Two weeks ago, I entered a 10-day meditation retreat called Vipassana. While I’m not new to meditation - for several years, I’ve been meditating for up to half an hour - the results of this experience were beyond expectations.
When asking people the question “What experiences transformed you the most?” the answer of "Vipassana" is one of the top three responses. It’s therefore been my intention to do one for years, and finally I took the time to do it. I hope that with this article, you will get a glimpse of the power of such an experience.
In this article, you are going to learn:
- What Vipassana is, where the technique comes from and what it does to your mind and body
- What it triggered in me, both on an intellectual and physiological level
- How it change my behavior after the retreat ended
- And how you can immerse yourself in this experience, too.
Ready? Let's dive into it.
WHAT IS VIPASSANA ?
First and foremost, Vipassana is a meditation technique. Allegedly, it was used by Bhudda as the tool that led to his enlightenment. Over time, the technique got lost in India and remained intact only in a few monasteries in Burma.
It was only in the 1980s that a man called Satya Narayan Goenka popularized it and it went “viral”. Goenka was a former businessman who, in his thirties, suffered from heavy migraines. After trying several top doctors worldwide without success, a friend invited him to a monastery to do a 10-day course with the Vipassana technique. For the first time, his migraine started disappearing, and Goenka opened his own meditation center in India. Since then, his non-profit organization Dhamma.org opened more than hundred centers worldwide, offering the 10-day Vipassana experience to thousands of students.
When you join a Vipassana retreat, the participation is free, and you can give a donation afterwards. In fact, the entire organization is based on donations (which I personally find an amazing organizational model - following the principle that you donate only if you found benefits in it). The organization built its own centers and also collaborate with certain hotels - which was the case for my retreat.
The retreat goes as follow:
- During the 10 days, you enter noble silence. This means that you’re not allowed to talk to other participants, nor communicate with them through gestures or your eyes. In short: 10 days of true self-centeredness.
- To create an environment where there are no distractions, you give away your phone at the beginning of the retreat, as well as pen, paper, and any books you have. Men and women are separated in different residential halls, and the volunteers who run the retreat make sure that no paintings or anything that could be read are visible in the space.
- Every day, you meditate for 12 hours. Recordings by Goenka guide you through the experience. Most meditation sessions are done in the meditation hall or by yourself, and for a few hours a day, all students meditate together in the hall.
- You wake up at 4am, meditate for two hours, have breakfast at 6.30am, continue meditating from 8am to 11am, have lunch break, and then meditate the entire afternoon. There is no dinner (only a light apple and ginger tea) and every evening, you get to listen to a recorded discourse by Goenka. At 9pm, the program is over and it all starts again the next day.
- It is only on the final day that you’re allowed to talk again, and the day after the organization gives you back your phone and belongings, so that you can go back into the “real world”.
Now, you might wonder what “meditation” here means. The word has been used for so many different techniques that I started to understand that “meditation” is synonym to “sport of the mind”. There are many different sport types that are very different from one another with different outcomes, and so is meditation.
In this case, the type of meditation is simple:
- The first 3 days, you focus purely on your breath. This is called Anapana meditation. It helps you to train your attention on an object and to more quickly identify when you’re lost in thought instead of controlling your attention on the object (in this case, your breath).
- The other 7 days, you do body scans. This is called the Vipassana meditation technique. The goal is to develop awareness of your body’s sensation while remaining equanimous: not reacting to what you feel.
And this is where the technique is unique in its own way. The principle behind it is that we do not react to the external world (such as noise, people interacting with us, etc). We react to the sensations that the external world triggers on our body through interpretation of our minds.
In a beautiful documentary about how Vipassana has been introduced in prison systems, the film describes the impact of practicing Vipassana as follow:
"When one sits still, an endlesss stream of thoughts wells up in the mind. Memories, hopes, fears, desires start flooding in. After a three day struggle, the mind calms down. The mind becomes so sensitive that a new realm of sensations are becoming noticable.
Every sound, vision taste, smell, everything that contacts the body instantly produces some sensations. The technique focusse on natural phsyical sensations as the crucial link between mind and body; the key to understanding human behavior.
Through Vipassana one realizes that one's own attitudes and addictions, suffering and happiness, are not caused by the outside world. It is the reactions to pleasant or unpleasant sensations the world evokes within the body, that dictate one's actions and conditions the mind. Between repression and expressino lies a third option - mere observation."
By learning to be aware of our body sensations and not reacting to them, we can actually reprogram neural patterns that go deep in our subconscious. For more insights into how Vipassana works, I recommend you watch this TED Talk which explains it more in depth.
MY OWN VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The first day, I was motivated. The second day, I just thought: “How the heck will I be able to stay 8 MORE DAYS here meditating like a monk without going crazy?”
On day 6, I really thought I would go crazy. I was confronted to myself, to my own frustrations, to my lack of dedication, blaming myself for not making the most out of this experience and wanting to hurt myself. I cried during many sessions. On day 8, I talked to a tree for half an hour which released a lot of tears inside of me. And then, I was fine again.
This sounds cruel, but actually, it wasn’t. The main learning is that “this too shall pass” - and it did. Whatever emotions and sensations you experienced, whether pain or sadness, frustrations or desires, they all come and go. And Vipassana teaches you that lesson very directly.
Beyond this main learning, I had a lot of intellectual and physical breakthroughs. Here are some of them:
- I remembered my earliest memory ever. There was a time during the retreat where I was frustrated against myself and wanted to let anger out. And I asked myself: where is this reaction coming from? I then remembered being a kid, around 2 years old, and my mother closing the door and leaving me to sleep in the dark. I would the bang against the wood of the crib to get her attention back. And realized: this is the exact same pattern I’m doing now! I was frustrated and wanted to let my aggression out. My frustration wasn’t about the Vipassana - it was just a pattern I’ve been repeating since I’m a child.
- I had the craziest dreams. Never were my dreams that vivid. It was beautiful to have them.
- After a week, my sensations were so vivid that I was able to feel all of my body at once. This is called the sensation of “free flow”. What is even more crazy is that I was able to feel inside of my body - especially my pulsation. Every heart beat could be felt across all my veins, going to my head and to my hands and feet. When you lay down at night, trying to sleep, it feels like there is an atomic bomb inside of you ticking. It is mind-blowing to realize how much you can actually feel your body, and how numb we are in our day to day simply because we put our attention more in our head than our body.
- I remembered people that I used to judge, especially for their belief systems, although these people were some of the most loving and best friends I’ve had. Coming out of the retreat, I reconnected with them and it brought me to tears (and filled my heart with joy).
- For 25 years, I’ve had scoliosis, meaning that my spine wasn’t straight - mainly because I have a flat foot on my left leg. After several days, I started walking mindfully with a straight foot. And then, I started sitting real straight - which unlocked a lot of sensations. Since then, and even after the retreat, I notice that for the first time in my life, I’m able to stand and sit straight. In short: one week of meditation helped more than 15 years of kinesitherapy! Insane.
- On day 8, my attention was so sharp and I was able to feel my body so clearly that I tried doing push-ups on my fingertips (instead of flat hands). I was able to do 20 push-ups very mindfully, controlling my energy and attention across my body. It blew me away! So I tried to stand up and bend down, touching my feet with my hands. That is were I usually couldn’t go further. So I closed my eyes, put my attention on my body again, and really dropped down. The result: I was able to put both my hands on the ground and stay there for a few minutes - a pose that I was never able to do before! Even now, two weeks after the retreat, it works. Conclusion: we are limited by our body memory without knowing it - and we can go way further with out body than we imagine if we have a clear focus and attention, and when we see reality as it truly is.
- I tried reading on the first day after the retreat. The result: I was able to read twice as fast because my mind wasn’t talking outloud when reading the words! Even now, my reading is faster when I put myself in the mindful state. I’ve come to realize how meditation and focus truly helps with everything you do in life.
- Another realization was that the best experiences are real-life, physical experiences - not merely intellectual ones. Never could I have achieved or experienced all of these breakthroughs by just reading books. Real change happens through practice, not through thinking!
- From this realization, I got reinforced in the idea of opening a social club in Lisbon centered around well-being and offering real-life experiences, whether meditation, breathing techniques, yoga, or anything that unlocks you physically and mentally. If you’re interested in joining this space or want to co-create it with me, please reach out!
And to finish all my breakthroughs, there are two more that really shaped me:
- First, the reminder that if you don’t prioritize your own well-being, nobody else will. You have to do the hard work of working on yourself if you truly want to change. Since the retreat, I’ve been consistently meditating 1h per day, and the one day that I didn’t do it, I felt it straight - how I was less grounded, how my mind was going in a hundred different directions, and how I made bad decisions in life. Prioritize yourself so that you can better serve others in the long-term.
- And second, whenever I used to have a thought that doesn’t serve me (such as “I want a cigarette” since I’ve been a smoker for ten years prior to this experience), I used to intellectually coach myself out of it. For example, I would start talking outloud to myself to dissuade myself from smoking. Or I would imagine the thought and put it in an imaginary closet. Now, my reaction to thoughts are different: whenever I observe myself thinking about something that doesn’t serve me, I just put my attention back on my body or breath. And the thought disappears! There is no point in being stuck in your head if the solution is to simply not give it attention.
Oh yes, and I also stopped smoking and drinking. Another little change that has served me really well - and my energy levels have been insanely high since the retreat!
YOUR TURN - HOW TO TRY IT OUT
Whether you do a Vipassana retreat or any other type of experience, my recommendation is that you have to prioritize these types of experiences in your life if you want to change your behavior. Dreaming about change or doing intellectual coaching does not help.
Everyone has their own experience during a Vipassana retreat. Yours will be different - and it is right so. Overall, for me, has taught me to appreciate calmness, inner peace, and to spend time cultivating these straights.
If you want to do a Vipassana retreat, go to dhamma.org and sign up for one of the upcoming courses. Again, it is free to attend - you have nothing to lose.
Remember: there are many experiences out there that can shape you. If you want a list of the experiences that shaped me the most personally, sign up to my newsletter below and I’ll send it your way!
Wishing you a great year ahead,