Last week I wrote about trying to meditate every day with my boyfriend (it didn’t go well!). This week I want to share with you my experience of attending a 10-day silence meditation retreat in Yangon, Myanmar.
For many, the scary part of that sentence is: SILENT. And by silent, I mean no talking, no eye contact, no nods, no secret taps on the shoulder or brushing of the hand. The aim is to be completely inside your head for those 10 days and really learn to listen to your internal monologue and what makes it tick. To get to know your impulsive monkey mind. I know what you’re thinking, yes it was bloody hard! But well worth the investment. I’m here to tell you why.
What is Vipassana meditation?
Vipassana meditation is a form of non-sectarian meditation technique that aims to completely eradicate mental impurities. It’s one of India’s most ancient techniques, discovered over 2500 years ago (!) by Gotama Buddha. It claims to result in the highest happiness of full liberation if practised regularly and consistently. The practice involves simply observing the physical sensations of your body and remaining equanimous.
Why did I want to do a silent meditation retreat?
I was in the middle of a 6-month solo trip to India and South East Asia, of which my only aim was to travel around the countries and really get to know the landscape, history and culture. I definitely wasn’t intending to go on a ‘journey of self-discovery’ as many people who travel are, particularly to that part of the globe. But I do have a lifelong interest in meditation and had often considered visiting a meditation retreat. In fact, a few years ago two of my friends, a couple, went to a silent meditation retreat together and returned ‘new people’ (their words) and refreshed. I think it was their insatiable enthusiasm that made me curious to try a silent retreat for myself.
In Myanmar, I met a couple travelling together who were starting a retreat the next day, and on a whim, I decided to book onto the next one I could find. I knew I had a lot to work through in my mind and had some emotional weight that I was still carrying from home which I had a desire to try and work through. The retreat was hosted in a monastery on the outskirts of the capital city, Yangon, where you could hide from the noise of the traffic. On arrival, I was asked to lock my personal items and any form of entertainment away, including my phone, books, notepad, paints, instrument etc. There were to be NO distractions within the retreat. I was worried about missing being able to have a creative output (this turned out to be easier than I imagined). The items were held in lockers in a room beyond the boundaries of the retreat, so there was to be no sneaking off in the middle of the night to check my phone.
Vipassana technique focuses on transformation through self-observation. At the retreat, participants were taught every day to focus on a deep connection between mind and body. We built up the technique slowly, VERY slowly, learning how to pay attention to physical sensations starting from the air in the nostrils to the breath on the upper lip. It took around 6 days to learn how to do full body-scans: the act of observing the physical sensations all over the body and the interconnected condition of the mind. The technique is very simple which makes it hard to grasp at first!
- No communicating, including eye contact
- 10 hours a day to be solely dedicated to meditation practice, either in the communal hall or in private ‘cells’
- 4 am wake up call!
- Lights out by 9 pm
- Eat only two meals per day consisting of pure vegan food
- Each night we watched a video from the Vipassana master which explained the next part of the meditation technique
- Participants had a one hour slot each day where they could ask the meditation teacher any questions related to the technique, but nothing else
- Downtime (time between practice, sleep and meals) is for meditation practice only or sleeping, not talking, dancing, yoga or making secret art out of the leaves (trust me, this happened).
Surprisingly, the silence was the easy part for me. I found it such a relief to not have to worry about smiling at everyone and making eye contact. It felt special to be able to eat breakfast and lunch in silence and be with my own thoughts rather than worrying about making conversation or pleasing everyone else. Like many people, I thought I would struggle with this but I absolutely loved it, in fact, I would welcome a vow of silence just to bring that same kind of peace back into my life. That said, I am an introvert and can happily spend days or weeks in my own company. I think if someone is an extrovert and gets their energy from socialising, then the silence would be a challenge.
My roommate, on the other hand, was very obviously struggling with not being able to communicate. I caught her every day finding an excuse to talk to the volunteers at the centre and seeing the teacher. She tried to make conversation with me a few times but I chose not to engage in this. This was clearly a very hard task for her, and she later admitted to me in the days that followed that she broke the silent rule many times, as she felt the need to engage with others.
If the silence and the downtime were the easy parts for me, dealing with my own emotions were the challenging parts. I went into the retreat knowing I had things on my mind that were affecting my moods and behaviours. I was quite fearful of facing these and wasn’t sure how I would react being ‘trapped’ somewhere with nothing to do but face these thoughts. There were days that were very difficult, days where I felt angry and irritable, days when I wanted to stop, but I’m so glad I kept going.
Part of the technique that was most useful for me was observing the weight and consistency of my physical sensations. For example, I noticed that when I thought about a particularly troubling part of my past, the weight of that sat just below my heart and felt like a long, thick, black tree root connecting my heart to my gut. When I attributed sensations to qualities of the elements (earth, fire, wind and water) as the teacher had recommended, I was able to understand the nature of the feeling and look at it more directly. Be becoming fully aware of how my body was reacting, the problem seemed smaller and I was less likely to fall into a more destructive thought pattern and less prone to assuming things were worse than they were.
Breaking the silence and coming back to the real world
This was the hardest part of the challenge for me and I think I suffered from sensory overload. We were allowed to talk at midday on the tenth day and it took me a long time to say my first words. When I did finally speak, my voice sounded weird and I felt detached from my words. By that evening all of the participants were in deep conversation, having shared a difficult and life-changing experience. I was enjoying the conversations but decided to pop back to my room around 8 pm to pick something up. The moment I stepped into my room and closed the door, a huge migraine hit me (I think the first in my life). I felt a throbbing sensation down half of my face, my neck and my back and everything ached! It took around three days for this sensation to pass. Every noise, colour and movement seemed jarring to me. I know my experience of returning to the real world was more extreme than most of the participants. Others reported feeling a little noise sensitive, but not sick and achy like I did. In fact, most said they felt light, happy and free.
In truth, it may be that I had heavier things to work through that needed more attention than the 10-day retreat. The other participants who left feeling light and happy perhaps had fewer issues to address and therefore 10 days was enough to feel the full benefits of the technique.
Is a silent meditation retreat for you?
People who have confessed to having similar trouble pasts or thoughts to work through as I have asked me if I think a silent meditation retreat will help them. My answer is, it depends on what your motives are and what stage you’re at in dealing with your issues. Silent meditation is HARD WORK, and if you’re not prepared to repeatedly try to technique 10 hours of the day you will be extremely bored. So bored, in fact, you will probably give up.
But, if you feel strong enough to observe your emotions and work through them without feeling out of control, and you want to understand your triggers and reactions, then give it a try. It’s certainly not a peaceful, relaxing holiday, but it is revealing!
Would I do it again?
Vipassana meditation claims to only be of benefit if practised regularly and consistently. I can’t say I’ve kept up with the technique, apart from the three-day mindfulness practice I talked about in last weeks blog, but I am more conscious of where my emotions physically sit in my body. I know that social anxiety feels like a light and fluttery tingles jumping all over my body, not an unpleasant sensation but quite an intense, big feeling which is why it can feel so overwhelming. I know that other kinds of nerves sit in my lungs and are focused there, making it difficult for me to concentrate. I know that jealousy is a sensation in my stomach and quite a hot feeling. Being aware of these sensations and being able to look at them directly makes me feel as though I’m more in control and able to accept what they are and embrace them.
Perhaps I will try another silent meditation retreat when I’m feeling strong and ready for it. I’m sure there’s much more inside my head that I need to work through. For now, though, I’m happy to continue to use the technique of assigning my sensations to elements. It really helps me to observe and connect without judging. As for the regular practice, I still need to work on it! I guess I’m a bad student ;)
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