No talking. No phones or tech. No wearing yoga pants. No working out. No music. No reading. No writing. No killing (even spiders!). No stealing. No masturbation. No sex. No lying. No drugs or alcohol. No moving during "sittings of strong determination."
The morning wake-up gong rings at 4:00am sharp to rouse everyone for the opening 4:30–6:30am meditation session. The first 2 of 10.5 hours of meditation scheduled every single day. For ten days straight.
I am officially in Meditation Prison.
How did I end up here?
In a questionable moment of sanity, I decided to book a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat for my birthday. I had no idea what I was in for. Not bothering to do much research beforehand, I figured it’d be nice to disconnect and take a break from tech and social media, relax, and do a little yoga and meditation (on a good week, I average about 20 minutes of meditation every few days or so — this seemed like a solid way to try and do it more regularly).
When I looked for a payment option, there was none to be found. What was this madness? What kind of place gives you a bed, three meals a day, and daily meditation instruction for nearly two weeks without requiring a significant chunk of change in exchange? Am I being lured into an international organ harvesting organization cleverly using a retreat to find deep inner peace as a cover? Is this some sort of Satanic cult? Do Satanists even meditate?
I had questions.
Upon deeper digging, I discovered that all of the meditation courses offered via the mysterious website Dhamma.org (complete with a spinning wagon wheel GIF from 1998) are 100% donation-based. No money is accepted up front. You are only allowed to offer a donation after the successful completion of one of their programs.
It seemed too good to be true. What was the catch?
I was about to find out.
I was accepted for a 10-day course at the Northwest Vipassana Meditation Center located in Onalaska, Washington. On the scheduled day of arrival I road tripped down from Seattle, parked, unloaded my suitcase (complete with clothes, toiletries, a pillow, a sheet for a twin-sized bed, and blankets — it kinda felt like I was a University of Michigan freshman all over again), and nervously stepped into the simple, single-story building.
Immediately upon entering the registration area, I was given paperwork to fill out and a cloth bag into which I was instructed to relinquish my cell phone. The last text that I got was from my father:
“Mom and I suspect this is a cult. If you feel something is out of line just leave right away.”
Thanks for helping to calm my nerves, Dad.
The cloth bag was numbered, locked, and put away. I was assured it’d be returned on the last day of the course. I sat down to read over all of the paperwork, preparing to sign my life away:
While agreeing to all the terms and conditions, I noticed that the males who arrived were sent to residential quarters on the far side of the campus and had to eat in a separate dining area. Complete separation of men and women was required at all times.
After everything was signed and sealed, I was assigned to room 10, spot B. No room key. Just go.
I gathered my things and found my room.
The interior was clean. Basic. Very college freshman dorm-esque.
I met my roommate briefly and we agreed to keep the temperature a little cooler at night. That was the first and only conversation we’d have for nearly two weeks — it was time for our first "practice" hour of meditation in the meditation hall.
First, everyone selected an assortment of pillows and props from the prop area. If you do this thing, I highly recommend taking everything that you need immediately and keeping it at your assigned spot, because everything will be completely gone by Day 2 and you may be left wishing you’d taken an extra pillow to sit on or set of blocks to prop up your knees with:
Men on the left, women on the right. We filed in through separate entrances, officially beginning our “Noble Silence” in the meditation hall. From the Code of Discipline section of the intro pamphlet:
"All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc. is prohibited. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation."
My inner introvert was secretly relieved. No having to make small talk? Phew.
Little did I know that in less than 48 hours, this feeling would change completely as I would have stolen an entire pumpkin bucket full of full-size Halloween candy bars from a small child just to hear another human being’s voice again.
We were welcomed by our teachers, a woman named Tina in her 70’s who sat in front atop a stool and a guy with a brown beard who looked to be in his late 30's/early 40’s who sat cross-legged on a pillow.
As everyone settled down with their props, I was shocked to hear the loud blasting of an elderly Indian gentleman’s voice over the meditation hall speakers,extremely passionate and seemingly well-intentioned in its delivery but also sounding unfortunately like a groaning goat either giving birth, dying, or both. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, go and listen to this.
After the unexpected chanting faded away, we were instructed by the same man’s voice to focus on our breath. Feel the breath going in and out of your nose. Feel the sensation caused by your breath in that small triangular area between your nostrils and upper lip. Focus all of your attention here, in this small spot.
For an hour, we breathed and meditated together. I finished, feeling strong. This was going to be totally doable.
At 9:00pm, we were dismissed to go back to our rooms, shower, and rest. My normal bedtime is normally much later (i.e. I am writing this at 2:06am) but upon reviewing the daily schedule posted, I tried my best to knock myself out. It didn’t work, so Day 0 passed with barely any sleep.
Day 1—Attempting To HErd Cats
The morning gong rang at 4:00am sharp, as scheduled. I groggily tumbled out of bed and somehow made it to my meditation mat. Swaying from side to side from the lack of sleep, I survived the first two hours semi-conscious.
Breakfast followed from 6:30–8:00am. We were offered an assortment of bread for toasting (raisin, whole grain, 7-grain, and gluten-free rice bread), a giant vat of oatmeal, some strange boiled fruit in syrup to pour over the oatmeal (raisins, plums, and dates?), a Costco-sized bucket of plain yogurt, a box of granola, and two big silver bowls overflowing with bananas, apples, and oranges. The tea and coffee station proved to be very popular:
Everyone was very polite, waiting patiently in line while being very careful not to make direct eye contact with anyone else.
I slathered two pieces of slightly burnt raisin bread with real butter (not the dairy-free option, or anything from the tubs of tahini, peanut butter, or jelly), polished off a banana, and sipped some ginger tea with almond milk.
After eating, everyone politely lined up again to scrape leftovers into a compost bucket, place used forks and spoons into a silverware bucket, and wash and stack their used dishes.
From 8–9am, we were to gather for the next group meditation in the hall. And after that, another 9–11am meditation marathon before lunch and then a 1–2:30pm meditation, a 2:30–3:30pm meditation, and another 3:30–5pm meditation with 5-minute breaks in between each scheduled sitting before a 5–6pm tea break, 6–7pm group meditation, 7–8:15pm seated lecture, and final 8:15–9pm evening meditation.
At some point during these millions of hours of meditation, my butt/back/everything began to hurt and my mind started to freak out.
Why am I here? What am I doing? This was a terrible idea. One hour, fine. Two hours, okay. Three hours, are you kidding me? Five, six, seven, eight and a half more hours after that? Oh God. What if my legs fall asleep? What if they fall off? Can that happen if the circulation gets cut off for too long? Am I going to be able to walk again? Is my mind going to spontaneously combust and kill me?
I attempted to distract myself from the growing pain in and around my ass by thinking about something else. Anything else. My mind ran with it
Distraction. Distraction. Distraction. Distraction. Distraction.
Were any of these things actually happening in the moment?
The only thing that was real was the fact that I was sitting in a meditation hall on some farmland in the middle of nowhere, Washington.
The only thing that was real was my breath, and the momentary sensations flickering on and off across my body.
The only thing that was real was the fact that nothing was permanent. Everything was changing, all the time. But yet I fought it. I didn’t like the soreness, I hated the pain, and I wanted it all to end.
Attempting to put a stop to thoughts obsessing about the past, I started fantasizing about the future. What if I stood up and screamed, a piercing sound slicing through the silence? What if I ran around kicking over people’s meditation benches and shaking them in their shawls? What if I stood up, solemnly announced I quit, and then turned to walk defiantly out the door, never to return again?
Fantasy faded, and I returned to my breath. Still there. Still steady. Still real.
Dinner consisted of a cup of tea and a piece of fruit. That’s it.
At some point, the hours ended. I crawled into bed at 9:00pm, my stomach growling and my mind as awake, alive, and alert as ever.
Wanna think some more? What should we think about now? How about now? Now?
It was going to be a long night.
Day 2—Planning My Escape
GONG. GONG. GONG.
4:00am. 4:12am. 4:22am.
In case you didn’t get up the first time to the banging of the big gong, a volunteer walks around twenty minutes later with a smaller gong, whacking it outside each individual room.
GONG. GONG. GONG.
As I’m putting my clothes on, I can hear my roommate snoring. I feel a mixture of envy, disgust, and annoyance. I want what she has.
My resolution to go to every single meditation sitting instantly dissolves. I curl back up in bed and pass out, sleeping through the 4:30–6:30am sitting.
My dreams punish me accordingly, maybe out of unconscious guilt. I dream that a guy murders a girl. His attorney mother refuses to defend him in court. He throws a knife into his mother’s neck and she dies. His best friend is horrified but, not wanting to upset him, requests a massage with the blood. Suddenly the killer looks directly at me, smiling. I am his girlfriend, and my obedience is expected.
I jerk awake, sweating through my thin sheet. What. The. Actual. Fuck. I haven’t had a dream that disturbing in a long time. I’m a therapist. I am too disoriented to do a proper dream analysis on myself. It’s 6:33am. Breakfast time.
My thoughts shift from sociopathic serial killers to the type of topping I would like on my bread today. I am inspired to start getting creative at the condiment tray.
My brain is screaming for stimulation. It wants to like something and dislike something else. It needs to read the news, scan a FaceBook feed, or watch a movie. It is thinking, thinking, thinking, and obsessively judging everyone and everything. It is judging itself, hating itself, annoyed at itself, reeling from inner punches of shame, frustration, and resentment.
Where’s this inner peace that everyone talks about? Liberation from suffering? Total enlightenment?
The hours pass. My brain switches modes, going from blasting random Spotify songs to replaying entire episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix. White Christmas was so messed up.
The day passes. My mind swirls, coming up with new business ideas and book chapters. I have vivid fantasies about my escape. Minutes and even hours pass as I detail where I will go, what I will do, and what I will say as I leave. Escape. Escape. Escape. After lunch, I will escape.
Lunch is a tasty offering of vegetable curry over brown rice, a salad of lettuce topped with shredded carrots, beets, and a sesame-colored “sunshine dressing,” and a couple scoops of cottage cheese.
I eat. I fantasize about escaping. I don’t escape.
1–2:30pm, meditate. 2:30–3:30pm, meditate. 3:30–5pm, meditate. 6–7pm, meditate.
At 7pm, everyone gathers in the meditation hall for the evening discourse. We are about to sit and watch a video over an hour long. I busy myself by happily building a comfortable reclining seat out of bolsters and blocks. Kind of like this, but with my eyes (mostly) open:
After a few minutes of relaxing in this reclined work of art, a volunteer comes by and whisper-scolds me to sit up straight. Dammit.
I reluctantly deconstruct my makeshift bolster bed and hunch over my mat. It begins.
S.N. Goenka appears in grainy footage dated back from 1991. He is a chubby, cheerful-looking man with a shiny forehead and a crisp white shirt. He looks like a kindly Indian Uncle who likes to sing loudly, usually slightly off-key, and gives you sweets while you gather around to listen to his funny and engaging stories.
Except now, there are no sweets. Instead, he speaks of the root cause of all suffering: Craving and aversion.
If we like something, that liking can turn into craving, which turns into clinging. If we cling to something that we want or like desperately and then we don’t get it or lose it and no longer have it, we can become despondent, angry, and miserable.
If we dislike something or someone, that disliking can intensify into anger and hatred. When it comes to physical pain, focusing on it, becoming angry with it, and trying to force it to change or go away will only cause it to worsen and strengthen in its power and scope.
At one point, S.N. Goenka says,
“The thing that hurts you the most in life is your own untamed mind. The thing that can help you the most in life is a disciplined mind. When the wild mind is untamed, it can be very harmful. If we learn to tame our minds, then it can help us by reducing our suffering and misery.”
How do you get out of this misery? By understanding that pain, sadness, and suffering are a natural part of life. It is also temporary and ever-changing, as is joy, happiness, and pleasure. If you stop fighting things you don’t like and trying desperately to hold onto things you do like, life can become more peaceful. Everything is temporary, so just notice it. Observe it, without any sort of craving or aversion. Everything will ultimately shift, change, or go away, and that’s okay, because something new will take its place.
This is a way out of suffering. This is how you live. Not in the past, not in the future, but now, in the present. The only time that you actually have to live.
For the first time, a tiny ray of light glints through a crack in the darkness. Maybe there’s something to all of this after all.
It sucks, but I vow to keep sticking it out.
Days 3, 4 & 5 — The Suck: A Poem
Suffering streams down my back
Misery clenches my ass
Cracks and creaks cramp my stiff neck
Fact: All of this, too, shall pass.
But not now. Not yet.
Now I am aching. Sore. Straining with gas.
So. Much. Suck.
It was a rainy, soggy, shitty mess during days 3, 4, and 5. The weather decided to match my mood.
We are taught to go from focusing on the triangle between our nostrils and our upper lip to scanning our entire body for both subtle and intense sensations, from the top of our heads to the bottom of our toes. We are to do so with an equanimous mind, merely observing, not reacting or craving, hating, or judging.
Everything hurts. I continue to struggle in an upright seated position for over 10.5 freaking hours each day. Distraction. Past. Distraction. Future. Distraction. Past. Distraction. Future. And despite the request for Noble Silence, a couple people continuously burp and yawn loudly. I judge them, annoyed that they would disturb the silence so rudely when they could exert a little effort to do so more quietly. This is a dislike and an aversion. I am supposed to generate love for Mr. Loud Sigh-Yawn and compassion for Burpy McBurpeeson who would be immediately cast as the lead of the Phantom in a All-Burped Phantom of the Opera.
I have a lot of work to do.
Day 6 — Tina, I Have Questions
Students are allowed to have a 5-minute Q&A session with a teacher from Noon-1:00pm. This is the only time we are allowed to speak.
I sign up. I have questions.
I arrive at my assigned time and am ushered inside. Tina awaits my entry in the otherwise empty meditation hall. I notice she is wearing black New Balance sneakers beneath her long skirt.
Here are my questions and her answers:
Me, Question #1: Isn’t pain an important indicator, our body’s way of communicating danger to us? Pain is part of nature and it carries important messages. How do we determine when and if to react to it? For example, if someone is burning us with a hot iron, we can’t just observe it and equanimously think “interesting” before moving on to a different part of the body, right?
Tina, Answer #1: We are learning to observe pain without reacting to it. Explore and observe the pain. If you are in danger or if it is pure torture, take care of yourself. Remove yourself from the danger. Stand up and walk around for a moment. Otherwise, simply notice it. Where is the pain? Where is the epicenter of it? Where does it begin and where does it end? Don’t stay in it if it’s intolerable. Also understand it’s not permanent, and this practice and experience is an opportunity to face more and more of your pain in a new way, by observing it instead of reacting to it. If you keep observing and allowing it to be in a neutral way, it will eventually pass because everything is temporary, even the worst pain. This is a way out of suffering.
Me, Question #2: Isn’t liking and disliking things part of nature? A dog likes treats and getting its belly rubbed. It dislikes being hit, and will react by biting whoever hit him. Aren’t we wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain? How can we understand what is healthy and good liking and disliking verses being excessive craving and unhealthy aversion?
Tina, Answer #2: There are different degrees of liking and disliking something. It’s unhealthy when you inflict suffering on yourself due to your preferences. Let’s say you’re really excited to eat chocolate cake for dessert. You get really excited about the chocolate cake, and when it’s time for dessert, there’s no chocolate cake left. It’s okay and healthy to be disappointed, but then to say “oh well” and move on. Don’t let there being no chocolate cake disturb your peace. If you get angry and miserable because things didn’t turn out the way you wanted and hoped for them to, this is what the Vipassana practice is working to help you free yourself from. Why make yourself more miserable about something that is temporary? Don’t let your disliking of a person, thing, or situation rob you of your happiness and peace of mind.
Me, Question #3: Speaking of chocolate cake, if my stomach growls when I’m hungry, shouldn’t I eat? I’m not sleeping well because I’m going to bed hungry at night. I’m not used to skipping dinner. Then I wake up tired and grumpy because I’m attached to sleep. I have a strong liking and craving for sleep and I function a heckuva lot better when I have enough of it. I think I could meditate and focus better if I got more sleep. Wouldn’t it be more helpful if I could eat something more than tea and an apple for dinner so I can wake up more refreshed and alert and do better at this meditation practice?
Tina, Answer #3: It’s true that human beings need food, water, and shelter. However, unless you are actually starving, it can be a helpful practice to observe and accept your hunger, during the day and at night. If you lay down and can’t sleep but you are resting your body and your mind, you will wake up feeling rested. Be aware of your strong attachment to sleep. If you get angry and make yourself more miserable because you are not sleeping, you have a craving for sleep and it is robbing you of your peace by making you mad that you don’t have it. Keep noticing and observing the sensations with an equanimous mind.
Me, Question #4: I’m playing mind games with myself to get through the meditation sittings. For example, one game I play with myself is, “If I just complete three more full body scans, then I’ll reward and treat myself by allowing my mind to escape into fantasy about the past or the future for a bit.” Is this okay?
Tina, Answer #4: Your mind games are also a fantasy and future-oriented. We are working on being in the present, not trying to escape into the future. Keep doing the work and take it one body scan at a time because that is all that’s happening right now.
My time is up. It’s time to be quiet and get back to the backbreaking work of more (and more and more) meditation.
Day 7—I Break Noble Silence (Five Times)
By this day, I’ve broken my Noble Silence a grand total of five times:
I’m working on judging myself less. We are told "never to be disappointed, angry, or upset" with ourselves for making mistakes. We are encouraged to "gently and smilingly come back to the practice of scanning your body from the top of your head to the bottom of your toes with a calm and equanimous mind."
Everything still sucks.
During the discourse this night, S.N. Goenka talks about "Five Friends That Will Help You On Your Path to Liberation From Suffering:" Faith & devotion, wise effort, wise attention/awareness, concentration, and wisdom. He tells amusing stories to illustrate each point. I do my best to listen through a heavy haze of pain.
Day 8 — Impermanence: A Poem
By the time
You finish this poem
You will be
Than when you began.
The pain has started to wax and wane with body scan after body scan. It’s excruciating, sharp, and intense during one sweep, and totally gone the next. It’s back again after that, then fades to a dull throbbing. Holy crap. This Vipassana meditation thing works. Pain really is only temporary and ever-changing.
I’m not out of the woods yet, but the glint of light has turned into a stronger glimmer. I try not to become attached to any outcome.
Be here now. That’s all that there is.
Day 9 — Today Was A Good(ish) Day
'I suspect I may be developing some supernatural powers. And by supernatural powers, I mean an attention span longer than five seconds.
Now that I’ve been away from the instant stimulation/gratification of my phone for over 220 hours (but who’s counting?), things are slowing down. And instead of fighting it, I’m just being in it.
On an early morning walk after meditation and breakfast, I stop to observe a giant ant colony, crouching down to watch this fascinating drama of nature, As The Ant World Turns:
I could hear them buzzing, swarming, walking, and crunching. All of my sensations were amplified. It was like I was on drugs, except I wasn't.
I look up at the sky for a moment before re-entering the meditation hall. It is a vibrant blue and there are sea turtle and mustache-shaped tufts of white clouds speckled about. The limbs of the sun stretch out from one hundred million miles away to touch my forehead and cheeks with their warmth.
Today, I meditate for all 10.5 hours without horrible lasting pain or terrible struggle. My mind still wanders to the past, future, and any number of creative, random, and tempting distractions, but instead of losing control of it for hours or even minutes, I am able to notice and "smilingly bring it back" to a body scan within seconds.
Whaddaya know. Discpline. Focus. Peace. It’s possible after all. Longer and longer moments of it, somehow strangely built up over the course of the past few days.
It’s still hard, but it doesn’t suck as hard anymore. And the times that it does suck pass, replaced by times that suck less, and even times that are kind of pleasant. Those pass too.
Hey look Ma, I’m being!
Walking back to my room after the last 8:15–9pm meditation that night, I stop to look up at the sky again. The starry spread of the Milky Way is clear and vibrant, sparkling like diamond jelly on black toast.
Maybe we look up at the sky to to have our faces stroked by the cosmos.
Maybe we’re all made up of stars after all.
Day 10 — But My Body Didn’t Dissolve?
After the 4:30–6:30am and 8–9am meditations, we are allowed to come out of Noble Silence and enter a period of Noble Speech.
S.N. Goenka calls this a "soothing balm to help heal our wounds after doing surgery on our minds." The transition is supposed to help us ease back into the real world.
It is strange being able to look at everyone and talk to them. I take a moment to gather myself in my room to enjoy a few more precious moments of peace and quiet before going out into the chatter.
In response to the question How was your experience?, I hear:
There was a surprising amount of talk of "body dissolving."
My body didn’t dissolve, and that’s okay. If I’d heard about that experience earlier, I probably would’ve developed a craving to wanting to have that sensation, trying to chase it, and feeling upset if it didn’t happen.
It makes sense that we weren’t allowed to talk with each other until day. Comparison is the thief of all joy.
The day continued with talks about the importance of serving and giving back not just with money, but as a volunteer for future courses. S.N. Goenka encouraged us to be happy and for all beings to have peace. We ended with a new meditation of love and compassion, sending out good vibes and caring intentions, pardoning those who we may have been intentionally or unintentionally hurt by, asking for pardon from those who we may have intentionally or unintentionally hurt, and wishing for the liberation, peace, and happiness of all beings. Very lovey-dovey.
I was tired and not sure how strong my vibes of love and compassion were, but I did my best.
And that was it. Kinda anti-climactic, but it was what it was (for me, at least).
Was it a cult? No.
Was it a magical cure-all for all of life’s problems? No.
Was it the Ultimate Way and the only path to enlightenment? No.
Well then, what was it?
My Three Main Takeaways & Final Thoughts
Would I do it again? Not anytime soon, but maybe.
Did I find the experience valuable? Yes.
Would I recommend it? Yes. Go and have your experience. It won’t be like mine or anyone else’s. It will be uniquely, perfectly, 100% yours. And that’s exactly what your life is supposed to be.
If you want to check out a Vipassana Meditation retreat, go here.
If you made it to the end of this blog post, give yourself a hand and then go out and get a breath of fresh air. And take a look up at the sky. It will be a different sky every time, ever-changing and never to be repeated again.