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What I Learned from a 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

It was an experience I liken to a mental marathon, or a psychophysiological rollercoaster ride that was riddled with paradox—excruciating one minute, elating the next. 

By Tory Hoen, Illustrations by Yan Ruan

It was around 8:30am in late October of last year, and I was sitting in a meditation hall with roughly 100 other people, eyes closed, legs crossed, back singing with pain, tears streaming down my face, wanting to crawl out of my own body. But I was also feeling more alive, peaceful, and optimistic than I’ve felt in years. It was Day 7 of my 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, an experience I liken to a mental marathon, or a psychophysiological rollercoaster ride that was riddled with paradox—excruciating one minute, elating the next. 

Ultimately, it transformed me. But how the hell did I get there?

“I could never do that,” is the refrain I most often hear when I tell people about the retreat. It’s also the exact same thing I used to say—until I went and did it. 

I had heard a lot about the myriad, if sometimes elusive, benefits of meditation (decreased stress, increased focus, improved relationships, enlightenment…), and although I aspired to be a regular meditator, I just couldn’t stick with it. My mother repeatedly telling me I “just needed to meditate” felt like someone telling me to “just speak Icelandic.” I know that Icelandic is a language and that some people successfully speak it, but I couldn’t get a foothold. I didn’t know where the meditation path led, or even how to find the trailhead to that path. After years of unsuccessful attempts to establish a routine (via the Headspace app, various YouTube videos, sittings at the Brooklyn Zen Center, and even a spontaneous session with a monk at a monastery in Onomichi, Japan), I decided that a sink-or-swim immersive retreat would be my best chance at figuring out, once and for all, what all the meditative fuss was about. 

“I could never do that,” is the refrain I most often hear when I tell people about the retreat. It’s also the exact same thing I used to say—until I went and did it.

Of course, I didn’t actually want to do it, so I dipped a noncommittal toe in the water. In the spring of 2019, I added myself to the wait-list for a retreat taking place in October at the Dhamma Dharā Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, Massachusetts, assuming I wouldn’t actually end up going. (The stakes were low, because the retreats are free—paid for by donations from former students, of which I am now one—and since they book up way in advance, there is always someone eager to take your spot if you need to cancel.) By September, I had all but forgotten about my half-commitment when I got an email saying a spot had opened up. I felt a frisson of terror and immediately wrote back: “I have a scheduling conflict and can’t make it.” But then I sat on my couch, looked at my calendar, and realized that was a lie. My freelance schedule is flexible, and I had barely any conflicts during that particular 10-day window. It wasn’t a question of could I make it—but would I? It wasn’t a question of ability, but of will. I quickly sent a second email to secure my spot, and I spent the next few weeks telling everyone I was going,  so that I wouldn’t be tempted to back out. (My will has been known to waver.) 

A few friends asked, “Why are you doing this? And why now?” 

I had multiple answers to these questions. The simple answer: I was curious and wanted to explore meditation in a deeper way. The pragmatic answer: I’m working on a novel and wanted to improve my self-discipline when it came to my writing routine. The personal answer: I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety for the last few years and was cautiously optimistic that meditation might become a tool I could use to weather my ups and downs. And then there was the harder-to-articulate existential answer: I was feeling “stuck between selves,” as Joshua Rothman writes in his piece on navigating uncertainty. At 35, I’d spent the past few years in a state of transformation that had alternated between exultant (being part of MM.LaFleur’s founding team) and devastating (the death of my father, a major break-up or two). I was compelled by a sense of wanting to evolve into a stronger, wiser “me,” and I hoped meditation might somehow light the way. This retreat also concluded on the day of my 36th birthday, which felt like more than a coincidence. 

All that said, I tried to approach the experience without explicit expectations. My vague goal: to survive, and to feel different when I emerged

Vipassana is a specific type of meditation that claims to facilitate “the process of self-purification by introspection.” Rooted in Buddhist principles, it teaches you to “penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there.” 

Sounds good, but what does that mean? And how does it work?

This type of retreat is structured around 100 hours of meditation over 10 days (yes, that’s 10 hours a day). The wake-up bell rings at 4am, and lights-out is at 10pm. In between, you attend various group sittings and also meditate on your own. You eat two extremely healthy and delicious vegetarian meals a day (breakfast at 6:30am and lunch at 11am), and you can have tea and fruit at 5pm. That’s right—no dinner. (Which is actually not as traumatic as it sounds.) There’s also an elaborate code of conduct: no speaking, no eye contact, no technology (including phones), no reading, no writing, no listening to music, no exercise (although you can walk in the woods), no physical contact with others, no leaving the premises. And then of course, there are the five main Buddhist precepts: no stealing, no intoxicants, no sexual activity, no killing (not even bugs), and no lying (which is easy enough when you’re not allowed to speak).

Got it? It sounds hardcore, and it is—but not for the reasons I expected. It turns out, not talking and not having a phone are wonderful. Even forgoing wine was easy (this came as a great shock to me). The food was delicious, and two meals a day was totally sufficient. I missed my friends and family and cats (especially my cats), but I didn’t feel lonely. At all. 

This environment of “deprivation” is really just a means to eliminate sensory stimulation so that participants can turn their energy inwards and focus on the real task: being alone with their own thoughts for 10 days. And although it’s called a silent retreat, I quickly learned there is nothing silent about the echo chamber of my brain. 

All that said, I tried to approach the experience without explicit expectations. My vague goal: to survive, and to feel different when I emerged.

Over 10 days, we learned the Vipassana method, which involves slowly scanning one’s own body, tracking subtle physical sensations in order to develop equanimity (this is a word you’ll hear about 1,000 times if you do this retreat). If you have an itch? Don’t scratch it. Pain? Sit with it. A pleasant feeling? Don’t get attached to it. Whatever arises, acknowledge it, and then notice as it dissolves and gives way for something else. This method uses the body as a landscape in which to explore the fundamental truth that everything—from feelings to our lives—is fleeting. Throughout the week, onsite teachers were available to answer questions (you could have a five-minute conversation with a teacher once a day), and each night, we watched an hour-long video discourse by Burmese teacher S.N. Goenka, which helped tie our meditation experience to larger Buddhist principles and life lessons.

Time has never moved so slowly. Without the distraction of my phone and my friends and my daily routine, I rediscovered a type of aimless boredom I haven’t felt since childhood. (During one brief walk in the woods, I made prolonged eye contact with a garter snake. Another day, I staged an elaborate but secretive burial ceremony for a dead caterpillar.) Some days, I felt exultant: alive, awake, astonished by the beauty of life, in love with my friends, proud of myself, compassionate toward all. Other days, I felt dreadful: restless, agitated, defeated, frustrated, self-loathing, stuck, stagnant, and completely “over it.” 

These vicissitudes are part of the reason the retreat lasts 10 days: Learning to ride those waves is part of the process. In persistently quieting your mind and coming back to your bodily sensations, you learn patience and tolerance. You challenge your thought patterns and, slowly but surely, rewire your neural pathways. 

Although the meditation hall echoed with subtle sniffles throughout the retreat, I didn’t burst an emotional pipe until the morning of Day 7, when the mental excavation I’d been doing (combined with the physical exertion of constant meditation) broke me open. Suddenly, I was able to look at certain elements of my life in relief: specific relationships, buried memories, festering emotional wounds that are normally too scary to even address. It came up like a geyser, and then it all started to float away. I felt lighter and less scared. Not long after, all of my physical soreness and discomfort dissipated, and I felt lithe and liberated. That evening, during a particularly deep meditation session, I felt my body disintegrate into particles. I was just a blob of pure radiant energy floating, freely, in the universe. 

Yes, I thought. This is what I came here for. But that’s the catch: you can’t get attached to your breakthroughs. They may happen or they may not—and you have to embrace either scenario with…equanimity. 

By the end of the retreat, I had mined some of my scariest mental depths, and I was still alive. More than that, I was thriving. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to myself—to my childhood self, to my current self, to my future self. To my many, many selves—both expressed and dormant. Meditation had created space for all of them to surface and coexist, no longer in conflict but in harmony. It turns out, I’m just an infinite swirl of identities that are constantly changing, bumping up against one another, fading in and out. Can you relate?

For me, Vipassana meditation was that ineffable thing I’d been seeking—that door to a new world, or the path to my next self. And though it all sounds very woo-woo, it’s also pragmatic: it felt like gaining a new skill or learning a new language that has enabled me to function more effectively in the culture I inhabit. In short: I learned how to blow my own mind, and to journey so deeply into myself that, when I reemerged, everything looked different. 

The retreat ended on my 36th birthday, and I really did feel reborn. When I got back to New York, people noticed: my mom said my voice sounded different on the phone; my therapist said I seemed more open; my friends said I looked different and had a different aura; the guy I was dating said I was more affectionate; and one friend asked me if I’d joined a cult. Another exciting after-shock: my writer’s block lifted, and in the three months since my retreat, I completed the first draft of my novel.

But whatever meditation does or does not “deliver,” it’s not a means to an end. Rather, it’s a tool for life maintenance. And while I do feel different (I had an emotional growth spurt, and I genuinely think my posture improved), the world around me has not changed. The future is as uncertain and challenge-laden as ever, but now, I have a practice that can help me navigate the good, the bad, and the ambiguous with a sense of equanimity and peace.

I also gained something totally unexpected from the retreat: new conviction that I am my own best friend and greatest champion, and that as long as I continue to cultivate that relationship with myself, I will be just fine.  

I used to assume that my life was building towards visible achievements and markers of ‘success’: getting published, getting married, having children, etc. And I used to look for external validation—Am I smart? Pretty? Cool? Did I do that thing well? Do you like me?—around every corner. Now I can answer those questions on my own, and I feel at home with myself in a way that feels new. What is that?! Self-acceptance? Peace? A personal revolution? I don’t have a name for it, but I know this: to have arrived at this place is my greatest achievement so far. 

Written By

Tory Hoen

Tory Hoen is the author of the novel The Arc. She spent five years as the Creative Director of Brand at M.M.LaFleur (where she founded The M Dash!) and has written for New York Magazine, Vogue Fortune, Bon Appétit, and Condé Nast Traveler.

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