“Meditation bootcamp” is how I would describe this harrowing and profound ten-day meditation retreat. Conducted by the Buddhist Vipassana centre in Woori Yallock (approximately 60 Kilometres from Melbourne) this retreat is definitely not for the fainthearted.
Participants are woken at 4am each morning and must present themselves for chanting and meditation in the hall by 4.30am. Breakfast is at 6am and a relentless series of meditation sessions and recorded talks by Vipassana’s spiritual teacher, G.S Goenka, ensue until lights out at 9.30pm. What’s more, the whole thing starts again the following day. Oh, and did I mention you are required to keep silent for the entire time?
Why would anyone subject themselves to this rigorous and demanding retreat? In my case, I chose to do this from an urgent need to deepen and extend my meditation practice. I had attended excellent three-day retreats at the Gawler Foundation in the Yarra Valley, but I needed something that would push me to the limit. I wasn’t disappointed.
Suddenly, you are faced with elements of yourself you would rather avoid and this extraordinary situation is amplified because no reading material or entertainment of any kind is allowed. With no familiar distractions or comforts you are left entirely to your own inner world and its tedious array of past hurts, repetitive thoughts and endless replays of prior events and imaginary scenes. What soon becomes obvious is the degree of dysfunction inherent in the human mind. This comes as an unpleasant shock, and you have ten interminable days to wrestle it to the ground.
The most common question I am asked is, “What’s it like not to speak to other people for ten days?” I usually reply that this is the easy bit. Compared to all the sitting, two meals a day and the 4am wakeup bell, staying quiet is relatively simple. It actually becomes agreeable to “be” with people rather than feeling you have to be interesting or entertaining. You don’t have to be anything other than a physical presence, quiet and still. You also find the simplest gestures from others very important. One participant told me that my briefly sheltering her with an umbrella one wet night meant a huge amount and helped her get through the last harrowing days.
If you manage to last the course, you will never be the same. In my case, I have retained an underlying sense of peace and stillness that has never left. This is not to say that anxiety, anger and worry have disappeared from my life. However, what I now observe is a stillness underneath these intense feelings that allows a certain detachment from powerful emotions. The benefits have been so startling I now meditate for one hour every day, without compromise. Where once my meditation was a battle with aching back, leg cramps and general restlessness, it is now calm and still.
This retreat is for those willing to endure ten days of silence, early rising, demanding meditation sessions and two meals a day. It will possibly be the hardest thing you have ever done but, quite likely, the most profoundly life-changing event you can imagine.
Vipassana is uncompromising and utterly genuine in its intent to help you break free from habitual mind patterns and unhelpful habits. It seeks to clarify the ways in which the mind – with its ceaseless chatter and skewed perceptions – inhibits us from seeing the true nature of the world and each other. If you are serious about breaking free from your “monkey mind”, then this retreat is for you. You have been warned…
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About the author
Claire Bell is the health and wellbeing editor of Midlifexpress. She is the author of Stone Age Secrets for Mind and Body and Comma Magic. Print and ebooks available on Amazon.