Why do a silent meditation retreat?
The first time I heard about Vipassana, my heart leapt with longing. 10 days of not speaking? It sounded too good to be true. As an English teacher living in Spain and learning Spanish, sometimes I would speak for 13 or 14 hours a day non-stop. After a long day of working at a school and giving private classes, I would then go to formal Spanish classes and sometimes language exchanges. Getting home from these days, feeling like a zombie, I would fall into bed completely linguistically exhausted. I wanted 10 days free of speech and the pressure to reply, as I feel that at times technology leaves us with no option but to continually reply to emails, messages, and communications of various sorts, or else cause offense to the other party. Finally (more as an afterthought than anything), I wanted to learn how to meditate, as it was something that I was able to do for 30 minutes maximum at home on my own.
Is it expensive?
The centres are run on a donation basis, meaning you contribute as much as you can to give the next person the chance to do the course (not to pay for your own course). The day to day running of the centre (like meals and cleaning) is done by “old students” doing service (so that new students can concentrate on meditating in “noble silence”). I had tried to apply for a place at various sites in various countries with no success, mainly because free courses like this are often oversubscribed meaning that you have to book a long time in advance to reserve your spot. Luckily, I knew 6 months beforehand that I would be staying with family in Milwaukee for a substantial chunk of time, and I was finally successful in my application to a centre near Rockford, 2 hours from Chicago (for details on how to find a centre near you, click here).
Were you scared?
As the time for me to go to the retreat came near, I was one part scared to two parts excited. I don’t think there are many places in the world where you are free from the pressures of speech and interaction, but I was also fearful as I wasn’t sure what to expect. After my place was confirmed, I kept on meeting new people who had completed the course, or finding out that some of my current friends had done it too, and although I felt like it was fate, they all said things that were none too reassuring, such as: “it was hard but beautiful”, “it was tough”, “you do go a little mad”, and (most worryingly) “it was the longest ten days of my life”.
The Start of the Course
After registration, a talk about the rules, and a Q and A session, “noble silence” commenced with a gong. We were lead into the meditation hall in single file and from this point onward, men and women would be kept separate (they had different entrances to buildings, and there was even a curtain in the dining room) and everyone was expected not to communicate unless it was to ask the course manager for something essential or during an appointment with the meditation teacher.
The Dhamma hall was a big wooden building close to the dining hall and the lake, with an anteroom to take off your shoes. We picked up pillows and blankets from the shelves and filed in to the dimly lit room, being lead to our individually labeled square blue padded mats, which would be our places for the duration of the course. When we were all seated, they started to play chanting, at which point I was on the brink of bursting into nervous laughter (and not disrespect, promise), but when I looked around, everyone else seemed dead serious, so I managed to keep quiet.
What was it like?
Firstly, I want to say that the food was excellent. It was fresh and well prepared, and if it hadn’t been I probably would have left on the first day. The accommodation was clean and comfortable, and it soon becomes obvious that sharing a room is easy if everyone in that room has taken a vow of silence. Also, the grounds were very picturesque, with a small lake, lots of wildlife, and beautiful old trees.
Here’s what the schedule on a typical day looks like:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
A “discourse” is a video of a man called S. N. Goenka speaking about this method of meditation, giving instructions and expounding the benefits of this technique.
Was it pleasant?
I would love to say that it was a relaxing experience, but for me personally, the reality is that it was incredibly hard work. Hindsight is 20:20, and I now see that I was pretty naÏve going in to this situation. I hadn’t really considered the meditation side of things. Classically, it is said that day 2 and day 5 are the hardest on this length of course, but for me, I cried almost every day after day 4. I got through the tough times by counting. “Only two hours till breakfast”, “Only 60 minutes until lunch” etc. The idea behind the longer course is to perform a deep clean of the deepest recesses of the mind, and this brought up a lot of painful memories for me. I really had not expected how I would feel a resurgence of buried emotions, but I did learn some important things about myself.
Things I learned about myself at the Vipassana Centre:
- Sitting on the floor for long periods of time is painful and uncomfortable no matter how many cushions you have, especially if you have bad posture like me.
- All happiness and unhappiness is completely dependent on my inner life, rather than outside factors.
- I have some issues from my childhood that I need to work through and let go of.
- I constantly criticise myself, and I often tell myself I am the worst in the class for not being perfect.
- Regardless of where the critical voice inside me comes from, as an adult it is my responsibility to change my patterns and make myself happy.
- Being an English teacher is not my dream job, and although I love working with children, I want a job where I am intellectually stimulated by doing different things every day.
Did you want to leave before the end?
I thought about leaving several times, but the time that I was closest to leaving was on the final full day of silence. I was packed and ready to go, but (as soon as we were allowed to talk) I realised that I had gotten confused and we were really all staying for one more night at the centre and leaving the next day. I was…deflated to say the least! I called my Dad to come and pick me up, but he had been called away with work and couldn’t come until the following morning. If I had had a car, I would have left there and then. I was very disappointed but it turned out for the best because once we could talk, people were sharing stories similar to mine, like how the pain of sitting on the floor for so long was almost unbearable, or the identity of the person who kept farting loudly in the meditation room.
Would you do it again?
Now that I have completed a full, 10 day course, I am considered an “old student”, meaning I can apply to do 3 day courses etc, which I think would suit me more. No reading, writing, or music for 10 days was an incredibly tough experience, but I’m glad I made it to the very end, even if it was more by circumstance than my own volition. Maybe that was The Universe’s way of keeping me where I needed to be.