Could you stop talking for 10 days while also spending 10 hours a day cross-legged in meditation? Tamara Pitelen discovers first hand why the Vipassana 10 day silent meditation retreat is not to be taken lightly.
What’s it like not speaking for 10 days while meditating all day every day from 4.30am? I won’t lie; it’s no walk in the park. At least it wasn’t for me. The ultimate goal may be purity of the mind, happiness, and an end to suffering for all beings but there are moments that are abject torture.
If you’re anything like me and if it’s your first time (yes, some people do the retreat many times over), your mood over the 10 days will swing from incandescent rage, to irritation, sadness, and abject misery as well as moments of gouge- your-own-eyes-out boredom. Dotted with moments of contented peace, thankfully.
If it’s so arduous, why do it? Personal and spiritual growth mainly. You do it to clean out some of the negative thought patterns and limiting beliefs rooted deep in the foundations of your subconscious mind, leaving you more peaceful, loving, happy and compassionate. You do it because, if you really manage to shush your mind’s white noise, you may connect and communicate with something greater
THE MIND GRIND
So, what was it like? Every morning for the 10 days, myself and 23 other students – 13 men and 11 women – were woken at 4am by the banging of a gong. By 4.30am we had to be in the Dhamma hall for meditation. We meditated for two hours in the early morning, three hours in the mid morning, four hours after lunch then another hour after a 5pm tea break. Finally, two hours of video lectures from S.N Goenka – the man behind it all (see FAQ box). Bed and lights out at 9pm.
The first three days are the hardest. That’s when the days ahead seem stretched out like centuries. At the end of the second or third day, you could literally cry at the thought of another week of it. Some people do literally cry. On my second evening, after a silent dinner with the other women on the retreat, one woman sat at the table sobbing into her hands.
When you’re not meditating you’re silently eating or showering or resting on your bed. That’s it. Apart from being forbidden to speak, it’s also forbidden to read, write, communicate with others using gestures or eye contact, mix with the opposite sex, or do any exercise beyond short periods of walking on specially marked, segregated walking paths. Why? Because the idea is that for 10 days you are focused completely inwards.
So I sat and I sat and I sat. I sat cross- legged on a cushion till my back throbbed with aches and pains and my legs got pins and needles – which didn’t take very long, after three days I had to alternate between the floor and a chair.
Meditating for 10 hours a day gives you an awful lot of time to think and try as I might to stay focused, my mind veered off in some bizarre directions.
To start with, I couldn’t stop thinking about the British TV soap Coronation Street for the first couple of days. My brain invented endless new story lines and I had conversations with the characters. When the TV soap obsession died down it was replaced by – how to put this for a family audience – an igniting of my libido. Sat for hours in a room of silent people, my brain kicked off an x-rated film fest. There were also spent hours having imaginary arguments with people I knew, rehashing relationship failures ad nauseum and hauling long forgotten fragments of life from my memory vaults.
Apparently, this is normal. It’s the kind of mental trash your brain vomits up to dodge inspection of the really deep painful stuff lodged in the depths of your subconscious.
By the end of the 10 days, something had shifted. I felt more centred and lighter. Physically as well as emotionally, as it happens. One side effect I didn’t expect was losing 2kgs. You don’t do Vipassana as a weight-loss boot camp but it’s a nice bonus.
FAQS ABOUT VIPASSANA
Q. What is Vipassana meditation? One of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago, by people who include the Buddha, as a remedy for universal ills caused by negative emotions such as anger, greed, animosity and depression. In the last couple of decades, Vipassana has been revived by S. N. Goenka. Born in Burma, Goenka relocated to India in 1969 to teach Vipassana and is largely responsible for its worldwide revival today.
Q. What is the Vipassana meditation technique?
Vipassana is just one way to approach meditation. This technique involves observing your breath as well as scanning the body for physical sensations which, when found, detachedly observing them in the knowledge that they are impermanent, they will rise and pass.
Q. How much is it? It’s free. All expenses are met by donations from previous students who want others to do the course. Make a donation if you want to but there is no pressure.
Q. Where can I study Vipassana? Check out www.dhamma.org for a list of worldwide centres and courses schedule. Here in the UAE, the retreats are held in Ras Al Khaimah. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.