What I Learned from A 5-Day Silent Yoga & Meditation Retreat
A couple months ago, I had a life-changing experience. My aunt invited me and two of my cousins' girlfriends to a weeklong Vipassana Meditation retreat hosted by Pujari and Abhilasha, a couple who studied in India with Osho and B. K. S. Iyengar (who is credited for bringing yoga to the Western world) in the 70s. Pujari then brought his studies back to the US, where he founded a yoga school in San Diego - and later purchased a cabin in the mountains of Cedar Breaks, Utah (which Iyengar visited) to host retreats for small groups.
With no talking, no cell phones, and a very rigorous schedule (9 hours of meditation a day starting at 5:30am), here's what I learned.
1. TIME FLIES WHEN YOU'RE MEDITATING
I knew that the week would be hard work - but I didn't know going into it that our schedule would be so rigorous. Each day started at 5:25am and included 9 hours of meditation a day. Count 'em, nine. There were no breaks, except a few moments to go for a walk outside. We all had chores - prepping for dinner, cleaning toilets, waking everyone else at the crack of dawn. I felt as dedicated as a monk.
Going into it, I thought that I was going to hate it and run away screaming. But there were only a few times that I really struggled - most of the meditation hours actually flew by.
2. THE MIND IS EXTREMELY BUSY
They say that the first (and possibly most important) lesson you learn when meditating is how impossibly busy the mind is. It's impossible to silence. It just won't quit. But that's the whole point.
I used to think that experienced meditators literally had zero thoughts for hours. But that's not true. The entire purpose of meditation is to focus on the breath, quiet the mind, and recognize when thoughts come into your mind and distract you. Simply acknowledge them and let them go. And begin again.
If you're new to meditation and want to learn how to start, check out the Headspace app.
3. CONSTANT PRODUTIVITY IS A FALLACY
We've been taught that to lead a successful life, we have to be constantly productive. That means jamming our schedules so tightly packed that there's no time to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom. But that's "the fallacy of productivity." There's no happiness in constant busy-ness because we're always worrying about what's next and never living in the now.
Meditation leads to learning to live in the present moment - to live life as it is right now; because that's the only moment that is actually real.
4. BOREDOM TEACHES PATIENCE
In a world of limitless entertainment and endless newsfeeds, we are never bored. But being bored is actually a good thing. It teaches patience.
One the first day of the retreat (before the silence began), someone asked if we could journal or read books. The answer was: "No. The quiet mind can teach more than any book."
Okay, that's pretty profound. We learned that silence is a prerequisite to knowing yourself and your own mind, which is a prerequisite to knowing others.
And the boredom of silence teaches us to sit quietly in the moment, letting go of distractions (including that itch on your ear), and to not worry about what may or may not be to come.
5. IMPERMANENCE: EVERYTHING IS IMPERMANENT
Possibly my favorite learning during the Vipassana retreat is The Law of Impermanence. Everything in life is impermanent. We have an itch one moment and it's gone the next. We're in a stressful or difficult season in life - but fast forward a few years, and things will be different. Even a terminal disease is constantly changing, ever evolving from one day to the next.
Through meditation, I learned that each sitting meditation session will eventually end, and feeling will eventually return to my legs. This helps me in bigger ways - at work, if someone is difficult or a project is tough, I can now remember that it too, is impermanent. "This too shall pass."
6. THE WORLD IS CREATED FROM THOUGHTS
Why meditate? Why do our thoughts matter? Everything around us is created by someone's thoughts. The house you live in - someone dreamed that up and built it. The work you do… someone had the thought and created a company. The society, government, and culture we live in are all created by thoughts.
And we've seen throughout history how ill-intentioned thoughts can create a disastrous world.
But - we can only control our own thoughts. We can make all of our thoughts positive and loving towards ourselves and those around us, which ultimately contributes to a more positive, more loving world.
7. YOU MUST LOVE YOURSELF IN ORDER TO LOVE OTHERS
Sometimes the idea of loving yourself is seen as bad, egotistical, and narcissistic. Osho believed that you must first love yourself in order to love others.
Take quiet time out for yourself to deeply understand your mind - in all of its busy-ness and struggles so that you can better understand others' minds and decisions.
No judging yourself, including thighs that may seem too big, extra moles, or personality traits. I find that when I'm walking around thinking about something that's wrong with me, that I'm more likely to judge and criticize others.
Keep expectations in check. This is a big one for me. I'm a dreamer and a planner, but not a spontaneous doer. I struggle with all of the ideas that I have that never get put into action. When I walk around feeling bummed about all the things I'm not doing, instead of feeling grateful for what I have in my life, I'm more likely to hold others to unattainable expectations.
8. YOU ARE COMPLETE AND WHOLE AS YOU ARE
As a woman in 2018, all we hear is the "story of the incomplete woman." Every ad shows us the problems we have and offers a solution to become more complete, more whole, more perfect.
When we learn to live in the present moment, we are 100% complete and whole right now. Because all that exists is the present moment. And that means that all that exists now or ever is what we are right now.
My first few days of meditation, I worried about whether I was doing it right. But Pujari said that "the goal is arriving." When you arrive on your mat, you have succeeded. That is the goal. Nothing more. Just being present, acknowledging your thoughts, and constantly beginning again is the entire goal. You have already succeeded.
To learn more about the philosophy of meditation, check out the 10% Happier podcast.
May you be free from harm and danger;
May you be healthy and know the causes of good health;
May you be happy and know the causes of happiness;
May you have east of support and know the causes of ease of support;
May you be free and know the causes of freedom.