My Experience with Vipassana – 10 Day Silent Meditation

Robin Greenfield sitting alone in silence in a room.
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You’ve likely heard of an “out of body” experience, possibly through the wonders of psychedelic medicines. But have you heard of the “in the body” experience of Vipassana?
By going so deep inside of the body through a simple means of self-observation, it is possible to completely dissolve the concept of self – turning an “in the body” experience into what seems to be an “out of body” experience.

My first Vipassana began in late December 2022 and brought me a week into the new year of 2023.

A Vipassana is a ten-day silent meditation. However, the purpose is not to be in silence and the purpose is not to meditate. Silence and meditation are simply means of achieving the ultimate goal – full liberation and enlightenment. Of course, nobody involved in the practice is under the delusion that full full liberation and enlightenment can be attained in ten days. Rather, Vipassana meditation is an art of living and the ten-day residential course is is a means to begin the practice.

The Practice of Vipassana (as written by Dhamma):

“To learn Vipassana meditation it is necessary to take a ten-day residential course under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Ten days of sustained practice have been found to be the minimum amount of time in which the essentials of the technique can be learned for Vipassana to be applied to the daily life. For the duration of the retreat, students remain within the course site, having no contact with the outside world. They refrain from reading or writing, and suspend all religious practices or other disciplines. They follow a demanding daily schedule which includes about ten hours of sitting meditation, with many breaks interspersed throughout the day. They also observe silence, not communicating with fellow students; they may, however, communicate with the teachers whenever necessary and they may contact the staff with needs related to food, health and such.

There are three steps to the training. First, students practice avoiding actions which cause harm. During the course, they undertake five moral precepts: agreeing to abstain from killing living beings, stealing, speaking falsely, all sexual activity and the use of intoxicants. This simple code of moral conduct, along with maintaining silence, serves to calm the mind, which otherwise would be too agitated to perform the task of self-observation.

The second step is to develop a more stable and concentrated mind by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever-changing flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. By the fourth day, the mind is calmer and more focused, better able to undertake the third step, the practice of Vipassana itself: the observation of sensations throughout the body, the experiential understanding of their changing nature and the development of a balanced mind by learning not to react to them. One experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth realization is by direct experience in this process of purification.

The entire practice is actually a mental training. Just as physical exercises are used to improve bodily health, Vipassana can be used to develop a healthy mind.

Students receive systematic meditation instructions several times a day, and each day’s progress is explained during an evening video discourse, by Mr. Goenka. Complete silence is observed for the first nine days. On the tenth day, students learn to practice metta (loving kindness meditation) and they resume speaking, as a transition back to their ordinary way of life. The course concludes on the morning of the eleventh day.”

My Experience of Vipassana

The above is an outline of my life for ten days. For the most part, my life revolved around sitting meditation, eating two meals each day, drinking tea and water, resting, sleeping, stretching and a little bit of walking. And yes, an incredible amount of thinking. My sitting meditation practice consisted of simply observing my breath and the sensations on my body in an alert and attentive state of mind. Although there were many moments where nothing outside of that present time existed in my mind, there were more moments of thinking about my life. Sometimes full hours passed in sitting meditation where I spent the entire time thinking about life. Since my first Vipassana, I have known that this will be a lifetime practice and that the benefits of this practice will not come overnight – or over ten nights – but through a lifetime of dedication to enlightenment. I don’t have the belief that I will ever become fully liberated or fully enlightened. However, I surely am living a far different reality today than when I decided to transform my life a little over a decade ago. And surely my life has been substantially improved since I began Vipassana one year ago.

If I could share only one message from this ten days of silence, it would be that of equanimity. For nearly the entire ten days, I existed in an equanimous state. I did not react to the sensations on my body – including the extreme pain of long sits. I simply acknowledged the sensations and observed them as they were. I did not yearn for anything from the outside world. I did not get agitated by the movements, noises or actions of my fellow meditators and I did not create stories about them. I did not crave much. I did not avoid much. For the most part, I existed on an island within myself, following the basic tenets of the practice of Vipassana.

Whereas in my first Vipassana I rarely meditated more than 3-5 hours per day, I meditated 8-10 hours almost every day during this retreat. One of the practices is “sits of strong determination” where, for an entire hour, meditators do not adjust their legs, their hands or open their eyes. By five days in, I was doing a three-hour sit of strong determination each day. On day six, I managed a six-and-a-half hour sit, and on day nine, I managed a six-and-a-half hour sit of strong determination, opening my eyes only for the discourse between meditations and not adjusting my legs or hands. By making only slow and slight movements, I was able to stay within the state of presence that stillness creates and continue the journey within.

Through my practices over the last year, I was able to settle into the experience with much more ease. Completing the last meal of the day at noon was similar to my practice of intermittent fasting. Ten days without intoxicants was no issue because I stopped drinking alcohol many years ago. Not speaking came to me with excitement as days and weeks of silence have been commonplace in my life. Abstaining from sex was natural as I had already committed to a year without sex and romance and the year came to completion during the Vipassana.

The area where I struggled the most was the near-constant thoughts running through my head. On some days, I grew weary and tired of my thoughts, desiring a respite from the thinking so I could fully exist in the present moment and focus solely on the sensations on my body. At first, the thoughts were all over the place, but thoughts of the past, how I’d have liked to have done things differently, sex and frustration, mostly faded away after a few days. As I quieted my mind, my thinking became very focused on how I want to live my life in truth, integrity and in service. This came with great inspiration and once again I had some break- through thoughts for my life design and my mission. This is a wonderful place to have the mind focused. However, this is all the future, rather than the present. I spend most of my life thinking about the future and I am dedicated to practices that will result in living more in the present. My belief is that if I can achieve the ability to exist deeply in the present moment, I will be of best service to humanity and live the most contented life.

The process of self-observation is designed to create purification of the mind. As I remained equanimous to all sensations on my body, I created a new pattern of non-reactive observation of sensations with the acknowledgement of impermanence. This can be applied to all circumstances in life. Our suffering and misery comes not from what happens to us, but how we react to it.

The isolation that a ten-day silent retreat creates allows me to go deeply within, to practice equanimity deeply and to bring this developed skill set into my daily life and interactions with humanity.

“Vipassana is a path leading to freedom from all suffering; it eradicates the craving, aversion and ignorance which are responsible for all our miseries. Those who practice it remove, little by little, the root causes of their suffering and steadily emerge from their former tensions to lead happy, healthy and productive lives.

Vipassana enables us to experience inner peace: it purifies the mind, freeing it from suffering and the deep-seated causes of suffering. The practice leads step-by-step to the highest spiritual goal of full liberation from all mental defilements.” -S.N. Goenka

Through the practice of observing sensations on the body – and focusing on nothing else – after some days it is common to come to a place where one can feel sensations throughout the entire body at once. It could be described as a slight vibration of the entire body in unity. It could be described as a complete state of flow. This is what I mean when I say that this “in the body” experience can become an “out of body” experience. Once the entire body exists in this state, the natural progression is that one comes to see their body and their mind in a new manner, far from their normal limited experience as a human. Rather, it becomes clear that our body and our mind are in an impermanent state of being that is part of the whole. We are not separate, and therefore, there is no I, no me, no mine.

This is what is referred to in Vipassana as “peace within.” I’ve experienced it and it is an incredibly unique and blissful experience. However, the point is not to get to that state or create an attachment to that state. Once achieving this state, the purpose is simply to observe it, know that it will pass and then watch it pass. Total enlightenment would mean non-attachment between existing in that state or returning to suffering, perhaps through new physical pains that arise in meditation or new stimuli that arise in our daily lives.

I cannot explain to you this feeling using my limited vocabulary within an already limited language. Vipassana can only be fully understood by experiencing it oneself and the benefits can only come through practice.

My Recommendation of Vipassana

For all seeking to liberate themselves, the suffering in their own minds – which includes anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration…
For all seeking to break their patterns of judgment, guilt, shame and comparison…
For all seeking to exist in a calm, balanced and peaceful way…
For all seeking to live in truth and integrity…
For all seeking to live in harmony with humanity…
For all seeking to live in service to Earth, humanity and our plant and animal relatives…

I recommend the practice of Vipassana.

My Differences with some of the Beliefs

I do not fully agree with everything said by S.N. Goenka or by Dhamma, the nonprofit that facilitates the teaching and courses. However, this is a universal practice that can benefit all humans – no matter their spiritual beliefs, cultural norms or societal structures. With that said, I’d like to share a few areas in which I am not in full alignment, so as to provide clarity for anyone who learns from me consistently and would potentially be confused by some of these misalignments.

I do not believe that killing inherently generates impurity of the mind. I believe that humans can live in a deep state of harmony with Earth and our plant and animal relatives in a manner which includes being a steward of the animals while harvesting them for food. I share more on that here.

I do not believe that stealing inherently generates impurity of the mind. I believe that one could “steal” from corporations that are plundering our commonly owned resources that were never the corporations to own and redistribute the resources to those who have suffered most from the injustice of these corporations. I believe that could be done from a complete state of love for all of humanity.

I do not believe that all plant medicines are “intoxicants”. I believe that many plant medicines are incredibly powerful tools for humanity to come into a place of harmony with Earth, humanity and our plant and animal relatives. I believe they can help us to accomplish much of what Vipassana is designed to accomplish – total liberation and purification of the mind. Plant medicines are never the full method, but can be a partial method on the path of enlightenment. I share my relationship to plant medicines here.

Vipassana requires sexual abstinence for the ten-day period and I’m an advocate of practicing abstinence for periods of time. Vipassana encourages one to forgo all “sexual misconduct”. However, we all have our own definitions of sexual misconduct. I advocate sexual relationships that are completely consensual, mutually beneficial and serve our highest selves and, in turn, serve humanity. I share my recent year without sex or romance here.

Vipassana upholds the belief of reincarnation, that we have lived many lives already and that we will live many more lives. I am open to this being true, but it is not my belief system. I share on my spiritual beliefs here.

For some, the language of Vipassana could be a turn off. For example, the usage of the word “morality”. Most frequently, I have heard the term “morality” used by dominator religions that force their beliefs onto others. We all have our own definitions of morality.

Sometimes I perceived that Goenka oversimplifies certain topics in the evening discourses. But how could I expect a perfect explanation of this tool of liberation? He is simply a human using a limited language, with English not being his first language. I choose not to assume I know exactly what he means behind all the words he speaks, and to simply accept the words as they are. Some of his discourse I hold as a tool on my path of liberation, others I leave with him.

For anyone interested in the practice of Vipassana, I encourage going in with an open state of mind. Do not expect to agree with everything you hear, but don’t let the stress boil inside of you when you do hear something you don’t fully agree with.

I also choose to remember that this is a tool for total purification of the mind and total enlightenment. At the same time, Vipassana can be worked with as a tool for substantial improvement of life, without the goal of total enlightenment. It is up to each individual practitioner of Vipassana to choose an objective, and we can work with Vipassana as a tool according to our objective. With that objective clear in our minds, it is much easier to decide what words to hold onto and which to leave with the teacher.

The Path to Enlightenment

Is Vipassana the only path to total enlightenment? Vipassana is the direct teaching of the Buddha – who is said to have achieved total enlightenment through dedicated practice of Vipassana – and has been passed down over 2,500 years as a tool for total enlightenment. By this definition of enlightenment, I believe that it is possible that the only path to total enlightenment is this practice. However, I believe that there are other “enlightened” states that we can exist in. These states of “enlightenment” I refer to are states of living in deep harmony with our surroundings and all beings, deep connection to the source of life, deep integrity, complete flow, wholeness and completeness.

Ten days of removal from our day-to-day lives is a long time for most of us. Ten days of dedicated practice will be challenging for any of us. But what if in those ten days you could reduce your suffering for the decades ahead and improve your quality of life substantially? Would that be worth it?

For more details on Vipassana, and information on how to apply for a course, see my writing from my first Vipassana here.

Sitting in my room in Vipassana meditation. About half of my meditation time was spent in my room.

 

Sitting in the Vipassana meditation hall. Normally there would have been about 20 others meditating in the hall as well. This photo was taken after the Vipassana course ended.

 

Going for a short walk through the small patch of woods at the Vipassana center. Walking is encouraged during the morning, afternoon and evening breaks.

 

Hugging a tree, while not in meditation. Since practicing Vipassana, my loving connection to all life has grown.

A note on all photos: These photos were taken on day 11 after the Vipassana meditation was over, by the Dear Friend who picked me up to bring me home. There is no usage of phones or cameras during the Vipassana.

This Vipassana was at Dhamma Visuddhi in Menomonie, Wisconsin, December 13-24, 2023.

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