4 Weird Lessons I Learned on My Ten-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat
For ten days straight, I woke up at 4 a.m., meditated for up to 11 hours a day, and abstained from speaking, reading, writing, exercising, listening to music, using technology, or communicating in any way.
Here’s what I learned…
1. The Mind Is the Source of All Suffering
If you’re into meditation, mindfulness, or spirituality, you already know that we’re not our minds – we’re not our thoughts and emotions. There is us and there is our mind; the two are not identical.
Thoughts and emotions come and go like clouds in the sky. They actually make up only a tiny part of consciousness.
Meditation is all about learning how not to get caught up in thinking by creating a bigger and bigger space between us and our thoughts/emotions. The goal is to experience this separation as clearly and often as possible. There is me – the awareness or witness of experience – and there are my thoughts, emotions, fears, etc..
When we forget about this separation, we tend to get caught up in our thought streams. We buy into the stories of our mind, small self, ego, or however one wants to call it.
The mind will replay the same stories over and over again, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. The stories are impersonal, repetitive, and interchangeable. Most of them have been around for thousands of years. Some classics include not being good enough, feeling judged by others, being at a disadvantage, having it harder than everybody else, life being unfair, being a martyr, and so on.
It’s when we get caught up in these stories that suffering occurs. Here are just some examples of how this happens off the top of my head. It should be clear how getting identified with these stories leads to suffering.
- “Oh, I’m such a poor little guy. Nobody likes me. I will never be successful. I will die alone.”
- “This bastard betrayed me. What a piece of shit. This means revenge, baby. I’ll serve up justice. Just wait!”
- “Why didn’t he answer my phone? Is he with another girl? Oh my God, please tell me he’s not cheating on me! How could he do this?”
One of the goals of Vipassana is to become aware of these stories and detach from them, to just see them for what they are, and not get identified with them. If we’re able to do that, we don’t take life so seriously anymore and experience more piece of mind.
Now, here’s what I learned in this regard: The mind is an incredibly powerful and convincing persuader. You see, I’ve known for a while that the mind creates these stories and I have become rather good at detecting and detaching from them. What I gained a new understanding of on the retreat is just how convincing these stories can be.
The mind makes them sound so real that it’s almost impossible not to get at least a little identified with them. Even when I knew exactly what was going on, I was often still at the mercy of whatever story my mind was creating.
I knew, “Okay, this is just the rambling of my mind, nothing to be taken too seriously.” And still – even though I knew what was going on! –the story caused suffering in the form of anger, fear, agony, or other negative emotions.
Over and over again did I make the same discovery. When I get caught up in whatever bullshit my mind is telling me, I suffer the consequences. When I believe that I’m not good enough, I feel sad and hopeless. When I believe the story that others judge me, I feel lonely, misunderstood, and angry.
Every time I lose awareness of the gap between myself and my thoughts/emotions, I am at risk of creating suffering for myself and others.
Here’s one particular story that kept occurring over the ten days. It’s the story of other people judging me. Some common thoughts were, “They are planning a plot against you. None of them will talk with you on the last day. You have pissed them off with your attitude. These guys fucking hate you. You’re a loser!”
Every time I got caught up in the story, I paid the price in the form of suffering. “What if this is true,” I started wondering. “What if the others really don’t like me? What if they think I’m a weirdo? What have I done to them? This is so unfair!” Yadda yadda yadda. These thoughts – when I got caught up in them – made me feel misunderstood, lonely, anxious, angry, and more. In other words, they caused suffering.
I’m not sure if the mind really is the source of all suffering. But I have gained a new understanding of just how important learning to control the mind is.
2. Boredom Isn’t Real
The thing I was struggling with the most on my retreat was boredom. Starting on day seven, my mind started telling me over and over again how boring this meditation stuff was. “This is pointless,” it said. “We’ve been here for seven days and nothing has happened. It’s so repetitive, so boring. Always the same thing. I can’t handle it anymore!”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but boredom was just another story like all the others. After all, I was able to meditate for the six previous days just fine. The only thing that changed was the mind’s story, which went from “Meditation is so beneficial, let’s make the most of our time” to “Meditation is boring, I don’t want to do it anymore.”
In the aftermath, boredom was just a very, very convincing story. But because I didn’t realize this, I bought into it. And this ended up strongly impacting my performance and well-being. I felt lackluster, tired, unmotivated. I started skipping meditation sessions. I didn’t try as hard anymore. I couldn’t concentrate as well anymore. And so on. As a result, I felt disappointed in myself, even a bit guilty.
It’s a great example of what happens when we buy into our stories: We do stupid things. We act with impulse instead of discipline. We act below our potential. As a result, we create suffering for ourselves and others.
3. Spot Affective Forecasting Errors Or Pay the Price
Affective forecasting is predicting how you’ll feel in the future. (Affect = emotional state, mood.) Turns out, we’re terrible at it. We think winning the lottery will make us happy, but science proves it won’t. We think suffering a debilitating injury will make us miserable, but science proves it won’t.
The problem is we tend to just expect that how we feel right now is how we’ll feel in the future. When you’re happy, you think you’ll be happy for the rest of your life. When you’re sad, you expect to feel sad until the end of your life. When you plan a trip to go shark diving, you expect to feel just as excited on the day of the trip as on the day of planning the trip. When you go grocery shopping on an empty stomach you expect to feel hungry in the future and buy too much.
My ten-day retreat opened my eyes to just how annoying affective forecasting errors can be. When I felt excited, proud, or otherwise good for whatever reason (e.g., after a “good” meditation session), I expected to feel this way for the rest of my retreat.
When I felt bad for whatever reason, I imagined feeling this way for the rest of the retreat. “This is going to be terrible,” I thought. “Maybe I should quit. It’s too hardcore. I can’t do this.” It really felt as if the dark cloud looming over me would never ever leave, a miserable yet incredibly convincing forecast.
This goes back to the whole buying into the mind’s stories theme. When our mind is forecasting a dark future, we need to stay alert and realize that it’s just an error in affective forecasting. We must do our best not to buy into this crap, otherwise we’ll lose ourselves in feelings of anxiety, dread, sadness, despair, etc..
When we have enough mindfulness to see this error, we can save ourselves from many unwarranted heartaches.
4. You Have Much More Discipline Than You May Think
I saved my favorite lesson for last: The realization that I have much more strength within me than I ever expected. Let me explain...
I find meditation challenging for three reasons. First, there’s the actual process of meditating. You focus on an object of concentration. You get lost in thought. You bring your focus back. You get distracted again. You bring your focus back. You get distracted. You bring your focus back. Over and over and over again. It’s a never-ending cycle of losing control of the mind and gaining it back.
Then, there’s the constant efforts of your mind to give up. During meditation, your mind will come up with endless excuses to stop and do something else. “This is boring!” “I’m tired!” “I’m no good at this!” “I don’t have enough energy anymore!” “I can’t concentrate!” Fighting these urges to end the meditation can be very challenging.
Lastly, there’s the pain of sitting for long periods of time. This is a big deal on retreats and packs an additional challenge. It’s hard to stay put and focus on meditation when every part of your body is screaming at you and urging you to change posture.
Taken together, these three challenges require massive amounts of willpower. Every time you bring your mind back to focus or resist an urge to give up, you need to use a tiny bit of willpower. Many times on the retreat, that willpower tank was running on empty, any reserves were used up, and I couldn’t help but give up.
And that’s when the miraculous happened. A few moments or minutes after giving up, there appeared a voice in my head telling me I could go on for a little longer. And go on I did… until I gave up again. “This time it’s over, I can’t do it anymore,” I heard myself saying, basically admitting defeat. But then again, a short while after giving up, there was the comeback – somewhere I found another reserve of willpower that allowed me to keep going.
Over and over again the same cycle. A constant zigzag between temporarily giving up and then making a comeback. I realized there was a second wind, and a third, and a fourth, and so on. I had much, much more strength, endurance, perseverance, grit, willpower – call it whatever you want! – than I ever imagined.
This became a great source of strength, pride, optimism, and self-efficacy. It helped me develop tremendous trust in myself. “I can if I really have to,” I learned. I also learned what William James meant when he said, “Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” It’s too bad I can’t tap into that source of power on a more regular basis. But I’m working on it. And one day I’ll figure it out.
And there you have it. Those are four kind of weird things I learned on my ten-day Vipassana retreat. As you can gather from my lessons, this was a life-altering experience for me.
If you’re interested in learning more about Vipassana meditation retreats, check out my detailed explanation and experience here. For tips on how to prepare for a retreat, go here. And for tips on surviving your retreat, go here.
Thanks for Reading
If you enjoyed this, consider signing up for our newsletter to get the latest articles and other valuable resources for free.