Vipassana: 10 Days Of Silent Meditation Alone in Nature
WHY DO A VIPASSANA?
Back in December 2018, I was made to realise that I had been in a challenging position for simply too long. Friction was the constant and my joints were wearing thin, so to speak. Indeed, projects undertaken were asking too much of me. To put it simply, I had enthusiastically created a wonderful movement and mission that was helping a lot of people, but at the same time, that very wave was also rolling into my life like a monster that required an intensity of attention and frequency of feeding that I could not humanly sustain.
I was working 12 to 16 hours a day on various projects which meant that no matter how organised and structured I was, my brain had no choice but to be entrained into multi-tasking and task-switching, which I have come to realise is the death of creativity and the end of vitality, at least for me.
Fortunately, I always had a certain amount of awareness around this growing issue — I think it helped me stand back just at the right time — and I was, therefore, able to subtly start pulling the plug by putting certain rules and mechanisms in place, as well as booking myself in for prolonged breaks and experiences that would make a stand, and thus hopefully turn the monster back into a wave that I would surf with pleasure again.
One of the breaks — I had decided — was to be a silent meditation retreat, also known as vipassana.
WHAT IS A VIPASSANA?
Vipassana is an ancient practice rooted in the teachings of the Buddha. In its essence, it means seeing things as they are.
Though shared with millions of people in India, it somehow fell out of fashion until S.N. Goenka — a Burmese teacher who was first and foremost an entrepreneur and a layperson — began spreading the teachings of vipassana in India in the 1970s.
In his tradition, participants are to sit in meditation for a 10-day silent retreat, which is framed by a set of defined rules: no drugs, sex, lying, religious worship, killing, harming, reading, stealing, writing, or physical contact. There is no communication to be had, be it by speech, gestures or notes.
It is commonly thought that such a strict approach allows the participant to reach a state we call pratyahara — turning the external inputs OFF and switching the internal ones ON.
The 10 days are meant to result in a purging of the negative thinking patterns that have a hold on our life, giving us a never reached before sense of perspective around pain, pleasure and suffering in life.
The vipassana guru, Mr. S.N. Goenka is known for saying: “we do not convert people from one organized religion to another organized religion. We should try to convert people from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation, and from cruelty to compassion.”
HOW I CREATED MY OWN MINIMUM VIABLE VIPASSANA (MVV, check out the lean start-up)
I hadn’t done a vipassana before and though I was tempted to research the whole thing in great detail, I realised I did not want to copy-paste the vipassana experience of all those that had come before me. I decided to instead look for the rules and techniques that were required for my experience to actually qualify as vipassana (not that I cared really), and then channelled some of the entrepreneurial knowledge I have developed over the years to custom design my own version of a vipassana — a hybrid form if you like.
Now trust me, I am far from saying that I avoided the unpleasant and uncomfortable aspects of it, in fact, it was quite the contrary. What I mean by designing my own experience is that I started the whole process months in advance by asking meaningful questions (I tried) around various themes in my life, traits in my personality, and trends on my journey so far. This you could argue has in some ways enabled me to almost “experience” a few vipassanas in my head in advance and thus learn from my visualisations and projections. Some of my answers made me conclude that:
The Swiss alps were to be my home even though it might not be comfortable or easy
If there were to be no talking and distracting inputs, then I was to do it on my own in total isolation
It was likely I would have to alter the prescribed schedule to accommodate the changing weather at high altitude, as well as cope with the kind of interrupted sleep I was potentially signing myself up for
I was to avoid most sugar — which I consider a form of distraction — distributed in often sizeable quantities and various forms at most vipassana centres out there
I wanted to do everything myself: I was going to be both the cook and the customer, the teacher and the student, the owner and their dog…etc, so as to not entirely remove myself from reality with an experience which then couldn’t then be “transposed into the key of city life”
I was going to take a few photos to document my experience even though it isn’t “permitted” so I could spread the word about this form of self-work in the event that I did find it transformative and helpful
WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES VIPASSANA DIFFICULT?
You are required to meditate in a seated position for over 10 hours a day for 10 days
You are not supposed to move at all while in meditation
You cannot communicate or receive communications
You are allowed no form of distraction or entertainment which means that you are facing yourself like never before
You are fasting for approx. 18 hours a day and your diet is 100% vegan
You are practising very abstract meditations that do not make it easy for time to pass quickly
You are taught to be in harmony or equanimity with all that is and happens (even physical pain)
You can experience intense emotional fluctuations
You become aware of your thought patterns, inner dialogue and responses to your environment
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF VIPASSANA MEDITATION?
Mental, emotional and sometimes physical healing
Insights into the inner workings of the mind
Quieting down of "mind chatter”
More love and compassion for all living things
Sharper cognitive functions and memory recall
WHAT MY 10-DAY MEDITATION PROGRAM LOOKED LIKE
Day 1 Breath entering/leaving Nostrils awareness
Day 2 Upper lip / Bottom Lip awareness
Day 3 Back of the head awareness
Day 4 Forehead / Top of the head awareness
Day 5 Awareness root to crown awareness
Day 6 Awareness crown to root awareness
Day 7 Awareness left to right / right to left
Day 8 Awareness front to back / back to front
Day 9 Spontaneous combination day 1-9
Day 10 Heart meditation + Forgiveness
MY SCHEDULE ON THE VIPASSANA
6am Wake up + gratitude in reviewing previous day mentally
6.30 Meditation (2h)
9.45 Meditation (1h15)
11.30 Meditation (2h)
2.30 Meditation (2h)
5 Meditation (2h)
7 Rest/stretch legs— not yoga
7.30 Meditation (1h)
*It varied depending on the weather
WHAT HAPPENED ON MY VIPASSANA
I got lost on the way and put myself through a fairly dangerous 5-hour hike with 25kgs on my back with neither hands free. It was meant to be a walk in the park but my lack of judgment turned the journey into hell on earth with two mild electrocutions, a lost hat which was to shelter my head from the high altitude UVs, and a host of key belongings drenched in unexpected London rain (in Switzerland, can you believe it?!). I am not going to lie, I did curse a few times on my way up the mountain but it kind of felt good as I knew that was going to be it for a while!
The first evening was very challenging as I felt abandoned and scared. I had the blues — some sort of emotional hangover one might say.
Sitting down was as painful if not more painful than my first day. I honestly did not think I was going to be one of those people. Well, I was wrong. I had it all, totally numb legs, pain in the hips, shoulders, neck, upper back. Pain was camping both on and within me just like I was camping on the mountain for 10 days. Ouch. It was superbly sunny though, which deep inside made me feel very grateful.
The blues came back in the evening but I offered less reaction or opposition to it that time.
The heavens unleashed one hell of a cleansing shower that pretty much lasted the whole day, so I meditated in my tent and didn’t eat or walk very much at all. The joys of camping! On the meditation side, it’s hard to pinpoint what it was but my body gave me a break and I had a series of incredible meditations where I felt in total neutrality like in a great gong bath.
More rain and less appetite for the same foods I was eating twice a day. I really did not feel like meditating all day. An enormous amount of songs were playing on repeat in my head, I was OK with it but it was strange. Erotic thoughts came in to try and distract me on several occasions and I hear that is very common.
The sun made a most welcome appearance. I didn’t feel particularly good as the terrain was rough and my sleep wasn’t so good. Thunderstorms the night before were intense and felt more real than ever, in fact at one point I realised I had two tins of gas in my tent and jerked myself up to throw them out so as not to burn up in flames. I was ok with getting a high dose of electricity up my Sushumna (main, central pranayama channel supposedly contained within the spine) but I didn’t think I could survive both electricity and fire. Fair enough.
I have less memory recollection for the last few days - I assume that my experience of time and space changed as I was reaching deep levels of meditation and awareness.
I know that I was doing things very slowly and one at a time, which is not common practice in my London life.
I ran out of foods which meant I had to hike down to the village and buy a few things without looking at anyone or talking to anyone, which thankfully is quite easy to do in this machine-age (self-checkout, thank god you exist!)
I felt very tired once I got back to my tent and had to sleep for an hour in the afternoon. My schedule got a little out of balance which meant more meditation at night. That was a pleasant modification but I struggled to fall asleep, which is something that I experienced most nights to various degrees — maybe because I wasn’t using any energy being seated meditating all day?
My body was thriving in every sense, although I realised I had at this point only done 3 poos. My digestive system has never been particularly sharp when travelling “cheap” and camping but there I was surprised as my diet was highly clean this time.
Meditation was incredible: visions as to what my future might look like were appearing before my eyes and I was feeling my body like never before.
I knew the end was coming and I was both sad and excited to make my way back to civilisation. The temperatures at night were not improving — with evening temperatures leaving proper icicles around my tent — and I have no shame in admitting that I was by now often dreaming of a proper bed and a warm duvet.
I followed the standard program and did a heart-opening meditation followed by a long process of forgiving those who I felt had caused me harm — be it mental/physical/emotional — in my life, with some room for those who I would like to be able to apologise to face to face one day, hopefully sooner rather than later.
I then made my way down the mountain, called my wife briefly and then called my father as I didn’t have the strength to hike the whole way back (plus my ankles were bleeding quite badly). I then spent the rest of the day at Gstaad Palace’s SPA where I took some notes and kickstarted my transition back to civilisation — and civilised it was!
REALISATIONS & OBSERVATIONS
Extreme isolation reawakened my creativity and empowered my self
Being on my own enables me to effortlessly be myself
Staying drastically away from everything gave me a never felt before sense of perspective on my life
Nothing lasts forever
Society conditions us to react rather than observe
I felt grateful, playful and in tune with nature even when it wasn’t in my favour
My mind was still and fuelled by intent. I was with every moment instead of being projected into the past or the future
My memory was considerably sharper
I felt totally hydrated thanks to the amazing glacial water which was pouring down the mountain via the waterfall
I had no food cravings and wasn’t hungry, with a couple of days where I ate very little
I was never tired and in fact, for the first time managed to go “to bed” without falling asleep within 5 minutes
My digestive system underwent a cleansing process
The pain in two of my teeth and my right knee totally disappeared (less inflammation)
My skin was super soft and it started to create a lot more sebum
Calluses on my hands were gone and the yellow tint on the soles of my feet was gone
My skin felt and looked hydrated
Being back at work with my sound meditation workshops has been very enjoyable and I can already tell these 10 days of silence have brought a new dimension to my relationship with sound. After all, sound emerges from silence and fades (feeds) back into it.
I am still digesting my experience but I can safely say that what came to me still stands strong. I am naturally already making changes, adjustments and plans to shape the vision I had up on my mountain top.
Here’s a short list of ideas I intend to copy from my vipassana experience and paste into my daily life:
-Quality water (from a spring in a glass bottle, say goodbye to plastic)
-Quality air (I am getting an air filter and ionizer for the house, and will make sure I take 3 walks on Hampstead Heath every week)
-Squatting or cross-legged sitting (I will try not to sit on chairs/sofas)
-Less talking and more listening
-Intermittent fasting with more fibre/plant-based meals
-Purposefully do everything a lot more slowly
-Allocate one to three tasks max. for the day and focus until the work is done (unless it’s Friday = admin day)
-No external inputs such as instagram, emails, texts, phone calls unless I intend to receive them (no random scrolling/checking)
-More walking (it seems to really suit my physiological constitution)
-Get to bed really early (yep, I’m talking 9pm here)
-Play the same “tape” in my head when going to sleep and waking up (visualisation)
Want to see photos I took at the start and end of the trip with an old iPhone? Head over to my instagram account!
I will be doing another vipassana next year but I think I will give a proper centre a try just to contrast my initial experience. In the meantime, I have planned a few 2 and 3-day rewilding experiences to regularly attune myself with nature on my own.
In other news, my app Third Ear is about to launch its new version on iOS and Android platforms. I cannot wait to share it with you as it’s been 14 months in the making…!
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more”
― Lord Byron