Ten days of silence: My Vipassana Meditation Experience

The first question most people ask is, why?  Why would you want to spend ten days meditating in complete silence: no phone, no books, no distractions? 

I still don’t have a good answer, I only know that I did, and that’s a good enough reason for me these days.

I had a few last-minute nerves about leaving my husband and children, but mostly I was looking forward to my ten days of noble silence at the Dhamma Dipa Vipassana Meditation Centre.

The course in a nutshell

I won’t bore you with too many details, if you’re interested in the course and the technique there are plenty of articles, YouTube videos, podcasts and the Vipassana website (though if you’re serious about giving it a try I recommend not doing too much research beforehand, it’s better to go with an open mind and few expectations).

The day began at 4am with a wake-up gong and ended at 9.30pm with lights out.  The meditation periods ran to around ten hours a day, with two meal breaks (breakfast and lunch, all vegetarian), rest breaks, toilet breaks and the evening discourses (videos which explained the technique).  We could mostly choose to meditate in the hall or in our rooms depending on the teacher’s instructions, with three mandatory group meditation sessions in the hall throughout the day.

On arrival we had until 8pm to make our acquaintances with our fellow course goers (up to around one hundred and fifty men and women), before we were segregated by sex and the ‘noble silence’ began with our first meditation session of the course. 

We wouldn’t speak to each other or see the men (apart from on the opposite side of the meditation hall) for ten days.

Let the silence do the talking

Did I mention the total silence? Noble silence covers all communication: no eye contact, hand gestures, notes, you are to remain in your own little universe from that first meditation session.

The purpose of the silence is to work individually, without distractions or comparison. You’re finding your own path, uninfluenced by others or the world outside. For the most part it worked fine.  Yet I found it hard, when surrounded by people, to pretend they weren’t there. Never have I been more aware of how loudly I chew my food. I’ll admit to holding doors open for others and the occasional small smile or gesture when sidestepping each other in doorways.  I am British after all, and manners are encoded in my DNA.

Shhh

Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com

On sharing a room

Some of the rooms are shared.  I knew this before I got there and had to fight the urge to contact the centre and request a single room.  This urge was coming from my thinking mind, which was imagining all the ways in which it would be terrible to share a room with someone I don’t know, yet this catastrophising of the monkey mind is the very thinking I’ve been trying to overcome, so I listened to my heart and let it be (with the secret hope that the universe would deliver me a single room).

Yet the universe has a habit of delivering what we need, not what we want, and on this occasion, it turns out I needed to get over myself and share a room, which was one of the best things that could have happened.

I got to meet my roommate before noble silence started and she was lovely.  We both liked the room warm, and she was obviously as nervous about sharing as I was.  We made a vow that if either of us was doing something that annoyed the other person and could be avoided, we would tell each other.

As it turns out we entered a brilliant flow with each other, and it felt easy.  I experienced in perfect clarity how our mind creates problems that don’t exist, and that if we’re able to listen to our gut and go with the flow the very problems we’d foreseen often don’t arise, leaving more energy to focus on the ones that do.

Who said meditation was easy?

I’m used to Transcendental meditation, with a mantra to settle the mind. This type of meditation feels effortless and easy for me. Vipassana wasn’t like what. It took a lot of focus; where I’d imagined drifting off to some ethereal plane to have deeply spiritual experiences (curse my imagination), the technique required us to remain present and focused on the sensations in our body, sitting upright and cross legged on a mat for much of the day.

At times it seemed futile or pointless and could be very frustrating.  But I couldn’t deny that something was happening.   

I began to witness first-hand the rollercoaster I was living on: some break times, I’d practically skip down the forest paths of this peaceful retreat after a meditation session went well, but by the afternoon the burning pain in my leg and shoulder blades would have me plotting my escape from this prison like hellhole, as I trudged the bark lined paths muttering dark thoughts (in my head).

The course teaches you to search for equanimity. The idea is to be aware of feelings or sensations as they arise but to remain objective about them.  This is hard.  Try observing your body objectively when it feels like someone’s placed hot coals inside your shoulder blades, or having a meditation experience so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes and not hoping for a repeat experience next time you take your seat on the mat.

There were many moments, sometimes hours, when I harboured resentments towards the course material, towards my meditation mat and towards myself for feeling this way.

Yet I also developed a strong awareness of the negative voice in my mind and the lengths it will go to in its search for comfort (I became pretty good at sleeping sitting up). 

I’ve written about negativity before, I even named my inner critic, but knowing something in theory and putting it into practice are very different.  This course gave me the gift of experiential understanding: in the prolonged quiet, free from distractions and focusing on nothing but my own body, I could witness the negative voice at work, and over the ten days I began to learn how to detach from it.

In my head I hoped to achieve a state something like this, minus the baldness.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

It’s all in the mind

The course demonstrated the central part our mind plays in the creation of pain, both emotional and physical.

Halfway through the course we were instructed in ‘Adhitthana,’ an hour-long meditation three times a day, during which we had to try not to move. 

The mind is a slippery fish, and if you tell it you can’t move your body for an hour it will instantly begin throwing up all sorts of reasons why you MUST MOVE NOW.  Pain, an itch, needing the toilet.  It was intensely uncomfortable, but fascinating.  Only minutes before the first sitting of strong determination was announced, I’d been sitting relatively comfortably without moving for over an hour but being told I couldn’t move for the next hour opened the gates to a personal fiery hell.

I remember one woman asking the meditation teacher during the question period (when we could talk to the teacher), how she could be sure she was feeling sensations and not just making them up.  The teacher replied,

‘If you are feeling them, then they are there.’

The sensation comes from the brain. When a person loses an arm or a leg and can still feel the missing limb, this is because the nerve endings in the brain still think the limb is there. The pain being produced by the brain is real, even though the external limb has gone. That’s the power of the mind.

I learned a long time ago in the outpatient clinic to make no distinction – as some condescending doctors still do – between ‘real’ or psychological’ pain. All pain is produced in the brain.’

Henry Marsh, neurosurgeon and author

The mind at play

I discovered that when experiencing discomfort or boredom, my mind likes to play.  

When we gathered around the hall, stretching in anticipation of our next session on the mat, my mind’s eye could see us all tying sweatbands around our heads and limbering up Rocky style (theme tune included).

If I lost focus during meditation, I would sing songs in my head (Slip Slidin’ Away by Paul Simon was a favourite). I also created a series of exaggerated comedy sketches contrasting the free and easy style of the meditation practice I’m used to with the marine quality, boot camp style meditation I was currently experiencing.  This comparison was a bit unfair to Vipassana, which is a totally different style, but it kept me laughing inside, and that humour helped me through.

I noticed the same trait in my daughter recently during a walk in the Peak District: as we laboured our way up a steep incline, puffing and sweating, she began singing funny songs with a smile on her face. She said singing distracted her from how hard it was and gave her more energy to reach the top. The power of the mind in action.

Cos I’m happy

Photo by Arthur Brognoli on Pexels.com

Bring on the noise

After nine long days of silence, on day ten we could talk. I expected this to be overwhelming, but by day ten it was welcome.  We went from being in our own bubbles of silent concentration to non-stop chatter which would give the dawn chorus a run for its money.

Though many of us hadn’t met, we were welcoming, free and easy with each other.  We’d shared this intense and difficult experience and most of us were ready to talk about it, in fact it was hard to shut many of us up. 

The number one question people ask: would you do it again? I think it’s a bit like child labour, or running a marathon, I need some time to recover.  But I would like to go back and serve on a course, cooking and cleaning for course participants (the whole centre is run on a voluntary basis). 

I might not have achieved enlightenment, but I’ve learned a lot about myself which I don’t think I would have experienced so sharply were it not for the solitude this course offered. 

I met some wonderful people and got a snapshot of how the world could be if it turned a little slower, if we listened a little more.

There was no wine, but you get the vibe

Image by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

A beautiful world

A girl walks a forest path and stops, listening to the sounds.  She gently wraps her arms around a nearby tree and they comfort each other in silent union.

A girl sits on the grass outside her room, stroking the blades gently, as she might stroke a sleeping child.

A girl stands in silent discourse with a robin on a branch.

A group of women sit watching the squirrels jump from tree to tree, chasing each other across the wind-swept boughs.

A roommate (my roommate) notices a person in discomfort (me) and offers medicine, bending the rules in an act of compassion.  Trusting my intuition to share a room led me to one of the kindest people I have ever met.

The sun is setting and women are gathered, separate but together, faces tilted towards the sky as they soak up the last warmth of the day.

When the silence has ended, women and men freely and happily help to clean the communal areas, ready for the next group of meditators to arrive.

If community and connection to nature is possible in this setting, perhaps there is a way to spread it to the rest of the world.  You might point out this is as a pipe dream, that people are inherently selfish, competitive, mean and cruel, that our systems could never change to support such a world. 

Is this true?

It’s only in the last 100 years that women have been able to own property, before that they were considered property themselves.  In the scheme of things, 100 years isn’t that long yet societal change has been massive.

The world often feels largely beyond our control, but I’ve seen first-hand how much control we do have. Our inward world co-creates our outside world: we make our meaning, we find the significance, we have the power.  We don’t need to wait for a sign from a higher one to tell us what to do, though we can notice and marvel if they occur. 

I believe the more of us that can find the thing that connects us to the earth and keeps us grounded, kind and compassionate – be it meditation, fishing, walking, canoeing, writing [fill in chosen activity here] – whatever it is that brings us to that reservoir of peace that dwells inside all of us, the bigger the change we’ll see in the world.

Photo by Cup of Couple on Pexels.com

Well that was a long one, and I feel like I just scratched the surface!

I didn’t tell you how I didn’t miss my phone AT ALL (in fact I shied away turning it on when I got back), or how I found a pen under my bed at the Centre and took it as a sign from the universe to write, only to have all the writing mysteriously disappear from the scrap of paper I wrote on, yet everything I needed to remember is still with me.

I didn’t mention how many animals from my poems I met on my daily walks through the trees, or the small but undeniable synchronicities that happened during and after the course.

I meant to say that in silence I learned how to listen to the deepest part of myself, and I found that I can trust her.

If you have any questions then I’d be happy to answer as best I can, leave a comment below or email me at raecodswriting@gmail.com

Photo by Jack Winbow on Pexels.com

18 thoughts on “Ten days of silence: My Vipassana Meditation Experience

    • Thanks Monch, it’s good to be back 😊

      This retreat was secular but it did have strong links to the Buddhist tradition, which I loved learning more about.

      I haven’t heard of the Jesuit’s, I shall look them up.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Out of the Way | Rae Cod’s Writing

  2. That sounds like an amazing experience Rae. I think I’d give up after 5 minutes of sitting on the floor ! Maybe a retreat where you can lie down and meditate on a soft bed….. or am I missing the point here !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well after doing it I’m not denying a soft bed would’ve been preferable, but perhaps it wouldn’t have had quite the desired effect in terms of connecting with the body. If there is a retreat like that though I’d definitely give it a go 😂😚

      Like

  3. Brave lady. I think I’ve found my own ways to live in the moment over time, but I’d imagine your experiences have given you extra skills and pretty quick results in this area!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It certainly showed me the inner workings of my mind more clearly, which has helped me be more aware of when my negative thinking is taking over & (usually) course correct more quickly.

      It’s also given me great appreciation for the things I have, whilst also making me realise I don’t need many of the physical items to be content, which is pretty liberating.

      I think maintaining the results now I’m out will be the trick, some people I met were on their third course and I’ve corresponded with people who are up to seven! So as hard as it was I think it may have the possibility of becoming alluring again somewhere down the line.

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  4. Wow, that was such a lovely journey. I did consider doing a similar course once, but just never gotten around to it. I don’t mind the not talking and sticking to my own thoughts per se, but it’s the no reading or consuming bit that’ll get me.

    Question: If you didn’t like what your roommate did, are you allowed to communicate?

    Sounds like a super interesting experience, and I’m glad you shared it. In fact, I felt like I was there in certain parts of your story. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Stuart, it’s great to hear the story connected so well, it’s always tricky as a writer to know if our words paint a picture, I know I can see it, but I sometimes wonder can the reader?

      The no reading bit was much easier than I thought (too tired from meditation to miss it!) & I didn’t miss my phone at all, in fact I was reticent to turn it on when I got out!

      The room mate question is a good one. My room mate & I made a deal at the very start when we could still talk that if either of us did something preventable that annoyed the other person we would break silence & tell them. We also agreed that if either of us wanted to move rooms for whatever reason we wouldn’t be offended (though I suppose had that happened I would have been left wondering about my sleeping habits! 😂)

      Liked by 1 person

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