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10 days of silence: What I learnt on a Vipassana retreat

A silent meditation retreat isn't easy – but it may just change your life.

One of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, Vipassana promises personal transformation, happiness, and relief from negativity. ‘Vipassana’ means to see things as they really are, and the practice is based around deep self-observation.

On a Vipassana retreat, you’ll spend the whole time in silence. The beginners’ course lasts for 10 days – that’s 10 days of pure focus, with no communication among students. The course is strictly administered, following a practice which has been honed over thousands of years. It’s not easy, but graduates say the inner peace it brings is well worth it.

Melbourne-based actor and writer Kasia Kaczmarek did her 10-day course last December. Here’s what she learnt from the experience.

“The Vipassana technique is based on body scanning, as opposed to the more familiar practice of observing the breath.”

What made you think about doing this course?

Living like a monk for 10 days, without the luxury of speech, is not an experience many would consider particularly appealing. So when I heard a friend was embarking on a 10-day silent meditation retreat I thought, “Nope, no thanks – not for me.”

But then another friend went, and another. And as each person came back happier and calmer I decided to do a bit more research. It all sounded pretty good so I bit the bullet and signed up.

What was the daily schedule like?

The schedule was gruelling, with a 4am wake-up gong I found charming for the first two days and a torturous death-knell by day six.

There were three compulsory group sittings a day, plus another seven hours of private meditation, totalling 10 hours of daily practice. On the first morning I made it through 30 minutes before stumbling back to bed and sleeping through breakfast and into the next sitting.

However, I quickly realised that you didn’t have to meditate for every hour listed on the schedule. As long as you attended the three group sessions, you could use private time for self-reflection.

How long did it take you to adjust?

Initially, I found myself persistently dozing off. I was assured this was a common beginner’s complaint and eventually this phase did pass, only to be replaced with pain. Intense physical pain. And this, it turns out, is the point of Vipassana.

The Vipassana technique is based on body scanning, as opposed to the more familiar practice of observing the breath. The result is that rather than ignoring uncomfortable sensations, you put all your focus on them. You learn to accept negative feelings rather than run from them. The idea is this skill transfers to your daily life, and you become more accepting of life’s difficulties and therefore happier.

“In the months since my retreat I’ve found myself quicker to laugh and slower to feel anxious, frustrated or angry about all the things that used to drive me crazy.”

What did doing the course change for you?

Despite experiencing unparalleled levels of anger and frustration, as the days progressed I felt something shift within me. When I wasn’t cursing myself for my decision to come to this place, or dreaming of ways to escape, I found myself slowly becoming aware of my habitual thought patterns. When there’s nothing to distract you from your thoughts, you become really aware of the ones that come up most often.

I realised that issues I thought had been a problem for me, really weren’t. And others I thought I’d dealt with were still affecting the way I experienced the world. This new understanding of myself was freeing in a way I’d never experienced. I was coming to understand and accept myself in a way therapy, exercise and countless motivational books had never achieved.

Who would you recommend Vipassana to?

Everybody! You don’t have to be experiencing crisis or dissatisfaction with your life for Vipassana to make a lasting, positive change. But if you are it can certainly help.

On the final day I spoke with a woman on her 15th annual retreat. She said meditation had completely changed her, eliminating her negative self-talk and transforming her self-esteem. And in the months since my retreat I’ve found myself quicker to laugh and slower to feel anxious, frustrated or angry about all the things that used to drive me crazy. I’ve become a happier, nicer person.

Kasia’s tips for surviving Vipassana

  • Get someone to drop you off. Knowing your car isn’t 50 metres away waiting to whisk you to freedom will be useful when your commitment starts to flag.
  • There are very few comforts during your stay, so make your sleeping area as welcoming as possible. A proper quilt with a nice cover will make a big difference.
  • Figure out a comfortable meditation position before you arrive. This will save you days of discomfort.
  • Pack an analogue alarm clock so you can nap without risk of sleeping through a sitting.
  • If you do suffer from mental health issues it’s important to talk to your doctor first, as some conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar can be exacerbated by deep meditation.

Find a Vipassana meditation retreat.

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