A few weeks ago I graduated from my first Vipassana retreat. I say “graduated” because that shit was hard. Someone once described Vipassana as “gansta,” and adjective I’ve never seen combined with a retreat or meditation, but feel is totally appropriate in this circumstance.
I didn’t immediately write a post because my intuition told me that if I was patient I would have further insights about how impactful (or maybe futile) the retreat and meditation technique would be.
I first heard of Vipassana just a little over a year ago, but paid it no mind because it sounded waaaaaay too intense. Based on a recommendation from Tim Ferris, I had done Art of Living retreats, where one is silent and meditating for 4-5 days at most. Now Vipassana is a different beast, and makes Art of Living look like pre-school nap time.
Vipassana consists of 10 days, waking up at 4:30am for 10 hours of meditating per day, 2 meals (and a light snack) per day, no distractions except your own mind (no Netflix, Spotify, journals, books, sex, etc.). No thanks!
But as life goes, once you hear of something, you start to recognize it more and more. A random woman on a dating app said it was absolutely life-changing. A friend of a friend I met at around the fire pit said he had done it three times! When I started asking around, friends who I didn’t even know had done Vipassana started talking about their experience(s), and used the same exact hyphenated word, "life-changing." [Okay so spellcheck doesn’t like the hyphenation, but thanks to Vipassana techniques I can accept that.]
Okay, it must be good if that’s what people are saying, right? Or are they saying it because they don’t want to feel like they wasted 10 days of their life, and countless more hours practicing the specific mediation technique. My skeptic brain was always at work looking for unconscious biases (thank you “Black Swan” No, the book, not the movie or Austin yoga studio). The only way to know for sure would be to try it for myself.
I feel very fortunate that while there are only a handful of Vipassana centers currently in the US, there was one just a few hours from Austin. I found a 10-day block that worked with my schedule and jumped on in . . . to the waitlist. Apparently these retreats book months out as people fly, drive, and Uber from all over the world.
Thankfully, the waiting lists moved quickly and I was able to secure my spot.
A few things to know about Vipassana…
First, it’s completely FREE. Yes, FREE lodging, FREE food, FREE classes. You might be thinking, “how can they offer it for free?” And your next thought is “oh, this thing is run by scientology.”
Actually, Vipassana is 100% funded by former students. Basically it’s a true pay-it-forward system. Former students, if they got something out of the retreat, contribute what they feel is right. I actually think this is a great principle as it makes sure the “proof is in the pudding.”
[Wondering "where did that odd colloquialism come from?" Here's an NPR interview about the meaning. Yes, NPR. And yes, interview. This pudding is hot stuff!]
Back to the main story...
Second, volunteers who were former students run the retreat. And let me say it is run as well as the German train system (which in case you didn’t know, must not deviate from the schedule by even a nanosecond). For 60 plus students they had 10-15 people running around, cooking, cleaning, and ringing bells. "Very impressed," as the "president" would say.
Third, the whole purpose of the retreat is to teach you a specific style of meditation. And it takes ten days to get it right. While plenty of benefit will come out of the retreat, the most benefit will be if one continues using the meditation on a regular basis afterward. So don’t expect all your issues to be solved in ten days.
Fourth, I felt like adding a fourth point would round out this section. I guess I should us this opportunity if you made it this far...
While the Vipassana meditation technique taught is based on teachings of Gotoma (THE Buddha), the meditation itself is sectarian. Even atheists can practice it! It's all about your experience, and whether or not you derive benefit from it. And to use our favorite saying again, the proof is in the pudding!
Now onto Part 2, my takeaways.