Foreword: I am going to apologise in advance for any grammar nazis, or anyone really with any respect for the english language. This post is written in the past, present and probably even future tense there too. It's in 1st & 2nd person, maybe I’ll throw a 3rd person in just for good measure… Also I’m sure I’ve left a “mediation” in there somewhere, you know what I mean… (It's all words, no phones = no photos) Enjoy!
Yatta! 10 days, 100 hours of meditation, copious amounts of tea and an all round incredible, challenging and priceless experience.
A couple of years ago a friend told me she was going to be out of reach for a while, she was going on a 10 day silent meditation retreat. I was intrigued and impressed, I could never imagine myself having the capacity for such a challenge. Mainly because whenever I had tried meditation before I’d never really “got” it, like the majority of people who first start, I never really understood what I was meant to feel, if I was doing it right, my mind never stayed still and above all I’m pretty sure I fell asleep 5 minutes after I started or spent the entire time fidgeting and thinking about anything else to keep my mind off how bored and uncomfortable I was 😫
So as much as I knew I should have a mediation practice I never managed to make one stick. Since this time my friend has done the course 4 times (I think), I’ve met other people who have done it and I’ve read books by authors who are also students of this method, including Yuval Noah Harari the author of Sapiens. Clearly there’s something in it.
As a yoga teacher I would feel embarrassed when people asked if I meditated, I’d always answer with “not as much as I should” ie... never.
I decided if I was going to start this life changing practice I would have to go all in, an intense 10 day Vipassana retreat.
Now these course get booked up incredibly quickly, like within hours! So I put a reminder in my Calendar to be at my computer at 7pm on the opening date... and I missed it 🤦♀️ Maybe there was a cosmic reason I missed it, maybe I wouldn’t have been ready if I’d gone on that one… I waited for the next registration date to open and I was on it, the minute it opened up I registered my spot... click confirm. Done. I’d committed, in a couple of months I’d be thrown in at the deep end, way out of my comfort zone and into something I wasn’t sure I would be able to do.
I’m not going to lie, I was nervous in the weeks leading up to it, I even thought about cancelling, but I had made all the arrangements, got all my classes covered, etc. So it was done, I was going.
In hind sight I knew very little about what I was getting myself into, everything I knew about it was just the little my friend had told me and the details given on the registration page, mostly the rules, of which there were 5 precepts:
•to abstain from killing any being
•to abstain from stealing
•to abstain from all sexual activity
•to abstain from telling lies
•to abstain from all intoxicants
Pretty standard, and nothing too challenging there.
To reduce the risk of breaking these rules and to help with the meditation “Noble Silence” is observed from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day, meaning absolutely no communication with other students on the course, no touching, no eye contact, no acknowledgement whatsoever. For the most part this was fine, however whenever I accidentally bumped into someone you immediately apologise then apologise again for speaking, the hole just keeps getting bigger... and every time my roommate came in I felt so rude, completely ignoring her 😳 She understood of course...
I guess to avoid the risk of breaking the 3rd precept men and women were separated, eating in separate dining areas and boundaries enforced in all outside areas. And no physical exercise was allowed during the course, not even yoga! It was funny to watch people trying to sneak in a cheeky downward dog or handstand, one of the girls took to lunging around the wooded walking area (although when I spoke to her at the end she said she regretted it the next day during meditation #DOMS!).
As part of the “Noble Silence” no reading or writing materials were allowed on the course, so I’ve done my best to remember some of my more significant thoughts & feelings and details of some of the days but there’s plenty that I’ve forgot as they all seem to merge by the end... that’ll happen when every day is the same...
Day 0: Firstly this is not a straight forward place to get to by public transport. A bus, tube, two trains and a coach and 4 hours later I was making nervous small talk with other equally nervous meditators.
“First time?”, “what brings you here?”, “have you come far?”, “have you done anything like this before?”… Most of the people I spoke to were there for the first time and knew about as much as me.
An hour or so later, we’ve settled into our room, a very simple two bed, two shelves and three coat hooks each. A brief exchange with the girl who would be my roommate for the next 10 days, at least I knew her name before all communication was prohibited.
A gong sounds ushering us into the hall where we wait for our names to be called before we’re allocated our cushion where we would spend the best part of 10 hours everyday. I was so fixated on the idea of not talking for 10 days, the 4am starts, no exercise and having only a piece of fruit for dinner that I didn’t actually give any thought to the mediation we’d be doing. 10 hours a day! Thats more than I’ve probably ever done up until now!
Settling down onto my cushion I’m thankful that my hips have made a close to full recovery, but still the prospect of sitting crossed legged for extended periods was daunting.
After everyone found their places, old students at the front, new sat behind, chanting starts to come from the halls speaker system. It really needs to be heard to understand… Just give it a little listen too and you'll know what I mean https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2Vnc1Sg2DA
All around the room you could hear people trying to stifle their laughs, I think it was safe to say they were probably a bit out of their comfort zone!
Although there were Assistant Teachers present, all instructions and teachings were delivered by tape and video recordings of S.N. Goenka, aside from a very few whispered questions from the assistant teachers he would be the only human voice we heard for the next 10 days. When I first heard him speak I thought he sounded like an Indian Lovelace, the sexy soul penguin in Happy Feet. Thankfully he was so funny! I guess that’s part of why he was so successful at spreading the technique around the world after only being remembered in Burma for 20 centuries.
After being introduced to Goenka and given our instructions for the following day it was off to bed.
Day 1: The morning bell rang every morning at 4:00, a routine that became surprisingly easy. 2 hours of meditation before breakfast, 2 hours of shifting uncomfortably on my cushion, falling asleep and having my mind wander everywhere else but to where it was meant to be focused, on my breath. This was reminiscent of all the previous attempts I’d made at mediation, only much much longer.
Breakfast at 6:30 and a welcomed chance to walk around before we were back to the hall for another 3 hours. Still more fidgeting, gradually I kept adding more props to my seat, 1 block under my knees, nope. 2 blocks and another under my bum, nope. I even tried tying my scarf around my knees, still nope. This was going to be a long 10 days and I was going to be in serious need of a massage!
Lunch and a 2 hour break at 11, more walking around trying to avoid making eye contact, surprisingly difficult considering it’s pretty standard behaviour during any London commute. Thankfully it was a beautiful crisp spring day and most of our days there were sunny. I found myself a bench in the walking area and watched the clouds go by, fully enjoying the sounds of the countryside.
Lunch break over it was back to meditation 1pm till 5pm, followed by an hour break for “tea”, literally tea and 2 pieces of fruit. Another hour of meditation at 6pm then a video discourse where we are again introduced to Goenka, this time in video format. Other than bird watching, this is our main source of entertainment for the duration of the course which I came to look forward to. Each night he would come out with some brilliant little nuggets of wisdom and witty fables to help further our understanding of the technique and plant seeds for the following day.
Day 2 & 3: Our meditation focus has moved on from the breath and now we are attempting to keep our attention on any sensations around the nose and mouth… the struggle is still very much real. An itch would arise sporadically but otherwise very little sensation was felt. A trick, or really more of a cheat, I started using was a hard scratch on the side of my nose before I closed my eyes then I could focus my attention a little easier, but still there was no way I could make it through an entire hour without drifting off. In truth, I’m bored, I’m still not “getting” this meditation thing, it’s still so hard and I’m not feeling any change. Maybe it’s just not for me. Maybe I made a mistake coming. I’m missing out on so much work for this. What have I done?!
… tomorrow will be better.
Day 4: We are finally introduced to the full “Vipassana” technique, a full body scan, following sensations from the top of the head down to the toes. What started off as sporadic itches and tickling now turn into intense tingling vibrations, I can finally focus! I can keep my attention on these sensations, tracking them throughout the body, spreading out from the crown of my head, down my face, into my lips, down my throat, across my collar bones, down one arm, down the other, across my chest, into my belly, down my back, through one leg and through the other… I’ve got this! This feels amazing! I’m finally meditating! I bet I could do anything right now, I have full body mastery, handstands, front levers, back levers, I can’t wait to get back to the gym and try… Ye these are not the thoughts of an “equanimous” Vipassana meditator🤪 Ah well, it’s a start.
(Suffice to say, I have since attempted some work on the bars and as of yet, no front lever to be had 🤷♀️).
But this is the biggest step I’ve taken in my meditation practice, and I’m excited, feeling very blissful. I reckon I could definitely do a month of this…
Day 5: For me, the morning sittings were always the hardest to concentrate. Turns out just because you know how to meditate doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to keep your focus every time. By day 5 I was over it, the excited feeling I had before was gone, now I was just feeling bored and frustrated. Am I just wasting my time here?
After lunch, more instructions were given by G, Adhiṭṭhāna - sitting of strong determination… No movement for one hour, no wiggling of feet or fingers, limited movement of the head, as little movement as possible. OH. MY. GOD. The first time I tried I think I managed maybe 40 minutes before it felt as though the soft cushion I was sat on had turned to concrete… I was sure when I got up I would have the worst pins and needles, the numbness turns to pain and all the time this is happening you’re meant to remain equanimous, just observe the sensations and not react to them 😳 This was definitely going to take some practice...
Day 6: The hour sittings actually started to improve, managing the whole hour a few times, but my mind was starting to wander again. My creativity started to flow and I just wanted to get back to work...
Day 7 & 8: By now I’m starting to get more good sessions than bad and my equanimity is definitely improving, sitting still for an hour is doable and focus remains fairly constant. The weather was a huge help, had it of been raining I’m sure my experience would have been entirely different. Every break we got I would do laps of the wooded area, taking in everything; the smell of the air, the warmth of the sun on my face, I’d touch every tree I walked past and really consider the different textures. Lying down on my bench I’d watch the little beetles climb to the top of a blade of grass then hop over to the next, until they flew off in search of whatever they were looking for elsewhere. I was very much enjoying it by now.
Day 9: The last full day of silence! The last day to work seriously with no distractions. The recording of Goenka instructed us to get further into our bodies, feel sensations deep inside, pass through from the front to the back. Without having experienced the previous methods used this would have seemed way too abstract to comprehend but working through step by step this wasn’t too hard to do. By now sitting for an hour was easily doable even when those sensations of pain started to creep in. This time though the sensations brought up started off just as they normally did, light tingling turning to pins and needles turning to numbness but this time it felt as though my knee caps were about to pop off, my thighs literally explode and ligaments rip away from the bones, it was intense! Breathing helps but after the previous 80 hours I realised that pain really is all imagined, I knew that as soon as I moved the pain would completely disappear, my muscles were fine, everything would still be attached. It was deep mental conditioning, “Saṅkhāra”, being brought to the surface…
“Mental formations (Saṅkhāra) include all the formations of mind—wholesome and unwholesome—such as hindrances, intentions, compassion, tranquility, thoughts, hopes, fears, plans, mindfulness, effort, anger, determination, opinions, attitudes, joy, envy. This is a vast category of mental phenomena that includes qualities we endeavour to cultivate, qualities we seek to abandon, and all the thoughts that proceed from the basic perception of an object.” (source: https://www.imsb.org/three-questions-and-responses-about-sankhara/)
The intention of Adhiṭṭhāna is to allow these Saṅkhāra to arise, little by little as you observe without reaction these negative qualities are worn away, becoming just “like a line drawn on the water”. That is the goal 🙌
Day 10: Our last full day starts with silence, one final chance for meditation without all the external chatter that will soon be the reality, breaking us back into the real world gently. It’s strange, you spend most of the week counting down the days until it’s over then when it comes to it, a small part of you doesn’t want it to end. Despite all the hours of meditation, you almost feel a little bit of anxiety at the prospect of breaking your noble silence and going back to real life. For me the final meditation was hard, already distracted by thoughts of the future. The final chant is sung, apparently a popular song in India as there were a few people in the hall attempting to sing along before the assistant teachers could locate them to silently ask them to please stop. Gradually the chanting moves further away as apparently Goenka and his wife leave the hall. The assistant teachers also proceed to get up silently and leave the hall, with no instructions, leaving us all confused about what to do. Gingerly people start to stand up, look around to see if anyone else has moved and then when others start to do the same we know its ok to leave the hall.
Outside and what started off as unsure whispers turn to normal talking voices, the male/female boundaries are lifted and couples who came together are reunited. A few people, not ready to break their silence yet, go off to the wood for a final few minutes of peace. The rest of us start comparing experiences, which days we found hardest, did we like the food? Did you give anyone any nicknames? This one turns out to be pretty universal, although my nicknames were hugely uninventive, referring to the people around me by their seat numbers.
We spent the next couple of hours chatting, exchanging stories and getting to know the people that we had just shared a life altering 10 days with. Although technically we’d only officially met that day, friendships were formed instantly. Getting to know these beautiful women was truly incredible. Some having traveled from other countries to be there, others on their 3rd or 4th retreat, everyone had their own story and you found yourself telling people you’ve literally just met your deepest darkest fears and desires.
Day 11: Although the course was officially over we still had a couple more hours on the Sunday morning, which were spent helping to clean everything for the next group of people that would be coming soon. We all exchanged numbers, and a WhatsApp group was started, which has since had a lot of engagement... Inspirational quotes, videos of Goenka, meditation area set ups, challenges, changes, gratitude.
The bus arrived for people heading to the train station, last goodbyes were said and promises were made to meet up soon. Vipassana was over. Back to reality. Back to London, and back to the challenges of real life. These challenges started early… Ranting drug addicts, delayed trains, hot and sweaty standing room only, no tubes, screaming babies… I passed the test, remain equanimous, no reaction. Now to keep this up…
I set myself a goal that I would continue with the recommended 1 hour of meditation in the morning and 1 in the evening for a further 20 days, bringing the total to 30. Mornings are easy enough, it’s the evenings that are the challenge, but so far so good. Although I wouldn’t say I feel any profound changes just yet I am so glad I did it. I went in not having any meditation practice, without any confidence in my ability to actually be able to meditate and I’ve come out with a technique I know I can do and a determination to keep it as part of my daily routine.
There is so much I have missed, so much more I would like to say, putting all of what I experienced into words is too difficult but I hope to give you some insight into it. I would love to hear your experience if you’ve had any, or your thoughts if you are thinking about it… Let me know, until next time x