I Went On a 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat. Here's What Happened
In mid December I decided to go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat at the Dhamma Joti centerin Yangon, Myanmar.
I’d never really meditated before beyond a handful of halfhearted, unsuccessful attempts to focus on my breathing. I’d just come off working on the Hillary Clinton campaign in Brooklyn, and I was looking for an intense experience that would help me “get away” from my post-campaign gloom, which was persisting into my travels across Asia. I’d also heard many times about the benefits of meditation, and I wanted to experience them myself.
I arrived at the center, which sits on 12 acres of peaceful, well-kept land carved out of the bustling capital city of Yangon, on a Sunday afternoon, not sure what to expect. After handing over my passport, cellphone, and other valuables for safekeeping, I was shown to my accommodations for the next 10 days – a simple, clean square room with two single beds for me and my roommate: an Australian named Andy.
The silence began that night at 6pm, with the daily routine to begin the following day: rise at 4:30am, meditate for two hours, eat breakfast at 6:30am, rest until 8:00am, meditate until 11:00am (with breaks each hour), eat lunch, rest until 1pm, meditate with regular, five minute breaks until 5pm, rest for an hour, meditate for another hour, then absorb the nightly discourse: a video message presented by S.N. Goenka, a renowned Buddhist teacher who specializes in breaking down the practice of vipassana mediation for beginners.
At first we were told to simply focus on our breathing, observing the air coming in and out of our nostrils. Every time our mind began to wander, we simply had to bring it back to the breath, without pretense or frustration. At first, it was very difficult, and I could only make it a few breaths before my mind began to wander. Sometimes I was disciplined and returned immediately to the breath as soon as I became aware that I’d drifted; other times I indulged and let my mind go.
Over time—and I had nothing but time at the center—it became easier. My mind got used to the activity, and adjusted to the regimen. After a couple days, I could continuously focus on my breathing for almost a minute without getting distracted.
As instructed, I began to focus my attention on my body, starting at the crown of the head and moving slowly down my neck, shoulders, arms, torso, legs—all the way down to the tips of my toes. I began to notice a heightened awareness of my body’s sensation. I began to observe the sensations objectively, equanimously, without fear, favor, or judgement.
Vipassana teaches that by observing our body’s mental and physical sensations objectively—rather than reacting to them subconsciously with craving or aversion—we can reduce attachment and misery, and build compassion. While I felt as though I only began to scratch the surface of this phenomenon, I began to notice a distinct sense of heightened awareness and sustained calmness.
By the fifth day, I had fallen into a rhythm of meditating, eating, and sleeping, although I was certainly looking toward the end of the ten days when I could rejoin society and begin talking again. I noticed that my mind felt much clearer: I was seeing sharp memories I hadn’t thought about in years and hearing perfectly clear music in my head. The random neural firings accelerated by a lack of familiar stimuli resulted in closed-eye hallucinations that shared the hallmarks of a psychedelic experience. Still, the practice of discipline dictated a persistent return to observing the breath; one could not simply marvel at the brain’s power or its neuroplasticity.
By the end of the retreat, I was itching to be done—but deeply gratified I’d made it through. I felt equipped with a new set of tools to deal with stress and develop compassion, although I soon realized back in New York that they fade without practice. Discipline is the life stream of a peaceful, balanced existence—and while it doesn’t get any easier, it was an acute demonstration of the power of the practice. One certainly doesn’t need to go on a meditation retreat to learn to meditate, but it was a powerful introduction to its awesome potential.