During my 4th visit to India, I completed a 10 day Vipassana retreat. Vipassana is a meditation technique derived from ancient Buddhism and the course requires participants to shut themselves off from the outside world, forego all stimulations (TV, phone, internet etc) and remain totally silent for 10 days.
The Vipassana course proved to be perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was a roller coaster of highs and lows in which I surged from euphoria before sinking to boredom and from pleasure to pain.
A Vipassana isn’t exactly something one takes enjoyment from and I’m not in any immediate rush to repeat it. It was, however, definitively one of the most invaluable learning experiences of my whole life. Many of the lessons are deeply personal and not really fit for reducing to a listicle format but here are the 10 universal lessons learned from my 10 days of silence.
1. Doing Nothing is Hard Work
A Vipassana meditation course basically entails sitting around all day and participants are strictly banned from doing absolutely anything! Whilst it may sound like a nap wrapped inside a holiday peppered with excess lethargy, its actually incredibly tough to do nothing. It turns out that our bodies spasmodically need to release pent up energy and they bother you for not letting them do so.
More than this though, the human mind desperately craves something to occupy it with as you will see below.
2. Your Mind is a Monkey
The human mind constantly craves stimulation and will take it wherever it can find it. Like a monkey leaping around, it’s constantly asking you to feed and indulge it by looking at your phone or TV, by talking to somebody or simply just by reminiscing. When starved of this diet, the mind gets desperate and like a hungry dog raiding dustbins, will take anything it can find.
During the first few days of my Vipassana, my mind dusted off long lost memories and projected them like old movies onto the walls of my imagination It even tried to arrange the birdsong into some kind of music. Moreover, between the meditation hall and the bathroom, there were some breeze block arranged into stepping stones and it soon became the highlight of my minds morning to walk over them simply because in doing so it had something to actually concentrate on!
3. You Make Your Own Suffering
Whilst the Vipassana is a secular, none dogmatic practice, it is ultimately based on the teachings of Buddha (who was more of a philosopher than the Demi-God he has since been turned into). Buddha apotheosized that the root of all suffering in life was our own minds.
Yes, bad things do happen and will cause genuine distress but, the important thing is how we react to them. Likewise, good things to happen but when they do, we should not get too attached to them because we risk externalizing our happiness and therefore leaving it open to being snatched away!
The Vipassana seeks to transform an intellectual understanding of this concept into an experiential knowledge by using the meditators own body as a living demonstration. By not reacting to sore knees or hunger pangs, we can train our minds not to react…
4. Sitting Still is Painful (…but its all in the mind!)
Not only is doing nothing hard work, sitting still as it turns out can be torturously painful.
On Day 5 of the Vipassana, we were introduced to what I call the “hour of pain”; sessions in which we were forbidden to move at all! Prior to this I had shifted my body every 10 or so minutes as my back ached, hips burned or ankles turned numb so these sessions were very hard. My thighs felt like they were going to snap and my knees as they would never forgive me.
But guess what? By day 7 or 8 I had gotten a handle on the pain and simply chose not to acknowledge it because it is indeed, all in the mind.
5. You Don’t Need To Eat
I’ll tell you what else is a mere figure of the mind?
Of course, humans do need sustenance and calories to get us through the day but we don’t need to eat anywhere near as much as we think we do (a quick glance over some obesity stats will confirm this). During the Vipassana, we were subjected to a pretty basic diet and at times went up to 20 hours with only a bit of fruit to break up the gap. Yes, I felt hunger pangs but they did not bother me as much as I thought they would because again, hunger pangs like leg pains, are in the mind!
In addition to this, I also quickly adapted to the initially shocking 6 hour a night sleep routine. Apparently, meditation is scientifically acknowledged as being as beneficial as sleep and hardcore monks can get by on 3 hours shut-eye per night.
6. I Can Read Body Language
Despite not been able to speak to the other meditators or even look them in the eye, I nevertheless felt like I had a pretty good idea what each one was going through on any given day. Purely by observing their walks around the yard, the way they ate their lunch or their postures during meditation, I was able to tell who was enjoying themselves, who was struggling and even who was thinking about quitting.
After the course ended and we were allowed to talk, I checked my theories and was found to be generally correct.
7. Life is Better Without Cellphones
On the first day, I handed my phone over and it was locked away until the end off the course. And guess what? I did not miss if one bit. Without constant distractions and data feeds, I reconnected with my thoughts, my hopes and my old dreams. I mentally composed songs and poems (but didn’t have a guitar or even pen to transcribe them with) and brainstormed ideas as to how best spend the coming year.
When I did get my phone back on day 10, I quickly realized that my digital absence had hardly been noticed by the rest of the world. As a travel blogger, I am more reliant on my cellphone than most users as I constantly need its camera and social media apps and also need to respond to client requests fast. That said, I am still planning to try and do one “no phone day” each week when I will lock it away in a drawer between midnight and midnight.
8. Gut Instinct Is Real
You’ve heard phrases like “gut instinct” and “intuition” right? Well, they are very real things.
When I entered the Vipassana I was wrestling with all kinds of little existential issues and struggling to know what to do for the best. Some of the questions had bothered me for weeks on end and I became overwhelmed trying to think through all the possible different outcomes and solutions.
During the meditations though, I gained new clarity and the answers just presented themselves. It was then that I realized that deep down, I’d known exactly what to do all along.
9. There is More Than Meets The Eye
We live our whole lives in a state of tunnel vision focusing on what is immediately in front of us and concentrating only on what is obvious. This is partially a primal, survival instinct but is also part of the conditioning from 5000 years of human civilisation.
During the Vipassana, I saw plants and trees in a brand new light noticing how rich, unique, complex and alive they were. I also heard how diverse, communicative and wonderful birdsong is. More impressively though, I found striking sensations within my own body which I had never felt the likes of before.
To me, it was a whole new realm of feeling but according to Vipassana, these sensations are manifesting all of the time in each and every one of us but we are just too distracted to notice them.
10. Meditation Improves Lives
There are clear health benefits to mediation. I left the Vipassana retreat feeling calm, focused and buzzing with creative energy. Since then, I have kept up the meditation and people around me have commented on how refreshed, calm and altogether healthy I seem to be.
Meditation can reduce fatigue, anxiety and help with trauma. According to Buddha, it can even help to free us from all suffering and from the wheel of reincarnation.
Either way, my view is that it should be taught in schools and encouraged in workplaces because quite simply, it makes lives better.
Try it for yourself.