This is going to be a different and more personal post as I can only tell it through the personal experience I had and explain it through the impact my Vipassana meditation retreat had on my life.
It is even difficult for me to know where to start because I desperately have a message and a story that I want to share, and I want to share it well. On one side I want to be completely transparent, but I also don’t want to scare anyone away. At the same time, I have to stress that doing a Vipassana meditation retreat is difficult. It is not a tourist attraction and has to be taken seriously.
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HOW TO DO A VIPASSANA MEDITATION RETREAT?
Okay, so I guess we should start at the beginning. I don’t believe that anyone desperately seeks to get into vipassana meditation without having some struggle or being aware that something has to be fixed.
At least that was the truth for me.
Honestly, I had struggled with my mental state for years.
As a teenager, I started having problems with anxiety and insomnia. For years I think I slept an average maximum of 2 hours at night.
My insomnia was impacting my performance which all added up to being severely stressed.
The stress caused me to have panic attacks and sometimes my skin would break out and burn all over my body.
This all stuck with me through my early adult years and sort of became the status quo.
Overall score on a scale of 1-10: I was a 2. And maybe that is even being generous.
HOW THE THOUGHT OCCURRED
I have always been a perfectionist and always had very high standards for myself. In a way I was my best friend, pushing myself forward, but also my worst enemy, always telling myself that nothing was good enough. At the same time, I think we are all a product of society telling us what our standards should be. Always aiming for more and thinking that happiness and a good life can only come with certain things.
In my early adult years, I ended up being in a very unhealthy relationship. After 2 years I finally let my brain win over my heart and got the F*** out of it.
With that, however, my world completely crashed.
I had no clue on what to do and no clear sense of direction. I think I could have gone like that for years, was it not for me reading one book. Little did I know what this book would mean for me and eventually plant a small seed in my mind. It was the beginning that led to the final thought: I need to do a Vipassana retreat.
THE BOOK AND THE JOURNEY
I received the book from the ex-boyfriend of my friend. He was just getting into meditation and spirituality himself and the book had really made an impact on him.
Whether he could see my struggle or it was by coincidence I don’t know. But the book called The Seat of The Soul found its way into my life – and I was ready to grasp at anything that could make me feel better.
I started reading and I could not stop. The strangest thing about it was the feeling I had in my body. I felt as if I was reading something that I had always known, but somehow had forgotten. It was like having a deja vu with every word. I don’t think I can explain it any better than that.
It sparked a fire in my chest or even a slight obsession. Suddenly it was all I could think about and all I could talk about. If I have ever had a moment of enlightenment, this must have been it.
CHOOSING THE DESTINATION
I knew I wanted proper guidance and I also knew that I needed to be in a setting that felt pure. Finding a course at home simply would not cut it. Also, I had never meditated before in my life and I wanted to be introduced properly.
I have traveled alone many times before, but I did not want to go to India by myself.
Then I randomly ended up speaking to a friend of a friend. He was telling me that he had just come back from Myanmar. The thing that had impacted him the most, was the pure spirituality of the country. “Funny you should say that”, I told him. “I am looking for the place to go do a Vipassana meditation retreat”. Before speaking to him, I did not know this about Myanmar, but this convinced me and I bought my travel insurance, booked my flight, and made all necessary arrangements to head for Myanmar.
So in the end, everything sort of came together by small coincidences – the universe is funny like that.
FINDING THE RIGHT VIPASSANA MEDITATION RETREAT
I started to research but doing a Vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar is not as common as staying at an ashram in India. It was hard to find any helpful information at all!
After many hours spent searching, I found a website that had a list of some mediation centers in Myanmar.
THE MEDITATION CENTER
I choose not to mention the meditation center by name. It is a small gesture to this place, saving it for publicity that it did not ask for. If you end up going to Myanmar to do a Vipassana meditation retreat, then any meditation center from the list above will serve you well. Also, there are many meditation retreats all around and not just in Myanmar. I’ve met people who have done great stays in for instance New Zealand, India, and their home countries. Depending on where you wish to go you can do some research.
When I first arrived at the meditation center I have to say, that I was a little disappointed. My western mind was expecting some scenic temple setting. Maybe on a mountainside with a blissful view? That would be nice right…
This was not the case at all. The meditation center was made up of grey concrete buildings that needed some serious maintenance, all set in a grey court. There were a couple of bigger flat buildings too, that reminded me of sports halls. Set in the middle of Yangon, it was both polluted and had a constant soundtrack of the heavy city traffic.
As I stood there in the court a couple of monks walking around started to notice me. I have to say, I have never felt more blonde or out of place in my life. The look they were giving me was an exact reflection of what I was thinking. What on Earth am I doing here?
After some minutes a monk stopped and asked what I needed. I explained that I wanted to stay, and he took me to a small balcony. Here he sat me down and asked me to wait.
Moments later an older, kind-looking monk came to see me.
The next that happened surprised me.
He started to interview me. Asked about my travels, checked my passport (disapproved that I had a transit through China), and wanted to know about my life back home.
He was assessing whether or not I could stay.
Thankfully, he decided that I would stay for 10 days, and would get started immediately.
This monk would later have the role of my mentor, and every day I would have a meeting with him at 4 pm to discuss my progress.
THE PRACTICALITIES OF A VIPASSANA MEDITATION RETREAT
First I went to hand over my phone and any unnecessary possessions.
Next, the female monk at the front desk handed me an overview of the rules and the schedule.
I was to obtain from any sexual activities, accept the silent retreat, and would fast after midday.
The only time I was allowed to break the noble silence, was during my daily interview with my mentor.
Furthermore, I was to get up every day at 4:30 am and would have house chores.
The schedule included 10 hours of meditation every day. A mix of seated and walking meditation, an hour each time.
Breakfast was served at 5:30 am and ended at 6 am. Lunch 11:30 am – 12 pm. After that, you only drink water since the holy script says that any food after midday is an excess.
In general, a Vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar is a minimum of a 10 day retreat. Here you are expected to do the full 10 day silent meditation course, and follow all the rules set by the meditation center.
THE STAY AT THE VIPASSANA MEDITATION RETREAT
The female monk took me to the foreigners’ building.
Here I was led to my room. A small room with two single beds inside and a tiny cupboard. For the moment I had the room to myself but if needed, I would have to share. The mattress was the equivalent of a thick blanket and the bed was like a rock.
I started to get curious about the bathrooms and sure thing – the toilets we holes in the ground and there were some simple shower cabinets. At least it was all clean though.
The best part about my new accommodation? The whole foreigners’ building had a strong odor of urine.
My only thought: this is going to be interesting.
OTHER FACILITIES AT THE VIPASSANA MEDITATION RETREAT
Upstairs was the foreigner’s meditation hall. A big empty room, with a wooden floor, a few pillows, and a buddha statue.
In another building was the food hall. Another big room filled with small round tables. We would sit on the floor here for our meals and the monks placed up the front by a long table. At the back of the room, there was a massive open kitchen. Here volunteers would cook us breakfast and lunch. In total, the room probably fit around 300 people.
This was the extent to which I would spend the next 10 days of the silent meditation retreat.
THE VIPASSANA TECHNIQUE
The only introduction I received was a 1-hour video. It showed a monk explaining the overall concept of Vipassana meditation and the basic meditation technique.
I was to note every sensation in my mind.
While practicing walking meditation I was to think of every little movement. While walking in slow-motion I had to think: lifting, pushing, dropping, setting – with each step.
Any distraction in your mind you kill with a note. If the mind starts to wander you note “thinking” repeatedly until the mind is silent. If the noise is sidetracking you note “hearing” until the sounds become unnoticeable.
Seated meditation practice was dedicated to noticing your breath and possibly your pain. Sitting down for 1 hour straight, crossed-legged, without being allowed to move, is tough on the back and the legs. Especially the knees. Holy something they would hurt at times!
Other than the 1-hour video, I did not have any introduction.
Every day I would come back and watch the next 1-hour video. Explaining the next and deeper practices of Vipassana meditation. Here I could also consult with my mentor if I had any questions.
During the 10 day course, I went from never having meditated in my life, to doing nothing else.
Even when you are not in the meditation hall you are expected to be mindful of every daily activity. You walk and move around in slow motion, thinking about every movement, and never making eye contact with anyone. When you eat it is the same. At all times you are gazing down the front of your nose and you never speak.
As the retreat was a silent vipassana meditation retreat, it is forbidden to speak outside of your daily discussion with your mentor. Everyone always assumes that being silent is the hardest part. For me, it was actually the easiest. When everyone is dead quiet, speaking feels like a crime. Also, after spending the first day silent, it becomes much easier for the rest.
My biggest struggle was the speed – especially during meals. I was starving by breakfast and lunch, and the tables were filled with every Burmese dish imaginable. The best food I had in Myanmar was during my Vipassana meditation course. But I was not allowed to chew at normal speed or even ask for the dish on the other side of the table.
Walking anywhere took forever and I never had such a strong urge to run!
I was able to meditate but would get extremely sidetracked. Also, it felt quite excessive to do it so many times a day!!?
However, even the first time I sat down for the first morning meditation, I felt something.
It was a deep connection to something inside my chest, and though fighting my mind, coming out of meditation felt like coming back from a deep haze. I could not sit for 1-hour without opening my eyes to check the time. I think I hit an average of 25 minutes before I could not contain myself anymore. It felt frustrating and disappointing every time it happened.
My mentor told me that it takes 3 days for the mind to slow down and so I persisted. The first 3 days of the Vipassana meditation course felt like 2 weeks – at least! On the morning of day 4, I was expecting that some magic trick would have happened overnight.
That morning I had my most uneasy practice so far.
Even though I was making progress, I was frustrated with myself and felt like there was no systematic improvement. I could sit down easy one session, and the next would be a mess. I was desperate to have a better meditation experience and to see some real progress.
I expressed my frustrations to my mentor. He told me “You westerners have an idea of the mind being linear and you always expect too much. You can not expect your practice to evolve in a specific and systematic way. The mind is neither systematic nor linear”.
What he was saying was annoyingly true, but it did not help me very much.
That afternoon I sat down for, what started out as, the worst practice so far. The noise that was in my head was insane. It felt as if I was in a room full of people, all shouting and scraping chairs around. The more I tried to note and calm it down, the louder it would get. By the end, I felt like my head or eardrums would explode. The pain was almost unbearable.
After fighting for what felt like hours the most incredible thing happened. Like the snapping of two fingers, everything went dead silent – and I mean like Outerspace silent!
I was so relieved and surprised that I almost opened my eyes.
For the first time, my brain was not raising anymore or planning ahead. There was nothing but bliss and joy. The sensation overwhelmed me so much that I broke down crying and laughing at the same time in my room. I must have looked mad, but it was a reaction of complete gratitude.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE VIPASSANA MEDITATION RETREAT
If the first 3 days of the retreat felt like weeks, then the last 7 felt like hours.
Truthfully, I have never been happier in my life than those last 7 days of the retreat. The place smelled like piss, looked even worse, had no air-conditioning and I literally just sat or walked around doing absolutely NOTHING. I should have been bored like hell and hated it – the reality was the complete opposite.
Time flew by so fast and before I knew it, it was picking up my things and making my donation.
Doing a meditation stay in Myanmar is free. Everything works through volunteering and donations. Though never spoken of, I knew that it was expected of me to donate something. It can be things like pens, shirts, USB cards, or other utilities. Or it can be money.
Never have I spent my money better.
Leaving the meditation center with nostalgia and a promise to myself to return. That is still my ambition.
THE EFFECTS OF A VIPASSANA MEDITATION RETREAT
Vipassana meditation teaches you to be mindful and makes you realize that nothing is permanent. It empowers you to take responsibility for your own emotions and state of mind. All things come and pass exactly as they should. Sure the feeling of sadness or pain is real, but it will pass. You are not a product of your emotions or thoughts anymore.
As it can sound scary to take full responsibility for everything you think and feel, it also means complete liberty. You are a hundred percent in control of yourself and have the power to change any negativity. It is incredible how magical “just being” becomes.
Doing a Vipassana meditation course is not a magic trick. It also requires continuous practice. Otherwise, we simply fall straight back into our old habits and routines.
I still have occasional struggles in terms of stress and at times insomnia – but it is almost nothing compared to before!
The set of tools I learned during those 10 days in Myanmar, has helped me cope with my headspace and emotions tremendously. It has been the biggest gift to become aware of my mind, and at the same time, know the secrets behind it.
GENERAL ABOUT VIPASSANA MEDITATION
In the Indian language of the Buddha (called Pali), the word for meditation, “Bhavana”, means development. The idea is that we develop our mind by being methodically aware and present with it.
Vipassana meditating is the oldest that exists. However, it is still popular around the world. People have been practicing Vipassana meditation for more than 2,500 years on a global scale since the Buddha made it popular. Today, mindfulness incorporates aspects of this type of meditation for the benefit of those who practice mindfulness.
In general, Vipassana meditation is about acquiring an optimistic view of life. By learning to connect their minds with their bodies, people reach a state of contentment and peace. They feel secure in their existence and can search for better solutions to everyday problems.
THE FUNDAMENTAL TECHNIQUE OF VIPASSANA MEDITATION
Attention is sharpened by focusing on one selected object for a long time at a time, e.g. on the sensation of the movement of the breath by the abdominal muscles. Each time a thought or other object diverts attention, attention is re-focused on the sensation of the movement of the breath. This purposeful immersion in a single focus, repeated over and over for a long time at a time, is the recipe for the development of meditative concentration (samadhi).
There are different ways to practice breathing meditation. Anagarika Munindra-ji recommended meditating on the raising and lowering of the abdominal muscles at each inhalation and exhalation. The sensation of the movement of the breath about a hand’s width below the navel is associated with the deep, slow, de-stressing, and relaxed way of breathing.
When the body is relaxed, it is easy to prolong the focus on the breath. The longer the attention remains focused on the movement of inhalation and exhalation, the lower the respiratory rate tends to become. This increases bodily relaxation and the immersion of concentration.
This positive self-reinforcing circle is relatively easy to get into when concentration gains ground. The purpose, however, is not the relaxation of the body. Relaxation is only a side benefit of the real purpose, which to begin with is the mind’s ability to immerse itself in concentrated focus.
FOCUSING AND RE-FOCUSING
If you take a really deep breath and at the same time place your hand on your stomach so that your index finger aligns horizontally with your navel, you will get a clear sense of the size of the area of your meditation object that you need to focus on. You can hold your hand on your stomach until the sensation of the movement of the breath is clear to you. Then remove your hand again and sharpen your attention to the movement you previously felt in the palm of your hand. If a thought wanders with your attention away from the focus, patiently draw the attention back to the focus again and again.
The ability to purposefully focus and re-focus attention on an object is a valuable resource in all contexts of life. It is, for example, the prerequisite for all learning. There is hardly any situation in our lives where it is not appropriate to be able to stay focused on an object for a long time at time in accordance with our intention.
MEDITATION ON EVERYDAY CONSCIOUSNESS
In the context of Vipassana (insight meditation), we first develop the ability to concentrate through a breathing meditation. Concentration anchors attention and makes it deep, stable, and controllable. Next, we develop a penetrating intuitive understanding of what manifests itself in the focus of attention when we meditate with an openly focused presence on the mind’s natural flow of objects.
Vipassana, which in Pali means to see-with-clarity, encompasses this alternation between closed attention focused on the breath and open attention focused on the flow of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of everyday consciousness.
In Vipassana, therefore, we begin to understand everyday consciousness in a different and deeper way than that which the non-meditating everyday consciousness does. We meditate in all body positions, in all situations. When we sit, when we walk, when we eat, and in other contexts.
We develop insights into the mind in the flow of objects of everyday consciousness. For the purpose of getting to know ourselves in this meditative clarity. Everyday consciousness is the source of wisdom as we develop concentration and clarity so that we can see into it.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF A VIPASSANA MEDITATION RETREAT?
1. IMPROVES YOUR OBSERVATION ABILITY
Remember that seeing is not the same as observing. When we begin to meditate persistently, we strengthen our ability to discover more than we see. This does not mean just sitting alone and looking yourself in the eye. It is more about describing and interpreting what we see in order to achieve an accurate observation of reality.
2. PROMOTES RELAXATION
After a stressful day, meditation helps reduce your stress level. For this reason, it’s recommended to meditate before going to bed. However, you can also practice this at any time. For example, when you come home from work or school.
3. IMPROVES YOUR MOOD
Stress is one of the factors that can cause outbursts of rage. With that in mind, meditation also has a positive impact on maintaining your good mood. This is not only because it reduces your stress levels, but also because it helps you regulate your emotions through self-discovery.
4. REDUCES YOUR ANXIETY LEVEL
As we learn to evaluate our realities from a more optimistic perspective (without losing sight of the facts), anxiety begins to be significantly reduced. This does not mean that we become eternal optimists, but rather that we begin to see events less catastrophically.
5. REDUCES YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE
One of the biggest benefits to your physical health is that it reduces your blood pressure. This, of course, is related to the other benefits we have already mentioned. By reducing stress and anxiety and improving your mood, your body will also benefit from it. Remember that your mind and your body are connected.
6. STRENGTHENS YOUR INHERENT MOTIVATION
When we begin to meditate, we will feel rewarded with all the personal benefits we receive. It is then logical that our motivation to meditate will constantly increase, and not because we are paid to do so, but because it is something we genuinely enjoy.
As you have hopefully learned from this article, doing a Vipassana meditation retreat can have tremendous positive impacts on your mental health, and on your life in general. Traveling to Myanmar to seek further depth in terms of meditation and spirituality, has by far been the most significant bit of traveling I have done so far in my life.
Thank you for reading. As always feel free to leave a comment below
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