What Vipassana taught me about silence, sensations, and a strange new world
Updated: Jun 9, 2021
When I registered for my first Vipassana course recently I had no idea what I was getting into. Apart from the basics—that I was going to have to sit meditating for 10 hours a day for 10 days, and that it would likely be ‘life-changing’—the content was otherwise a surprise that unfolded as the days went by. I liked it that way. Little did I know at the time that the deep and experiential nature of what I would learn during those 10 days would not only embed within me essential concepts I'd been attempting in my daily attitude and life, but also be the bedrock from which to step sure-footed and even-minded into both familiar and unfamiliar territory.
I had been working up to the registration moment for about three years, my curiosity gradually increasing in regards to what it would be like. What would happen as a result of me being in an environment like that (away from the world, distractions, noise, work…)? I’d periodically meet people who’d done it who would tell me unequivocally how amazing it was, and that I’d get a lot out of it. My trepidations weren't because I didn't believe it, just that my focus was always pinned to the unbearable suffering and restlessness I imagined I’d experience—legs sore yet not allowed to move about…for 10 hours a day. That fear lessened somewhat once I discovered there would be toilet breaks every couple of hours, but it represented exactly the kind of avoidance of physical discomfort (despite potential gains) that I was hopeful the course would help me do away with once and for all.
Consensus seemed to be that the silence was going to be difficult for me. I got versions of, “How are you going to be silent for 10 days??” to which I conclude I must have a reputation as a talker. That's kind of funny as I actually spend a lot of time in silence every day. I was sure that the silence would be the easiest thing to pull off, and it was. Well…sort of.
After much ado (and thanks to a girlfriend taking the initiative, finding a local Vipassana centre for us to do it at, letting me know when and how to register, and then checking up on me to make sure I was onto it) I registered. That was about three months ahead of the dates of the course. I actually thought I was going to have to cancel it due to work. I didn’t want to though so I kept not cancelling, and not cancelling, and then, a week before the course dates, the job disappeared and there I was: super excited and available to attend. The timing felt like it couldn’t have been better.
The night before I needed to pack, I trepidatiously read a couple of reviews while lying in bed. I almost wasn't going to look at any reviews lest I discover too much, and the surprise of it all were to disappear, or me chicken out. I kind of like not being entirely sure what I’m getting myself into. I prefer to notice a feeling of yes or no, right time for this…or not? The search was mainly because I was interested in the schedule (what time would I have to wake up?) plus my mind was obsessing a little about how long I would have to sit for in one stretch (how would I manage that?) and what the food situation would be like. Oh yeah, and what I needed to take with me—I was paranoid about being tired, hungry and cold, my least favourite things, and states that I avoid at all costs.
From the reviews I managed to glean a top-line summary of how the days rolled along ie 4am wakeup and 9.30pm lights out, that the food was pretty tasty, and that the first 3 days involved following your breath. I’m glad I didn’t find out much more ‘cause it’s easy to start thinking things like, 3 days of focussing on the breath. That’s 30 hours. Seems like a lot? Is that necessary? and so on about every aspect until you talk yourself out of it.
When you're getting started they get you to verbally sign on with a bunch of precepts (agreements) in order to commence, the most impactful for me being a commitment to engage in Noble Silence for the duration of the course. Noble Silence is the silence of body, speech and mind and there were signs up around the centre as a constant reminder. I may or may not have heard the term Noble Silence before that but once broken down it was easy enough to grasp: no communication or gesturing with your body (makes sense); no speech/talking (no problem); and a silent mind. No mental chatter. Oh, wow. That’s the big one right there. Those signs and reminders were necessary—it was hard.
To quest every day to silence the incessant chatter in my mind seemed almost impossible at the start. I mean I didn’t even notice it sometimes but then would realise it’d been going on and on in the background for ages with all sorts of wonderings about the lunch menu, or strategising how many teas to have at the 5pm tea break to enable me to last until breakfast at 6.30am the following day without starving, or thinking about all the conversations I was going to have spruiking to friends and family how incredible and essential the course was, or negotiations with myself about whether it was better to nap or to meditate, or resolving to design some cute harem pants like the ones that girl had on because I’ve been wanting to get back into making my own clothes for ages. How desperate I was for a massage. What should I do with my life when I get out. How old would my nieces need to be before I could do something like this with them. Would it be possible to go to Spain to see them this August. Why were there so few native birds hanging about the property and not even one wallaby sighting in 10 days. Were the animals here affected by the bushfires even though this section of the bush seemed unaffected?… and the list went on.
I had imagined that during meditation sessions I would be clearing/calming the mind and focusing my attention but suddenly, when I had to make an effort to quiet all that during the non-meditation hours too, the whole thing stepped up a level. Trying to reign it in took a lot of effort, and a continual refocussing of my awareness that was exhausting.
Sometimes during meditation sessions the pain in my legs from sitting—unmoving—confined to one spot, was unbearable and I felt as though I might actually be doing permanent damage to my knee. Other times I was so tired I felt like I had been drugged, and the intense struggle to focus my awareness back onto whatever it was I had been asked to focus it on seemed like an impossible task to which I was doomed to fail. Frustration and defeat monopolised my mind. Sleep beckoned. Somehow I persisted though, and only occasionally snuck in a 20min nap when I should have been meditating. That was rare. Overall I did my utmost to hold fast to the schedule and persevere as best I could. But, oh man, was that tough some mornings in our 4.30-6.30am meditation before breakfast! Eventually the interminable session would end though, and I had survived.
Then there was the boredom that snuck up on me sometimes. I’m not someone who tends to get bored so this was kind of a weird one but I was getting these flare ups of total boredom at the prospect of having to do the same activity for hours. My pre-occupation with how on earth I would sustain it for X more days wasn’t an entirely helpful mindset with eight days to go.
On Day 2 (supposedly one of the toughest) I had a private interview with the assistant teacher. It's standard for all students to get an opportunity to ask questions about the technique and their practice. I was smiling and told her I was really enjoying it. That was true—I was pleasantly surprised at how few of the sessions felt like torture, and, although it was challenging, it was definitely not as challenging as I had imagined. Somehow, by chunking it out, I was getting through it. Plus the instruction was helping a lot. I did have some questions though as I wasn't sure how to approach body adjustments, which I was trying my best not to do, or my debilitating tiredness.
The assistant teacher posed to me that these sensations of tiredness and "dull mind" I was experiencing were subconscious reactions, housed in deep-seated parts of my body—aspects of my present reality—which, through the practice, were arising to be cleared, layer by layer. Hhmmm...could be. I got a rush of deep understanding. Energy management, sharpness of mind ... also my food obsession connected to both, these were ongoing issues for me, and had definitely all been rearing their heads in various ways here in the course, repeatedly. And as usual I was struggling with it.
But over the course of the 10 days things started to shift. Feelings of defeatedness disappeared, pain became 'a sensation', and any moments of panic I was having started to soften.
I found solace in the continually repeated instruction from the teacher, Goenka, and his nightly discourses. They were super helpful in keeping me focused and on track, especially when I'd come out of a tough session just moments before. Goenka's voice kept popping up just when my not-calm mind needed another reminder to “start again with a calm and clear mind”. Or to have an "alert mind", a "vigilant mind", to "persevere", to "have strong determination", or to remind me about the "impermanence" factor, and other extremely necessary cues. He was like a compass and, irrespective of what had come before, this current session was another opportunity to be/do my clear and determined best.
I kept at it.
One meditation session I caught myself being bored but suddenly my self-placations and ’this too shall pass’ type statements were replaced by a memory of a crazy road trip I made once driving from Perth to Darwin—5000 kms in a week. A friend, who had done the same trip years before in reverse (Darwin to Perth) had commented to me how boring it was, and that the landscape was just the same, never changing, for thousands of kilometres. But my experience of it was totally the opposite. I noticed it changing constantly. Remarkable and subtle changes as we weaved closer to the desert and further from the coast, and back again. Littoral vegetation, semi-desert vegetation. Sometimes scrubby, sometimes trees, or wildflowers. Ant hills. The landscape changed it’s hue over the course of the day. The desert sand's colour shifted as we headed north. Levels of dryness, rockiness, aridity, greenness varied. Animals, the red of the rock, the azure of the ocean, they were always changing, little micro changes, if you paid attention. It was gorgeous.
I realised these sessions were exactly like that: it wasn’t always the same in fact there were micro-changes to my inner landscape and attitude constantly that I could tune in to notice if I was prepared to just let the present reality be what it was, and drop the resistance and expectation. It was what Goenka had said about learning to listen to the ways of the technique.
The sessions were actually varying a lot—I was varying a lot. One hour I could be in a virtual coma of mind fog and droopiness, my inner eyes lolling about as I wondered how I’d get through the next minute, let alone the day. Yet in the next session, after just a 10-minute break, I could be alert, clear, focused, effortless, inspired, and musing that the 20-day course must be super interesting and I wished I was doing it. One time the tiredness literally disappeared from one minute to the next. I must have somehow, in all that struggle, actually achieved 'the goal' of equanimity—a balanced mind with regard to my present reality—which was the key to dissolving it. This is not something I was able to think myself into (I tried) but in a couple of instances it happened! I just needed to get the concept experientially, which is the point, because that's the doorway to transformation and peace right there.
My relationship to the Nobel Silence was shifting as the course progressed too. Tucked away on a property in the mountains, with no talking, no possibility that anyone would contact me about anything, no incessant pull of phones or devices, a clear schedule, no decisions to make, days and days with myself—time to deep listen—I really started noticing how much chatter was going on inside, and the recurring themes. Between inner conversations, random commentary, and low-level buzz it could be pretty noisy in there. I was getting slapped in the face by the chasm between my presence and lack of presence via so many glaring displays of the latter.
But the gaps between thoughts were getting longer and less effortful to maintain, to the extent that several times I had full hours, both in meditation and out, where I didn’t have any thoughts. At one point I was sitting on a bench looking out to the bush, listening to the birds and the wind outside, and the silence inside, kind of just hanging out in the world—aware of the inner and outer, in absolute mental stillness.
On the 10th and final day of the course it was extremely windy. They gave us the opportunity to break the noble silence but I wasn’t ready to so I gravitated to the meditation hall at all times to avoid the chat going on across the rest of the property. It had been an intense week and that day I still needed some time to integrate some of the progress I’d made. I ended up having some very deep, still meditations that day so I’m glad that’s the course of action I took.
Day 10 also featured a short wrap-up talk with a bit of standard info, including cleaning and pick-up procedures. At some point in the talk one of the teachers gently mentioned that, just as we’d been undergoing some personal changes while at the retreat, there had been some changes happening on the outside too. One of those being a new regulation to keep 1.5 meters from others, and also that national borders had been closed. As euphemistic as he had tried to be it was pretty shocking. The one thing I’d most been looking forward to, for days, was a huge hug. HUGE. 1.5 meters between people?? WTF!! Not only did that hug look like it was out the window, but it had been replaced with uncertainty and worry about potentially-not-great situations among close family and friends. At the end of the 15 minute talk I was rattled. I had begun to catastrophise, I felt like I had a temperature, and I was annoyed that the good work of the week could be undone that fast.
The wind was still blowing a gale.
I started thinking about Vata body types in Ayurveda (I've got a fair bit of Vata) and Ayurvedic principles related to air in general i.e. how stirring and unbalancing wind can be for the system. This whole thing started feeling like a final test: How has my ability to keep a balanced mind progressed irrespective of what is happening in my environment? Well…not great to be honest. I headed back to the meditation hall.
When I walked in I was solo in the hall. I’d been in there a bunch of times with only three or four other people but this was something else. Being alone, in a space so charged with stillness, solitude, and collective intention felt amazing. I shed a few happy, peaceful tears, and returned to my assigned spot.
By the 11th day the air was perfectly still again, and, thankfully, so was I. I felt ready to walk back out into the world, grateful for some deep experiences, new tools, and an expanded, more focused awareness to accompany me.
LEARNINGS AND HACKS
Being back in the world hasn't been 100% smooth sailing. When I walked out of the 'retreat' I stepped straight into lockdown. Huge shock or more of the same? It's interesting to ponder. I did get a bit derailed for several days but I've bounced back and, on reflection, there's more I learnt from this unusual and intense adventure that’s helping me right now than I first realised. I definitely sensed strongly before doing the course that the timing couldn't have been better but I wasn't anticipating the degree to which that would be true. Nor how the period of no physical contact, solitude, and inward focus would prime me for, or mirror, the conditions I was about to step into. Nor how quickly and necessarily many of the teachings and realisations would be implemented in my day-to-day existence in order to deal with my reactions to the escalated stakes. Could life be the practice??! ;)
I may pos a part 2 sometime that will cover that side of things soon so, if you're interested, keep an eye out here.
What do you think the most challenging factor of spending 10 days sitting still on the floor for 10 hours a day, in silence, would be for you? What might you get out of this experience? I’d love to know. Feel free to leave me a message in the comments.