Second Time at a Goenka Vipassana Meditation Retreat
I came back from my second 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat a few weeks ago. If you haven’t already, I suggest you read my first experience before this one. It is more thorough, describes what the technique is, what each day schedule is, what the theory behind it is and much more. This post will focus on what I experienced during the second retreat as well as how it has enabled me to change myself.
I found my first experience to be highly beneficial on many levels, that I decided to go back to go deeper into my practice. I also viewed the retreat as a personal challenge.
Although most people assume that the second meditation retreat should be easier than the first one, it isn’t so. Of course, some aspects of the practice, such as finding an appropriate meditation position and feeling sensations throughout the body, do get easier with time. This is simply due to the fact that by the time of their second retreat, most students have practiced regularly and are now much more familiar with the technique. However, as you progress on this path, new challenges continuously arise and keep pushing you out of your comfort zone.
As an old student, additional rules applied to me. The major one was not being allowed to eat after noon, which is a rule all Buddhist monks apply in their daily lives. On the first day, I found this rule to be a bit hard to follow since I’m used to eating relatively large dinners but my body quickly adapted and soon enough, I had no desire to eat after lunch. I also saw for myself that it was much easier to meditate with an empty stomach than with a full stomach. On my first retreat, I too often ate large quantities of food at meal times and as a result, it was much harder to stay awake and focused during meditation hours.
Also, as old students, we were given some specific set of instructions to guide our meditation. In fact, we were allowed much more freedom than on the first retreat, since we already had a reasonable amount of experience with the technique. We weren’t held back by the “step-by-step” approach taught to new students. The daily discourse, however, is the same for old students as it is for new ones. Although this may seem redundant, the discourses are very dense and fairly long (about 80 to 90 minutes each) and I understood a great deal more this time that in my first retreat. I have no doubt the same will happen on my third attempt. You definitely can’t fully retain the massive amount of information in one 10-day retreat!
During the meditations themselves, I got a fair deal of interesting experiences, both “pleasant” and “unpleasant”, although this distinction is rather meaningless in Vipassana meditation, as you must be equanimous and non-judgmental. I had experiences where I felt like my body dissolved completely, feelings of intense peace and presence and feelings of incredible sensitivity and connectedness to everything that surrounded me. On the flip-side, at times I experienced a considerable amount of physical pain as well as feelings of anxiety and agitation (especially in the first few days of the retreat). I also, on multiple occasions, I “heard voices” when I was meditating deeply. I feel like this was caused by the fact that I was getting in touch with subtler and subtler experiences as my mind was getting sharpened by the practice. I also have had these experiences after the meditation retreat, when meditating on my own.
I also lucid dreamed like never before. Some of these dreams were truly mind-blowing by their clarity and “time-dilation”. Upon waking, I truly felt as if hours, if not days, had passed, even though it had only been 20 minutes. In fact, at some point I was quite disorientated by the repeated false-awakening and sleep paralysis experiences I got. One of my sleep paralysis episodes was actually quite scary, which happens pretty rarely to me nowadays. Here’s how it went :
Upon falling asleep, I briefly lost awareness but was brought back to consciousness by a feeling and atmosphere I associate with sleep paralysis. I opened my eyes and saw, right next to my bed, a weird looking and obscure shadow crawling on the floor. Obviously, since I was in a sleep paralysis, I couldn’t move anything but my eyes so I couldn’t really take a closer look. The weird entity slowly crawled up the side of my bed, looking at me and touching me in a very unpleasant and violent way. I identified the shadow as a girl/woman and she proceeded to whisper some incomprehensible yet threatening words very close to my ear. I usually have an easy time just closing my eyes and ignoring whatever happens during a sleep paralysis episode but this was really overwhelming. The “thing” then began to violently shake me while shouting at me and I felt like I was getting thrown on the walls. I felt absolutely powerless. What I then did was quite interesting, I started meditating and did a meditation called “metta” which focuses on compassion. I aimed the compassion at the “creature” and woke up pretty much instantly. I was left pretty shaken up by this episode and it took me a while to fall back asleep. Nevertheless, I find it quite interesting that the sleep paralysis ended right when I started meditating.
The after-effects of this meditation retreat were deeper than in my previous retreat. I feel like I’ve understood and experienced a great deal more, which changed the way I see the world in a significant way. I am much more “in the moment”, which is a feeling well described by Eckhart Tolle in his books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth“. Most of the time, I quickly notice when I am getting into negative or irrelevant thought processes and come out of them easily. I feel like “presence” is slowly becoming my default state of being as opposed to ceaseless thinking. My mind is also much calmer and I’m more aware of everything as it happens, including sensations in my body.
I am also more confident about life, I feel like whatever happens on the outside, everything’s going to be fine. I know that what truly matters is my state of mind, not external circumstances. As a result, I react to events in a more detached way and can maintain peace of mind in most situations. This enables me to be much less reactive and to live in a much more authentic and uninfluenced way. This also causes me to be way less attached to material things. I truly feel like anything I own can break or get stolen without it mattering a whole lot to me.
Next, although I’ve been, in the past year, finding less and less value in intellectual pursuit, this retreat enabled me to fully see that it truly doesn’t represent anything to me anymore. Although I may still enjoy it as a pleasurable activity, I have stopped believing that accumulation of intellectual knowledge is anything more than a “game”. This strongly contrasts with how I used to think a few years back. As of now, I just feel like it creates excessive thinking, which makes it impossible for me to stay fully present and experience reality as it is. I feel like it’s not worth it as gets in the way of the strong feeling of peace I get when I stop thinking, labeling and judging. Although “not thinking” is not a practical possibility to live in the world, I now see thinking more as a “tool” than as an “end”. I try not to identify so much with it and to use it only when necessary, and then go back to “presence” as soon as possible. As a consequence, I am not interested in discussions about “people” or how about “doing this was right” and how “this person was wrong”, etc. I now see all of this as meaningless and a waste of time.
Finally, I find it easier to motivate myself to meditate regularly, as I see the benefits and results of my practice almost immediately. I can’t imagine going back to my old states of mind and thought patterns!
If you want to read a thorough testimonial of my first Vipassana experience, you can read it here : my first Vipassana meditation retreat.
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