The simple (but somehow difficult) practice of staying conscious in the present moment has never been more popular – or more aspirational. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of Americans trying meditation has increased more than threefold in recent years, from 4.1% of the population in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017. An inevitability perhaps, given the nation’s increasing psychological distress (in the 2018 annual Gallup poll 55% of US adults reported high daily stress levels, compared with 35% of people globally) and the booming $1 billion meditation industry that aims to relieve us of it.
With the ubiquity of subscription-based apps like Headspace and Calm, and an increasing number of brick-and-mortar studios dedicated to various twists on the mindfulness model, meditation is now hot on yoga’s heels. But for those who are really serious about the practice, one by-donation retreat promises a potentially life-changing experience.
It’s called Vipassana (meaning “to see things as they really are”), and it’s an intense, 10-day meditation experience held at retreat centers around the world. (The website currently lists 299 pages of centers.) If you have meditation experience, the practice – which is based on the original technique taught by Gotama the Buddha – will feel familiar. You sit still and observe the breath, paying attention to sensations that arise in the body and letting thoughts and emotions pass without judgement or attachment. So far, so simple, perhaps? Now imagine doing that 10 hours a day for 10 days in a row. Imagine facing down your mind, with all its dark nooks and irrepressible quirks, without the temporary relief of distractions.
When Ivy Kwong, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Seattle, signed up for a retreat at the Northwest Vipassana Center in Washington, in 2017, she was hoping for a relaxing digital-detox break. But this was a far cry from any of the yoga retreats she’d been on.
Accommodations were spartan – a bed, a small table with a lamp, a rail for hanging clothing and a curtain for a door. Her days began at 4am sharp with the startling thrum of a gong and ended at 9pm after an entire day of silent meditation, interspersed with meals and brief fresh-air breaks. While at the center she and the other guests were expected to adhere to a strict “code of discipline” that dictated: no stealing, no lying, no sex or masturbation, no killing (not even a mosquito), no intoxicants, no religious objects or practices, no exercise besides walking, no revealing or form-fitting clothing (including leggings), no music, no reading or writing, no phones, no contact with the outside world, no snacking and of course absolutely no speaking. The entire 10 days – besides private interviews with the teacher, which could be scheduled between noon and 1pm – were to be conducted in “noble silence.”
Days one, two and three, Kwong was optimistic. The experience was more extreme than she was expecting, sure, but she was learning a lot and her meditation practice was growing stronger as promised. Each day the guests would file into the hall, where their meditation nests of blankets and blocks were arranged, and watch an introductory video from SN Goenka, a Myanmarese-Indian who created the blueprint for the first Vipassana 10-day retreat in the 1970s. His teachings, which are based on Buddhist principles but are purposefully non-sectarian, set the tone for the day’s eight meditation sessions.
By days four to six, her mind was in turmoil and clamoring for distractions. During the daytime her brain bounced through its back catalog of memories – the greatest hits from her travels, including the time Sir Richard Branson gave her a piggyback – and at night she was tormented by violent nightmares.
“My brain was like, where do we go? What song do we sing to entertain ourselves? What TV show can I replay? What memories can I access so I don’t have to be here now, because at least then I’m doing something that’s ‘more interesting’ than just sitting here,” Kwong explains. “It’s fascinating to see, where does the mind go when it’s got nowhere to go?”
The human experience is full of psychological and physical discomforts, and in normal life a distraction is always close at hand. There are happy hours, and podcasts, and FaceTime catch-ups, and online shopping, and inexhaustible Instagram feeds. By removing these temporary salves Vipassana forces you to become deeply acquainted with the discomfort within, and more connected to yourself.
“One of the most powerful things about the retreat is that you don’t have the option of grabbing for whatever you use to cope. You’re really faced with just yourself,” says Kwong. “Things that you may have tried to avoid all your life might come bubbling back up. But once you observe it, it changes and shifts, and that’s one of the amazing things about this practice. Once you allow it to be without judging it, or shaming it, or trying to change it, that’s actually the only way that feeling can move.”
For guests who make it through day seven, when the number of people quitting peaks, the mind chatter quiets and things begin to improve. When she arrived at the ninth day, Kwong felt like “a rock star,” able to complete her 10 hours of meditation with relative ease. “I get why they enforce 10 days because you are literally breaking your own brain and taming it,” she says.
At the final-day debrief guests described, in raspy, underutilized voices, a full spectrum of experiences. Some spoke of the sensation of their bodies “dissolving” and feeling at one with the universe. Others recalled physical reactions like profuse sweating, as repressed negative emotions began to manifest. One woman who had recently lost her husband had found peace in watching her grief ebb and flow, and feeling thankful to just be alive and breathing.
Although she doesn’t claim to be a Zen master, Kwong still feels the benefits of Vipassana two years later. She even uses some of the teachings with her clients in therapy sessions as a way to emphasize the fact that more often than not, negative thoughts are fears, not facts.
“Often, if people are experiencing anxiety, it’s because they’re living in the future. If they’re experiencing depression, it’s because they’re living in the past. It’s the thought that is keeping you trapped,” she says. “The only thing that’s real is the present moment. Again and again and again.”