What Happens After 10 Days of Silence?

24 November, 2013

I was tasked by my writer’s group to write a blog about my experience on a 10 day silent meditation retreat. The task though was specific: put a positive spin on it. I was also being asked about the same thing by my team on Friday evening - the questions being: ‘well, why did you do it?’ and ‘what did you get out of it?’. Questions that I found difficult to answer on the spot, and ones that are worthy of reflection. I hope to answer them for myself here.

I did it because I had wanted to do Vipassana for about 10 years, ever since I first found out about it on my very first yoga retreat. I met a girl in India who told me it was the most amazing thing she’d ever done. Earlier in the year I experienced a traumatic time in the workplace I was part of, and I went to see one of my coaching colleagues for a session, who put the idea into my head again. I thought it was a perfect time: 10 days to myself to let go of the old and move forward. What’s the bigger spiritual reason for going, though? I guess the answer would be a greater sense of myself, and spiritual enlightenment - of course.

For those of you that don’t know about Vipassana it’s a very specific method of meditation, which takes exactly 9 days to learn. You are scheduled from 4am (when the morning gong goes off) until 9pm at night, with a few breaks in between. You have your own room, and share your meals, surrounding grounds, meditation hall, bathrooms and communal living spaces with your same-sex peers (men separated from the women). You take a vow of silence and a vow of celibacy when you enter, and have all communicative artefacts taken away from you on arrival (phones, notebooks, pens, books). No communication with the outside world, no talking or gesturing or reading or any other activities (you were allowed to stroll the grounds only) except for the Vipassana technique for 10 days.

The aim is complete purification of the mind and body to achieve something called equanimity: a reaction to life’s events without either craving or aversion. This is the ultimate aim of Vipassana. Equanimity brings true inner peace, true happiness.

The reason I was tasked with putting a positive spin on things I guess perhaps is obvious: I didn’t enjoy it all that much. And I certainly didn’t reach a complete state of equanimity as I had a pretty strong aversion to the whole thing! 10 days of no communication or contact (not only absent from your immediate circle of strangers, but from all those you love and care about) was more difficult than I could ever have imagined. I admired the women who I later found out were mothers of young children.

I went into the depths of my mind and all its fears, and had to handle it all by myself. Wellington (my city) also experienced two damaging earthquakes whilst I was cut off from the world, and the news never reached us. I thought this was a weird irony, considering that my fear thoughts were about disasters and losing loved ones. Thankfully there were no fatalities, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was wrong that we never got informed.

Vipassana is also a very rigid technique and strict in its absolute practice. The teaching of it was equally serious, as we were repeatedly told we ‘must practice diligently, seriously..’. Meditating for 10 hours a day was a daunting task enough, and taking even the slightest bit of fun out of it didn't help.

When were allowed to talk on the 10th day, it was like suddently finding yourself at a strange party, and instantly on speed: we could hardly get the words out quick enough! The last meditation in the hall after connections with others were finally made was a recipe for giggles.

Now.. the positive spin!

  • It was by far one of the hardest and most enduring things I have ever done, and I’m very proud of myself for staying (after 3 unsuccessful attempts at convincing them to let me leave)
  • I know all the ingredients listed on my conditioner bottle by heart
  • I got the tiniest glimpse of equanimity (or perhaps it was peace?) for about five seconds, which felt like I my head had bobbed above water and entered an entirely different universe. It was pretty amazing. As soon as my mind realised what was happening of course I bobbed back below water again! It was quite something to get a taste of that universe though: a state I suspect the Dalai Lama is in for the whole time, which must be pretty cool. Now, if only there’s a way of getting there and staying there without so much hard work…..
  • I learned I could rely on myself to take care of myself, even in the depths of fear and loneliness
  • I’m definitely less reactionary in my life: I don’t clearly decipher whether things are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but am learning to ride things out a little more as 'just is'
  • I learned I could recite some parts of Ricky Gervais’ comedic ramblings by heart, and especially enjoyed this inner comedy over breakfast
  • I learned that a more flexible, gentle and more self-compassionate form of meditation is better for me, and that's actually OK!
  • I learned that one of the things I value most about learning environments is making connections with others and having a good laugh. I don't see why this needs to be exempt when attempting spiritual enlightenment?!
  • I learned that even after 10 days of 10 hours of meditation per day, your brain still THINKS! It really, never completely stops ...
  • I learned that some people get so much out of Vipassana that they go back 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 times. Good for them.

As always, I am interested in your feedback and comments. Let's have a chat. Love, Charlotte.

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