Toughest, Most Difficult Silent Meditation (Vipassana) Retreat Experience

I’d ran into a guy in India who told me about this Vipassana retreat he’d done. He told me it was super difficult but really great. You have to wake up at 4am everyday and meditate for 12 hours a day.  No phones, no reading, no talking, no writing, don’t even look other students in the eye.

Eager for real, transformative experiences, I signed up the first chance I got. It was a beautiful meditation retreat in between very small towns about an hour away from Amritsar, India.

Many students quit just a couple days in. It would prove to be the hardest, but also the most life-changing two weeks of my life.

***If you prefer reading to listening, here’s the transcript of this podcast***

Today, I’m going to share my story of my first meditation retreat. I was exploring several different meditation retreats, ranging from easy to challenging. I decided to start with the most difficult one, thinking it would be downhill from there and smooth sailing.

By ‘difficult,’ I mean meditation sessions lasting over 12 hours per day. No phones, no talking, no eye contact—just staring at the ground in complete silence. There were no books, magazines, or phones allowed, and we woke up at 4 AM.

This was the Vipassana meditation retreat, spanning 12 days, founded by a man named Goenka who discovered this meditation style in Myanmar while seeking the original teachings of the Buddha, pre-Buddhism as a religion.

He may have either become a monk or engaged in intense study during his time there. And he fell in love with it. He knew he needed to spread these teachings because they are the original teachings of the Buddha, originating within the first 400 years after Buddha’s death.

Goenka describes the original teachings as very pure. They don’t involve becoming a monk, building statues, creating golden images of the Buddha, or worshipping him as a deity. It was simply about teaching how to achieve enlightenment and how to meditate.

He also says that religions are essentially businesses, though not in a negative sense. What he means is that initially, when we have a teacher who tells us what we need to hear and shows us what we need to see, we receive true teachings.

However, over time, as teachings move away from the original teacher, they tend to focus on expansion.

To do that, it’s much easier to say to someone, ‘All you have to do is say these two prayers and you’re blessed,’ than it is to say, ‘Sit down for half an hour or an hour, close your eyes, and focus on your breath.’ People want that quick fix.

Unfortunately, we have a lazy impulse inside of us. So when a person sells us an easy, beautiful story, we’re very willing to buy it. Instead of giving people what they need, it’s about giving people what they want. That’s really what happens to any organization.

It’s about recruitment, expansion, and satisfying the customer. So Goenka was in search of this original teaching, and I think he was a business owner. Maybe he had some mental struggles or physical struggles. He discovered these original teachings.

It was so simple, so profound that he had to share it with the world and he created retreats around the world. They’re all free, donation-only, and they won’t even take your money until the end of the retreat, so you don’t feel like you’re giving money to something you don’t know. It’s very noble in that respect.

So I decided on this place because I wanted to get it out of the way. When I got there, they took our phones, books, everything, and gave us the schedule, which starts at 4 AM and goes until late evening, all meditation.

Except for meals and a one-hour video we watch at night, which is just Goenka teaching early Buddhist philosophies. This place is really bare-bones; I had a very tiny bedroom shared with someone else, barely enough room to stand in. If we were both standing, we couldn’t get to the bathroom, so someone would have to be on the bed. It was so small, very bare-bones, almost felt like a prison.

You’re woken up at 4 AM and marched into the meditation hall; they’ll tap you on the shoulder every time you look like you’re dozing off or slouching. I will say it was brutal.

The most incredible experience of my life, then transformative, insightful, and mind-expanding. The first five or six days, I was in pure misery; my back was hurting so bad because they make you sit on the floor, cross-legged.

My back was screaming, and I, along with probably half of the students (there were about 30 of us), at one point or another, begged the meditation instructor to let us sit in a chair or against the wall. He said the same thing to everyone.

‘Were you in an accident?’ I said no. ‘Did you have back surgery?’ I said no. He said, ‘Then go sit on the floor.’

The only person he gave a chair to was a 100-year-old man who asked. Everyone else felt like a little pampered idiot for even asking when there was this guy who clearly deserved the chair.

Maybe I was strengthening my core muscles the whole time, or I don’t know if I suddenly released the stress causing my back pain. But on day six, my back pain just disappeared. I had no more back pain.

I’m positive that it was the stress of the first six days because something else happened on the seventh. Over the first six days, my mind was mostly saying, ‘This sucks,’ but it was also replaying every conversation I’ve ever had in my life.

Every song I knew was playing in my mind, and every movie I’ve ever seen, all the dialogue was running through my mind over and over again. My mind was grasping at something to think about in this place where there was nothing to think about. Food was prepared for us; we didn’t have to think about anything at all.

My thoughts were getting quieter and quieter until day seven. I couldn’t hear them at all; it was the weirdest feeling—not thinking. I couldn’t tell if I was thinking, but I couldn’t hear my thoughts anymore. That’s just what happens when you stop thinking; it’s a strange and incredibly peaceful feeling.

I was generating so much stress those first few days. In fact, probably about 10 people quit the retreat on days 2, 3, or 4 because it was so difficult, and my mind was screaming, ‘This is the worst! This sucks! I can’t wait until this is over. Get me out of here! Maybe I’ll just leave everything.’

I truly believe that my back pain was purely stress-related, and once I accepted the situation, my stress was gone. I was on cloud nine; I was in heaven. It was the greatest experience of my life up until that point; I’d never experienced such bliss and peace; I didn’t know it was possible.

The meditation was pretty simple; it was mostly breath meditation. Then, after we did breath meditation for a few days, we did body awareness meditation, where you scan your body very slowly. It takes about 10 minutes to go from the tip of your head to your toes, scanning every inch of your body and putting your attention at each place.

Then, going from your toes back to your head, you just do that over and over again all day. You’re really taking your consciousness out of your head, where it normally resides, and sending it through your body.

This is a beautiful practice because what happens is you become more aware; your awareness becomes expanded, and you naturally ascend to this higher consciousness because you’re conscious of so much more.

After meditating, even on your breath for days on end, 12 hours or more a day, you become heightened. You have a heightened awareness of all the subtleties of your breath. This translates to a heightened awareness of subtleties all around you. What you stare at all day, every day, suddenly has a richness and depth that you never noticed before—an infinite complexity and new beauty to the world.

I tell you, on day 12, I didn’t even want to leave; I was so happy. Also, at the end, when you finally get to talk to everyone and share everyone’s experiences, it’s so fun to return to the real world. Knowing that inner peace, everything you’ve ever done becomes more enjoyable, with full inner fulfillment and contentment.

When you’re completely content with whatever situation is in front of you, then good things are great, and great things are amazing. Everything is better; even challenging situations are viewed positively because we’re not relying on them for our happiness anymore.

The teachings by Goenka were so profound; it’s very much Buddhism but from before it became a religion.

So it was essentially purely the philosophy. You can almost call it psychotherapy of what the Buddha taught. I would call the Buddha really the first therapist or the first neuroscientist of the mind.

Because Buddhism really was the first science of the mind, in my opinion. In Buddhism, they observe the mind, which is the foundation of all scientific observation. They study, they test out a theory, such as a type of meditation, for example. They rigorously debate the philosophy or the meditation techniques. They refine it, improve it, and test it again.

Observe it, refine it, test it—this is pretty much the several thousand-year-old scientific process that makes Buddhists so far advanced when it comes to understanding the nature of the mind, suffering, and our reality. This is why scientists have said to the Dalai Lama,

‘I can’t believe you all figured out these quantum principles without electron microscopes,’ to which the Dalai Lama responded, ‘I can’t believe you all figured it out without meditation.’ There’s so much common ground.

It’s why the Dalai Lama is also a scientist, and it’s why quantum mechanics and neuroscience are all catching up to what the Buddhists have known all along. Some of those philosophies that Goenka would teach in his videos that we watched were that essentially all suffering comes down to attachment.

We know that everything is temporary, but because we don’t see things decay with our own eyes, because we can’t speed time up enough in our minds to really perceive decay and what looks like solid things transforming, we fall for the illusion of permanence.

When we become attached to an impermanent thing, naturally, suffering occurs, and under this law of attachment is this constant craving for pleasure and avoiding pain that drives all human beings, all animals, really. We think that our happiness comes from pleasure and avoiding pain.

This is a fallacy, according to early Buddhist philosophy. According to what we experience in our own lives, the truth of the matter is that pleasure leads to pain because we are always chasing it. It’s always disrupting our inner peace. We’re always trying to find something outside of us to bring us lasting happiness.

But a chocolate cake is only good for a few seconds when it’s in your mouth, that first bite, and we take another bite. But if we keep chasing that pleasure, soon, we’ll have a stomach ache, and we’ll feel terrible. And we’re just chasing that pleasure, but it leads to pain.
Similarly, we avoid pain because we can’t avoid pain your whole life. When we think our happiness is tied to avoiding pain, we inevitably experience immense suffering when that pain arrives because we have created in our minds this expectation that it must be avoided.

But the reality of our lives is that life changes; it goes up and it goes down. If our inner peace and inner joy are not there, we will continue to seek pleasure and keep being disappointed when we realize that these are not sources of lasting happiness.

In meditation, you learn these experiences firsthand. We learn the knowledge from Goenka’s videos, but in the meditation practice, we understand it on the deepest level because we experience it. I would notice negative thoughts, then I would notice a minute later they’re gone; I am onto something else. There are no more negative thoughts. Then I noticed a minute later they come back.

The more you just observe this constantly changing nature of reality, the more you understand there is only impermanence. As you notice the back pain come and go and come and go, as you notice little itches come and go without even needing to scratch them, everything changes.

Meditation is a microcosm of life where you can perceive this and really get it on a deep level. It’s one thing to just be told and to know, but it’s another thing to understand it on a gut level, where every atom of your being understands this, and you don’t get attached to pleasant situations that will inevitably change.

There becomes this absence of grief and loss and only joy and vibrancy because everything is beautiful, different, and changing. So that was my experience at this incredible place. I’ve never seen another place like it; I’d love to do it again, and I can’t recommend it enough.

On day 12, I was definitely thrilled to leave, but I was also excited to bring the lessons that I had learned with me and that new state of mind as a catalyst for continuing my meditation practice. So if you get the chance, check it out. I believe the website is You’ve got nothing to lose because it’s free. Check it out; hope you love it.

That was my experience at the most difficult yet most beneficial meditation retreat, and my first meditation retreat.

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