Saturday, May 25, 2024

There is No Aim in Meditation (Lessons From My 2nd Vipassana Retreat)

Lessons from Vipassana Meditation Course
Meditation hall at Dhamma Arunachala Meditation Center

I recently completed my second 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat (where you sit in silence and crossed-legged on the floor for 10 hours a day) and I gotta tell you, I was so glad when the course was over. I even started counting down the days from day five and told myself during the last few days that I would never do this course again.

Ironically, on day one, I had such good meditation sessions that I was already planning in my mind to do this course every year, or perhaps even twice a year. But everything changed starting day two. It became much tougher than my first Vipassana retreat.

One of the reasons, I guess, was because of my own ego and expectations. But luckily, in the end, I did learn a couple of very valuable lessons for my meditation practice, which I would love to share with you now.

I decided to join a Vipassana meditation course, again

I had a great experience and I knew that I was going to do it again, but year after year I just kept postponing it. So it has taken me more than 12 years to have the courage to try it for the second time.

The thing is, although I had a great experience during my first course it was still a bit tough. So I was intimidated by the thought of sitting again for long hours enduring intense physical pain and other bizarre sensations.

But last March while I was in Varkala, in the South of India, after hearing different friends talking about their recent Vipassana experiences, I felt inspired and motivated, and something inside of me also told me that this was the right time.

So I signed up for the course, and a few days later I was already on my way.

I had to do a very long journey to reach the location of the course. I traveled 600 km, almost 15 hours by train, bus, and auto-rickshaw to reach the Vipassana meditation center in Tiruvanamalai, Dhamma Arunachala.

There couldn't be a better place to do a meditation retreat. Tiruvanamalai is a pilgrimage destination in India known for its temples, the Mount Arunachala, and the Ramana Maharshi ashram.

I arrived in Tiruvanamalai at 5:30 am.  I couldn't go to the meditation center at that hour so I decided to go first to the Ramana Maharshi ashram.  

I was looking forward anyway to doing my morning meditation practice in one of the meditation rooms on the back side of the ashram. This is one of my favorite places on earth to practice meditation. So powerful.

After a brief meditation, I searched for a restaurant to have breakfast and then I headed to Dhamma Arunachala, the Vipassana meditation center.

The center was about a 20-minute drive from the ashram, in an isolated area. It is simple but beautiful, with lots of trees and fantastic food served by volunteers.

My positive personal experience during day one

Surprisingly, as I mentioned before, pretty much as soon as we started the course, I had some pretty powerful meditation sessions. That was even before we started practicing the actual vipassana technique. We were doing only anapana, mindfulness of breathing.

It wasn't something transcendental or hallucinogenic like some people experience in Vipassana retreats, but it was exactly the experience that I was looking for, and the main reason why I had come to this retreat.

As soon as I sat down for the first morning meditation my breath became very subtle, almost imperceptible and my body became completely still, like a mountain.

It felt as if I had detached myself from my body, as if there was space between myself and my body so to make any movement I had to make a conscious effort to do so.

At the same time, I experienced this beautiful crystal clear state of mind. I was fully alert, calm, and present. It is hard to describe unless you have experienced something like this yourself.

You see the thing is that when you practice meditation regularly there is always something happening, there are always some sort of “obstacles” that get in the way of meditation.

Maybe you feel anxious, tired, agitated, distracted, the neighbor's dog starts barking, and so on and on. It's so rare to enjoy such a clear state of mind, at least in my personal experience.

But the real reason why this experience was so important to me was because I thought that this mental state was a requirement to practice meditation, at least that's what the books say. So I told myself, “Finally I can start to meditate.”

My challenges during the rest of the course

But anyway, everything changed from day two. Every single meditation from then on was a struggle for me.

There are eight meditation sessions during the day. Each session lasts at least one hour. Some are an hour and a half, and there are a couple of two-hour sessions during the day.

But I wasn't able to sit still throughout any of the one-hour sitting sessions.

Of course, you are not obliged to sit still during the entire session. You are encouraged to do so, but it's not mandatory. You can change your posture and take some rest if you need to.

But here is where my ego got in the way.

I really wanted to sit still for at least one hour because, in my daily meditation practice, I am used to sitting still for one hour, without any effort. And during my first retreat, twelve years ago, I was able to complete almost all the sessions without changing my posture. I was even able to sit still through one of the two-hour sessions.

But this time no matter what I couldn't complete more than 40 or 45 minutes, either because I was overcome by sleep or because I was struggling with intense body pain, mainly in my sitting bones.

But I kept trying and trying.

Whenever the pain would arise I would observe it with a calm and relaxed state of mind, knowing that it is impermanent. And as expected, oftentimes the pain would dissolve. But a few minutes later, it would come back, again and again, and each time with more intensity.

Eventually, it would become unbearable so I had to stop the meditation. But then when I would check the time I would realize in shock that there were still 20 or 15 minutes to go to complete just an hour. This happened in every single meditation session.

And so starting day three, maybe because I pushed it too much on day two, I was in constant pain, almost all day long. I couldn't even sleep properly at night. I would wake up every hour because of the pain in my legs.  I'm sure the crazy thin mattress on the bed didn't help.

And since I couldn't have a good sleep at night then I would feel even more sleepy during the meditation sessions. I tried to take a couple of naps during the day to compensate but it didn't help much.

There is no aim in meditation

At some point, I went to see the teacher who was guiding the course. First I told him about my struggles with body pain and he simply said:

“Stop reacting towards the pain.”

Yep, that's it.

I then told him about my positive experience on day one.  Since I thought this was a required preliminary stage for mediation, I asked him if this was a state that I should aim for in my meditation sessions. His answer was pretty straightforward and clear

“There is no aim in meditation!”

I know, that answer might sound pretty obvious to you, but don't you sometimes just forget about it?

It took me a while to realize that the wonderful experience I had the first day, was still just that, an experience, and an experience that I had become attached to. I was craving for it.

On the other side, I was having so much aversion towards the pain and the sleepiness that I was experiencing. I was feeling frustrated and disappointed with myself. So in a way, I was indeed reacting towards the pain.

The funny thing is the main purpose of this meditation course is to develop equanimity, to stop reacting to any positive or negative sensations with feelings of attachment or aversion.

So I was doing the complete opposite. Instead of equanimity, I was cultivating more and more attachment and aversion. Luckily in the end I started noticing my mistake.

You see, the moment that we sit to meditate with an aim in mind while reacting towards any negative experiences, we are not equanimous anymore. We have to accept every experience as it comes. Only then can we enter a meditative state.

I also used to think that in order to experience that calm, steady, and blissful state of mind during meditation you need to go through all the other days where you struggle with restless thoughts and so on. You can not just jump into meditation, you have to “pay your dues,” so to speak.

I still believe this is true, but now I see these other days not just as some uncomfortable event that you have to go through but actually as different stages in the meditation process. They are inseparable from meditation.

Keeping this in mind has helped me to finally be able to accept every single experience in meditation without judging it as good or bad, positive or negative. The sleepiness, the fatigue, the restlessness, the anxiety, the pain, that is all part of meditation. So there is no such thing as a good or bad meditation session. Duh.

Mental purification through meditation

Now I should also mention something that is perhaps not so obvious.

When you practice meditation (not only Vipassana) there is always some mental purification that happens gradually and imperceptibly.

But when you do an intense meditation retreat like this one, the mental purification process is accelerated. This means that you could have some very intense experiences, some enjoyable, some perhaps pretty uncomfortable.

Sleepiness, physical pain, strange body sensations, and sometimes even emotional pain or anguish, are all signs of this mental purification.

I knew this in advance, and we were reminded about it at the beginning of the course.

But besides this mental purification some of these experiences I believe could be because of the influence of the environment. Imagine meditating in a space where hundreds of people have been meditating countless hours year after year. Or it could also be simply because of the mind resisting the process.

For me is very interesting to notice that I had that positive experience as soon as we started the course, and it was only on day 10 that I was finally able to sit for one hour straight, and without effort. Maybe that was because I was finally able to find the right combination of cushions, right?

And that was the only day I was able to sleep at night without a break, almost until the bell rang at 4 am. And I woke up without feeling so much pain. So the thin mattress didn't really matter. Perhaps my unconscious mind was a bit relieved knowing that the course was almost over.

I have more to talk about yet

Anyway, realizing that there is no aim in meditation and that there is no such thing as a good or bad meditation session has had a very positive impact on my meditation practice.

Of course, I knew this at an intellectual level before.  But now it's become part of my personal experience.

Also, besides the challenges that I experienced during the course, there were other reasons why I was counting the days from day five and why I told myself that I would never do this course again.

That was because of several things that I didn't like about the course. They were actually the same things that I didn't like during my first Vipassana meditation course but this time they felt a lot more irritating.

I will talk about these things and I will share with you my opinion about the Vipassana technique in my next blog post. So stay tuned.  But if you would like to know more about the course and the technique you can visit the blog posts I published in 2011, everything is there:

I hope you enjoy reading about my experience and that you got something valuable out of it. Please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments section below.


  1. Muchas gracias por compartir tus experiencias, son muy inspiradoras. No tendría la información de primera mano de cómo funcionan estos retiros, lugares y pensamientos si no fuera por tí. Me transporta allí y me motiva para seguir practicando yoga y meditación. Un saludo

    1. Muchas gracias a ti por tomarte el tiempo no solo de leer mi blog pero tambien por compartir tus comentarios. Me alegra que lo hayas encontrado util e informativo. Saludos

    2. Hola Marco,
      Podrías recomendar algún texto de introducción al Hinduísmo? No sabría por dónde empezar. Gracias de antemano

  2. Jai Guru Dev
    Art of meditation-
    What you will do if you get a new neighbour who makes barbeque,drinks,speaks to loud,has a dog and a cat,a daughter with cancer iĺness , small granddaughter and plans to live near you forever?

    1. To practice equanimity without reacting with aversion but remaining calm and balanced observing the distractions and the unconscious reactions. Maybe it will become more clearer with the next couple of blogs that I'll be sharing soon.

  3. Congratulation Marco, for completing 10-days intense Vipassana meditation retreat for 2nd time.

    I completed my first 10-days Vipassana meditation retreat back in 2012 so I know how much challenging it is. I will share my personal experience with you shortly in an email.

    Thank you for sharing the challenges you faced as well as lessons you learned. They will help others. Looking forward for your next blog!

    1. Thank you Dhananjay! Always happy to read your comments 🙏🙏🙏

  4. Marco, Glad you learned this important lesson. Experience reality as it is. If it is pleasant, it is probably still sensory, so keep going. If it is unpleasant, it is sensory and indicative of impurities, so keep going!