From September 19th-28th I attended a Silent Meditation Retreat in Menominee, Wisconsin and I wanted to share a completely honest account of what my experience there was like.
(Note: I hate proofreading so sorry for any typos)
So first of all… what is a Vipassana Meditation Retreat?
Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and is the meditation technique that was taught by the Buddha (although it’s important to note that the teachings and retreat are non-sectarian and people of all religions can attend). At the retreat, you learn how to practice this type of meditation along with 2 others through audio and video recordings of the late S. N. Goenka, who travelled around India in the 1900’s, making Vipassana available to millions of people.
During this 10-day retreat, you are required to follow a “Code of Discipline” which consists of many rules you must follow during your stay.
The first are the five precepts:
to abstain from killing any being;
to abstain from stealing;
to abstain from all sexual activity;
to abstain from telling lies;
to abstain from all intoxicants.
You must also discontinue all other forms of meditation, rituals, prayers, and religious ceremonies. You are not allowed to read, write, do exercise of any kind aside from walking and light stretching. You must wear modest clothing, remain segregated from opposite sex at all times, and are not allowed to have access to any electronic devices.
You also have to observe what is called “Noble Silence” until the morning of Day 10 of the course- which means no talking, no gestures, and no physical contact or eye contact with anyone. You are allowed to talk to the assistant teachers, the manager, and the food staff if necessary but the objective is to feel like you are working in isolation as much as possible.
So after listing all those things you can’t do, you might be wondering what it is you can do. That list is much shorter: sleep, eat, meditate (for 10 hours day), go to the bathroom, wash your hands, shower, hand wash clothes, walk, stretch, rest, change clothes, ask the assistant teacher questions about the technique… that’s about it. Basically, the only distraction you have is your mind- your thoughts. If you think that sounds horrible and boring and even maybe a bit scary- you’re definitely not the only one. I went into it fully expecting that I would at times want to quit, and I wasn’t wrong to expect that. I’m willing to bet almost all people want to quit at least once during the course, but if you have the willpower to stick it out, you can get amazing results!
You arrive the evening before the course starts between 3-5 p.m. (considered Day 0) and you leave the morning after it ends (Day 11) so there are 10 full days of the retreat. I got there around 4 and first thing we all had to do was fill out some paperwork and read through an information booklet, then hand over our cell phones or other electronics and valuables. After that we could just walk around, talk to people, or go to our rooms, unpack our stuff, and make our beds (which we were assigned) and then rest or sleep. I think I just laid in my bed (in my room there were 2 regular beds and one bunk bed, so room for 4 girls and I think there were around 20 girls total and likely the same number of guys). Then at 6 we had all had a meeting to discuss what the course would be like, at 7 we had bean soup for dinner, and at 8 we begun our noble silence as we entered the meditation hall for our first sitting.
Since the entire course is segregated by gender, there is a separate entrance to the hall for the men and women (as well as separate rooms in the dining hall for eating, separate residence halls, and separate ‘course boundaries’ for where we could walk around on our free time). As we came in, we took our shoes off and could grab some pillows and blankets for comfort, then we were assigned where to sit.
For some reason I had this idea that we’d all just be in this room with nothing but a little mat to sit on but tons of pillows and blankets were provided for us and chairs were provided for those we couldn’t sit cross-legged. In the first couple sittings most people experimented with different pillow set ups to find what worked best for them so by Day 2 or so, the meditation hall looked more like we were having a giant sleepover rather than meditating. I had a modest 4 pillows and 1 blanket but many people had double that. I wish I had pictures of what everything looked like but since you’re not allowed to have electronics, I couldn’t take any pictures so I will include a few pictures in here but they’re all just from the places website. Inside the meditation hall the guys sat on one side and the girls on the other with a few feet distance in between and the assistant teachers (1 male and 1 female in their 60’s maybe) sat in the front middle on low tables facing us. There were speakers and tvs on each side of the room, all the windows had thick curtains over them and there were just 4 little lamps hanging from the ceiling for light which gave the room a nice ambience.
Once we all got settled in, the assistant teachers began playing the first audio recording of the teacher (S. N. Goenka) which began with him chanting/singing and I’ll be honest, it was one of the worst things I’d ever heard. I don’t mean for that to sound disrespectful but I’m just telling you the thoughts that were running through my head as he was singing. If you don’t know what vocal fry is, look up a video of it on youtube and listen to it. This guy would do vocal fry at the end of his verses… on purpose. There’s absolutely no way he wasn’t aware that he was doing it because it was so obvious and so repetitive that I really don’t understand how it could have been an accident- but it just made his singing sound absolutely horrible. If you listen to the first 30 seconds of this video, you can get a pretty good idea of what it sounds like. And since he was chanting in Hindi, it’s not like anyone who doesn’t speak Hindi knows what he’s saying so I was never really clear on what the point of it was. Especially after the first meditation on Day 1 when I realized it wasn’t just a one time thing but that I was gonna have to listen to his signing over and over and over at the beginning and end of every sitting (meaning at least 8 times a day) for 5-20 minutes each time- I just couldn’t figure out how we benefitted from any of it. I don’t know if other people have the same reaction but I can’t imagine I was the only one who found it to be just a bit… odd.
But after the singing he would give instructions for what we were suppose to do for the sitting. As I said before, there are 3 types of meditation taught at the course, the first being Anapana. I’m not going to go into much detail about the techniques for any of them, I will just give a quick summary. When practicing Anapana, you want to keep your awareness in the area around the nostrils and on any sensations that arise there. On Day 5 you learn Vipassana which is where you move your attention through your body, and on Day 10 you learn Metta which is basically like loving kindness meditation. At the beginning of each meditation session, after the chanting, the teacher would explain the technique or new things that could be added to it which would usually last 1-20 minutes.
The sitting on Day 0 lasted until 9 o’clock, which after the teachers chanting at the end, he would tell us to “take rest” and we were allowed to head out to our rooms and then it was lights out at 10.
Days 1-9 all have the same schedule.
4 a.m. Wake Up!
This was not very fun but as you could have probably guessed, the retreat isn’t suppose to be fun. Luckily the first event of the day doesn’t start until 4:30 so you get a little time to wake up. But someone would go around with a gong before every group meditation and every meal and at 4 and 4:20 am and ding it to indicate that it was time to do whatever we needed to do.
4:20 Actually Wake Up
My roomates and I discovered on Day 1 that it was absolutely pointless to get up after the first bell because unless you’re showering, no one needs 30 minutes to go to the bathroom, wash their face, and change their clothes. So in the next few days after that none of us moved until the second bell. Day 5 we somehow all missed both bells and didn’t wake up until the breakfast bell at 6:30. Same thing happened again on Day 7. It was really quite weird because the gong was rung right outside of all of our doors and for all 4 of us not to hear it twice 20 minutes apart on two separate days, especially when, I don’t know about the rest of the girls- I forgot to ask- but I’m an extremely light sleeper. I’m such a light sleeper that I didn’t think it was even possible that I would miss a gong so when I woke up the morning of Day 5 and the clock said 6:30 instead of 4 or 4:20, I seriously thought one of the girls had set it ahead for whatever strange reason.
Another interesting thing is that I never take naps, it’s almost impossible for me to take on so since I was about 3, I’ve only been able to take about 1 a year and it has to be when I’m sick or extremely sad and upset… but I’m pretty sure I fell asleep during the day every single day I was there. I had this idea before going that since all we’re doing all day is sitting, I would have so much energy, but it was the complete opposite. I was so exhausted that I took naps and became a heavy sleeper for 10 days which I never thought was possible.
Anyways, Days 6, 8, 9, and 10, myself and at least 1 or 2 other roomates slept in until breakfast as well but those days out of choice, which you’re not suppose to do but I think others do it as well and quite honestly I was so tired and I didn’t feel like it was really gonna hurt to miss 2/10 of my meditation hours.
4:30-6:30 Meditate in the hall or your room
There were a few times throughout the day when you could choose where you wanted to meditate and I always chose my room when I had that option because then I could sit in a chair or on my bed or lay on my bed but other people were taking their experience probably more seriously then I was or just liked being in the hall so not everyone went to their rooms. Or some people would go sometimes but not others, or would go for part of the time and come back for the rest or vice versa. 2 hours of meditation, in my opinion, is a lot easier when you can move from one place to another in your room versus having to be super still in the hall.
6:30-8 Breakfast Break
Breakfast was always the same (keep in mind these options would obviously be different for other locations) oatmeal, this cooked fig stuff to put on the oatmeal, gluten free chex, plain corn flakes, and some granola-looking cereal, rice milk, soy milk, regular milk, yogurt, bananas, oranges, apples, raisins, bread, butter, jam, peanut butter, tea, coffee, water.
The meals are always vegetarian so it’s very easy for a vegan to find options, as well as anyone with food allergies like gluten, soy, etc so the breakfast options are probably pretty good for most people, expect me of course. I am by no means a picky eater, I can think of 4 foods I dislike: mushrooms, licorice, tea, coffee. So two of those are drinks, one they’re not going to serve, and the other they’re not going to serve for breakfast (I did have to suck it up and eat mushrooms in a soup they had once but I’m use to that because I swear every restaurant that only has one vegan option has to put mushrooms in it and it’s not ok). But my problem is that I can’t eat sweet foods for breakfast without feeling nauseous and the worst of the worst for me is oatmeal. So you know what I decided to eat the first day? Oatmeal. I’m very intelligent as you can tell.
I went through a period in my life (9th + 10th grade) where I ate oatmeal probably 340 days a year- to the point where I wanted to throw up every time I ate it because I’d eaten it so much that it became repulsive. I have eaten it a few times since then and there was one time where I was fine.. so back to the retreat, I figured it was my best, most filling option to go with the oatmeal because the most fun part of the retreat is you don’t get dinner. So I knew I was going to be starving if I didn’t eat something filling. So I somberly ate my oatmeal and fig stuff and by 7:30 I felt nauseous and wanted to quit lol. Luckily the feeling went away and I was fine for the rest of the day. The next morning I had oatmeal again. Yes. I’m that stupid. I didn’t feel as bad but I felt bad enough to realize I need to eat something else. So for the next few days I somberly ate chex mix with rice milk and then to get a little bit of variety in there I somberly ate corn flakes with rice milk on the last few days. Breakfast was a very somber time but was not as bad as the post-lunch depression.. but I’m getting ahead of myself.
After you were finished eating, you washed your dishes and then had free time until 8. You could walk around or sit outside, shower, do laundry on the later days, or just rest/sleep.
8-9 Group Meditation in the Hall
For the group sittings, everyone was required to be in the hall and stay there the whole time, you could only leave if it was an emergency like you had a bloody nose or were gonna throw up I suppose (like I did on the first day when it was exactly 8 and I was just putting my shoes on to leave cuz I felt sick and the female manager was just walking in, asked me where I was going, I told her, and she basically just told me to hurry it up.)
9-11 Meditate in hall or your room according to teachers instructions
That would usually mean there would be some instructions from the teacher after his chanting then the assistant teachers would call people up 5 at a time and quietly ask questions to them to gauge their progress and help them with any short questions they may have and after they’ve gone through everyone we were allowed to stay or leave (usually around 10). It was kind of odd because the teachers would just get up and walk out without saying a word and you were just suppose to know that that meant you could leave I guess.
Also I should mention that during the times where there was back to back meditations, you were given 5-10 minutes to get up, go outside, walk around, stretch, get some water, and go to the bathroom if you wanted.
Lunch was usually pretty good. There was a few different dasy where we had soup, there were soy sloppy joes, some kind of taco casserole (or it might have been pumpkin, I couldn’t quite figure it out), tofu steak, white and brown rice most days, salad with many different veggie toppings to choose from everyday, dressings, and other things I don’t remember. There were 3 days where they had dessert (apple crisp and some choclate brownie looking stuff). They are suppose to put out menus telling the allergens in each thing but they didn’t until around Day 5 after somebody reminded them to, but it was still easy to tell which items were vegan so it wasn’t an issue for me.
12-1 Private Questions with the Assistant Teacher
I never had any but if you did you could sign up for it. Otherwise once you were done with lunch you could do the same things that you could after breakfast. I would always sit outside for a little bit then go in and sleep or just lie there and think about how the only thing I was going to be able to eat until 6:30 the next morning was a couple pieces of fruit. It was really quite sad.
1-2:15 Meditate in the hall or your room
2:30-3:30 Group Meditation
3:30-5 Meditate in hall or your room according to teachers instructions
This time the teacher would talk on his recording for a long time then after he was done we could leave or stay (usually ended up being around 4)
5-6 Tea Break
New students (ones who’d never taken a course before) were allowed to have fruit along with their tea (apples, bananas, oranges, and on two days watermelon) but old students (those who’ve already completed a course) could only have tea. In my opinion, while that is food, it does not count as dinner.. So you may be wondering why they don’t feed you dinner. I wondered that too, very hangrily for the time I was there. The only explanation I could find was from this reddit post which basically says it’s suppose to help with the meditation but from my experience it did not. The first few days I was so hangry that I rarely cared to even try meditating because I just wanted to think of anything that would make the time go faster until I was out of there. But at the same time, my stomach didn’t even growl until Day 5 which I found to be strange. And even then it growled about once or twice before lunch each day after and that was it. I think I was mostly unsatisfied and unsatiated compared to just being hungry. And also, as time went on I felt less hungry, so much so that on the 2 hour drive back home I had gotten one of those small pringles cans from the gas station and wasn’t even hungry enough to finish it before I got home. I estimate that I was probably eating 1000-1500 calories a day compared to my normal 2500. I’m pretty sure I lost at least a pound or two. But again after you ate you could do the same things as the previous breaks.
6-7 Group Meditation
7-8:30 Evening Discourse
This was the most enjoyable part of the retreat... the course isn’t exactly suppose to be fun- it’s kind of suppose to be unpleasant- but the discourse was the closest thing we had to ‘entertainment’ the whole time and the teacher is a really good speaker and added a lot of humor and fun stories into the talks. We weren’t allowed to talk but we could laugh so it was kind of a fun hour and a half.
8:30-9 Group Meditation
9-9:30 Group Questions
You could stay in the hall and ask questions or listen to other people’s questions or you could leave and go to bed. I didn’t realize many people stayed until the second to last day when I was the only one who left right away so on Day 10 I stayed and it was actually kind of interesting to listen other people’s questions.
9-10 Get ready for Bed
You could shower at this time or just hop right into bed.
10pm lights out.
I’ve obviously already shared details of a large portion of my experience- probably way more than anyone cares about but oh well.
Like I said, Day 10 we could talk after 10am and the schedule was a tiny bit different, we even got a very light dinner of rice and popcorn. During that time I got to meet a few different people and what was really interesting was that I assumed that most people would be from an area within a couple hour drive radius of Menominee but there were people from all over the country there. My roomates lived in New York City, Boulder, and one girl was from the Czech Republic but living in Green Bay for a few months. Others were from Omaha, Miami, Pennsylvania, Manitoba, California, one guy had a South African accent, another girl had just spent a few years in the peace corps in South Africa and south Korea, a few from the Minneapolis area (about an hour from Menominee) but other than them I think I was maybe the only one from the Wisconsin/Minnesota area.
I also leanred that it seemed like everyone thinks about quitting at one point of another, and 3 girls did quit on Day 5, 6, and 7, don’t know about the guys since it’s segregated. After my initial wanting to quit right in the morning of Day 1, I actually didn’t even think of it anymore for the rest of the time. I think I just realized that it was only 10 days of my entire life and taking it one day at a time really helped, but it definitely is a very mentally tough experience and everyone is bound to have negative emotions come up and feel angry or sad from time to time or very often. The biggest annoyances for me was, as petty as it sounds, the teachers songs hahah, and the lack of food. But for whatever reason, (maybe it was because I wasn’t as hungry and learned to block out his singing) by days 9 and 10 I actually started to feel like I’d maybe do one again the the future. They have shorter ones that only old students can go to (1, 2, and 3 days) so I think those would be a lot less intimidating but I might also be open to doing another 10 day one.
Why Would Anyone Want To Do This?
Everyone has their own reasons, maybe wanting to destress, be free from distractions and technology for a while, become a more peaceful person, in my case I wanted to gain clarity in life. The theory behind the form of meditation though is that it is the way/the path to enlightenment/liberation/a state where you’re free from your miseries. I don’t think most people attend them really caring about that aspect of it but the process of observing your breathing and the sensations on your body is that you’re suppose to learn how to better observe them objectively without reacting. So when you feel an unpleasant sensation while meditating like pain or an itch, youre suppose to do your best not to react and just to observe the sensation. Which is really hard of course- there was only two times while meditating where I didn’t pick up my hand to itch somewhere which was a huge improvement to the beginning where I would scratch or adjust how I was sitting like every minute. And then also when you have a pleasant sensation you’re not suppose to become attached to it or start craving it. And this is suppose to help you react less emotionally or mentally to situations in life therefore bringing more peace and harmony into your life.
It’s an experience that you have to go into wanting to do it and knowing that it’s not going to be fun, it’s going to be difficult, you’re going to have unpleasant things come up and you’re going to wish you’d never signed up for this stupid retreat.. and then by the end you’re gonna feel very accomplished and hopefully more peaceful and also maybe like you’ve discovered something life changing. That’s how I felt and, like I said, I didn’t even spend that much of that time actually meditating lol.
Something that makes the courses very unique is that all vipassana rereats all across the world are completely free and are sustained solely on donations and everyone who works or volunteers at a center is not paid. Because of that, in my opinion, you know that everyone there is genuine. The assistant teachers and managers aren’t motivated by money. The servers/people who make the food are all old students who are volunterring their time. You are only allowed to donate after you’ve completed a course and you’re suppose to do so with the intention that your donation is not to pay for your stay but rather to give a future student the opportunity to attend a course.
In a way, it’s nothing like a retreat but you can get so much more out of it than any $2000 week long retreat in the tropics. It’s a difficult but rewarding experience that, if used correctly, can only change your life for the better and bring you far more peace and happiness than you’ve ever had.
I would recommend doing this only if and when you feel the calling to. I would love to hear your stories if you’ve ever done a course or please let me know if you have any questions about my experience.