Eight Learnings After My Fifth Vipassana Retreat

I’ve just come back from my fifth vipassana retreat. I’ve done four 10 day courses and one 8 day Satipatthana course now.

I love these courses. The simplicity and the way it is run completely in the gift economy. Tons of gratitude always comes up on the last day every time I’ve sat. I think I’ll go and serve again later this year.

I thoroughly encourage anyone who’s never done one to have a taste yourself. It’s not for everyone, but I feel everyone ought to at least try it once in their life.

I’d like to share some lessons over the time I’ve spent so far on these retreats. I’ve also written a post sharing some tips for your first vipassana course if you’re keen to check that out.

1. Change change change!

This gets repeated a lot in the courses. And as I meditate more I’m experiencing deeper layers of this truth more directly. Every moment I breathe in and breathe out, change is happening. The breath is never the same. It’s always a different breath – a new breath.

On a subtler level, I can feel sensations happening throughout my body. Some feel coarse and don’t seem to change at all, but others are changing very rapidly each moment. Sometimes the sensations seem to flow throughout the body, sometimes arise and disappear, sometimes vibrate. It’s never still. Even the coarse sensations change eventually though. They break apart and dissolve, or something else happens.

This reflection and direct observation of change is an incredible tool for insight. When I can experience change happening from moment-to-moment, it seems I am fazed by nothing. A huge chunk of painful sensations can arise in my lower back for example, but the realisation of change becomes so integrated that any aversion I feel doesn’t arise, or if it does, it is seen for what it is – impermanent.

2. Beginner’s mind

Having done a few courses now, this lesson keeps hitting me in the face again and again.

It takes me a few days to remember to drop what I think I know – my expectations, hopes, doubts and judgements, in order to really practice.

The course is given by video discourses, which makes it easier to blank out and think that I’ve already understood what is being taught. However, bringing back beginners’ mind is always a blessing.

I find it’s only when I become a beginner again that I stop struggling and begin to flow with the practice once more.

3. Spontaneous love

The first 3 days are spent sharpening and honing the mind with anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing). Then vipassana is taught and the next 6 days you essentially break down the entire body, investigating it thoroughly, part-by-part, observing each sensation and your reaction.

In the course there’s an emphasis on awareness and equanimity. Equanimity meaning loving everything that arises, without clinging, without aversion. The equanimity acts like a piece of burning coal that you drop in the centre of a snow cone – it melts right through with ease, thus breaking up the sense of a solid body. As this happens, bubbles of love and joy can sometimes begin to flow quite naturally. This spontaneous, effortless arising of love. It starts off subtle, but as the anchor of equanimity sinks further more love arises and seems to radiate through the whole body and beyond.

4. I create images of myself and others

What is the referent of “Liam Chai?”

Imagine if an artist creates a painting of a beautiful woman. When the painting is complete, the artist then says, “Oh beautiful woman! You’re so attractive. I must be with you. Let’s get married and live together.”

Now this artist paints another portrait, this time of a really ugly and ferocious looking monster. When it’s completed the artist says, “Oh go away! You’re scaring me. Leave me alone!”

We would say this was a mad person. Yet I notice I’ve done the exact same thing for years to myself and others. I create an image of myself in my mind’s eye. At times in my life this has been a dark, depressive image. And at other times a very macho, confident and successful image. Whatever the image, there’s always been an attachment or aversion towards it. I literally create paintings of myself and then either love it or hate it.

Likewise I have images in my mind of other people – whether they are friendly or not, smart or stupid, attractive or repulsive. These are conceptual judgements. Labels I give people based on my biased impressions. These labels can sometimes bring an emotional tone like excitement or disgust. That emotion then leads to not seeing reality clearly because the nature of emotions is to filter, psychologists call this a ‘refractory period’ or the ‘selective filtering process’.

The process of creating images of myself and others is not a bad thing, it helps me function in the world to an extent. Yet if I’m unaware that this process is happening, I can (and at times do) become the artist I described above.

5. Awareness during sleep is possible

I had my first lucid dreaming experience while on these retreats. I snoozed during one of the break periods. When I woke up I found myself in a dream world. It was very, very vivid, but I knew I was dreaming. I didn’t have much stability to do much in the dream. Just the awareness of knowing that I was dreaming. I woke up not very long after that.

I’ve also had moments where I stay with my respiration and sensations of the body right through into sleep itself. I’ve never maintained awareness through the night but I’ve had moments where I was sure I was asleep yet there was still awareness. It was like mind and body had fallen asleep but awareness remained.

 6. It’s not necessary to eat 3 meals a day

You have a 5 hour eating window on these retreats. From 6:30am to 11:30am. Outside those hours you are fasting, taking only teas or lemon water. And I’ve found it’s more than enough. Most of the time I eat not because of actual hunger – I eat because I’m bored. I eat because it’s lunchtime or dinner time. I eat because of habit. Then there are also moments when I eat because I want to avoid feeling a certain emotion.

Not eating 3 meals a day also frees up so much time. Actually I’m now experimenting with OMAD – eating one meal a day. It’s going well so far. I’m not losing weight and according to this guy it’s possible even to gain muscle on just one vegan meal a day. I’m learning huge amounts about my body and how it works. Will share a post on that soon!

7. Suffering is mind-made

These 10 day silent retreats can be a bit like torture camps for the uninitiated. It’s not without reason that solitary confinement is one of the most severe forms of punishment we give to criminals.

Any little discomfort can be blown up and create huge miseries and suffering in our minds. Not getting dinner or having a bell wake you up at 4am every day can be definite causes of suffering, at the apparent level at least.

I’ve experienced a lot of suffering during these retreats. In my experience the process is something like this:

I’m not always aware of that process. But when I have the time and the patience to work through it I see this exact pattern crop up. And just by observing this process, shining the light of my awareness onto it, the suffering begins to break up – there’s less grasping onto the stories I’m telling myself. There’s greater relaxation and a ‘teflon-like’ mind where nothing sticks.

8. Happiness is not “out there”

These days I can say with strong conviction that happiness is not out there in the external world. It’s not in a sports car, a big house or lots of money. It’s not even in a loving family, a caring relationship or a good education. Not that any of the above is ‘bad’ or not to be wanted. But they’re just not true sources of happiness.

A source of happiness has a simple definition: every time you go to the source, you get happiness. And however long you stay at the source, you get more happiness.

If we test that one by one with wealth, prestige or power, we see that none of them match the definition of a source of happiness. And my experience fits this too.

Where is this happiness then? After my first vipassana retreat I thought I’d found it. Happiness is in the sensations! In these subtle tingly sensations! Every time I experienced these sensations there was a feeling of pleasure and joy. Or so I thought.

But those pleasant tingly sensations eventually passed away too and the pleasure I receive ended. I spent my second course chasing it, trying to get it back to no avail.

At the moment my search has led me to this conclusion so far:

The source of happiness is awareness itself.

It’s holding up so far. Although it’s tricky to continually rest in awareness, as blissful as it is. But it’s a practice, so I’ll keep practicing.

These retreats ultimately are like laboratories to run experiments. Every time I go I come back with insights and learnings about myself and the nature of reality.

Ultimately though the learnings don’t matter if they’re not integrated into my life. With dharma practice there is zero benefit in “cramming” before an exam so you pass the test and then forget about all you’ve learned once the exam is over. The exam is moment to moment, every moment for the rest of your life.

I hope there was something valuable in all of that blabbering. Please leave a comment if you’ve read this far :-), I would love to hear your thoughts!


9 responses to “Eight Learnings After My Fifth Vipassana Retreat”

  1. D. Rienks says:

    If a person gets nothing else from this enlightening discourse, grab onto this “drop what I think I know – my expectations, hopes, doubts and judgements in order to really practice.”

  2. Suvajra says:

    Thanks for this Liam. As usual, well thought out and helpful. I think helpful for any retreat, and even for any meditation session.
    Your last point is “Happiness is not ‘out’ there”. That’s very important to remember and good you make it your final point. The source of happiness is not out there, it is awareness itself. I’m wondering what do you consider is the ‘Goal’ for someone who takes up meditation and what is the relationship of happiness to that goal?

    • liamchai says:

      Hi Suvajra! Thanks for the comment :-).

      The goal is up to the individual really. I feel people will want to try meditation for so many different reasons. But we could also generalise and assume that every reason given by a person has a wish for happiness at it’s core. I don’t think it’s too farfetched to say that every human being (even every living being) has a wish to be happy. More fundamentally, we have a wish for pleasure and to avoid pain. From earthworms to tigers to humans, we all have that basic instinct.

      So the ‘goal’ in meditation I would say is happiness. More specifically, happiness independent of conditions.

  3. J says:

    Thank you Liam, good stuff !

  4. Shikha Patel says:

    Thank you Liam for sharing your experience. Very well Explained.

  5. Surbhi says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience and these insights. It was an absolute pleasure to have read through it peacefully word by word and internalize what it meant. I’m looking forward to getting closer to practicing a lot of take-aways from this reading.

  6. Surbhi says:

    Thank you!

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