Why Everybody Should Do a Vipassana Silent Retreat

Buddha, the guy who discovered the benefits of Vipassana meditation

My girlfriend and I did a 10-day Vipassana silent retreat. The center was located about 80km (50mi) from Buenos Aires. In this article, you’ll read my personal experience, as well as some anecdotes I heard from my girlfriend and the other participants.

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana is a 2500-year-old ancient meditation technique from India. The technique and theory behind it are based on the scriptures and lectures of ‘Buddha’. Buddha is a term used to describe someone who is fully enlightened. That means they are absolute masters of their minds and have overcome all suffering. There probably have been countless ‘Buddhas’ over the years. So don’t think that Buddha is just one person (like a did).

The Buddha I’m referring to here is Gautama. He was the founder of Buddhism. A lot of people think this Buddha is some sort of deity, but he was actually a normal person. A normal person who became fully enlightened in his early thirties. So no special powers, not even flying!

I’m not going to go further into his life, but a quick look at his Wikipedia page will give you all the info you need to know.

What is a Vipassana silent retreat?

A standard retreat takes 10 days. In those 10 days, you learn the theory behind the technique and do A LOT of practice (see below). They also have shorter or longer courses, but those are only accessible for old-students. The courses are completely free. Everything is based on a voluntary donation system. The people that help at the retreat are all volunteers (often old-students).

Getting there

All Vipassana centers are located in remote, often beautiful locations. However, the locations are always pretty close too a bigger city. They have a nice feature once you’re signed up. You can access a ‘ride board’ on their website to request a ride or offer one if you have space in your car.

That’s how we got to the center. We contacted a fellow from Buenos Aires who picked us up at our Airbnb. We picked up one more woman on our way to the center. It was the first retreat for everybody in the car. We were all curious (and nervous) about what was to come.

The schedule

This was our timetable for the coming 10 days:

4:00 amMorning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 amMeditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 amBreakfast break
8:00-9:00 amGroup meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 amMeditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noonLunch break
12noon-1:00 pmRest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pmMeditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pmGroup meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pmMeditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pmTea break
6:00-7:00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pmDiscourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pmQuestion time in the hall
9:30 pmRetire to your own room–Lights out

Five hours of meditation before lunch and five hours and a half after lunch. “This looks insane!” was my first thought. At home, my meditation session was about 25 minutes long. And even that felt like 2 hours sometimes… This is going to be interesting!

Rules of the course

Once the course starts, all communication with your fellow meditators is prohibited. No speaking, no eye contact, no hand signs, nothing! There is also a complete separation between men and women. Each group has a personal dining hall, dormitory, walking area, meditation space, and bathroom. On top of all that, you can’t have your smartphone, read or write. All these rules are to make sure you ‘have the best possible effects of the technique’.

After you fill in the necessary paperwork, you get assigned to your dormitory. You also get a personal spot in the meditation hall.

You can make an appointment with the teacher or have a quick word with your manager (women and men each have their manager) if you have any problem.

The course

The first days

In the first 3 days, you learn anapana meditation. The only thing you do for 10 and a half hours each day, is observing your breath coming in and going out. This is to make your mind more sensitive and sharp. Day by day, the area gets narrower until you only have the little part between your nostrils and the base of the upper lip to concentrate on.

The first days went better than I expected! I didn’t make escape plans or broke down. Great! Only seven more days to go.

The middle part

After those 3 introduction days, you learn the real Vipassana technique. It’s basically a body scan, in which you can’t react to the sensations you encounter. Sounds simpler than it is, trust me!

These middle days were the hardest for me. I was really tired from waking up at 4 am, didn’t sleep great, and felt the days creep by really slowly.

The last days

On the 10th day, you learn a new technique. It is called Metta meditation. The closest English translation is ‘loving-kindness’ meditation. You wish well for others and yourself at the end of your meditation sitting.

At 10 am on the last day, you are allowed to speak. This is to make the transition to the real world as smooth as possible. I didn’t even feel like talking at that point! But once you start a conversation, you get used to talking very fast.

The discourses

There is a theory behind why you have to practice in this specific way. Each evening, you watch a video lecture of Goenka himself. He’s the guy that spread Vipassana over the world. It sounds boring, but this was actually one of my highlights each day! He’s a good speaker and uses a lot of funny examples to explain the theory behind the technique.

S.N. Goenka

What surprised me is that although the theory is already 2500 years old, it is still really relevant today! He explains how aversion, attachment, and ignorance causes a lot of misery and suffering. And how this technique can help you break this habitual pattern of the mind.

It was also really motivating me. After a hard day, you hear that it’s normal that you’re struggling. You hear him explain the ‘5 enemies’ to your meditation practice, the 5 strengths that can help you, and other really helpful information. This new information makes you want to meditate again and apply it the next morning.

Goenka recommends meditating 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening after the retreat. If you don’t, the technique will never lift you out of your misery. He also advises taking at least one 10-day course each year.

So far, we’ve been doing 2 hours each day! The real challenge will start once we go back to normal work-life…

The experience

The experience was completely different for everybody I spoke to.

  • Some people had some ‘big insights’
  • Some people didn’t feel anything until the last day
  • “This is the best remedy for writer’s block!”
  • Three people left before the course ended

I did not experience any special moments, big insights, or something peculiar. But I did feel an improvement in my meditation practice, did learn a lot about the technique and the underlying theory, and did feel really calm and happy afterward.

It’s a unique experience that a highly recommend to anybody. It will give you insight into why we feel bad, the underlying mechanism, and it will teach you a way out of this spiral of misery.

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