I’ve been meditating for a long time, but as I arrived in North Fork, California, just outside of Yosemite National Park, for my first 10-day vipassana retreat, I was terrified.
What have I gotten myself into? I wondered as I drove down the dirt path to the California Vipassana Meditation Center. What if we get dragged into another world war and no one can reach me?
My nerves were running high. I was about to spend a whopping 10 hours and 45 minutes a day in seated meditation in complete silence—no phone, computer, journal, books, exercise, yoga, or speaking.
Not talking seemed like it was going to be easy. As a yoga and meditation teacher, I spend all day every day using my voice. Silence felt like a welcome reprieve. But no journaling, reading, or yoga? That felt downright cruel.
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As I unpacked my bags and the many meditation cushions and props I had indulgently dragged with me, I was aware that despite my years of yoga practice, the most challenging part of this retreat was likely going to be the physical discomfort that would arise from all those hours of sitting. I walked to the small pond on the women’s side of the center—men and women are separated during the retreat—and took a seat near a small stream. I could hear frogs ribbit as a beautiful dragonfly buzzed near me. Nature was telling me it would be OK. I began to settle in.
That evening, as 50 women entered the meditation hall, I gazed around at the people I would be sitting with in silence for the next 10 days. Eye contact is not allowed once you start the retreat, so this was my only chance to get a good look at my fellow meditators before we began.
The next morning, the wake up bell rang at 4 a.m. I slipped into my coziest sweatpants and stumbled in the dark toward the meditation hall. As the morning practice began, I started to feel anxious. My body temperature rose, and small beads of sweat began to pour down my face. I slipped my sweater off. When the heat continued, I tied my hair back. As my anxiety lifted to a peak, I opened my eyes and fainted headfirst into the meditation cushion of the woman perched in front of me. I have no idea how long I was out. I opened my eyes, sat back up, took a breath, and felt like I had left my body. This vipassana retreat was starting out with a bang.
Though it’s called a “silent retreat,” it felt noisier than playing the radio at full volume—not because there was talking, but because the voice inside my head incessantly narrated everything. I listened to my breath move in and out. I listened to coughing, sniffling, throat-clearing, and a bevy of other bodily noises come and go. I was mindful of my judgments, fears, and physical pains rising and falling away again and again. It was tedious. It felt like work.
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Then, on day three, something magical happened: My body—and mind—became still. While my physical discomfort from all of the sitting was still there, it stopped defining my moment-to-moment experience, and my mental hall monitor faded away.
This retreat woke me up in ways my yoga practice and training never have. I awakened to a voice inside my head that was self-critical and painful to listen to, and I loved that part of myself into healing. I heard the loving voices of my teachers whispering, “May this serve to open your heart; This too is practice; You can do hard things; This too will change; Nothing goes away until it teaches you what you need to learn.” And I kept sitting, ultimately having the incredible experience of the pain not being “mine” anymore. Sure, I felt it in my body, but I learned to un-identify with the pain. I fell into a space of trust that I was OK; that the pain could be there, and I could be separate from it.
In navigating the restlessness, fear, self-criticism, and pain I experienced on this retreat, I awakened to the true meaning of yoga and a profound new depth of presence, love, and acceptance that will stay with me forever.
See also The Big Brain Benefits of Meditation
Silent Vipassana Meditation At A Glance
WHERE YOU CAN TRY IT
Vipassana meditation is commonly taught during 10-day, silent retreats with instruction on mindfulness and alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation.
FOR MORE ON THE HISTORY OF VIPASSANA
3 U.S. RETREAT CENTERS TO CONSIDER
Insight Meditation Society
Shambhala Mountain Center
Red Feather Lakes, Colorado
About our author
Lauren Eckstrom is a yoga and meditation teacher in Los Angeles and co-author of the book Holistic Yoga Flow: The Path of Practice. She leads Holistic Yoga Flow workshops, retreats, and teacher trainings, with her husband, yoga teacher Travis Eliot, with whom she co-created Yoga 30 for 30—a 30-day online yoga program of half-hour daily practices. Learn more at laureneckstrom.com.