Vipassana Meditation Retreat – What It’s Really Like

Sign: noble silence, be happy

Having completed a 10-day stint at a Vipassana Meditation Centre I thought I would share this particular experience while the memory is still very raw…I mean fresh in my mind.

Before I got to India, the spiritual epicentre of the world, I knew I wanted to give meditation a try. Let’s face it, drinking and partying is so low on India’s agenda as to be non-existent, and I’d seen enough forts to last a lifetime, what else was there to do? Plus, if meditation could shave off even a milli-percent of the tantrums I’m prone too or get my mind to, well, simply shut the hell up when I’m trying to get to sleep and can’t get on the Internet to book that train ticket anyway, it would be a success.

Understanding Vipassana meditation

I came across Vipassana meditation the same way most Westerners do – Google. It sounded good, based on science and biology to understand why we react and think rather than converting to some underworld religious sect. So far, so good. But there were a few precepts that had to be adhered to during the 10 day stay:

1. Do not kill – easy…

…hang on…I read the small print…this included not killing mosquitoes and excluded indirect killing i.e. become vegetarian for 10 days. Already hankering for beef, I knew this would be tough, but weighing it up and with the addition of insect repellent, it was do-able.

2. Do not steal – with no restaurant salt and pepper pots or shot glasses to tempt me I would be fine.

3. No intoxicants – as already mentioned, India is not party central so I’d been off the booze for a month already – this wasn’t going to be a problem.

4. Maintain a 10 day period of ‘noble silence’ – what? I clicked off the page….no way. That was that. No Viapassana meditation for me.

The need for Vipassana meditation

Meditation Centre in Indian with gold spire

Weeks passed and my anger in India grew – I was arguing regularly with tuk-tuk drivers, pushing and shoving along with the rest of the nation. It was all becoming too much. My Latin American days of tranquilo seemed so far away. I couldn’t soothe my stress with a nice glass of Sancerre. Something needed to change. 10 days isn’t that long I told myself. And the whole not talking thing, well, I was never going to find a party meditation course (though a possible business idea?). I was ready for some solitude, so I signed up.

Within a day my confirmation was sent through. Goody. And that was when I started to get a real feel for Vipassana meditation. The 10-day course ran from 1-12 September. I counted the days again. Yep, a 10 day course lasting 12 days?!

The day came and I checked in. As instructed, I duly handed over all my electrical items – camera, laptop, iPad, external hard drive – with the realisation that I am a bit of a techno junkie.

There was also a large sign telling me to  check all reading and writing materials – one book, one guide book, two notebooks, one diary, several pens, two pencils. Another realisation – I am also a word junkie. And then a third, more striking, realisation – I finally understood why I have so little space for clothes and shoes in my backpack. One hour at the Vipassana centre and already I was seeing the light.

I conveniently turned away from the notice telling me to hand in my books – an indirect breach of the not lying precept I knew, but if I was going to die or go crazy in the center, I at least wanted to be able to record my final words  – I wasn’t going to be allowed to speak them!

I already knew there was a grueling schedule starting each day with the wake up bell at 4 a.m. and ending with lights out at 9.30pm. And with no less than 10 full hours of meditation per day there would be little chance to use my contraband paper and pen along the way, though I did manage to scratch down snippets from my days…

Day One

Indiana Jo with Indian ladies at Vipassana centre

4am thought: I can do this.

Morning meditation: Had a successful first few hours learning to meditate – it’s just breathing. I do this all day every day. Hah  – I think I will be good at this.

Breakfast: I have been bullied on my first day! Outrage and fear for the rest of my stay.

When I left the dining hall I was surrounded by the meditation centre gang. It was so intimidating.

I tried to hold my nerve and entered into a staring competition with the leader, but he swaggered up to me and gestured at my banana. He wanted it. That’s when it turned physical. He pushed me. A whole handed push, hitting me square in my lady parts! Shocked, I screamed (another precept broken) and threw the banana at him. He tucked into it with a smile.

The monkeys here are vicious!

Day two

4am thought: I can’t do this.

End of a tough day, 20 hours of focused breathing already invested and earth shattering news comes. One cannot reach full enlightenment unless one agrees to abide by some of the more important precepts for the rest of one’s life. Namely, no killing (read vegetarianism) and no intoxication (read no social life). WTF? This wasn’t clear on the website. Is there really any point to me completing this course if I can never reach the full goal? Do I stay? Do I go? I feel cheated, but most of all I feel exhausted, I fall onto my straw mattress bed. I’ll think about it in the morning.

Day three

Meditation hall at vipassana retreat in India

4am thought: what did I do wrong? How did I end up here? Realisation: I’m here voluntarily. Decision: Today I will leave.

Morning meditation: Oooooh, if I promise to breathe all day today, tomorrow I will receive wisdom. How exciting. I must stay for that.

Day four

4am thought: excited about wisdom.

Morning meditation: Wisdom is pain! Literally. It turns out that the basis of Vipassana is enduring meditation without moving your limbs. If you feel pain, just remind yourself that it is impermanent. Observe it objectively and do not react to it. Only then can you cleanse any deep rooted issues. What?! I’m leaving right now…oh, no, I can’t, because I can’t walk, because I’ve been sat in one position for hours on end and no longer have any feeling in my legs. As soon as I can walk again, I’m gone!

Comment for suggestion box: the meditation is torture enough without inflicting the chef’s attempts at cooking on us.

Day five

Curry and rice in metal tin at Indian meditation retreat

4am thought: my legs are broken. So is my back. My neck. I think I might be dying.

Morning meditation: One of the teachers shouted at me today for stretching my legs. I hate that teacher. I am plotting revenge. I may break another precept (do not kill). Oh dear, Vipassana is not working, I am full of anger and sin, I must try harder. I must stay longer.

Day six

hard bed and thin mattress at India vipassana meditation centre

4am thought: how can my throat be sore, I’m not talking. And why is it raining in my room?

Morning meditation: I hobble to meditation hall. I hobble back 30 minutes later and crawl into my damp bed. My rucksack is growing mold from the permanent rain. I have lost my sense of taste with the repetitive vegetarian food. I have giant sized ants in my room (some of which I killed. Intentionally. And enjoyed! Blatant breach of the no killing precept). My drain is blocked with the paint that is peeling from the dripping roof and this is all without the pain of meditation. It is too much. I will sleep then pack and leave.

Ahhhh, sleep until 6.30am. Bliss. I feel refreshed. Maybe I can do this after all. And I am half way through. It can’t get any worse.

Day seven

4am thought: must go meditate, must go meditate, must go meditate…

Morning meditation: It got worse. I was allocated a cell. Their word, not mine, though a description I fully agree with. A windowless, airless room with a mat and a cushion. An actual cell. With a lock on the outside but no way to open it from the inside.

The following two days are days of serious meditation.

I’m scared!

Comment for suggestion box: the meditation is difficult enough without inflicting the insanely bad chanting/mock singing on us.

Day eight

Meditation cell with mat on floor in India vipassana retreat

4am thought: if I can sneak out of my room after lights out, scale the wall of the administration building, find the keys to the valuables box, pick up my laptop, purse and passport, get past the monkeys and find a tuk-tuk…shoot, final bell…I’ll continue my escape plan later…

Morning meditation: Had a productive day in my cell!

I practiced headstands for an hour. I can now stay upright for more than two minutes – much longer than I can meditate for.

I planned my next 22 blogs.

I tried to remember every birthday I’ve ever had.

I recalled every Eastenders character that Ian Beal has had his wicked way with.

I counted the number of stripes on my mat (it took three counts to get an accurate number).

I’m exhausted, I must sleep…what was that thing nagging at me this morning…zzzzzzz

Day nine

4am thought: blankness

Torture and sensory deprivation are illegal under the Geneva Convention, yet appear to be the cornerstones of the Vipassana meditation technique. Discuss.

Day nine

4am thought: F@ck it, I’m going back to sleep. If any of the teachers knock on my door again, I will hit them with a broom. Not very Vipassana, but very true.

Lunch: except for at a funeral, and perhaps the London Tube on a wintry Monday morning, I’ve never seen such a collection of miserable, depressed faces. If a stranger walked into the dining hall, they might mistake us for a large suicide pact.

Afternoon meditation: We were locked in the hall. I don’t have full confidence we will be allowed out of this place. I’m no longer able to concentrate on meditation, too busy considering the different ways I can contact my family and friends. I have kidnap cover on my issuance, surely they can help….

…panic is setting in, breathing, breathing, breathing, ooooh, what is that deeply calming and relaxing sensation flowing through my body? Oh my holy Buddha, I think I took my first step to enlightenment…

Day ten

Indian ladies with bowls on heads at vipassana centre

4am thought: last day, last day, last day, last day…

After morning meditation: I regain the power of speech. Feels weird. Is that what I sound like?

Strangest first conversations ever. Asked (in Hindi and through a strange series of gestures of pointing and scratching) if I have any cream to give a woman for her itchy vagina! She actually used the word poonani. Priceless. [For the record, I didn’t have required cream.]

Rest of the day proceeds with excitement. We have been paroled. Release is tomorrow. Just one more evening. How hard can it be?

Evening meditation: I am going to Vipassana hell. Several women turn hysterical at the sight of a large insect on one of the meditation cushions. Careful to not break the do not kill precept, I heroically take it outside.

Inside, all hell breaks loose. I have broken the unspoken precept. Do not touch another person’s cushion. And never, ever, ever….ever take it outside the meditation hall. I have stolen her energy (not her fault for carelessly leaving it lying around). From which I gather, she might now die (thus breaking the do no kill precept anyway). Her soul will be damned to eternity. Mine is going to hell.

I leave Vipassana wondering if this is really for me.

One day on

I am sitting cross-legged as I write this. My Internet isn’t working, it is tipping down with rain and it took nearly 2 hours longer than expected to escape the Vipassana prison, yet I feel strangely calm.

Despite my doubts along the way, I wonder if maybe there is something to it. After all, if I can take a tuk-tuck in India without getting into a blaring row, as I managed this morning, there must be some benefit? Though it remains to be seen how long my new found serenity will last.

Whatever, the outcome, I doubt I will ever reach Vipassana full enlightenment…but that’s ok, who needs enlightenment when you can have the pleasures of a good steak and a glass of red wine?

Be happy.

PS: thanks to the two ladies who kept me going for the 10 days (you know who you are) – true Vipassana kindness!

Vipassana Meditation Retreats

  • The retreats range from 3 to 10 days for new students.
  • Courses are available worldwide.
  • Payment for the course is voluntary – the student before you has paid for your space and you, if you wish, pay for the student after you.
  • Although it is likely to vary, both food and accommodation are basic but bearable.
  • You should be 100% committed to seeing the course through – it is physically and emotionally gruelling meaning many people leave within the first 48 hours, yet the true benefits don’t start until around half way in.
  • 10 days’ silence is not as difficult as you think – everyone else’s silence really helps.
  • The beauty of Buddhism, or at least as it was taught to me, if you’re unable to adhere to every rule and precept, you’re not damned. You’re simply encouraged to comply as much as you can within your lifestyle.
  • If you need a break from the stress of modern life, this could be the perfect antidote.
  • Courses are popular so plan your retreat as far in advance as possible – it can be done online.

For full details see the Dhamma website.

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Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.