*** This post has been updated with videos ***
I did it!
Before I speak of my experience, I'll set the atmosphere of the place.
I arrived in a bus from Bangkok to Kanchanburi, unaware during the ride that everyone on board would be my fellow meditators during my retreat.
We arrive at the retreat location after a 4-hour journey. It's a secluded area on top of the hill. I'm surrounded by lots of lush greenery, the sounds of various exotic birds come through the trees.
The Men's Side, canteen on 1st floor, dorms on the 2nd floor
Men and women are segregated into separate areas. There were about 30 men, and 45 women. I was surprised that most were locals. For some reason I had thought these meditation retreats would be more of a “western” thing. Instead foreigners were a minority.
During the check-in process, I put my electronic gadgets, books, wallet, and any writing materials into a locker. I will not have access to these items during the retreat. I am delighted to learn that I will have my own room and bathroom, which is quite a luxury given I've always been staying in hostels. The room is simple, but cozy, and has a gorgeous view of the surrounding scenery, a pond directly in front.
As night would fall, I would learn there are many nocturnal creatures in the area. Frogs, crickets, and many other creatures which I could not identify through their sounds. One rare creature I saw were Cicadas – these insect eggs lay dormant underground for 17 years; they then hatch and come to the surface all at the same time. So seeing these insects is actually a once in seventeen year occurrence!
We had an early dinner at 5pm during our orientation day. The food was always vegetarian over the course of the retreat, and I always enjoyed every meal. Simple, light, healthy. The following days, despite not having dinner, I never felt hungry in the evenings. I actually even started eating less at breakfast and lunch, as my body adjusted to the lower physical activity.
Many have expressed that staying silent for ten days would be quite difficult. That was the easy part. Since we all took five precepts, one of them to maintain noble silence, there was no temptation to talk to anyone. I even took extra care not to make eye contact, especially with Dev being there, as the eyes can communicate a lot.
The silence itself however, was difficult. Within a few hours of being silent, and having no stimulation from any gadgets, reading or writing…the only stimulation is your thoughts.
I have heard that people experience what our teacher called “storms”, periods of intense emotions that occur during our lives. And some people experience this during the retreat given that the mind has so much free space to do so. I just wasn't expecting that I would have a storm, because I felt that overall I didn't experience any deep suffering in my life. I am fortunate in this respect.
Nonetheless for the first two days my mind was tormenting me. I won't share the intimate details here, but overall there was a lot of reflection on the past, or worry about the future. My mind would go back and find things for me to regret, and would then proceed to beat me up about it. So during the first two days I was worried that I wasn't able to fully devote myself to the meditation practice, and that my experience would suffer as a result.
But there came a form of relief from our teacher during one of the evening discourses. He told us how just given a simple task of focusing on breath, the mind made it very difficult for us to do so. I felt relieved knowing that this was part of the process. I felt my mind wouldn't stop chattering, wouldn't stop beating me up; it was like a raging elephant, or a hyper chimpanzee inside my head. I wondered how many others were feeling the same. A silent room filled with many people, each having their own personal journey inside, either calm or stormy.
My storm did pass, but my mind was never completely silent, as I had chatter throughout the ten days. Worried about this, I asked the teacher if this would be a problem. She told me that there is no competition, and that the journey isn't only ten days; if we liked the practice we would continue meditating at home.
Sitting for ten hours daily was also challenging. Here's where I spent a lot of my time sitting:
My back and shoulder would get sore, and my knees and legs would be tired from being in the crossed position all day. To alleviate this, I would do some simple exercises before bed every day, like push-ups, and some yoga moves to help the spine and hips release. Over the course of the retreat I noticed my body getting stronger and more accustomed to sitting.
Overall I'm glad to have gone through the experience. There were many moments where I would be sitting for one or two hours straight, and while I would have thoughts throughout, they were probably at a slower pace. And there were moments where I was just purely focused on the meditation technique. At an intellectual and spiritual level. I wouldn't say I changed much internally, as this is not my first exposure to Buddhist teachings. The practice itself is what I needed, and what I was looking for. It was nice to be able to make space in my life for this, even though ten days felt really long at some points, and I was counting down the days until I was done. However it is my first time at a meditation retreat, and I look forward to doing one again in the future – hopefully with a calmer mind.
The Technique and the Course
While I did share my personal experience here, it should not overshadow the meditation technique. This 2,500 year-old technique is directly from Buddha himself. It was lost at some point, but kept alive in Burma by a lineage of teachers and students directly from Buddha. And this was the only place where the teaching existed in its purity,
The technique believes that becoming aware of sensations of one's body can allow one to discover pain which is being manifested by a subconscious area of the mind. The first three days we focused on our breath, and the resulting sensation around our nostrils. This was to sharpen our mind, and make it more sensitive for the upcoming technique.
After day 3, we learned that the Vipasssana technique would involve being aware of every part of one's body – and we would scan the entire surface of our bodies, learning to feel sensations, however subtle they be (e.g. feeling the fabric of your shirt against your chest, an itch on your cheek, heat on your neck, etc.). And that was our simple tasks during retreat. But difficult in practice.
Awareness and equanimity are two big points of the technique. Being aware of one's body, of the present moment. Maintaining equanimity through the ups and downs of life, for everything, happiness or sadness, is temporary. And these two ideas help to reduce suffering.
This organization was co-founded by S.N. Goenka. He learned the technique in Burma, and popularized it when he started teaching it in India.
Initially during the retreat, there was no explanation of who he was, his background, or anything. The focus was all on the Vipassana technique.
Only on the last day did the Goenka disclose about his life and how he got into Vipassana.
Also on the last day, there was absolutely no pressure to donate. Instead, there was pressure to volunteer, at least once, for a 10-day retreat, if we agreed with the technique. It was interesting to see that there is so much generosity in the community, that all these centers are being built throughout various parts of the world, able to freely provide courses to anyone that is interested.
These various observations I had made me feel that this teaching, this organization, is authentic. So the only concern for each student is whether the teaching makes sense on a personal level.
The Passing Away of Goenka
On day 5 of the course, Goenka passed away in India. Our teacher said little, other than we would meditate at noon the following day during Goenka's cremation. After the retreat I later watched the following YouTube video to see many people paying homage to him.
Interestingly, the day Goenka transitioned (or passed away), we had watched a video lecture from him where he described that for any Vipassana meditator, when experiencing death, would take it calmly, with awareness and equanimity. While my teacher was saddened a bit by Goenka's passing, there is understanding that death is not a negative thing. Ultimately when one understands the teachings, there is no aversion to death, and one stops having the fear of dying.
There are so many more details of the experience, but I'm trying to keep this short while giving enough background to make it interesting. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.