Surviving Vipassana – a beginners guide

As I sit and sip my lassi on the busy streets of Varanassi, I hear the faint sounds of “Ram, Ram” being chanted. It is the sound of a funeral procession and before I realise it a corpse is floating down the tiny alleyway. Covered discreetly with colourful cloth and being carried on a bamboo stretcher, the body passes within 1 meter of my seat. By the time I finish my lassi, 5 more bodies have passed before me. This is India, this is life, and this is death. We can not avoid it, and like everything else in India it is in your face.  I have just spent 2 weeks meditating on impermanence and it is whilst sipping my lassi on the streets of Varanassi I finally get it – we are all going to die.


The lassi maker

The first day of my 2 week Vipassana (Insight Meditation Retreat) I find myself questioning my sanity – it has not even been a year since my last 10 day Vipassana which after I finished, was admittedly not on my list of things to do again, yet I find myself in Bodh Gaya, preparing for 14 days of silence and 100 hours of meditation. Crazy, maybe, but sometimes you have to be a little bit crazy to learn and stretch and grow. And I know the feeling of uncomfortability is simply my resistance arising so I set myself some ground rules and prepare for anything.

1. No expectations – one of the biggest learnings I have had with meditation is to not expect anything. Not labeling anything good or bad or right or wrong. Not trying to “get it” or see lights or have kundalini awaken or speak to God. Nope, just to sit down each time and see what arises. This proves invaluable when on day 5, 6, 7 and 8 when you can’t stay awake for some sessions.

2. Try, try and try again – each session is different, each session the mind shifts and changes. Each moment in fact is a different experience from the last. Let things arise and watch them pass (strangely enough if you watch sleepiness feelings they too will arise and pass). But keep trying no matter is happening or how you are feeling.

3. Everything is normal – I loved what the teacher said “In meditation, everything is normal, you might see things, you might not, you might get sleepy or restless you might not, everything is normal. Oh, unless you find yourself walking around with only a pair of socks, then maybe that is not normal”.

4. Acceptance – This links to 1 and 3 – simply accepting things as they are and not wanting them to be different is incredibly powerful. Accepting that there might be pain in my arse that feels like 10 000 needles, accepting that I feel like I have not slept in a week, accepting that I don’t see lights or spinning wheels or deities or anything else cool, accepting that the Hindu wedding will go for 5 days and the music/kaoroke is bloody awful, and accepting that I am here for 14 days and I can’t change that.

Sitting in silence for 2 weeks and spending 8 hours a day meditating is not everyone’s cup of tea. It is hard at times, it is refreshing at times, it is infuriating and invigorating and like nothing else you will ever experience. It is not complicated nor fancy, you sit and watch your breath to calm the mind and then observe how things change. Fortunately this retreat also had walking meditation which I can highly recommend as a practice for developing mindfulness, which I discovered is not my strength. Thich Naht Hahn has some great reads on how to develop this skill.

I would love to hear your survival tips to meditation retreats drop them in the comments section below – and what kind of retreat you have done or are thinking of doing. Or contact me directly if you have any questions. New to meditation? Check out my pre-recorded meditations you can access completely free. Happy meditating 🙂

5 thoughts on “Surviving Vipassana – a beginners guide

  • I was on a scrap of grass in the Kyoto hills and had identified an unimaginable number of different grass plants – what else was I to do in the moment between mediation?

    It was day 5 andI felt more bereaved than when dear family members had departed. I asked for a watch (as I had come to the mediation unburdened by a time piece and had found myself awake constantly awaiting the imminent gong). I was approached by one of staff and he handed me a plastic ¥100 digital watch. I was overwhelmed. It was a breaking point and I feared that I could not stand the burden of this deep isolation. I sought counsel with the leader, she seemed rather pleased with my state of misery “it ‘s all part of the process” she told me. So I made a deal with myself – that I would accept this for what it was – a life experience. And I would get through it. And I did. Mostly by recanting old episodes of Dr Who and Dynasty to myself. I may never be a Vipassna master but I know I can be with myself and have an amazing memory of shoulder shoulder pads and Darleks!

    • Awesome!!! I can see it now – I had sound tracks in my head. Last year I had the Akon Album (don’t ask) and this year it was only one song, one line from “Little Nicky” Prince…..don’t need to tell you which line it was. The mind is a funny thing.
      Thanks for sharing x

  • Hey Fleur,

    It’s yours truly. I have nothing of merit to contribute. My vippassana times are among the most radical decompressing, unpacking and discarding times. This isn’t to say there aren’t challenges from day to day, but I see retreats as the perfect environment to hone the skills or be honed by those abilities to go back into the world more vital, more available. That seems to make the challenges even more worthwhile.

    Dhammabodhi is such a great spot, too! Glad you made it there!

    Are you going to be around in November? I should be back in McLeod late that month.

    Much love,

    • Oh John, you have many things you can contribute! But I think you summed it up in the diversity of experience that Vipassana is and can be.
      We will be here in November so will look forward to seeing you in Cafe Budan 😉

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