A Vipassana retreat is a special experience. How often are we gifted 10 days of silent solitude, away from busyness, obligations and responsibilities? Meals prepared, an hour-by-hour schedule, accommodation sorted?
The environment is primed for laser-like focus on meditation, self-enquiry and insight. Even so, thriving on retreat, and maximising the benefits… that’s down to you.
I attended my first retreat in April. I’d waited six years from when I started meditation. I knew the time would come when it felt right. And I’d known for a few years I wanted to jump in the deep end with a 10-Day silent Vipassana retreat.
I was attracted to the level of self-discipline. It was a challenge I wanted to prove myself capable of overcoming. Even more, it was an act of gratitude and dedication towards a practice that has added so much to my life.
During the retreat, it was evident that waiting was the right decision. The tools and techniques I’d cultivated in those six years didn’t only support the process, they allowed me to thrive and make the most of the experience.
That’s not to say newcomers should be put off — far from it. However, you’ll benefit from storing the following mindsets in your subconscious mind, ready to integrate when needed. These hacks are applicable to seasoned meditators with Zen-like Beginner’s Mind, too.
1. Expectations for the Vipassana Retreat
Have none. When expectations arise, remain mindful. You’re taught the Vipassana technique; this is the only focus. All will be as is meant to be. You will learn the lessons you are there to learn. They might not be immediately obvious. But there’s no way to “fail.” Have no expectations, but be prepared for anything.
This applies to the build-up to the Vipassana retreat and potential experiences during the retreat itself. Meditation is emptying yourself, letting go, relinquishing, unlearning. This includes concepts of how things should be. I’ve deliberately withheld personal experiences in this article to avoid imprinting expectations into your consciousness. Thank me later.
Instead, allow experience to lead. Don’t expect miracles, don’t expect enlightenment or mystical visions or anything. Just focus on the technique, empty yourself, and let Dharma do the rest.
2. Avoiding comparison
At times during the Vipassana retreat your attention will wonder to other meditators. What are they doing differently? Am I doing this right? Am I eating too much food? Again, be aware. Avoid indulging in comparison. Use noble silence to create a “container” — it’s about you and your journey. Let the presence of others disappear as you let silence engulf you.
I found myself judging those who looked to be seasoned meditators, minimising my journey in the process. At times, I felt everyone else was having it easy, while I struggled. This was a projection and neither of these beliefs were true.
Comparison leads to expectation or judgement. When you spot yourself comparing, remind yourself of your container and your process.
3. Finding balance with posture
Push yourself outside of your comfort zone to maintain good posture, but don’t push yourself too hard. Find balance. I went six days with a simple meditation cushion and my legs were agony. I was aware there’d be discomfort but I wasn’t making it easy for myself! Eventually it affected my ability to focus on the technique. All attention was on the burning on my calves and thighs.
Relieved to get through the torture (so my ego said) I desperately searched for additional cushions prior to the next hour’s sitting — they were all gone. I sat for another hour in Adhiṭṭhāna (strong determination to remain still in one posture) and proved I could push myself way beyond perceived limits. This was the lesson.
The next time I looked, there were two cushions, the exact size I was looking for, a gift of divine timing. Focusing during meditation from this point was a breeze.
4. Exercising self-compassion
Self-compassion makes everything smoother. You’ll need it when you’re super tired. You’ll need it when you’re struggling with the technique. You’ll need it when the ego takes control. You’ll need it when you feel groggy, stack your plate high, reach for the cumin and smash a full bottle of soya sauce all over the kitchen floor (this happened, lol).
Always remain loving and supportive of yourself in this environment. An important extension is acceptance of what is; acceptance of low energy, lack of focus, things not going “as expected,” physical discomfort, feelings of frustration.
If it helps, picture someone in your life who is nurturing and supportive. Imagine them encouraging you during challenging times. At moments of mild despair, I was alone but very much not alone, with loved ones close by. In the container of isolation, finding this nurturing presence is a profound experience. It’s a strong reminder of your inner-strength and resourcefulness.
Feeling this presence, even fleetingly, creates a muscle-memory serving you for years to come.
5. Avoiding perfectionism during the Vipassana retreat
Watch out for the perfectionist. Mine surfaced as frustration when I struggled to maintain focus. A Vipassana retreat is a marathon for the mind. It’s okay if you need little breaks (i.e. napping in the lunch break, ending a meditation a little earlier to walk/rest). It’s a rare opportunity, but you want to make the most of it without placing too much pressure on yourself.
Ultimately, if you’re pushing yourself through excessively high standards, you run the risk of crashing and burning before the retreat is over. If you give yourself a complete free pass, you’ll reach the end of the 10 days and feel you could’ve done more. You wouldn’t start a physical marathon by sprinting, but you wouldn’t walk either. Balance is everything.
6. Be vigilant of ego traps
The ego is deceptive, so be vigilant. My “Phantom Planner” became evident whilst on retreat. Other ego deceptions include wishing for the time to pass to “get everything over with,” rejecting the experience and technique as pointless, and falling into loops of self-pity (everything is so hard!).
A silent retreat is a great opportunity to explore the contents of mind; remain curious at all times. One of the biggest gifts I received from the Vipassana retreat was lucidity around patterns of thought. I’ve been able to integrate significant changes since becoming aware of the subtle nature of the thinking mind — and ego traps in particular.
7. Remember the bigger picture
Days 6-8, I longed to return home. This longing grew and started to eat away at my motivation to sit. As well as accepting the process and exercising self-compassion, I re-focused by expanding perspective to the bigger picture, rather than focusing on perceived short-term discomfort.
I reminded myself — it’s 10 days of my entire life. But these 10 days are dedicated toward self-enquiry, understanding, growth. The rewards of remaining committed for the duration are so worth it. When an inner-voice says “I can’t wait for this to be over,” remind yourself, this too shall pass. Don’t mistake it for truth. It’s another ego trap.
At the time of writing, six months have passed since the retreat. They’ve whizzed by, but the insights and growth from the 10-days planted seeds that continue to grow.
Soon you’ll be looking back on the experience. But whilst there, give it your absolute all — simultaneously surrender to the process and fight against your inner-critic and ego. You’re not attending at gunpoint, you’re choosing to do so for your personal development and spiritual growth. Remind yourself of this.
To consciously create the space and time to attend a Vipassana retreat and remove yourself for the daily grind is admirable. Congratulate yourself, remain curious about the experience and enjoy it!