After spending so much time in quiet solitude, processing the experience when being back in ‘the real world‘ hasn’t been easy. It’s taken me months to write this!
Stick with me as I talk more about the day-to-day experiences during the 10-day silent vipassana retreat, what challenges I faced, the lessons I learnt and how you can take away some techniques that may benefit you too.
The purity of your breath
The retreat was focused around spending time as a group, meditating in the main hall. Most of the time the sessions started with a recording of S.N. Goenka. Hearing him for the first time was bizarre but heart-warming as we had no notice. He had a kind voice, filled with wisdom and patience. At the first sitting, many people struggled to hide their giggles after hearing his loud, deep, croaky chanting blare out of the speakers for the first time. It was great.
This would be our only aural fix, (except bell gongs, the sounds of nature and allotted times if you needed to ask a teacher for guidance). Goenka would chant, talk briefly about the basics, then we would meditate after. It was during our teacher’s discourse that we learnt in more detail about the techniques (in the evenings we would watch an hour-long video of Goenka on a large screen as he talked about the day’s lessons).
Joining us in the hall were two teachers (a married couple), who would always sit at the front. The meditation hall was huge with everyone neatly lined up. There must have been over 200 people there when we all sat together. You could easily feel the energy. Later, I would find this to be something that provided me with encouragement, but equally it caused agitation as I would compare myself to everyone else in the room
We spent the first few days focusing on our breath, using only our nostrils in the hope to calm the mind. When you experience flickering thoughts, or daydreaming, you would need to refocus your attention back to your breath. Sound simple? It was anything but!
Proper breathing is essential with all meditation. Vipassana doesn’t get you to change your breathing pattern or follow a specific exercise. Instead, Goenka highlights keeping your breath as natural and calm as possible. You need to observe your pure, natural breath, as it comes in and goes out. By observing this process everything regarding the body and the mind becomes clearer.
“One thing about respiration becomes clear: it is not merely a physical process; it is intimately connected to the mind and even more to the mental defilement. This becomes clear by direct experience but only if one observes natural respiration. If one adds a word, a form or an imagination, or starts some breathing exercise, one becomes entangled in it and loses awareness of the breath.”
Your journey, your pace
Vipassana meditation is simple a technique – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. During group meditation, I would very quickly find myself daydreaming and drifting off into the abyss of: “what is the teacher thinking?”, “oh, what a pretty scarf”, “what are we going to eat for lunch?”, “why on earth, did I think this was a good idea?”. The most insignificant, crazy and irrational things pop into your mind when you’re stuck in this situation and have zero distractions. It can be intense sometimes and you meet your demons head-on.
After a few days, I started to find this frustrating and distracting. I convinced myself that daydreaming was my Sankara – a Buddhist word used to describe mental impressions/dispositions and forces that shape moral and spiritual development. I would get angry the second my mind wondered. But, whenever I struggled, by the end of the day when the teacher’s discourse was played, Goenka knew just what to say to reassure me that I was on the right path. It was like he was reading my mind.
This was all part of the process. There is no end goal to strive for, or that “ah-ha” moment. It’s constantly evolving. You’re constantly evolving.
Vipassana teaches us to become aware of what we are thinking and by becoming aware we slowly reduce our attachment and aversion. Very often people think that meditation is ‘thinking about nothing’ but they couldn’t be further from the truth. When we practice this tool, over time, it can allow us to be the observer of our thoughts and let them flow unhindered rather than try to control them. It’s this controlling of our thoughts that lead to so much suffering.
After focusing on breathing for a few days, we then started to pay attention to sensations around the body. We started between the nose and top lip then as the days progressed, we used this technique up and down our entire body. These are called body scans.
Now sitting still for an hour plus is going to create some sensations; vibrations, pain, tingling, throbbing, heat, cold, heaviness even numbness. The more you practise, the more your relationships to these sensations change. You can observe them as they are and not as what you want them to be. The important thing is to not actively look for these sensations – only observe.
I found this incredibly difficult. I could have spent the entire retreat focusing on just my breath. I couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm when trying to scan my body for sensations. I’d start at my feet and then it was like I forgot what other body parts I had. It frustrated me at first, but then, when I realised, I was only craving these sensations I was able to relax and learn to be patient.
You can’t force the process. What I learnt was all feelings are impermanent. They come and they go whether good or bad. Just because a feeling is good doesn’t permit the craving. It’s still craving, and this is something we are working to minimise.
From night terrors to giggles
Day five and I was getting frustrated about new things. No matter what position I sat in, I would become crippled with intense pins and needles within 10-minutes. My mind started averting to extremes and I would get angry at the most ridiculous things. My tummy gave off such crazy sounds that I started to name them; the howling wolf (my personal favourite), the fizzy shake, the moaning groan, the high-pitched chirp. They were that ridiculous … to me! I would keel over in embarrassment sometimes, then have to fight the urge to not burst out giggling. I thought I was going to go crazy if I have to listen to those tummy grumbles one more time. At one point I wanted to storm out of the hall screaming: “NEVER AGAIN!”.
But, those moments conjured some silver linings. My stomach churns would sync up with a lady sat to my right and I convinced myself that our bellies were telepathically talking (we both giggled about it after). At the end of the course, I even mentioned it to the lady sat to my other side as I was that mortified: “don’t be silly”, she said, “those were moments that made me chuckle and cheered me up when I was struggling”.
This was so interesting because, at that time I was so angry and annoyed, yet someone very close to the experience felt the opposite. This proved how I create my anxieties and fears out of internal reflection. We all do it and it cause us so much anguish.
Vipassana is the science of mind and matter: Whatever arises in the mind, be it fear, insecurity, passion or ego, does so in a very solidified, intensified way that tends to overpower us.
The first victim of your anger is yourself. When we react with anger at the mental level, immediately something starts happening at the physical level. There is a biochemical secretion which starts flowing in the bloodstream. Because we feel unpleasant sensations, we become even angrier. A vicious circle has started.
Similarly, passion or fear are associated with their own particular type of secretion. We ourselves are responsible for this flow, no one else. However, if we do not react, but rather observe, this vicious circle will lose its strength, become weaker and pass away.
Nearing the end
Around day seven, I noticed a change in a lot of people. There was more tension. In the dorm room, a lady woke me up 3am screaming out in her sleep: “Ganesh, don’t. Ganesh, stop!” I never found out who it was, but it was an unpleasant way to wake up. Luckily for me, my dreams weren’t that bad. Instead, I found myself waking up mid-giggles on quite a few occasions, but don’t ask me about what as I have no idea. I’d take giggles over screaming any day.
The last few days were the toughest ones for me. I lost all ability to concentrate on anything, including my breathing. I was getting itchy feet at the thought of going home. Cravings … again! It was the teacher’s discourse that got me through those last few days. Listening to Goenko was always the highlight of the day. I don’t want to give anything away to people who may want to go, but his stories were always so beautifully told, insightful and funny.
On the morning of the last full day of the course, we could communicate with our peers as a way to cushion us back to reality. It was bizarre finally putting voices and names to faces of people who you felt you knew intimately already. Everyone had the widest grins on their faces. It was great to hear people’s stories about why and who they came with. There were a few mum and daughters, couples, one lady had even travelled from Amsterdam.
Was it all worth it?
Yes, 1,000 times, YES!
It’s mentally draining and physically exhausting. However, experiencing discomfort of the mind and body can teach you some serious self-discipline and awareness.
Although this course sounds intense – let us be honest, it was – there is some flexibility. Not all the meditation has to be done in the hall, there are sessions where you can go back to your room for solitude. You don’t have to sit on the floor, and they will provide you with a backrest or a seat if you struggle.
Also, I must mention the food. Our breakfasts and lunches were delicious. All vegetarian and filled with flavour. For breakfast, we had a wide choice of cereals, porridge, toast, spreads, fruit. Then for our lunches, we had an amazing nut curry, pasta, nut roast, baked beans with homemade hummus. It was all so tasty. They even treated us to desserts of homemade cakes or crumbles every other day.
So, killer question time: am I still practising? Well, no. Not strictly, for hours everyday. Four months down the line and I won’t lie, there have been days when I’ve not meditated at all, but that’s okay. One of the main things I learnt is to take ownership of my choices, but not let them consume me. Not all meditation has to be done in a lotus position at the crack of dawn. You can incorporate it into all aspects of your life. This is all about your journey, walking your path and figuring out what works for you.
My top thoughts from the experience:
- We are all much stronger and capable than we give ourselves credit: sitting still for hours is not easy, on the mind or the body. With persistence and patience though, you can overcome the discomfort of both to learn some self-discipline.
- Continuity of practice is key to success: you HAVE to be willing to put in the effort. There is no point in reading books and watching documentaries unless you practice first-hand.
- You learn soooo much from S.N Goenko: his little snippets of wisdom cover all aspects of life. So much resonated with me and spoke true to how I wanted to live my life.
- Stop paying attention to others: the need to compare ourselves to others can be overwhelming and feels coded into our DNA but it will only cause frustration. When we recognise this, and stop the constant analysing we can shed that little bit of ego.
- Boredom is about perception and appreciation: the daydreaming mind is a powerful force. It can lead your imagination on adventures that fuel creativity or provide profound insights and problem-solving. Allowing yourself the time to self-reflect and become bored can be a great tool that is so often overlooked.
Could you handle 10-days of silence?
I’m not preaching that you live as a Buddhist for the rest of your life, but if you can’t – on a regular basis – spend 10 minutes not connected or stimulated, then maybe think twice before next picking up your phone, iPad or book … resist that urge!
Instead, start to question your relationship with boredom. Welcome it, a little bit at a time.
Not all boredom (or fun for that matter) is created equal. We’re all different, what’s boring for one person may be a delight for another. I hope you stop assuming that boredom is a negative thing. Notice it, embrace it! It’s a force for good that can provide inspiration, clarity and peace.
Allow some little moments of introspect in your lives, to observe your thoughts and let the mind wonder and I think you’ll be surprised what it brings and where it can take you.
“Time spent with yourself is never wasted time.”
If you have enjoyed learning about embracing boredom and the power of meditation, then check out these great videos …
Doing time doing vipassana: fantastic documentary about how vipassana transformed one of the world’s largest prisons in India
Vipassana meditation and body sensations: a Ted talk by the creator of the ‘doing time doing vipassana’ documentary.
How boredom can lead to your most creative ideas: lots of science behind how our minds work when we are bored.
Yuval Noah Harai on vipassana meditation: The author of ‘Sapiens’ talks about his experience and practice of vipassana.