The Torture of a Ten Day Silent Meditation Retreat
Meditation Retreats are meant to be relaxing, right?
People have all kinds of bloody ideas about the peace and tranquillity experienced in meditation.
Sure, you can run yourself a lavender oil bath and listen to the sounds of whales fucking. That’s relaxing, but it’s not meditation. Meditation, especially in the beginning, is work.
At one stage, I decided to up the stakes of my practice and went along to my first ten-day vipassana retreat. I had heard that the rules were quite strict. But I still somehow thought it was gonna be real relaxing sitting around and not having to worry about anything for the next ten days.
I had a friend drop me off there in her car. On the way, I read the information sheet again, considering what I was about to undertake.
The main rules were as follows:
No eye contact with others
No writing or reading
No yoga (or other forms of exercise)
No food after midday
No BYO snacks
As for the meditation itself, the website said:
The day begins at 4:00 am with a wake-up bell and continues until 9:00 pm. There are about ten hours of meditation throughout the day, interspersed with regular breaks and rest periods.
I was sitting at dinner with Cindy Crawford.
You used to date Richard Gere, didn’t you? I said.
She blinked her eyes and looked at me flirtatiously.
Sure. Richard is a god, you know? she said, taking a sip of champagne.
What? But he is a Buddhist. We don’t believe in gods.
That’s not true, she said. Buddhists believe in gods, but not a single omnipotent God. To Buddhists, gods are more like advanced humans.
That’s great, Cindy. Anyway, shall we pay the bill and go back to my place?
Gong, she said.
What? Is that a yes?
My eyes opened. It was dark, and some fucker was ringing a gong.
I peeped through the curtain at the guy next door. He was already sitting up cross-legged on his bed. What a nerd.
This was a fucking nightmare. It reminded me of the army. 6 am is fine, but 4 am is still nighttime in my book. You can tell it’s nighttime because it's still dark and the moon is still in the sky.
I sat up cross-legged on my bed and began to watch my breath.
In, out….that’s it. Cindy. Damn, I was so close. Which bastard rung that gong, I wonder?
Oh, that’s right — the breath. In, out.
I spent most of the next two hours sleeping while sitting up — that annoying road trip sleep where your neck nods and you keep waking up suddenly. What was the god damn point? I was so tired. Meditation was literally impossible.
Later that morning, we had the first group session in the hall. Everyone was really serious about not making eye contact. I thought people would be keener to break the rules, but it seemed not.
I began by thoroughly scanning the place for attractive women, which I believe is the standard operating procedure at the start of any meditation retreat.
I noticed some people were sitting in chairs or using small wooden meditation benches.
Those candy-ass weaklings, I thought to myself. What’s the point in coming here if you are going to cheat like that? They should definitely lose points for that.
Fifteen minutes later, I was in agony. My knees were killing me, and my back was on fire. But I couldn’t pull out now. I couldn’t become one of the weaklings, so I pushed through the agony. In cold sweats, I was fifteen minutes into the second session of day one and already in extreme pain.
How was I possibly going to make it through ten days of this bullshit? I opened my eyes and scanned the room for anyone else that looked in pain. To my distress, they all looked like tranquil Buddhas. Was I the only one? Or were these bastards just pretending they weren’t in agony?
Mustn’t—show—any—weakness. A woman let out a loud fart in the front row
I looked around for someone to share the joy with, but everyone was unmoving with their eyes closed. I wondered if it was going to smell because the air conditioner wasn’t very good. It was bloody hot in this hut. I returned to the breath.
That evening I sat on the edge of my bed. I had no phone. I was unable to write or read or do anything. Sure, I was a bit tired from the early morning, so I could have slept, but it was 9.30 pm. This was no time for an ordinary western person like me to be sleeping. Besides, I was more hungry. I was ravenous, in fact.
Lunch finishes at midday, and one of the rules is that you can’t eat after that. Some fruit is made available for people who were doing the retreat for the first time, but I didn’t want to be a loser, so I skipped it.
Besides, oranges and bananas weren’t gonna do it for me. I wanted a god damn Snickers bar and some cheese on toast.
The morning gong went off, and I pushed myself up against the wall, ready for my usual sitting-up nap.
Sitting against the wall was more comfortable and made sleeping kind of easy. I woke up suddenly, and a white demon face was looking at me in the dark. As my eyes adjusted, I realised it was a hairy man who was staring at me.
Are you awake? he said, like some kind of deranged hippy drill sergeant. I wanted to scream ‘YES, DRILL SERGEANT!’ but I bottled out.
Fuck off, would ya? I said instead. This is a meditation retreat, not boot camp, you idiot. He did fuck off, but the shock of his hairy face in the darkness had got some serious adrenaline flowing. For a moment, I thought I might have a heart attack. However, the shock kept me awake for my morning session, which was a bonus.
Later that day, one of the teachers made an announcement. It has come to our attention that some of you are sleeping during the morning session.
No shit, you fucking idiot. I thought.
What did this corporate meditation monkey expect? If you want people to stay awake, perhaps you might want to get them up at a decent time — not 4 am.
He announced that his people would be doing random checks on everyone. The vibe was a bit controlling for my liking, and I considered starting a revolution, but it would have been hard to round up comrades since no one could talk or even look at each other. I wondered what the punishment for sleeping would be. I thought to myself that if that hairy hippy arsehole sticks his big nose in my bed area again, I might slap him swiftly in his stupid face.
That’s what you get for working for the man.
By day three, the farting had gotten out of control. There were at least four or five audible farts in every two-hour session. It wasn’t as funny as it was at the start. It’s the same as what happens when you go on holiday in Europe. At first, you get to the beach, and all of the women are topless. You get
your jollies for a few days, but then it just becomes normalised. Tits become normal. It’s the same with farts in a meditation retreat. Farts become normal.
And, by the way, this is what happens when you feed meat-eaters a diet of lentils and vegetables. The stomach just ends up so bloated all of the time, especially when you are constantly eating sweet potato and other starchy bastard vegetables.
I joined in the symphony with a few myself. I considered seeing how many I could do in a two-hour session. Farts were normalised, but one every minute on the minute for two hours? Surely no one could ignore such sheer consistency and symmetry.
By now, every session was like burning agony. I started to focus quite well on the practice and found that looking at the pain often made my brain release pain killers or something. Strangely, the burning in my knees and back sometimes felt good, although most of the time, it was still torturous. What was more torturous was having nothing to do. But meditation makes your mind so damn creative, especially when combined with intermittent fasting (which it wasn’t called then. It was just called ‘not eating’. )
So I was having these extreme ideas for songs and books and life and making money — but no way of recording any of them.
In the breaks between sessions, people did laundry to stop themselves from going mad. I went into my imagination which had become as vivid as it was when I was a child. I could see whatever I imagined very clearly, almost like it was reality. Mostly I thought about food, though — hot dogs and fried rice and ice cream. By day seven, my mind was doing bizarre things. I had constant visions of beautiful angelic beings and places that would then morph into horrific visions of decaying bodies and murder and monsters. The images would switch back and forth between the dark and light aspects, and although they were vivid, I never felt any emotion toward them except maybe a touch of excitement or fascination.
The farting had almost entirely stopped. Many former cross-legged people were now in chairs, but I had stubbornly tortured myself and felt great pride at still sitting on the floor.
I was ninety per cent sure I was winning the retreat or at least in the top three. Somehow around this time, during my observance of the pain in my body, it all stopped. I just became comfortable in my body. All the pain had gone.
Still, I spent most of the morning session thinking about lunch and most of the afternoon session thinking about breakfast the next day.
In the few moments of good practice I had, I did pretty well, I think. But there was something about the silence, the fasting and the discipline that was at least as powerful as the meditation itself. It was torture, but I started to understand why they did it. The hairy guy hadn’t been back to my bed area since the day I told him to fuck off. Still, I heard him checking on the others like some kind of spiritual nazi. I continued my morning sitting-up naps, but they became scattered with some moments of real meditation practice.
Around day nine, people became more relaxed. I even smiled at a few people to remind them that rules were meant to be broken. I was the James Dean of this retreat, and everyone knew it. When you are around people for a while and don’t talk, you communicate in other ways, even without eye contact. Still, some people ignored my smiles, and some scowled. Every once in a while, someone even smiled back.
When everyone could finally talk, it was like the floodgates had opened. I felt like I was in a room full of speed addicts. Everyone was talking a million miles an hour with dilated pupils. They were getting to know each other in a condensed way, packing ten days worth of conversation into half an hour. The course was meant to be by donation, but they gave you your wallet and phone back when you went up to give your offering in front of everybody.
Then, they told you their suggested donation was $50 a day in front of everyone, and they gave you the hard close. I felt sorry for people being coerced into paying the full amount, and I wanted to make a show.
She gave me the hard close, but I wasn’t going for it. I had been in sales for years, and other salespeople always made me feel competitive. I will pay $200, I said. I felt the judgement from all around, but I didn’t give a fuck. I felt $20 a day covered my food and whatever.
I had planned to pay more. I just didn’t like the trickery they employed at the end. I don’t have a problem with organisations charging money, but just don’t suck people in by saying it’s by donation before socially embarrassing them into paying $500 for the course.
This all happened around fifteen years ago. I have recently considered doing another ten-day vipassana retreat.
I have done plenty of retreats since, but none with the strict rules of that one. I know with our reliance on tech, the torture would be much worse these days. But I also enjoy my meditation more now, so I know that I could use the time better. I also know I would be comfortable breaking the rules even more.
Maybe a secret notebook, maybe some silent yoga, maybe even a Snickers bar or two.