10 things I learned from a 10-day meditation retreat [part 2]

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To read the first part please click here

6. Body language can create love, or hate

Spending 18 hours a day for 10 days with 50 people without having talked to them is a special experience. It has this back-to-school feeling, these first days discovering your new classmates and suspiciously evaluating who’s a potential friend & who’s a potential foe. Remove the verbal communication and you’re stuck with body language to assess the people around you. Lots of research shows that 80% of our communication with others is nonverbal, I would say that body language provides a 80% accuracy whether you’ll hate or love someone.

In about a couple of days, I came to viscerally hate one of my neighbors in the meditation hall. His face, bearing, behavior, noises, and moaning were to profoundly irritate me. But here I was, in the middle of a non-judging meditation retreat, not being able to detach myself from this feeling of aversion. So I would calm down and tell myself that I didn’t even know the guy, he might even be the coolest guy ever, who knows? Refocusing, breathing in and out, and BOOM (again), I got involuntary visions of me smashing his head on the pavement with a huge mace. Not reallyVipassanesque. Well, the guy ended up actually being kind of a prick. Same things happened with a couple of other neighbors, where on the contrary, I was positively convinced they would become friend. They did.

It’s not always 100% accurate much more complex than 300 words on Medium, but it felt like the unconscious already knows who’s good & bad for us, just by the way people behave non verbally. We often have the limited illusion that we like people mostly because of what they say, but the unconscious brain already knows.

We just need a tangible & conscious excuse.

7. We get used to (almost) everything

“Go to you edge. Regularly” is a mantra I try to live by. I’m often baffled by the resilience I find inside when going to the edge. During these 10 days, I got used to many things in ways I wouldn’t have imagined:

  • The hardcore schedule: Around day 6, I got used to the schedule & it became how I lived without too much hassle. Waking up at 4am, no eating after 11am, 4-hour session of meditation, it started to become habits, punctuated by the usual gong.
  • 10 days: This is longer than what we’re used to mentally represent. A week is definitely easier. The first days were a torment because I was counting down the hours, trying to have a sense of progression and control. Once I let go of the counting and surrendered to the present, each hour went faster.
  • Not talking: That also became an habit! I was starting to get used to it by the end of the retreat. To cope with this withdrawal, I started sharing in unconventional ways with different things: The morning stars, the forest sounds, myself, the sole presence of others. It’s fascinating observing your body & mind surviving loneliness.
  • Not moving: On day 4 there’s a new rule: 3 times a day, you cannot change position nor open your eyes during the whole one-hour-session. The first session is a torture. My knees were hurting so bad after just 20 minutes, I thought my tendons were about to snap. Every minute lasted an hour. But then again, to my great surprise, I got used to it after a couple of days.

Resilience is also found through others. At times I wanted to quit & leave. But it felt like I would be abandoning my neighbors, who I didn’t know that much, but with whom I had shared something unique. I persevered so we could share our experiences later on, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do that if I had quit.

8. Assuming is suffering

The non-talking rule has a nasty by-product: Not knowing how how bad or good you’re doing compared to the others. Remember these times after an 4-hour long exam, where you uncontrollably debrief & compare your answers? It feels good to get an idea on how you performed compared to the others. That’s because you don’t have to avoid the feeling of uncertainty. Enduring an experience so unfamiliar, for so long, without being able to compare, is torture, as it provokes something even more malicious: To assume. Assuming is suffering. Assuming is not getting a response to a Facebook message, getting pissed of at the “Seen at 3:25pm”, and wondering why.

In the context of Vipassana, it’s not being able to compare your struggling to the other participants. During a one-hour session, you keep your eyes closed 99% of the time. But for these couple of seconds of awareness, you get a whole deal of supposing: “Nobody moves a finger, am I the only one struggling?” It felt like everyone was a Buddha, 100% concentrated and in perfect flow, probably experiencing total liberation & subtle sensations where I was just getting pissed of at my head aching & my knees hurting. Then the vicious thoughts start crawling in: “Maybe that’s not for me, I’m obviously the worst.”

It turned out everyone was actually feeling like frauds, and my neighbors thought I was a real Buddha for 10 days.

Do. Not. Make. Any. Assumptions.

9. Your ego is a fighter

The ego is a fighter, a skillful and insidious one. He won’t just come straight to you and try to reason you out of this mess, invoking very simple reasons, like “Why are you sitting crossed legged for 10 hours a day with 99 other silent people, only reacting to the sound of a weird eastern gong?”.

No, that would be too easy.

Instead, the ego fights a more subtle battle, and incited me to gradually question things like the intentions of the “non-profit organization” behind Vipassana: “Why is this whole thing free? If something is free, that means I am the product! Is that a cult trying to convert me?” I started to misinterpret every little detail through this new ego-filter, and created more complex excuses to just quit.

Hopefully, I understood on time that the battle I was fighting was against myself. Fighting against yourself is the longest and hardest battle for a very simple reason : It’s a level playing fight.

I was pissed off and frustrated. Some people sob, cry, scream, someone even hit a tree trunk with a branch during a quiet break while walking in the woods.

Going on a retreat really feels like fasting, except you stop feeding your ego, not your body. And the ego is a fat cat, he will fight for every ounce of food he can get from you. Once you stop feeding it, only the essential remains. Just like with our bodies, ego-fasting for some time is good once in a while!


10. Don’t take yourself THAT seriously

That kind of experiences makes you think “That’s some serious shit”. It is to some extend: The 10-day Vipassana retreat is not something you get into without some form of preparation and it’s also something you can never really be prepared for.

The spiritual path sometimes sounds a bit too serious, and I used to get afraid that I would drawn my frequent absurd wittiness into a bottomless ocean of seriousness. I was a bit apprehensive about being mainly surrounded by austere monks and prepared myself for some solemn conversing at the end of the retreat.

How shallow of me, for three reasons:

First, even though I was one of the youngest ones, there were other like-minded people and we had a blast afterwards. We talked 30 minutes about our respective experience and then endlessly joked about shallow matters, balancing the deepness of the practice that we were just liberating from.

Second, there weren’t any spaced-out people, here for a transcendental experience, overflowing with apparent mysticism. Nope, these were people definitely connected to the “real life”: teachers, businessmen, entrepreneurs, professionals yogi, students. All of them were getting ready for a fight, not just a curious adventure they could lightly mention at the next diner en ville.

Third, even the actual monks — who already did ten Vipassanas — were freely joking about each others, like you would in playgrounds, only with a profound sense of respect and care. But man, it was a relieve to see a monk joke about another one, calling him “Jacky Chan” over his obvious Asian looks, and see everyone burst into laughter after such an abyssal trip!

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