vipassana, truth, self-somatic therapy, integration, and finding peace that lasts
This past November, I embarked upon what was one of the most unique experiences of my life — a 10-day Vipassana (silent meditation) retreat in Kelseyville, CA. It was difficult, there were no frills, and I stared at the limitations found at the outer reaches of my own psyche. And yet, I regard it as one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had, and would do it again in a heartbeat.
The forest surrounding the Kelseyville center provided a welcoming container for the deep inner work of Vipassana. Over 10 days, I gained an understanding of Truth as it relates to the framework of my body. No cosmic or extrasensory revelations—just an understanding of change (aniccā in Pali) as a universal force. A tapestry woven of both tumultuous and transcendent moments, the retreat gifted me with the wisdom of non-attachment.
I now believe that spirituality is accessible to anyone and doesn’t need to (but certainly can) be found in either organized religion or entheogens. Genuine peace and spiritual growth stem from diligent practice, and Vipassana offers alucid and effective pathway, fostering continuous development through a strong feedback loop.
What is a Vipassana Retreat?
Structure of a Retreat
Out of the many silent retreats out there, I did the one put on by Dhamma, an organization wholly devoted to teaching the Vipassana technique. It’s sustained solely by the generosity of past students paying it forward, with the food, housing, and teachings provided for free.
Many other articles on the internet do a great job of vividly exploring the on-the-ground experience so I’ll just link to some here and here. Though, I encourage those contemplating the journey to enter with an open heart, free of expectation, and to let your experience truly be your own.
The retreat's disciplined schedule, though demanding, exudes a gentle grace. Continually waking up at 4am after a bad night of sleep is difficult, but the consistent rhythms of the day offer solace. With all earthly needs met and external stimuli silenced, you can fully devote yourself to developing your meditation practice.
Flowing with Reality
The technique of Vipassana is (deceptively) simple. You scan your body from head-to-toe and simply notice sensations as they come up, making sure to focus only on one part of the body at a time. This is a good introduction.
With the technique, you start to understand how deeply connected physical sensations in your body are to the thoughts and feelings of your mind. You also begin to understand the core idea undergirding eastern spirituality — that everything, including your sensations, thoughts, and feelings are impermanent. The technique teaches you this universal truth through the lens of the most visceral data source you have: your own lived experience.
I think the serenity and clarity gained during a 10-day sit stems from a deeper connection to this understanding. With the past immutable and the future yet to unfold, your true power lies in embracing the present moment's full attention.
Vipassana, despite its merits, isn’t without its drawbacks and dangers. From my research, an overwhelming majority of people who commit to a 10-day sit reap positive benefits. Though a few, either due to physical or mental instability, or adverse life circumstances, may have to deal with destabilizing experiences.
Additionally, the physical discomfort from sitting in a rigid and unfamiliar posture for 10-11 hours daily sucks. To this end, the centers are considerate, offering plenty of cushions and chairs if needed. Don’t be afraid to request these things — the purposeisn’t to subject yourself to physical pain.
Other Techniques vs. Vipassana
In the realm of self-discovery and spiritual growth, many techniques and modalities might vie for your attention. Yet, all paths converge towards a singular end goal: a profound connection to our innermost selves.
One particularly interesting framework that came to light during a conversation with someone after the retreat was an understanding of the cyclical nature of our interactions with the world. This cycle, typically initiated by (1) an environmental trigger, (2) leads to a response — an action, (3) and then a reaction in the environment.
In the realm of self-improvement, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) seeks to intervene in this cycle at the cognitive (2) and behavioral (3) levels. It helps us better interpret and respond to events in a systematic way, improving our interactions with the world around us.
Yet, Vipassana offers a different approach, one that is foundational and more base. Instead of actively attempting to alter our thoughts or behaviors, Vipassana encourages us to merely observe our reactions (1), experiencing them without becoming entangled in them. This mindful observation short-circuits this whole process paves a path towards self-awareness and self-improvement.
In the beginning, it’s important to begin with the simplest, base, and most pure teachings, such as Vipassana. These direct and effective methods lay a strong foundation, paving the way for a more nuanced exploration of other modalities in the future.
The most direct path to spiritual illumination is to enter and maintain the state of Samadhi, or deep meditative absorption. When this doesn’t just happen spontaneously (hint, it rarely will), meditation is a powerful ally. By combining concentration (initially calming the mind) with flow (a stable state where everything ebbs seamlessly), one establishes the conditions for Samadhi to arise.
The optimal practice begins with selecting a meditation object (such as the breath or body scan) that facilitates entering the flow. Once you’re in the state of flow, the real work begins. There’s no destination, you’re simply shedding layers of self that have accumulated over time.
Somatic practices, including breath-work, energetic exercises, hatha yoga, and heat and cold therapies have their place and are great supplements to your practice by way of physiological modulation. By traversing these stages with dedication and openness, we lay bare the truth dormant within us all.
Meditation as Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy is a therapeutic approach that addresses post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions by connecting the mind and body, and integrating psychotherapy and physical therapies. From my experience, Vipassana meditation itself can be seen as a form of self-somatic therapy.
When practicing Vipassana, the absence of movement and external stimuli prompts the psyche to release buried memories. This is a bit unsettling a first, but can also be remarkably healing when approached with psychological preparedness. In spiritual terms, this process "purifies the mind" and releases samskaras (deep-rooted habitual patterns).
In my own practice, I revisited traumatic and painful experiences (during both my sits and my walks) and was able to observe them objectively, reframing them and finding peace. I discovered that the key to this self-somatic healing is to remain still for extended periods, allowing uncomfortable sensations to surface and be acknowledged. In the absence of emotional pressure valves, trauma surfaces, manifesting as physical and emotional discomforts like heat, nausea, and fear, after which it eventually loses its grip and dissipates.
Meditation vs. Psychedelics
Meditation and psychedelics can serve as both superficial tools (e.g. meditation for stress relief or psychedelics for party-enhancing sensory experiences) and profound spiritual sacraments.
In my piece on the perils of unearned wisdom, I wrote the following:
Above all, I think the most pernicious and understated peril of psychedelics is what I like to call the phenomena of “unearned wisdom”. For some time, you understand things that normally take years of committed spiritual practice and philosophical study to properly integrate. The half-life of these insights is short and you struggle to integrate them into your life, especially if it’s your first time encountering this kind of knowledge.
I believe that the “truths” you encounter during psychedelic experiences are the same as those you can come to through a life of contemplation, reflection, and practice. When you come to these truths from rigorous practice rather than being shot towards them in a rocket, you appreciate and understand them, and can more readily apply them to your life.
The truth is that you can use psychedelics as a tool to see what’s out there, but nothing will replace a regular practice of meditation, reflection, and contemplation. Be present with the mundane experience of your day-to-day life and you will find the answers you’re looking for.
I think my intuition was correct. The retreat's impact, though less intense in the moment, feels more enduring, easily integrated, and cultivable over time compared to fleeting psychedelic encounters. It’s given me something that I can work towards, not something that I grasp for a moment before it falls away like sand.
The important thing to note is the natural decay of neural connections in the brain if not regularly engaged. While psychedelics offer limitedsustainable practices, meditation consists of regular mindfulness practice, ensuring the benefits are retained and nurtured in the long-term.
Integration often poses the greatest challenge following any profound experience. I still struggle with this, so I’ll leave you with some advice from a friend who embarked on a 49-day retreat: Shift the integration paradigm from trying to blend spiritual values into everyday life to making spirituality your base, and allowing worldly concerns to flow in as space is available.
Striking a balance between worldly engagements and maintaining mental clarity is crucial. For my friend, a consistent meditation practice serves as an anchor, with two hours daily being the key to staying grounded. Habitually reconnecting with the transformative moments experienced during retreat can also help maintain that depth.
To sustain this practice, he initially attempted three days of solitude per month during the pandemic. As of 2023, he’s adapted it to a blend of either a 3-day monthly or a 10-day every 3-4 months. After his first ever retreat (a 10-day), he realized that he wasn’t ready to regularly spend 1-2 hours a day meditating. The 49-day retreat became his catalyst to establish this practice, considering it takes around 21 days to build a habit.
The astounding level of clarity and peace I experienced during the retreat, and even months after, was transformative. It was as if everything just made sense, and I could perceive things for how they truly were, allowing me to act accordingly without being swayed by emotion or how I want things to be.
I’ve developed a deeper connection to my Indian heritage, as Vipassana was the original technique taught by the Buddha in India to reach enlightenment. As a result, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude and an earnest desire to give back. The purity of the experience, run entirely on donations and volunteers driven by the philosophy of serving others, moved me to tears on multiple occasions.
One key revelation was my lack of connection and understanding of bodily sensations as they relate to emotions—something I think many people struggle with, particularly men. Now, I feel a tighter connection, understanding, and acceptance of my own body, imperfections and all.
This introspective journey also fostered a stronger acceptance of my younger self via self-somatic therapy I unwittingly did during meditation. As I navigated past experiences and emotions, I found peace and understanding, reframing my perspective and creating a healthier relationship with my past.
The meta-process of mastery in anything became evident through this level of immersion. Like an athlete, I cut out distractions and maintained a singular focus. To achieve greatness and depth, a consistent dedication to this approach is essential, alongside a balance to prevent burnout. I now understand that one needs a ramp-up and some level of balance before and after diving into such things.
In terms of actionable takeaways, I am now placing greater intentionality on my inputs, striving to not compulsively be at "inbox zero", and working to be more present in the moment. I now recognize the pitfalls of being perpetually future-oriented, always planning, and not fully engaging with my present experience.
The retreat has gifted me a practice and a path that I am determined to follow for the rest of my life. While I am not yet ready to fully commit to it wholeheartedly, I have seen glimpses of its potential and trust that the right moment will come when I am prepared to dive deeper.
So there we have it. Since my first 10-day in November, I’ve done another retreat (a 3-day) which was a good reminder as to why I started down this journey in the first place. I’m happy to answer any questions about Vipassana or my experience! ✌🏽
Vipassana is just one modality to get here. There are many others, and I know that there’s lots of individual variation as to what sticks for you — though I think the immersive nature of these retreats leads to a lot of benefits that wouldn’t arise from other practices.
I did a lot of research beforehand though, including asking friends, reading articles, and listening to podcasts on people’s experience. Do as I say, not as I do 😄
Though mild amounts of discomfort can be valuable to sharpen concentration. It’s kind of like lifting weights—you only get stronger by progressively lifting heavier and heavier weights.
I do think that microdosing and integrating previously psychedelic experiences can be valuable to this end.