Recently, I attended a nine-day Vipassana silent retreat, and I’d like to share my experience with you. Firstly, my perspective is limited. I’ll describe the organization and activities of the retreat I attended, but I can’t compare it to others. My insights stem from a 2,500-year-old tradition, so while they are genuine and fresh, it’s advisable not to rely solely on my experience. That said, if you can set aside nine or ten days from the modern way of life to immerse yourself in such an experience, I highly recommend it.
Vipassana is a meditation technique founded by Gautama Buddha Siddhartha around 2,500 years ago. It was embraced by what later evolved into the Buddhist tradition, and it was passed down orally for many years. The practice remained mainly in regions like Tibet, India, and present-day Bangladesh — where Buddhism was prevalent. About a century ago, it began to gain broader attention, particularly when Tibetan monks, fleeing China’s invasion and accompanying the Dalai Lama, began sharing their practices. By the mid-20th century, teachings were being translated from Sanskrit, the original language of the practice, into English and subsequently other languages. I’ll refrain from using too many Sanskrit terms.
Commitment is crucial. Throughout the silent retreat, participants don’t speak, read, write, use devices or even make eye contact. The aim is mental purification and enhancing concentration by eliminating distractions. Our group consisted of about 70 individuals, predominantly women, with about a dozen men. While we weren’t segregated, women and men were spatially separated during meals and meditation sessions. We were housed in a monastery in Northern Italy, sans monks, and enveloped in silence.
Our day began at 4 a.m. with meditation commencing half an hour later. After two hours of meditation, breakfast followed, then two more one-hour meditation sessions. Lunch was served at 11 a.m., which was the final meal of the day. Afternoon meditation resumed, punctuated by short breaks. The day concluded with a discourse, a last meditation session, and lights out by 9 p.m. The regimen, which sounds simple, demands sitting still for extended periods. If an itch or discomfort arises, it’s ignored. A guiding principle is to strive for your personal best without being self-punishing.
For the initial three days, the meditation focus was on Anapana — observing one’s breath and its sensation. Guided by two instructors, Edoardo, the founder of the Visione Profonda (“Deep Vision”) School and Mascia, his assistant, we learned to concentrate on breathing and to let go of arising thoughts and sensations. This technique emphasizes experiential learning over theoretical concepts. After three days, we shifted to Vipassana, which utilizes concentration skills developed during Anapana to observe sensations throughout the body.
The mental challenge is formidable. Stray thoughts can impede concentration, and physical distractions like an itch can be hard to ignore. At times, guidance from the instructor helps, but when left alone, maintaining focus becomes even more challenging.
My personal experiences during meditation were profound. I found parallels between Vipassana and my earlier psychedelic experiences with 5-MeO-DMT, derived from the Bufo Alvarius frog — a potent psychedelic. While the latter is brief and unconscious, Vipassana is prolonged and conscious, both revealing love as a fundamental reality. Alongside this realization were intense emotional experiences, memories, and even a sensation I can only describe as a “brain orgasm.”
As the retreat progressed, teachings became more intricate, introducing concepts like compassion, empathy, suffering, karma, and nirvana. Buddhism, at least as presented in the retreat, was free of religious overtones, focusing on practical insights and self-betterment.
Towards the end, a unique meditation session guided participants to perceive body parts not as familiar entities but as transient bundles of sensations — a perspective shift reminiscent of the film “The Matrix.”
After the final meditation session, the silence vow was lifted, and participants could converse. This was a remarkable transition — from knowing others merely by their footsteps or gestures during meals to sharing personal stories and experiences.
In conclusion, whether you’re a novice or experienced, the retreat is recommended.