Disclaimer – Everything I say here is in reference to a Dhamma.org meditation retreat as taught by SN Goenka. Any other meditation retreats may not really be well represented by what I’m saying here. This is also my own experience and so might not apply to everyone here. So do take it with a grain of salt.
What’s the difference between a meditation retreat and a prison? You get more freedom in a prison.
This retreat wasn’t just some temporary escape from life as the word ‘retreat’ leads you to believe; it was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It was also one of the most rewarding, without a doubt. When everyone hears the words ‘meditation retreat’, they think it’s about finding yourself in peace and harmony, or developing superhuman powers of concentration and awareness; either way, they usually think it’s going to be a pleasant, life-changing experience. They are wrong. Life-changing, yes. Pleasant; not necessarily.
The retreat was held at a place called Dhamma Aloka in Woori Yallock, just outside Melbourne, Victoria. It was only about 30 minutes outside the city, yet it felt completely isolated from the outside world. The only views of the outside were of the forests and mountains of the Yarra Valley, the only remnant of outer civilization being an electrical tower showing up on a mountain in the distance. The place was essentially a manicured section of a forest. The center had two main buildings — the dining Hall and the meditation hall — with little housing units of accommodation spread out over the land. The rest was just fields and forests as if to highlight the only things you do there; eat, meditate and sleep.
My dad dropped me off at the center with a smile and an uncertain sounding ‘Enjoy!’ as he left. This was it. With my luggage in hand, I walked into the main dining hall to register my attendance, suddenly feeling insecure about how much I should have packed for these 10 days (note — I packed too much). I saw a guy manning the administration stall, so I went over to sign up.
“Hey, I’m here for the 10-day retreat”, I announced.
…A pause (longer than usual). Then a warm, but uncertain voice whispers back, “Sure.. just fill out this form here for new students”. This was the manager of the male students, who I later learned was a volunteer who was doing this for the first time. He was just as nervous as I was, if not more. With a certain comfort in this knowledge, I went straight to my allocated dorm room to gather my thoughts and get settled in.
The dorms had between 4–6 beds in them all separated by thin plywood partitions and curtains to enclose them so that contact with other people was extremely unlikely to occur. There was one small low-powered light globe in the center of the ceiling, which was completely inadequate in lighting up the whole room. But that was it really; a bed, some thin walls to separate you from your dorm-mates, a light, and some windows. Bare necessities.
Suddenly, a gong sounded triggering the footsteps of all 50 or so people towards the Dining Hall for the opening address. There was a video introduction by SN Goenka (the leader of the Dhamma worldwide organization and main teacher of the course). Then came an address from a volunteer at the center, reading from a script. It was all pretty unceremonious and direct; outlining the timetable and all the various rules we had to follow for the duration of our stay.
There were 5 Precepts all students had to follow in order to satisfy the moral conduct component of the course (sila). These were abstinence from:
- Sexual activity
In addition, there were disciplinary rules to accompany these, in order to allow for minimal distraction (to yourself and others) and maximal benefit from the course.
- Noble Silence
- Segregation of genders
- No physical contact
- No physical exercise (except walking)
- No practice of other religious activity
- No intellectual stimulation
But the timetable was the most shocking of the bunch: It involved 11(!) hours of daily meditation:
The opening address ended with, “Your Noble Silence starts now.”. Then a flurry of plastic chairs rubbed against the floor and everyone was on their way to their rooms to prepare for the first meditation session of Day 0 of the course. I followed everyone else (naturally) and walked to my room. I found everyone had closed their curtains and heard rummaging through luggage; I suddenly felt compelled to do something since everyone else was. But what? This was a common occurrence throughout the course, so I just started playing with my watch (already breaking one of the disciplinary rules) until a gong sounded for the first meditation session. Everyone made their way to the meditation hall, in an orderly fashion, and took their allocated seats in the hall like so:
Everyone had one cushion and a square mat. We were instructed on our first meditation technique; the technique of Anapana meditation. This just involved focusing your attention on the breathing sensations you experience at your nose, redirecting to this anchor every time your attention wanders away. Nice. This was all very familiar and I could get behind it. I’d been meditating for around 20–30 minutes at a time every day for a while now. I could do this no problem. We had to sit for an hour just for today.
20 minutes passed by; Okay this is getting uncomfortable now.
30 minutes; Surely it’s been an hour?
40 minutes; …
And every 5 minutes after that was spent questioning my decision to come to this place and whether or not I could do it. Great start.
The hour ended after Goenka beamed some Sanskrit metta phrases via audio and after I’d opened my eyes and shifted in my seat for the 1500th time. Without delay or instruction, the assistant teachers got up and left the hall, and everyone followed suit and returned to their rooms. The first (or zeroth) day was over. 10 more to go.
Now, you’re probably wondering why I spent so much effort writing about the zeroth day of the whole retreat. I’m with you; I like short reads too, but this was necessary.
It shows you just how long each day (or in this case even half-day) feels when there’s absolutely nothing to do but be alone with yourself and your thoughts. The rest of the retreat was literally worse than this because the novelty of the whole situation wore off. I won’t bore you though, so this is a condensed version of the next 10 days’ events.
Day 1–3: Developing mental strength and compassion
For the first three days, I felt like quitting every single day.
It wasn’t the early waking hours. I’d already been initiated to the early-to-rise-and-wake schedule at home. It wasn’t the environment; this was one of the most tranquil places I’d ever been. It wasn’t the food; although vegetarian, it was easy to adjust to the relatively tasteless meals (compared to the artificially flavoured food typical in the modern diet). It was my mind.
I was being attacked every moment of every day.
Boredom, negative thinking (“there
’s no way I can do this”), painful past memories, false senses of fatigue; these were just some of the ways my mind was convincing me to go back to my old ways. My heart was pounding out of my chest 90% of the time and my thoughts were running wild, bombarding me with requests. I became really self-conscious and extremely uncomfortable. The meditation sessions were just intolerable; I couldn’t even meditate for an hour a day straight without being immensely uncomfortable, and yet I was being asked to meditate for 11 times that amount. Every day. No excuses. This wasn’t relaxation and blissful peace. It was mental torture.
Ignoring your thoughts and your body is easy for the first 20 minutes. The real battle starts afterward; where your mind would habitually turn away from discomfort to a distraction (like your phone, or food, or drugs or anything that makes you feel pleasant and comfortable), you had to stay fixated on your breath.
I was extremely bad at this. I thought maybe it was my posture that was causing all this unnecessary pain, so I created a throne for myself on my meditation mat, with 6 separate cushions and a blanket to adorn myself with during meditation. This didn’t help; the pain still kept coming. Even worse, whenever I opened my eyes to look around at everyone else, literally no one else was in pain. (I later learned that this was a stupid idea because 1. Comparison is unhelpful as everyone is different and 2. People could be in pain when you’re not looking).
It was then in the first three days that I truly realized the extent of the problem with my mind. My mind was extremely untrained and extremely negative; perfect for creating a toxic cycle. See, this is the healthy way to do it.
But the way I was doing it was like this.
So I realized it wasn’t the actual distraction that was troubling my mind, it was my reaction to the distraction that was doing it. Not getting distracted is literally impossible in meditation (unless you’re enlightened). The act of meditation itself is the realization that your mind has wandered and bringing it back to the object of meditation (breath). My lack of self-compassion meant that my mind was polluting itself, not calming and accepting itself. This made the task a whole lot easier, but still immensely difficult. I was now actually having a positive impact on my mind.
This realization did not come easy. After every meditation session, I would usually be even more distressed than when I went in. It got to the point where I was on the verge of tears. I was lonely, in pain, and couldn’t do anything about it.
But slowly, after making much use of the interviews with the Assistant Teacher (whom I’m extremely grateful to for patiently answering several of my stupidest questions day after day), the tide was turning. Usually, in the real world, I would get engrossed in distractions to relieve myself of this overwhelming discomfort (which I wasn’t even aware of) before it could reverse. But here I had nothing. I was totally alone with my thoughts.
The only thing I could do (and did) during my breaks was eat, walk around and look at birds and trees. It was only because of this that I got past this crucial barrier. This period was the most uncomfortable of the lot. If I had to sum up this period based on how much time I spent in discomfort and bliss, it’d be like this:
I didn’t really notice an underlying sense of calm due to Anapana meditation, but I did notice an increased ability to concentrate on what’s in front of me and ignore potential distractions. Funnily enough, when I asked the assistant teacher if this first part was the most difficult out of the course, he just laughed and replied, “We’re easing you into it”. What Goenka had intended to happen was a development of mental strength (samadhi in Sanskrit). In effect, I was setting myself up for the next stage of the course; Vipassana meditation.
Day 4–6 — Self-acceptance and learning to let go
For the next three days, I felt like quitting every single day.
Everything was still extremely difficult. However, the silver lining was that I wasn’t caught off guard as much; I had settled into the daily routine.
Day 4 saw the teaching of the main meditation technique of Goenka’s meditation retreats; Vipassana. Vipassana involves scanning your body continuously and remaining equanimous to any sensations (comfortable, uncomfortable, or neutral) that arise. This was supposed to develop wisdom (panya) in the context of meditation.
The theory behind this was that everything we experience is an impermanent physical sensation; it is our mind’s reaction to it that creates suffering. So we must remain equanimous to it and let it pass. If a pleasant sensation arises, we must not crave it because when it eventually passes, we will be left suffering. If an unpleasant sensation arises, we must not be aversive to it because it will eventually pass, and willing it to go away will only create more problems.
Goenka stresses that the two foundations of a good meditation practice are equanimity and continuity of practice. This was where things got a bit more disciplined. From now, every group meditation would be an addithana sitting; a sitting of strong determination. We weren’t supposed to move/shift postures for the entirety of the hour. As you can imagine, this went great…
Having built a little sliver of mental strength, I once again got thrown into the deep end of it all. It felt easier at first because I couldn’t feel anything in my body; I was numb to everything except great pain or great pleasure. All I had to do was try to be non-reactive to them and everything would go fine. It was only when I dove deeper into my body that I realized I had just scratched the surface.
I was incredibly tense and almost unconsciously was trying to control my muscles and my breath. My face was tense, my chest was tense, my back was tense, my legs were tense. I was subconsciously resisting the present moment. My breathing was forced, heavy, and stuttering. As soon as I simply sat with the breathing sensations and let them do their thing, it was like I was watching myself transform.
I observed the physical sensations and dived into them. I felt my heart pounding, my breathing resisting, and the rest of my body tensing. I watched and waited. And eventually… they passed. I breathed easier, my back straightened out, my legs loosened up, and my face became loose and visibly looked calmer. I literally changed over the course of days.
However, this period was not without its ups and downs. Sometimes you’d walk out of the meditation hall in absolute bliss, happy to simply exist and be in the present. Other times, you’d be stuck with the difficult sensations you’d been avoiding your whole life.
The only way out was through.
I learned that the key to meditation and perhaps the key to life was not to live in constant self-criticism. It might get you marginally better results but only in the short term while pr
oducing more tension and negativity.
The key was to let go and radically accept yourself and your flaws in self-compassion. From there, you can improve. It all sounds very obvious, but when it clicked during the absolute hell I was experiencing, it clicked for real.
During this time, I was so burnt out that I was doing maybe 6–8 hours of meditation per day and spending the rest of the time just walking or sitting around in nature. I spoke to the assistant teacher about this. He said one of the most common problems people have when coming to a retreat is “working too much”.
“There is a difference between backing off and slacking off”
If you work too much, you’ll just generate more negativity and reaction and end up harming your practice instead of helping it.
Another thing I sort of overlooked during this period was the development of my independent thought in solitude. This wasn’t just an opportunity to learn about meditation; it was an opportunity (I now realized) to learn about myself deeply.
I learned that my mind was habitually thinking about what other people were thinking. So my thoughts and actions were naturally not independent. However, in this place of solitude, my uncertainties and questions were answered by no one else but me.
The question of “What should I do now?” wasn’t met with “What are the others doing?” but “What do I want to do?”. The question of “Is this right?” was more and more frequently met with patience instead of a rush to fill the void with outsider’s opinions (in this case the Assistant Teacher’s).
For an uncertain 21 year old surrounded by a million different outlets telling him how to think (whether it’s social media, sensationalist news, and questionable role models), this solitude presented an exponential growth in development.
I was becoming me.
Day 7–9 — Clarity and bliss
For the next three days, I felt like quitting every single day.
Even though I was settled and making progress, the deeper I went the more I found things I didn’t like. As corny as it sounds, the only thing that stopped me from quitting was thinking about all the things I would do when I got home.
Seeing my friends and family, riding my motorcycle, eating a burger, watching my favourite TV shows. It was all so close; I couldn’t quit now.
As I neared the end and went deeper into discomfort, I found something extremely unexpected; a sense of clarity. I learned what I truly valued. I learned that I was doing things simply because I ‘should’ do them, not because I ‘want’ to do them. I was living a predominantly intellectualized life, instead of an experiential one.
In a world where self-help book sales are skyrocketing and dominating best-seller lists, there is a wide array of advice that simply doesn’t apply to you. Your next action should be based on a combination of your values and experience, and good knowledge. It’s no good to have an action taken on just your experience because it’s highly possible that you’re wrong. On the other hand, it’s no good to take an action based on what an (apparent) superior says you should do, because your circumstances may be wildly different. It’s wisest to combine the two.
Solitude is necessary for this process to occur.
In other news, I was finally yielding the fruits of my efforts; I felt calmer, better able to accept myself and let go, and experienced bliss more and more often. Nothing much else to report. It was all just a grind from here till the end. I would eat, sleep, meditate and repeat. There’d be some absolutely brilliant thoughts that would appear and I would feel the need to write down, but I would inevitably forget them because we weren’t allowed any writing materials. Oh well.
I felt like quitting.
Yes, I felt like quitting even today. In my defence, it was my close mate’s 21st birthday party and I didn’t want to miss it. Even though this place had produced more growth in me in 10 days than I had in the past year, it still felt very much like a prison that I wanted to escape.
It was today that the disciplinary rule of Noble Silence was lifted and all students were allowed to talk to one another again. It was incredibly interesting to finally properly meet the people you’d been around for the past 10 days.
All we’d had was a few glimpses here and there, but I found that we’d made up entire narratives about each other (most of which were completely delusional). The whole day was basically spent talking and meeting new people.
These were some of the most interesting people I’d ever met. Skydiving coaches, ballet dancers, graphic designers, wine connoisseurs, filmmakers, you name it. Everyone had a story and because they’d been starving for conversation for 10 days, everyone wanted to share it.
Topics from people’s travel journeys across the world to what it’s like repeatedly jumping out of a plane at 20000ft to the philosophy of hedonism were all on the table. You could feel the good vibes in the air; everyone was so compassionate and present. It felt like I was really connecting with people on a deep level for the first time.
All that was left of the day was the final discourse by SN Goenka and some metta meditation sessions. Metta meditation involves cultivating compassion and goodwill towards yourself and every being in the universe. I usually shrug it off since repeating phrases like “May all beings be happy” feels forced.
This time, though, I genuinely felt it; and I wanted others to feel it. I felt an overwhelming sense of love towards everyone in the hall; everyone who had come at this moment in my life; an undoubtedly life-changing event. When the day was over and the final discourse was shown, I almost felt like I didn’t want to leave.
It is not an understatement to say that this was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s also not an understatement to say that this was one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. The growth and the glimpses I got of what’s possible with your mind from just 10 days as well as the friends that I’ve made and the paths this has opened up I will cherish forever.
I’m so glad I didn’t quit.