The X-Games of meditation: If it doesn’t break you, an extreme meditation retreat can create dramatic shifts in your life
I live part-time in Snowmass, Colorado — just up the hill from where the Winter X Games are held. Last November I embarked on my very own version of the X Games as I willingly walked into Wat Chom Thong, a monastery 60 km southwest of Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a 10-day Vipassana meditation silent retreat. Yep, this was Meditation Extreme, complete with endless commentary over the loud speakers (albeit Buddhist chanting), caffeine for stamina, plus Advil and plenty of water to relax and hydrate sore muscles.
Without any formal meditation practice under my belt, I dove into the deep end of the pool not knowing how to swim, nor even if I would stay afloat. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. In fact, I can assure you that if I had, there’s no way I would have signed up for this.
It was the most mentally, emotionally and physically demanding thing I’ve ever done. And, it has single-handedly changed my life.
Since late November, I’ve been meditating consistently. Yes I’ve missed a day here and a day there, but they’ve come with conscious choice, instead of blaming circumstances. On several occasions when a morning didn’t work logistically, I resumed my practice in the afternoon. One definite benefit of doing a 10-day meditation retreat, during which I was literally sitting morning, noon and night, is that there can be no excuse related to time. I’ve actually meditated at every time of day and night so I can’t convince myself that I’ve missed my window if I don’t do it first thing upon waking. And yet, my preference is to spend the first hour I am up in self-nourishing solitude and silence, on my cushion. I never dread it or question it. It has become a part of me, woven into the fabric of my being.
Now, let me tell you — this is all very surprising to me.
I’ve been around meditation and mindfulness for 25+ years. I received my Master’s Degree from Naropa University, which is Buddhist-inspired; I worked at Hay House, the international leading personal growth and self-empowerment publisher; and most of the people closest to me have solid meditation practices. While I was curious, I never bit. Though I did often wonder what I was missing. Not in the FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out –— way, but rather what foundational piece of self-awareness was I missing that could be the key to my freedom and peace.
Upon arrival at Wat Chom Thong I met Monica, my meditation instructor, and she taught me the technique. In Vipassana meditation there’s the mindful prostration, then the walking meditation, and then the sitting meditation — each with its own specific elements. Since I was a complete newbie, starting from scratch without any meditation practice going in, she had me begin with 10-minute blocks. First the mindful prostration, which always remained the same, and then 10 minutes walking, 10 minutes sitting. That’s one round, so to speak. Over time, it was 15/15, 20/20, and so on. By Day 6, I was doing rounds of an hour walking and an hour sitting, followed by a short break and then another round. Each day I had a short session with Monica — this was my allotted time of speaking — so we could engage in discussion about what was going on for me.
Day-in, day-out the wake-up bell rang at 4am. Meals were at 6am and 11am. We weren’t to take in solid food from noon until 6am the next morning. Lights out at 10pm.
I should tell you now that on Day 5 and Day 9 I wanted to bolt. I wanted the hell out. What am I doing here? This is crazy! What was I thinking? Why on earth am I putting myself through this? What am I trying to prove… and to who?
But here’s what I know about myself: I’m self-disciplined, ambitious, and have super strong endurance muscles. Turns out all these come in handy during a 10-day meditation immersion…’cuz there’s basically nothing else to do but meditate — all day long. No talking or reading or writing or listening. Very little sleeping and eating. I honestly loved the silence. And the solitude. The minimal eating didn’t even bother me. My phone being on airplane mode for 10 days — so I could use the timer, but no wifi — turned out to be sheer bliss. The sleep deprivation, however…that’s another story! But I knew that once I made up my mind to be there, no matter what it took to get through it, I was going to do it. I knew that even on those days that I wanted to bolt, I never would.
Just when I thought my inner-overachiever is dead and gone, it seems that no matter how much healing work I’ve done on her, she’s actually still alive and well. So you can imagine the high I was on when Monica said to me on Day 6, We’ve never seen anyone progress at this pace. We never anticipated that you would be able to excel at this rate, that you’d be able to handle this much. Most people who come here with no practice have either left by now or they only make to maybe 30/30, but not an hour and an hour.
By now I’m determined. And it’s no coincidence I use this word, because then I’m put into what’s called Determination for the last 72 hours of my retreat. This is something normally reserved only for people who’ve done a 10-day before. It’s not something that is normally done by people doing their very first retreat. But, because of the overachieving, I sort of earned this Determination. The catch-22. Had I not achieved so well, had I not performed so well, I wouldn’t have put myself into the lion’s den of what became really the epic marathon of meditation. 72 hours without changing clothes or bathing. Meals eaten on own in room. Continuous meditation with very short breaks. And no sleeping. That’s right. No sleeping.
The first 24 hours of Determination I stayed awake all night and logged 18 hours of meditation. I went to my reporting with Monica all proud. And then she gave me my exercise for the next 24 hours, which was actually a touch less demanding than the first, with a form I needed to fill out. About half way through that day I was on the floor in a pool of tears, anger and frustration that I was so caught up in achieving, performing, perfection, restriction, endurance. That I was trying to prove myself in someway.
I spent much of the afternoon and evening in a state of war with myself that I finally said, Fuck this! and I went to sleep.
When I reported to Monica the next morning I had to turn in a half-filled out form. Can you imagine?!?! I was mortified. This was a big-time first in my life. And of course this was of no concern to her since it had nothing to do with her. All that mattered was what I was making it mean about me. I decided to give myself permission to embark on the final 24 hours of Determination, and the retreat, with ease instead of rigidity.
The great gift of this experience is that since I left the monastery I’ve maintained my non-negotiable commitment to me. I can see and feel the impact of devoting that portion of my day to just being with myself, being with my breath, being in the moment, allowing whatever thoughts come and go and naming them and yet always being able to return to here, where there is no problem to solve.
And then, I began to add to it. First, no more screentime in bed. This was huge. I was a full-on nighttime Netflixer, Facebooker, Instagrammer, Hulu-er, Amazon Prime Streaming-er and my sleep was suffering. Yes, I’d get into bed by 9pm but this could turn into all hours of the night real quick. I am not a night person but the binge-watching was absolutely my reward of choice. Not food, not alcohol, but this was how I chose to easily disengage from my own life to engage with my small-screen friends. As an introvert, I often think of this as my way of being social. Next, I added a journaling component to my morning, and then not long after that I began voluntarily putting my iPhone into airplane mode from the moment I get into bed until after my practice time the next day. Major game-changer. To wake without being bombarded by incoming data, and not trolling around for it either, is my definition of bliss.
Because here’s the thing: I’m a planner. I’m an organizer. I’m a problem solver. I used to live my calendar as if it was a map.
Meditation, fueled by airplane mode, gives me a window into how much energy I expend on being ahead of myself, future-tripping.
I have a history of not inhabiting my life. Now, all I need to do is simply have a conversation with myself, What am I doing right now? I’m walking. What am I doing right now? I’m sitting. So I can get clear that in this moment there is nothing else. In this moment there’s no problem to solve.
I choose to be in my life now, to experience and feel the fullness and the richness without the doing. No longer being blindly loyal to endurance and stamina. To witness my mind in a way that has me able to stay present, ever expanding my capacity to be with what is, and returning to right here, to this breath.
it’s all in service
of that one breath
simply rising and falling
released and free
released and free
You may also enjoy reading Meditation Retreat | Transformation in Thailand: Part 1 by Nancy Levin