10 Days of Silence, 100 Hours of Meditation – Lessons from My Second Vipassana Meditation Retreat - NJlifehacks

10 Days of Silence, 100 Hours of Meditation – Lessons from My Second Vipassana Meditation Retreat

Two days ago, I’ve come back from my second ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. I had done my first retreat a little over a year ago, and published several well-received articles on my experience.

I wrote about the whole ten-day experience, the lessons I had learned, how I would prepare, and tips on how to “survive” the ten days.

Today, I want to tell you about the lessons learned on my second retreat. I’m writing this mainly for my own good, as a way to force myself into giving serious thought about the experience and gain a greater understanding of what happened and how it will help me in life.

1. The Second Round is Much Easier Than the First

“Everyone who’s already gone on one retreat should do themselves a favor and go on a second. They ought to see how much they’ve improved. They deserve to reap the rewards.”

This was the most prevalent thought I’ve had on the first days of the retreat. Everything was just so much easier, so much smoother. I was used to the facility, the rules, the technique, the sitting. This meant less stress and gave me a sense of strength, pride, maturity.

The entire experience of meditation was a lot easier. The pain wasn’t as strong. I didn’t have to change posture as often. I didn’t have to constantly wonder if I was doing it right. I had more equanimity and stronger focus right from the start. Don’t get me wrong, it was still one hell of a struggle at times. Boredom was still an issue. As were pain, negative thoughts, bad moods, and creating weird catastrophic future predictions. I still had very rough patches, but it wasn’t as tough as the first time round.

At the end of the retreat, I spoke with others who were on their 3rd, 4th, or 5th retreats. While one of them said, “My 3rd one was better than holidays,” most of them claimed they didn’t find it any easier than the first time. I guess it’s different for everyone. And I guess self-deception causes us to look back and forget how tough the first retreat really was.

2. Meditation Involves Multiple Skills

I’ve long known meditation is scientifically proven to improve a wide range of skills, including self-control, delay of gratification, focus, and emotional intelligence. On the retreat, I’ve made an interesting discovery in that regard.

I found that even when I wasn’t able to concentrate well (focus skill), I still had enough acceptance to continue without creating negativity (equanimity skill). While these two skills stood out to me, there must be countless similar skills at work, and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in them.

The lessons here are that meditation is a different experience for everyone, and that you really can’t judge if a particular meditation session was “good” or “bad.”

3. Coffee is Powerful

I conducted a few experiments during the first meditation of the day, from 4:30 to 6:30 in the morning. I tried pushups, squats, and stretching before meditating – noticed no effect. I tried only drinking water or drinking two cups of green tea before meditating – no effect. I tried different teas – no effect.

It was only when I tried coffee that I noticed effects. There was a clear rise in either heart rate, blood pressure, or both (that’s what it felt like to me). And there was a clear rise in focus, energy, and absorption. At one point, I meditated for 1+ hour straight with very few intrusive thoughts and without ever having strong urges to change posture. I was deeply focused and immersed in what was probably my most pleasant experience.

That said, I only noticed coffee’s effect in the morning, on an empty stomach. Once I had eaten, my sensitivity to coffee either diminished, or I simply couldn’t feel out its effects amid everything else I was feeling.

4. Heart Rate and Blood Pressure Influence Focus

A coffee-related discovery I made was that heart rate and blood pressure can derail focus if they rise too high. When I ate too much or ate something my body didn’t agree with, it felt like my heart was working harder. I experienced stronger palpitations throughout the body, which acted as a sort of distraction when I tried to focus. The strong palpitations kept pulling my attention away from what I was supposed to be focusing on.

The lesson? Anything that raises heart rate and/or blood pressure too strongly will probably derail focus and thus negatively impact productivity. This has implications for coffee, food, stimulants, and supplements we take.

5. It’s All About Feeling

Here’s a concept I hadn’t fully grasped on my first retreat. For this particular type of meditation, the only thing we’re really supposed to pay attention to are the sensations/feelings within and on the surface of the body. Thoughts, memories, images, visuals, or visions are to be completely ignored.

You don’t work with anything but sensations. If thoughts capture your attention, no matter their content, you simply ignore/accept them and bring your attention back to the sensations. It’s about training our sensitivity to feeling, and it’s about fully accepting bodily sensations, whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant.

While mindfulness of sounds, sights, thoughts, and other sensory perceptions might develop also, that’s not the focus of this technique. It’s fully aimed at mindfulness of bodily sensations.

6. Self-Compassion Makes a Difference Yet Again

I’ve written about how valuable self-compassion was during my first retreat here, and I again noticed its importance. When you don’t have anyone else’s shoulder to cry on, it’s all the more important to provide that shoulder yourself. If no one is there to support you, to give words of encouragement, to console you, or calm your nerves, you must do it yourself.

7. Mood Fluctuations Are Normal

I’ve had several insights in regard to mood on my retreat. For starters, it changes incredibly quickly. I could go from “top of the world” to full-fledged misery within a few minutes. Mood also seemed to go through natural ups and downs in a 24-hour cycle. In the morning, I tended to feel positive most of the time, while I seemed to feel worse and worse as the day went on.

Another aspect that became clear yet again is our inability to predict future mood. I’ve written about this in my lessons from the first retreat, but it bears repeating. When you’re feeling bad, you predict to feel bad all the time. You look into the future and see a dark cloud. You somehow can’t imagine feeling good, even if some future event will surely put you in a better mood. It’s not rational, but it’s part of human nature.

8. Boredom is a Tricky Beast

Boredom was the biggest obstacle during my first retreat, and that was again the case for the second round. Starting on day five, distracting thoughts started appearing, “What’s the point? This is so boring. I’ve been scanning my body often enough and nothing has happened. I’m done with it. I want to do something else.”

The way to handle boredom would be to simply accept it and get back to focusing on the meditation. Accept it, bring attention back. Accept it, bring attention back. Accept it, bring attention back. Don’t overthink. Don’t let thoughts derail you. Oh well, easier said than done.

The exciting part is that I probably handled it better than on my first retreat, and I’m curious to see how things will change on future courses.

9. Post-Retreat After-Effects Are Very Subtle

Am I feeling any different after ten days of non-stop meditation? Even though it’s a very subtle effect, I do seem to feel more calm, centered, and focused. Again, I’m curious to see how that develops over the days and weeks to come.

10. A Vision of Living Beyond Thoughts

Thoughts get us into trouble, there’s no doubt about it. They can make us feel miserable, urge us to engage in self-sabotaging activities, and persuade us to forego our values. The beauty of meditation is that it offers us a vision of living beyond thoughts, or at least being less at the mercy of thoughts.

Meditate enough and you’ll probably reach a point where thoughts move far into the background of your awareness and make up only a small part of your consciousness. A consciousness that is then dominated by mindfulness of sensations, feelings, sights, sounds, sensory experience, and a sense of connection with the world around you. While this vision seems far off, I’m excited by its possibility.

Conclusion – My Recommendations

Would I recommend you go on a first Vipassana retreat? Yes. You’ll learn to meditate properly. You’ll push yourself to your edges. You’ll experience adversity. You’ll experience pain. You’ll struggle. You’ll be challenged. While this may feel terribly during the ten days of the retreat, you’ll feel proud as soon as the experience is over, and you’ll have gained a few invaluable life skills.

Would I recommend you go on a second retreat? Absolutely. Not only will you see how much progress you’ve made, but you’ll also improve powerful skills, such as self-awareness, self-control, mindfulness, equanimity, and focus.

I’m glad I’ve gone on a second retreat, and I’m sure I’ll go on more retreats in the future. Whether they’ll be classic Vipassana retreats remains to be seen, but I definitely want to continue on this journey.

Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is the author of two books and co-founder of the popular NJlifehacks blog. He is passionate about anything that helps him become a more peaceful, productive, and loving version of himself. After quitting university twice, he has recently gone back to get a psychology degree. Nils lives in Thun, Switzerland.

  • Juliana says:

    Hi Nils, thank you so much for writing this, I was looking forward to reading it! Your articles are the ones that helped me the most to prepare for my first Vipassana end of Dec/18!
    Did you go again in Switzerland, same center as before?
    I went to Poland, and I’ve heard it’s one of the best, and I could agree with it. I had a very good experience, and I wonder how much is related to the fact that it’s an almost brand new center, which made the experience much more pleasant and easier to bear. I definitely want to go again, but I’m wondering if I should try the same place (since I’m not from Poland). I’ve heard great things about Switzerland, though looks very hard to get in.
    Anyway, “results” wise, did you feel like you evolved from the first retreat? Did you “feel” any different? Also, I suppose you weren’t able to keep the recommended 2 daily hours practice before? Are you planning on doing this time?
    Initially I was a bit frustrated trying to fit this in my routine, but then eventually I accepted that I wasn’t ready for it, and it didn’t mean that the experience was any less important. The values I’ve learned in the retreat were really meaningful.
    Funny enough, before I went, I was keeping a daily meditation practice (average 10 min in the morning, mostly with Headspace), and after I got back, more than a month ago, I haven’t been able to go back to my morning routine, including daily meditation. Of course this might be due to other circumstances (like the weather has been bringing me down), but it’s unfortunate that after all this practice, my actual previous one faded away. Still trying to go back, without feeling too guilty.
    Anyway, sorry for the rambling and thanks again for sharing your experience with us! 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Juliana. From what I’ve heard, the centers in Europe are of much higher quality than other places of the world. Someone told me about a center in France, which has showers in each room, while someone else told me about a center in Indonesia (if I recall correctly), where he slept on a wooden plate on the floor. As far as the Swiss center goes, it’s definitely hard to get in. If you don’t register within a few hours of a new course opening, you probably won’t get in. There are plans for a second center, though.

      I didn’t try to keep up with the recommended 2 daily hours of practice, and I won’t try this time either. It just doesn’t work for my lifestyle at the moment and that’s cool. I do hope to meditate 1-2 hours daily at one point in my life… it’s just not the right time.

      Still, I definitely felt like I evolved from the first retreat. Concentration was better throughout the course. Equanimity was much better right from the start. Handling boredom was easier. Generally felt a lot more at ease. And I wasn’t nearly as drained after the 2nd course, compared to the first. I remember being completely fed up with meditation after the first one. Now, I’m actually excited about future retreats.

      The exact same thing actually happened to my daily practice after the retreats. I have trouble getting back into the groove, telling myself, “What are ten minutes worth, compared to 100 hours? It’s pointless. It’s not enough benefit. Blah, blah, blah.” It is what it is 🙂

      • Juliana says:

        Yes, in Poland we had individual rooms with private bathroom as well. For sure this level of comfort and privacy helped overall.
        My first attempt for registering was in the first hour of a course in Austria, which got full right away. So I can imagine how fast you have to be!
        Well, I hope we’ll both be able to soon go back to our meditation routines 🙂

      • Gurukula says:

        Hi Nils,
        I have been doing anapana sathi and an extended version about 15 yrs back. In deed still it gives me much switching abilities at any point of life. There is no specific position or a place you need to do it once it is mastered. But what ever said and done it is a must that you need a proper teacher to guide you with all your problems. Without a teacher s guidance, i have come to know that some act as if they have hot some sort of a power. But its all wrong, since that is the point where you need a teacher to discuss. I am Sri Lankan we have a large number of such meditation centers around.

        Thanks

        • Thank you for sharing, Gurukula 🙂

          • V V KUPPUSWAMY says:

            Thanks for sharing your experience.I have a doubt anybody can clarify.In Vipasana all the time you are focussing on body.No attempt is made to go beyond body.Then how do you expetence God.? How do you compare your meditation with that of Budha ?

          • H.D. says:

            VV, When I started doing vipasana about 25 years ago, I was agnostic and didn’t believe in God. After I did many 10-day silent vipassana retreats, I started having experiences of God including God’s love and switched from being agnostic to believing in God. The reason for this is that vipassana retreats help people to clear out a lot of the junk in their minds including past negative experiences that they have suppressed and not dealt with. After a person clears enough of that junk out of their internal system, they can begin to experience God. In Christianity, this is referred to as “the via negativa” which is a kind of prayer / meditation / spirituality based on the fact that once a person subtracts everything that is “not” God from their mind, then only God remains.

            I certainly haven’t reached that high of a level. But if a person is able to remove for example 35% of what is not God, then he or she will have much better access to God than a person who hasn’t removed anything. That said, one of the weaknesses of only doing vipassana is that it doesn’t include having an interactive relationship with God, which is something that’s invaluable. Having an interactive relationship with God can do just as much (and likely more) than vipassana can do to make a person less reactive, more equanimous and internally free. I highly recommend doing both vipassana and having an interactive silent prayer relationship with God because they both bring benefits.

            One concept to keep in mind is that God gives us human beings free will, and generally doesn’t intervene with us unless we ask or invite God to. Since God has far more love, power, energy and peace than each of us measly human beings has, inviting God to support us during our meditation sittings can often result in far faster progress in clearing out our existing baggage, and also training our mind to be less reactive and developing inner peace. I estimate this approach is between 2 and 5 times faster. Considering that the Buddha conveyed that it takes tens of thousands of hours of meditation (or hundreds of thousands of hours for some of us) to reach the level of nibbana, which is akin to heaven, then progressing at 2 to 5 times the speed is incredibly helpful.

            In Christianity, some of the terms used are different. What eastern religions would call meditation, Christianity calls “contemplation”. The word meditation refers to purposefully thinking about a topic or a theme. By contrast, in contemplation a person basically ignores thoughts and trains of thought, similar to in vipassana. There are several varieties of contemplation, but one is that while ignoring our thoughts we put our focus on surrendering to God’s will and to God’s movement in us. Much of the time this has vipassana like experiences and effects because naturally we are experiencing pains and other feelings/sensations, and we are surrendering those to God. Since God is peace and love, we are bringing equanimity to those sensations.

            Given that a lot of the sensations are associated with recent experiences and also with past suppressed experiences, we are dissolving or releasing them, just like is done in vipassana. When this occurs, it is called “purgative.” Our minds are also becoming less reactive and more equanimous. Thus, vipassana people should avoid thinking that Christianity doesn’t have methods that accomplish what vipassana does, even if the deceased Goenka incorrectly and pridefully thought that was the case. What vipassana offers is a greater degree of focus on the body, which is good much of the time. Christian contemplation offers greater involvement of God’s peace and love in these processes, which is good most of the time.

            I say “most” and not “all” of the time because in contemplation, the emphasis is on surrender and it’s best to avoid trying to control God’s involvement. As mystics such as St. John of the Cross have explained, sometimes God deliberately withdraws his/her/its involvement or presence during “dark nights of the soul,” which are for our benefit. John wrote a whole book on it, and I can’t summarize it. But my point is that a Christian doesn’t expect God’s involvement at all times, though invites it and remains open to it.

            By the way, a Catholic priest named Anthony De Mello did some Goenka retreats and wrote a book titled: “Sadhana: A Way to God” which is about vipassana. About half of the book explains how to do it, and benefits of it. About half of it talks about how to integrate it with Christianity. Also, there are several Catholic priests in Japan who lead vipassana retreats from a Christian perspective including here – https://www.jesuits.global/2022/08/05/christian-vipassana-meditation/

  • Dina says:

    Your writing is so descriptive and inviting that I felt like I was going through the experience . Looks tough and painful. You made it all the way. Great job !!!

  • Jeremy says:

    This is a great summary. I did my first Vipassana last September and it was very difficult but I am so thankful for experience it has helped with delayed gratification, discipline and generally being more appreciative of life. I’m sure the time will come when I’ll know that I’m ready to do a second retreat.

  • Fanni says:

    Thank you Nils for sharing your second experience at Vipassana. I was excited reading what that brought to you.
    I did my first retreat in Hungary last August and I had prepared with your tips! I had prepared my circadian rhythm for those early wake ups 5 days ahead, just like you said. I have to tell you that it helped me so much! I was ready and motivited at 4 am already in the first day. Actually I really enjoyed many days at the retreat…. The food played a huge role in it 🙂
    It was hard but it is just like life, you face a lot of ups and downs and you just have to calmly accept them. Anicca 🙂
    I also like the way you write, keep on posting!

  • Umit Dagitan says:

    Meditation is dangerous!

    Please stay away from it – if you value yourself and your life.

    Being Silent and Calm, and Concentration and Prayer is right.

    But Meditation is wrong!

    Please consider and evaluate the following quotes from a wise source for your own well-being:

    “Distance yourselves from any manifestation that gives homage to what is dark, do not seek towards meditation, towards spiritism and all other chimeric or fanatical actions, otherwise you will also go towards these somber vibrations that confuse you and separate you from the Light! Always outstretch your aspiration towards the Light, towards the link with the Light!”

    “Prayer is an inner elevation giving itself to the Light, while meditation is a state where the being is looking for something, or he wants something and it is not an intuition coming from the spirit but an impulse coming from the intellect, and this leads the being within the mirages of his desires. And this state of meditation opens the door to danger, the danger of turning towards low and dark vibrations and capturing the desires of spirits from the low astral. Thus he opens the door to malevolent spirits who will make him perceive what he desires.”

    Kind regards,
    Umit

    • Agree to disagree.

      In my opinion, it’s necessary to face the darkness within so that we can let go of it. And then, at some point, the Light is all that’s left. You can turn towards the Light all you want… if it’s blocked by clouds, it won’t penetrate. On the other hand, when you face the clouds and remove them through the process of meditation, the Light is ultimately all there is no matter where you’re turning to.

      But who knows, right?

  • Deepak Singh says:

    thank you sir for this article I enjoy reading it .

  • Hello Nils. Thanks for your articles. I am leaving tomorrow for my first retreat and I am feeling quite anxious. Will definitely remember your words in the next few days, while battling boredom, tiredness and my own thoughts. Best greetings from Brazil.

  • Ange says:

    Lucky you are you had such privileges as coffee and tea.
    The centres in India didn’t provide us with anything like that

  • Archana Patel says:

    Hi Nils. I just came back from my first retreat in Mumbai and I must have read your experience and insights multiple times to help prepare myself. It truly helped me during the 10 days. It was tough and challenging but an achievement no doubt.
    Thank you so much.

  • Sangeeta Pandey says:

    Hi Nils. I too have just completed my second ten days vipassna course in India. I had few misgivings about your post pursuant to your first 10 days vipassna retreat but it seems your second experience was a tad better except for the boredom part. I liked the part where you were somewhat reassured about your decision to take a 10 days vipassna retreat after having met some cool and regular guys at your centre on the zero day. Even I had this false notion about the sort of people enrolling for vipassna courses . But after having met and befriended a couple of regular, cool and highly successful professionals/people from various walks of life, this assumption and presumptuous of mine was absolutely nullified. I simply loved my first 10 days vipassna retreat. I did my first course at the nadir of my life having lost my mother and struggling with issues like depression and anxiety. I had no experience of meditation unlike you though theoritically I was a little bit aware of the technique. As regards preparation I surrendered myself to the Divine will and decided to take each day as it came. Regardless to mention that I faced a lot of difficulties but one by one I overcame them. At the end of the course positive energy and glow of dhamma was oozing out from each and every cell of my body. I felt I was reborn. I was a better version of myself in every sense having debunked a lot of myths, false notions , prejudices about myself. After my second course I have benefitted again a lot and there is lot more clarity and focus now. I will definitely recommend vipassna to everyone.

  • Kevin says:

    Well written. I agree. I have done three and will return.

  • Jon says:

    Hi I have done several 10 day retreats at Southwest Center in. Texas. ALL Valuable to my future.

  • Juliana says:

    Hey Nils, I’m reading this again as I’m about to go to my 2nd retreat (but only 3 days now). Have you been to any since 2019? I’m curious because in the “rules” it says “old” students don’t sleep in “high” beds and don’t eat after 12:00, and you haven’t mentioned these in your 2nd occasion, so I’m wondering if you had that or not 🙂
    Best, Juliana.

    • Hi Juliana, I haven’t been to any other retreats since 2019. I remember the rule that “old” students don’t eat after 12:00. But I’m not familiar with the bed rule; maybe that rule didn’t apply to my 2nd retreat because in our retreat center, all the beds were mostly the same. I’ve heard about other centers where there are different types of beds. Maybe the rule would apply in these retreat centers?

      Best of luck for your retreat 🙂

  • >