Caryl Goes Silent
People who know me well, know I’m a bit of a princess at heart – I like the finer things in life, I like comfort, I’m happy to have people (well Paul mainly) help me along with the more mundane things in life like organising and planning while I busy myself with contemplating whatever thought might have popped into my head like a butterfly.
I also love to talk to people, I don’t do well without sleep or endure hardship that well; and we all know that I love to eat.
So there were many surprised people out there when I announced that I’d be going on a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat where I couldn’t talk, have any kind of physical or eye contact with fellow participants and wouldn’t have access to my phone or the internet. I’d be getting up at 4am for the first of the day’s meditation sessions at 4.30am and would be surviving on 2 meals a day (thankfully mainly vegan food), the last of which would be served at 11am (only tea, fruit and a few vegan Oreos for tea at 5pm).
Even I began to wonder why I applied for the course…
I’m not new to meditation, having practised yoga for many years, and have always enjoyed the peaceful feeling at the end of the 15 or 20 minute guided meditations that I have done. I quickly realised on ‘Day 1’ that Vipassana meditation is a completely different affair in comparison to what I’ve been used to.
As it turns out, Vipassana meditation is not all peace and loveliness (to begin with anyway); it’s hard work, excruciating hard work, and I’d signed up to 10 days of it…
At 4am the wake up bell would chime and there’d be a chance to have a cold wash or brave the cold shower in the freezing night time temperatures. Then I’d put on as many clothes as possible, wrap myself in sarongs and the blanket off my bed before heading to the meditation hall wishing I had warm clothes in my bag.
At 4.30am, sat in the meditation hall on my designated cushion, surrounded by nearly 140 other people, another bell would ring and the the day’s meditation would begin.
The first 3 days basically involved nothing but focussing on the sensation of the breath going in an out of my nose (this is called ‘Anapana Sati’ meditation and it’s purpose was to sharpen our minds for later ‘work’). Yes, you read that correctly; 3 days of focusing on a small area at the end of my nose and upper lip.
And just in case you think that might be easy, try doing it for 10.5 hours a day…
For the remaining 7 days we practised ‘Vipassana’ meditation where were instructed to focus on the sensations we felt on different parts of our body, which we had to work through in order from head to toe.
My butterfly brain struggled under the weight of having to only concentrate on these two things. Thoughts arrived sneakily in the background or they arrived with a fanfare, seemingly increasing their importance. Anything to distract me from the simple task of focussing on feeling.
Then there was the pain
Screaming pain in my knees, hip and shoulder from sitting down for prolonged periods. Hard to focus on anything else when that’s the only thing you can feel and no amount of telling yourself about the impermanence of life and everything in it, helps to alleviate it. No amount of cushions wedged in different places seemed to help and I dreamed of sitting on a chair instead of a cushion on the floor.
In between the pain there was tiredness. Hours of being in that place between consciousness and unconsciousness, trying to fight the desire to just lay down and sleep (not allowed in during meditation hours funnily enough). This seemed to plague me throughout the 10 days; I could be full of energy and wide awake until I sat down to meditate and then the desire to sleep would take hold.
And when pain or tiredness were giving me a break, boredom was there to take over
Why did I never consider that trying to meditate for 10.5 hours a day might be boring? Boredom, when you can’t move to escape it or zone out with thoughts or day dreams began to turn into a physical feeling, kind of like slowly suffocating. So that was fun.
When the meditation sessions were over I had no relaxed and peaceful feeling, more of a feeling like I’d been put through a giant pasta making machine. I felt tired and empty, lonely from not being able to share my thoughts with Paul who I’ve been used to talking to pretty much every day for the past 17 years. There was more boredom too and I had an incredibly heightened awareness which meant I could feel and see everything more intensely.
Even not meditating was exhausting
On two days I felt so tired (and a bit sorry for myself) that during the meditation hours in my room, I broke the rules and crawled into bed to sleep for an hour.
We’ll just add guilt to the misery shall we?
The silence was actually the easiest bit to manage, it didn’t really bother me not being able to talk to people once I got used to it and the mutual agreement not to notice one another or pass comment, was actually quite liberating.
I feel like I’ve spent much of my life feeling other people’s judgements, responding to their comments, imagining what they might be thinking of me and generally being self-conscious so this mutual agreement not to notice each other was really rather a good experience.
It’s also worth mentioning that ‘noble silence’ that we’d agreed to adhere to didn’t seem to include burping loudly and there were many amusing moments for me when I’d hear the silence being broken by a loud burp from a tiny Thai woman. This is a memory that will stay with me forever…
This Vipassana course was taught by a man called S. N. Goenka (via a recorded message or video) and in person by his assistants who were on hand to answer any questions (you are allowed to talk to the teachers at set times). The evening videos were actually quite thought provoking, entertaining and useful; they were one of my favourite bits of each day and I quite liked this peaceful, funny man.
It was a bit like having a story told to you by a kind grandfatherly like person, especially as we all had to sit on cushions watching the big screen.
The daytime recordings played at the beginning or end of meditations sessions were less compatible with my ears though and unfortunately I developed a real aversion to them. Firstly because they were in a language that I didn’t understand and so in the absence of knowing what he was saying my brain kept filling in the gaps with things I’m pretty sure he wasn’t saying.
For example, I’m pretty sure that at no time was he saying (in a very serious voice) “Sa-man-tha” in order to get me thinking about the lovely Samantha I know from the place where I used to work.
I’m also pretty sure that at no time was he repeatedly saying “gay protection” (which again made me think a lot about the place where I used to work) but you know what it’s like when your brain just gets stuck on something.
Secondly, if I’m really honest, I just didn’t like the sound of his singing, even though I knew he was saying kind and peaceful things and wishing me and the world well. He had a nice voice when he spoke but when he began to chant it became a low, gravelly, tuneless noise that sometimes ended with a nasal cleansing snort. Every morning and afternoon (when the long 30 minute chants were played), I’d feel like a terrible person for hating his voice so much.
The whole Vipassana centre and course is run by volunteers, on donations from old students. These are truly kind and helpful people who just want to help you on your journey, whatever course it might take. They make the best food to soothe your soul during those dark moments and I have to say I was never really hungry despite not having dinner.
The helpers were always there with a smile and to answer any practical questions (we were also allowed to talk to them if needed). It was very humbling to be able to take part in something because of the generosity and kindness of others.
There were also nearly 140 people on my course, every one of those (whether they were struggling like me or perhaps deep in the flow of blissful sensations) was there to spread peace, compassion and love through the world. I’m not sure I’ve every been in the company of so many people who have signed up to this and it was a very inspiring thought.
When the world seems to be too full of cruelty, I’m going to try to remind myself that these courses are running throughout the year, around the world, and are full of people striving for peace.
On the last day after 10am we were allowed to talk to people again and the whole centre was filled with an atmosphere of joy and happiness; you could actually feel it in the air. The monk that I though was a rather serious faced man turned out to be a smiley, kind faced woman; there was a total transformation of people and place.
I’d honestly go through the whole thing again just to experience the feelings on the last day.
For a few days after the retreat I was filled with a wonderful sense of peace, I must admit that this has worn off again now after a few weeks of travelling again where I’ve only managed a couple of hours of meditation as opposed to the recommended 2 hours a day (and where we seem to have met rather an unusual amount of obnoxious, inconsiderate fellow travellers, but that’s another story).
Ah well, enlightenment will just have to wait a bit I suppose
And I’ve come to the conclusion that, for now I’m actually happy just how I am. The meditation, philosophy, discomfort, suffering, simplicity of routine and separation from people all helped me to realise that right now self-acceptance and self-kindness is the way forward.
Not a bad lesson to learn really
My opinion on the course seems to change daily; there’s a bit of me that feels like it made me fall out of love with meditation, due to my aversion to suffering and discomfort. But there’s also a bit of me that I hear singing the praises of the philosophy and the overall purpose when I talk to others about it. It’s almost like I like the idea of meditating but not the actual practice when it isn’t enjoyable.
It struck me yesterday though, when talking with my lovely mother in law after we’d been to a meditation session with some monks in Laos, that perhaps this is just part of my journey with it all. Perhaps I need to develop a more neutral attitude to feeling frustrated, tired and tortured by my mind during meditation?
So for now I’m going to keep practising when I can and just try to keep observing what is going on.
I definitely learnt more about meditation from the 10 day course though, things which I’ll definitely use in the future, albeit sat in much more comfort because even after a few weeks of leaving the retreat, my knees still aren’t the same.
If you want to read a detailed and fabulous series of accounts from one of my fellow course participants, Dijana, then check out her blog posts on her blog ‘Dive, Move, Sense’. She’ll tell you more about the technique and explains the background and philosophy in a very clear and easy to understand way, so it’s well worth reading.
And if you have any questions, advice or comments for me, then feel free to post them below…