Vipassana meditation means “to see things as they really are” – and in this story, we are talking about a 10-day retreat in which one takes a vow of silence and practices meditation for a minimum of 10 a day, every day. There will be no use of any tech, apps, electronics, reading, writing, exercising, speaking, or even eye contact during this time. From 4:30 a.m. until 9 p.m., with a few breaks for meals or tea in between, you are sitting in cross-legged position on the floor, not allowed to move even a pinky finger during “strong determination” settings; to focus completely on the sensations of being alive.
No laptops, iPads or phones.
No books, music, or TV.
No writing or recording.
No integration with the opposite sex.
No non-verbal communication or gestures with the same sex.
No evening meal.
And a 4 am wake up call EVERY day.
The only thing allowed: meditation.
On the morning of 17th January 2019, I was released back into the wild after a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat.
And what an incredible journey of self-discovery it was.
The aim of the retreat, which is grounded in Buddhist philosophy, is not just to teach you how to meditate.
It is also to provide you with tools and distinctions to help you live a happier life.
And it worked.
Not only did I become A LOT better at meditating, I created a wonderful gift for myself, and for others.
Allow me, then, to share with you my personal journey from the 10 days.
Please note that this is not a review of the retreat from a practical perspective.
It is a truly honest account of the self-reflection and discovery journey I experienced.
My intention for sharing this with you is with the hope that by sharing some of my personal discoveries, you may encounter your own.
The first day began. Everyone had arrived the day before, settled in, and been briefed on the rules and timetable.
We were to be woken up at 4 am every day, to begin meditation at 4.30am.
With the exception of meal times at 6.30am – 8 am, 11.00 – 1 pm, and 5 – 6 pm, the entire day from 4.30am until 9 pm was to be spent meditating. Nothing else.
There were 3 x 1 hour periods of meditation where it was compulsory to meditate in the hall, without leaving. All other times you were allowed to take a break or meditate in your room.
Wondering around the beautiful grounds of the center on the outskirts of Marrakech, I was amused by how funny we all looked.
We weren’t allowed to communicate in any way, and so seeing about 40 women wondering around the site, silently, without purpose, and without making eye contact, made the place look like a cross between a mental institution and a scene from Netflix’ Birdbox.
Prior to my arrival, I was not already a meditator. It always occurred to me as something I should do, but not something I ever felt motivated to do.
I was also terrible at it. I could hardly keep my attention on my breath or my body for 30 seconds without my mind wandering off, only to then suffer a barrage of self-judgment for not being strong enough to control my mind.
The first day of the retreat was not much different. My attention would wonder, the self-criticism would follow, and the cycle would start again.
But by the end of the first day, I was quite surprised to think to myself “oh, this isn’t so bad!”
I was expecting it to be a lot harder.
The discomfort, the early morning wake-up call, the lack of things to do, the frustration with myself.
But actually, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought.
The 4 am wake up call came, and so did my first, agonized thought of the day:
“Omg, I’ve got 9 more days of this!”
Oh how quickly my thoughts had shifted!
Put it this way, I’m not a morning person!
In what little time we had been there, I had already become highly present to the voice in my head.
Actually, the multiple voices in my head!
There was the automatic, judgemental voice, the one that was cranky in the morning, and there was the one that I was consciously in charge of, the one that would speak back to her to calm her down or correct her.
And then there was me who was observing the two talk to each other! Talk about being with me, myself and I…!
However, that morning, I experienced a breakthrough.
Whenever I noticed myself judging myself for my lack of attention, I met it with acceptance and gratitude.
I would respond by saying ‘thanks for those thoughts, but later.’
After a while, it felt like the clouds of my mind parted, and I enjoyed about 20 to 30 minutes of pure attention on just my natural breathing.
It felt wonderful.
It felt like I was simply enjoying the feeling of feeling alive.
But, for the rest of the day, things went back to normal and I couldn’t maintain my attention for long.
Still though, I just accepted it, rather than resisting it.
I decided to inquire into what was keeping me from present moment awareness.
I noticed I was experiencing obsessive, repeating thoughts about 2 things in particular.
One was a guy I met and had been spending time with in Madrid.
I had really started to like him, only for him to tell me that he didn’t want a relationship.
I couldn’t get him off my mind though.
Because of him, I felt like I couldn’t leave Madrid and live somewhere else if I wanted to.
I wanted to stay for him, in the hope that maybe at some point he will change his mind.
The second thing I was thinking about obsessively was money.
I’d recently been presented with an exciting investment opportunity which had the potential to fulfill my financial ambitions.
If I wasn’t thinking about the guy, I was thinking about how I could raise some capital as quickly as possible.
I realized I was attached.
Indeed, one of the major principles of Buddhist teachings, and this retreat is that attachment is the root of all suffering.
But I also figured that it’s impossible for the human psyche to be attached to money. It’s a physical object that has no meaning other than what we give it.
This thought prompted my first deep insight: We aren’t attached to people or things. We are attached to the feelings we associate with those people or things.
I figured then that I wasn’t attached to the guy, I was attached to the feeling I get from being with the guy.
Which I assumed was love.
And I wasn’t attached to money, but the feeling I get from money, which is freedom.
This is what I presumed, anyway. I later realized I wasn’t quite accurate.
With my newly discovered insights, I noticed my thoughts had shifted completely.
I was no longer obsessively thinking about the guy. Wonderful! Finally, I am detached from him!
Later I was enjoying the midday Moroccan sun, which was so incredibly warm I could hardly believe it was January.
I thought about going back to Madrid, where despite being sunny, is still a single-digit temperature.
I had never originally planned to move to Madrid because I’d always wanted to live by the sea, but circumstances took me there.
Then obviously I met the guy, and granted, I was enjoying my time there irrespective of him, so I felt like I’d stay for at least a couple of years.
But in the wake of my detachment from the guy, not anymore.
I suddenly felt like I had no reason to live there.
I felt free to move wherever I wanted again!
This was an amazing sign that I really had gotten over him!
I then started experiencing a really strong desire to move to the Canary Islands.
I’d always dismissed this option because, despite the great weather, I thought it would be too different from the city life of London and Madrid that I’d been used to, for me to be able to adjust and be happy there.
All of a sudden I did a complete 180-degree turn and I couldn’t find a reason NOT to move there!
This became my new obsessional thinking!
You may be thinking, ‘I thought she was supposed to be meditating, not obsessing!’
Well yes, I was definitely improving at that, and this time I had managed at least two or three 20 minute sessions of solid meditation throughout the day. Not bad for just 3 days work!
This was when things really got interesting.
I was still obsessed with my plan to move to the Canary Islands.
And, I was having crystal clear visions about what I wanted for myself, clearer than I’ve EVER seen them.
What’s more is that all of it felt SO easy to create.
I felt like there was absolutely NOTHING in my way.
I asked myself how long it would take me to fulfill these visions, and I decided I’d have them complete by the time I was 33 (in 3 years time).
I liked the number 33 because it was like the number 8 split in half and the left half flipped over.
The number 8 is significant because I have 8 key areas of my life in which I have visions (career, health, hobbies etc), and I’ve been organizing my visions like this since I was about 22.
For this reason, on New Year’s Eve, instead of eating 12 grapes at midnight as is the Spanish ‘lucky charm’ tradition, I ate 8, one for each vision of my life.
At this point in time, I started to generate what I like to call ‘spiritual energy’.
It’s a state of being where I feel VERY inspired, creative, energized, and firing on all cylinders.
In this state of being, I believe in the magic of the universe and start to see how our inner consciousness is connected to outer reality.
I then started to see even more ways the number 8 was significant to me.
For example, my date of birth is 24 (2×4), August (8), ‘88.
What’s more, I have a tendency to look at a digital clock at exactly the right moment to catch a repeating number, like 23:23, or 11:11.
But there’s one particular time that I see more than any other:
Wait, that’s not 8!
Wow! I was really starting to get spiritually “high” now.
Ideas and inspiration had started to flow from me like a tap left on.
I was desperate to get out there in the world and serve people, to coach them and change their lives.
This was when I created the idea to launch a group coaching program, specifically for 8 people. It would be a way for more people to receive benefit from working with me at a more affordable price – I was so excited about it I could hardly wait to announce it.
I even knew what I’d call it.
This afternoon was when the real meditation work began though.
Up until now, we had been instructed to meditate simply by paying attention only to the feeling of our natural breath in our nose.
But this was not the vipassana technique. Today was the day we would learn the actual vipassana method.
The instructions began and we were guided through the process of…..body scan meditation.
‘Body Scan? Pfft!’ I thought. I was disappointed.
I couldn’t believe I’d come all this way just to practice body scan meditation, something I already knew how to do and could get from any ordinary meditation app!
Body scan meditation is where you mentally scan the different parts of your body just to notice and observe what you can feel there.
I hardly felt any sensations.
And it was boring. In fact, I fell asleep through the instructions!
The point though was to notice another key principle of Buddhist philosophy: that everything is impermanent. Nothing lasts forever. Everything comes and goes, including the sensations and feelings in your body.
I already knew this though, and simply knowing that my feelings are impermanent didn’t exactly make them much easier to deal with.
After the break came the next new instruction.
This time, we were to do a body scan meditation again, but this time, we had to maintain “strong determination”, in other words, we were not allowed to have any reaction to any sensation whatsoever.
For an entire hour.
If you had an itch, you couldn’t scratch it.
If you were uncomfortable, you couldn’t change your posture.
If you felt warm, you couldn’t remove your hoody.
Wow, this was going to be a CHALLENGE!
I sat there and just paid attention to any sensation or feeling that arose, and I started to actually experience impermanence instead of just understanding it cognitively.
I felt like I was starting to look below the surface of reality, of how reality appears, and see reality for how it really is.
Which is one of the promises of the course: “to see reality as it is, not how it appears to be”.
It was like when you’re in the ocean with your head above the water, and you can’t see much other than a mass of water, and then when you put your snorkel on, go underneath and suddenly see a mass of color, life, and activity with all the fish and coral – it was beautiful.
I was seeing how the entire universe was constructed of impermanent, evolving cells and atoms.
I figured that even if you took yourself off to the remotest part of the world to escape any people or objects, you would still see impermanence – via the wind, the weather and so on.
Even if there was no winds or clouds, you STILL couldn’t escape it because you’d see the sun move across the sky during the day.
Everything is moving, changing, growing, evolving.
But I was seeing it in a way I’d never seen it before.
It was incredible.
Boy, if there was anything that was going to test my “strong determination” to not react to sensations, it was waking up with menstrual cramps.
I didn’t have any painkillers with me, so for an entire hour, I simply observed, objectively, any cramping sensation I felt, without judging it or reacting to it.
By the time I walked out of the hall, my cramps had gone. I’d used strong determination to make them go away.
After all, my mind was the most powerful pain killer I had, since pain is created in the mind in the first place.
That day again I experienced that energized state of being which I likened to feeling high, so much so that I even went through a bit of a come down when it started to wear off!
As a result, I went to bed a bit tired and low. It was definitely a hump day.
Another hump day and I struggled to concentrate.
In the evening discourse, the teacher explained that sooner or later we’d realize that we are not attached to people or objects but to the sensations we associate with them.
Amazing, I had had that insight on day 3!
It was starting to make sense now.
I understood that the purpose of vipassana is two-fold: to increase our level of self-awareness, AND to strengthen our ability to not react to those sensations.
After all, emotions are physiological responses that occur within the body, so the more we can detect them and observe them objectively, the happier we can become.
Now I knew why there were so many rules and restrictions!
Therefore if I could objectively observe the sensations I was supposedly attached to, and remain objective about them, I could free myself from my persistent thoughts about money and the guy.
But I began to deepen my understanding of what exactly it was I was attached to.
I asked myself, how do I feel when I’m with the guy?
And I realized that it wasn’t so much the feeling of love I was attached to, but the feeling that I am getting what I deserve by being with someone like him because he is almost everything that I would want in a partner.
With money, I questioned, how can I be attached to the feeling of freedom when I have not yet achieved financial freedom?
In Buddhism, the other side of the coin to attachment is aversion: we either get attached to pleasant sensations or we become averse to unpleasant ones.
I realized, therefore, that I was actually averse to the feeling of restriction that the lack of money brings.
This was powerful.
Now that I’d reached the true source of my attachment and aversion, I knew the work could begin on transforming my mindset around them.
Day 7 & 8
I continued to practice becoming aware of my body and sensations and remaining objective towards them.
On a couple of occasions, I felt the rushing tingling sensation in my nose of a sneeze coming on.
But instead of bracing myself for it to come, I simply observed it and didn’t even flinch. The desire to sneeze evaporated.
Imagine if every time you felt the rushing sensation of anger rising within you, you were to stand there and just observe it and let it pass as I did with the sneeze.
Or imagine if every time you experienced joy and happiness, you again were able to be objective to it, instead of getting attached to it and ultimately disappointed when the feeling eventually subsided or life took a turn.
I could see the advantage of this, although I did question, isn’t this taking away the very thing that makes us human in the first place: the ability to feel emotions?
I was also not sure how me being able to remain objective to the touch of the scarf on my neck, would really help me remain calm in the face of something like rejection, for example.
I was getting a bit tired, bored and doubtful by this stage, and I was certainly looking forward to reaching the end of the course.
But I was in for a very pleasant surprise.
Although I’d lost a little faith in the process, I kept going with the technique.
After all, there wasn’t much else I could do!
Once again I started to feel quite happy and that ’spiritual energy’ of inspiration, creativity, and wisdom started flowing again.
After the morning meditation session, I left the hall to take a quick break, at which point a thought popped up in my mind, completely out of nowhere and taking me somewhat by surprise.
“I love who I am.”
Not in an arrogant, big-headed way.
Just a genuine liking and appreciation for who I’ve become and who I am becoming.
Perhaps for the first time ever, I was experiencing self-love.
I’d never really understood this concept of “self-love”.
What even is that? How does one love oneself?!
I got my answers.
What ensued after that was an AMAZING sense of liberation and peace, which lasted the entire remainder of the course and even still continues as I write this now.
I was reflecting on a quote I’d come across recently.
It was a quote I’d discovered a few weeks ago, when I was explaining to one of my friends that I’d sent the guy I liked a message to say I missed him, which was, of course, a very vulnerable thing to do, but I did not care if he returned my message or not, I simply wanted to give him that gift of my love.
The quote was:
I don’t care if you love me or not, I am going to love you anyway.
After my discovery of self-love, I realized that the quote would be better written like this:
I don’t care if you love me or not, I am going to love ME anyway!
I had found the ultimate freedom at last.
Regardless of whether a man, a friend or anyone chose to love me or not, I would not make it mean anything about me.
I no longer needed someone else’s approval in order to approve of myself.
I reminded myself not to get too attached to the sensation of that peace and freedom, after all, like everything else, it was impermanent.
And it was really quite hard to accept! I was already attached to the feeling!
But, at least I knew now, that that peace and freedom was always going to be possible.
Like the tattoo on my left shoulder says, ‘the sun is always shining’.
For the rest of that day, I was calm.
My obsessive thinking had stopped.
My thoughts were light and fleeting.
I spent the afternoon thinking about the last coaching session I had with one of my clients before I left Madrid, and I had an insight that I thought had the power to be a game-changer for her.
I was desperate to share it with her as soon as possible.
And this was what was so amazing about loving oneself.
By loving who I was, I was in a MUCH better capacity to love and serve others.
Putting your own oxygen mask on first enables you to help others put theirs on too.
In fact, one of the world’s most successful life coaches that most people have never heard of is renown for his love towards other people, and when asked how is it that he can love other people so much, he responds by saying: “because I love myself that much”.
The final day had arrived, and I was pleased to discover I was still enjoying my new found self-love.
There is the saying that a mind once expanded cannot return to its former dimensions, and I felt that having had this insight, I would forever be a different person to the one I was before the retreat.
Even if there may be days when I perhaps didn’t experience that self-love, I knew it would be my default state (like the sun always shining) – and anything blocking it was just temporary (like the clouds).
I also started to draw my conclusions about vipassana.
I certainly agree with the principles that Buddhism teaches, i.e the nature of impermanence, and the suffering that attachment and aversion bring.
I also didn’t doubt that meditation has incredible benefits.
I just wasn’t entirely convinced by the some of the explanations of how exactly it works (which I have not gone into in this blog), but still, anything that enables you to develop self-awareness and self-control could only be a great thing!
I recommend meditation to anyone, however, I maintain my belief that there is still yet something even more powerful and transformational than vipassana, which is this:
Getting to understand WHY you react to things in a certain way in the first place.
For example, if you knew WHY you reacted with anger, or fear, or joy (useful if you’re getting joy from things aren’t good for you), you could potentially change the way you view and think about the particular stimulus and thus prevent that reaction from ever occurring again.
You wouldn’t need to remain objective to your emotions if you changed the way the thing occurred for you in the first place.
This is when the real, lasting transformation occurs.
Of course, I’m not suggesting it is always easy to do this, especially not simply by yourself without the aid of someone who can help you to explore the inner workings of your mind in ways that we by ourselves cannot.
But it is worth it.
My experience at the 10-day vipassana retreat was life-changing, and it’s great to now have an extra tool in my self-care toolbox that can help me live a better, happier life.
AND, one which allows me greater capacity to help others to do the same.