While traveling in Southeast Asia, I knew I wanted to do some kind of meditation or yoga retreat, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do yet. In Koh Tao, I met another solo-traveller who had just completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Yangon, Myanmar.
Her experience fascinated me. I couldn’t believe she went 10 days without speaking. I wondered, could I do that? To remain silent for 10 days sounded impossible! And during a Vipassana retreat I would also fast each afternoon- no meals after 12:oo pm. Meditation while hungry sounds miserable.
In the reality, I didn’t struggle with the silence or being hungry. In fact, I never was actually hungry except for the hour before breakfast.
My struggle was sitting for such an extended period of time. I am fit and healthy with no bad joints or aching back, but during those 10 days, I felt pain in every joint in my body. I couldn’t comprehend how the women three times my age managed to sit stoically for the long sessions.
I didn’t know what to expect from the retreat. I went on a whim. I heard about it from the other traveller, then applied and got an e-visa for Myanmar the next day. I had made an impulsive decision to do it, and I was too stubborn to change my mind or back out.
In the end, it was the best impulsive decision I have made, especially while traveling.
I never even planned to go to Myanmar! I backpacked through Myanmar for the 2 weeks leading up to the retreat. Myanmar is still so new to tourism, that you don’t have many social hostels to meet other travelers, so it was a really lonely experience for me, especially compared to backpacking in Cambodia and Thailand.
Being on my own for those two weeks though was the perfect way to prepare myself for the meditation retreat.
I had been reading books on meditation, and I understood the benefits of meditation before I entered the course. I was determined to realize those benefits. During those two weeks alone, I really focused on being more mindful and meditated a couple of times. In the end, I could have gone to the retreat with no prior meditation experience or been meditation for years, and it would have still been incredibly difficult…. and incredibly worthwhile.
The first day I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?!?” I wanted to leave. I was going to leave. I told myself, “Three days, then you can quit.” I couldn’t believe I had just signed myself to this slow form of torture.
Then, in the evening, you watch the teacher discourses. The first night the Teacher says, “Meditation is like brain surgery. We are digging deep into your mind. You wouldn’t go into a surgery, then leave halfway through it, and tell the doctor, ‘this is too tough, I will come back later when I am ready’ while you still have your skull cut open!”
I knew if I left early I would regret it. I wouldn’t get the full experience and benefits of meditation for 10 days. I would never know what I could have accomplished if I gave up.
So I cam up with a little mantra in my head that I would force myself to recite whenever I wanted to leave. I would ask myself, “Why are you here?” and tell myself “I am here to fix my broken mind. My mind that bounces from past to future, past to future. My mind that doesn’t know how to live in the present. I am here to achieve clarity, focus, and a greater love for the world.”
I gave this pep talk to myself daily as I walked around the center between meditation sessions.
Luckily, by the fourth day, I was enjoying meditation. I would sometimes not even realize an hour would had passed. Other times, it went by painfully slow, but if I focused my mind and tried to really follow the lessons of the Teacher, I would walk away from that session feeling lighter, clearer, and awake.
That lightness lasted from Day 4 to Day 8. By afternoon on Day 8 though, I was ready to be home. I felt like I had stalled- I was no longer improving and it was becoming harder, not easier, to focus. I was overcome with restlessness. I am not a swimmer, but I would daydream about swimming laps in a pool. It was hot and stifling to sit so long each day, and nothing sounded more pleasurable than a pool where I could get my heart rate up and move!
I had come too far to give up though. I was so excited on the 10th day to be almost done, that I could hardly meditate. I would say, “Last day… Focus!!” But, my mind would wander to all of the things I couldn’t wait to do once I was done.
The point is- 10 days of meditation is certainly difficult, but it is worthwhile, if you stick through it and really try to do as the teacher says. You get what you put into it, so if you really focus you will come away satisfied. The experience is different for everyone. I felt more present in the weeks that followed the retreat than I have ever felt in my life. For once I wasn’t agonizing over past mistakes or dreaming up a far distant future.
I was enjoying the beautiful life around me, and that is something every traveler should strive to experience. It is easy to get lost in trip planning and lose sight of what is happening in that moment. If you are a long-term traveler, and have 10 days to meditate, I really recommend trying a Vipassana course!
If you are thinking you want to start with a shorter course, I think that simply trying meditation is wonderful, but keep in mind, for me it wasn’t until at least the fourth day that I really felt like I was meditating and understanding the practice.
They say the minimum is 10 days, and while those last two days were incredibly difficult for me, I do agree that anything less than one week, and you won’t fully grasp meditation.
There are centers all over the world. I am preparing myself to do another retreat. I was incredibly present those few weeks after meditating, but I didn’t keep up with meditation consistently. I slowly found myself stressing out about the little mundane details I stressed out about before the course. I am able to refocus my mind faster and better than before, butI want to continue to strengthen my mind by keeping up with meditation and doing more courses.
I thought doing a retreat in Myanmar or India would make it more “authentic”. You absolutely to not need to go abroad to have a wonderful, meaningful experience at a 10 day meditation retreat.
To learn more about Vipassana meditation or sign up for your own retreat visit Dhamma.org6