Friday 23 June 2017

Vipassana: Ten Days of Silence

My mind is constantly sprinting from thought to thought. Partly from my anxiety and partly from being a full-time worker, part-time student and avidly attending various Melbourne theatre and live art performances, so when a friend told me about a ten day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, I was all ears. Vipassana means to see things as they really are, and the practice is based around deep connections between the mind and body. This involves meditating eleven hours a day between 4:30am and 9pm, and for these ten days speaking, eye contact, reading, writing, the use of technology or sexual activity is prohibited. Perfect.

It was easy to sign up for, as the form itself only took two minutes and no payment was required as once you have completed the course you choose to donate how much you feel like, so I could easily have cancelled or backed out as the date got closer. As the date began to approach and started to become more and more of a reality, anxiety and fear crept in. Would I last one day let alone ten? How would I cope with a 9:30pm bedtime? And would eating only two meals a day sustain me? I jokingly contemplated cancelling and spending ten days at home, getting Uber Eats and watching all the films I need to watch and getting through the two dozen unread books I own.

But the day arrived and through some great coincidence, a friend of mine was also attending the same course and we ended up driving in together. Men and women are segregated at camp so my friend and I would not be spending any time together, which was of great relief. If a familiar face was constantly present during this very introspective and personal experience, I know I would have been less inclined to completely open myself up to the practice and my thoughts would have been consumed by our friendship.

There were 17 males with only 8 new students, and I was quickly struck by the number of younger people doing this course for their second, third and for some, their seventh time. The bedrooms housed between 4 - 6 people and were extremely minimal with a single bed frame and a thin mattress. There was not much comfort to be had there. I unpacked my belongings and made small talk with some of the students before the course officially began at 8pm. From that moment, we entered Noble Silence where we could only speak to the teacher about the course and our practice or to management about rooms, diet and other related items.

Day 1 started off with optimism and naivety and by mid-afternoon the reality sank in especially hard with my consistent back pain flaring up with pain shooting from my neck down to my left elbow whenever I sat on the floor. My determination to see it through only got me to the afternoon of Day 2 and after speaking with the teacher, decided I should sit on a chair until it calmed down. Day 3 was even more painful and for the third night in a row, I ended up having panic attacks and crying myself to sleep. I did not think I was going to be able to make the ten days. My sleep had also been very unsettled having vivid and disturbing dreams each night. It felt like my brain was compensating for my lack of stimulation by 'entertaining' me at night as well as during meditation classes. With all this going on, I began to doubt my ability in being able to complete this course despite how badly I wanted to do it.
My daily schedule

On Day 4, I woke up feeling physically better and I was able to start focusing on my breathing during meditation, even if it was only for a few minutes before I got distracted again. I was feeling so much better that even discovering a mouse in my backpack just before I went to sleep didn't perturb me. Day 5 was also a good day and I began to gain confidence in myself and in my technique which subsequently led to the huge mistake of thinking once again how easy the next five days were going to be. Rather than thinking about the remaining time, I should have focused on the day ahead, and even then just focused on the hour ahead, because when Day 6 kicked in, I hit a wall and struggled to find my way back. 

The ups and down continued though and I had a breakthrough in my practice on Day 7 and during the evening sessions I unexpectedly burst into tears - partly happy tears and partly sad tears. The tears kept rolling down my face as I tried to compose myself and refocus, and after some time of deep breathing I was able to move past them. Fortunately, sitting in the back of the room meant there was no chance of anyone seeing me or hearing this happening. I went to bed that night with the resolve that I would finish this but yet again, I was almost proven wrong the following day where I was unable to recapture the feelings and sensations I had had the night before in class. I had achieved them last night so why couldn't I do it now? I tried and tried all morning and afternoon and I snuck off to my room defeated.

These eight days of isolation were starting to take its toll on me and while I was somewhat enjoying having no choice in my life for a while, I craved human interaction. The things I would have done to be given a book to read or to spend ten minutes on my phone was starting to consume me. As I dropped on my bed I started to hear "Bohemian Rhapsody" playing, and while I'd had various songs playing in my head, I thought it odd that I would suddenly choose to hear Queen. I then realised that one of my roommates had snuck a radio in and had left it on accidentally. So while lying in my room alone, fighting back the tears and the serious urge to pack my stuff and head home, I started (quietly) singing along and once I completed my head banging routine (with as much force as my neck would allow), I felt a rejuvenation of spirit and headed back to the meditation hall, gently easing back into my practice.

Home Sweet Home. (The only photo I was able to take).
While there was initial baulking at so many restrictions being placed upon us during the retreat, I was able to understand and appreciate why these rules were in place and was actually thankful for them as it prevented any other thoughts to enter my mind and to remain focused on my own development rather than wondering why I wasn't experiencing the same things at the same time as everyone else. So Day 8 became somewhat of a struggle for me when the two people I was sharing a room with, began to openly listen to their music, began writing in a notepad, ate food that they had brought in and had conversations with each other. It felt like someone was dangling an apple for me to take a bite from and I momentarily conceded and joined in in a conversation for about 30 seconds and then immediately regretted it. Eventually I had to ask them to stop speaking when I was in the room as it was incredibly distracting for me and for the most part they stopped. However, knowing that they were still doing this weighed on me and while I know I should not have let this get the better of me, it left me feeling frustrated and annoyed that these people had come and taken someone's place and yet had planned from the beginning to not follow the rules.

On Day 10 we exited the meditation hall after morning practise to see a notice advising us that Noble Silence had been lifted and we were free to talk and look at each other. While we still had class, we were now able to communicate and it was a huge rush of energy. The evening ended earlier than normal at 8:30pm and we were given an extra hour or "rest time" with lights out at 10pm. I loved hearing everyone's experience with Vipassana - especially the returning students - and the more I heard about it, the more I felt this was the right path for me to be on and was very proud of myself to have been able to go from zero meditation hours to 95 meditation hours in ten days.

Despite the daily challenges that I faced during those ten days, I did return to Melbourne with excitement about the future. My heart actually felt more alive and more open than it has been in years. I am determined to continue with my practice and to meditate on a daily basis. While I didn't achieve the level of results that other people did, I was extremely pleased with my overall persistence and diligence and have a stronger understanding of the benefits that await me as I go deeper into my practice, which will also include a repeat of the course in the coming year, and dare I say it, I am already looking forward to it.


  1. Nice and it hasn't changed since I completed the course over 20 years ago! Amanda Y 😊

  2. Great to read. It's so hard to learn not to compare ourselves to others, isn't it? But as the saying goes, Just be yourself - after all, everyone else is taken! Loved reading your account, it sounded painfully hard and I salute you for staying the course! :-)