges: wake up at 4am, no food after 12:30, and endless hours of meditation. Add to that a concrete slab for a bed and a ban on killing, which unfortunately includes the swarming hungry mosquitoes. And of course there is the practice of Noble Silence – the silence of spirit, body and mind. In plain English: no talking, reading, writing, music, or any other forms of distractions. Yes, that includes your phone. The stricter retreats, like the one I subjected myself to in 2009, even forbid eye contact and body language.

The real challenges, however, are harder to itemize on a list.

The roaring frustration of trying to train your messy, rebellious, masochistic mind when the only tools at your disposal are your breath and the very same mind that got you in this pickle to begin with.

The teeth-shattering tedium of having nothing to distract you from yourself in all your self-involved glory.

The many nuances of pains and aches that your body goes through during hours of sitting meditation.

Struggling to remain detached as your ego digs up every bad decision, mortifying moment, painful memory and missed opportunity of your life. Struggling to remain present in the moment when you could so easily escape into a pleasant memory or an elaborate daydream – no one would ever know!

Struggling through every second of your practice, convinced that everyone else is sailing through and only a couple of breaths short of enlightenment.

While this approach might seem too strict for beginners, I find these retreats the best way to kick-start a practice. It’s a sink or swim situation, and many people choose to leave during the retreat. But despite the inevitable inner turmoil and tantrums that mark the transitioning period the lack of stimuli soon lulls you into a state of collective resignation, which eventually progresses to acceptance – on a good day, at least.

For the better part you are waging psychological warfare against yourself and losing spectacularly on all fronts. But every now and then – in rare, bright moments – your future and past fall away, the endless chatter dies down and you just are. It is a mesmerising glimpse into a state of mind that is both calmer and more exciting than anything an expert combination of Prozac and HBO could have to offer.

Ten days might sound like a long while, but it’s precious little time to undo a lifetime of conditioning. The retreat is only the first step in the right direction, a mindfulness boot camp that provides the foundation for a lifetime of practice – if you go for that sort of thing.

Alternatively, it provides you with a unique opportunity to face yourself at your best and your worse, with no distractions to soften the blow. Even if you have no interest in meditation beyond the retreat, following the practice, the schedule and all the restrictions for ten days is guaranteed to push you far into the wilderness of your discomfort zone and challenge your perception of pain and pleasure.

I consider my stints in Vipassana centres both a valuable learning experience and a deeply masochistic psychological experiment – never pleasant in the moment and always fascinating in hindsight. I have tried, and failed, to maintain a daily practice on and off for almost a decade. The trying (and failing) continues, but I am fairly certain that I won’t be doing another 10-day retreat.

I mean, let’s face it – the closest I’ll ever come to Nirvana is by putting on my ratty old Kurt Cobain T shirt, because there is no power in the world that can convince me that drinking beer and killing mosquitoes is wrong.

 

-K

5 thoughts on “BE HERE NOW: Notes From a Ten Day Silent Vipassana Retreat

  1. The funniest student of Vipassana. Humor, trust me, is a very integral part of Buddhism, like Dukka. This is why the Dalai Lama is always smiling and cracking jokes. BTW, if I didnt mention to you, I have started the first Vipassana center in Auroville in a quaint little forest deep inside but center of Auroville. Hope to see you one day again. Hugs !!

    • Yeah, that’s why I was so surprised at how terminally joyless the dhamma talks were at Suan Mokh… generally the teacher (Buddhadasa) seemed to not have gotten the memo. If I were ever to break my own promise to myself and do another one of these thingies, I would go back to good old Goenka… because a) he knows how to crack a joke and b) he looks like the wombat from Blinkie Bill.
      I saw something about the Vipassana in Auroville on FB, should have known you were behind that!
      Actually, a friend I met at the retreat (well, after the silence ended, obviously) is now on his way to Auroville – I’ll put you two in touch on FB, okay? I told him you were the guy that knew everyone and everything there, no pressure 😉
      Hope you’re kicking some karmic ass,
      K

  2. Hi there
    Actually suan mokh is not doing vipassana – it’s the only place I know which does anapanasati
    Instead of guenkas teaching.
    So is the reason why I chose it – so i can do some yoga asana practice in the morning which would not be allowed during a vipassana session.
    Sitting hours cross-legged without being allowed to stretch etc??? Life is suffering – but that is just stupid….
    Thx for your great summary!

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