10 Days of Silence
It’s 2:30pm on August 9, 2017 in Haryana, India. I’m in a quiet, peaceful place: a large room with white walls, an octagonal vaulted ceiling and beige meditation cushions placed in evenly-spaced rows across the floor, but at the moment I feel nothing that remotely resembles peace. I’m glaring at the meditation cushion in front of me as if it were a torture device. So far today I’ve logged six and a half hours of sitting in silence on this small cushioned square. Although it was comfortable for the first 30 minutes or so, comfort is now a distant memory and my back and legs are on fire with pain. And trust me, I have tried every conceivable sitting position known to man. In creativity born of desperation I may have even invented some new seated postures never before seen on this planet – but there is no such thing as a comfortable one at this point. I can’t imagine enduring one more minute on that small square, but I have four more hours of seated meditation ahead of me this evening – and ninety more hours to endure in the coming 9 days.
What is this, you may be wondering, a prison? Some cruel and unusual form of Indian punishment for a crime? Oh no, I voluntarily put myself in this position. This is Day One of a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat, during which you and your fellow masochists, I mean meditators, are totally cut off from the outside world, without access to cell phones, laptops, reading material, writing material, any form of entertainment, are forbidden even non-spoken communication with each other, and you spend 10 days in silence, with a schedule that includes sitting in meditation for approximately 10 hours a day, beginning at 4:30am every day. In other words, everyone’s idea of pure bliss.
Joking aside, unless you’re a mother with young children or an overworked, exhausted professional, this probably sounds like a crazy thing to sign up for. I thought it was completely insane when I first heard about it, about a year and a half earlier. But then I kept hearing about people who had done it – even people who had done it more than once. Most of them raved about how much they loved it, said it was transformative and life changing. I was also sincerely impressed by a few cold hard facts: it was completely donation-based, and I mean real donation at your own discretion, not one of those “suggested donation $XX” things. Although they’re providing you food and lodging for ten days in addition to the teaching, the Vipassana Centre won’t even allow you to donate anything until you’ve completed the course and feel that you’ve received a benefit from the experience. In this day and age where spirituality and materialism are so closely intertwined, this felt like a refreshing spring breeze. And there are 178 Vipassana centres around the world. There must be something to this, I thought.
At some point I got the feeling this meditation was something I should experience, and as months went by the feeling didn’t go away. So I signed up. Since I was already going to India for a yoga teacher training, I chose a Vipassana center in India, although there are ten Vipassana centers in the US. I thought it might be the hardest thing I had ever done, but I also had the optimistic hope that once I entered the place, peaceful energy would take over and I would effortlessly float through the 10 days in a transformative state of bliss and emerge a calmer person glowing with inner peace, having shed all the inbred bad habits I no longer wanted in my life.
As you already know, that wasn’t quite how it went. What I’ve described above was the hardest point – I’m happy to say it did get easier (they gave me a backrest that made the sitting bearable) and I did survive the ten days. There were short periods when it was easy, and even moments of pure bliss. It was a roller coaster through an avalanche of different stages: boredom, restlessness, fatigue, mental turbulence, irritation, resentment, more boredom, fatigue again, perplexity, impatience, mercifully punctuated by occasional positive emotions like peace, joy, contentment and clarity. But most of the time, it was hard.
Ironically, the things I thought would be the hardest turned out not be a piece of cake. Those were: 1) waking up at 4 am (every day I woke up before the alarm went off) 2) not having coffee (didn’t miss it at all) 3) not being able to talk for 10 days (in that environment, it was easy and natural, a nice break).
It was mainly only the sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day that really was difficult, although by Day Five I did start acutely missing my cell phone, books and communication with the outside world.
There were definitely moments when I thought: how can I possibly do this for another hour and a half, let alone 8 more days … 4 more days … etc. But since leaving wasn’t an option, I just sat there and kept breathing. And that’s the way to survive anything, isn’t it, when there’s nothing else you can do. Just keep breathing, and know that no matter how slowly time is passing, it will pass, and this suffering will end.
The brightest points of the day were mealtimes (the food was always delicious), the cool, refreshing mornings, bedtime, and the times we saw the spectacular peacocks roaming around.
Oh yes, we had peacocks walking among us. There were two adult males and one younger one, and a couple females. There is something about withdrawing almost all mental and sensory stimulation and living in silence that intensifies anything beautiful. When those peacocks would caw and spread their artistic cape of feathers and the sun’s rays hit them, highlighting the the blues and greens and purples and gold, it was breathtaking. Those peacocks felt like a gift from God; they lit up my day.The brightest point of the entire week occurred the afternoon of Day 7, an episode which I can only describe as pure magic.
It was during the one hour meditation session of 2:30pm – 3:30pm, when our goal was to not move a muscle for the entire hour. These daily hourlong stretches were painful, but the part of me that thrives on challenges loved them. They are a test of sheer willpower and endurance. Nothing will happen to you if you move – no one will punish or reprimand you, most likely no one will even notice – so your only opponent and your only coach and cheerleader is yourself. After a half hour or so, it becomes astonishingly painful to hold the same position – and yet it is possible to grit your teeth, keep breathing, and stay frozen in place.
This particular hour, something unexpected happens. It must have been after 30 or 40 minutes of sitting immobile. I’m feeling the pain burn in my legs. My arms, with my hands motionless in chin mudra on my knees, are itching intensely to move. Suddenly the thought surfaces in my mind: what if there’s something beautiful under this pain and discomfort? What if other times in my life when I was confronted with pain and discomfort, there was always something beautiful waiting on the other side, if I would have just gone far enough through it instead of turning too soon and running back to comfort? What if pain and discomfort is like a layer that we just have to dive through, we just have to go far enough and deep enough to get through it and then we finally reach the other side and that’s where bliss was always waiting for us? As I’m thinking about this, awareness of physical pain starts fading away and I start feeling good. Then a vivid scene rises up in my mind, as if it’s a virtual reality movie being projected for me. It shows me a river, a wide, flowing river, with a current that’s strong but gentle, representing the current of life, and I see how the current is meant to pull me forward through life. But there are boulders scattered throughout the river, and sometimes the current deposits me up against them, but then it pulls me forward again. And I see how in life sometimes I got comfortable on those boulders and tried to cling to them for too long, and I fought against life’s current when it started to pull me forward, but the river was stronger than me and it would always pry me loose in the end, and I understood how sometimes I suffered unnecessarily for trying to fight the current of Nature, for trying to hang on to things, and situations, and people too long when they weren’t meant to be anymore, and how much easier and pleasant life is when I just go with the flow. And not that I’m powerless, I can propel myself forward and guide myself to some extent – but when a strong current comes along, it’s beyond my control.
I’m blissfully absorbed in the meditation and the revelation of its application to my life and time floats by without me realizing it, and before you know it the hour is up, and I’m feeling joyful.
But that wasn’t the magic. That’s what happens next.
After a 5 minute break, our teacher calls our small group over to him and asks us how we’re doing. (Yes, we do get these very small windows to speak a few times during the 10 days.) When he gets to me, I answer, right now I’m great but it’s been a roller coaster, very up and down. He replies, “Yes, up and down, and this is how it will continue through the course. Later you’ll be like her (gestures toward a woman who just mentioned she was feeling heavy), and she’ll be like you. This is like life as well – sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard; it’s like a flowing river. Sometimes we make ourselves suffer unnecessarily because we crave the good things too much, and we try to cling to them too hard, instead of letting go and going with the flow of the river.”
As if he could see into my mind; as if he was describing what I just saw.
At the time I wondered whether he had psychic powers. But now that I’m editing this two months after the fact, I believe it was just one of those divine “coincidences” that the Universe sends us to give special emphasis to something to really get your attention. Because that message, about learning to let go and learn how to flow with life, was a message that I needed to hear, and it was delivered in a way with enough impact to drive it deep enough into my psyche to actually transform me.
That message complemented two other themes that were repeated over and over throughout those ten days: impermanence and non-attachment. Nothing is permanent, so don’t get attached. It doesn’t mean you should lose appreciation for the good times, good things and good people in life. On the contrary you come to appreciate them more because you realize your time with them is temporary. But when the time comes to say good-bye, you can let them go without pain and grief because you know you are meant to let them go, and because more good things and good times are ahead of you. Instead of sadness, you feel only gratitude for the time they were in your life and excitement about whatever will come next.
During those ten days of quietness, because the external and internal noise we are normally subjected to in daily life is reduced, you come to hear your inner voice more clearly; that voice we call intuition, or inner knowing. I’ve come to believe that’s something we all have, but often it’s drowned out by the external noise and distraction we’re constantly bombarded with, so we can’t hear it.
I left Vipassana with other benefits as well, including a calmer mind (temporarily, at least). A better understanding of how my mind works. An appreciation of the impact of short breaks from technology. I think they can all be summarized together under the umbrella of “Greater Happiness.”
If I have to give a short answer to the question: “What did you get out of Vipassana?”, that’s my answer: greater happiness.
And as the Dalai Lama says, the point of life is happiness.
So I would say, those 10 days of silence were worth it.