I survived a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Here’s what happened
When was the last time you were truly alone? Really, truly, alone? No friends, no phone, no TV, no kids. I had never really thought about how intimidating and exhilarating being alone could be until I undertook my first Vipassana.
For the uninitiated, Vipassana is a meditation technique centred on concentrating your attention on the subtle sensations of the body. Sounds pretty straight forward, non? The kicker is that you can only learn the technique by undertaking a 10 day course that involves no talking, no technology and a very intense schedule, waking at 4am and meditating for 10 and a half hours each day.
A word of warning before we go any further – this is not an account or review of the philosophies behind the technique. I definitely could not do it justice. If you’re interested in learning more about it, I really can’t recommend anything other than trying it for yourself. This is merely an account based on the most FAQs when I tell people I tried this, namely, “What did you eat, how did you feel and how on earth could you stand sitting in silence for such a long time?”
As I waved goodbye to my husband, a few rogue tears began to run down my face. “Great, I’m crying and I haven’t even left my street” I thought to myself. Why was I suddenly so emotional? It was the first time what I was about to attempt really hit me. I’d been so busy in the lead-up that I hadn’t properly considered the reality of what the next 10 days would be. Now, for the first time, it had begun to sink in.
When I arrived we were ushered into a big dining hall for check-in. The room had lino floors and plastic chairs and felt a bit like school camp. Most people – ranging from their late teens right through to their 70s – kept to themselves as we waited to sign in and hand over our phone, wallet and keys. My room was below the dining hall, and was just wide enough to fit a single bed and a small bedside table. It was basic, but it was mine (most rooms were shared) and I felt overjoyed I’d have my own space to escape to if the schedule permitted.
My joy was short-lived when I realised I had arrived with the most poorly packed bag of my life. I had been so preoccupied with finding clothes that met the modesty requirements (nothing tight, no leggings, no bare arms or legs), that I forgot to pack useful things like shower gel, bedding, a hair brush or a pillow - none of which were provided. But, I would just have to make do. This would be the first of many moments of surrender. I had signed in and now there were no hall passes to pop out to the shops to pick up emergency supplies. After an initial wave of panic I asked a volunteer if there was any spare bed linen and soap. Of course there was, and what had seemed like a disaster five minutes earlier now seemed laughable. Perspective. This would be a theme that would resurface again and again during my stay.
“This would be the first of many moments of surrender …there was no hall passes to pop out to the shops and pick up a sleeping bag and shower gel.”
On the first afternoon, we were asked to commit fully to the technique and encouraged to leave now if we couldn’t. After what would be our final evening meal for 10 days, we shuffled into the meditation hall for our first session. Here we began to learn about the technique and the obligatory silence began. I wondered if the quiet would get harder as the days wore on.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t. The silence was a relief. I’d go so far as to say I loved it. I’m a naturally quiet person (except when I’m sleep – then I’m snoring). My MO is to hang back and observe. It can be off-putting when I meet new people (so I’ve been told), and I’ve been brandished with a haughty label my whole life, but the truth is, I’m just really, really shy.
Normally the thought of being thrown into a 10 day retreat with 60 strangers would be my idea of hell, but with the pressure of making small talk eradicated it didn’t bother me in the slightest. While any kind of interaction was forbidden, a gentle camaraderie gradually developed between us. The slightest considerate action, like someone holding a door open would send a wave of gratitude through my body. One day when it was raining, a girl walking ahead of me with an umbrella turned her head slightly and then slowed down so I could catch up and take cover. It was the sweetest moment and my heart nearly burst.
“With the pressure of making small talk eradicated, the silence didn’t bother
me in the slightest.”
But while I was relishing the quiet, I got the feeling not everyone was enjoying the solitude. About 48 hours in I noticed the unravelling begin. There was a tension that hung in the air. It was fascinating to be so quiet and attuned to the energy I could sense it all without anyone saying a word. Around me, during the marathon meditation sittings, occasionally I could hear someone quietly weeping. A woman fainted and fell off a chair. A few people got up and walked out, never to return. People fidgeted and shifted their weight, rustling blankets in an eternal quest to get more comfortable. But their rearrangements were futile, this was not about getting comfortable.
The first three days were without a doubt the hardest. Keeping to a strict schedule, with long stretches spent concentrating on the breath for hours at a time, all sorts of adolescent defiance bubbled up, “Fuck this, I’ll do it another time, I can’t do this for another week!” a bratty voice inside shouted. These thoughts punctuated hours spent on the meditation cushion. In the early days, during the scheduled breaks – from 6:30 – 8, 11 – 1 and 5 – 6 I’d rush back to my room and fall asleep almost immediately. While the other women wandered around the gardens or sat in the sunshine, I lay down and fell asleep in my room. I felt like Laurina on Bachelor in Paradise, only emerging when I was called for a crucial scene, in this case, by the gong signalling the start of another meditation. I felt guilty but I was so physically exhausted, I decided to go with it and make the most of being able to have several power naps a day. After all, when can you ever just lie down at 11:30 for half an hour without the threat of your phone going off?
By day five I had readjusted to my new daily rhythm. Ever so slowly, my shoulders stopped aching, I gave up on finding a comfortable position and finally I began to surrender to the process. It felt like I’d waded out in the surf and finally gotten past the whitewash to the still, deep water. I looked forward to the 4.30am session, and in fact, I found it the easiest of the day. My mind was quietest first thing in the morning. As the day progressed the internal chatter would escalate. Technically we were supposed to be meditating and focussing on sensations within the body, but sitting for hours on end, my mind would wander to the most peculiar places. It often felt like that strange twilight between wakefulness and sleep where your thoughts slide into one and other; one moment you’re thinking about a conversation you had a few days ago, and the next you’re having the most vivid recollection of some childhood memory.
Waves of emotion began to rise up and subside, sometimes lasting a few minutes, other times lasting almost an hour. Overwhelming gratitude for all that waited for me back home. Not only for the people I loved, but also for the freedom I took for granted every day. How lucky I felt to have the time and support to be able to take off and do this this for 10 whole days, to have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a feeling of security. I shed tears over things I’d done, words I’d said, grudges I’d held onto… And sadness for those I’d lost and would never be able to tell when I got back, “You’ve been on my mind.”
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t back-to-back epiphanies. There were plenty of hilariously trivial moments too. Perhaps the most visceral was music. From the second I woke up, to the time I drifted off to sleep, music blared in the jukebox of my mind, and let me tell you, that jukebox SUCKS. Everything from the obvious (The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel) to the silly Only by Drake/Nicki Minaj/Li’l Wayne to the downright bizarre (Paula Abdul circa Forever Your Girl). When I wasn’t deep in complete presence, or being struck with some profound new creative idea, I was belting out Rihanna… or Rancid. Sometimes the songs I’d be hearing were so silly I struggled to hold back fits of laughter.
Just as in my everyday life, food was a high point of each day. Breakfast – toast, fruit, cereal, and porridge – was served at 6:30. Lunch was the main meal, a rotating menu of really hearty vegetarian curries, stews and casseroles at 11. There was no dinner, but for first-timers two pieces of fruit and a cup of tea was allowed at 5pm. I had been quite concerned I’d be permanently hangry for the entire 10 days but to my surprised I wasn’t. I drank a lot more water than I usually do, at least four litres each day, and I definitely ate a bigger breakfast and lunch than usual. There was maybe only one night where I went to bed feeling properly hungry. There was no coffee and obviously no booze but I didn’t miss either. The underlying jitteriness I felt from two black coffees a day completely vanished. I felt great.
Throughout the meditations, we were warned by our teachers that unpleasant sensations may arise. We were to remind ourselves these sensations, just like everything in life, were impermanent. I assumed this was referring to the intense cramps in my legs and shooting pains up my spine that would come and go – a side effect from sitting cross legged on the floor for 10+ hours each day. But on the ninth day I got an understanding of just how unpleasant those sensations could be.
In the afternoon break sometime between the seventh and eighth hour of meditation, a thought popped into my head. “I’m over this. I want to go home.” Out of nowhere, I felt an overwhelming urge to run. Just as quickly as it arose, the feeling passed. “That’s weird, I wonder where that came from?” I thought to myself as I returned to the meditation hall. I sat down and began meditating again. Then I started to feel sick. Really sick. My heart rate sped up, nausea overwhelmed me and I felt completely off balance, as if I’d just gotten off some crazy ride. I concentrated on my breath, gave myself the impermanence pep talk and tried to sit it out.
“Out of nowhere,
I felt an overwhelming
urge to run.”
After half an hour I felt certain I was about to pass out. Not wanting to cause a scene, I mustered what little energy I had and gingerly stood up. Somehow I made it back to my room and lay down for the remainder of the meditation. Lying down helped a little, or at least the panic around falling and hitting my head had subsided, but I still felt horrendous. I didn’t feel like moving but I thought some food might help so I staggered upstairs at tea time and nibbled on an apple. Slowly the feeling began to subside and I managed to make it through the evening meditation before crashing out as soon as was permitted just after 9pm. The next day, I went to see the teacher in the designated interview time to ask her what had happened (the only point in the day speech is permitted). “This was your body releasing the sankaras, this is your body untying the knots inside,” she told me. “It’s very good you were able to stay with the sensations and you didn’t run or leave. Many students do, usually much earlier in their stay.” To be honest I don’t think I could have made an escape even if I’d wanted to, I felt that lousy. Still, I felt proud, like I had passed some kind of test my mind had thrown at me.
On the tenth day, our “noble silence” was over and we were permitted to speak. A sign was placed outside the meditation hall after our second sitting of the day and we all stood around in the sun, staring blankly at it, saying nothing. It was surreal and sweet. But once we were out of the shadow of the meditation hall a hum of excited chatter began. Initially I couldn’t quite bring myself to speak. After a couple of hours I squeaked a hello in the queue for lunch. It was fascinating hearing everyone’s voices, to get to know everyone, these people who had shared this intense, incredible experience with, but some part of me longed for the quiet.
When I returned home I felt slightly off kilter. I can’t really think of a word to describe it other than strange and sensitive. One moment I’d be overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude for the comfort of my home, the next I’d be almost in tears. The world felt loud and unforgiving, but slowly I began to readjust.
I haven’t been able to keep up the two hours of Vipassana meditation recommended by our teachers since I got back but when I can, I do an hour here or there. I know I’d feel much better if I made the time but it would mean getting up at 4am in order to fit everything else in and I just don’t think I’d make it through a work day getting up that early. Something has to give, and for now it’s the duration of my meditations. Despite my sporadic efforts, the law of impermanence, that everything in life, both good and bad, will pass, has stayed with me. And if nothing else, having the mental space to step back and remind myself of this when things get tough or when things are really, really amazing, is truly priceless.
To enrol in a course or learn more, contact the Vipassana Meditation Centre, Blackheath, NSW. bhumi.dhamma.org