7 Things I Learned From a 10-day Meditation Retreat

women meditating on high mountain in sunset background
women meditating on high mountain in sunset background

Last month I did a Vipassana meditation retreat. The pitch is fairly simple: No talking, no writing, no reading for 10 days, meditating 10 hours a day. Here's what I learned during this retreat!

1. Context is key

One of the things that struck me most is mastery of the context. Vipassana is a 2500 years old technique that iterated to fit modern lifestyle as well. Nothing is left to chance, they have declared a war on distractions, and they are amazingly good at it:

- Location: In the middle of nowhere, no distractions.
- Interactions: No talking nor looking at each others!
- Amenities: Everything is taken care of. You don't cook, you don't clean, you don't wonder.
- Routine: You wake up with the 4am gong, meditate for 10 hours punctuated by collation times. It's 9pm, time to go to sleep. Gong. Repeat 10 times.

Operating a 10-day self-surgery requires the environment to be 100% sterile of outside distractions.

2. Nothing lasts forever

This is the key teaching of Vipassana and by extension Buddhism. The technique is about realizing that by your own personal experience.

During the first couples of day, the mind goes crazy and gets remarkably restless. The initial 10 hours are lethargic, each minute passes like an hour. Just like a wild animal has never been tamed in his life, the mind has never been cut out from distractions that long. Ever. Think about it, what was the longest time you stayed with yourself without any distractions to escape?

Eventually, the restlessness passes away. Slowly arising from a mild meditation, I started thinking: "I got it!". 5 minutes later, I sat and closed my eyes and... BOOM, the war was on, again. I was struggling more than ever, escorted by a restless mind and a aching body, FUCK.

Anicca, nothing is permanent.

3. Wisdom is to be experienced

Not solely understood or believed. There are 3 levels of wisdom, one erected onto the former:

What you believe: Because you've been told something by someone you instinctively trust, frequently family members, teachers or spiritual/religious leaders. "Don't eat pork, it's bad" / "Iran is a bad country".

What you understand: At some point in your life, maybe, you'll question these former beliefs, trying to make sense out of what you've been told, analyzing the concepts and understanding the teachings. Digging deeper and further is key to make the teachings one's own.

What you experienced: It's the purpose of the first two levels. Not only rationally understand something, but to experience it with the whole body as a witness.

This feeling of experiencing one's truth acutely differs from psychotherapy, just like Google Street View differs from traveling.

4. You are not that important

Being offline for 10 days is a refreshing experience, something I haven't experienced for 10 years or so. I gave up my phone on the first day, and got an immediate sense of relief. After a couple of days, you start wondering: Are my friends thinking of me?

But guess what? They don't! Actually, people check in on you during the first 3 or 4 days, then you're quickly forgotten. How many people actually care isn't expressed by how many people like a Facebook posts. It's way more precisely defined by how many people send you uninterested & unsolicited messages to check in on you.

5. Jokes are the foundation of shared experience

The question I got the most was what I missed the most for 10 days. Making jokes, that's what! Not being able to talk is quite frustrating, but the stories can always be told later. Jokes can't, they are so contextual that they lose all their substance in a few seconds and vanish into the fun-void (I'm sure this is a real thing).

Jokes are the foundation of shared experience. In addition of being one of the most accurate social gauging technique, humor is the cement stabilizing the bricks of a shared experience. To my mind, it's impossible to erect complex and extensive networks of relationships without the settling virtues of humor.

6. We get used to (almost) everything

"Go to you edge. Regularly" is a mantra I try to live by. I'm often baffled by the resilience I find inside when going to the edge. During these 10 days, I got used to many things in ways I wouldn't have imagined:

The hardcore schedule: Around day 6, I got used to the schedule & it became how I lived without too much hassle.

- 10 days: The first days were a torment because I was counting down the hours, trying to have a sense of progression and control. Once I let go of the counting and surrendered to the present, each hour went faster.
- Not talking: That also became an habit! I was starting to get used to it by the end of the retreat. To cope with this withdrawal, I started sharing in unconventional ways with different things. It's fascinating observing your body & mind surviving loneliness.
- Not moving: On day 4 there's a new rule: 3 times a day, you cannot change position nor open your eyes during the whole one-hour-session. The first session is a torture, I got used to it after a couple of days.

7. Don't take yourself too seriously

The spiritual path sometimes sounds a bit too serious, and I used to get afraid that I would drawn my frequent absurd wittiness into a bottomless ocean of seriousness. I was a bit apprehensive about being mainly surrounded by austere monks and prepared myself for some solemn conversing at the end of the retreat.

Even the actual monks -- who already did ten Vipassanas -- were freely joking about each others, like you would in playgrounds, only with a profound sense of respect and care. But man, it was a relieve to see a monk joke about another one, calling him "Jacky Chan" over his obvious Asian looks, and see everyone burst into laughter after such an abyssal trip!

I guess spiritual depth is naturally balanced by simple-minded lightness :)

I hope you enjoy the story and the few lessons I learned during these 10 days, feel free to share/recommend it and ping anyone who might be interested by giving Vipassana a shot, I'd be happy to help out!