I’m pretty sure ANYONE - literally anyone can experience a breakthrough with meditation after 10 DAYS of silence and 10 HOURS of meditation every day.
I used to meditate for a maximum of about 30 minutes here and there when I felt like it, you know on apps and YouTube (the guided meditations to help you sleep, meet your spirit guides or do past life regression and things) but being a wellness coach on a cruise ship, I felt like I should be better at meditation somehow.
So, with a huge question of sanity, I decided to apply for a 10-day silent meditation course (which in my defense had been recommended to me by 3 of my closest friends).
I had been thinking about doing a Vipassana for about 5 years, but honestly when has anyone got 10 days to spare? So when my next contract on the ship got postponed I thought - ‘it’s a sign Emily, just go’.
I applied and was accepted on the course. Here's my very honest experience of what happened...
I arrived at the Dhamma Atala Retreat Center in the beautiful mountains of Tuscany, Italy - thinking ‘this is gonna be amazing - living in the middle of nature with nothing but time for myself.’ Ha. Around 20 women and 20 men checked into the course with me, they were mostly aged around 20-30, we chatted, and signed our lives away; giving in our phones, wallets, and any other ‘prohibited’ items we had to one of the course leaders.
We received a small paper booklet of the MANY RULES, which consisted of; no talking, no phones, no cameras, no reading, no writing, no exercise, no music, no killing, no alcohol, no physical contact, no drugs, no smoking, no tight clothes, no moving during ‘sittings of strong determination’ and no lying or stealing.
What on earth is this place? What are we supposed to do for 10 days then?
I was assigned to a room with 3 other women where we each had just a single bed, a shelf, and a blanket (you have to bring your own pillowcase, towel, and bedsheets.) The girls were amazing; an Italian yoga teacher, a hilarious office worker, and a fun hippie woman from Germany.
The first gong rang at 5 pm which meant dinner and on the menu was green vegetable soup with bread. We were all chatting and eating together and talking about what the hell we were about to do. Again the gong rang at 6, this time we got summoned to the mediation hall up the hill, it was all very serious. The hall was a cold wooden building with stacks of cushions and blankets at the entrance. We lined up and were assigned our meditation places for the course which consisted of 2 square cushions and a blanket on the floor with women on the right and men on the left.
We sat down in our rows quietly and a large older man walked in, it was Simone our teacher for the course. He sat right in the front on a white podium, and covering himself with a white robe, announced that ‘noble silence’ had begun. ARGH. He then pressed play on the questionable stereo next to him and I WILL NEVER FORGET what happened next...
A sound burst through the silence of what I can only describe as a very large goat dying an extremely painful death, the deep male Indian voice started to ‘chant’ for what seemed like the longest half an hour of my entire life. Every hair was standing up on end, my body was cringing at the sound, (later I found out that my roommate had to run out to throw up) the vibration of the ‘noise’ was immense. That’s the exact moment I asked myself - what the f am I doing here. I was officially in a weird meditation prison.
THE DAILY SCHEDULE
Day 1 was the longest. day. EVER.
We were woken up at 4 am for MEDITATION by the gong (yes every day) and within 20 minutes had to be in the meditation hall. Simone arrived and played the half an hour death chant to us again.
6:30 am meant BREAKFAST. There was porridge, a warm compote fruit drink of apples, raisins, and dates (which tasted like mulled wine), fruit, yogurt, cereals, fresh bread (which for some reason in Italy is really dry), jam, tea, and COFFEE thank god. We all served ourselves and had to sit facing the wall (you are not allowed to make eye contact or talk with anyone) so naturally, I started remembering songs in my head and dancing inside because what else to do whilst having breakfast with no music, watching, scrolling or listening?
The men were separated from the women with a curtain and we didn’t see them again in the dining room until the last day. After breakfast, we all lined up politely to wash our plates, and then came my favorite time of day - FREE TIME (where naturally we all went back to sleep)
8 am was the first GROUP MEDITATION in the hall, so crawling out of bed we all went up to our places and the dreaded chanting started again. I still have no idea what he was saying but I hated every second of it. The instructions that followed were in English and then Italian - it was fun to listen to the Italian words and try and translate them.
9 am meant another MEDITATION marathon in the hall or in our rooms so of course most of us went back to our beds to ‘meditate’. These hours sometimes consisted of secret stretching and yoga sessions in our room and random escape walks to pass the time. If you were caught doing anything on the list you had a warning that you were to be kicked off the course.
Although one day our room did break ‘noble silence’ and we got in serious trouble. It all started with us making eye contact and then we just burst out laughing because the whole experience was just so abnormal and insane.
11 am was LUNCH which was always really amazing vegan food consisting of rice, pizza or pasta, beans, lentils, roasted vegetables, soup, bread, salad, and OCCASIONALLY we had a dessert; apple crumble, chocolate brownie, or rice pudding. I remember taking my coffee up to the grass area after lunch and being like what the hell do I do now, there was NOTHING to do, only walk around a certain area and sit on the hill or on a tree stump and be with yourself totally. I found some broken bits of tile and started decorating a tree stump in a mosaic style thinking to myself I’m officially a mad hippie right now.
12 pm meant it was time for INTERVIEWS WITH THE TEACHER where you could speak with Simone for 5 minutes, I don’t think anyone went on the first day (it was a totally different story by day 5 though).
1 pm was MEDITATION again in your room or the hall, only about half of the people ever went to the hall, so it was nice and quiet at that time.
2:30 pm was another GROUP MEDITATION in the hall; these sessions at the start almost killed me because everyone would be making noises; shuffling around and sniffing and coughing and I was far from zen at that point.
3:30 pm we were supposed to MEDITATE again in our rooms or the hall, I stayed in the hall mostly, because I quickly figured out that I had ZERO self-control and if I went back to my room to meditate I would just lay down and fall asleep.
5 pm was TEA BREAK (the evening meal) which consisted of ginger water, lemon water, tea, and a piece of fruit. I had either an apple or a pear which I started to experiment with throughout the course adding cinnamon, honey, and seeds to make it into some kind of meal. I saw the other girls making soup with milk and fruit it was all very desperate and strange, but now hilarious.
6 pm was GROUP MEDITATION in the hall and again the chanting would begin and very basic instructions would follow, telling us to ‘observe the breath’ and that was about it.
7 pm was the DISCOURSE which meant the English speakers had to go to a small wooden hut with one of those old school TVs on wheels and watch a 1-hour video of Goenka (the Vipassana master) speak about the course. These were actually the highlight of my day because I learned a lot from him and it was fun but the wooden shack was FREEZING and we were all wrapped up like little burritos in 3 blankets each sitting on the floor.
8 pm was another GROUP MEDITATION session in the hall. By this time I was done for the day but I found these the easiest to sit through because my mind was filled with inspiration from the discourse.
9 pm you could stay in the hall and ask questions to Simone which I NEVER did because if you didn’t have any questions you were allowed to go to bed. I usually took a shower and got dressed again in about 3 layers because it really was freezing and by 10 pm it was LIGHTS OFF and we were all gone.
At some point in these thousands of hours of meditation every single part of my body began to hurt, so I started to experiment with the little stools and random cushions and made my own little meditation nest/den type thing.
The days continued exactly like this, same schedule, same 10 hours of meditation. The first 4 days were a complete nightmare for me. The instructions were like ‘focus on your breath, focus on the part of your nose where the breath enters’. I was thinking SURELY we have done enough of this by now. I was impatient and so bored and ready to leave.
I think I planned my escape every hour in the first few days.
The teacher kept repeating the technique over the stereo, saying ‘PATIENTLY AND PERSISTENTLY, PATIENTLY AND PERSISTENTLY, YOU ARE BOUND TO BE SUCCESSFUL, BOUND TO BE SUCCESSFUL’. He was literally brainwashing us to stay focused when all we wanted to do was get up, stretch our legs and run away.
But, on day 5 it FINALLY got interesting.
We learned the actual technique of Vipassana; how to start changing the subconscious mind to be happy.
Finally something, finally something I wanted to do. After that day I was hooked, I NOTICED my mind was changing. All the little annoying things that I had resented before - I started not to care about because I trained myself to not care. I became equanimous with everything…
The chanting, I didn’t hate anymore. My body hurting - I blocked it out. Other people sniffing and coughing? I sent them love and healing energy. What was happening? I was becoming a different person within days, and what changed? My subconscious and my MINDSET.
We learned that literally, every single tiny piece of suffering you experience is created within your own mind. Everything.
Of course, I knew this already, but experiencing it first hand, actually embodying it is something else.
It was incredible, I was actually changing and I could feel it. I was watching and observing my thoughts and how I reacted to things and the discourse every night was helping it become real. The talks really inspired me to keep going and to keep practicing and I could see everyone else felt the same.
On day 7 my body completely dissolved.
I just experienced myself as floating atoms above my meditation nest. I was so happy.
I signed up for an interview with the teacher to tell him and he was like ‘this is just an experience’, it's not good or bad.
I was honestly a bit confused. Hadn't I just achieved what I was supposed to? - but no. The craving of wanting something good to happen will eventually create suffering because when it doesn’t happen again - you will experience frustration and sadness.
Basically, WE HAVE TO STAY EQUANIMOUS to everything we experience GOOD or BAD ie, not judging anything or attaching any emotion to any experience.
After this the days started to get brighter, I would create a little routine for myself; morning coffee overlooking the mountains, walking around the hills in the breaks, stretching, and sunbathing. I paired each of the days with a different chakra that I would focus on to pass the time. At night the moon and the stars would be incredible and in the afternoons the sun would shine enough for us to feel like we were on holiday. It was starting to feel like a retreat. (Don't get me wrong I was still counting down until the end.)
Then the insights began. I would be meditating and random past events would come up in my mind to be healed - I knew I had to stay neutral to them and not react and then they would be sorted. It was super crazy. I think I went through every experience I have ever had in my life. It was like a movie was playing and I had to just be there, watch it, and not react. Just accept.
The most profound concept we learned was called Annica (Impermanence), meaning there is no solidity to existence; existence is always in a state of transformation. Basically, it's the practice of noticing that everything is always changing.
If you keep saying ‘Annica’ to everything you pretty much free your mind. It’s wild.
By days 8 and 9 I didn’t want it to end. I felt like it was just the beginning but it was almost over. On day 10 we were allowed to speak again, which was so overwhelming but incredible because over the course we had got to know each other without communicating. There were 40 of us living together, meditating together all day every day and we could finally speak! My whole body was shaking for that entire day. People cried, some had fallen in love, some were overwhelmed, it was crazy. I wanted to go back into silence.
After the course, we were given back our things and all cleaned the house together. We talked for hours and shared our experiences of the course. Everyone was so emotional that day.
AFTER THE COURSE
I was so proud of myself for completing it, it was FINALLY over and I made my escape on the first train to Florence. I didn’t even go to my hotel before stopping at an amazing Italian bakery and ordering croissants, sandwiches, coffee, AND cannolis! It was incredible.
The next day I met up with a few of the people from the course and we had the most magical day exploring the city, eating and drinking local food and wine. I don’t think I have ever been so grateful as sitting in the middle of a river eating chocolate and coffee gelato with 4 strangers that had become family within a day.
So, that’s basically what happened. 10 days of total crazy but if you’ve ever wanted to experience living like a monk - go and do a Vipassana.
Prepare yourself as it is NOT easy but IT WILL change your life for the better for sure, no doubt.
I was astounded by the dedication of the volunteer staff, the amazing vegan food, and the kindness and beauty of all the people I met on the course. I feel so lucky and grateful that I got a place on the course and was able to experience this.
You get to eat delicious vegan for 10 days, be silent, go within, heal yourself, meet some amazing people and learn a technique that you will either LOVE and use for the rest of your life - or you won’t. So what?
It’s a technique. It worked for me and I honestly thought I was going to run away after 4 days and I am SO glad I didn’t.
You can apply for your 10-Day Vipassana course on this super strange-looking website
It’s a free course, you can donate at the end if you want to. The course is run entirely on past students’ donations.
There are centers all over the world; I would try and pick a hot place if I were you. Also, remember to take a secret stash of food for the desperate times, one rubbish afternoon my roommate left me a square of dark chocolate on my pillow and it honestly made my entire week!
Yes, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life but it was also one of the most valuable experiences I have ever had, which I am continuing to benefit from more and more every day.
If you want to ask me something about the course I will be more than happy to answer your questions just send me a dm and watch my Vipassana reel here @emslouisa
May all beings be happy x