What I Learned from 10 Days of Silence

Patrick Lin
18 min readSep 14, 2022

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The good and bad from my experience at Goenka’s 10-day vipassana meditation retreat. Living like a monk, learning Buddha’s 2500-year-old model of human psychology, and purifying the mind.

I turned 29 recently. It was a unique birthday, without any celebration, cake, friends, or family. At 5 am, I sat alone in a pitch-black three-by-five-foot cell, silently meditating as I had for nearly 100 hours the prior nine days. I sat, facing the wall like a child put in the closet for a timeout. What was I doing here?

Besides channeling my inner Patrick Star

My Meditation Journey

My first exposure to meditation was through the Calm and Headspace apps in 2018. I was struggling to sleep well, spending most nights worrying about the next day’s work meetings and personal tasks. Meditating for a few minutes before bed helped me wind down. After trying it on and off, I found myself using a habit tracker to log the days I meditated for consistency. Unwittingly, meditation became just another checklist item on my daily to-do list that I blindly crossed off, alongside checking emails and organizing Trello. It felt vaguely wrong. Wasn’t this whole mindfulness thing about ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’? Why had people originally meditated, if not to rack up minutes like another quantified aspect of life?

My curiosity led me to research meditation’s Buddhist context and discover the San Francisco Zen Center mere blocks from my apartment. I spontaneously attended a Young Urban Zen (YUZ) meeting one day, which started with a 20-minute group sitting in an elegant Japanese-style meditation hall. Then came the dharma talk. The speaker, in his 50s, reflected on his recent conversations with his dying father and shared prompts for us to discuss in pairs. What would you do if you knew you only had one day to live? What regrets would you have? What about one year? Ten years? Knowing that we’re mortal and tomorrow is never guaranteed, what values do we live by to balance our short and long-term life goals?

SF Zen Center meditation hall

This was some heavy stuff! I rarely discussed this with close friends, let alone complete strangers. But everyone engaged wholeheartedly, fostering a raw depth of connection in such a short time. I became a YUZ regular, appreciating the space it created to explore life principles and authentically share without any of the religious dogma I had worried I’d find. Group sits also provided social accountability that kept me from ending meditation early. I eventually participated in my first meditation retreat through YUZ, coming out with deeper friendships and practice.

In 2019, I planned a work sabbatical and took the opportunity to immerse more directly in Buddhism during my month in Thailand. I visited multiple temples to learn about how the Thai have integrated Buddhism into their society for thousands of years. I stayed five days at the beautiful Wat Pa Tam Wua monastery, where visitors can practice the ancient Thai Forest vipassana meditation. Despite the challenge of sleeping on the floor, fasting for 19 hours a day, and meditating six hours a day, I loved surrounding myself with nature, Buddhist texts, and the company of travelers from around the world.

Couldn’t complain about the scenery

Three years later, I took another extended leave. This time, I wanted to learn vipassana properly since I had a taste in Thailand and heard multiple testimonials that 10-day vipassana retreats were life-changing.

I was nervous to sign up despite my prior experience. After the pandemic hit, I moved out of SF to digital nomad and my regular meditation practice fell apart. I became constantly stressed about the economy, housing market, pandemic, post-IPO work pressures, and life decisions, and I could no longer sit even a few minutes without anxious thoughts. Could I handle 10 days of straight meditation? People cited these retreats as one of the most difficult things they’ve done in life, and I worried I’d give up partway through.

I enrolled anyway. I recalled how peaceful my prior retreats had been and knew it’d reset my neurotic mind and jumpstart my leave. Both my YUZ friend and my therapist had completed Goenka’s course before and recommended it. When else would I have time to do this? It would at least be a test of determination.

Living Like a Monk

At the retreat, you learn vipassana meditation as the Buddha supposedly taught it 2500 years ago, in the style of the late teacher S.N. Goenka. He had been a successful industrialist who learned vipassana in his home country of Myanmar, brought it to India, and then popularized it globally, with 233 centers around the world now.

You live the life of a monk during the course. You’re given vegetarian meals, basic accommodations, and vipassana instruction for free, with optional donations only accepted after the course. But this also means meditating for 10 hours a day from 4:30 am to 9 pm, segregating men and women at all times, and accepting eight Buddhist precepts for the entire time:

  • No stealing
  • No telling lies
  • No sexual activity
  • No intoxicants
  • No killing, which includes swatting bugs or eating meat
  • No eating after noon, though first-timers are allowed fruit
  • No ‘sensual entertainment’, such as using phones/laptops or exercising aside from stretching or walking around the grounds
  • No ‘high or luxurious beds’

The most shocking element of the retreat is adhering to ‘Noble Silence’, which means no speaking, reading, writing, gestures, or even eye contact with other meditators. For 10 whole days! Conversation is allowed with staff for questions about the facilities or technique, otherwise, you’re alone with your thoughts. Most people would balk at these restrictions. Why use precious time off to sit around doing nothing when you could sip cocktails on the beach?

I was familiar with the precepts since most had applied at my prior retreats, except devices had been allowed and silence only applied during certain times of the day. In Thailand, the worst part of my monastery stay was that no ‘high or luxurious beds’ meant literally sleeping on the floor with just a thin mat…with 10 other men in the room, no A/C, a single shower, and bugs crawling everywhere! At California Vipassana Center, situated in the Sierras, I was relieved everyone had an austere but private bedroom with dorm-style baths, full A/C in every building, and simple but varied home-cooked vegetarian dishes served buffet-style. Some had joked that this was the ‘luxury’ retreat center.

Men’s room at the Thai monastery
My room at California Vipassana Center. Luxury is relative!

Fasting after noon wasn’t an issue for me since I typically intermittently fasted anyway. Sleeping, however, was the hardest part just as in Thailand. The 3-inch mattress provided was significantly better than the floor, but still a firm slab compared to my bed at home.

The schedule is also designed to be challenging, with meditation starting at 4:30 am and alternating breaks and meals until 9 pm. Aside from group sits and discourse, it’s up to students to adhere to the meditation schedule on their own. It was hard to adjust initially — I found the only way I could stay awake the rest of the day was by meditating less than the whole two hours in the morning and sleeping through breakfast. I quickly learned to meditate in the group hall since I couldn’t resist the allure of being horizontal if I stayed in my room.

During meals, I’d sit in the corner of a counter facing a wall, kept company by a spider who’d spun a web next to me on day five. I named her Larissa. On breaks I’d sit and think, or stroll through the arid forest grounds, picking bark sloughing off manzanita trees like chocolate curls, watching squirrels, woodpeckers, and occasional soaring eagle or burrowing vole. After the final evening sitting, I’d marvel at the luminous stars and Milky Way, alternating between deep thoughts about humanity’s place in the cosmos and the annoyingly catchy lyrics from ‘Airplanes’.

Meditating Vipassana

California Vipassana Center pagoda

The rest of the day was for meditation, which is what we were all there for.

We started with anapana meditation, or ‘mindful breathing’, where we focused on the sensation of breath in and around our nostrils. While breath was a familiar meditation anchor, the instruction was to focus on the sensation without any kind of internal verbalization which took adjusting. I had always practiced thinking ‘breathing in, breathing out’ or counting breaths up to 10. Eventually, we progressed from just breath to any kind of subtle sensation below our nostrils — any kind of tingling, tickling, warmth, cold, lightness, heaviness, tension, perspiration, etc. We did this for hours. Days. Was this going to be the whole retreat?

We thankfully began our vipassana instruction on day four. The first three days were to sharpen our mental keenness by focusing on sensations in one specific area. Now we were to broaden this awareness. We were to scan through every inch of the body to feel for sensations, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. It was a familiar technique that even Headspace teaches, moving attention from eyes to nose, mouth, shoulders, etc, except much more thoroughly.

Those days of mental sharpening certainly helped because I could clearly scan every single area of my body by day five. Our brains automatically filter out any subtle bodily sensations. Nobody ever pays attention to what their left ear is feeling, for example. But during vipassana, I could notice every tingle of pressure, light breeze of A/C, or touch of cloth. We then transitioned from scanning part by part to scanning the body in parallel, expanding focus to sensations across the body simultaneously, as if someone were sweeping a giant barcode scanner from head to toe.

Of course, meditation is simple but not easy. Deprived of its steady dopamine drip of animal TikToks and controversial Reddit comments, my restless mind flitted from one random thought to another.

My ass hurts from sitting for so long, I wish I could shift my position. That mattress is so damn firm my back aches. The backrests those guys have must be so nice.

Sigh I left off at such a cliffhanger in the Stormlight Archives. I wish I could read. What’s gonna happen to Kaladin…

This guy next to me keeps shuffling, so distracting… Did someone just rip a fart? Ugh, I’ve been holding mine in this whole time!

Meditating is like riding a wild elephant. Sitting still and grounding your mind on the breath is like training an elephant to obey a command to carry you along a straight, narrow path through the thick jungle. This is completely unnatural. They’re inevitably tempted by tasty-looking plants in the jungle, frightened by threatening noises beyond, or irritated by buzzing insects, charging out of control. Our unconscious minds are similarly restless and require training to bypass the distractions of modern life that surround us.

During my day six afternoon sit, I had gotten into such a groove of scanning that the subtle tingles I felt began intensifying, radiating back and forth across my body. This had never happened before! I immediately thought of every anime character who meditates forever, channeling their qi or chakra to unlock some new latent power. The sensation built up to a rhythmic pulsing centered around my torso, then faded after several minutes back to my, normal boring scanning tingles.

It didn’t happen again for the rest of the retreat, so I didn’t unlock Super Saiyan or Sage Mode unfortunately.

What’s the point?

Ok great, so you sat for dozens of hours observing your breath and got body tingles. Can’t you do that sitting in a jacuzzi?

Every night, we had a break from our meditation in the form of a shaky 1991 recording of a Goenka charismatically lecturing on dhamma, the universal truth of nature. The goal of vipassana, we learned, was to seek insight into this truth by embodying sila, samadhi, and panna in life. According to Goenka (other interpretations may differ), sila is the moral framework all people should aim to live by, represented by the precepts we accepted for the retreat. Sila serves as a foundation to cultivate samadhi, training the ‘elephant’ within to gain mastery over your mind. Mental mastery then allows one to gain panna, wisdom, a firsthand understanding of the truth of the universe.

The Root of Suffering

So what is this truth? Many practices at the time of Buddha 2500 years ago already taught some kind of morality, mental mastery, and even meditation to help people live better lives. But those all attributed unhealthy human behavior to the sensory object. Don’t get addicted to gambling, drinking, or adultery because those things make you angry or lustful. Meditation was used to quiet the mind if those temptations appeared. But this only addressed the symptoms, calming the surface of the mind and pushing negative emotions back down, without digging out the roots of the problems.

The Buddha made several discoveries through his meditations. The first was that the human brain-body connection works in four steps:

  1. Consciousness: the body becomes aware of a sensory object, something manifesting as one of the 5 senses or a thought. Eg ‘I’m hearing words directed at me.’
  2. Perception: the mind interprets the sensory object. Eg ‘these are angry words of abuse directed towards me.’
  3. Feeling: the mind judges this perception as pleasant or unpleasant, and automatically generates an automatic bodily sensation in response based on your past sankharas. Eg ‘Wow these words are mean. I don’t like this!’ with some accompanying sensation.
  4. Formation: Goenka talked endlessly about how everyone’s minds are filled with sankharas, mental impurities that condition and dictate the habit patterns of peoples’ minds and, consequently, their behavior. They come from both past and current lives (Buddhism typically includes reincarnation and karma being passed from one life to the next). Some are shallow, others deeper-rooted from traumatic or core experiences.

Sankharas cause us misery and multiply. In an untrained mind, any experience one has is automatically and subconsciously judged as pleasant (I like it) or unpleasant (I don’t like it) and creates a new sankhara of craving/clinging/attachment (I want more of it, I need it, I can’t live without it) or aversion (stop it, I hate it, I can’t live with it). In the above example, the abusive words might lead the person to shout back in anger or become quietly resentful, sowing the seed for more negativity in the future.

Purifying the Mind

Buddha’s contribution to the world was understanding that suffering is innate to human life, sankharas are the root of this suffering, and that every thought first generates some kind of bodily sensation at step three before creating a sankhara and physical or verbal reaction. Humans become addicted to the SENSATION an experience generates, the thrill of gambling or the relaxed buzziness while intoxicated, not the cards or booze itself.

His epiphany was that we can’t control what scenarios life throws at us, but we can discipline our minds to change how we respond to them. Vipassana trains you to become so sensitive to the subtle sensations in the body that you can break the cycle of creating new sankharas at step three. Whenever craving or aversion arises, you instead remain equanimous and non-reactive. ‘Mentally calm, composed, and even-tempered, especially in a difficult situation,’ I always remember it as ‘responding instead of reacting.’ Being balanced and resilient enough to respond skillfully to a situation instead of automatically lashing out in reaction to it. You don’t meditate to sit around all day, but to bring this mindful, present awareness to every moment of your life. Over time this cleanses you of past sankharas, reframing the stories you tell yourself and changing the habit pattern of your mind.

To practice this, we were to observe objectively whenever a thought or sensation came up during meditation. Don’t react. Don’t develop a new sankhara of aversion or craving. Remind yourself that the sensation is impermanent, arising and inevitably passing like everything else in life. And continue the body scan.

Starting day five, we began ‘sits of determination’ where we were to remain still for the whole hour. When scanning a stiff joint, I learned to observe the sensation of numbness, tension, or aching, without fantasizing about how nice it’d be to be able to move or sleep on a softer bed. I let go of the jealousy I felt for those with comfier-looking chairs. Whenever I lapsed to mental escapism, I’d remind myself of my aversion to stillness without thoughts and return to scanning. By the last few days, my hour-long sits were almost enjoyable, passing as if they were 15 minutes.

Two distractions still occasionally came up. One was how I constantly drafted this article in my head as I sat. It was very characteristic of my PM-self to summarize key takeaways to share with others, synthesizing the experience in real-time since I couldn’t write. The other was those full-body tingles, which had left me both a surge of pride but also a lingering hope to feel again. The Buddha had warned about that particular sensation since it was natural to develop craving for such progress. Both also reflected a deeper-rooted personal desire (sankhara of craving!) I’ve always had for achievement and acknowledgment, which I’m still learning to balance.

The Good

I found the concepts of non-reactivity (equanimity) and non-attachment (avoiding craving) compelling because they mirror a lot of what cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and modern psychology teach.

For example, one thought that frequently kept me up this year: “I can’t believe interest rates keep going up and home prices are still crazy. I’m such an idiot, I should’ve bought last year and locked 2.75%, I’m never going to afford a place. What am I doing gallivanting around the world anyways? My parents are right, I need to stop being a child and grow up.” Followed by hours of doomscrolling through r/realestate, r/REbubble, and Redfin at 3 am.

CBT would identify the triggering experience (real estate news), the feeling (fear, uncertainty), and the automatic assumption that comes out of it (‘lol I’m dumb’) and reframe that thought to be compassionate and free of cognitive distortions. Maybe: “I decided not to buy for several reasons, and all decisions come with tradeoffs. Many dream of being able to travel the world while they’re young and I can enjoy it. I can’t control macroeconomics, but where does home ownership fit into my life priorities right now?

Instead of intentionally analyzing automatic thoughts, vipassana focuses on sensations at the moment. Sensing a pit of dread in my stomach and desire to face-palm, I’d recognize my aversion to suboptimal decisionmaking, choose to remain equanimous, and choose to sleep instead of spiraling into the same worries. Both separate the thought from the emotion to interrupt negative feedback loops that often take over our lives.

There’s another Buddhist quote:

“Where would I find enough leather

To cover the entire surface of the earth?

But with leather soles beneath my feet, It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

Shantideva

This is a reminder that we can’t change or control everything in the world, but we can cultivate our mental resilience. I find it impressive that someone discovered a framework for behavioral psychology thousands of years ago and built a scalable way to teach it to millions of laypeople that still works today. While the Buddha didn’t know about the prefrontal cortex, sympathetic nervous system, or neurotransmitters, this sankhara model is a decent approximation for how past trauma shapes current behavior and neuroplasticity allows us some ability to rewire neurons fire together.

With mental health (or mental wealth) in the zeitgeist again, it’s no wonder meditation and Buddhism are seeing resurgences. They have a sense of individualist responsibility without any deification that suits Western culture, especially the self-optimizing types (like techies on sabbatical). Research is growing as well. Meditation alters the brain structure to be more attentive. Increased awareness of bodily sensations normally filtered out by your prefrontal cortex helps control decision making if you can detect your emotions shift, or breathing and heart rate change. Those who fully master their minds can even self-immolate without choosing to move. There’s a lot more to learn about our brain-body connections still — gut bacteria influence food choices and could link to mental illnesses, bodies can hold trauma, and somatic therapies like EMDR can used.

The Bad

There were, of course, elements of the teaching that didn’t resonate as much with me. One was around the ‘final goal’ of vipassana to reach full enlightenment and escape the cycle of karmic reincarnation. As a secular person, I’ve always been skeptical of afterlife discussions.

Goenka also talked a lot about another element of ‘the truth of the universe’ one seeks through vipassana practice. He claimed that as you become more and more sensitive to subtle sensations, you, like the Buddha, can eventually observe how your body and the rest of the world are just a mass of vibrating atoms and wavelengths. Nothing is solid.

As you develop your understanding of impermanence and suffering, your ego also dissolves until you understand there is no real ‘self’. At some point, you reach ‘bhanga’, a state of full-body dissolution, which several folks I talked to after the retreat described as feeling like dissolving into the surrounding particles of air! I didn’t get to that point, though there are enough accounts of the experience that I believe it can happen with enough practice. Maybe the Buddha did discover metaphysics in addition to psychology, it just wasn’t as relevant at my level of practice.

Purity

S.N. Goenka

I also took issue with elements of the discourse. Goenka constantly repeated that vipassana is non-sectarian because it doesn’t require any ‘conversion’ to Buddhism and is compatible with other religions. All humans suffer, so all humans can benefit from vipassana. But then he’d label other religions as blind devotion, transactional rituals to imaginary gods to shirk personal responsibility or justify immoral behavior. Such cases certainly exist, but he painted with a broad brush and conspicuously implied vipassana is all one needs.

Goenka’s also extremely convinced that the technique as he learned it in Myanmar is the purest version of vipassana, descended directly from Gotama Buddha himself. At one point he claims there was a prophecy that Buddhism would die out and be revived thousands of years later, with that revival coincidentally the year his retreat centers started taking off. I can’t deny his success in popularizing vipassana, but he offered no details, and I imagine the Thai Forest Buddhists I sat with would claim similar purity of lineage.

Several reviews I’ve read are fiercely negative towards Goenka, claiming the retreats idolize him as a cult leader and use psychological manipulation to indoctrinate meditators. I wouldn’t put it that far. But certain elements of the retreat like chanting, bowing, along with Goenka’s bold claims and big personality could feel cult-like if you take them at face value without broader context in Buddhism.

This would be less of an issue if ‘discourse’ included any actual discourse, instead of just recordings. The assistant teachers only really help with technique and don’t entertain any philosophical questions, generally repeating what Goenka says with slight variations. We were told his vipassana is pure and to ‘sunder our minds and surrender to the practice,’ as harboring any doubt would impede our practice. No nuance. I much preferred SF Zen Center’s speakers, who shared Buddhist perspectives on gray areas, like equanimity vs emotional numbing or non-reactivity vs unhealthy passivity.

Takeaways

Me after taking one retreat (jk)

As a friend puts it, Goenka’s retreat is like a strict boot camp — you’ll meditate harder than ever before, but there isn’t any room to question his teachings for those 10 days.

While not life-changing, I still found it an invaluable experience. I didn’t become galaxy brain. But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and proof of the willpower I can muster when motivated. I was able to digital detox in nature and think about life without distractions, device-free for the longest period since I was a child. It inspired me to begin meditating regularly, though not strictly vipassana. Even if I don’t buy the whole reincarnation bit, I know I have at least this life, and being equanimous makes it more enjoyable.

Most importantly, the retreat reinforced lessons from coaching and therapy. I’m reminded I can choose to not languish in negative feelings just like I could choose to not hate sitting still. I can be content even under austere conditions, and can savor small moments of joy like the first bite of food after a long fast. Body scanning strengthened my awareness to notice cues when my mental state changes and respond accordingly. When my brow, jaw, and shoulders tighten, I’m overthinking and need to take a breath or stretch. When a fiery anger arises in my gut after my parents make a casually disparaging comment, I know to disengage and talk through it when I have the emotional capacity.

So Patrick, is there a way I can benefit from this without suffering for 10 days? Well, reading this is a start, but Goenka explained there are different levels of wisdom. You can understand and believe something is valuable cognitively, but that can never compare to the wisdom of experiencing it firsthand. Doing a 10-day retreat is considered the minimum time to properly learn vipassana, so if you have the time and willpower, go for it! I’d just caution you to explore meditation and Buddhism on your own as well if you’re new to it, don’t blindly accept anything as Goenka himself says.

If you can’t do a retreat, I still believe any meditation is better than nothing for calming and focusing. Start with a few minutes a day with an app, or check if your city has a meditation group. And if you don’t like sitting, figure out what works for you! The goal is to cultivate a present and balanced mind, which you might find through yoga, breathwork, therapy, exercise, journaling, or hugs. Plenty of books like Joy on Demand teach mindfulness without spiritual components. We all ultimately need to create our own life philosophies. Whether Goenka is Buddha’s chosen one or not, vipassana is another block I’m now fitting into mine.

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Patrick Lin

Often wandering and wondering. Personal musings on identity, philosophy, and travels. Photography and more at patricklin.net