Lessened anxiety. Heightened awareness. A clearer mind. Vipassana – one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques that involves 10 days of silence and self-observation – is one way to achieve these feats, which can feel increasingly unachievable in our fast-paced, tech-obsessed world. But what exactly is it, and what does it feel like to take part in it?
Popularized by Buddha over 2500 years ago, Vipassana focuses on the connection between mind and body through calmness, discipline and sheer will over 10 days of silence – not exactly the same easy-to-use selling points that meditation apps plug. With days beginning at 4am and consisting of 10 hours of meditation interspersed with meals and rest periods, the idea is to observe “noble silence” – silence of the body and mind while forgoing communication with others.
The days conclude with a videotaped lecture by Vipassana head teacher S.N. Goenka, so participants can get some context and better understand the experience of their day. On day 10, meditators are encouraged to start speaking to one another again as the first step towards reintegration into normal life.
Obviously, nine days of silence doesn’t come without its difficulties, even for experienced meditators. “I was craving more communication, and wanted to talk through my feelings. I know now that this was an important part of the journey, but at the time it didn’t sit well with me,” says Yaz, a freelancer.
Holly, a business developer, agrees. “Some days were harder than others,” she says. “When I couldn't seem to drop into the meditative mind, I'd peep at the clock when the day was just getting started. Knowing we had 10 hours to go? Those moments were tough.”
Vipassana differs from other forms of meditation by introducing the concept of non-reaction. No matter how much you want to scream for release, you’re taught to focus on the physical sensations you’re experiencing and to scan your body in a specific order. Through this practice, you can then remain equanimous – calm and composed – in all of life’s unpleasantness and unpredictability. “I find this to be a good, balancing-act reminder that helps me lean into unpleasant experiences and also process the highs with a healthy understanding of impermanence,” says Holly.
Another key is taking part in the retreat for the full 10 days. Although it’s unrealistic to expect all your problems to disappear by taking part in Vipassana, less than 10 days is not enough to learn the essentials of the practice and therefore giving the mind enough time to settle down and attune to the body.
The good news is that the feeling of accomplishment when you complete the 10 days can make the challenges worth it on the other side. “It felt so gratifying. I felt proud,” says Holly. “Each day brought both challenges and acceptance, but only after the 10 days could I really celebrate what I had just done and think deeply about the takeaways.”
Yaz found that their high points took place during the practice itself. “The highlight was definitely the moments when I realized I could actually fully enjoy my own company,” they say. “I felt so creative during this period. I was having so many interesting conversations with myself and the ideas were flowing.”
As to advice they’d offer new Vipassana participants, “I think that it’s really important to be in a good mental health space before doing something like this,” says Yaz. “It may also be helpful to go with a friend, so there will be someone who really gets it afterwards.”
“Ask questions to your assistant teacher!” says Holly. “I went to the office hours multiple times throughout my time there. I learned a lot, which helped guide the rest of my experience.”
No matter your hopes, fears, intentions or outcomes, it’s important to look beyond our obsession with finding happiness as a reason to partake in the 10-day retreat. But if you maintain an open mind and willingness to learn (especially from within), you may find yourself better equipped to deal with the highs and lows of being alive in this world or better equipped to simply being human.
Image by @stefyloret