The first time I heard about a vipassana meditation retreat was from my yoga teacher when I was eighteen. She told me there were centers all around the world that hosted these donation-based retreats, and that going to one meant you would spend ten days in silent meditation (from 4 a.m. until 9 p.m.), eat vegetarian food, and be forbidden from reading, writing, talking, exercising, looking at your phone, or even making eye contact with others.
Being the introvert that I am, I'm always on the lookout for quiet moments to recharge my batteries — I thought this retreat and I were a match made in heaven. Ten days spent this way may sound like torture to many, but to me it sounded like a grown-up version of a trip to Disney World.
My friends and family, of course, thought I was crazy for checking out from my normal life and abandoning the cookie business I was running at the time to go meditate for almost two weeks; but as I love going against the flow, this didn't discourage me. I also had a few experienced vipassana practitioners, such as my boyfriend and yoga teacher, encouraging me to go and to not let my mind trick me into believing that I didn't have enough time for it, as is usually the case for most people.
So to make a long story short, I did end up going, and not just once, but twice. The first time around I spent New Years there. I meditated myself to sleep that December in 2009 and woke up to a gong follow by a meditation session at 4 a.m. in January 2010. It was the smoothest, most peaceful transition from one year to the next I've ever experienced.
The second time I attended this retreat was on my 30th birthday, in August 2011. Both these times I went to a retreat center just outside of Lima, Peru, but I've also visited a center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, which is much more luxurious and comfortable than the one in Peru.
I won't bore you with the details of my marathon meditation sessions, but I would like to share a highlight of one of my experiences with you, so that you get a glimpse of what this kind of hard-core meditation practice may bring to your life. And maybe you'll decide to go some day.
But first, the basics.
Vipassana meditation is said to be the kind of meditation the Buddha practiced while sitting under the bodhi tree until he reached full enlightenment. Vipassana teachers call it the purest form of meditation, as you don't focus on any outward object or concept (such as mantras or images), but direct your full attention inward instead. All you focus on during these long meditation sessions is on your breath and your bodily sensations.
When you practice this technique for extended periods, you may start feeling all kinds of strange physical symptoms that you've never felt before. In my case it was jolts of electricity up my spine, stinging eyes that felt as if I was chopping onions, and a repetitive pain in one of my toes. Can you believe that sitting in quiet meditation can trigger all these sensations out of nowhere?
All of this may sound strange or unpleasant, but, according to the masters, it's actually great news. When you start feeling these sensations, you are said to be releasing old negative emotions stored in your body that are pent up in your daily life. In other words, you are cleansing yourself emotionally and spiritually through this practice, and when you clean something, it's normal that the dirt will come out first.
I learned many crazy things on both occasions, but the one experience that blew my mind the most was the realization that the mind and body REALLY are one.
Let me explain.
Many of my family members suffer from chronic back pain, caused by scoliosis (our spines are the shape of an "S" instead of being straight). Whenever I don't exercise on a daily basis, or whenever I spend a long time sitting down, my back acts out. When I signed up for my second vipassana retreat I had just recovered from my worst episode of back pain ever, which had me paralyzed for weeks, and then unable to walk straight for months. I was visiting the chiropractor three times a week at this point, trying to bring my body back to balance.
As soon as I arrived at the vipassana center, which was only a one hour drive away from my parent's apartment, I though I had made a big mistake and I wanted to go back home. What was I thinking?! Ten whole days sitting down in meditation and no exercise whatsoever were going to kill me. I decided that I would try it out for one day, and depending on how I felt, I would leave or I would stay for longer.
I was in terrible pain after just one day. At the end of the second day, I approached the teacher and asked for permission to leave (yes, you have to ask for permission). But I didn't leave. Why? I don't know. Perhaps a part of me knew what was about to happen.
On day three and four, the pain was still there, but it was slightly more bearable. And on day five, unexpectedly, the pain almost completely subsided. By the time I went home, there was no pain left. In fact, I felt better than I had in months.
The following day, I visited my chiropractor, and as soon as he touched my back, he asked in a shocked voice what I had done. All my knots were gone. Relaxing my mind had relaxed — and literally changed the state of — my body.
Mind = Body.
These days, whenever I get sick, I know my body is unwell, but my mind is too. In many cases all I need to feel better is to jump back on my meditation pillow and do the inner work. It's even cured a migraine for me! You should try it.