Instead of recuperating from New Year’s Eve shenanigans like other folks, I spent my first day of 2019 getting my mind right for a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, or a silent retreat, as it’s commonly called. That next day, January 2 through the 13th, I’d be in remote farmland about two hours north of Chicago with no access to my phone, social media, or physical contact, and surrounded by strangers from all parts of the country whom I couldn’t talk to or even make eye contact with. No communication of any sort with anyone. Meditating for 10 hours a day.
What made me think living like a nun in the middle of nowhere for nearly two weeks was a dope thing to do? Better yet, what made me believe that I could do it?
I’ve successfully done some hard things in my life, but I imagined this could be my hardest personal challenge yet. Was I trippin’ for voluntarily wanting to do this? Apparently not.
In a recent interview with Marie Claire magazine, actress Lupita Nyong’o shared that she gifted herself with a silent retreat in Texas for her birthday last year, right after the Oscars. “Meditation is something I’ve always been interested in. It always has felt a little mysterious and out of my reach.”
Although Lupita doesn’t mention Vipassana Meditation specifically in the interview, her account of what she learned at the silent retreat sounds very much like the Vipassana teachings I experienced.
“The heart of the program is about unclutching from attachments to pleasure and aversion, the idea that we attach to things that we love and to things we dislike. And our identities are built on assembling these things to basically write the stories of our lives, but learning to unclutch from that control makes it easier to live, to exist,” explained the Black Panther leading lady, who graces the March 2019 cover of the women’s magazine.
“I was constantly wanting to leave and then daring myself to take one more hour and another hour. And oh my God, it was crazy and beautiful…”
Going to a 10-day silent meditation retreat sounds very alluring when someone first tells you they’re going to one or they’ve experienced one. Your ears perk up. Your eyes get big with disbelief or fascination. If you’re like me when I first was told about it in 2013, you’ll even feel something in your heart telling you you need to go, too, someday. Without saying a word, your body says “tell me more.”
And it’s not even that the person is embellishing the experience to sound like an idyllic, only-in-your-dreams getaway. No. They literally just tell you the facts.
- No phones.
- No laptops or computers.
- No social media.
- No idle chatter or gossip. No talking at all.
- No outside distractions, like television, books or music.
- Vegetarian meals everyday.
- Early to bed, early to rise.
- Fresh air and quiet time in the beauty of nature.
- Meditation daily.
In this age of 24/7 news – real and fake, – social media posturing with everybody livin’ their best life and leveling up, and working even on vacation (because who leaves work at the office when laptops
obligate let you work remotely from anywhere in the world?), the implication of living 10 days in what sounds like total peace is EXTREMELY alluring.
I know because when I started telling people that I was going away at the top of the new year for a 10-day silent meditation retreat, common reactions were, “Congratulations! Enjoy!,” “I need to do that!,” “That sounds so fun!” There was so much enthusiasm, awe, and longing. I learned that people desperately need breaks from the things we’ve come to believe we can’t live without, and permission to partake more in the simple pleasures of life guilt-free. Peace, sadly, has become a luxury. The exception and not the rule.
Because who can afford to devote so much time to self-awareness? Yet, who among us can really afford not to?
Meditating for 10 hours daily for 10 days. Nowhere to hide. No way to just get up and drive back to Chicago when it got to be too much (I rode up with a sista from St. Louis and I’m pretty sure stealing her JEEP wasn’t an option). I was literally stuck with myself. And determined to get unstuck in my life.
What would I discover about myself after 100-plus hours of meditation?
Who would I be if I became more ME?
I couldn’t even begin to answer those questions before attending my first 10-day Vipassana course, but I was willing to go to the depths to find out. Now that I’m back in the “real world,” the answers are still unfolding.
Those 10 days were crazy and beautiful like Lupita said, but they were only a beginning; the first step on a very long path. In 10 days I barely scratched the surface, but I caught a glimpse of the me that’s free. I left on that 11th day knowing that I wanted to keep going.
I’m still just as curious now about what the heck did I REALLY get myself into as i was before I learned the Vipassana technique.
You might be in this curious place, too. Maybe you just discovered that there is such a thing as a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Or, maybe you’ve applied to attend a course, not really sure about what it is, and now you’re getting anxious about your decision. Or, maybe you’ve completed a course and you’re curious about the ‘life after’ experience of another “old student.”
Whatever has brought you here, I hope my 15 reflections about the Before, During, and After of my experience help to demystify Vipassana Meditation, offer some peace of mind and inspire your healing journey.
Let’s get it!
1. Trust Divine timing for when you’ll take the course.
Back in 2013, a fellow classmate in my yoga teacher training cohort told me about this 10-day silent meditation she’d just done. I don’t remember her sharing a lot of details about her experience, but I was intrigued. It sounded hard and almost impossible (10 days living in total silence?!?), but I felt inspired to try. I applied to attend my first Vipassana course that year, but ultimately didn’t go.
Divine timing is everything. In 2013 I wanted to go. In 2019 I needed to go.
2018 is a year I nicknamed “The Year of Truth.” I don’t know who gave Truth feet and a tongue, but it kicked my ass and then had the nerve to tell on ME last year! I was enlightened to a lot of things about myself last year, from the revelations of others about me and from my own personal reflection. My Truth felt distorted at the end of the year, so I welcomed starting 2019 with hope for clarity. There’s no way to know for sure, but I think I would’ve had a much different experience of myself in 2013.
Maybe you want to go to a course NOW, but finding 10 consecutive days in your schedule to get away (and it really works out to 12 days) is a challenge. You might have to stack up vacation and sick days for a year. Or wait until your children are older. Maybe you have to plan it around a transition in employment (attending the course is free, so you don’t have to worry about that part.). If your desire is to go, it will happen at just the right time.
2. It’s not a retreat.
I know, I know. I call it a retreat in the very title of this article. Blame human nature and SEO. It’s officially called a meditation course, but out of convenience (or ignorance) people will call it a silent retreat.
Now, I love a good retreat. Let me tell you! The yoga retreat I went to in the mountains of Spain was blissful. Hours lazily lounging in a hammock reading, soothing moments in the outdoor hot tub, world-class cuisine prepared fresh every day, and the Wi-Fi worked surprisingly well. Or, I could tell you about the annual trips to the Rocky Mountains, protesting stress and filling my spiritual well with unapologetic Black Girl Joy. There’s a certain picture I have in mind when something is called a retreat.
When it comes to 10 days of immersing yourself in the “Art of Living” that is Vipassana Meditation, let me be the one to clarify for you as the young(er) folks say, “This ain’t that.” The meditation center is not a vacation destination. The rooms are simple. I had a twin bed, nightstand, plastic chair, coat hook, and a window. Everyone is required to dress with modesty, so no need to shop for cute outfits (although I did have to make a Target run the night before I headed to the course to buy more pairs of loose fitting pants in bland colors). I didn’t even wear my favorite red lipstick. There isn’t any entertainment or fun activities scheduled into the day.
You are there to learn a technique and train your body and mind. It’s physically and mentally demanding! If you’ve never experienced something like this, it can be downright shocking for you. And actually, even if you have pushed your physical and mental boundaries before, it may still challenge you beyond your limits.
The 10 days are not an escape.
3. Your concerns are the very reasons you should take the course.
I had a meditation practice before I attended the course, but I still worried if I was prepared enough to do it. I’d never sat longer than 30 minutes meditating. Could my body handle hours at a time? Could my mind? I “planned” to prepare by practicing to sit for an hour straight, but that never happened. If it never happens for you either, no worries: You will get PLENTY of practice in those 10 days!
Some reasons you might have right now for not taking the course:
- You love to talk too much.
- You think too much and don’t know how to turn your brain off or stop thinking (Note: Stopping thoughts is not what meditation is. Give thanks that your brain stays on – it’s supposed to!).
- You have a bad back (or other body part).
- You won’t know anyone there.
- [Insert your own reason here],
If any of these hit home, but you want to take the course, APPLY.
4. Don’t pack any distractions.
In order to give Vipassana a fair chance, the instructions for the course explicitly state not to bring any reading materials, journals/notebooks, snacks, etc. Even though I’m an avid journaler, I resisted the temptation. I even took all the pens out my purse before I left for the course!
The only way to know how Vipassana works for you is to work the program the way that it was designed. There isn’t anyone there checking your luggage or raiding your room for contraband, but the course invites you to be accountable to yourself for yourself. Don’t half step on giving yourself the gift of being distraction-free for 10 days.
5. Try not to panic at the last minute.
The day I was scheduled to leave for the course I woke up in the wee hours of the morning from a nightmare and feeling anxious. It hit me that I was really about to do this. My ride would be arriving in a few hours. I started Googling and reading more articles about what others experienced. It actually made me feel more anxious and I lost out on some precious sleep because that would be my last morning to sleep past 4 a.m. for 11 days.
I had to woosah, pray, and eventually I went back to sleep. God got me.
The reality is, thousands of people have taken Vipassana courses all over the world and every experience is unique. Every meditation center is unique. Trust that you made the right decision and that you’ll have the best experience possible.
6. Let people know you’ll be totally inaccessible.
With people believing that you’re away at a retreat, they may think you’ll just have limited use of your phone. Make sure loved ones and emergency contacts know that you’ll be away from home and that you won’t have access to your phone or a computer at all (phones and other valuables are collected and locked away during check-in)l. Leave the number to the meditation center with them so that if there is an emergency they can always contact you.
I also posted to my Facebook and Instagram accounts that I was taking a social media break so people wouldn’t be concerned when they’d see that I hadn’t posted in a few days.
7. Dedicate yourself to being all in at all times.
Taking the 10-day course requires following a Code of Discipline and agreeing to stay for the entire course. Challenging myself to have a higher than usual level of discipline was helpful for me. I was more focused and accountable. When I had the option to meditate in my room instead of the meditation hall with the group, I didn’t go take a nap. I meditated. I didn’t try to have conversations with my roommate just because no one else was around. When I had sexual dreams I didn’t masturbate (I deserve ALL the gold stars for that!). I feel like I got a lot out of the course because I put a lot into it. I would encourage anyone else to do the same.
8. Self-compassion and patience will get you through.
On Day 3 I had a mini meltdown. During one of the meditation sittings I couldn’t get comfortable, my mind was all over the place and I couldn’t focus my attention on my breath. I felt so frustrated. I got up, grabbed my coat, and walked out the meditation hall heading back to the women’s dorm. I was starting to mentally beat myself up about not being able to do this. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the rest of the day, let alone the remaining seven days. I thought the whole day was a wash and I’d try again tomorrow.
I walked slowly up the path to the dorm. I took intentional deep breaths. The air felt cool on my skin and was calming. I listened to the sounds of the geese flying overhead. By the time I got to my room I felt better. The day wasn’t over. I could start again. I sat down in my chair, closed my eyes and started again.
I’d have to “start again” hundreds of times in those 10 days.
Vipassana teaches that everything is impermanent. I got a deeper understanding of “this too shall pass.” During the meditation sittings, it can be convenient to mentally check out when things start to feel hard or easy. Have compassion for yourself. Moment to moment. Be your own friend.
Don’t feel bad about stepping out to the break area or outside for a few minutes to clear your head and stretch. Go to the restroom when you really need to, even during the periods when you’re asked not to leave the meditation hall before the sitting is finished. Torturing yourself is not the same as challenging yourself. Go pee!
9. Where it says, “Tea Break” on the daily schedule? That’s accurate!
I don’t know what the food is like at other meditation centers, but the food during my meditation course was surprisingly good. Especially lunch! Breakfast for me was usually oatmeal with dates and brown sugar, two pieces of buttered toast, and a cup of peppermint tea.
Lunch was the biggest meal of the day and I was never disappointed. There was one day when they made some cornbread to go with the main dish and that cornbread was EVERYTHING! Some days they would even make a sweet treat like carrot cake or cookies.
Dinner was a whole ‘nother story and hopefully this point helps to manage some expectations. On the daily schedule there is a 5 p.m. to 5:30 “Tea Break.” That, my friends, was dinner.
Tea and fruit.
First I tried one cup of tea, a banana and apple slices. Then I tried a cup of tea, a banana and an orange. I went through various combinations of tea and fruit and one night I got so tired of fruit that I only drank two cups of tea.
To my surprise, I never felt hungry late into the night, or like I was starving when I woke up at 4 a.m. every morning (breakfast wasn’t until 6:30). My body adjusted pretty quickly, but the bigger shift may be mental those first couple of days. Trust me when I say, you will survive.
10. The evening video talks with Mr. S.N. Goenka are worth the “price” of admission. Enjoy!
After a looooong day of meditating, each evening ended with a video talk/teaching from Satya Narayan Goenka, recognized as the foremost teacher of Vipassana Meditation. I love a good storyteller and Mr. Goenka is masterful. I don’t think he purposely tried to be funny, but he was hilarious (and we didn’t “get in trouble” for laughing out loud during the videos). His humorous stories were engaging and that’s exactly what you need come 7 o’clock at night when you still have two more hours left in the day to be active.
His nightly teachings weren’t so much about explaining technique as they were about compassionately addressing thoughts and feelings that might arise during the practice of Vipassana. I would be sitting there like, ‘Yes, Goenka! How did you know I was thinking about running away 10 times today?!” “Yes, Goenka! I side-eyed the Tea Break on Day 1. Where’s the food?!” “Yes, Goenka! Your chanting does irritate my soul and I’m frustrated because I know that’s an aversion and I’m supposed to release aversions but I can do without your chanting.”
You may feel a little drowsy the first couple of nights and nod in and out while Mr. Goenka is talking. That, too, shall pass. He drops so many gems that you’ll want to stay awake to catch them all.
12. Don’t be surprised if you hear music when your mind is quiet.
I’m a music lover, but I wasn’t expecting to hear so much music in my brain when I sat down to meditate! Even when I quieted my mind of the chatter of thinking about the past or the future, there would always be a song lyric on repeat in the background. The songs weren’t any I’d listened to recently before the course, but the lyrics that would pop into my head always seemed appropriate for that moment.
When Lupita finished her silent meditation retreat, she shared in the Marie Claire interview that her friend told her to listen to her favorite album. She chose Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. When I came home after my course, I immediately started playing the songs I could remember hearing during my meditation sittings (I was so salty I couldn’t write them down in the moment). I wasn’t the only one hearing music. My roommate at the course had a soundtrack of J. Lo’s greatest hits looping in her head, and she’s not even a J. Lo fan like that.
I don’t know what the music and meditation connection is, but I enjoyed it. Here are a few of the songs/lyrics that I can remember visiting me:
- “I Got 5 On it” – Luniz (“I got more growing pains than Maggie….” – sitting for so long was super uncomfortable. This lyric floated around often!)
- “Love Is a House” – Force M.D.’s
- “Home” – Stephanie Mills (“If you’re listening, God, please don’t make it hard…”; “When I think of home I think of a place where there’s love overflowing…”)
- “Breakout” – Swing Out Sister (“You’ve got to find a way, say what you want to say, breakout!”)
- “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” – Kanye West (“I just want to feel liberated, I, I, I…”)
- “Good Vibrations” – Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch
- “Be Happy” – Mary J. Blige (“All I really want is to be happy…”)
Note: I’m living in the “After” now. The learning doesn’t stop after the course ends and to write about this feels a little premature. However, this “After” is also a “Now” moment and worth sharing as well.
13. You might struggle with how to answer, “So, how was it?!” when you return home.
I struggled so much with how to answer this accurately when I first came home. How could I give people a full picture of the experience without confusing them with things that might get lost in translation without context? I also didn’t want to come off like I was trying to convert folks to something weird. Part of my go-to answer has been, ”I want everyone I know to experience this at least once and I plan to do it again.”
People also are curious to know what I learned about myself, or what my main takeaway from the course was. This has been challenging to articulate as well. The teachings about releasing cravings and aversions heightened my self-awareness. I’m questioning myself more about my attachments.
Perfect example: I have a massive book collection. I love my books and have been attached to MY collection, so much so that I wouldn’t even let people borrow books from me. If someone wanted to borrow a book, I’d buy a copy and gift it to them.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked myself what was I really holding on to with all these books? What did they represent for me? Why have I let the words of other people overcrowd my home? I ended up donating nearly 200 books to the Salvation Army in a single afternoon. And you know what? Now I want to donate even more books! I never thought I would see the day.
This might seem like a small change, but for me this is a huge shift. I’m purging in healthy ways. I’m tackling my aversions by being proactive. I haven’t had a dirty dish sitting in my sink since I’ve returned home.
I’m noticing my fight or flight responses and practicing breathing through them (pray for me! #FlightGameStrong).
I’m doing my best to practice seeing things as they really are, and not putting a positive or negative charge on them. Literally, “it is what it is.” I get to choose for myself how I react or respond to things and I have a better understanding now of how powerful that is.
13, Transition back to social media when you’re ready.
I wasn’t in a rush to get back to social media when the course ended and the world didn’t stop (gasp!). I stayed off a solid month and in the meantime, in-between time I enjoyed calling and texting people. I had hour and two hour long conversations with girlfriends, and that’s a rarity. It felt good.
I planned lunch and coffee shop meetups. I hosted events. I attended events. Even though people didn’t feel my presence online, I was definitely present out in the world.
My mantra became “Focus on my focus.” What would I do with myself without the option of getting on social media? I’ve been more productive. Not full-on beast mode, but the beast is waking!
Using social media responsibly requires discipline and I’m learning how to make it work for me, knowing that I’m prone to being easily distracted. Auditing my Friends list and updating my settings has been part of the purging process. Make some time to do that when and if you decide to return to social media.
14. The Vipassana App is a gamechanger! Download it.
I didn’t know about the Vipassana app when I first completed the program, and now that I have it I wish I’d known it existed sooner (in a non-craving kind of way, LOL). The app has recordings of Goenka’s evening teachings, a Logbook to track daily meditation sittings, and a ton of other information. Download it on the App Store, Google Play or here.
15. Keep practicing and be patient in the process.
I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to maintain a meditation practice once I returned home. After the many hours I did during the course, I thought that two hours a day – an hour in the morning and an hour at night – would be easier, or at least doable without a lot of figuring out how to make it happen.
Thirty minutes meditating in the evenings has worked better for me. Sometimes, I’ve done only 15 minutes. I recognize that is NOT the practice, but I didn’t want to get in the habit of all or nothing. My intention has been to meditate daily. I know I’ll get back to the full hour. The journey isn’t perfect, and neither am I. Both are all good with me.
Allow yourself the grace to find your rhythm when you return home. Decide if you want to continue with Vipassana Meditation, or if you’d like to try another technique. Be patient with yourself if/when you start to feel negative emotions because you don’t feel how you did during the course. Did the “magic” not come home with you? Did the self-discipline disappear?
Coming home is like returning to a new normal because now you have a prime opportunity to re-prioritize and audit your life, including your schedule and habits. Creating that new normal truly is a process. Handle yourself with care.
We all deserve to live lives free of misery and suffering. On this journey to be fully liberated, there are many tools available to assist us. Just like having a toothbrush , the tool of meditation only works when you use it, and use it correctly. Are you using this tool, or is it still sitting in your wellness toolbox?
Your liberation starts with you. Liberation doesn’t happen in theory, but in practice. Your liberation happens in the practice of your applied wisdom (e.g. When you know what to do, DO IT.).
If you’re willing to take the first step and continue on your journey, you’ll get there. Continue on, whether the way feels clear or murky. Getting to a deeper level of knowing yourself is equally worth the pleasure and the pain.
See a list of upcoming Vipassana Meditation courses and apply here.
Thank you for reading. May you be peaceful, happy, and liberated.
Sandria Washington is a Chicago-born South Side-raised writer, wellnesspreneur, speaker and philanthropist . Personal development, self-awareness and play are her jams! As the Creator and Chief Experience Officer of She Field Trips LLC, Sandria happily chaperones curious women who are unapologetically into themselves. Through workshops, unique curated events, online community, and inspiring offline tools Sandria empowers women to have fun along their healing journeys to make their next chapter their best chapter. She is a 200-hr. Certified Yoga Teacher (CYT) through Moksha Yoga and Certified Meditation Instructor through the Open Heart Project. Sandria is a concert junkie, globetrotter, food lover, book lover, adoptee, your favorite homegirl’s favorite homegirl and body roll enthusiast. Connect with her on Instagram @sandriawashington and @shefieldtrips.