What it’s really like to do a 10-day vipassana silent retreat
No speaking, no reading, no problem.
Vipassana—the oldest Buddhist meditation practice, which centers around awareness, rather than concentration–is to retreats as the marathon is to running: long, grueling, emotional, challenging…and, according to those who experience it, transformative.
That’s because it’s often in the context of silent retreats, which usually go for at least 10 days and require so much more than just silence; you’re also meant to cut out everything from eye contact and reading to meals after 11:30 a.m., all in the name of becoming so aware of things—things that you desire, things that cause you pain—that you no longer react to them.
Or, as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted earlier this month, “Vipassana’s singular objective is to hack the deepest layer of the mind and reprogram it.”
Whether mastering vipassana meditation is one of your 2019 goals or just want to figure out WTF Dorsey was tweeting on about, you might find yourself wondering: What really goes down during a silent retreat?
To help fill in the blanks, we spoke with The Glassy-fave astrologer Sandy Sitron, who attended the 10-day vipassana retreat at the Dhama Dhara Vipassana Meditation Center in Massachusetts this fall.
First things first: Why did you decide to do a silent retreat?
I consider myself to be an extreme person—if there’s something I can do that’s a test of myself, I’ll usually be into it. So I thought, okay, this will be something I can do that’s a test of myself. That’s how I was approaching it [laughs].
What I thought would be the real challenge was being silent, because I consider myself to be an extrovert, but it turned out the silent part wasn’t that hard; I actually really enjoyed that part. What was really hard was being in my own head and not doing anything. Just really Being, with a capital B. That was the thing that was so different from my normal life and really unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
“What was really hard was being in my own head and not doing anything. Just really Being, with a capital B.”
The other thing is the actual meditation itself; it was something I knew was going to be a part of the course, but I hadn’t prepared myself for it, mentally. It was difficult for me as a newcomer to sit for the amount of time required, but I did push myself a lot harder than I thought I would and I got a good result out of that. The environment and the teaching convinced me to try really hard to do the meditation, and I felt really proud that I learned it. I left feeling like now I can meditate.
What is vipassana meditation, exactly?
It’s healing yourself on all levels of mind, body, and spirit. And the way that that works is through training your subconscious mind to sit with being uncomfortable; as you sit with being uncomfortable, you train your subconscious mind that everything’s impermanent—so that when you’re going through your normal, daily life, you’ve trained your mind not to react to those things. It’s a really powerful ancient practice that the Buddha discovered.
The meditation itself is really challenging—they don’t teach you vipassana meditation until the fourth day, where you learn to sit completely still. I was meditating eight hours a day—that was crazy!
Wait, eight hours…a day?
That’s real. You’ll literally be sitting on the floor meditating for eight to ten hours a day. That was one big surprise for me!
The course was overall the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You push yourself to the limits of discomfort because you’re really sitting with yourself and in your own head. The way the meditation is designed, you release all this old stuff, so your brain starts to go crazy and starts to think these thoughts that are so absurd and so loud.
I say “you” and not “me” because, although it was happening to me, afterwards I found out it was happening to everyone else. On the fifth night, for example, I was up all night thinking things like, “Queen Elizabeth’s dead! I know she’s dead!” It was so weird, just obsessing over things I don’t even follow, having wild dreams.
“You push yourself to the limits of discomfort because you’re really sitting with yourself and in your own head.”
When you’re not meditating, what exactly are you doing?
The only things you can do while you’re there are: meditate, sleep, shower, walk outside, and look out the window. It’s a very, very different schedule. You’re supposed to wake up at 4 a.m., start meditating from 4:30 to 6:30, then at 6:30 you go to breakfast and then have until 8 to do whatever you want—that could be looking out the window or taking a nap, which sounds weird to do at 7:30 a.m, but I did it.
From 8 to 11 a.m. you meditate, then 11 to 1 you have lunch and a break. From 1 until 5 p.m. you meditate, then you have a break until 6 p.m., then you meditate again until 7, and then from 7 to 8:30 p.m. you listen to the teacher, and then you meditate until 9 p.m. and go to sleep.
It sounds exhausting, even if you weren’t “doing” that much.
It was exhausting. And I was really stressed out a lot of the time. You’re sitting in meditation and your body is releasing old emotional wounds—so you have to sit with this spontaneous healing. I just had this welling-up anger; at one point I was walking down this forest path and had this image of me high-kicking a tree. Like, karate moves. I was like, okay Sandy, you’re officially losing it. And then the anger would pass and release.
“I just had this welling-up anger; at one point I was walking down this forest path and had this image of me high-kicking a tree.”
I thought that the retreat would be a rest, so I hit the ground running right after the vipassana course; I definitely needed a vacation after the vacation. I’d recommend at least a day or two days to re-acclimate afterwards.
What about the silent aspect of it—was it hard to not speak?
It’s called “noble silence,” which I think is really cool. The idea is you’re inherently silent—so you’re not talking, you’re not communicating through gestures. You’re in a lunch room with 60 other women and you’re just trying not to communicate, even when you get into situations—like, I couldn’t figure out how to work the toaster! Not having to make small talk or say “thank you” or “please” or “excuse me” was the best part, honestly.
Let’s talk about the cafeteria—because you don’t eat after 11:30 a.m. and are served only vegetarian food, right?
It is crazy to eat at 6:30 a.m. and then 11 a.m. and not eat again. That was honestly really hard. I think I lost five pounds. But what you’re doing is part of the meditation process; you’re getting to this place where you don’t react to things that are painful, or react to desires—I want this snack, or this wine, or whatever it is.
At the beginning I was like, oh my God there’s not very much protein served, what am I going to do? But by the last couple of days I realized: This doesn’t really matter. I don’t need all the things I think I need. I have enough. It was a big shift on a subconscious level
Is the center equally austere?
This place in Shelburne is considered the Taj Mahal of vipassana retreat centers. It’s really nice in comparison to other ones, everything was super organized and super clean, but it’s very plain. I had a renovated, small room to myself with a comfortable twin mattress on a plank of wood, a rack and hangers for my clothes, a table for my alarm clock, a window, and a nice bathroom to use. It had an institutional feel, but that’s not a bad thing.
Jack Dorsey tweeted about wearing trackers during his vipassana retreat. Is that considered a no-no?
I personally think you should do whatever the hell you want! Yes, it’s a 2,500-year history, but just like anything else in our world, we’re going to integrate it into our lives with our own perspectives. If it makes sense to you to know what’s happening on a physiological level, if that will help you feel more compassion on a daily basis, great!
You mentioned that you’re into doing extreme things. What about for someone who isn’t—would a vipassana silent retreat be too much for them?
No, but I think you have to want to retreat. I know people go on “retreats” and that’s a thing now, but this is a very different kind of retreat; this is a retreat into yourself. You basically live like a monk or nun, give up all your belongings, and go completely into your own head. You’re in a safe and calm enough environment to go into this meditative space all day.
Is previous meditation experience necessary to go on a silent retreat, or nah?
I didn’t have any and I was fine with it. You show up and follow the instructions. If you can’t sit on the floor, you can sit on a chair—there were people there in their eighties! The only thing I’d say is don’t go if you’re sick—that’s not fun for anyone.
“I felt so sharp and focused, so compassionate and loving.”
Did you notice any positive changes while you were there?
Walking outside started to become high entertainment. You’ll see a leaf and be like, “Oh my God, that leaf is sooo interesting!” And that’s cool, because with normal life, I’m always doing something. To have 10 days to just be was totally Oppositeland. It was so hard for me to get into it, but once I got into it, I thought, oh, this is pretty great. This is what I need.
And the truth is that you’re so much more focused if you do meditate. I saw that—every week I write horoscopes, and it takes me two to three hours usually; I came back from the retreat and I wrote them in 45 minutes. I felt so sharp and focused, so compassionate and loving for a couple days. It felt like I was walking on a cloud and my brain and body felt so cleansed. It’s what you hope you’d feel afterwards.