“How was your silent retreat?” they say – As if I was silently sipping on cocktails, having silent massages & taking long, slow, silent dips in the constantly overflowing infinity pool of peace and tranquility.
The evening I arrived, all students met in the women’s dining room. This is where we were told the men and women would be separated for the entire course. This was, they said, to help us not get distracted. I rolled my eyes (on the inside) thinking why they would treat adults like such out of control teenagers. Then walks in a dreamy eyed, tall, blonde guy and with that I instantly agreed fully. Absolutely. It’s best for everyone involved.
Vipassana is not a retreat, it’s a residential meditation course held in silence over 11 days and nights. No phone which means no watch (in my case), no books, pens or paper. Just YOU and your practice.
I knew I wasn’t signing up for an unrealistic 10 days to enlightenment or some magical healing (although, we all secretly hope so, don’t we?). But I did have a curiosity towards what benefits lay in that kind of extended silence, this process of purifying the body and mind and at the very least I thought it would be a good, healthy step towards re-centering and moving towards rebuilding.
But… WOWZERS! It is WORK.
Day after day. 4am wake up gong after 4am wake up gong.
Meditation practice after practice.
You work. Diligently, patiently, persistently.
(More like: You try!)
On day three I settled into my meditation position, feeling a bit on the vulnerable side- listening to the guru speaking to us, “Become aware of your own desperation” …
Oh my gosh! Yes, he knows, I thought with relief, I’m not alone in this desperate search for a calm and peaceful mind that isn’t just resisting, but fighting back with all it’s might. The guru knows. This is how it’s meant to be on day three…
“Feeling it entering and exiting your nostrils. In and out. Paying attention… to your respiration… Alertly and attentively.
Respiration ??? Respiration !?!?!
What kept me there? My strong inner-will and self-discipline as well as a staunch inner-bully pushing me to see how much I can actually take. How much am I willing to face in order to maybe, perhaps, possibly, have a taste of liberation?
Every other day was a good day, and on these days the path was clear. The meditations tapped me into bliss. All events in my life had lead up to the here and now and THIS was the pivotal moment of ultimate transformation. On these days I could absolutely see myself living the ashram life of simplicity and service. Everything made complete sense.
On the days in-between, “NOT A CHANCE IN HELL! Get me OOOUT!!” On these days, the bad days, the past was a highlights reel of mistakes and the future was predictably doomed. And even the compulsive fantasies of glorious scenario after glorious scenario that made me feel warm and tingly in the false present moment, left me feeling rather isolated and empty once I snapped out of the delusion.
So what really really kept me there? When everything is stripped away, it’s the small things. The daily rituals. The small victories between meditation sittings: Seeking out the perfect twigs & thingamajigs to tick off each day on my hand-made nature calendar, tiny pinecone art, bird-evision, playing stick & leaf noughts and crosses (with myself) and pick up sticks – left hand against right. I couldn’t lose.
The moments of deep mental rest, that valuable respite from the turmoil. The beautiful daily nourishment of wholesome vegetarian food that I didn’t have to plan or cook for myself. The sound of lions roaring in the distance as the sun set during our evening break.
On the down days, I’d imagine pelting stones at one particular girl who seemed to float from A to B with a permanent smug grin on her face, eating her apple in a tree. On up days, I’m sure I was the target of someone else’s mental-stone-pelting.
And that’s what kept me there: Noticing that everyday something changed. Everyday I had good meditations, some days more blissful than others and many times frustrating. Sitting still, diligently following the gurus directions day after day was an experiential practice of noticing the impermanence of everything. Every feeling, every thought, every sensation.
And the silence: There was nothing external that could effect me. It was all determined by me. I was my greatest enemy. What’s being generated from within is what’s going to determine the so-called success or failure, the joy or unravelling of this meditation, this moment, this life. Ain’t that the truth! Ain’t that the kinda mental training we all need. To be able to seek solace in the safe space of our self.
Our minds are very often not a place of purity. Thoughts are things and when all you have are the thoughts in your head, they can make or break you. Our thoughts filter into our words and ultimately into our actions.
There is so much to gain from observing and deepening your awareness of yourself on a very intimate level, to take with you back out into the real world. That being said, you absolutely don’t do 10 days of silence to mend a broken heart or to flip a switch into enlightenment. I was acutely aware that I was balancing the very fine line between psychologically okay and… well, not so much. But I do things like this. I experiment with what my human form can achieve spiritually. Even when a very small nervous part of me wanted to cancel a few days beforehand, I knew that would be resisting the flow of life when I should rather be embracing what is. Accepting what was and surrendering to what will be.
On the morning of day 11, (VICTORY!!) I sat in the still darkness of 3am. Listening to the sound of lions waking up in the distance. A comforting acknowledgement from the powers that be, that I’d persevered and my perseverance in becoming the best I can be and my committed heart to sticking it out, will be rewarded.
And the message that my peace of mind brought through was simple and clear, I had lightly scratched it onto the very very dry skin on my forearm with my nail in order to never forget that all consuming grace I was enveloped in as I came out of my first Vipassana practice, a few days earlier:
Make the most of what Life has to offer.
In the quiet stillness of silence, divinity infiltrates. Wisdom is clarity of consciousness and I’ve never taken a wrong step when walking along my souls path in the direction of greater expansion.
What the universe is gracious enough to give me, I am grateful to receive.