The Benefits of Taking a Meditation Retreat
The benefits of my first meditation retreat presented itself in both the short and long term after my first Vipassana course. “Vipassana” means to see things as they really are, by watching my breath and any sensations that arise, without responding with craving or aversion- liking or disliking these sensations. Ten days in silence, meditating eleven hours a day, with only two meals before noon-- all in the austere environment of an old ashram outside of Yangon, Myanmar, is the making of what most would expect to be a life-changing adventure. Although I had experience with meditation since a teenager, this was my first time in silence meditating for this amount of time before. During these ten days, I went through every emotion possible, I purged, cried, and felt anxiety and depression; but most importantly, I experienced everything the Buddha speaks of regarding peace, beauty, love, happiness, and impermanence. These ten days were the first time in ten years I had remained without any intoxicants, such as caffeine, or even a small sip of wine. This experience led to a voice very loudly telling me: I don’t want to drink alcohol anymore. Although it took me a few months to fully embrace this new lifestyle, I have reaped the benefits years later. I felt inspiration for upcoming art projects, I had hallucinations, experienced energy rush up my spine and pour out the crown of my head; and I experienced the joy of the present moment in the smallest experience, such as watching the leaves on a tree blow through the wind.
My first insight was that I needed to be my own best friend during this time, because I would be the only person I would have contact with throughout the retreat. This is true for life- we come in with only ourselves, and we leave the same, however somewhere in the middle we forget and we look outside for the encouragement, patience, and love that we need from ourselves. By being my own best friend, I was able to encourage myself throughout the ten days, by reminding myself that this was a very difficult thing to do, and I am so blessed to be in a position to have ten days to go deeply into myself in this way, and most importantly, that I was doing an amazing job. This positivity and encouragement helped me dive deeper into myself and my love.
My perception changed around me as I began noticing colors, textures, movement, and patterns that are always surrounding us in life. The most amazing thing was that I saw the beauty in the blue sky, in a bird flying, in a leaf blowing, and I would just look up and laugh. All of these mundane occurrences became the most incredibly beautiful experiences I had ever witnessed- and that was it, I was a witness. As I learned to watch myself, I began to watch my environment. Although we often become too distracted to notice them, these patterns are always present. After ten days, I was more in tune with vibrations, colors, sounds, and myself.
I found that the most difficult part was the physical pain I would endure sitting in meditation for eleven hours a day. My knees would ache, my back was killing me, and my instruction was to simply watch these sensations, without liking or disliking them. Well, I disliked them alright. As the days wore on, the gaps in my mind became wider, and I was able to watch these sensations without a word about them for longer periods of time. One day, after what felt like hours of agony in my tingling legs that had quickly fallen asleep, it all changed. I could feel my legs again, as if from magic. How could that be? I simply watched these sensations, and they changed. Just like in my legs, as we watch these sensations of our emotions, thoughts, and experiences, without craving for more when they feel good, or resisting them when we don’t like the way we feel, but by simply watching: they change.
Immediately after my retreat, I noticed how sensitive I was, my dreams were beginning to tell me messages, and I found myself craving silence and stillness more and more. I quit drinking and all other intoxicants, and found myself in India to study yoga and continue on this path. Although there were some incredibly difficult times where I had to watch as I endured panic attacks, anxiety that seemed to last for ages, purging, and physical pain, the beauty I was able to witness opened an entirely new world up to me. Over the course of the past two years since my first retreat, I have participated in five other vipassana retreats and several other silent meditation retreats related to Buddhism and Yoga, finished 500 hours of my yoga alliance certification as a yoga instructor, and put in countless hours to my personal meditation and yoga practice. These ten days were only meant to be an introduction into meditation, because I had always felt a call since my days studying theater as a teenager, however I had no idea at the time that it would lead me to a life of spirituality. Although I understand this isn’t the response for many people who participate in vipassana meditation retreats, I can see the long term changes my first vipassana retreat catalyzed for me.
Vipassana meditation retreats in such austere environments can be very difficult. For many, it takes years of practice to have experiences such as I had, and for some, it takes two days. Each one of us has our own path spiritually, and we all learn different lessons at different times in our journey. There are several types of meditation retreats that offer luxurious environments with the same quality of instruction. For me, the challenge of taking this type of retreat was what I was looking for. At The Inside World, we offer retreats in which participants can reap the same benefits, without the challenge of ten days in silence or a harsh environment such as a simple cot and mirrorless bathroom I had at my first retreat. The spiritual benefits of living an austere lifestyle can provide growth for those that come from a background of great privilege and/or materialism. Once we can learn gratitude for each minute detail of a however, spirituality is about living in abundance without attachment. Vipassana is called "maha meditation," the master of all meditations because it is simply "watching" the breath, the sensations that arise, and being in stillness without craving or aversion to any sensations we experience. In life, this is directly related to the craving and aversions we dance with when we do not accept what is, in the present moment.