Maximising Happiness: 10-day silent meditation retreat

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As Christian and I have begun to learn about meditation, there has been one recommendation that has come up again and again from friends we’ve spoken to and books we’ve read: Do a 10-day silent meditation retreat, a full immersion into the world of meditation. While such a commitment seemed daunting (especially for novices like us), the idea of going all in and seeing for ourselves “what it’s all about” was also appealing. So we went for it and signed up for a Vipassana Meditation course at the Dhamma Malaya Center in Malaysia. It turned out to be a truly unique experience. It was new territory for both of us. And as such it was really challenging (mentally and physically) but also rewarding. It was a personal growth experience. Instead of writing a summary I felt that sharing my stream of consciousness from the 10 days would give a better account of what it was like. Here is what was going through my head (to the best of my recollection):

Day 0: “It feels like the first day of school”

  • We board the bus taking us from Kuala Lumpur to the Meditation Center. Four hours left before Christian and I will start the course. The bus is full with fellow meditators. To my surprise, they are less yogi-like than I expected. Only one girl has the cliched dreadlock-and-pyjama-pants look. This is a relief. I was afraid that this might not be for us and that we find ourselves in a world of serious yogis that dedicate their life to this. For Christian and me it’s really about learning how to control the chatter in our mind and reduce the stress in our lives without giving up on our ambitions and goals. Along the drive I find myself getting more nervous the closer we get. I can’t even imagine how I will be able to sit on a cushion for ten straight days. I can’t even keep still on the chair in my office for one straight hour. This will be painful.
  • As the bus pulls up at the center, we enter through a driveway uncovering a property set among lush greenery, bordering a papaya and palm tree plantation. I think “wow, this place looks nicer than I expected”. I love nature and always find it very calming. This environment might help me get through the next ten days. We roll our luggage to the office and get our rooms assigned. I feel a pang of anxiety in my stomach as I realise this is the last time I will be able to speak with Christian. From now on, women and men will be separated. The only exception is the main Meditation Hall. I am advised to go to the female dining hall for further instructions. I’m greeted by a room full of women, probably close to 100 in total. I am surprised by the age mix. There are teenagers as well as women in their 70s or 80s. The crowd is radiating a mix of excited anticipation mixed with anxiousness about the unknown. It kind of feels like it’s the first day of school. Nobody really knows anyone else. Everyone is kind of pretending to look like they’re keeping to themselves but at the same time eyeing everyone else.
  • After registration we check into our rooms. I’m positively surprised by my room. First, I have a room to myself (which most meditation centres don’t offer). Second, it’s nicer that what I expected. Well, it’s very basic. A small room with a window furnished only with a tiled bench with a mattress and a little stand for personal belongings. Adjacent there is a small bathroom with a shower, toilet, a small sink and two water buckets for doing laundry. I guess you could say it is similar to a prison cell, but I’m happy because it’s clean. After I settle in, I head to the office to drop off my personal belongings. You are not meant to keep anything that could interfere with your meditative concentration and mindfulness. Turns out I have a lot of things to let go of: our iPad, our Mac, my mobile phone, my camera, my Kindle, my iPod, a couple of Lonely Planets, and my notebook. It feels strange to hand everything over. What if I get bored? Ten days are a long time… I make my way back to the dining hall. We are about to get instructions on the course schedule. There will be two main vegetarian meals a day (breakfast and lunch) with a tea break at 5pm (with fruit for first time students only). The day will start with a wake-up call at 4am and end at around 10pm, broken up into 1-2 hour blocks of meditation and breaks for eating and rest in between. I do some quick math in my head. This means 10.5 hours of sitting meditation a day! This will be tough.
  • With the end of the instructions the course and therewith “Noble Silence” officially start. This means no talking, no eye contact or gestures with any of the other participants. The point is to not disturb the meditative concentration that we are supposed to be keeping throughout the day. With that I make my way up to the main meditation hall for our first meditation session. The hall is quite big. It looks inviting with its large white walls and tilted wooden roof. Lots of fresh air is coming in from the large openings under roof. Thank god that there are so many fans! I would have died of the heat otherwise. The lights are dimmed. Square seating pillows, about a dozen in each row, are neatly arranged. The dark blue ones on the right are for us women. Men are on the left on light blue pillows. I find my assigned spot and notice that some other women have extra pillows, some brought extra shawls. I feel a bit clueless. I’ve heard that the prolonged sitting can get pretty painful and people try to support their bodies with extra cushions. There is also the option to sit on a chair in the back row  But this seems like cheating. I promise myself that I’ll make it through these ten days on this cushion. I go to the back of the hall and find myself two extra pillows. I’m sure they’ll come in handy eventually. Two assistant teachers, one male and one female, walk in and sit down on two small elevated podiums in the front. They turn on a tape with the first instructions from the master teacher, S.N. Goenka. The assistant teachers will support the sessions and answer questions for students. Our first task: focus on our breath, specifically, the sensation from breathing in and out. With those instructions, we are left to our own devices. I have practiced this type of breathing meditation with Christian before. This feels comforting. Thoughts keep flying through my head but for the most part I am able to focus on my breathing. The hour is over quite quickly and we are allowed to retreat to our rooms. This wasn’t too hard. That said, this is only Day 0 and the course officially starts tomorrow. With a sense of anticipation of what lies ahead, I stroll back to my room through the dark night.

Day 1: “Is this what meditation feels like? I don’t know, but it feels good”

  • I hear a loud gong and almost jump up in bed. It must be 4am. It’s pitch black outside. Didn’t we just go to bed? The gong seems to go on forever. At least 10 times. They really want us to get up. I roll out of bed and take a cold shower (for hot water you need to fill up your bucket at specific hot water stations). I figure I might as well start this first day refreshed. I feel energised and excited for what’s to come. As I step outside, I join the stream of co-meditatiors who are on their way through the dark to the meditation hall. Once in the hall, I wiggle around on my cushion to find a comfortable position. Here we go. I focus on my breath. But my concentration keeps getting interrupted. Random thoughts keep coming up. “I’m hungry. What’s for breakfast today? Who is breathing so loudly close to me? This is disturbing. My legs feel numb. Airplane flying over the building. Birds are chirping. They are quite loud. I’m hungry…”. I get a little bit annoyed with myself. Why can’t I focus better? Then I remember what Christian and I had read in meditation books. Acknowledge the thought that comes up but don’t dwell on it. Let go and softly come back to your breath. This helps. I’m getting into some sort of flow. Suddenly I hear some chanting. A taped recording of the master teacher. It’s not very melodic and sounds a bit weird. Maybe it’s a sign of the meditation session to end soon? I really hope so. My legs are close to falling asleep and I keep wiggling around on my cushion. A loud, vibrant gong announces the end of the session. I made it! It’s 6:30am. Breakfast time.
  • I quickly get up and suddenly remember that we are meant to be mindful throughout the day. By focusing on each individual activity our meditative state is supposed to continue. I try to walk slowly but see some others rushing down the path to the the dining hall. Aren’t we all meant to be mindful? What if not enough food will be left when I get there? Seems like they were running low on food at the light dinner the day before. A feeling of stress and anxiety overcomes me. This is ridiculous, I think. Here I am, learning how to take the stress out of my life but obsess about getting enough food for breakfast. While I keep up the slower pace, it feels forced. The breakfast has plenty of food left when I arrive. It’s also a surprisingly great spread. I fill up my plate and find my assigned seat. The room is filled with the clinging sounds of cutlery and plates. The food tastes good. And to my surprise, I don’t miss the talking. I stroll back to my room and decide to take a short nap. It seems that only minutes have passed, but here it is again, the gong. Back to the meditation hall for the 8am session.
  • I have three hours of meditation ahead of me! Encouraged by my morning session, I sit down. It’s the same pattern as in the morning. Batches of good concentration, mixed with batches of lots of thinking. But I’m never really getting lost in my train of thought for too long. This is good, I think. I keep playing around with my sitting postures. Will I ever be able to sit still for one or two hours? With that, I keep making my way through the morning. The lunch procedure is the same as breakfast. The day continues with another three meditation sessions, followed by the tea break. I feel great throughout the afternoon. The hours seem to go by at a decent pace. I have a lot of energy and feel comfortable with the sitting (albeit, still changing my posture a lot). At one point I feel a vibrant sensation around my head. It feels as if an electric field is surrounding my head. This feels great! It’s almost as if I’m in and outside of my body at the same time. Is this what meditation feels like? I don’t know, but it feels good. I make a mental note to ask the female assistant teacher in the evening Q&A session. The tea break feels like heaven after meditating for so long. One more hour of group meditation before we listen to the daily “Dhamma Talk”, a video-taped talk by our master teacher. What a welcome change to watch a video vs. focusing on my breath! The assignment for the next day is to continue concentrating on our breath. The teacher reminds us to not control our breath but rather just observe it. I’m glad he mentions it. I realise that I had been trying to breath slowly and deeply at times to better concentrate. I make a mental note to follow my natural breath from here on.
  • After the talk, there is one more hour of group meditation. I’m starting to get tired but make it through. I stay for the Q&A session and ask my teacher about my “electric field” experience. Her answer is simply that different sensations will come up as my mind gets sharper. I shouldn’t read into it too much. We’ll learn more about it in Days 4-9. I guess, I have to be patient. But I’m also a bit disappointed that my experience wasn’t the sign of the “perfect” meditation. I think back to a book I read by Dan Harris about his first mediation retreat and that there is no such thing as a perfect meditation. Every session will be different and the goal is not to sense a particular feeling, be it positive or negative. The point is to sharpen your mind and not get attached to anything. Feeling relieved that the day is over I walk back to my room. I notice the beautifully clear sky with its many bright stars. 9 more days to go. So far so good.

Day 2: “This feels like torture”

  • I’m already awake when the 4am gong goes off. I feel exhausted. The bed and the pillow are quite hard. I barely slept. My neck is starting to hurt. Also, who would have thought that nature could be so loud? All those nocturnal animals cause a hell of a noise level. I should have brought ear plugs. I go through my morning routine and walk up to the meditation hall. The fresh air is nice and I regain my positive spirits. I’m almost looking forward to the dimly lit hall. It is very peaceful in there. But already after ten minutes of meditation I know that this session will be hard. My neck and upper back start to hurt. The pain is slowly crawling up into my head. I start to sweat profusely. Changing my sitting posture doesn’t seem to help. I remember that I should try to stay peaceful. Our goal, after all, is to practice “equanimity”, i.e., to neither develop attachment (to positive sensations) nor aversion (to negative sensations like pain). I tense up and slowly start to get annoyed. Why is this experience so different from yesterday? Am I doing something differently? I barely make it through the session. Somehow the two hours go by. I can’t wait for the breakfast break to recharge a bit. Despite my positive attitude on the next few sessions, the whole day feels like torture. My body continues aching and I am slowly getting a headache. This day seems to be my test of equanimity, I think. And I have eight more days to go! I can’t get this thought out of my head anymore. How in the world can I endure eight more days of this physical pain? A recommendation from a book on meditation by Joseph Goldstein comes to my mind. “Your promise is to show up and sit. Leave the rest to itself and don’t try to control it. Take it hour by hour”. Hour by hour. Ok, let’s go hour by hour then. I try it. And things are getting a bit better. After the afternoon sessions I’m still feeling somewhat down but a bit more optimistic.
  • We get our next assignment during the Dhamma Talk that evening: continue focusing on your breath. Really, we’re just going to keep doing the same breathing exercises tomorrow? I feel some frustration. When are we going to start with Vipassana Meditation (the main part of the course)? This seems to get repetitive. My impatient self starts to show itself. The question is quickly answered. One more day of breathing meditation will help to sharpen our minds even more. Then we’ll swap to Vipassana on Day 4. I’m sure there is a good reason for this sequence and duration. At least I hope so. We are also told that as of Day 4 that during three of the sittings we won’t be allowed to change our posture during the full hour. They call this “sittings of determination.” I haven’t yet been able to sit completely still for a full hour. This seems daunting.

Day 3: “Starting to feel like I’m in the zone”

  • The morning mediation session on Day 3 is another uphill battle. I can’t believe it. It seems like my body is playing games with me. First my neck, then my back, now my legs and knees. The pain keeps moving. I try to stay relaxed and focus on my natural breath. This seems to work. Bit by bit my increased concentration seems to come back. My body also feels a bit less tense. At last, some progress. This positive trend continues throughout the day. With every meditation session my concentration gets slightly better. Most of the pain disappears. Even outside of the meditation sessions I feel like I’m in some sort of “zone”. I start to observe my surroundings more consciously (there are some pretty impressive ant streets on this property. And some of the ants are gigantic). I start to truly enjoy each meal, savouring every bite. I’m more mindful when doing benign tasks, like hand-washing my clothes, focusing on each piece at a time. And I’m finally able to walk more mindfully as well. It seems that my meditative state continues even outside of the hall. I feel very alert. At the same time I feel very peaceful and content.
  • I also start to experiment with different sitting postures, forcing myself to maintain them for a full hour. It’s hard. But I want to succeed in the sittings of determination that will start tomorrow. I wonder why there was no introduction to “proper sitting postures” to begin with. Shouldn’t that be the basis of every meditation course? This evening we finally get the instructions for the “real meditation”, Vipassana. I’m excited to kick into the next gear!

Day 4 to 9: “Peacefulness, exhilarating highs, and painful lows” 

  • In the following days, we start practising Vipassana. Vipassana is about sensing your body, i.e., you scan your body, trying to feel the sensation of each inch of your body. This exercise has two goals. First, to get an understanding of “impermanence”. Things inevitably keep changing and through experiencing this with my own body sensations, I’m supposed to get an understanding of the impermanence of everything. Second, to develop “perfect equanimity”. This means to stay perfectly peaceful regardless of the sensation i.e., to not develop any clinging to pleasant sensations and no aversion to unpleasant sensations. Initially it takes me a while to sense every part of my body. But with every session, I get better at it. I notice that it’s easier to focus on my body sensations than my breath. My mind wanders less and less. The meditation sessions seem to go by much faster. I feel good and am enjoying the daily routine. Not being able to move during the daily three “sittings of determination” turn out to be a real challenge, however. For the first 30 minutes everything is a breeze. Then, predictably, some part of my body starts to hurt. I feel excruciating pain. But I promised myself to get through it and not move. I start to sweat profusely. Is it just hot or am I really working that hard at sitting on a cushion? Again, I feel doubts arising. Why the hell am I putting myself through this? But with every successful session, I feel more proud.
  • Day 4 to 8 become somewhat of a blur. When we reach Day 5, I feel proud that I’m halfway through. But still five more days to go. Yet, my outlook on them is quite positive. I know what I’m capable of by now. I also enjoy the state I’m in. Everything is very peaceful. The more body scans we do, the more I can feel my body sensations outside of the sessions. When I’m standing, I feel my feet being firmly grounded. When I’m walking, I feel my leg muscles moving. When I’m eating, I notice my specific finger, arm and mouth movements. When I take a shower, the water is more noticeable on my skin. I particularly enjoy lying down in bed during the breaks or at night. My body feels heavy and relaxed on the mattress. I still have trouble sleeping but it seems that my body is resting even when my mind is awake. When I hear the 4am gong, a vibration is going through my body. I have heard people talk about similar experiences with meditation but was always quite sceptical. It sounded esoteric. But here I am, feeling these sensations. And they are pure and real. I start to believe that meditation could help me in being more present. I feel exhilarated. I’m so glad we are doing this course! But then again, the high that I experience during Days 4-6 comes to an end.
  • Day 7 and 8 pose another challenge. Sitting for 10.5 hours for 6 days straight has a toll on my neck and back. I’m in constant pain. Stretching doesn’t help anymore. Nor does sleep. I’m a bit defeated. Where did all the progress from the previous days go? I really have to fight through some of the session. Eventually I schedule time with my teacher. I want to know if I’m doing something wrong. She diffuses my concerns. Everyone’s body is in pain at the end of such a course. She promises me that daily one to two hour meditation sessions after this course will feel like a breeze. I really do hope so! Day 9 is our last true day of Vipassana. I learn that Day 10 is a wrap up day, with fewer meditation sessions that will be focused on Loving Kindness meditation. Noble Silence will end as well. This means I can talk to Christian again (at least around the dining hall where men and women are allowed to mingle as of then). That’s great news. This will make Day 10 so much easier! I try to give each remaining meditation session my best. As I fall into bed on Day 9, I can’t believe that we almost did it! We made it through.

Day 10: “We made it!”

  • I wake up with mixed feelings. This is the last 4am gong followed by our morning meditation. I will miss the tranquility and serenity of the mornings. At the same time, “we made it” and I am excited to see Christian and hear what his experience was like. There is one question, however, that keeps nagging at me. How will feeling our body sensations help me in real life? How am I supposed to apply this newly learned technique in day-to-day life? I am lucky and get one of the last interview spots with the assistant teacher. She looks at me with an amused smile. I’m probably not the first one asking for a “how to guide”. She promises that by continuing to practice Vipassana meditation and equanimity (no clinging, no aversion), I will start noticing changes. Old baggage (e.g., perceived notions, emotional patterns) will get lifted over time. I really want to believe her but am still somewhat dissatisfied. I buy into the technique of meditation but have a hard time to subscribe to Buddhist religious beliefs quite yet. I need something more tangible. Luckily, she offers me more practical advice. The body scan technique we learned will help me observe my sensations in day-to-day life. For example: If I get angry, I will feel certain sensations arising in my body. Previously, I might have immediately reacted. But with meditation practice, I will get better at observing myself and name different sensations and emotional states. With that I’ll be able to take a step back, think about how I want to respond and then act on it (or not). Responding versus reacting. Now this is something tangible for me to ponder over.
  • Lunch that day feels like a mad-house. Everyone is talking. The noise level seems unbearable. I reconnect with a few people that I met on Day 1. It’s interesting to hear what motivated others to join this course. The range of reasons is broad. Everything from curiosity to serious life events and illness. Slowly, I feel like I’m reemerging into the real world. I realise that I am barely able to talk and eat at the same time. I was so focused on being mindful and present that parallel processing of eating and talking seems overwhelming. I almost have to laugh. I would have never thought this could happen to me. Then I see Christian. I want to tell him all about my experience. But just sitting in front of him and looking into his eyes, I feel overcome with emotions and start to cry. I do not even comprehend why. Maybe it’s because all the tension of the past few days is released at once. Maybe it’s because I feel something special has happened.
  • The rest of the day is broken up into a couple more meditation sessions, packing, cleaning of rooms and community areas and some final go-forward meditation instructions. Day 11 is the official departure day. We have one more night and one last morning meditation session ahead of us before we’ll head back to Kuala Lumpur. Falling into bed that night, I feel peaceful, content and tired.

I don’t know exactly how meditation will influence our lives over the long-term. I do know that both Christian and I went through a unique, personal growth experience. We got a good understanding of the technique and hope that if we keep up the daily practice we will eventually see the benefits come to fruition (e.g., being more present, a better ability to respond vs. react, increased concentration). For now, we do know that we want to continue on this journey and believe that it can just change us for the better.

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