— This is the second post in a 2-part series…read Part I here! —
I recently attended a silent Vipassana meditation retreat in the jungles of Hawaii, waking up at 4am to spend seven hours in seated, cross-legged meditation, four hours in meditative yoga, and the in-between moments (which added up to an additional six hours) soaking up the restorative magic of the jungle…and then falling into an exhausted sleep for a couple hours before waking up to do it all over again.
Vipassana means “to see things as they really are,” and the purpose is to sharpen awareness and self-observation (through sensation-based meditation) to “observe the changing nature of body and mind and experience the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.”
Due to the somewhat stringent nature of Vipassana retreats and my active lifestyle and issues with sitting still for hours at a time, I was a bit hesitant in the days leading up to the retreat. However, from the moment I arrived at the jungle retreat center I felt as though I was enveloped in a massive hug (although I typically feel that way everywhere on this island!)
The teacher brought a lighthearted, gentle approach to the meditation and every other aspect of the week, emphasizing self-kindness and self-acceptance. I began the week free of expectations, which I think was key! (I’ll discuss this a bit more later.) If you’re attending a Vipassana retreat or want to attend one and have some questions, read ahead for some helpful info!
What is Vipassana Meditation?
There are heaps of meditation varieties out there, and I’d never heard of Vipassana until a coffee date a year ago with a girlfriend who had recently done a retreat. But I still had no idea what Vipassana actually was until attending a retreat for myself. It’s a sensation-based meditation style, but when I was given that explanation beforehand it didn’t really help me much 😉 But it is, actually, a quite apt description — rather than the meditation styles that focus on not focusing on anything, or emptying the mind, or others that focus on counting breaths or repeating mantras, Vipassana solely focuses on sensation. For the first couple days of a retreat, you will hone your concentration skills by spending each 1-hour meditation session focusing solely on the area between your nostril and upper lip as you breathe… that’s it. This is called Anapana. Further on in the retreat, you’ll begin Vipassana, where you scan your body from head to toe and focus on the sensations in each area — not in a critical way, but simply bringing awareness and then moving on.
How to find Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreats
There are some websites (such as this one) that offer lists of Vipassana Meditation Retreats by location, however there are typically many retreats and centers not included. The best way to find a retreat is just to do a Google search for retreats held in your desired area: for example, if you live in Oregon and want to attend a Vipassana retreat in your homestate, google “Vipassana Meditation Retreats in Oregon.” If, however, you want a more exotic, away-from-home retreat experience, you could search for “Vipassana Meditation Retreats in Bali… or Hawaii…or Costa Rica…” The possibilities are endless. Vipassana Retreats are held literally all over the world, and the individual retreat characteristics are as varied as the possible locations. For example, you can find retreats that are strictly traditional with 10 days of silence where you’ll be eating bland food (only twice a day,) sleeping on the floor, and required to wear loose, long-sleeved clothing, or alternatively, you can find 3-day retreats where you’re fed tasty food throughout your silence and given a bed to sleep in. Decide what sort of experience you are looking for, and then find a retreat that fits for you. But do find one that you feel is going to push/stretch you… otherwise, what’s the point?
Traditionally, Vipassana retreats are offered free of cost with the hope that students will pay it forward by either offering a donation at the end, or returning to the center in the future to serve (the retreat centers are typically fully staffed by volunteers who are former students.) In my research, most retreats are offered free-of-cost although there are some “fancy,” less traditional Vipassana retreats with lots of other offerings that do have a cost. But if you’re researching and come across a retreat that has an attendance fee and that is a deterrent for you, keep looking! Mine was free, and I don’t know anyone who has had to pay to attend one.
Are Vipassana Retreats Tied to a Certain Religion?
Vipassana is an art of living, rather than a religion. Although it is drawn from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, it is not necessarily a “Buddhist thing” and people from many religions (or no religion at all) attend Vipassana retreats and incorporate Vipassana meditation as part of their daily lives.
How to Not Go Crazy
I think there is just one important key here: Don’t go into your Noble Silence with expectations. Don’t have a list of all the things you hope to accomplish within yourself during the retreat. Don’t have an idea of what your meditation (or mind) is going to look like. Don’t have an expectation of what will be hard and what will be easy. Don’t fear any part of it. Choose, before you arrive, that you will fully embrace and accept the reality of each moment of the retreat, exactly as it is. And don’t forget to “Smile in your liver” 🙂 Have fun with it, and be kind to yourself. If movement is allowed, going for a walk in-between the meditation sessions or practicing yoga is hugely helpful! Several hours were spent in yoga practice each day at my retreat, and it made all the difference in the world.
What to Bring
This varies depending on your retreat structure and location. For example, the first retreat location that I hoped to attend (before the center was overrun by lava) required students to bring their own tents, but the retreat that I ended up attending provided each student with their own “yurt” or tiny hut in the jungle, complete with bed and linens. But regardless of where you are going for your experience, you’ll want to have loose, comfortable clothing – your days are going to be long. No one’s going to be looking at you or caring what you look like, so when packing, definitely make comfort a priority. Although mine did not, many retreat centers have a dress code (similar to that of an ashram) so be sure to check.
What Not To Bring
You’ll really need very little at a Vipassana retreat, since all that you’ll be doing is sitting and meditating. Music, journals, books, outside food, phones (and any other sort of electronic devices) are not permitted. Embrace the opportunity to escape from the multitude of distractions we face every moment of every day in our normal lives… this was my favorite part!
What Will I Be Eating?
Vipassana Retreats always serve simple vegetarian (or vegan) meals. The food at my retreat was very similar to my normal diet, but I’ve heard that it can be a shock to some people’s systems. If you have a diet that is drastically different from a “simple vegetarian diet,” it might be a good idea to start eliminating some of those differences in the days/weeks leading up to the retreat. There is no soda, coffee, alcohol, or processed/refined food of any kind: expect lots of greens, whole grains (such as quinoa,) beans, and lentils. If you are a raw vegan, this can typically be easily accommodated. But if you’re not vegetarian/vegan… you’ll become one for the duration of the retreat 😉
What If I Can’t Sit That Long?
Some people are simply incapable of sitting cross-legged. If this is you, no worries – you can sit in a chair (or even stand) throughout the meditation sessions. Most centers will also allow you to bring meditation stools or bolsters (and many will provide them for your use.) Find what works for you, and do that… really the only stipulation is that you can’t lie down (for obvious reasons…zzz!)
Feel free to get in touch with any other questions – I’d love to hear from you!
My Vipassana Silent Meditation in the Hawaiian jungle was an amazing experience and I would love every person that I’ve ever met to have the opportunity to experience it for themselves — it is an incredibly beautiful practice.