For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from arachnophobia. When I was two, a family member unwisely took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had nightmares about spiders for years, and would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. My arachnophobia never waned, and I am ashamed to admit that it has dictated some of my travel plans.
In January 2015, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in a bird sanctuary outside Auckland, as a total beginner to meditation. Before the retreat began I worried about whether I could handle ten days of total silence, especially as someone who had no experience with meditation. What I did not worry about was spiders, because I had barely seen any during my months in New Zealand.
This was a mistake.
When you are deeply afraid of something, your mind is accustomed to seeking it out as a potential threat. I arrived at the retreat and, horrifyingly, found spiders everywhere. They surrounded the porch lights in the wooden cabins that housed me, they lined the walls and ceilings in the common areas, and some were inside my tiny room.
I was already concerned about the coming days of discipline. My mind drew a blank when trying to strategize my coping mechanisms for this unexpected, visceral phobia.
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, lighter version of this phenomenon at the retreat. I could not speak or write, but my mind was whirring away at an alarming speed. Trapped in a cognitive cycle of shame and blame, my phobia of spiders was magnified.
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 leave your phone and any pen and paper at the front desk. No writing, no talking, no eye contact, no communicating.
You and the prison of your mind.
At the end of Day 1, I noticed a daddy long legs struggling on the carpet, heading toward the door. My instinct was to smush the spider with the retreat schedule, only to realize I was about to kill something with a document that says you won’t kill anything. Phobias transcend logic; there is a reason they are referred to as “irrational, unreasonable fears” that make us unable to function normally. Still, I wrestled the thought away and instead took a deep breath, skirted around the spider, and opened my door. I crouched down to the floor, silently cheering its departure from my room for the next ten minutes, until it was finally gone.
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 requested equanimity. In the meditation hall, daddy longlegs occasionally dropped from the ceiling, feeding my anxiety. Huge black spiders dotted the corner of the room where we picked up our pillows, watching over us as we dutifully shuffled into yet another meditation session.
In response, the organizers provided us with a “spider catcher”. This was a Tupperware container plus a piece of paper to slide under it for ease of transport. I hoped someone else would avail themselves of this spider tool, because no amount of meditating would allow me to do so with grace.
And then on Day 5, I hit peak spider.
Somehow, I had made it through my second day of “strong determination” sittings, hour-long meditations where you were not allowed to move no matter the pain or discomfort. I darted to my bed to avoid the small but alarmingly hairy spiders outside my room. As I was about to turn off the light, I caught a glimpse of a huge, bulbous black spider in my periphery. It was dropping out of a tiny hole above the window near the ceiling.
I leapt out of bed in a panic, unsure of what to do. When I tried to reach the spider, it would crawl into the hole again and disappear effortlessly. I left the light on, drifting off to sleep only to dream about spiders and wake up breathless. Finally I shut the light off decisively, drawing on everything I had learned thus far.
I struck a mental deal with the spider: I’d leave it alone if it left me alone.
At 2am, I awoke to a feeling of deep alarm, my body shaking. I tumbled out of bed and rushed to turn the light back on. The big bulbous spider was dropping from the ceiling directly above me, inches above my bed.
Gasping in horror, I tripped and stumbled to the floor. The spider, as startled as I, hastily clawed its way back toward the ceiling. I watched in horror as it spent the rest of the night eating other spiders in my room. The minutes went by slowly, soundless but for the slow clicking of the dying victims as they were eaten by my new dorm-mate.
The next day I swallowed my pride and broke my noble silence. Mortified and eyes brimming with tears, I begged the female volunteer leader to please let me switch rooms.
“It’s the silence, isn’t it?” she asked gently, “It’s just too hard?”
“No,” I sobbed, “it’s the spiders.”
At that point in the retreat several people had decided it was too much for them and left, so there were some empty cabins. I was able to move to a different cabin further away from the meditation hall.
For the rest of the week, as everyone else sat on the grass enjoying the sun between meditation sessions, I sat in my room, watching them from behind my window screen, too scared to leave. My fear had consumed me.
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 Did I Take a Vipassana Meditation Retreat as a Beginner?
I signed up for a Vipassana retreat in a moment of quiet desperation. I was coming up on close to a year of insomnia. I found myself exhausted by the panic of not sleeping yet unable to find any meaningful rest. I would lie down to sleep only to dread the inevitable insomnia. For the first time in my life I was having panic attacks. Nightly, they were triggered by the dawning realization that sleep would elude me yet again.
At the same time I was dealing with chronic pain in my back. This was due to a bad accident as a kid followed by a series of rib fractures and motorbike tumbles as an adult. Between injuries and an autoimmune disease, my day-to-day involved a lot of hurt. It was simply getting worse with the lack of sleep and an excess of cortisol.
Despite the trendiness of glamorous classes and meditation apps, Vipassana is a different beast. No one I knew who took a Vipassana retreat emerged feeling refreshed. “It was so impossibly hard,” said one friend. “I left on day 4,” said another. But I was starting to crumble under the weight of my insomnia and the magnified aching. Even though I wanted to write, I couldn’t concentrate on work. Mornings bled into each other, and by midday my mind would be completely distracted, filled with anxiety about another long night of no sleep.
At the end of my rope, I decided to sign up for a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat in New Zealand. I was not a meditator, but I saw the retreat as a glimmer of hope. 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.
Nadia disagreed. “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 retreat, several friends asked 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 retreats 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, teaching it quietly to monks.
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 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.
Or, my version: the Vipassana technique cleanses your mind by making you suffer mentally and physically in total silence. I chose Vipassana as a tool because it was all about discipline and neural pathways. I am not the most woo of humans, and the idea of a giant drum circle of positive thinkers made me want to run away screaming.
Vipassana dictates a blanket command of non-reaction. You do not react to the pain as you sit, nor the fact that your hands and legs fall asleep and your brain cries 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 yourself to stop reacting to the vicissitudes of life.
The technique is different to mindfulness meditation, which focuses on awareness, or 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 are only part of the battle. The harder part is to stop reacting, to break the cycle of anger and emotional explosions.
This is where Vipassana comes in.
As sleep ebbed away in 2014 and my pain levels increased, I found myself far more reactive than I wanted to be. 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 tried to keep low expectations about the 10 days. My only goal was to complete the retreat. 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 darkness, it was time to wake up.
I was not, nor will I ever be, a morning person.
During the first mornings of the retreat I felt a rush of anger rise up in me when I heard that sound. I fantasized about taking the gong and flinging it into the forest.
So much for equanimity.
Wrangling my anger back from where it came, I tumbled out of my cot and grabbed my headlamp, flip flops and toiletries. With trepidation, I peered out at the inky air unsure of how many spiders were between my face and the end of my porch. Taking a deep breath I slunk out, hoping for the best, and darted up to the bathroom to brush my teeth before the 4:30am session in the meditation hall.
The focus on Day 1 was on awareness of breath. That’s it. Just awareness that you happen to breathe. If your mind moved from that awareness, which of course it would, you were supposed to gently bring your mind back to the fact that you breathe. The simplicity of this instruction felt incredibly opaque.
I had a hard time focusing on my breath because of the persistent burning in my back. Years of chronic pain and coping postures 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 office hours, and I went 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. Sheepishly, I explained that I hadn’t actually meditated before but that I was clearly doing it wrong and I was totally going to die of back pain so maybe I should go?
With total calm, he said that I needed to disassociate my panic from the pain, because 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.”
I trudged back out of the meditation hall and into the bright sunlight, reeling. The teacher offered a wooden L-shaped contraption 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.
Learning the Vipassana Meditation Technique
After the first three days of focusing on breathing, Goenka serenely told us that he would now introduce us to the Vipassana technique. I remember having an absolute conniption about this internally when he did. I had just spent three spider-filled days focusing for hours and hours on the fact that I breathe, or the triangle between my nose and my mouth, and that wasn’t even the core of the practice?! Alas, Vipassana is an impassive teacher, and the next step was important.
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 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 telling my back to stop bothering me as I did trying to bring my mind back to my breath, or my body scan.
In addition to the body scans, Day 4 marked the beginning of those “hours of strong determination”. These 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, you observe them impersonally as your scan reaches those points, knowing they are impermanent.
Recharacterizing the pain as a third party issue instead of a first person one is key to this practice. Instead of “my back hurts. I’m in so much pain”, you use “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, switched tactics. “THIS BACK NEEDS YOU TO STOP MEDITATING, JODI. JUST GET UP AND WALK OUT. DO IT.”
In response to these new requirements, a wave of people left the retreat.
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 Retreat
I wish I could say that the spider incident was a turning point. It wasn’t. It was simply a bump along the way, one of many.
I did fulfill my goal of making it to the end. The Vipassana retreat remains one of the most difficult things I’ve ever chosen to do.
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. For me, the challenge was curbing the urge to run around like a toddler. “Look at me! I’m not meditating! I’m freeeeee!”
Instead of doing a body scan during the hours of strong determination, my mind followed my back’s nagging prompts and mentally skewed toward disruption. I daydreamed of flinging off my pillows, running through the empty space in the center of the hall and screaming like a banshee. I wanted to lie down on the floor in the silence, doing snow angels on the worn carpet, making a mockery of the process. Those urges crept up aggressively, and they were hard to suppress.
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. I was sweating 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 stopped functioning. After 10 minutes they were normal again. It felt triumphant, that return to normalcy. Could Goenka be correct? Could my pain be a background noise instead of the star of the show?
Late in the retreat, Goenka talks 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 able to do by the end of the course.
I did not feel this, 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, with no fluidity between them. By the last day I could scan with an easy flow through arms or my right leg, My back, my ever irascible back, was a solid mass of knots. But by that last day I was also able to refocus my mind from the pain I experienced during the sessions, and I saw a difference in how I perceived the permanence of the sensation.
It was progress.
Lessons Learned at my 10-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat
I emerged from the retreat a calmer, temporarily 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 would 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. I kept falling asleep during the first meditation session, for example. Unused to 4:30am wakeups, I would draw my knees up to my chest during the meditations, wrap my arms around them, and eventually succumb to my exhaustion and tip into the person next to me while fast asleep.
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 to the woman I fell into, who sat next to me. 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.
And much 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. But 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 retreat:
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.
4. Perfectionism can be dangerous.
I was brought up believing that doing your best wasn’t good enough. That 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.
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 retreat, 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.
One Year After the Vipassana Meditation Retreat
The Vipassana course / retreat did not cure me of insomnia permanently, and I later found out much of it came from an inflammatory immune condition that affected many things, including sleep. Since treating that, I sleep soundly most nights. The Vipassana did, however, provide 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. The anxiety is there, but it is less urgent because of the objectivity.
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, a great catastrophizer and someone who thinks of 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.
Vipassana Follow Up: 2017-2022
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 months of being sealed and even walking up mountains in my hometown of Montreal, 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 retreat, 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, n
I am still in the middle of that messiness, still unable to walk and working on healing up. My meditation practice has supported me as I try to be the tortoise and not the hare, as I grapple with the changes in my life. No matter the meditation practice, we learn what “is” is what is. There is only that present moment. At a time when my life’s present is very difficult, that lesson feels even more diaphanous to implement.
But it is also even more important to remember.
Was this retreat one of the hardest things I’ve done? Absolutely. It took a year for me to write this post originally and affirm that regardless, I’d do it again. And now after my life changed irrevocably, I can only say the same with even more certainty.
Further Reading and Questions about Vipassana Meditation
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.
Where to take a Vipassana meditation retreat:
See Dhamma’s worldwide directory.
Other Vipassana Retreat 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 retreat?
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.