Today's post is about the 10-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat that I did a few months ago in Cambodia, in Kamgpom Cham. You can watch my vlog about it here, or read the transcript below!
About the Vipassana meditation retreat
It's a 10-day, silent retreat. Silent means no speaking, so you can't speak to anybody else at the retreat. The only time that you're allowed to speak is if something is wrong with your accommodation or the food, something logistical. You can talk to one of the assistant teachers to get support with that, but you're not allowed to talk to the other participants at all. You're not even allowed to nod or smile or gesture at them. You're meant to just draw the energy completely internal.
This also means that you're not allowed to talk to anybody outside of the retreat. No texting, no emailing, no calling. I actually had to give up my phone, give them my phone that they, they locked away for the 10 days of the retreat. That was actually the easy part.
Also included in the silence, obviously also no computer or TV. That was also locked away in the safe. There's no reading, no writing, no listening to music, no nothing, no distractions at all. All you're doing for 10 full days is meditating.
Sitting in silence – a deeper meditation
I was quite nervous going because I arrived in Cambodia on the evening before I was supposed to get to the retreat, was trying to figure out how I was going to get there the next day. I didn't speak their language, I wasn't really familiar with the country yet. There's this whole big thing of being completely silent, which I had never done before.
I've had a cell phone or smartphone rather for I guess about 10 years. Since that time, I've gone a few days on a camping trip or a hike where I didn't have reception for a few days, but I'd still always have other people there or I would have books, music to listen to. I was quite nervous, just for 10 days, being completely alone with my thoughts.
About the vipassana meditation centres
I went to the Vipassana Meditation Center, and they have these centres all over the world and wherever you go it's the same program, which I actually didn't realize till I got there. I had chosen to go in Cambodia because Cambodia is a Buddhist country and Vipassana, which is a mindfulness meditation, has its roots in India but it's a Buddhist practice. I thought doing it in a Buddhist country would perhaps help deepen my practise, my understanding. It is actually the exact same program wherever you go in the world with the same head teacher.
If you're interested in trying this, you can really do it anywhere in the world. I chose to do it in Cambodia. I was in South East Asia anyways, and the retreat is separated for men and women, which I think is just another way for them to try to have no distractions, to not having to be worried about anything that comes with being with the opposite gender if that's something that brings up any positive or negative emotions for you.
The schedule at the vipassana meditation retreat
The first day we had our orientation videos and it was definitely not what I was expecting because they didn't realize that it was all with the same teacher and that he actually has all of his teachings prerecorded. He's passed on now, but all of his prerecorded teachings shape this retreat.
We watched our orientation video, there were about six of us there, three women and I think there were seven to start, three women and four men that were foreigners there, that were watching the videos in English and everyone else was watching in Khmer, the Cambodian language. He told us that for dinner you only have, you have two light meals and then for dinner, you just have some fruit and some tea.
Three times a day, you have a meditation session where you're not meant to leave the room and if possible, you're meant to not even leave, you're meant to not even move position, which is quite difficult. Then the rest of the meditation sessions are a bit more flexible. If you need to go out to get some water or use the washroom or move around your position, you can do that.
That was pretty much it. It's quite straightforward. You just sit in meditation for 10 days and then we did get dinner that night and I wasn't sure if we were going to get it every night but we did have a dinner that night and then the first evening meditation and we all lined up in order and got assigned our meditation seat with a little card and walked into the hall. It was really a beautiful, big meditation hall, and we all had cushions laid out for us and started the first meditation. The next day just jumped right into the schedule.
The wake-up call comes at 4:00 AM and if any of you know me, you'll know that I'm not a morning person. The first day, I slept right through it and woke up about 5:30. The wake-up bell's at 4:00 AM and the first meditation starts at 4:30. I woke up at 5:30 and just rushed into the hall to catch the last hour of that meditation session, but I was finding it very, very difficult to stay awake in the meditation because I was so tired.
Then at 6:30, we go have our breakfast and the meal is all in silence. It was definitely for the 10 days I sat next to the same woman. We each had our little place but we never got to talk until the very last day. At 6:30, we have our breakfast and then we have a small break also go for a little walk. There was a nice little garden in the property. You could shower. Rest, shower, continue meditating or walking. It's up to you.
Then we went to our first at 8 o'clock. The first strong meditation started. This is, as I was saying, the meditation where you're not meant to move or you're not meant to lie down even, but of course, if you really need to you can, but it was encouraged not to.
Then there's after that meditation, which lasts for one hour, there's a five-minute break and then you returned to the second meditation. This is just a more relaxed meditation where if you do need to move or leave, you can do that. That lasts for two hours and then it's already lunchtime.
At 11:30, it's lunchtime. That seems very early for me for lunchtime, but technically, you've already been awake for 7 hours. I was always starving when I got to lunch. Then after lunch, you have another little break where again you can go for a walk, you can rest in your room, you can shower, you can wash your clothes if you need to.
Then we return to the hall for another strong meditation, one hour, again, you get a five-minute break and then you come in for the afternoon meditation and this one is 90 minutes and then you leave for dinner after that one.
I was very happily surprised to learn that the new students, if this was your first time at a Vipassana Meditation Retreat, you did get a normal dinner. If you were a returning student, if this was your second or third or fourth time at a Vipassana Meditation, you only got a piece of fruit and some tea for dinner. I was very hungry so I was quite happy to get the dinner.
After dinner, there's your last strong meditation of the day, so a one-hour session where you're not meant to move. Then after that, you have a discourse section. This is the only time where you get any input other than a meditation for the entire day. It's a prerecorded video of the teacher. Each day he shares different teaching about the Vipassana technique.
My experience at the vipassana meditation 10-day silent retreat
For the first few days, you work on just the breath, just noticing the breath and noticing the breath as it comes in and out of your nostrils. Then as you go on to the later days, especially starting day four, you start to do different body scan techniques. Becoming aware of the whole body and these things get explained in these hour-long discourse sections.
Then after that the discourse, you have one more, just one-hour, short meditation and then it's bedtime, lights out are at 9:00 PM because your wake-up time is at 4:00AM. That's the day.
What did I think that this retreat? I have quite mixed feelings about it. I'll talk about what I liked and what I didn't like. The thing that I found easiest and that I enjoyed the most was the silence. I will say that I cheated. They didn't check your bags for anything if you had any books or anything like that. I had my Kindle, not because I had any intention of reading but just because I didn't think about giving it to them to lock away with my phone and with my laptop. So, I did end up allowing myself a little bit of reading before bed.
I made a deal with myself that I was only going to read classical books. I read Beoewulf, I read Poetics by Aristotle, I read the script play that I'm not even going to try to pronounce because I don't know how, but it's a Greek comedy that I really enjoy that I had seen in Greece a couple of years ago.
The good stuff: silence
Other than that, I did enjoy the silence. I'm a person that's quite introverted and can sometimes be socially anxious. Not having that pressure of having to make small talk with the other women at the retreat was actually quite a relief for me. I do think that it allowed me to have much more energy and focus for my meditation sessions because I didn't have these anxieties around like, "Oh, what am I going to talk about at lunch?", trying to think of things to say, and on the last day when we could talk, I did get to talk to the other women and they were all very, very lovely and all were teaching me and the other foreign girl about what kinds of foods we have been eating where we were called and teaching us some words in Cambodian but it was definitely a relief not to have to talk to anybody for those 10 days.
I had been very worried about being without my phone. As I said, I hadn't really been without it, I hadn't really been cut off in that way before, but that was surprisingly easy. There were a few times when I just wondered if something was going on that I needed to know about or wanted to see, "Oh, what did my friends say to this email that I had sent her?". For the most part, I honestly didn't mind it at all and it really made me feel quite strong and resilient just to know that as much as I often feel like I'm dependent on my technology or addicted to checking my phone, I'm actually not. It was actually quite easy to do that.
More good stuff: reducing the overwhelm
The other thing that I liked was just the time to do nothing. One of the challenges which I'll get to you in a minute was that I couldn't write and I was restricting my reading and that was a big challenge. Actually, it was very nice to do nothing and it was quite surprising at even a few days in of having no stimulation and no nothing, no input. My mind was still chatter, chatter, chatter, running, running, running.
It made me realize I think sometimes I fall into the trap. I mean I'm even doing this now. I'll have a bunch of tabs open and I'll say, "Okay, well, I need to get through all these tabs, but then when I close them, I'm going to be more organized about it", or I'll be reading two or three books at a time and I'll say, "Just when I go through this round then I'm only doing one at a time. I feel like, "Oh, I'm at this moment. I'm a bit overwhelmed but this is just temporary. Then I'm going to go back to what I see as my baseline as being less overwhelmed".
It was interesting to see that that's not really true. That if I allow my brain to run wild, it will always want to do too many things, because even with no stimulation, with no doing nothing, my brain still spin into a mile-a-minute. I had so many ideas of things that I wanted to write.
It was quite interesting to see and it made me realize that and rather than thinking, "Oh, I need to finish this chunk of over--, I need to learn how to accommodate this every day and how to manage this every day because this is just an ongoing thing".
It did also really allow me to focus on where I want to be putting my time because I do have a lot of ideas and there are a lot of things that I want to write and teach and share and I can't do all of them. It made me realize what is really important to me. What do I really want to be putting out into the world? What do I really want to be talking? That was a very big, positive thing as well.
The challenges of a Vipassana meditation retreat
Now, for the challenges which is maybe a much longer thing. For the first few days, I found it physically very challenging to sit for that long. If you did need accommodation for whatever reason, they would get you a chair that you could sit in. I did a few times drag my cushions back to the wall and lean against the wall as long as you're not in the strong meditation. There was adjustments but it's still a lot of sitting. Back was hurting, hips were hurting, knees were hurting. Trying to switch between a cross-legged and then on my knees but there was nothing to be done.
The first few days, I just couldn't get my mind to focus for more than a couple of minutes at a time. I'm going to get bored. I did not like the discourse sessions and also the teacher that I've been talking about, S. N. Goenka. He was not a good teacher for me as much as I do believe in the practice. I'll talk about this a little bit more at the end of how it affected my life after the retreat.
His teachings did not resonate with me. I found those discourse sections very hard to sit through. Then as the days got on, he would begin speaking more in recorded voice during the meditation sessions and because I found that he wasn't a good teacher for me, it made me often lose my focus. Those were some big challenges.
The food was another challenge. I was not used to Cambodian food. I think I got a little bit sick of the food and often would just have rice and ginger or something, so I get really very hungry in the meditation hall and I feel like I'm fighting this battle. Then I look around and everybody seems very calm, and serene, in deep meditation.
Sometimes it could feel like I was the only one who couldn't sit still. That ended up not being true when I was able to talk to people at the end, everybody was struggling. I mean I think how common is that in life, is that you look around and it seems like everything is easy for somebody else or for a lot of other people. Then if you get to know them, you find out that that it's not and everybody has their own battles.
My review of the vipassana meditation retreat
The first three days were quite tough and definitely were spend adapting. I felt like I just needed to write. I just needed to read. I needed to work. Around day four, which is when we get into the more body scan meditation, I started getting better at going for long walks in the garden and just allowing myself to think, to have these ideas without needing to record them or to write them down or to do them, but just to see where the ideas went, where I want my writing and my yoga practice and my teaching to look like for the next year.
I realize I don't need to write down every single idea right away. I don't need to do them right away. I let them run their course and then if in 10 days I'm still really excited about the idea, I'm going to write it down. There's also a good chance that I had ideas that weren't exciting and didn't stick and that is completely fine as well.
Once I get to that day four, or five-point, I start to get deeper into the meditation practice. I find the first few days, I could-- maybe two minutes of focusing and then my brain was wandering. Then two minutes of focusing, the brain wandering. Now, I'm finding that I can start to do longer stretches. It's just very comforting and grounding and I'm finding myself having a lot more energy in these middle days. I'm going for walks every day.
By day six or seven, I'm actually surprised at how much my body has adapted. My legs can go so much longer without getting numb. My knees aren't hurting anymore. My hips aren't hurting anymore. My back's not hurting. I think I've actually very much improved my core strength just from sitting in meditation.
If you've come to my classes or seen my videos, I'm a big fan of being gentle with my body and I don't want to be in pain. I want to be challenged, yes, but those kinds of pains, especially the hip and knee and back pains, is not something that I would normally push myself through but the teachers when I spoke to the teachers about this pain, they said just keep trying, keep going.
It was very surprising how quickly my body adapted to be stronger and more flexible just by sitting. My hamstrings were so loose. My hips were so loose. My core was strong and all I had been doing was sitting for hours a day. It also made me think about how probably bad it is that we all sit in chairs all day, rather than on the floor. I realized for many people with different physical needs, it's not possible to sit on the floor.
I know standing desks are all the age right now. It made me think, "Well, what about just sitting on the floor and working on the coffee table", which is actually what I'm doing now to record this.
Then around day eight, things start to take a bit of a turn for the worse. I'm counting down my time and I feel I'm ready to go. My mind starts wandering again. It just reminded me that life is not linear in progression. It's not linear in anything, in your career, in your creative work, in your health. Things are not linear. It was a real challenge for the first few days and then that was getting deeper and I was like, "Wow, I'm going to be such great meditator and be so present by the end of these 10 days". Then, of course, I wasn't because it got more difficult again.
It's just a good reminder. Just because I had a good practice one day doesn't really impact what my practice is going to be the next day but that's okay. That's just the nature of meditation and our brains. The important thing I think is not to be tied to the outcome, not to be tied to having this perfect meditation session, but to actually just be tied to showing up. That's really all we need to do, is just show up.
Then the last day, day 10, when we're allowed to talk was felt really nice. Everybody was just so happy to speak to each other.
We had a great Cambodian curry. It was the best dish we have had the whole time at the retreat, I think, and everyone was excited to talk about it. People were really excited that we were there as foreigners. They wanted to share their culture with us.
Finally, on the morning of the last day, we have our last meditation section. We're allowed to get our phones. I'm so exciting, took the bus back with everybody, back to Phnom Penh, and got to talk to some of the other foreigners especially just to see what everybody's perceptions were.
It was just really nice. A really nice community feel and then once I got back to Phnom Penh, I actually just hopped on another bus to Siem Reap which is where Angkor Wat is. It was super cool to do that meditation retreat and then go to this really magical place of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat and be fully present in these old temples. It was really cool and fun.
Conclusions: Do I recommend the vipassana 10-day silent retreat
By the time I left the retreat, I had very mixed feelings about it. I did find the practice was good, but as I said, the last few days, I was feeling very restless like I was ready to go. Also as I said, S. N. Goenka, the teacher did not really resonate with me in the way that he taught, in the way that he spoke, in the way that a lot of the concepts were set up.
I just felt very grateful that I have done the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. I've had so many other wonderful mindfulness meditation mentors and teachers that I would say both who still get deeply into the practice and appreciate the practice.
Even though he was not the teacher for me, a lot of people really very much like his teaching. That's just a very personal thing. Maybe if you're thinking about doing the retreat, you can watch a few videos of him online just to see if his style resonates with you.
I felt very good in the weeks after, I mean the first day I was so excited. I got on my Netflix, I ate beans, bacon and eggs I think, which I was craving, but I wanted to stick with the practice. I made the goal to meditate for half an hour every morning and half an hour every evening. I was no technology, completely offline up until noon, which was also really nice because it allowed me to do some really deep work in those mornings.
Actually just a few weeks after the meditation retreat, I finished the first draft of my novel and I think that is very much owed to the fact that I was having those offline mornings and also that I was just used to now those longer periods of focus and concentration, and my other work as well was moving a lot quicker. I felt more connected to what I was doing and more excited about what I was doing.
It also made me think about interacting with people and what those relationships mean and how they play out. It felt so exciting to be able to talk to my friends and family again. They're just like a lot of nice moments of connection that I especially appreciated.
My overall thoughts are that are still mixed. On the positive, I think that the practice is very powerful. Then if you're able to take 10 days to completely cut yourself off and just get deep into the practice, I think that that can be very beneficial for your life. I think it was very beneficial for my life.
That said, there are a lot of challenges with that retreat, which I've outlined in the post, but the negatives were just there's a little bit of a cult-like, I guess, feel to the retreat and to the teacher. It is very challenging to sit for those 10 days.
Would I do it again? I'm not sure. I would like to take another period of time where I'm completely offline for 10 days or one week, but I don't know that that will be a Vipassana retreat. Whether that's another meditation retreat, whether that's a self-directed retreat where I just run somewhere in the wilderness to go by myself for some time, and maybe work or maybe just meditate, I'm not sure.
A lot of the teachings were very beneficial to me. A lot of the teachings are things that I want to repeat again in my own life. How my thoughts on Vipassana as an organization are mixed. If you're interested in doing that, I would just recommend to do more research than I did on it. I had just heard about it from some people and I found the website and I signed up. Maybe just doing a bit more research on who the teacher is and what the practices are, and what's really included in the retreat to see if you think that it would be good for you.
I'm hesitant to tell anyone to definitely do it or to -- because I am not sure I would do it again, but also I wouldn't tell anyone to definitely not do it because I know that these teachings do resonate for a lot of people and I will probably write within the next few months and a little bit more on these ideas and these feelings, and why they liked and didn't like him and what were the reasons that I didn't like the teacher because I do have a lot of thoughts on that.
I will write more on that later, but I just wanted to give now a lowdown, an outline of what the retreat was and how it went and what it meant for me. I hope this is really helpful if you're interested in meditation, if you're interested in a retreat, but if you just want to think about deepening your practice and maybe spending a little bit more time offline, a little bit more time maybe carving up a bit more time in the day, even if it's just 15 minutes every morning to just meditate and be inward and not check your phone and not read and not talk to anybody. I think that's a really powerful practice.