June 6, 2023

What They don’t Tell you about Vipassana Retreats.

The first thing they do is take away your phone.

They don’t tell you this upfront. It just kinda sneakily happens.

“Oh, by the way, you’ve gotta give that here.”

Now there’s a good reason for it, of course.

You’re meant to be meditating—not meditating on your last text.

But still, the act of surrender sends a twinge of “what if” through my spine.

It feels strangely helpless giving up the little totems that mark me as a member of society.

Keys, wallet, phone.

I think most folks walks into these things expecting to not really talk for about 10 days. That’s how they’re advertised.

Ten days of silent meditation.

Practically a retreat.

But what really caught me off guard was finding out I needed to live like a monk the entire time.

And by that, I mean:

>> They separate the men and women.
>> You lose access to the outside world.
>> No books.
>> No internet.
>> No music.
>> You sign a waiver and all your belongings go into a ziplock baggie for you to reclaim at the end.

It feels more like incarceration than a relaxing time.

So in the moment, you stop and wonder…

“What’s stopping these guys from running off with my phone and my car?” “Did I just get scammed?”

Before I embarked on this experience, I had a friend warn me to not run if things started to feel really “culty.”

That didn’t help make the experience less suspicious.

But the days flow by.

Because what else are you going to do?

I awaken to the sound of a gong.

The sun isn’t out.

My watch stoically informs me that it’s 4 a.m.

I groan and barrel roll out of bed.

I pull on a thin knit-jacket to ward off the cold.

And then I’m off to meditate.

When you meditate for 10 hours a day, it’s a near cacophony of human settling sounds. Like a house groaning under its own weight.

In a room of nearly 100 people, there’s always someone sniffling.

Or grunting.

Or farting.

The mind wanders.

It smashes itself against the constraints of time.

The first few days, every waking hour I spend “meditating” is actually just obsessing about when the next meal will happen (with my eyes closed).

It takes me a few more days after that to recognize the ridiculousness of that.

Every breakfast is the same.

Lunch and dinner aren’t an exception.

I’m forced to admit to myself that I’m just looking for an excuse to not meditate anymore.

Anything to break out of the monotony.

Oh, and you can’t talk either.

In many ways this can be a freeing experience.

By the end of the fifth day, I see myself getting real weird, and it fills me with an odd glee.

I find myself randomly climbing knee-high rocks like they’re huge boulders and I’m a koala. (The rock climbing equivalent of putting on full motorcycle leathers and a helmet to ride a swing.)

After that I start climbing the support beams next to my domicile.

I don’t even bother with eye contact.

“Silence only, bishes,” I think to myself while I continue dangling.

Knowing people won’t (and can’t) be sharing rumors about you because it’s suddenly illegal.

But you can only inappropriately climb things for so long.

And if you’re a time and achievement-driven person, you’re about to be rudely introduced to how much of a weirdo you really are.

I check my watch so often during meditation that I literally reprogram my brain’s internal clock.

Now when I guess the time, it’s shockingly accurate.

Within a minute of the actual time.

Not that I have anyone to share this good new with.

By day six, somehow…

Despite myself…

I’m still meditating 10 hours a day.

And that’s when I start to hallucinate.

At first you don’t notice it.

It just creeps up on you.

It feels so normal.

Meditation is often so sleep adjacent it can be hard to tell the difference.

But then there’s that moment. The one where you realize you just hallucinated a whole entire dream sequence and you’ve been wide awake the entire time.

At this point I start to meditate in earnest.

I am the living, breathing, embodiment of…

“There’s no fanatic like a convert.”

Or in this case, there’s no fanatic like someone who’s discovered they can feel like they’re on psychedelics without the psychedelics.

Free drugs.

Evidently that’s all it takes to motivate me.

If I had to guess, meditation is like getting back room access to your unconscious mind.

At first it’s filled with cobwebs, rats, old newspapers, and never-ending thoughts about your ex.

Meditation—or at least a proper meditation—lets you slowly start clearing that stuff out.

And it can be a real trip when you realize that once all the junk is gone, there’s a control panel.

And you can start poking buttons and spinning knobs back there.

And it changes how you experience reality.

At one point I was fully convinced that pain was an illusion.

All it took for it to disappear was to focus on the sensation and breathe.

The same thing for itching.

In the end it was all different flavors of vibration.

We were all vibration.

I had figured it all out.

The next day I realized I hadn’t mastered pain.

I’d just popped an ibuprofen a couple hours before I sat down.

More than anything Vipassana makes it clear just how untethered the mind really is.

How fragile the illusion of reality can be.

Everything starts to feel like a fever dream.

The last day of Vipassana was probably the strangest experience.

On day 10 you get your phone back.

Mine felt too heavy.

Too colorful and bright.

Like it had been engineered to suck in my time and attention.

The minute I had it in my hand again, I could feel the addictive pull it had over me.

When you walk you can feel each muscle as it engages to support you.

The crunch of every tiny little piece of gravel underfoot.

It’s like being hyper aware and strangely relaxed all at the same time.

Compassion seems to flow out from you naturally and reflexively.

And even though…

Up until now…

It’s felt like nothing has changed.

Being in the world again.

Driving again.

Eating at a restaurant again.

You can suddenly see how everything has changed.

Maybe one day I’ll go back.

Every once in awhile I catch myself fantasizing about taking another 10 day hiatus from reality.

But then I remember sitting until my back, knees, and hips feel like one giant continuous ache.

Or hoarding meditation cushions and blocks because I literally can’t get comfortable.

Or waking up in the cold dark before the sun rises.

And I decide I didn’t want to do Vipassana so badly after all.


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