By Sheryl Song • January 2021
What a 10-day silent meditation retreat taught me about entrepreneurship
This time last year, I was in the woods living like a Buddhist nun in total solitude. When I first applied to the Dhamma 10-day silent Vipassana Meditation course in June of 2019, I was still working in corporate. I had a decent job, lots of friends, time and money to travel. Everything in my life seemed well-planned out and in order. Subconsciously, however, I knew there should be something more…and I was seeking answers to the deeper meaning of my life. So without any prior meditation experience, I clicked ‘apply!’
At first glance, the Vipassana Meditation course seemed too good to be true. The skeptic in me thought it almost sounded like a scam since the whole course is free (room-and-board included). The live by the policy that if by the end of the course you think it’s added value to your life, you can choose to donate to the organization. It just doesn’t make any business sense! But Yuval Harari, one of my favorite authors, claims to be a serious Vipassana meditator and participates in the 10-day course yearly. That eased my skepticism.
For the whole 10 days, “noble silence” is required. This means no communicating in any shape or form: no gestures, talking, eye contact, phone, internet, reading, writing, or physical exercise allowed. Each day, you’re required to wake up at 4am – and other than eating, walking and sleeping – your time is dedicated to practice meditation. That sounds like a living hell right?!
But six months flew by from when I hit that apply button. In that time, I went from a corporate job in Canada to finally acting on my start-up idea. I serendipitously partnered up with an industry acquaintance, and formally incorporated my business. The first few weeks as a full-fledged entrepreneur was quite an adjustment.
I was eager, hungry, aggressive and thought sleep was a luxury not a necessity. I ended up having two neck spasms and daily migraines. I totally forgot about the meditation course I’d signed up for six months ago until google calendar notified me two days prior. I was thinking of cancelling. I thought, “I really don’t have time to be away for 10 full days!” But my business partner and everyone around me encouraged me to go. They thought I was going to burn out before my business would even have a chance to truly start. I obliged, jumped on a 2-hr Uber ride up north in December of 2019, to literately the middle of nowhere to begin my 10 days of solitude.
My Experience By Day
Day 0: Check in The meditation center was shockingly beautiful, surrounded by ravines covered in snow. I was assigned to a picturesque little wood cabin. The food was insanely delicious, always served buffet style (I went back to the corn bread counter at least four times!). I thought, are all these really for free?? I was still skeptical. We were warned the whole 10 days would be like a deep operation into our mind; it will be difficult and sometimes painful. Before I handed in my phone, a few friends texted “will come get you in two days! LOL”. If you know me, you know how much I love a good challenge. “Bring it on,” I thought.
Day 1: Observing breath I started boarding school when I was 15, so I was no stranger to communal living. Knowing the limited bathrooms, I was up at 3:50am and got ready before the huge bathroom line was formed. Winning already! (Haha). The whole day of meditation felt easy, we were instructed to observe our breath. I spent the majority of the meditation hours going deep into my memory bank and thought of everything and everyone.
Days 2 - 3: Living my best life I started to question if I was doing it correctly. Isn’t it supposed to be a painful experience? I was enjoying every second of it! The food was great, no one was bothering me, I could go for walks in nature and quietly observe the snowfall. The complete noble silence was, surprisingly, the easiest part for me. Maybe I’m a closeted introvert?
Day 4: Vipassana Day We finally got taught the Vipassana meditation method. From this day on, you can no longer move or change posture during your meditation practice. The Vipassana method is a mental body scan: you try to feel the sensations throughout the body. On this day, I started experiencing an acute knee pain. The pain was so real, I thought I’d need to call an ambulance. But the moment the meditation was over, the knee pain was gone.
Day 5: Boredom The acute knee pain was magically gone. But I officially ran out of things to think about in my memory bank. What awaited me was the real torture: boredom. The 1-hr meditation felt like forever, and I seriously thought about quitting the course. Although I was sitting peacefully in the meditation hall, I was screaming bloody hell inside. For the first time ever, I thought of quitting.
Day 6: Anxiety Worries filled my mind. What if my grandma became ill? How are they going to contact me? What if there’s a fire in my house? What if my dog ran away? What if WWIII started? Every time I closed my eyes, my anxiety would rise, and I’d have to resist every single urge to act on my ‘made-up’ anxious thoughts. All I could do was observe my rising heartbeat and the tightness in my chest.
Day 7: Euphoria For the first time ever, my mind was quiet. I managed to stay focused on feeling my bodily sensations, instead of creating noise in my head. One hour flew by, and I started enjoying the meditation. During one of our evening sessions, I experienced what they call ‘free flow’ meditation. The moment I closed my eyes, I felt a warm energy from the top of my head pouring down; almost like someone was pouring a bucket of warm water on my head. And I could control how fast or slow the warm energy poured down with my own mind. I felt euphoric!
Day 8: Pain Pain again! It was beyond the physical pain. It was the kind of pain that you experience in your chest after a heartbreak and right before an emotional breakdown. I’d already run out of things to think about, so there was no trigger. Nothing really happened, yet I was having an almost breakdown! But all I could do was stay seated on my mat, examine every single sensation and with no judgement. And accept everything as it is.
Day 9: Inner Strength Meditating for an hour straight in the same position is no longer a challenge. Free flow returned and this time, way more powerful than what I experienced Day 7. I was able to feel the inside of my body – to go inward and actually feel the sensations in my organs.
Day 10: “Metta” The last day of the meditation course. They call it the “Metta Day,” which is when we stop practicing Vipassana and are taught the Metta meditation technique. Basically, you are sending positive energy out to the world. You wish all beings to be happy. The moment the chanting started, tears streamed down my face. I felt an overwhelming amount of joy, happiness, and contentment. After the 10-day experience, I felt like a different person. On my way back to Toronto, I saw the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And with no thought in my mind, I felt a strong inner strength that I have never felt before. “We are gonna be okay,” I told myself. In that split second, my fear of the unknown future transformed into faith.
My Takeaways A Year Later
Almost one year since I completed the meditation course, I have not become an even-tempered, ‘Zen’ meditator. I still have almost no patience. I still find meditation extremely difficult and often gather excuses to skip it. But my learnings still played a major role in my wellbeing (especially) during this 2020 dumpster fire of a year. It certainly did prepare me to survive the lockdown, but I want to share my top 5 lessons that are applicable to any ‘new normal.’
1. Pay attention to your subconscious mind. The saying ‘trust your gut’ really meant ‘trust your subconscious mind.’ And the so called subconscious mind is in fact always conscious. Our body has memory too, and sometimes our conscious mind will choose to block out certain unpleasant memories to protect us. But the sensation attached to those memories will stay with our body forever. Have you ever met someone and felt like you’ve known the person forever? Or encountered a certain situation you just don’t feel right in? That is our subconscious mind, based from our body’s memories, reacting to the situation. Pay close attention to it, examine how you feel with no judgement. Accept and trust the feelings as they are.
2. Nothing is permanent (this too, shall pass). The only constant is change, nothing in life will stay the same – you’ve probably heard these before. But how many times do you prompt yourself to ‘take a step back?’ In the heat of a moment when you’re most triggered, how do you really take a step back? When you feel triggered or angry, take a pause and really examine what you’re feeling. Accept it as it is, and observe how it evolves. Feeling guilt, shame, regret, or remorse? This non-judgmental noting will be a constant practice, but you’ll get better the more you do it, internalizing the wisdom of ‘this too, shall pass.’
3. Choose faith over fear. When facing the unknown future, we can either be faithful or fearful. It is a conscious choice that we have to make every day. No one has a crystal ball, nor knows what the future holds, but you can choose whether you’re going to show up as faithful or fearful. As an entrepreneur, your whole life is full of unknowns. Every day is a bit of a roller coaster. When you feel defeated or have the urge to give up, remember, as long as you’re staying true to your core value and working on accomplishing your company’s mission, you will be okay! When in doubt, choose faith. Always.
4. Surrender. Then surrender some more. In a society hyper-focused on “I” “me” and “myself,” – my rights, my value, my passion, so on…we believe “I can do anything.” So, surrendering is often seen as a negative thing. We’re encouraged to take charge of our lives. To keep going whether we hit a wall or not. But the act of surrender means to give up what you cannot control to the universe. You are giving over your anxiety, fear, and problems to a higher power. The Sanskrit word Dharma, which is spelled Dhamma in the Pāli language, originally meant ‘the law of nature’ or ‘the truth.’ The world functions by following the law of nature. So knowing and trusting that higher power will guide you and protect you. Same as how the bird sings, the flower blooms, and the sun also rises.
5. Pay it forward! This was my biggest takeaway from the Vipassana course. The whole organization is supported by donation and run by volunteers. After living for 10 days on the generosity of others, you naturally want to pay it forward. On the last day of the course, I willingly donated an amount probably exceeding my paygrade. To date, it is still the best money I have ever spent.
Is the meditation course for you? It was by far the best and most transformative 10 days of my life. And every single person I talked to shared how glad they were to have taken the course as well. Granted, for full transparency, there were 5 people who quit and 1 who had a mental breakdown. It certainly is difficult and not for everyone. But if you’re interested, here is the site to learn more, or to sign up for a retreat: Dhamma.org. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me! You can contact me at : Sheryl@theRyna.com or DM on instagram @theRynaOfficial. To pay tribute, I’ll end as my Meditation Teacher ended our meditation sessions: “May All Beings Be Happy.”