Ten-Day Vipassana Retreats
An Old Student’s Perspective
As I write this, I’ve attended a Goenka-style ten-day Vipassana retreat four times, which makes me an “old student.” These retreats represent industrial-grade meditation training and practice, demanding around ten-and-a-half hours of meditation per day. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably either attended at least one, or you’re planning to attend one. In order to get the most from these retreats, here are four things I’ve learned to value.
Return to the Practice
Everyone’s retreat experience is unique, and different content seems to come up each time for the same person. For me, a recurring thread that runs through my retreats is some form of emotional distress. On more than one occasion, I’ve considered going to the teacher asking, “Is it normal to be this emotionally disturbed?” I usually answer this kind of question myself: it doesn’t matter. What’s happening is what’s happening; there is no escape from it. What’s being asked for is to return to the practice: bring the attention back to the sensations within the framework of the body.
If I believe what Goenka tells me, this practice releases a ton of sankaras (old psychological imprints) which manifest as all the things I struggle with on these retreats, such as anxiety, loneliness, regret, lust, and a desire to be famous. That’s the roller coaster I’m on. I imagine that I’m dealing with all this stuff in normal life to some degree, but I’m just not as conscious of it happening. These imprints also probably come up more intensely during a ten-day retreat, when I have time and intention to keep returning to the sensations and to sit with all of it for long periods.
So when I find myself struggling on these retreats, I try to remember that this is part of the process and that the content of the suffering isn’t important. I remember that I must be unconsciously pushing away or grasping at sensations, and I use the suffering as a reminder to “start again” (as Goenka keeps saying) and return to the meditation hall and return to the sensations.
Returning to the equanimous mind, the practice, and the meditation hall, can be thought of as a pragmatic expression of the triple gem, the taking refuge in the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. But I don’t just invoke the triple gem verbally on day three, when Vipassana proper is given; I now practice the triple gem throughout day one and in my regular life when my attention returns to the sensations.
I usually finish a retreat about ten pounds lighter than when I started. This is probably mostly due to a loss of muscle mass, since I’m barely moving. I don’t seem to need many calories when I’m sitting still most of the time and, hopefully, not even thinking that much. When meditation gets really intense, my body seems to go into some kind of hibernation state with a very low heart rate and almost no breathing.
Goenka recommends to limit the food intake to make meditation easier. I have had a tendency to see the food in the dining hall as kind of luxury, as respite from the seemingly endless lack of stimulation. I’ve piled plates of food high and savored that break from the apparent monotony. However, I’ve also struggled with the exhaustion in the afternoon as my body processed the food and then wanted to sleep. Sitting still with a full belly tends to lead to a struggle with consciousness.
At one point, I decided to experiment with taking one of the small cereal bowls and limiting my food to what could fit in that bowl. These bowls are about the size of my two hands cupped together. I like to think of this little bowl as my begging bowl, the kind of bowl that buddhist monks carry; they only eat what is willingly placed into the bowl by others.
When it’s lunch (11:00 am to 1:00 pm) and I know that, as an old student, I’m not going to have an opportunity to eat anything until breakfast (6:30 am to 8:00 am) the next morning, it can feel scary. As suggested by Goenka, I decided to try it once. I discovered that not only did I not get terribly hungry, but I didn’t get drowsy in the afternoon and struggle to stay awake. My meditation was more focused into the evening and again in the next early morning (starting at 4:30 am).
So now this is what I always do at both meals, at breakfast and lunch. Note that new students can have a snack (e.g. fruit) during the break between 5:00 and 6:00 pm.
Practice Strong Determination
I think it might be on day six that one-hour adhiṭṭhāna, or strong determination, sessions are introduced. With these, the intention is to sit without moving at all for an hour at a time. At first, this seemed scary. I experimented with this by telling myself that I would try only once to sit perfectly still for an hour, no matter what came up. What I found is that after 30 to 40 minutes the body stopped wanting to move and the mind got extremely still; the focus became extraordinarily intense and there seemed to be more ability to penetratingly and clearly observe the sensations.
Now, after sitting without moving for an hour, I take break and go for a walk before returning to sit without moving for another hour. I don’t wait until day six to do this; I do it from day one; I also do it when I meditate at home. Strong determination becomes standard operating procedure not only when meditating, but in life in general. I decide that I’m going to do something and then I persist until it’s done, knowing that nothing ever lasts forever and that meditating for an hour without moving is not going to kill me. Sometimes, after an hour I don’t even want to stop meditating and will sit another 20 or 30 minutes.
Students are not allowed to use smart watches on the retreat because they can be a distraction, a way of avoiding what’s coming up. Instead, I have a watch with a built-in timer function that vibrates when the timer is up. I can set this at the start of a self-chosen strong determination session and then focus on the practice, trusting that my watch will let me know when I’m done with the commitment. This prevents me from having to keep opening my eyes and checking the clock (assuming I can even see it from where I’m sitting).
I can be pretty hard of myself, critical and judgmental. After starting a ten-day retreat, I have often discovered how tired I had been after accumulating a lack of sleep and operating under an increased level of chronic stress. Many times, I have not between willing or able to wake up at four in the morning and start meditating half an hour later. I’ve slept in and even missed breakfast. I’ve gone to my room to meditate later in the day and fallen asleep. I’ve spent time traversing the walking path, not wanting to return to the meditation hall.
One of the imprints that can arise in me is this intense and harsh judgement: it shouldn’t be like this; I should be more disciplined. Well, I’m not more disciplined; I struggle. There is a relatively healthy way of being with the process that has developed in me through both an increase in equanimity and also by the experience that I get more than enough quality practice on a ten-day retreat even if I don’t execute it perfectly.
I have been endeavoring to be increasingly gentle with myself in all areas of life, accepting that I’m not perfect and understanding that progress comes from sustained effort, from falling and getting up again, from the process of forgetting and remembering.
There is a harmonious quality to the way that growth happens in natural systems that we can continually reference back to. The sprout grows from the seed and presses against the soil in the darkness, pushing and resting. Then, suddenly, the tiny leaves pop through into the light. This only begins its journey upwards, while always staying rooted. It grows, flowers, fruits, and eventually dies and is broken down into soil again. What is the plant’s purpose?