7 Tips to Survive Your First Ten-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat
In September 2017, I attended my first ten-day Vipassana Meditation retreat. I share my detailed day-to-day experiences in this article along with an explanation of the technique, my motivations, what I learned, and much more.
In today’s article, I want to give you some tips for surviving your first retreat. But… why survive? This isn’t the Jungle Camp, is it?
You see, most people’s notions of meditation are dead wrong. They imagine feeling blissful and happy, maybe even experiencing a oneness with life or feelings of euphoria or peace of mind. They may think it’s effortless, deeply relaxing, or rejuvenating. It’s understandable with pictures like the following all over the interwebs:
The fact is, for 99.9% of people that’s not how meditation feels like.
More accurate pictures would be the ones below:
I put “survive” in there because that’s how it feels like for most people. Meditation, especially on a retreat, is hard work. It’s arduous, challenging, nerve-wrecking, incredibly painful, and boring at times.
Many people leave retreats prematurely and many others think about it simply because it’s too hardcore. People talk about going crazy, experiencing unbearable pain, re-living painful experiences, going through living hell, being caught in seemingly never-ending emotional turmoil, and stuff like that.
I don’t mean to scare you. I’m deliberately exaggerating a bit to bring home the point of why “survive” makes sense in this context.
Without further ado, here are the seven tips...
1. Know that There’s a Difference Between You and Your Mind
Most of us mistake ourselves to be identical to our mind – our thoughts and feelings. This is an illusion. In reality, there’s a you and there are thoughts and emotions. The you is the thing that is aware and observes thoughts and emotions.
You see, thoughts and emotions come and go like clouds in the sky. You don’t create them. They just pop up, seemingly out of nowhere and often for reasons we don’t understand.
Sometimes you feel good about yourself; sometimes bad. Sometimes you think positive thoughts; sometimes negative ones. Do you really know why? If you were the author of your thoughts and emotions, would you ever think negative thoughts?
Quick exercise to prove this to you: Try not to think anything for the next sixty seconds…
Impossible, right? Thoughts enter consciousness without your command or permission. Sometimes, these thoughts are positive and make you happy. Other times they are negative and make you sad, angry, or disappointed. You don’t have much say in the matter – you’re just left to deal with whatever thoughts your mind is producing.
What you can do, however, is decide what to do with the thoughts your mind is producing. You can buy into them, suppress or run away from them, resist or simply accept them.
The reason knowing this distinction is crucial is because your mind will come up with all kinds of stories on your Vipassana retreat. “This is useless,” it will tell you. “Let’s go home. This sucks. You are terrible at this. The others think you’re a weirdo!” When you buy into and identify with all these stories, you’ll have a very hard time. You’ll constantly be lost in thought, ruminating, and worrying. You’ll feel anxious, guilty, ashamed, angry, vengeful, and so on.
When you realize that you are not your thoughts and emotions, the world looks a lot brighter. You won’t take things so seriously anymore. You won’t get caught up in petty worries and endless ruminations. You won’t freak out just because you’re experiencing some discomfort or pain. Frankly, you’ll have a much better and more productive time.
Let’s continue on this point in the next tip…
2. Don’t Get Caught Up in Your Mind’s Bullshit
Buddha himself once said, “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.”
Your mind – if unguarded! – can quickly become your own worst enemy. It will tell you all kinds of agonizing, depressing, and anxiety-producing stories. If we buy into these stories, we run into trouble and misery.
Here’s what can happen if we identify with the crap our minds are producing:
“I lasted 7 days before finally running away. During those 7 days I never felt good, never, not even for a minute. I felt like I was buried alive and couldn't do anything. I cried many times. During the stupid body scan technique I had extremely disturbing images popping up in my head. I almost had a panic attack. I had strong anxiety. I felt that this retreat literally friked up my mind. How can this be good? How can this be responsible? The mind is something very serious and should be treated gently. Meditation is NOT supposed to be a "brain surgery" as Goenka says, nor it's supposed to be dangerous to leave in the middle of a retreat.”
This was the experience of a woman during the retreat (I read about it here). It perfectly illustrates what happens when we get caught up in the stories of our mind.
Her story was, “This Vipassana thing is irresponsible and dangerous! That Goenka guy is stupid! This is not how meditation is supposed to work! Why am I feeling so bad?! This is unhealthy! I am going to die here!” Yadda yadda. It’s a story, that’s all.
Do you see how much pain, agony, anger, and resentment buying into this story has brought her? And it doesn’t just happen during meditation; it happens in real life all the time. We get caught up in these negative storylines and take everything our mind produces as fact. We really are miserable. We really are at a disadvantage in life. We really are being put down by others. Blah, blah, blah.
Stepping out of our thought stream and disidentifying with our mind brings tremendous calm and peace of mind. That’s just one of many reasons why meditation is so life-transforming.
I talk about some of the stories I was struggling with on my retreat here. The point is, don’t believe everything your mind is telling you. Watch your thoughts with acceptance and detachment instead.
3. Beware of Affective Forecasting
Affective forecasting is one trick of your mind that deserves special attention. Affective forecasting means predicting our future mood. As human beings, we’re terrible at it. Most of the time, it turns out, we just predict our future emotional state equals our current emotional state – how I’m feeling right now is how I’ll feel in the future.
When we feel angry, disappointed, ashamed, guilty, or like giving up, we imagine feeling this way in the future. Oftentimes, for example, we fully believe that we’ll feel depressed until the end of our lives. It seems like there’s no way out.
This is very challenging on a retreat for if you believe that you’ll feel so sad, ashamed, or pessimistic for the remaining days, you are likely to want to quit. You fully believe and expect to never get out of your rut. You fully believe that you’ll feel terrible all the way till the end.
Well, of course, you won’t. It’s just a mental error; another trick of your mind. Realize there will be ups and downs. Sometimes you’ll feel great, other times you’ll feel like giving up. No emotional state stays forever. Once you know that and expect the natural peaks and valleys of your experience, you are less likely to get caught up in negative thinking and less likely to quit prematurely.
4. Remember Nonresistance, Nonjudgement, and Nonattachment
Eckhart Tolle, the great spiritual teacher, writes in A New Earth: “Nonresistance, nonjudgement, and nonattachment are the three aspects of true freedom and enlightened living.”
Remembering these ideas during your retreat will be very helpful. Here are my short explanations for what they mean…
Nonresistance: “I shouldn’t have to struggle so hard.” “Meditation shouldn’t be straining.” “Why am I no better at this?!” Your mind has pre-conceived ideas of how life should work out. When life doesn’t meet these ideas, the mind starts resisting what’s happening.
Resisting reality always leads to suffering. A better way is to accept that this is how things are right now. You might want it to be different and that’s okay. But don’t fight the present moment. Accept it. A helpful motto is everything is exactly like it’s supposed to be.
If you’re too tired to concentrate properly, get caught up in thinking all the time, feel like you’re making no progress, or experience unbearable physical pain – accept it. It’s exactly like it’s supposed to be.
Nonjudgement: “I’m a bad meditator.” “It’s bad that I fell asleep during the meditation.” “I should have never come here.” Your mind loves to judge and label things as good or bad. If we’re being honest, however, we don’t know what’s good or bad for us.
Maybe it’s good that you skipped the morning meditation. Maybe it’s good that you’re tired. Maybe it’s good that you have trouble concentrating today. Maybe it’s good that you ate too much for breakfast. Stop judging and start accepting. That will bring you peace of mind and calm down your overactive mind.
Nonattachment: “This isn’t what meditation should feel like.” “Why am I not achieving a breakthrough yet?” “I didn’t expect this to be so hard.” Again, our mind has preconceived notions of how life should turn out. Oftentimes, we become attached to these ideas, and if they don’t become reality, we get agitated, angry, or disappointed.
On your retreat, try not to get too attached to anything. Don’t create the goal of achieving some altered state. Don’t chase after some special moment or feeling. Just do what the technique tells you to do without any expectations.
5. Remember the Wisdom of Impermanence
You’ll hear about this on the retreat, so I’ll keep it short. Impermanence means that nothing lasts forever. We live in a world of constant change with the only constant being change itself.
Remembering this on the retreat can be very helpful. When you feel like giving up, remember this feeling will pass. When you feel terrible about yourself, remember this will pass, too. When you’re dead tired, remember it will pass. When you feel agitated, bored, angry, hopeless, or annoyed, remember it will pass.
Don’t get caught up in trying to find out why you’re feeling a certain way. Just accept it, realize it will pass, and keep going.
6. Don’t Be Hard on Yourself
Meditation, due to its very nature, will often make you feel like a failure. You are told to focus on an object of concentration. You lose the focus. You bring your mind back. You get distracted. You bring your mind back. You get caught up in a story about you and the cute guy/gal across the hall. You bring your mind back. You complain about feeling uncomfortable. You bring your mind back.
Losing focus is part of the technique! The moment of realizing you’ve been distracted is positive, something to get excited not discouraged about, “Hey, I caught myself again. That’s great. Back to concentration.”
Sharon Salzberg, a famous meditation teacher, puts it perfectly, “In meditation practice, the moment you that you realize you have been distracted is the magic moment. Because that is the moment we have the chance to be really different, and not judge ourselves, not condemn ourselves, but simply let go and begin again. If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine. That’s not a roadblock to the practice – that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath at a time.”
Whether it’s during meditation or in-between sessions, never allow yourself to get self-critical – it will only make things worse. Choose self-compassion over self-criticism and forgiveness over guilt.
It’s okay to struggle. That’s normal. Everybody else is fighting their battles, too. Just try again. You just do your best and that’s good enough. If you need a break, no problem. If you fall asleep, that’s fine. If you just skipped a meditation session, what’s the big deal? Just get back on track. You’ve done the best you could.
Reading some of my articles on self-compassion might be good preparation prior to the retreat.
7. Know That Everyone Else Is Struggling, Too
Comparing yourself to your fellow meditators, though inevitable, can cause problems. Why? Because it will look like everyone else is doing much better than you. You won’t see their internal fights. All you’ll see is them sitting dignified and (seemingly!) peacefully in their meditation postures.
Getting caught up in thinking you’re the worst of the bunch will make you feel terrible and maybe even make you want to quit. Don’t buy into this crap. Everyone else is struggling just as much as you. And they are all fighting their own battles. It’s normal to find meditation difficult. It’s normal to be “bad” at it. It’s normal that you feel like giving up and quitting.
Here are four additional ideas you may find helpful:
- Nap during lunch break. Meditation requires tons of energy and focus, both of which are finite resources. To reload them, I suggest taking a nap during the lunch break. I did this everyday and I feel like it made a positive difference.
- Go for walks. You’ll sit for ten hours during meditations every day. You’ll sit during meals. You’ll sit even more in-between. If you find the time and energy, I highly recommend going for walks during the breaks. This improves blood flow to the brain, resulting in better concentration, improved mood, less pain when sitting during meditation, better memory consolidation, and so on.
- There’s no shame in going home early. The Vipassana people put quite some pressure on attendees to finish the course no matter what. “It’s dangerous to leave early,” they’ll say. I get that they want people to stay for the whole course – for their own benefit –, but if you really want/need to leave, don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it.
- Keep perspective. Keep the bigger picture in mind. Don’t take things too seriously. Meditating isn’t all there is. Remember your family, friends, your job, hobbies, and so on. Normal life returns sooner than you may realize.
And there you have it. If you implement just some of these tips, I’m sure you’ll survive and greatly benefit from your Vipassana retreat. If you’ve done a course yourself, please share your best tips as well.
Additional Articles on Meditation and Vipassana Retreats:
- 6 Tips to Be Ready for Your First Ten-Day Silent Meditation Retreat
- 4 Weird Lessons I Learned on My Ten-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat
- My 10-Day Vipassana Experience (Silent Meditation Retreat)
If you're new to meditation, check out our beginner's guide here.
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