I think when I told people I was going on a “silent retreat” they pictured me laying by a pool in the sun with a book, a tasty beverage and no one around to disturb me. They pictured peaceful moments of alone time and plenty of nourishing rest, walking and yoga. Maybe some time to draw or journal or catch up on some other enjoyable hobby.
When I told people I was going on a silent retreat, most of them definitely didn’t picture the reality of vipassana which is that for 10 days you are completely silent, not permitted to gesture to or make eye contact with another person, not permitted to read, write, draw, listen to music, practice yoga, or run… your days start at 4am and end at 9pm, you’re fed nourishing vegetarian food (but, only fruit for dinner), and you sit for 10.5 hours of meditation a day.
A vipassana retreat is a grueling training camp for your mind. The teacher, S.N. Goenka refers to it as “performing deep surgery on your mind”. You are reminded daily to work diligently, patiently, persistently and ardently. And, you do.
I have wanted to do vipassana for 8 years. It took me that long to build up the courage. Something about it has always terrified me and one of the biggest reasons I went was that I felt compelled to find out what was inside me that made vipassana so intimidating.
The first 3 days were the absolute hardest, but not one of the days felt easy.
I am amazed I even made it through Day 1. Just 16 hours into my 10 day experience, vipassana delivered what I came there to find out: what is lurking within me that makes this so scary?
- The fear of imprisonment
- The fear of going crazy
- The fear of the loss of my loved ones (this is by far the biggest fear of them all)
After just 16 hours of noble silence (only 9 of which were spent awake) I was overcome with the most anxiety I have ever experienced in my entire life – I’m talking a full blown panic attack – as I stared down these 3 fears… and did so ALONE, in SILENCE.
Somehow I made it through that afternoon of panic, feeling more isolated than I’ve ever felt before, clinging to my breath as my life preserver on an ocean of anxiety.
You will never know your mind until you sit with it in silence for an extended period of time. Everyone’s experience with vipassana will be as unique as they are. My experience was extremely confronting, grueling and heart-wrenching. I discovered my mind is WAY busier than I thought. My obsession with counting/organizing became painfully obvious. I noticed how “future-focused” my mind is – rarely looking back into the past, but so often racing forward. I became so aware of how quickly my mind can spin out of control into really negative, dark places. And the most challenging part: the whole process brought up a lot for me around death.
The basis of vipassana teachings is to learn impermanence, by experiencing sensation with equanimity. You sit for an hour at a time, perfectly still, feeling sensation without reacting to it in anyway. This is so you experience within your own body that everything is impermanent – all things in nature arise and pass away, arise and pass away.. this is true. Intellectually I already knew this and I have now had many deep experiences within my own body, witnessing sensation and emotion, which has taught me this truth on a very visceral level. The most challenging part of the process – the 10 days of silent isolation, combined with the focus on impermanence – was that it took me to a place in my mind where I faced the possibility of losing everyone I loved (my biggest fear). It was devastating. I felt like I had lost them and was grieving for them. It created an impossible longing in me to get home to be with them. Every day I stayed at the centre was a battle. It took profound effort to (try to) remain present, and so many repeated acts of trust and surrender.
There are things that I’ve shared with people in the last couple days about my experience that made them laugh
- On day 1 I started medicating with chamomile tea, 3 cups/day (weaned myself to 1 cup/day by Day 3)
- Living one hour at a time (not because I was feeling at ease in the present moment, but because if I looked any further ahead, I got swamped by overwhelm)
- Refolding and reorganizing my clothes, moving them from my shelf to my bag and back again a dozen times
- The extreme enjoyment I received from brushing and flossing my teeth after every meal
- The day I hand washed my socks just for fun
- Glancing around secretly at times when we were eating or walking to see if anyone else looked like they were going as crazy as I was
- Taking up the hobby of watching what I called “The Show” aka sitting on a bench where you could see the highway way off in the distance, so I could watch cars go by
- The day I made an extra piece of peanut butter toast at breakfast, hid it in my room until dinner time and snuck out to the bench to watch “The Show” and eat my toast as a treat to myself
I’ve laughed too as I tell people these things, especially the last one.. and then promptly burst into tears. They seem funny, but when I really touch into what they felt like, I feel the desperation I was experiencing to find a way to be okay there.
I’m making it sound pretty gloomy, and truthfully, a lot of the time it was. My experience was a roller coaster of emotion, flip flopping between “I have to get out of here” and “I can do this”. I am grateful I had the opportunity to submerge myself in so much meditation. I can feel the benefits now still, even practising at home, how much easier it is to drop in to a deeper stillness and how much more comfortable my body and mind are to sit and just be. I did enjoy some peaceful moments with my breath and while practising vipassana (until I stopped sleeping and then it got harder and harder to focus).. it was the times in between sittings, and the sittings when my mind was working so hard against me, that were the most challenging. Every day that I was there I felt like I was in survival mode, just hanging on to the edge of a cliff by my fingernails. Not one day went by that I didn’t count down (a 100 times) how many days/nights/hours/showers were left until it would all be over.
It was so hard. Sometimes excruciatingly so. But: I did it. I survived. That in itself is one of the biggest achievements: I took on something extremely challenging, I made it through and I know now that I am stronger than I thought.
Other shifts and changes that happened while I was there, I didn’t really notice until I left. It wasn’t until I re-emerged into the “real world” that I realized just how much I had slowed down. I had felt like my mind had actually sped up, but I realized once I’d left that everything about me had slowed and sharpened.
Most importantly, the process made clear to me:
- Everything is right in front of us and we don’t even see it.. we spend so much of our time only 50% or 25% aware of the world and people around us
- We miss SO MANY opportunities to notice and appreciate those people and surroundings
- Life is full of SO MUCH beautiful simplicity that we take for granted
- We spend so much time filling up moments with distraction so that we don’t have to face ourselves
- My life is WONDERFUL, I have most fantastic partner, dog, sister and parents, and SO MUCH to be grateful for
- My heart has so much more room to stretch and grow
I am just a couple days out of this experience. I’m still landing. Everything is still very much at the surface. I feel exhausted, wrung out, fragile, emotional. There is much to process and many more insights to be gleaned. It will be ongoing and I intend to stay open to whatever arises.
ps: this was the first song I listened to after I came out of silence. Pretty much says it all..