I hold great regard for the practice of meditation as it has immensely aided my self-transformation and personal growth. During my teenage years, I was at my lowest when a senior conducting research on the 'impact of meditation' offered me an opportunity to participate. Intrigued by the accountability factor, I decided to give it an honest shot. The practice proved to be profoundly helpful, and since then, I have been diligent in meditating daily. In my eyes, meditation has worked wonders for me.
My deep interest in the practice gave rise to a desire to attend a meditation retreat. I yearned to experience group meditation and fully immerse myself in self-observation, free from distractions. However, I had to wait until I found the right time and space in my life to dedicate ten days without any responsibilities.
I had been aware of the ten-day Vipassana retreat for some time, but I had heard it could be intense and challenging. Despite my initial hesitation, I decided to give it a try, driven by the knowledge that it could be life-changing. Last year, I finally took the plunge. The Vipassana technique, taught by the Buddha, was the focus of the beginner's ten-day retreat aimed at learning the technique thoroughly. I felt fear and nervousness, but I persevered and followed all the strict rules and the schedule for the entire ten days. It was the most challenging yet insightful experience of my life.
During this experience, I learned several things about human nature:
1. Many of us are severe dopamine addicts: We often crave dopamine, but it is only when we are deprived of the sources of dopamine that we truly understand our addiction. Over the course of these ten days, I realized the depth of my dopamine addiction and experienced withdrawal. Without access to my phone or any connection to the outside world, no entertainment, no stimulation, bland food, no way to satisfy cravings, no music, and no exercise, I began to feel frustrated and helpless after just three days. It was fascinating to realize how we receive dopamine throughout the day from our daily habits and behaviors, often at the expense of our long-term goals and well-being.
2. Our minds are sneaky and adept at fooling us into seeking comfort: In addition to the dopamine withdrawal, other factors contributed to discomfort and frustration. Sitting and meditating for 11 hours each day, with only short breaks, without any chanting or attachment to pleasurable experiences or aversion to discomfort, felt harsh and monotonous. My mind started generating thoughts of how the experience wouldn't be worth it or how I needed to check up on my loved ones. It even convinced me that any benefit from the retreat would be temporary. My deprived brain attempted every possible means of escape, and though I gave in a couple of times, the teachers recognized this common struggle and redirected me towards my goal. This experience made me realize how tricky our minds can be and why mastering the mind is so important.
3. Silence provides an opportunity to truly listen to the noise within: Being silent all the time forced me to confront the inner monsters we all carry. I never knew how challenging it could be to truly be with myself, listening to every thought without any distractions. The intensive meditation and lack of external stimulation made me acutely aware of the incessant chatter in my mind. It was overwhelming at times, especially during the breaks and non-meditation periods when I realized the depth of my thoughts and how they were often triggered by underlying concerns and complexes. Although it was initially painful, I found freedom in facing my inner demons without running away.
4.We often give away our power by reacting: Each evening over the course of ten days, there used to be evening discourses by S.N. Goenka, the pioneer of vipassana teaching in India. These talks delved into the nature of our mind, suffering, the noble truths, and other profound lessons imparted by Gautama the Buddha. One realization that struck me was how we avoid responsibility for our emotions and the internal experiences we generate, which are often heavily biased by our inner narrative. As humans, we are engaged in four major processes: cognizing, recognizing, feeling, and reacting. However, we tend to overuse the latter. We mindlessly react to our experiences day in and day out, creating pain for ourselves and others.
5. We are often more resilient that we think: I had doubts about completing the course and adhering to the demands of this intensive meditation practice. There were numerous moments when I felt overwhelmed and contemplated giving up, regretting my decision to participate. Nevertheless, I was astonished by human resilience and our ability to recognize our determination to endure suffering and discomfort.
6.We can only share what we cultivate: During days of frustration and preoccupation with my own discomfort, I was unable to appreciate the beauty surrounding me—the splendor of nature or the beauty inherent in the ongoing processes. All my thoughts carried a pessimistic tone, regardless of their subject. However, I began to notice a positive shift when I surrendered to the experience, the pain, and the discomfort. Towards the end of the course, I experienced an unprecedented inner peace. I became aware of and accountable for the moments I created. This newfound awareness extended to my interactions with others after the silence was broken on the tenth day. Many people sensed this refreshing novelty. Naturally, there was happiness associated with completion, the course coming to an end, and the prospect of returning home, but there was a different energy. We were all mindfully cultivating our inner experiences, and as a result, this gentleness permeated our interactions.
These ten days were profoundly enlightening for me. Would I recommend this retreat to others? Yes and no. I honestly share my experience with others. This experience is intense and should only be considered when change and transformation are of utmost importance, as transformation often follows suffering and drastic changes.
Based on my personal experience now, seven months post-retreat, and my conversations with fellow vipassana students, as well as watching numerous YouTube vlogs where people discuss their post-vipassana experiences, I believe that most changes begin to fade for many individuals. This is mainly because we re enter a world of stimulation and old habits, and also because we fail to adhere to the suggested practice with discipline. The changes and profound peace I experienced eventually diminished, but what stays are the reflections I brought with me and the memory and faith that leading a healthy lifestyle is not impossible. I am aware that it is considerably more challenging in today's world due to the conditioning we are subjected to and the constant stimulation around us. However, I have realized that returning to a state of well-being is always possible, depending on the choices we make. I am unsure if I will choose to embark on another ten-day retreat, but I am aware that I am constantly making choices and must bear the responsibility for them.