10 Days of Silence
What’s the longest you’ve been without speaking?
I remember about 10 years ago my girlfriends mum used to go to 10 day silent meditation retreats. I was always intrigued about why someone would be mad enough to put themselves through something like that.
Then 10 years passed and I discovered that I was now one of those mad enough people.
Ever since I’d heard about these retreats all those years ago I’d felt more and more drawn to go. The draw of the silence and time to reflect really appealed to me. Then a few months ago I was sitting at my friend Steph’s kitchen table in Bristol on a cold winter’s evening chatting over a cup of tea. Steph mentioned she had been on the retreat, and as I heard the words, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that’ escape from my mouth, I realised that I’d never actually taken any steps to put that vague plan in action. We opened Steph’s laptop then and there and looked for the next available opening.
Just a few months later there I was, sheepishly sitting in a room full of strangers, as a man stood at the front telling us what the next ten days of our lives would entail.
The silent retreat teaches a style of meditation called Vipassana, taken from the teachings of Buddha, that focuses on change and impermanence by observing the sensations in the body. The word ‘vipassana’ means ‘to see things as they really are’.
I’d been told by numerous people that they had found their experience of this Vipassana retreat life changing. Knowing that the best way to avoid having a life changing experience would be to go in with the expectation of having a life changing experience, I tried to put my expectations aside and just be with whatever emerged at the retreat.
With hindsight, retreat feels like the wrong word. It makes me think of some light yoga to start the day, smoothies by the pool and a gentle stroll down the beach.
The Vipassana retreat was anything but that. For all these years I’d thought the silence would be the difficult bit, but I quickly realised that this was not the case. Each day there are around 10 hours of sitting meditation. So in total you are sitting cross-legged on the floor for over 100 hours over the 10 days. As you can imagine, if your body is anything like mine, then this can be quite a physically painful experience. The silence is an important way to be able to stay with your own experience, as opposed to comparing with others and the pitfalls that go with that.
I find it hard to convey just why the experience of those 10 days was so important and so transformative for me. Even now, a month later, I still think of it all the time and apply what I discovered during my time there on a daily basis.
I’ve been doing mindful meditation for a few years now and I thought I had a good understanding of what meditation was, but the Vipassana retreat changed that view.
I guess I always thought the point of meditation was to calm your mind and a way to escape the stress of life. In a way it is that, but not in the way I previously thought. While ultimately a long term practice may lead to a calmer mind, meditation itself requires you to uncover the uncomfortable parts of your life. The bits we have grown used to repressing. It’s not a quick fix to finding peace and harmony. It’s not about escaping life but about learning how to experience it in its fullest.
This vipassana technique helps you to develop equanimity. It’s an idea that I think is very easy to understand at an intellectual level. Seasons change. Life turns into death. That sort of thing. But to actually understand it on a deep, experiential level is a very different thing. I thought I understood it well. I’ve been using systems change models around the subject in my work for years that provide a good academic framework for this idea. But it’s only in these past few weeks that I feel like I’ve really been taking my first baby steps into really knowing it inside of myself.
Vipassana allows this by inviting you to experience the sensations in the body as the are and to not try and change them. To accept them, whether painful or pleasurable, and know that they will change.
For me this was the transformative part. Throughout the 10 days I had intense back pain. At the beginning I was under the impression that by about day 5 my body would get used to the posture, the pain would disappear and I would become a straight-backed poster boy for how to meditate.
Prior to attending, someone had told me that around day 4 or 5 is the hardest and after that it is plain sailing to the end. I guess this was a lesson in why not to take too much heed of other people’s advice. For me day 7 was the hardest as I was thinking, ‘I’m way past day 5! It’s still not easy!’. But this in itself led to a breakthrough in terms of understanding that this craving for peace was itself staving off any chance of actually finding any of it.
Over the 10 days there were ups and downs. Times where feelings of boredom and isolation were so intense. Times I felt so frustrated when I heard the teacher saying, ‘You are not the pain and it will pass’ when it felt like someone was dragging a soldering iron across my lower back.
I don’t really know how to describe it, but it was around this point where my relationship to that pain began to shift. It was still there but I felt less bothered by it. Less like it was my pain. There were times when I could just observe it.
I began to realise that ‘pain’ was a blanket term I’d been applying for a whole universe of sensation. When I really concentrated on the centre of the pain I could begin to understand the complexity and ever changing nature of it. It was heat. It was pressure. It was tingling. It was in flux from one moment to the next.
I guess the thing which I was less able to remain equanimous to was not the pain, but the moments when there was no pain, or when time seemed to pass quickly. I found it hard not to crave those moments. Maybe it is easier to get used to pain than it is to not crave pleasure?
My 10 days at the Vipassana centre were probably 10 of the most intense days of my life.
It was transformative, but in a way that I hadn’t foreseen.
In the month or so since I attended, there have been ups and downs as there always are, but I’ve felt much better equipped to navigate what life throws at me, and not get too involved in the superfluous dramas that can so easily distract from the natural flow of life.
I think Vipassana taps into the essence of what it means to be human in a way that seems so natural, but it is at odds with the way we have structured society. While capitalism tells us that we can achieve happiness by buying more and accumulating wealth. While we are bombarded with adverts, business models and Buzzfeed listicles showing us the fast track to having a better life, the idea of sitting in silence and seeking the answers from within seems very counter-cultural.
Having 10 days with no books, emails, smartphones or communication with anyone but yourself, instead of being the taxing concept that I’d been preparing for instead felt like bliss.
If we could all create the time to sit with ourselves and really get to feel everything that we are feeling, just imagine how much that would change the world.