“What? Ten days of silence without talking to anyone! You have got to be kidding me. There is no way I could do that!” That was the main response I received from friends and family when I told them I was off to participate in a ten day silence retreat.
To me it was a gift. I couldn’t wait to shed the layers of constraints I put on myself each day to navigate through the constantly changing environment that we all live in. The thought of not having to travel into the city each morning, not having to please anyone, dress up for anyone, wear makeup or make small talk was something I couldn’t wait to experience.
Ten days of silence, what pure bliss.
Silence however was not the main affair. It wasn’t about silence for ten days it was actually about learning the meditation practice of Vipassana.
Vipassana means to see things as they really are and it is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills. It’s a non-sectarian technique that aims for the total eradication of mental impurities resulting in the highest happiness of full liberation.
As you all know I am a big fan of happiness so I couldn’t wait to learn all about it.
I had read a few blogs from people who had attended the retreat before. I wanted to know a little bit about what I was getting myself into. These were not just from people who had attended a retreat in Australia but also from all over the world. There was one common thread, pain, pain and more pain. The daily schedule was gruelling with 10 hours of meditation throughout the day interspersed with breaks. 4am was the wake up call and 9pm was lights out. The pain came from having to sit without moving or changing your meditation posture for an hour at a time. It was called meditating with determination.
I was a bit fearful about the pain aspect but I figured I had the strength both mentally and physically to push through it. In the lead up to the retreat I practiced meditating for an hour without changing my position to see how it felt. It was hard work. My legs fell asleep, my feet fell asleep, my bum fell asleep and my knees cramped up, but I knew I could get through it.
What I didn’t factor in though was that the one hour I practiced at home was not a part of a 10 hour day sitting and meditating. After the first full day of meditating I realised what everyone was talking about. The pain and suffering was real!
By the third day I was in agony.
The main source of pain was in my upper back from having to sit upright for so long. Every opportunity I had I would retreat to my room and lay on the floor stretching for a long as could. I wished I had packed a tennis ball so I could massage out the knots. Instead I grabbed two pairs of socks and rolled them up into a ball, tied my hair bands around them and used that to try and massage out the knots. It provided some temporary relief.
Then a thought popped into my head. I had seen other people in the meditation hall with special backing boards. These backing boards slipped under your cushion and supported your back. I decided I would ask if I could get one of those. So at dinner time I made the request and it was granted. At the next meditation sitting was my very own backing board. It was heaven. From that point on I was able to contain the pain to just numbness in my bum, knees, legs and feet. By the eighth day I wasn’t even aware of this.
With the main source of my pain taken care of, the next thing to tackle was the tedious nature of the meditation process. For the first three days every time we meditated we just focused on a very small triangle area from our nostrils to our upper lip. For ten hours a day we just sat and observed the sensations that arose in that area from the breath coming in and out of our nostrils. This was to teach us how to sharpen our minds and recognise sensations.
On the fourth day we were introduced to the full method of Vipassana meditation during a non stop two hour sitting. From that point on from day four to day ten every time we sat down to meditate our full focus was on scanning our body from head to toe and toe to head, observing each and every sensation that arose. Whether it was a gross painful sensation or a subtle tingling sensation, our reaction to it had to remain balanced and calm or in Vipassana speak equanimous. What ever you experienced, at no point were you to react to it with any feelings of pleasure, craving or aversion. As each sensation arose or didn’t arise you were to treat it with equanimity and then move on.
Over and over and over again I scanned my body from head to toe and toe to head observing sensations. In the mornings I was fresh and could sometimes get a good hour in without my mind wandering off. As the day wore on and I became tired so did my mind and it started craving for more stimulation. I would sit down and start to meditate and then all of a sudden I was writing a blog in my head, thinking about Christmas, planning a holiday or wondering what my family was doing. The worst time was the evening session when I was hungry and then all I could think about was food. One night I was even eating French fries from McDonalds in my head.
Then there were the distractions in the room from other people. A sudden cough would jar every nerve in your body, this would then start a chain reaction of coughs and then the room would settle once more. Then someone would blow their nose or you could hear people’s stomachs grumbling and gurgling. On the men’s side there was a compulsive sigher who always made me smile and in the front row on the women’s side there was a beautiful, classy older Asian lady who had an unfortunate burping infliction. The first time I heard it I thought it was a bull frog, it was so loud and grunty. The burps would come in threes, the first was loud, the second even louder and the third was a beauty. I think the more she tried to contain the burps in her throat the louder they became. All of these noises were great distractions and would often wake me up enough to bring my mind back to the present.
As the days wore on I found my mind becoming sharper, more peaceful and easier to tame.
The sensations in my body became more pronounced and any blind areas started to open up and reveal themselves to me. I could now feel a sensation on my elbow or the tip of my nose or the backs of my arms. At no point however, was I to celebrate these little finds and become attached to them. Yes they may feel pleasurable but I needed to remain calm, balanced, neutral and equanimous about them. If I didn’t do this I could start to crave them and if I couldn’t feel them the next time I meditated then I would feel disappointed and become unhappy. The preface is that everything in life is always changing. Nothing ever remains the same and if we become attached to objects, people or feelings and they suddenly disappear then we can become extremely unhappy. So the key is to accept what ever sensation you feel but remain equanimous and don’t become attached to it. By training your mind to do this over and over again with meditation you will build a solid foundation on which to put this into practice in life.
That was the basis of the practice, but over the ten days we went into so much more detail. Every night there was a one hour discourse explaining the theory behind the practice. This was both entertaining and insightful. That hour was one of my favourites out of the whole day. It inspired and motivated me and I always came away from it wanting to work harder and more seriously on my practice.
Overall the entire ten days was an amazing experience. I went though ups and downs, I pushed through doubt, I overcame cravings, I put aside attachments and when ever the thought of wanting to be somewhere else popped into my mind I brought it back to the present moment. The present moment was a gift full of opportunity and I didn’t want to waste one ounce of it.
Silence ended on the tenth day
On day ten at 10am we came out of noble silence and noble chatter commenced. I didn’t want it to end and I became a bit anxious on day nine just thinking about having to talk to people again. Speaking to people meant I had to start thinking about what I was going to say, how much I was going to share with them and who I was going to talk to. I had so enjoyed not having that pressure on me for ten days.
As we came out of the meditation hall at 10am with permission to talk I headed straight for my room. I wasn’t ready to face everyone yet. I stayed in there for about 30 minutes just laying on my bed listening to the hum of chatter coming from the dining room area. I then decided I couldn’t stay there until lunch so I came out and went for a walk still avoiding people. I then took a deep breath and made my way towards the chatter. Fortunately as I approached the crowd of 60 or so people, a lady came up to me who I had met on the first day and conversation just flowed. I spent the next few hours with Angel sharing our experience and finding out that we had so much in common.
Lunch was then served and the noise in the dining room was over whelming. I couldn’t concentrate on eating my food or enjoying it because everyone wanted to talk and I felt I needed to listen. When people talk to me I like to remain focused on what they are saying. This meant I couldn’t eat properly as I felt rude breaking eye contact to eat. This made me so anxious that I lost my appetite and eating became a chore.
By the time lunch was over I was exhausted and craving my own space and silence once again.
It made me realise how much I love my own company, my own space and the sounds of silence.
So did the experience change me at all?
I am really hoping it has. Like every training course you go on, you come away feeling inspired to make changes in your life for the better. That is until you get back into the ordinary mundaneness of life and you forget all about it. This course however was unlike any other training course I have been on. For ten days I was fully immersed in the experience. I didn’t just sit and listen to the learnings, I experienced them with every part of my mind, body and soul. I didn’t just accept what someone was saying I felt the truth within me. This is why I am confident that it has and will continue to change me for the better.
What will I do differently now?
Firstly I will commit to meditating one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening where ever that is possible. I’m a realist so I know there may be occasions where I can only fit one session in.
Secondly I am changing my eating habits to reflect more mindful eating. It’s amazing what you can do when your environment is conducive to what you want to achieve. Because I couldn’t talk to anyone and because I had so much time on my hands each meal break became wonderful, slow, meditative experience. I would actually taste the food, I would finish chewing before I took my next mouthful and I would take pleasure in every mouthful.
On the retreat it was all vegetarian food with breakfast at 6.30am, lunch at 11am and a cup of tea or fruit at 5pm. Initially I thought I would be starving but this wasn’t the case at all. Fruit of an evening didn’t agree with my stomach so I just had a cup of tea. Now for those of you who know me well, you know that I hate drinking tea. When you only have two choices and one choice makes you feel unwell you just have to suck it up and go with the second option. So each night I sat with my mug of tea and guess what, I actually started to enjoy it! Maybe I am a real Pommy after all.
During the evening feelings of hunger arose with intensity and always passed. As I meditated and these sensations arose, I observed them, I accepted them with equanimity and I moved on. By the time I went to bed I was not hungry at all and when I woke at 4am I still wasn’t hungry. By 6.30am I was ready for breakfast but certainly not famished.
It felt amazing not going to bed on a full stomach of food.
So I am going to try and keep to this eating schedule as much as I can. I know there will be social occasions where dinner will be served but for the most part I will just have a cup of tea of an evening.
Lastly I am going to try and implement the principles of Vipassana into my daily life. Recognising and accepting that every experience is impermanent, that they will come and go as each day does. I will try and live each moment with an equanimous mind and give back to others where ever I can. True happiness is liberating yourself from suffering and when you are happy your beautiful energy will extend to every other being.
In the words of S. N. Goenka, may all beings be happy, peaceful, liberated.
In the words of Claire Massingham, be happy and colour the world with joy.