I survived ten days in a silent retreat!
I survived ten days with no talking, no communication of any kind and no gestures or body language towards others (apart from the teacher on a couple of occasions), but to be honest, no talking was actually the easiest part.
I had been thinking about signing up to a Vipassana meditation course for several years but I knew it was never going to be easy and I knew that I couldn’t use to to ‘fix’ myself. I wanted to be as mentally strong as possible before attempting one. After my extremely successful hike along the Camino de Santiago the previous year I finally felt ready.
I was ready and I was excited but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t apprehensive.
Arriving at the meditation centre
Firstly, upon arrival at my centre of choice which was the Dhamma Malaya, that lies more or less in the middle of Malaysia and is surrounded by palm oil plantations, I had my temperature taken (the Covid-19 outbreak had just begun its relentless march across the globe).
I was issued with my bed linen and I had to sign over my mobile phone, my laptop, all reading and writing materials and medicines. I then had a couple of hours during which I was free to explore the very pretty grounds and to chat quietly with some of the other participants.
We were a very international group of all ages and from all backgrounds. It seems that I got lucky and I had been accepted on what is normally a long waiting list due to the virus outbreak and the fact that a lot of people from China had to cancel their places. I only had the chance to connect with a few people in that first hour but some were from Malaysia and were on their sixth or seventh retreat, many were foreigners living in Malaysia and others had taken a vacation specifically to attend this retreat.
Dhamma Malaysia has the advantage of having individual rooms for participants, each with its own bathroom. The meditation hall is cool and airy with high ceilings and fans which generate a comforting swish and a white noise that doesn’t block out the birdsong from outside.
Meals are taken in the dining hall at benches that seat four in a row. Food is vegan and was delicious although after the first day, there are only two meals each day.
Breakfast is eaten at 6.30 am and lunch at 11am. If you are a returning student you are only permitted to drink some lemon water after that time, if you are a new student as I was, then we could eat several pieces of fruit at 5pm. Surprisingly, I only ever felt hungry when I went to bed on one occasion.
My neighbor in the dining hall and who stayed in the room next to mine was a Malaysian lady who lived in Kuala Lumpur. She had taken part in several courses (I think this was her sixth) and she had also volunteered at several as a server/helper. I was very sick during the evening and night of the second day and I felt very comforted to know that she was just next door to me.
After our meal at 5pm on that first day we remained in the dining hall and the course managers read us the list of rules. They told is the do’s and don’ts that would make our time easier and would help everything to run smoothly despite nobody communicating with each other. We were then issued with a number with our allocated place in the meditation hall and the gong went, signaling it was time to stop speaking for the next ten days.
It was now dark outside and the small tree lined pathways were lit by lamps which gave off warm glows. We lined up according to our place number and after removing our shoes we respectfully filed into the meditation hall and sat on the relevant cushions which had already been arranged in neat rows facing the front.
Our teachers sat on a small plinth at the front where everything was draped in a white linen sheet. The high vaulted ceiling and the rotating fans kept the room cool and lighting was dim. As we took our seats you could feel the peacefulness of the place fall upon you, yet you could also feel the energy of over a hundred expectant students, eager to begin and to discover what the forthcoming days would hold for them.
The men were seated on the left hand side of the large hall and the women on the right and we all meditated together in the same hall, however we entered and exited through different sides and were strictly segregated at all other times.
After being welcomed by our two teachers (one male and one female) who were sat serenely cross legged in front of us, we watched the first of our nightly discourses that was delivered via video and projected on screens at the front of the hall.
Each talk was given by S.N. Goenka who had revived the Vipassana technique worldwide after taking it from Myanmar to India. Raised in Myanmar (Burma), Goenka had studied under some of the top teachers where Vipassana was and still is taught in its purest form. The technique had largely been lost over the centuries in India from where it had originated but it had continued to be widely practiced in Myanmar. In 1969 Goenka was authorized a teacher and reintroduced it back to India.
Despite being a successful businessman Goenka embraced the principals of Vipassana, one of which is that to maintain its purity, Vipassana must never become a business. As a result of this, all of the Vipassana courses are free to participants. On the last day you are given the chance to make a donation so that future students may attend and benefit from the teachings. Nobody receives any payment for running the courses. All workers and the teachers volunteer their time for free and for the benefit of the students.
After our first introduction we were instructed to make our way quietly back to our rooms and to do our best to rest and prepare for the following ten days.
The daily routine of a Vipassana meditation retreat
We were woken every morning by a very pleasant gong sounding across the centre. It was only 4.am and still dark outside. Even the birds had yet to wake. Washing and dressing quietly I made my way across to the hall where people were beginning to silently take their places and sit on their cushions. Taking my cue from the returning students who were sat towards the front of the hall, I crossed my legs and started to meditate using the method that I have long used.
During the next two hours there were some recorded instructions about how we should be conducting ourselves and how we should be focusing on our breath. Some chanting was played and our teacher spoke a few words but otherwise there was total silence inside the hall.
We were then treated to the most glorious dawn chorus as the birds began to wake. I have to admit that each morning during this time my meditation failed badly and I decided that until I became more practiced in the technique I would simply sit with closed eyes and listen and appreciate the natural music. I was full of gratitude that I was privileged to be sitting in a tropical paradise surrounded by nature and like minded people who all had one goal – to learn or to perfect the technique and to ultimately adopt a different attitude to life.
Breakfast was at 6.30 am followed by free time until 8am when students had the opportunity to shower, do laundry or stroll around the grounds. Some people sat and watched the wildlife which was incredibly tame and others rested in their rooms.
At 8am everybody had to attend the meditation hall for what was termed ‘determined sitting’.
This, it turned out, was a torture session. We were ultimately expected to sit without moving a muscle while meditating. There were three of these specific sessions a day and as my body got stiffer and the muscles in my back went into spasm, they became sheer hell for me.
To begin with, new students were allowed to change position but we were encouraged to fight through the pain and discomfort. After this first session there was a further two hours set aside for meditation but students were free to do this in the privacy of their own room or we could remain in the hall.
I have to admit that despite the discomfort I preferred to stay in the hall where the atmosphere lent itself to a more focused mind. At times, we were also called to the front in small groups of five to sit in front of our teacher who would question us and ask how it was going. We hung on each other’s quietly spoken words, keen for contact and keen to know whether others were struggling or finding it was easy. In the silence it was easy to start to think that you were the only one struggling as everybody else sat with impassive faces.
I was relieved to hear Mandy say that she had had some crazy, almost hallucinogenic dreams and for the teacher to reply that it was normal at this stage. I had feared that I had been going quite mad as strange, grotesque images galloped around in my head.
At 11am the gong sounded again and we all set off for the dining hall for our lunch. The food for my entire stay was varied and delicious. There was plenty of choice and as it was self service you could take as much or as little as you liked.
I, along with many students, liked to walk after lunch. There was a little paved path which looped among the trees. I would often walk barefoot. I enjoyed the feeling of the ground beneath my feet and as I also had the loudest flip flops in the centre I was concerned about disturbing others so I would kick them off although the fire ants would punish me for this. I often spent time simply standing and touching a tree trunk or watching columns of ants march across the ground. I waited patiently while butterflies settled around me and I knew exactly where a strange lizard would hang each day, camouflaged and merging with the leaves next to him.
At 1pmit was time for the second of our ‘determined sittings’ for the day, followed by three more hours of meditation. Some afternoons I would escape and go and stand quietly under the trees at the far end of the centre, processing the things that my subconscious mind had raised during the earlier session.
At 5pm we could eat our fruit and at 6pm it was back for the final ‘determined’ sitting. At 7pm the atmosphere changed and we would settle down to watch our evening discourse. Goenka is certainly an accomplished speaker and his talks were always interesting, humorous and full of real life examples and experiences.
Between 8.30pm and 9pm was the final meditation session which usually included some chanting and Goenka would explain via a recording how we should expand upon our practice the following day.
The Vipassana technique
I am not going to attempt to explain the technique here. There is so much more to it than breathing. If you are interested then go along and attend a course but it begins with concentrating on your breathing for the first two days. Then each subsequent day you add in a new technique or mental exercise until by the tenth day you have the whole process under your belt.
As a life coach and mindfulness practitioner I was fascinated at how my thoughts evolved.
One aspect of Vipassana is that during practice your deep seated memories are released and surface. Like bubbles of gas trapped deep in the bottom of a lake, the bubble of misery as they were referred to, are shaken free during meditation and rise up to pop and disperse.
I was shaken by some of the images that floated up through my mind. You are supposed to notice them, acknowledge them and let them pass but with my knowledge of CBT and NLP I couldn’t help but return to them later when I was sat outside among the trees and to interrogate them further. I don’t think that this was detrimental to me as I did then visualize them floating off and evaporating.
There was one image from when I was about three years old and I couldn’t understand how or where it had come from. It was an image of a birthday gift that I had received and which I hadn’t thought about it for fifty years or more and then with a sudden insight, it revealed so much to me about how and why I have a tendency to feel guilty about things.
During the second day I sat with tears streaming from behind my eyelids and pooling in my lap as something very deep and profound dawned on me about the breakup of a relationship seven years previously with my then best friend. It was also on that second day that the pain in my hip and back became so intense that I began to vomit.
Speaking to the teacher and asking for a back board to support myself a little I was distraught to hear her ask me to try to persevere for a little longer. The concept is that pain (along with all other sensations) is nothing but vibrations arising and passing away at every moment. Once you understand and experience that subtle reality the pain cannot master you. The common experience is that the body becomes more supple and flexible and the pain goes away when you learn to face it with a balance mind (from The Art of Living, Vipassana Meditation as taught by S N Goenka and written by William Hart) .
At this point all good thoughts went from my mind as I wondered how many people had dropped dead from a deep vein thrombosis or how many had gone mad and had run screaming from the hall. The next few days were full of intense physical suffering for me despite eventually getting my back board and ultimately a chair. But I survived the second day when if anybody is going to fail they tend to leave.
I got through to day 6 which is traditionally the second hardest day and then I had a ‘moment’.
Out of the blue I felt something shift. It shifted deep inside my very soul and inside both my body and my mind. The back pain didn’t disappear but it changed along with my perception of it. I began to wonder if the pain was simply causing me to hallucinate but no, from that day on, things became a lot easier. I am sure that it was impossible that the explanation was that my body was simply getting used to sitting in the same cross legged position. I am not supple in that respect and other than the meditation I wasn’t doing any other exercises while at the centre. The muscle spasms were very real following a tear injury a couple of years previously but I felt something shift that I can only describe as a gigantic bubble of misery rising and popping and a deep understanding and acceptance of things past. I don’t need any deeper explanation.
The final few days raced by and all too soon we had our final lecture and we were told that we were free to talk again.
Talking again after ten days of silence
It was odd that despite never talking to some people I felt that I knew them so very well. Sitting alongside them, seeing them eating or walking around the grounds, knowing how they moved their bodies yet not knowing what language they spoke, but I had a deep connection with then and I knew them. There was lightness and a joy that we had all been on very individual journeys yet we had accomplished something together.
On our final morning over breakfast we got our personal possessions back and we swapped contact details. Up until the last few hours I had no idea where I would be going next nor even how I would get to the bus station some 25kms away yet it turned out that the lady on the other side of me in the dining hall actually lived in Jerantut which was the gateway town into the Taman Negara National Park and my preferred destination. When her husband arrived they were very happy to take me with them for the hour and a half journey and they even stopped to buy me breakfast.
Up until the fifth day I couldn’t begin to think how anybody would want to put their minds and body through this again but now I understand. The ideal situation is to meditate twice daily for an hour each time but it’s so much harder away from the calm and focused atmosphere of the centre.
I have however, been meditating for several years up until my Vipassana experience so it is something that I do intend to continue, with the added knowledge of anicca (impermanence), sankhara (volitional activity and mental conditioning) and kamma (karma).
They say that adoptees of this practice will find that as they lose the cravings and aversions in life, as we accept that everything is impermanent and as we alter our thoughts and actions, our attachment and suffering will lessen and even cease. Our sankharas will be redrawn and good things are bound to come to us. We will achieve peace, liberation and the ultimate goal which is true happiness.
Please forgive me if you are a practitioner of Vipassana and some of my explanations here are not totally correct. I encourage you to find a course near you where you will be taught and understand the whole concept. I was already using many of the mental exercises myself in my mindfulness practice so they weren’t new to me but this method expands upon them and gives things a whole new dimension.
In these frightening times as the Covid-19 virus takes its hold on the world it’s maybe more important than ever that we remain calm and as stress free as possible. That we think of others and help those who need it and we support each other through these difficult times.
If you want to talk about any issues that I raised in this article or about anything that is bothering you, send me a message. I would love to hear from you.