How a silent 10-day Vipassana can help you
I’d been toying with the idea of a ten-day vipassana silent retreat for a while now. Having battled a serious illness for a number of years I had changed my life to be more focused on health and well being, taken up yoga, trained as a Yoga Teacher amongst other things and tried to incorporate a daily meditation practice into my life.
Like most people I struggled with the discipline of a daily practice despite all of this and often went through periods of little or no practice.
The Goenka, Vipassana retreat is a particular style of Vipassana meditation, as I began to learn there are many meditation types even within one named group such as Vipassana. Goenka’s style is focussed on concentration as opposed to other vipassana styles, which are mindfulness or awareness focussed.
This was an intense 10 day silent retreat, participants had to sign something to say they would commit to the full 10 days as that was an integral part of the course. We were not allowed to take any writing or reading materials, no electronics (phones had to be checked in on arrival) and a vow of ‘noble silence’, which included non-verbal communication as well as speaking.
I had attempted to do one of these the year before but lost my nerve at the last minute and hadn’t gone. This year I was more determined and whilst I wavered I managed to make it there.
The first evening was an introduction into the course. Women and men were separated into different accommodation blocks. We would dine in separate halls and although we would meditate in the same hall we would be on different sides with a gap in between so we were as segregated as we could be. There were defined boundaries of where we were and weren’t allowed to walk and roam and all the other rules were given to us.
After 8pm noble silence started and that was it for the next ten days apart from if we needed to speak to the Course Manager about practical things such as beds etc or if we needed to speak to the Assistant Teachers about difficulties we were having with our practice.
Lights out was at 9pm and there was a set timetable of what we were supposed to do every hour of the day, and most of it involved meditation, either in the hall or in our rooms.
A minimum of 4 hours meditating was required in the hall and at those times everyone without exception was meant to be there. The bell to wake us up went off at 4am as the first session started at 430am and we had to get up and meditate either in our room or in the hall.
A series of instructions are played at the start of each of the four mandatory sessions to help participants understand what they should be doing. The first three days focuses on anapana sati, which is breath awareness. Just noticing the inhalation and exhalation through the nostrils and the sensations around the breath such as coolness, or warmth etc.
For my first days, I’d say I started off well. I was able to sit for an hour at a time with little movement, although all around me people shuffled, creaked and coughed as they struggled to stay still. In the first few days you are allowed to make small movements if you have to but generally the idea as you progress is to not react to the myriad of sensations that your body has.
It takes a while to stop the chitter chatter in your mind and it’s completely normal to have a cacophony of thoughts interrupting you and vying for your attention. Every time that happens you have to bring your awareness back to the breath. The simplicity of the practice at the beginning can make it difficult for our ever-active minds to follow but perseverance and persistence is the key here.
Initially, I found myself able to meditate relatively easily compared to others it seemed from the fidgetiness of other participants, at least for the first three days. However that’s where my calm and equanimity were challenged. In the intensity of trying to concentrate on your breath and keep thoughts at bay I found myself increasingly irritated with the sounds and shuffles of other people. So much for me being calm and peaceful then.
You may wonder what’s the point of this practice? Why would you voluntarily commit yourself to 10 days of silence with nothing to do but meditate and wake up at 4am every day? Well the idea as taught by Buddha is that a practice of non reacting means that you are no longer swayed by the ups and downs in life and can handle yourself with equanimity no matter what happens.
For example sitting still for an hour on the floor inevitably stirs up a lot of discomfort and pain in the mind and the body, not reacting to this pain is supposed to relieve you of the bounds of life and helps you understand that everything is impermanent and transitory. This is the same for pain and pleasure or any other sensations we may experience. Everything will come up and pass and if you can master the non-reaction to it all then you will be able to be calm and equanimous in your life no matter what happens. Diagnosed with cancer? No bother, it will come and go, pain in one’s leg, don’t worry it will pass, etc.
I found this part of the practice like many to be very difficult. It’s tough to ignore the burning sensation in your legs after sitting still for 50 minutes or more. I particularly found it difficult to not react with annoyance and irritation when other people around me fidgeted, coughed, sneezed etc my irritation rising up like a fire within exploding. To me it seemed that the meditation was having the opposite effect it should be.
According to the teaching I should observe all of this without reacting, no matter that there seemed to be a raging inferno rising both mentally and physically. Given my age it was literally a burning sensation with hot flushes coming up wave after wave, sweat dripping from my face and body and not being able to move, or take off one of the layers I was wrapped in was like being in some kind of self enforced torture.
However I did the best I could and observed all of these irritations, anger, heat moving inside me and low and behold after observing them all for some seconds or minutes without reacting they did all eventually pass. I should add my hot flushes have since reduced significantly in their number and intensity.
After the third day you are taught the vipassana technique which is a body scan observing all the body sensations as you move your awareness slowly from part to part in a systematic manner. This time when you feel sensations in parts of the body you are not yet scanning you keep your attention focussed on that part and again don’t react.
This is also the time when they ask you to have ‘strong determination’ to not move for that one hour whilst in the hall. The environment became significantly quieter as many people get more used to the practice and stop moving as much.
They say at the beginning of the course that people hit a wall at day 2 and day 6. I hit my wall around day 7. I was sick and tired of being there, of ‘meditating’ all day long; I was bored out of my brains and craved my phone, laptop or TV, anything to take me away from the monotony of the day. Part of the teaching is to have no craving or aversions otherwise you multiply it. Instead with the practice of non-reaction you learn to keep your mind calm and balanced and all cravings and aversions disappear with the law of impermanence. But I wasn’t in the mood to practice this and ran TV shows through my mind and plotted my escape. The boredom and frustration had no limits and I let my mind run riot with it. To which end I woke myself up at 2am with a severe bout of tonsillitis. Obviously in my mind this was because of the too strong air conditioning at the centre and provided me with the way out I had manifested through my boredom.
I spent the next hour continuing down this train of thought planning my escape strategy and when you have all the time in the world this can be pretty elaborate. When I suddenly realised that instead of using the teachings to help me at this impasse, I was letting my ‘ego’ (sense of self), rule the roost instead of using the mind control technique we were learning and battened down the hatches to meditate my way out of what I had created. After that I spent the rest of the morning meditating, so that by dawn I was able to swallow without pain again, by 11am (lunchtime), my fever had dissipated and by 3pm the little white spots I had on my tonsils had disappeared.
Once I experienced this incredible power of meditation, of my mind having created an illness and then equally healing myself from it, the real practice (not just sitting quietly and wondering what you’re going to have for breakfast or falling asleep surreptitiously while sitting up), started and I began to meditate more seriously.
The next two days I spent every waking hour meditating rather than filling my time with activities I wasn’t supposed to be doing, like drawing up wedding lists in my head. (I had booked the registry office the day of entering into the course) and my wedding was going to be within the month.
Even during break times I meditated earnestly to make up for all the time I had wasted earlier. This is when I started to feel the real benefits of the practice and wave after wave of uncomfortable and intense emotions and sensations arose up in me and passed away. I spent entire days in a state of anxiety or fear as they rose up upon each other with no break and no respite in sight. It was totally exhausting! At times I felt there was no end in sight as I chased anxiety from heart palpitations to knotted balls in my stomach around my body for two whole days but by not reacting to it I seemed to release a large chunk of it. I had survived the 2004 Asian tsunami and it felt like a lot of this fear and trauma was being released.
There were many occasions in those last days when I felt the body matter appear to dissolve and could feel the energetic vibrations of the body instead, most of the time when this happened I freaked out as the sensations were so different to what I was used to but I tried to stay with the non reaction and again this passed and I went back to feeling ‘normal”.
The last two days were really when all the work for me occurred and suddenly all the boredom and thoughts of what the hell am I doing here dissolved as I experienced the healing benefits of the practice.
Benefits and Lessons Learned
So finally what did I gain from all of this? I emerged from the course calmer, less prone to anger and less easily irritated. My stress levels reduced, I was more tolerant of others and I slept better. I had alleviated my travel stress and my anxiety in general dissolved.
My relationship with my partner became significantly better as I practiced non-reaction when we started arguing, dialling down the intensity of our often-explosive fights. My entire family noticed the difference, as I was a much nicer person to be around. They all commented on it and whereas they had been reluctant for me to go at first as it was taking precious time away from them they acknowledged the benefits were more than worth it.
I cured myself of over eating and binge eating. As you get little food after 11am you are often hungry when meditating. I like many had used food as a crutch when stressed and especially sugar but after the course much of this disappeared. I had lost weight and had a different relationship with food.
I realised that it was unrealistic to be ‘happy’ all the time and instead being able to manage life’s up and downs was the goal. Life is never a smooth trajectory but being able to manage this with calm and equanimity is the key.
My wedding, which was in less than a month, would normally have been a huge source of stress but as it was with my new calm and centred self it was a relative breeze and things flowed in a harmonious way. When the cake fell in the boot of someone’s car instead of being a bridezilla I simply laughed it off.
I realised that voicing all your negative thoughts simply multiplies them. This was one of the biggest realisations I had on the course. Our obsession in the west with counselling and talking over all our problems is in direct opposition with these teachings, which tell us NOT to voice our negativities and problems. This was one of the key things I learnt and I was fascinated with the difference in Eastern and Western philosophies.
I had spent more than 20 years in and out of therapy and felt that a 10-day Vipassana course had shifted more things than all of that had ever done. I felt lighter, easier and less willing to do things that once I had done in my quest for perfection, such as spending all waking hours working to perfect a work presentation for example, now I simply didn’t see the value in it.
I realised that what you think and what is real are two completely different things. We construct powerful thoughts in our minds that have no basis in truth. For example I had a disabled lady who sat next to me for most of the course who literally moved every 10 minutes. In my mind I had attributed her unease to her disability and forced myself to feel love and compassion for her despite it being a constant distraction to my own meditating in the first few days. I created a narrative for her that was completely false in my mind.
The lady was actually a highly, successful, go getting San Francisco judge, who had never meditated before and still didn’t see the benefit of it after 10 days and wondered why they couldn’t condense the course into 5 days to achieve the same benefits.
I also realised that 10 days is really the minimum needed to go through the breakthrough of ego vs. self. If you leave before then I think you do more damage than not coming at all as you give in to the mind and it will be much harder to gain control of it again.
What you get out of the course largely depends on what you put in. It is hard work and you’ll reap the rewards if you put in this work. It helps if you have meditated before or done other meditation courses, as I believe that definitely helped with me being able to sit still at the beginning. But it is by no means a requisite. I learnt at the end of the course that the fidgetiess people were complete newbie’s to meditating and in our discussions at the end they also seemed to be the ones that got the least out of it.
However that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it if you have never meditated before, just go in with an open mind and see if it’s for you.
I was so enamoured with the practice that I have since gone back for a further 3-day course and have signed myself up for another 10 day one within the year. I have also been waxing lyrical about the benefits in an evangelical manner, persuading friends and family to try the same.
In conclusion, this is not an endeavour to be taken lightly, if you have mental health problems it’s not considered appropriate as it could aggravate the condition. However if like me you have struggled with bouts of depression, insomnia, or anxiety or just generally want to work on yourself then I would highly recommend it.