I recently had the balls, and the privilege, to attend a 10-day silent retreat to learn the technique of Vipassana, a meditation technique taught by the Buddha himself upon attaining enlightenment.
It is a technique in which you learn to observe your mind, thoughts, emotions, and the effect they have on your body, without reacting with either craving or aversion.
Sounds simple right? The greats, Eckhart and Osho, have told us repeatedly how important becoming mindful is, and their messages have spread like wildfire globally, creating a worldwide sense of consciousness and learning how to really be in each moment. I strived in my daily life to implement this simple, yet effective technique, and I was under the impression that Vipassana would simply expand upon this teaching.
I understood this intellectually.
Through the course, I gradually learnt the great difference between the rational, the intellect and the irrational, the subconscious—how we, so often in life, say things we really do believe, have learnt and teach to others, but then we do things differently and completely at odds with what we have just professed.
This, my friends, is the world of the subconscious—our conditioned responses, stored up from the years of our lives, gleaned from parents, friends, life experiences and much more.
I learnt that whilst I often professed love, fearlessness, freedom, I tended to react in ways that were incredibly harmful, fear driven, and coming from a place of pure survival. Thus, my rational and irrational were always at war. No matter how much yoga I practiced, how much mindfulness, and how much compassion, I always tended to end up in the gutter of my own self undoing through my irrational, reactive behaviour.
SR Goenka, the teacher and a kind, funny and compassionate man who divulged this method, said this was the source of all suffering—living blindly from reaction to reaction, causing great suffering for ourselves and others.
You are therefore provided with a room, food (delicious vegetarian food) and the teaching to discover for yourself how you can learn to manage your reactions, and let go of all attachments and desires.
The process of this retreat is difficult. You will be confronted with your biggest demons, as well as your greatest dreams. These are the biggest lessons I took from the course:
1. Let go of all expectations (even the ones you think you don’t have)—seriously.
I found again and again, that even when I thought I didn’t have any expectations, I really did. Even during the course, I would develop expectations—I’m sure tomorrow will be better / worse / I’ll become enlightened / I’ll be free of attachments / I’ll know what I want to do with my life. These will keep appearing, and you will need to let go of them.
2. This is not an experience to simply satisfy curiosity.
Curiosity is certainly a good quality to have, but should not be the sole reason for going. Have an intention, work with it, and remember that this is a visceral experience. It cannot be rationalized, or analyzed.
3. Do not compare yourself to anyone else—the journey is unique.
I spent much of my time comparing myself to people I knew who had done Vipassana, as well as the people who were actually there. I imagined them attaining enlightenment, being happy, being free. It never came close to the reality, and later on, I found out that everyone had a difficult experience to some degree, and a good experience to some degree.
Some slept through it, others cried through it, others just floated naturally though the 10 days. Some sat dead still and some just didn’t stop moving. Some left, and some didn’t want to talk afterward. Some would never come back again, and others loved it. Your experience is yours, and worrying about everyone else just sets you back.
4. Getting past day three does not mean you are home free.
I made the mistake of thinking that after day three, I’d basically be Buddha…not so. Each day was different and there was no discernible pattern to it. Others would cruise through the first seven days and find the last days unbearable. Be open to what each day brings.
5. Everyone breaks the rules.
There are a lot of rules: women and men are separate, eating times are strict, no dinner after 12:00 pm, certain boundaries need to be kept. The list goes on. I brought a notebook which was expressly forbidden, yet if I had not, I would not have survived or been able to fully understand what it was I was doing.
I lived in utter guilt until I saw a student sneaking food back into her room, and another doing yoga in the forest. Everyone does it, and no one was harming anyone—it is best if you keep to the rules as much as possible, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.
6. Your ego will do anything to get what it wants (and make you suffer if you don’t satisfy it).
I ached to go home every day.
I tried to manipulate the teacher into giving me permission to go. I made elaborate (and justified at the time I believed) plans to escape, and I found myself often talking myself into leaving the next day. The moment I realized this was not going to happen, in whatever way, my ego went ballistic. It wanted what it wanted and it was not getting the object of its wanting. It caused me absolute torture to deny myself, yet taught me the valuable lesson of letting go and observing my wants without reacting to them.
7. Not speaking is far harder than we think.
Many people are under the impression that not speaking will be peaceful, lovely, and quiet. No phone, no internet, no messages: bliss. Yes, I loved not having any social networks harping on at me, yet I ached for human contact, touch, sound, exchange. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I choose my words and thoughts more carefully now and and am so much more conscious of the amount of words we process.
8. It is not a holiday.
Yes it is in a beautiful setting, there is food made each day and a room all to yourself. There is no outside world intruding in, yet you have to work hard. Goenka jokes that upon learning that the course is donation based, people were worried that the poor would flock to the retreats, eager to get free accommodation and food. Not so. It takes balls of steel to awake at 4:00 am, meditate quietly for 10 hours of the day and sleep at 9:00 pm. It is no holiday.
9. You will come out appreciating everything you have, especially your relationships.
Out there, I got perspective on so many of the things I’d taken for granted and seen through the lens of my dissatisfaction with life. Simple things, like freedom, became the sweetest thing upon my return.
10. Everything really does pass.
One of the main things the course teaches is the law of impermanence—Anicca—that all rises, to pass, to rise and pass again as the Law of Nature dictates. The darkest day really does end, the sweetest experiences need to be let go of and all that remains is the present.
Vipassana is not for everyone. It is mountain climbing for the mind, it is the most extreme, scary and ambitious endeavor I have yet undertaken. Yet, for some, it was brighter, lighter, easier. What is needed is an open mind, physical strength, some mental strength, determination and commitment.
It does have the power to change lives.
Upon my return, I promptly resigned from my six-year job and booked my ticket to travel. I sought liberation out there, and found it. Things are the same, but just a little different and I have shed many layers of myself, the parts that no longer serve me. Shedding is hard, yet so necessary.
So, if you are asking yourself whether to go or not, just go. It’ll be the hardest (or the easiest, who knows), strongest, most ballsy thing you will ever do.
Author: Margarita Stoffberg
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Stephanie Carter/Flickr