10 days of total silence - one woman’s journey into Vipassana meditation
When my friend Sophie told me that she was travelling to India to undertake a silent meditation retreat for ten days, my initial response (like many of her friends apparently) was…you’re mad.
Just pause for a moment and imagine spending ten whole days sat cross-legged on a floor in total silence. No gadgets. No TV. No books. No physical activity. No conversation. Total silence. With only the workings of your own mind for company.
Yeah...that’s what I thought - doesn’t sound very appealing does it?
But as with all seemingly unappealing things which are supposed to be good (but not particularly fun) for us, particularly when they are rooted in Buddhist philosophy; I was fascinated to hear more about Sophie’s experience to better understand it.
She’s very kindly agreed to allow me to share this here with you all...
What is Vipassana meditation?
“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago as the universal remedy for universal ills and brought back to popularity by S. N. Goenka in the latter half of the 20th century.
It’s ultimate goal is to cultivate a totally “well” mind and therefore generate complete happiness, which Buddhists believe can only be achieved by total liberation of attachment to feelings, things and people.
In slightly less daunting terms, it’s supposed to teach you how to calm and focus the mind; rather than letting it get swept off by the wild elephants that most of us having in our skulls. The hope is that if you continue to use this technique it will allow you to use your mind as a tool, rather than being controlled and identified with it, which is a huge problem in today’s society.”
What exactly is a Vipassana retreat?
“A Vipassana retreat is held at one of the specialist centres all around the world. There are actually a handful in the UK if you can’t get to India.
Everyone is encouraged to go through a ten day ‘baptism of fire’ for their first experience to really feel the best effects, and then you’re able to practice regularly at home and go to shorter retreats to “top up” the positive effects.
There is no charge for the retreat. They operate on a donation basis. The idea is that you go through the experience, understand how powerful it is and then donate money to the centre at the end which is put towards the next batch of people on the next retreat. You’re facilitating other people to have the same positive experience you have just had - which is nice.”
What does the average day in the retreat look like?
“Ha ha, this is actually something I tried not to focus on before I went and didn’t want to tell too many people about because it would make people think I was even more mad to voluntarily do it...and put others off from having a go themselves.
But here goes anyway.
The wake-up gong goes at 4am and the first meditation session is from 4.30am-6.30am.
All meditation sessions are run in the main hall. Seasoned students are given a ‘solo cell’ to meditate in immediately so that they can meditate in isolation if they choose to. On the 6th or 7th day us ‘new’ students were given a cell too. And it is literally a cell. One high small barred window. lock on the outside. Just enough room to lie down if you wanted to. Quite surreal!
Then breakfast is at 6.30am. The food you eat depends upon the centre and country you’re in. Our food was obviously Indian but not spicy and always arrived like clockwork - quite an unusual phenomenon in India!
After food, another meditation session, lunch at 11.30am, including a couple of hours to do things like wash, clean clothes and move about; more meditation, a light snack at 5pm,
From 6 to 9pm the final session of the day, which includes a video from the main teacher himself, which is a nice respite. It’s usually a serious but lighthearted metaphorical tale to make you feel a little more grounded and human. They were incredible, they literally taught me something new and life-changing every single time. They are what kept a lot of us going through the long days to be honest.
And last but not least, bed. Most people are normally in bed by 9.05pm.”
Why on earth would you want to do this?
“Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to take better control of their own mind, for me it was my struggle with anxiety, a desire to change the balance of my life for the better and ultimately understand more about myself to be a better person and live a better life. A big game changing moment for me was when someone once asked me what made me happy, and I genuinely couldn’t answer the question - it was then that I knew it was time to start investing time and energy into myself.
I first heard about Vipassana a few years ago and was very interested in the concept but I knew then that I wasn’t ready; it’s not something you enter into lightly. To go into silence for ten days and have to face up to yourself, a real raw version of yourself, is not going to be easy. I knew that I’d need to be in a good place mentally… to come at it full of anxiety would probably be a step too far.
But in the last 6 months it has been creeping into my mind again… and I thought...hmmm, maybe it’s time. Then the yoga teacher training course that I decided to do in Rishikesh, India, mentioned that it would be good to do a silent retreat before the course to go deeper into yourself. OK, decision made, sign me up.”
What was it like during the process itself?
“It was HARD! But on a completely different level than I had imagined. My body revolted just as much as my mind which i hadn’t been prepared for at all. Turns out sitting on the floor for ten days straight is pretty painful. My knees were in agony and my mind kept wandering all over the place.
I’d think about the future - making plans for people to see when I got home, events to organise, ideas for potential businesses, pictures I could paint. I’d think about the past - replaying conversations in my mind that I would have liked to have gone better. Basically anything other than the present.
The first few days were a nightmare and very humbling. But by the fifth day I felt a sense of total calm, which was rapidly replaced by another day of a wandering mind, which slapped me right in my smug face and reminded me who was still the boss. On day eight I’d got it into my mind that I was failing terrible, had missed the point of every part of the experience and seriously wanted to leave. But on day ten once we were allowed to talk, I realised that all the ups and downs and mind games had been completely the point, for me at least, to show me more clearly how my mind functions and how to work with that moving forwards.”
I mean this still sounds pretty terrible to me, was it worth it?
“Absolutely. Making it through a challenge like that is so rewarding. The key lesson that this experience gives you is that everything in life is constantly changing, just like the thoughts in your mind and the physical sensations in your body when you’re sat on the floor in silence for 10 days. Rather than trying to trying to distract yourself with gadgets, tv or experience, or control the change; I’ve learnt to embrace it.
There is no point in being attached to feelings emotions, feelings, material possessions whether it’s in a positive or negative way (whether we like it or not we do get attached to negative things, like fear) because when this things changes or goes away it is us who will suffer. So that’s what i’m taking from it… to observe how and what I attach to. And maybe, little by little, I can stop the suffering that I cause myself.
And perhaps most important of all - I’ve learnt that all the experiences in life that make me upset and feel like a failure are actually the things that I can now see are the most valuable.”
What would you say to anyone reading this who’s curious about trying something like this for themselves?
“If you feel drawn to do it, do it. If you’re not too sure, wait a while, you’ll know when the time is right. Go with an open mind and an open heart. Know that it will challenge you, but that you’ll also learn so much about yourself, and it might just surprise you!”
Personally I am in awe of her for doing this. It sounds so simple but involves such commitment and a willingness to really look yourself in the eye - something not many people are willing to do. She’s definitely inspired me to consider a retreat like this more seriously.
For anyone looking to to learn more about Vipassana meditation, Sophie recommends checking out the dhamma.org. And if diving straight into a retreat feels a bit too intense at the moment, then have a read of Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” or S.N. Goenka’s “The Art of Living” - both of which estoll similar virtues in the value of focusing on the present moment.
Thank you Sophie! xx