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What to Expect on a Vipassana Meditation Retreat?

by Elaine Clara Mah

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Many of us can be silent for an hour a day, sometimes two. Some can go a whole day in silence. But how many of us can do several days in a row of absolute silence, muting our words and slowing down our pace? 

It’s difficult to imagine a world of utter silence. So much of our culture encourages us to “speak up” – to express our views, emotions, and feelings through words. Society has embedded in us the concept of communication, and that to discover others and ourselves, we must communicate and interact.

Perhaps, in communicating too much, we have reached a point of saturation. Now, more and more people are retreating from their voices, finding comfort in silence. Instead of looking outwards, they are now looking inwards in hopes of discovering themselves. As a result, a growing number of people now turn towards Vipassana meditation.


What is Vipassana meditation?


Vipassana meditation, or insight meditation, is the practice of self-observation with the aim of self-transformation.

Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It is an ancient form of meditation said to have existed before the time of Buddha and then rediscovered by Buddha himself.

Equanimity. Non-reaction. Discipline. These are the kind of words used to describe Vipassana.

In a nutshell, Vipassana meditation requires the meditator to sit in silence for hours on end, day after day, just being a spectator to his or her own self.

You observe the hum of your breath with each inhalation and exhalation. You are an outsider looking into your thoughts as your mind evokes memories from your past, experiences from the present, and perhaps hopes for the future. You acknowledge the dull pain that nags at you as your hands and legs gradually numb from being in one place for too long.

The goal of Vipassana meditation is to train your mind to stop reacting to the ups and downs of life. You first focus non-reaction inwards. Then, you start to bring that non-reaction outwards. As you were an observer of your mind, you now become an observer of your surroundings.

Where to begin?


Vipassana meditation can be learned at a Vipassana center year-round through Vipassana meditation retreats. Following from the lineage of Buddha, modern-day Vipassana retreats take their roots from S.N. Goenka, who began teaching the technique in 1969.

Traditionally, Vipassana retreats took seven weeks. However, in modern times, retreats are much shorter, with 10 days being the most common. You can also find numerous three-day silent retreats. 

Throughout the retreat, you spend most of the days in complete silence. Anywhere you go in the world, the Vipassana structure is the same – meditation from 4 am to 9 pm, with breaks in between (at least 10 hours of meditation each day).


What to expect on a Vipassana meditation retreat?


Image credit: Dijan

Expect a lot of silence. Vipassana retreats are also known as silent meditation retreats, where students are to be in a state of “noble silence” for most of their time there. There’s no talking during meditations, meals, yoga, or other activities. 

Expect the practice to be difficult. Many first-time retreat-goers tend to drop out on the second day of their retreat.

Expect to struggle with yourself daily. As you quiet the world outside, the noise in your head gets louder and louder. The challenges, as you will discover on a Vipassana retreat, are inherent.

All distractions are turned off. You’ll have to let go of your phone during your time spent at the retreat, which means that silent retreats also imply going through a digital detox. You’ll connect with yourself and the other participants on a deeper level (even if you’re not talking to each other).

Lastly, expect to continue your meditation practice outside of the retreat. The recommended amount of practice time is two hours a day, with one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. 

*Cover image credit: Hariharalaya Retreat Center

Not ready to commit? Go on a short silent retreat and work your way up from there.

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