For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from arachnophobia. It all goes back to a family member who, when I was two, decided to take me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why they thought that would be a good idea for an impressionable toddler I have no idea, but the result was imprinted on my mind. After the viewing, I had nightmares about spiders that would lead me to wake up screaming in the middle of the night that they were descending from the ceiling, on the hunt for me. As an adult, my arachnophobia never waned, and I am ashamed to admit that it even dictated some of my travel plans. I skipped out on some really compelling places because of the likelihood of spiders in my sleeping quarters.
In January 2015, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in a bird sanctuary outside Auckland. I was a total beginner to meditation, with the exception of a few moments here and there at the end of a yoga class over the years. Before the retreat began, I worried about whether I could handle ten days of total silence. With little meditation experience, could I handle the voices in my head?
What I did not worry about was spiders. I’d already spent months in New Zealand and barely spotted any in my wandering. So it never occurred to me to steel myself against a spiderstravaganza.
This was a mistake.
When you are deeply afraid of something, your mind starts to seek it out as a potential threat. If you know it’s there, it feels impossible to “unknow” this; the thing that terrifies you is lurking, waiting, always present to make your breathing laboured and your heart race. I arrived at the retreat and, to my absolute horror, found spiders everywhere. And I mean everywhere. They surrounded the porch lights in the wooden cabins that housed me. They lined the walls and ceilings in the common areas. There were even some inside the tiny bedroom that was supposed to be a spot to rest. I didn’t know it yet, but they also papered the meditation hall itself.
I was already concerned about the coming days of silence and discipline. My mind simply drew a blank when trying to strategize about the spiders. How could I cope with the unexpected recurrence of a life long phobia? It felt so visceral, so panic-inducing, and yet there I was—determined to stay it out until the end.
Studies have shown that people who are blind or deaf have heightened ability in other bodily senses. When the brain is deprived of one input source, it is capable of reorganizing itself to support and augment other senses, a phenomenon known as “cross-modal neuroplasticity.” I felt a temporary and likely far less intense version of this phenomenon at the retreat. During the ten days of meditation, where I could not speak or write, my mind whirred away at an alarming, panicked speed. Trapped in a cognitive cycle of shame and blame, my phobia of spiders intensified and smothered me. Time slowed down, and sensations sped up. It was a heady combination.
An arachnophobe walks into a Vipassana meditation retreat
When you sign up for a Vipassana retreat, you commit to staying for the full 10 days. You also agree to abide by 5 precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxicants. Thankfully this does not include a morning coffee. It does, however, mean that you need to leave your phone, and any pen and paper you may have brought, at the front desk. No writing, no talking, no eye contact, no communicating.
You and the beautiful prison of your mind.
At the end of Day 1, I noticed a daddy long legs struggling on the carpet in my room, tottering toward the door. My first instinct was to smush the spider with the retreat schedule, but then I remembered that killing something with a document that says “you must not kill anything” was probably taking it too far. Here’s the thing, though: phobias transcend logic. There is a reason they are referred to as “irrational, unreasonable fears” that make us unable to function normally. I fought with myself about killing the unkillable, but ultimately took a deep breath, skirted around the spider, and opened my door. For the next ten minutes, I crouched down low to the floor and silently cheered its progress until it left my room.
I put my head in my hands. The same woman who threw up in an outhouse in Siberia because it was full of spiders was now facilitating a daddy longlegs’ safe passage on day 1 of my Vipassana experience. What would the next 9 days hold?
Unfortunately, I had many more opportunities to face my arachnophobia with the equanimity I was supposed to be cultivating. Back in the meditation hall, daddy longlegs spiders occasionally dropped from the ceiling, feeding my anxiety. In the room where we picked up our pillows for the meditation sessions, large black spiders dotted the corner of the room and stared us down.
In response to the spiderstravaganza, the Vipassana course organizers provided us with a “spider catcher”. This low tech solution took the form of a Tupperware container with a piece of paper that said “SPIDER CATCHER” on it, to slide under the spider we caught. I desperately hoped someone else would avail themselves of this spider tool, because no amount of meditating would allow me to do so with grace.
I held on as best I could until Day 5, when I hit peak spiders.
At that point in the retreat, we were engaged in “strong determination” sittings, hour-long meditations where we were not supposed to move regardless of pain or discomfort. After the day’s meditations, I darted to my bed to avoid the small (but alarmingly hairy) spiders outside my room. Just as I was about to turn off the light, I caught a glimpse of a large and bulbous black spider in my periphery. It was dropping out of a tiny hole above the window near the ceiling to the left of my front door.
I leapt out of bed in a panic, unsure of what to do. When I tried to reach the spider, it crawled into the hole again and disappeared. I left the light on, drifting to sleep here and there only to dream about spiders and wake up breathless. Finally, I gave up and shut the light off, drawing on everything I had learned thus far in the Vipassana course.
Impermanence! Equanimity! I could do this. I struck a mental deal with the spider: I’d leave it alone if it left me alone.
At 2am, I woke up shaking with a nauseating feeling of panic. I tumbled out of bed and rushed to turn the light back on. The bulbous spider was in the process of dropping from the ceiling, directly above my head. It was inches above my bed.
Gasping in horror, I tripped and stumbled to the floor. First of all, I blessed my clumsiness; I fell out of bed instead of sitting straight up. Had I sad up, I would have had a spider to the face. The spider, seemingly as startled as I was, hastily clawed its way back toward the ceiling. I kept the light on from then on, not letting myself fall pack to sleep. I watched in horror as it spent the rest of the night eating smaller spiders in my room near the hole it came from. Click click click. The minutes went by slowly, my room silent except for the clicking of the spider eating.
The next day I swallowed my pride and broke my noble silence. In tears, I cornered the women’s volunteer coordinator in the bathroom and begged her to let me switch rooms.
“It’s the silence, isn’t it?” she asked gently, “It’s just too hard? Many people have trouble at this time in the retreat.”
“No,” I sobbed, “it’s the spiders.”
Several people had already given up on the course, so there were some empty cabins now. I was able to move to a different room further away from the meditation hall.
For the rest of the week, I watched everyone else sit on the grass enjoying the sun between meditation sessions. I sat in my room, unable to leave, paralyzed with fear.
It’s funny what your brain can do to you.
A friend once said that in life, worrying ahead of time was futile. What you are scared of never manifests, but what you least expect creeps up behind you and scares you out of your mind.
Or in my case, drops down from the ceiling in plain view.
Why I took a Vipassana meditation course as a beginner: anxiety and insomnia
I signed up for a Vipassana retreat in a moment of quiet desperation. I was approaching a year and a half of insomnia, and I couldn’t take it any longer. Nightly, I found myself locked in a terrible routine: I was physically incapable of sleep, but exhausted the compounded lack of rest. When the insomnia started, I thought it would be temporary. But a year and a half in, nothing had helped me fall asleep. By 4 pm in the afternoons, I would start to feel panic. Would I sleep? Would it just be like every other terrible night? For the first time in my life, I had panic attacks. For hours on end, my heart would race and I’d be physically jerked awake every time I started to drift off. I craved sleep like I craved nothing else.
At the same time I was dealing with chronic pain. This was due to a bad accident as a kid followed by a series of rib fractures and motorbike tumbles as an adult. A few years into my travels, that structural pain combined with a new, nerve and joint pain. I lost chunks of my hair. I could barely function like I used to. I didn’t know it at the time, but getting sick in 2013 led to a change in my body and immune system. In the years following this Vipassana course, I’d be diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. I would have answers as to why I was always hurting when people my age were not.
In 2015, though, all I know was that I couldn’t sleep, and pain followed me at all times.
Vipassana is a very different meditation style to what’s often promoted in glamorous classes and meditation apps. When I talked to friends who took a Vipassana course, they said it was one of the more challenging things they’ve done. “It was so impossibly hard,” said one friend. “I left on day 4,” said another.
But I was crumbling under the weight of my sleeplessness and panic. Someone once described anxiety as being terrified that there is a snake in the room, but never being able to find the snake. A therapist I met described it as being perpetually afraid that you’re about to be attacked by a lion. Either way, my crippling anxiety about sleep caused me to wake up each morning and be upset that I had to live through another day. I became reactive, an emotion-driven person I barely recognized. Pema Chodron calls this reactivity shenpa, the hook that triggers our habitual tendency to close down or react. It is the feeling that “has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”
I wanted relief. Relief from my chronic pain, from my insomnia, and from my own mind. Despite this “craving”, which already setting me up for a clash with Vipassana’s directive of no craving and no aversion, I signed up for a 10-day course in a desperate attempt to fix myself. Plus, a friend who dealt with chronic pain recommended meditation as a way to distance myself psychologically from it.
When my best friend Nadia asked me why I signed up for solitary confinement, I told her I wanted to break my brain and put it back together again.
“I need to defrag my hard drive,” I quipped. “It isn’t running efficiently.”
I compared it to hiring a personal trainer to help me at a first-ever gym session.
“No, it’s like running a marathon when you’ve never run before. Jodi, what are you doing to yourself?”
The appeal of Vipassana meditation
When I announced the Vipassana course, several people asked me if I was joining a new religion. While the history of Vipassana includes that it was used by Buddha, it was—and remains—a non-sectarian technique. The father of these courses is the late S.N. Goenka, who was raised in Burma and learned Vipassana from Sayagi U Ba Khin there. Despite originating in India, the technique was lost over the years and monks in Burma preserved it, quietly teaching it to monks there.
Eventually, it was passed onto non-monks (laymen), including Sayagi U Ba Khin. In turn, Ba Khin founded the Vipassana Association of the Accountant General’s Office in the newly formed Union of Burma, and taught Goenka the technique. Goenka spread the technique back to India, and elsewhere, through retreats like this one.
Throughout the discourses, Goenka’s nightly lectures about the technique and the troubles of the modern mind, he reiterated that Vipassana is non-sectarian. It provides students with a tool to purify their thinking of recurrent obsessive loops. Instead of quick solutions, Goenka spoke of the hard work required to retrain habit patterns that devoured us.
At the time, the technique felt different to Goenka’s description. To me, starting down a path of neuroplasticity for the first time, Vipassana felt like it cleansed the mind by making you suffer mentally and physically in total silence. It resonated with me because it didn’t involve a drum circle of positive thinking. But it also felt familiar, as a lawyer. All that discipline; all that practice.
So what does the technique require?
Vipassana dictates a blanket command of non-reaction. You do not react to the pain as you sit. You do not react to your hands and legs falling asleep, or your brain crying for release. You are instructed to refocus your attention on the objective sensations in your body, arising and falling, as you do a scan of your limbs in a specific order. By doing so, over the course of the long 10 days, you train your brain and your body to stop reacting to the vicissitudes of life.
The technique is different to mindfulness meditation, which focuses on awareness. It is different to transcendental meditation, which uses a mantra. The relaxation or mindfulness techniques that are advocated in some of the resources at the bottom of this post work for many. For me, they were only part of the battle. The harder part was to stop reacting, to break the cycle of anxiety and panic.
This is where Vipassana came in.
I tried to keep low expectations about the 10 days. My only goal was to complete the course. I kept telling myself that if my brain reset, it would be a bonus. I just had to make it through—and what was 10 days in the grand scheme of things?
A descent into pain
At 4am daily the first bell rang outside my door, reminding me that despite the inky sky, it was time to wake up.
I was not, nor will I ever be, a morning person.
During the first mornings of the course, I felt so angry when I heard those chimes. Though I barely slept, the hours I could sometimes drift off were usually between 5-8am. I fantasized about taking the gong and flinging it into the forest, laughing like a maniac.
So much for equanimity.
Wrangling my anger back from where it came, I’d stumble out of my cot and grab my headlamp, flip flops and toiletries. I’d open my door and peer out at the air, unsure of how many spiders lay between my face and the end of my porch. Taking a deep breath, I’d slink out and hope for the best, darting up to the bathroom before the 4:30am session in the meditation hall.
The focus on Day 1 was on awareness of breath. That’s it. We were instructed to simply be aware of the fact that we breathe. If our minds moved from that awareness, which of course it did, we were supposed to “gently bring our mind back to the fact that you breathe.”
The simplicity of this instruction felt like I was missing some inside joke. In addition, I had a hard time focusing on my breath because of the persistent burning in my back. Years of chronic pain and coping postures had caught up with me, and no matter how many pillows I piled under my knees, the pain gurgled up until it hit a searing crescendo.
You are allowed to speak to the teacher during his office hours in the meditation hall. I walked in that first day, knotted in pain and panic. I was convinced that I had made a mistake and that my back would continue to deteriorate until I left. I sought the teacher’s counsel, explaining why I had attended in the first place.
Eyeing me serenely, he asked how long I had been meditating. I explained that, well, I actually hadn’t meditated before and clearly I was doing it wrong and probably going to die of back pain so I should probably just go? Calmly, evenly, he said that I needed to disassociate my panic from the pain. I was making it worse for myself. Focusing on the hurt only magnified it for me. He told me to do my best, whatever that was.
I snorted before I could help myself.
“Oh, you’re one of those,” he said with a soft smile. “Perfectionism won’t help you here.”
The teacher offered me a wooden L-shaped contraption that sat on the floor to help prop up my back during the meditation. As to whether I was meditating correctly, he was silent.
The message was clear: I was competing against my best self, not anyone else’s.
I stomped back out of the meditation hall and into the bright sunlight.
Learning the Vipassana meditation technique
After the first three days of focusing on breathing, Goenka told us that he would now introduce us to the Vipassana technique. I remember my mind having absolute conniption about this when he did. I’d just spent three spider-drenched days focusing for hours and hours on the fact that I breathe, or on “the triangle between my nose and my mouth” where breathe emerged, and that wasn’t even the core of the practice?!
The Vipassana technique required sequences of (initially) slow body scans in a specific order. Throughout, we were instructed to be aware of the sensations or pain we feel, but not react to them. Anicca, he said, they are impermanent.
A simplistic example: if your leg falls asleep as you are scanning your neck for objective sensations, your mind may wander to whether you’ll ever stand up again. You don’t move your leg to compensate. Instead, you refocus on the neck and ignore the part of your brain that is begging you to give attention to the leg pain. You remind yourself that the pain is temporary, just like everything else.
Goenka’s evening discourse from Day 4 explains this technique further:
“When one is ignorant, sensations are a means to multiply one’s misery, because one reacts to them with craving or aversion. The problem actually arises, the tension originates, at the level of bodily sensations; therefore this is the level at which one must work to solve the problem to change the habit pattern of the mind.
One must learn to be aware of all the different sensations without reacting to them, accepting their changing, impersonal nature. By doing so, one comes out of the habit of blind reaction, one liberates oneself from misery.”
This was a tough concept for me, as my back spent most of the days trying to remind me that it needed some pretty aggressive attention. “Jodi,” it whispered, “you shouldn’t be doing this. You’re already injured. This is going to make it worse. Just lie down and ignore the instructions. Jodi Jodi Jodi….”
I spent as much time “gently” telling my back to stop bothering me as I did trying to bring my mind back to my body scan or my breath.
In addition to the body scans, Day 4 marked the beginning of those “hours of strong determination” that I previously mentioned. Those sessions were scheduled three times a day, during which we were not allowed to move whatsoever. Your leg hurts? Too bad. Your back has turned into a toddler and is screaming at you for relief? Tough cookies. You itch like mad on your nose? Can’t scratch it.
For the entire hour, you sit and you scan your body from top of the head to the tip of the toes, then the tip of the toes back up to top of the head. Without moving. Along the way if there are points of pain—ha, “if” there are points of pain?!—you observe them impersonally. When your scan reaches those points you acknowledge them, but don’t indulge them. After all, you know they are impermanent.
In lawyer terms, reframing the pain as a “third-party issue” instead of a first person one is key to this practice. Instead of thinking, “my back hurts. I’m in so much pain”, you think in objective, detached terms. “There is pain. This has pressure.” And then you move on without reacting, or indulging, further.
My back, having by then apparently taken on a personality of its own, decided to switch tactics. “THIS BACK NEEDS YOU TO STOP MEDITATING, JODI. JUST GET UP AND WALK OUT. DO IT.”
A wave of people left the retreat in response to the new strong determination sessions. It took all of my energy not to walk out myself. The entire experience felt like Groundhog Day without the ice sculptures, and a 4am wake-up gong instead of Sonny and Cher.
The rest of the Vipassana meditation Course
I wish I could say that the spider incident was a turning point. That would make this story so satisfying, wouldn’t it? Alas, it wasn’t. It was just a bump in the road during those ten days, one of many.
Some people talk about intruding memories of childhood or overly sexual thoughts during their Vipassana experience. By Day 6, I felt exhausted by the pain, the sleepless spider-filled nights, and a mind slowly unspooling. I had no intrusive childhood memories or sexual urges. Instead, I had to curb a childish need to run around the meditation hall disrupting everyone. I daydreamed of flinging myself off my pillows and running through the empty space in the center of the hall, screaming like a banshee. I wanted to lie down on the floor in the silence, doing snow angels on the worn carpet and yelling at the spiders. I wanted to make a mockery of the process.
With increasing desperation, my mind told me to create a ruckus. Disrupt, disrupt—give in to the temptation.
I recognize that this was yet another example of what Goenka calls “craving and aversion”, the twisted narratives we use to justify reactive behavior.
Day 8 was the first time I sat through a “strong hour” without moving. By the end, I was drenched with sweat from the effort of trying to move past the pain, but I made it. When I stood up after the gong rang, I fell over because my legs had lost feeling and fallen asleep. After 10 minutes they were normal again. The return to normalcy felt triumphant. Could Goenka be correct? Could my pain be a background noise instead of the star of the show?
Late in the course, Goenka talked about, “feeling your awareness dump on your head and fall to your feet like a bucket of water.” He made mention of this sensation as a form of rapid, fluid body scan that meditators are allegedly able to do by the end of the course. I did not feel this fluidity, nor the full body vibrations he spoke of in the last discourses.
All I could encounter were shelves of pain along the way, the water splashing into them, splaying sideways and spraying everywhere. By the last day I could scan with an easy flow through arms or my right leg, My back, my ever irascible back, was still a solid mass of knots. On that last day, though, I was able to refocus my mind entirely and ignore the pain. It felt impermanent. It felt like progress. .
While I did fulfill my goal of making it to the end, at the time the Vipassana course was one of the toughest weeks of my life.
Lessons learned at my 10-day Vipassana meditation course
I emerged from the retreat a calmer, less anxious version of myself, one that surprised people closest to me.
I did start to sleep again. The relief of rest was so palpable that sometimes I’d wake up in the morning mystified, unsure of how I felt so refreshed.
I wrote down the following takeaways once the Vipassana ended and I was reunited with my pen and paper.
1. Our collective obsession with finding happiness is not a reason to meditate.
Logic and neuroscience might ground the modern rationale for mediation, but to meditate in order to be happy is counterintuitive. Vipassana provided me with a counterweight to the jagged peaks and valleys of the human experience. A tool that let me minimize those fluctuations, without sacrificing my integrity.
In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman says:
“The idea of using meditation to make your life ‘better’ or ‘happier’, in any conventional sense, was a misunderstanding. The point, instead, was to learn how to stop trying to fix things, to stop being so preoccupied with trying to control one’s experience of the world, to give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts and emotions with more pleasant ones, and to see that, through dropping the ‘pursuit of happiness’, a more profound peace might result. It wasn’t about escaping into ecstasy – or even into calmness, as the word is normally understood; and it certainly wasn’t about positive thinking. It was about the significantly greater challenge of declining to do any of that.”
Vipassana teaches you to be as you are and trains your mind to remain equanimous despite pain or emotional trauma. To remain stable when life goes awry is a happier result than grasping for whatever society tells you will make you happy.
2. So much of what complicates our lives comes from assumptions we make and our reactions to them.
In the quiet of those 10 days, you see how much your mind distorts the reality you perceive. For example, you don’t know the background of the people taking the retreat with you. As you watch everyone get on with their meditation, you create lives for them in your mind. You project your fears onto their perception of you.
For me, this meant creating life stories for the other participants and their reactions to things I did during the course. For example: In those 4:30am sessions, I’d pull my knees to my chest and wrap my arms around them. But I kept drifting asleep, and I’d tip over to my side and fall right into the person seated next to me. Each day that this happened, I could hear the snickers of the group as I righted myself again.
“They must think I’m terrible at this,” my brain would say. “You’re ruining their morning meditation. You’re doing it all wrong.”
Each morning I would vow to end my noble silence with an apology to the woman next to me.
At the end of the retreat, I did get a chance to apologize her. And you know what? She was very confused. “Why would you apologize? It was the only thing that made me smile during the last 10 days!” In the strangled silence, my brain had lost perspective of what was truth and what was a story I was telling myself.
Similarly, a chunk of the anger or fear we feel in life are reactions to a reality we have created in our own minds, a shitty, distorted story we are telling ourselves to help us feel more in control. That control is an illusion. In reality, we take sensory input as objective. What we see, hear and feel is not objective at all. It is colored by what we have known, and the grudges we hold without even realizing them.
The Vipassana retreat, with its focus on objectively noticing our constructed realities, helped me hone in on what was worth fighting about. It helped me delineate between “worth it” and my reactions borne of habit, craving, or aversion.
3. You have to do the work.
Shortcuts exist in life, but to train your brain you need put in a significant amount of effort. Goenka reiterates this throughout. The first few days are devastating because the work is both mindless and extremely taxing. But you can see a change in a mere 10 days, with disciplined practice.
As author Yung Pueblo notes about his experience with a Vipassana course:
It works because it is an actual way to clear out all of the dense patterns and mental conditioning that get in the way of mental clarity and happiness. This course helped me see how craving is a direct cause of misery, whenever the mind is craving it immediately becomes tense and loses its sight of the present moment. This course also gave me a deeper appreciation of impermanence, and how change happens at every level of existence, from the subtlest ocean of atoms that create the human body, to the larger changes that are bound to happen in life. Vipassana is the only practice I do for the sake of healing and liberation.
If you do the work, you will see the result. The same concept applies to other neural retraining, even if not meditative. Dynamic neural retraining, the Gupta method, Joe Dispenza; whether or not you find these useful or ‘true’, they are each predicated on doing the work continuously to help retrain your brain.
4. Perfectionism can be dangerous.
I was brought up believing that doing your best wasn’t good enough.
This is a dangerous lesson to bring into adulthood, because it translates to a goal that will never be achieved. There is no perfect, and there is no objective measure of what ‘right’ can be.
The course reminded me that if you have a value system that thrives on making decisions with integrity and for the right reasons, doing your best is good enough. It was one of the most surprising lessons for me because I’d never contemplated that doing your best was enough.
5. Training yourself to stop reacting can, despite my suspicions to the contrary, help in handling pain.
As someone with chronic pain, this lesson was important. I would not have come to this conclusion without the Vipassana course, because I’m far too stubborn. With hindsight I can see that by obsessing over the pain I felt, I exacerbated it tremendously. The story I told myself was that I was a human built out of the defective parts of other humans, that it marred me indefinitely.
By focusing my awareness on the painful sensations I felt in a neutral, detached way, I was able to wedge a corridor of relief between the pain and me. Goenka would repeat that the burning sensations felt during meditation simply rise and fall, that they are impermanent—just like everything else in life. By shifting my attention to the precise body scan order and ignoring any other pain, I was able to stave off defining my reality by what was going wrong.
We hold on to what we love with fierce attachment, but this retreat made me see that we also hold onto what we fear and hate. In my case, I learned that while I still ache, that ache has less power over me. The distinction sounds slight but is of paramount importance.
2016: Vipassana one year later
The Vipassana course / retreat did not cure me of insomnia permanently, but it did gift me with a few years of better sleep. It also helped me look at life differently, less subjectively, as hard as that is to do. It’s a constant reframe, not a fix.
The course also provided me with a valuable tool: it showed me that I could manage my mind more than I realized. By doing so, I felt more in control when I couldn’t rest and could limit my catastrophizing, despite the fact that it was there in the background. A full 10 days of constant meditation created a barrier between the worrying and me. It allowed me to observe the insomnia or my anxiety about sleeping more objectively, even when it threatened to engulf me whole.
That distance allowed me to live a more peaceful life.
In late January 2015, once the retreat was over, I committed to reading any book that a friend said changed their life, and I’ve become a better person for it. For some of those books, see this post.
The whole process calmed me on a deep and inexplicable level. I am still myself, an excellent catastrophizer. I still have my lawyerly tendency of considering the myriad options that the future can hold. And yet, those 10 days of brutal silence instilled in me a sense of perspective that I now maintain and am deeply grateful for.
Several of the women in the retreat have also become friends. We’ve met up since and called from afar when we couldn’t. A friendship built from the place you’re most vulnerable is a wonderful thing to have.
Would I do the retreat again? Definitely. Goenka recommends a yearly 10-day silent retreat for those who meditate. Given the way that this one tested my body and mind, I suspect I’ll wait a little longer.
Maybe 2017 is a good year to schedule my next brain defrag.
2023: eight years on
After this Vipassana retreat, my life took a very different path.
That 2017 “defrag” I had hoped for came in an unexpected, awful way. A routine lumbar puncture, one that many people get every single day, led to a spinal cerebrospinal leak and many months of bedrest. It took 4 rounds of blood and glue patching to seal the leak, and then after 8 glorious months of being sealed, I re-leaked again simply by sitting on the floor.
Throughout this very difficult experience—the initial pain, the grief of losing a life I built and love, the changes to my body and feeling like it no longer belonged to me such a severe state of pain—meditation was a consistent companion. I am so incredibly grateful that I did this course, because has helped keep me afloat during the worst years of my life.
I thought back, many times, to that phrase my friend told me. How worrying about the future isn’t help at all for what may actually unfold, because the future is limitless and that can be both good and bad. In my case, I never thought a routine procedure would derail my life and leave me disabled. All of the big and little things I worried about seem laughable in retrospect.
I am still in the middle of that messiness, still unable to walk and working on healing up. For a few years, I was completely bedbound and then I slowly got stronger. I was able to live independently, with an apartment set up for my disabilities. I could take walks again, albeit slowly and carefully. I could cook for myself. I was still “leaking”, but I had become functional.
In early 2023, I slid on the winter slush and re-opened my leak further losing the progress I’d made. The sharp regression is what made me come back to this Vipassana article and edit it. The grief and frustration require a constant reframe and a return to the comfort of the Vipassana practice. My meditation practice supported me throughout this journey, but is especially important when struggling to grapple with big shifts. No matter the meditation practice, we learn what “is” is what is. There is only that present moment—even if it’s a difficult moment.
Insomnia and anxiety follow up
As for the insomnia and ‘anxiety’, I later found out much of it came from a Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), an inflammatory immune condition that affected many things, including sleep. Symptoms I’ve had since childhood were all connected to this one condition, and led to higher levels of anxiety and also the insomnia. This condition was under control for most of my life, until I got sick in 2013. The post-viral result was immune activation, much as we are seeing post-Covid with the long covid patients who also get diagnosed with this condition.
Mast cells have a circadian rhythm and are most active at night. Since treating for MCAS, I am sleeping better than I have since 2013. I no longer feel anxious day-to-day, despite my life being objectively not so easy. All along, it wasn’t that I “had anxiety”, it was that I had an immune issue that needed tempering.
What a difference treating that condition has made.
Chronic pain follow up
Comorbid to MCAS is a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). Mast cells live in connective tissue, and one of the reasons these two conditions are found together frequently is that when our connective tissue is “wonky”, it can destabilize mast cells further.
EDS is a heritable connective tissue disorder that causes my body to have changes in how it synthesizes collagen. Those ligament injuries during my years of travel? My inability to recover from hikes like others did even though I was in shape? The resistance to local anesthetic my whole life? The burning coathanger pain between my shoulder blades? The hyper-flexibility even when I wasn’t training for flexibility? The ways that wounds healed slowly? YEP. All EDS, it turns out.
As with MCAS, it was getting since in 2013 that pushed this condition to a far worse place and the chronic pain that resulted is what led to the lumbar puncture that changed my life. I wish I knew this prior, because I’d have never consented to a lumbar puncture in the first place. The delayed wound healing and flimsy scar tissue are part of why my condition is hard to fix, and my leak can’t stay sealed.
FAQ and further reading about Vipassana meditation
Questions you’ve asked over the years.
Where to take a Vipassana meditation course
See Dhamma’s worldwide directory.
Other Vipassana writeups from around the web
- Shannon from A Little Adrift (2009)
- An entertaining Men’s Journal piece with a very different viewpoint. (2012)
- Torre from Fearful Adventurer (2014)
- Dan from Uncornered Market (2015)
- Tomas’ experience and lessons learned (2018)
- Spencer Gabin’s “sober psychedelic experience” over 10 days. (2018)
- A traveler’s experiences from Vipassana retreat in Sri Lanka (2019)
- Nils Salzbeger’s post-mortem after his second Vipassana retreat (2019)
- What Is Vipassana Meditation and How Do You Practice It? from Lion’s Roar (2020)
What is the schedule during a Vipassana retreat?
From the Dhamma.org website:
4:00am Wakeup Bell
4:30 – 6:30am Meditation
6:30 – 8:00am Breakfast
8:00 – 11:00am Mediation
11:00 – 12:00pm Lunch
12:00 – 1:00pm Questions for the teacher in the Meditation Hall
1:00 – 5:00pm Meditation
5:00 – 6:00pm Tea-break
6:00 – 7:00pm Meditation
7:00 – 8:15pm Video discourses by Goenka
8:15 – 9:00pm Meditation
9:00-9:30pm Questions for the teacher in the Meditation Hall
9:30pm Lights out.
Is it true that there is no dinner?
Other versions of this questions were: “HOW DID YOU DO THAT?? YOU EAT FOR A LIVING!”
Yes it’s true. Dinner was tea, and two pieces of fruit. Somehow I did not even get hungry. Like the silence, it was a part of the Vipassana that I made larger than life in my mind, only to find it was actually fine. I wasn’t hungry.
How did you sit through discourses for two hours after sitting all day?
I squirmed a lot. The pain didn’t end when the meditating ended! But at least I was allowed to move during these two-hour lectures. I found them interesting and inspiring, and I looked forward to Goenka’s voice and playful expressions each night.
How much did you pay for the Vipassana retreat?
The courses are all offered on a donation-only basis, including time – the kitchen and other staff are all former students volunteering their time. I donated at least what it would cost the center to feed and house me, as well as extra to support future attendees.
Are there risks in taking meditation retreats like this?
Despite the almost universal lauding of meditation as a balm for anxiety and mental anguish, there are documented cases of people where a prolonged meditation course causes a form of sensory deprivation for the brain that can lead to mania, psychosis, and more. While not very common, it is worth making mention and reading up on the phenomenon prior to attending a longer meditation course such as a 10-day silent course.
In March 2021, David Kortava wrote a piece about the psychological risks of meditation, noting that there are adverse effects for some people and they go largely ignored in the media. Please do read prior to sitting for a course.
Do you have recommendations for guided meditations for beginners?
I actually got this question so much that I created a free 10-week guided meditation course for beginners. This 10-week experiment isn’t a Vipassana retreat, but rather a sampling of different types of meditation, with the tracks to accompany them. For each kind of meditation, from body scans to mindful breathing to self-compassion and more, I share a bit about the history and technique, link to a track for you to try, and share some further reading on that style.
For those new to meditation, I hope this primer allows you to find what style resonates the most, which also means you’re more likely to keep going with it.
Consistency is key.
Should I sit for a Vipassana meditation course?
It’s truly up to you. Everyone who attends is fighting their own mind and a tendency to react to life instead of observing it with equanimity. Provided you do not believe you are prone to the kind of existential panic David describes in his article, it is an interesting tool in processing the world. I am extremely grateful that I did it, and would go back and do it again despite the pain and spiders.
Books to read about Vipassana
Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This was the book that a friend recommended a few years ago, setting me on this journey of meditation and mindfulness. If you are dealing with a long-term illness or immune disorder, or are in pain, its principles and firm but compassionate outlook are important.
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka. A full-length study of the teaching of S. N. Goenka, prepared under his guidance and with his approval. It includes stories by Goenka himself, as well as FAQs from students along the years.
The Discourse Summaries, by S.N. Goenka. Goenka’s end-of-day lectures were a huge part of what made this retreat transformative. I do not recommend buying this book until after you complete a Vipassana, as hearing them as they arise in the sequence of meditation instructions was critical to my ability to get through them. That said, if you’re interested in Vipassana or you did the retreat and want to refresh your thoughts about the messages of equanimity and objectivity, this is a great purchase.
Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, by Pema Chodron. Extrapolating on the Buddhist concept of shenpa, this book helps recognize patterns that then lose our hold on us when we objectively acknowledge them. An interesting read and one that I found really helpful.
Sex, Drugs and Meditation, by Mary-Lou Stephens. A very quick beach-type read, one that I got through on a short flight, but a funny outlook on the Vipassana retreat.