Four years ago, I discovered horrific animal abuse that senior members of my PhD lab were hiding. I burst out crying, amended the situation as best as I could, and immediately spoke out to stop this undercover operation. Calling me naive and weak, the abusers tried to discredit me, threatening to kick me out of grad school and ruin my career. This jarring experience began my awakening.
I found myself in the space between stories. For the first time, I began thinking about my food and considering its origins. I tried and failed and tried and failed to maintain a meditation practice. I set and achieved athletic goals to create enough momentum to finish my PhD and secure a prestigious postdoctoral research position.
Then a large chunk of my research was stolen by a pharmaceutical company, and I jumped off the tenure track. For years, I’ve oscillated between seeing and shedding. Deep down, I knew that I owed myself a break from busyness for true processing.
I once read a trippy fiction book that described a productivity-addict’s identity-melting experience at a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. Apparently, that idea stayed with me. Arriving as a quiet inkling, the yearning to take on this retreat became a steady hum layered beneath most of my interactions.
I was terrified by the idea of spending 10 days in total silence, cut off from my phone’s infinite distractions, doing nothing but trying to meditate. Which is why I knew I had to do it.
So what exactly is a Vipassana meditation retreat?
Vipassana meditation is a 2500-year old technique that was promoted by The Buddha to help develop awareness and equanimity. Equanimity is the alluring quality of being fully present and perfectly okay with whatever is happening in the moment. If practiced correctly and persistently, Vipassana promises the lofty benefits of purity of mind, inner peace, and boundless compassion. Fiercely non-sectarian, Vipassana is considered both the simplest and most difficult meditation technique. I learned that the instructions are laughably simple: all you need to do is sit still, observe your breath, be aware of sensations on your body, and allow your thoughts to flow with zero judgment. But as I would discover over and over again, these instructions are extremely difficult to follow, especially in our rushed and noisy world.
As such, the retreats are designed to reduce these distractions. For 10 days, you agree to live in complete silence, called Noble Silence, along with strangers with whom you cannot even make eye contact. Predictably, men and women are completely separated. You must stow your phone, and you are not allowed to read, write, or exercise (even yoga is prohibited!). You must adhere to a vegetarian diet and a rigorous timetable, meditating for 120 hours over 10 days.
Why would I choose to spend my vacation in such a restrictive experience? In short, curiosity and challenge. I wondered what it would be like to exist in a place of no responsibilities or identity markers. I wondered where my mind would go if it were given unprecedented time and space to wander. I wondered what types of people attended these retreats. I wondered where my thresholds of pain, physical and emotional, resided. Most of all, I wondered if I could do it.
I was terrified when I arrived at the meditation center that first evening. In contrast to the luxurious, rural setting I’d envisioned, I found myself at a place that looked like a small mental institution. Most unsettling were the signs saying “FEMALE BOUNDARY” entwined with ropes. After leaving panicked messages, I turned off my phone and vowed to give this a chance. I could leave whenever I wanted if it were super weird.
Walking into the registration dinner, I was struck and heartened by the diversity of the students. Among the ~60 students, I was glad to see many different sizes, races, and ages. I heard a variety of languages, including Russian, Mandarin, and Hebrew. There was a dignified black lady there to celebrate her 67th birthday all the way down to a surfer bro who couldn’t have been over 20. Only one person looked like the Google-Image version of Spiritual Chick.
After dinner and an informational meeting, we divested ourselves of electronic devices and began Noble Silence. We moved to the Meditation Hall and were called into our assigned spaces to ‘set up.’ I felt like I’d shown up to a potluck dinner without a dish. Most people had ferried in a veritable arsenal of meditation equipment: cushions in unidentifiable shapes, arm slings, little wooden benches, and spring-loaded knee holders. All I had was my one basic cushion. Oh well. I sat down, cross-legged, and closed my eyes, wondering what was going to happen. When our fidgeting stopped, a nasal voice chanting in an Indian dialect flooded the room over loudspeakers. My abdomen froze as I questioned if this were indeed a cult. The chanting stopped, and we were told to close our eyes and focus on our breath.
After about 30 minutes, everything below my waist was in agony. I had no idea that sitting could hurt. And I am no stranger to pain. In fact, I’m somewhat of a masochist, opting into cold shower challenges, obstacle races like Tough Mudders, and a research-based PhD. Please take my word that sitting on the ground and trying to be completely still hurts. That hour, filled with pain and self-doubt, stretched on forever. No effing way I could do this.
The first full day, Day 1, was probably the most difficult day of my life. At 4am sharp, my roommate’s fire-alarm-strength alarm clock jolted us out of bed. As I would do a million more times, I pulled on my shoes, trudged through the snow to the Meditation Hall, took off my shoes, and settled onto my meditation cushion for the 4:30am sit. I barely lasted an hour before returning to my room. I fell into a half-sleep and was awakened by the breakfast bell. While eating and mourning my loss of coffee, I realized that I had no concept of time. By 7am, I felt like I’d been awake for hours.
That day I felt hungover. I had a sore throat for the first time in years and a headache that wouldn’t quit. I missed everything. I especially missed writing, finding myself subconsciously reaching for a pen to try to process my emotions and hopefully feel better. In each meditation sit, I was frustrated by my inability to stay still and to clear my head. I was consumed by self-doubt. Why couldn’t I have just taken a normal vacation? Why did I think I was ready for something like this? How could I do this for 9.5 more days?! I suffered.
I asked the teacher how to find a posture that hurt less. She told me that there is no right posture and that I was being greedy in my quest to avoid pain. I felt worse.
I received a glimmer of hope that afternoon. Wallowing in my misery during one of the last sits of the day, an unexpected guide came for me. I was hit with a memory of Toby, my family’s energetic and loving dog who recently passed away. Suddenly realizing that I had been ‘too busy’ to properly grieve his loss, I reminisced and allowed the tears to stream down my face for most of that meditation hour. I asked him to help me get through this crazy thing I had gotten myself into. I felt a bit better.
That second morning I experienced my first lesson: I am not my thoughts. Just because I’m thinking immorally and negatively does not make me a bad person. Further, since my thoughts are exquisitely sensitive to my environment, I must optimize my conditions, both internal and external, as best as I could. I decided that I was done with this victim mentality. I chose this for myself. I vowed to shower and put on fresh clothes every morning (amazingly, this was not the standard behavior at this retreat). I committed to restorative self-care in the limited ways I could. I promised to always be on my side and to love myself no matter what happened.
These first few days were an emotional roller coaster. Generally, I employed an athlete’s mentality; I would psych myself up before each sit, assuring myself that I was stronger than the inevitable pain. I would then aggressively repeat a mental mantra in hopes of sitting still for the full hour (or 90 minutes or 2 hours). Nearly every time, I felt like I’d failed miserably, and I would limp out of the Hall and try to recharge.
Being outside saved me. As there was limited outdoor space, I slowed down and got creative. I found a potentially-off-limits area behind an abandoned building where the birds and squirrels converged (likely due to the compost pile). Nature was my Netflix. I studied the neuron-like networks of tree branches and learned which sounds went with each bird. I laughed (silently, of course) at the plump robins pecking into the snow and cheered on the cardinals in their courtship. The various rules boards and schedules were my newsfeed (hey – sometimes people modified their shower times!). I adapted.
On Day 4, my self-talk completely changed. I still can’t believe it. Settling in for the first sit of the day, a gentle voice came through – “are you ready, babe?” – instead of the usual “C’MON ALYSSA YOU GOT THIS. BE STRONG; PEOPLE ARE COUNTING ON YOU!” I was shocked. I’d never called myself ‘babe’ before, and it felt really nice. Unsurprisingly, sits became noticeably less painful.
That day we learned that we had not been practicing Vipassana, but a pre-req called Anapana meditation. Anapana meditation teaches you to pinpoint the bodily sensations of your breath and to quiet your mind. While I was slightly outraged that I’d spent 40 hours moving at a frustratingly slow pace, I was excited to learn the actual Vipassana technique, which was much more intellectually engaging than was observing my breath. I was so over my breath.
Focusing on new, more complex instructions helped me transition out of suffering. I began to understand why the returning students kept coming back to these retreats. The first time I realized the power of my mind was when I dissolved back pain. I was able to acknowledge the pain without judgment, and miraculously, the pain disappeared. It was as though my aches were stains and I’d discovered the Tide Stick.
The nightly lectures told me exactly what I needed to hear. The lecturer compared this retreat to brain surgery. He said that for many days, we would be cutting into our brains, and it would hurt; everything we’d suppressed throughout our lives would bubble to the surface. We were implored to stay for the full course, as we wouldn’t get stitched up until the last day. These lectures were helpful reminders that this meditation technique was not designed to feel good; it was designed to identify the root causes of our negative thought patterns and to cut them out. I was reassured that I was not the only one experiencing pain and helplessness.
The emotional roller coaster continued, but the valleys softened. Once my mental chatter wore itself out, my mind started solving some meaningful problems and generating interesting ideas. I outlined potential ways to navigate my career and designed engineering courses to propose to the department chair upon my return. I considered the conserved structures of bacterial cell walls and gained deep understanding of why certain behaviors trigger me.
I was fascinated by the random places my mind went as the middle days melted together. I found myself as a reckless child at recess, as a nervous 17-year-old heading to college, as a fully-functioning adult on my morning commute. I listed people that I missed whom I wanted to connect with. And I learned that no matter how certain I was that I was causing permanent damage to my hips, groin, knees, and back, each time that I arose from a sit, my body felt better within a minute of walking around. I was experiencing my resilience.
Around Day 7, the tears arrived. I bemusedly thought that my weekly tearshed would outpace my yearly average. Sometimes I was hit with tears of joy, thinking about my future children or how insanely wonderful my relationship is. Sometimes past pains or future fears unraveled me into tears. The entire time, I had powerful, memorable dreams. As someone who rarely remembers her dreams, I’m amazed that I can recount the details of all eleven dreams over the course of the retreat.
Everything got darker before dawn. On Day 8, a cacophony of bodily sounds echoed through the Hall, amplified by the silence. I wondered if the uptick in burps and farts resulted from our bean-and-soy-heavy diet, or if we were all just becoming comfortable with our bodies and releasing societal norms. Is this what enlightenment sounds like?
On Day 9, I asked the teacher how I should talk to the pain that inevitably enveloped my groin and back (if I were sitting cross-legged) or knees and ankles (if I were kneeling). The instructions kept saying that we must recognize that pain is not good or bad; pain is just a sensation, and sensations are neutral. Sensations always arise and pass away. The teacher told me that I shouldn’t talk to the pain, but instead just wordlessly accept it. That’s what I had been trying and failing to do for 9 days. Moving beyond words to deep acceptance is no straightforward task. She told me to walk briskly to circulate my energy.
Unsatisfied with this advice, I burst outside to my favorite potentially-off-limits area that contained the most nature (which still wasn’t much). I extrapolated my prescription of brisk walking to pacing madly. I tried so hard to fold the idea of acceptance into my brain. I realized that acceptance is what we humans all really want. I thought about the stressfulness of finding your clique in middle school, of college acceptances, and of trying to be in the ‘cool group’ at work. I was so caught up in my thoughts – pain wants to be accepted but we humans want to be accepted too and how could I as a human accept pain if I couldn’t truly accept myself – that I didn’t see the course manager running towards me. Apparently my potentially-off-limits area was indeed off-limits. She admonished me, and I skulked back to the in-boundary muddy grass.
Then I totally lost it. I began crying forcefully, sobs emerging from deep in my abdomen. I squatted, and then fell to my knees, and just cried. I cried for all the times that I didn’t cry. Exerting no effort to stop or hide my ugly-crying was strangely liberating.
This was when my big insight arrived. I realized that I am fundamentally a limits-pusher and occasionally a rules-breaker. Put another way: I’m an explorer. Like my entrepreneur father, I get mildly incensed whenever I see a limit, and I consider pushing it. ‘No Trespassing’ signs are magnets for us, and apparently these roped-off boundaries were also calling me to test them. Beneath my good-girl exterior, I have a rebellious streak. I’m perfectly happy to follow rules as long as they make sense to me, but I’ll always question the rules.
Sometimes this questioning gets me in trouble. In third grade, I lost recess (!!) for challenging the sacred Spelling Test words, earnestly bringing in my well-worn dictionary as evidence. And when I think about it, many of my favorite experiences and proudest moments come from this pushing and rule-bending. I’m not sorry for breaking the unspoken rules of being a female Engineering Director or teaching college courses at age 28.
I realized that I would rather push, I would rather be an uncomfortable or lonely trailblazer, I would rather occasionally get in trouble than suppress this innate tendency and blindly follow rules. My stomach relaxed. My tears evaporated into a soft smile. I felt inexplicably freer. I now see that I deeply accepted who I am, troublesome parts and all.
I wish I could say that I then became enlightened and sailed through subsequent sits. Honestly, I struggled to focus my mind in the next sit because I was thinking about how I would tell this story without sounding egocentric and/or pathetic. But in the sit after that, my mind quieted, and when the groin pain came, I wordlessly accepted it. I can’t explain how this acceptance was different from my hundreds of previous attempts, but it was. The hour was over before I knew it. I arose incredulously and realized that the physical pain was still there, but I hadn’t reacted to it with nearly the same desperation. My body hadn’t changed; my mind had changed.
We were released from Noble Silence on the afternoon of Day 10. Surprisingly, I didn’t really feel like talking. What in the world would I say to these women with whom I had an unprecedented intimacy? For 10 long days, we had silently eaten together, slept in close quarters, meditated in varying ways, and felt each other’s pains and joys as we rode the waves of suppressed memories and new insights. What words could capture the depth of these experiences?
‘Hello,’ was the initial simple and meaningful word that came my way. For the first time, I looked straight into the eyes of the friendly girl who had sat behind me in the Hall for about 100 hours. As her face relaxed into a smile, I was delighted by her beauty and grace.
Looking mildly startled, each woman commented that her voice seemed foreign when she emerged from silence. Words were slow to arrive. I couldn’t pronounce the word ‘neuroplasticity’ (yes, that was one of the first words I spoke after 10 days – and I promise that it was in context!). But within minutes, our disparate sounds converged into mellifluous and lively chatter. We humans are social creatures indeed.
We were all initially curious about each other’s retreat experiences. The curiosity shifted to wondering who each other was in ‘the real world.’ Like that first night, I was heartened to learn that I was in great company. I had been meditating near strong thinkers who had arrived from very different places: a newly-minted MD seeking to help psychiatric patients without drugs (a Dr. Kelly Brogan protege!!!), an MBA reinventing herself as a social worker, a corporate finance director at a prestigious firm who recently stepped down to start a family.
But more important and interesting than our secular titles were the insights that we had gained from this retreat. Someone shared promising ideas on how to apply mindfulness to her workplace, the prison system, to reduce re-admissions. A middle-aged woman who had a double hip replacement now felt empowered. She joyfully announced that she can heal herself and doesn’t need to pay people to ‘fix her.’ Another woman realized that this was the longest she’d gone without alcohol during her adult life, and she hypothesized that her nightly wine might be inhibiting herself from her self.
We were required to sit a few more times before our release on the morning of Day 11. Perhaps the most difficult sit was the last one, not the first one, since we had to resume our focus after the liberating experience of speaking and connecting with each other. About 15 minutes into the last sit, a loud fart pierced the silence! Most meditators (including me) burst out laughing. The teacher sternly announced that anyone who couldn’t stop laughing must leave the Hall. Suppressing laughter has never been so difficult, and I’ve never been so acutely aware of the power of emotional contagion. As soon as I would regain my composure, I’d hear someone near me struggling, and it would start again. We ran out of the Hall when that hour was over and laughed so hard our stomachs hurt.
The last day was so necessary. Our final night, my roommates and I sat on our beds and solved the world’s problems. A Jewish Brazilian writer, a Buddhist Chinese banker, and a Christian American engineer discussed the personal and global implications of religion, healthcare economics, financial stressors, nutrition, and big data. We would have tackled climate change had the lights-out bell not rung. We agreed to be standby travel buddies and wished each other the best.
I had conducted a complicated self-experiment and certainly experienced a remarkable spectrum of thoughts, sensations, and emotions during the 10 days, but would this retreat yield any lasting or relevant results?
In addition to the lessons I learned, I know that I am existing differently in my world. I feel more serene, confident, engaged, and thoughtful. I’ve never felt closer to my partner. I have been more excited to go to work than I’d been in awhile, and I’m truly enjoying speaking with people and not wondering how long conversations are going to take. I’m sleeping better and have been more focused and productive. Meetings have been remarkably fun and useful. My self-talk continues to be gentle and affirming. Perhaps most fulfilling is seeing how people light up with their own realizations when they ask me about my retreat experiences.
So how can you get these types of benefits? I wouldn’t recommend a 10-day Vipassana retreat to everyone. I realize that some people don’t feel ready or can’t take the time away. If you’re curious about it and are attracted to challenges, I’d say go for it. This (free!) experience could be transformative. I chose the Vipassana retreat because I wanted an immersive experience to properly learn the technique and give it a fair chance. However, there is no right or wrong way to meditate; the right way is the way that works for you.
If you’re not sold on the idea of spending 10 days totally offline exploring the depths of your being, there are many other beneficial practices that are easier to implement. Tons of research has shown that some meditation/mindfulness is better than none in terms of health, longevity, cognition, and happiness. Siddhartha’s Brain is a remarkably readable book that synthesizes a great deal of the science and history of mindfulness meditation.
Let’s start with mindfulness, the quality of being truly present, which is difficult in our hyper-connected world. Studies upon studies have shown that excessive cell phone use decreases the quality of our relationships and increases anxiety. Often, we reach for our phones to distract ourselves from ‘unpleasant’ feelings like boredom. One study showed that we touch our phones over 2500 times per day (!), suggesting that we distract ourselves thousands of times everyday. Without phones, we are more likely to stay in our present feelings. I found that this ‘staying’ was necessary to cultivate non-judgment and move away from thinking that feelings are good or bad. That said, I challenge you to think twice before touching your phone, and designate certain times (like Sundays!) as phone-free.
How can you create a beneficial home meditation practice that sticks? Happily, there are now highly-leveraged online meditation programs for busy people to create lasting habits and experience profound benefits. Downloading the (free) Insight Timer app has been tremendously helpful for my home practice, as it provides community, music, and guided meditations. Kundalini yoga, an active form of meditation with lots of scientifically-validated benefits, was the only type of home-meditation that I can stick with for months on end. This type of meditation involves short segments (starting with 3 minutes!), called kriyas, that yield immediate effects. It’s worth Googling local meditation groups and retreat centers to properly learn the techniques and give yourself the space and accountability to establish a practice that works for you.
Overall, this retreat confirmed the importance of taking time out of our busy lives to quietly reflect and connect with ourselves. I learned countless lessons that could have only happened through direct experience. Perhaps most importantly, I deeply accepted myself and vowed to continue leaning into my fears.