I recently completed a 10 day, silent mediation retreat through the local Vipassana Centre.
Ten days without being able to read, write, talk, communicate, or do most normal things… but I was able to meditate for 12 hours a day, every day. It is a fantastic gift that SN Goenka has given to people—the ability to go to a retreat and for 10 days and not have to worry about deadlines, bills, food, fuel, kids, or the baggage retrieval system at Heathrow. You are able to focus almost entirely inward.
This can be very scary, but it is a wonderful experience, for seven main reasons:
Traveling to the retreat, I focused on how to remain silent for 10 days without reading, writing, or communicating. Being the loquacious type, there had been a fair amount of ridicule about me not lasting 10 minutes, let alone 10 days, on a silent retreat, and I was worried about my odds. My concern was that the ‘noble silence’ didn’t begin until 8 p.m., and I got there at 3 p.m. I wasn’t there to talk to people, and so I found it very difficult to pass that time.
I removed myself a little from the crowd and tried to remain focused inward. I listened to the conversations happening around me, and it suddenly occurred to me how much of speech is just white noise. I listened to people talk about how much money they made, what they did for a living and why, what their favorite holidays were and what trips they had planned in the future. “These were no conversations of substance,” I arrogantly told myself.
I became quite skeptical about my reasons for going on the retreat. Was I in the wrong place?
I was glad when the ‘noble silence’ began. It meant that I could interact with people without having to make silly little comments about the weather, mutual acquaintances, or common tasks. It’s an amazing thing when communication is removed: a group of 60 strangers from very diverse backgrounds, who might not get along in other circumstances, can just live, perfectly happy and at peace in quite a small and confined space. After a day or two, I found that I didn’t miss talking very much at all. After a few more days, I found that I was even talking to myself.
I was fairly shocked to realize what a huge klutz I am. The times when I really did miss talking was when I knocked into something or someone, broke something, or accidentally put rubbish into a fellow mediator’s breakfast.
Over the 10 days of silence, interacting with people as little as possible, but still observing the slightest details, I found myself developing an entire back story for the people around me. I thought about the guy beside me and how he is from the country; the inner-city, shiny skinned accountant who has a litter of little dogs; the boofhead in the front row with a cold who still lives with his brother and is studying to become someone, maybe a banker.
And then on day 10, I got to speak again and the strangest things happened. Firstly, I realized that the back story I made up for all these people is not only wrong, but almost always opposite to reality. I completely misunderstood and misjudged everyone (except for the arsehole-artist-want-to-be from Perigian Beach—I picked that guy perfectly).
I realized that I had picked up on the slightest recognized quality of a person and, in the absence of any other form of communication and information, I labelled that person completely. My labels then negated them. I wonder how often we do this in normal life, without the ability to see our mistakes on day 10.
Secondly, the conversations I had with people on day 10 were all very in depth and of great substance. There were no dumb conversations about how much money one made or sitting on a bus to somewhere. These conversations are not important. The conversations on day 10 and day eleven were really quite astounding. Perhaps the mediation focuses our minds to filter out the nonsense, or perhaps for people like myself who are used to speaking all day, the conversations on day ten are the proverbial cherry vodka for the recovering alcoholic.
Like many people in Western cultures, I find my diet is constantly creeping toward richer and heavier foods, with the more I eat of these, the more I want. Over time, I find that I have to consciously cleanse my diet, and only eat steamed vegetables for a couple of days to reset my expectations. The food at the retreat was fantastic for this type of re-calibration, but it was a shock for the first few days. The simplicity of the food matches the simplicity of the lifestyle. On day seven I found myself thinking, “These prunes are so much better than yesterday, but not nearly as good as the prunes on day four.” The cleansing qualities of simple food was made all even more apparent because there was no choice or comparison.
The sleep that I got after meditation was quite unbelievable. Since there are no electronic devices, such as phones or computers, or any distractions such as deadlines, there was a true peacefulness, although it was difficult to get used to. Secondly, since I spent the whole day looking through myself, focusing on different things, that I was just plain exhausted, physically and mentally. Sitting cross-legged on the floor for twelve hours also makes any bed seem equivalent to oral-sex from a couple of angels.
The very concept of sleep is reset. While I first dreaded that 4 a.m. wake up bell, I also grew to eagerly anticipate it. It set me free from the solitude that had seemed just plain strange.
4. Dinner parties
It was fantastic for the few months afterward that every dinner party and water cooler conversation was somehow turned back around into a conversation about my meditation retreat. “I could never do that,” I was told. I just smiled politely and said “I understand, I used to think that.” When this happens to you, you can always just start silently mouthing a prayer-like phrase prior to eating or drinking – that’ll put the focus back on your weird calmness.
But in all seriousness, something like this has to be on everyone’s bucket list, doesn’t it?
Going for 10 days without sex is just plain strange. At first it was really frustrating, but by about day four, there was a calmness granted by the solitude and celibacy of the place. Day eleven was like losing your virginity all over again, except without all those annoying “am I doing this right/where does that go/why is she…oh wow…” type problems.
6. Reset your life
The greatest thing about 10 days of silent meditation, where the food, shelter, and time, are all taken care of by fellow meditators (who have returned to pay it forward) is that there is the chance to completely review and reset your life.
The brain can be like a basket of apples, spread it out on the lawn in front of us, and we clearly see which part is rotten and which parts are not. We can find the sense of what we are doing wrong and work on it—observe it.
The meditation does get quite religiously dogmatic at times, despite the claims of the teachers that it is universal truth (which religion doesn’t claim to be universally true?) One of the key points made in this quasi-religious setting is that it is by the observations of our ‘samskaras‘ (or bad mojo) that we are freed from it.
I have always really adored the quote at the end of Grosse Point Blank: “Most people say forgive and forget. I say forget about forgiving and just accept.” Vipassana goes one step further. Vipassana teaches us to not accept, do nothing more than observe. You don’t need to accept bad things, but you do need to observe them.
Samskaras (bad mojos) are apparently always formed by bad experiences. A memory is formed in our body somewhere. If we do not observe this, it will bubble to the surface and influence our reactions to present and future events. We will react badly because we are reacting to a past injury, not to the present situation. I’m not sure that this is true, but I found it a great vehicle for reclaiming a fair bit of stuff that had fallen by the wayside over the years. It’s also very similar to Jungian understandings of the self, of which I have always been a fan.
What is time, what is life if it cannot be organized so that 10 days out of the 70 or more years we have on this groovy little rock can’t be set aside to give this whole Vipassana thing a try? You may get a huge revitalization and be able to start your life with a newly found passion. You may only get a little realization out of it.
But you will get something out of it.
Every seventh word in this article is dedicated to the late, great SN Goenka.
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Editorial Assistant: Kristin Monk/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Meditation by the Lake courtesy of Nat Sakunworarat