10 things I learned from 10 days of Silence
A hankering to experience a prolonged period of meditation combined with a desire to visit its birthplace had me attending my first Vipassana course in Bangalore, India.
For 10 days I was disconnected from the outside world, no phone or no wi-fi. For the chance to go into a deep internal connection I gave up all forms of mental distraction. No reading or writing. No rituals or rites. I also took a vow of ‘noble silence’. This meant no talking, no sign language, no eye contact, no smiling or acknowledging anyone in anyway… nothing. If I had questions regarding the mediation practice I could speak to the teacher. Any other concerns I could take to the volunteer helpers.
I was challenged enormously. I had moments of fear, resistance, emotional and physical pain. But there was also plenty of joy, gratitude and a sense of deep connection and love.
Here’s what I learnt
1. I discovered that I have a deep rooted compulsion to complain. I was shocked at how negative the little voice inside me was. I know that if I had been able to speak, I would’ve shared my complaints and listened to other peoples complaints. Which I believe would’ve fed and multiplied the negativity. I accept that I was way out of my comfort zone, jet lagged and stressed to start with, but I also recognise this response as habitual and one that I am quite happy to let go of.
On day 6 we lost electricity to the living quarters after a thunder storm. The generator blew out
and was not able to be repaired. No one said a word, literally. We just all got on with it. After all we just needed enough light to bathe (cold water and bucket) and brush teeth by. No phones to charge or books to read. Just sleep. Mercifully the weather cooled so the endless requirements for ceiling fans stopped. There was no stress fuelled by complaints and demands, just acceptance and equanimity instead.
2. It can be a relief to just be and not to have to engage with other people. I discovered that even though we were speaking English, my accent made it very difficult for others to understand me and vice versa. So I honestly was happy to let go of making small talk and just be with myself.
3. I stopped worrying about being judged. I was aware of not wanting to offend anyone, trying desperately to be culturally aware and sensitive. I knew there were social niceties around eating with a particular hand, but which one? What do you do without toilet paper? How much skin is it ok to show? Do I look like I’m trying too hard wearing my scarf like a local? It took a day or two for me to relax and I then realised that I let go of the fear of being judged. If no one could speak, then no one could criticise me. Of course I was never being judged, later many of the woman said they were worried for me and hoped that I was ok with the strange food etc.
4. I missed laughter so much! A couple of days into the retreat I realised that I hadn’t laughed for days and that so much of my happiness comes from the banter with my boys and sharing time with my family and friends. No laughter for days felt wrong and I really missed it.
5. When laughter comes it’s universal and contagious. I shared a room with an ‘old’ student. A beautiful young women who was attending her third retreat. She was very serious about noble silence. The mediation was relentless… hours and hours of it. At the end of some periods we would be given
the instruction “take rest and come back in 5 minutes”. Which could mean 5, 10 or 20 minutes. We’d be called back to the Dhamma hall by an unmissable siren and a helper walking through the ladies’ residence ringing a little bell. One day my room mate and myself lay prone on our beds washed out, we both groaned when we heard the bell. I started to giggle and then could not stop laughing. The roommate lost the plot too and we both erupted uncontrollably. It felt so good.
6. Empathy can be felt, it doesn’t need words. On day 3 I got sick. The gut cramps started during the night and the next day was spent running to the loo. Yes, despite being told not to… I drank the water. It said it was filtered
but who knows what that meant. I was miserable. I cried. I sobbed to the teacher, “It was a mistake to come here, I want
to go home!” My lovely room mate worried for me and felt helpless. She could do nothing to console me except to feel compassionate. I could feel the empathy and compassion from the other women too. Thankfully I bounced back pretty quickly.
7. Comparisons aren’t that helpful. After days of meditation there’s some pretty interesting stuff that goes on in your body and mind. I’m guessing it’s different for everyone depending on past experiences, social conditioning, physical mechanics, beliefs and practices. Not being able to compare our experiences made whatever we were experiencing ok for each of us. It also meant less worry about getting it right and it was easier to be with my own experience.
8. With silence and no distractions we not only turn inwards but back to nature too. I loved watching the other women walk around the grounds stop to watch the birds, the monkeys (yes monkeys!) and to look at the flowers. When the thunder storm came and the torrential rain began, many of us stood under cover and just watched the down pour like it was something new and fascinating. Like it was when we were children. Life became so simple.
9. Silence is golden, but breaking silence is joyful. Goodness gracious me…. I don’t know if it was the Loving Kindness mediation that we ended with before we broke silence or just the shear joy of being able to connect with our fellow humans, but the joy that erupted was incredible. It was moving. We were all so happy to finally communicate and express ourselves that we shed tears, we laughed and we did not shut up! It’s known as Noble Chatter and it’s deafening and glorious.
10. Words can become precious. When we broke silence it wasn’t to talk about the weather, we wanted to know each other’s stories. Why are you here? How has it been for you? Where are you from? We wanted to connect, to share, to express all that had been unspoken for so long.
Turning inwards through silence and being distraction free wasn’t easy, but the benefits have shown themselves hugely over the days following the course as I have navigated travelling solo in such a foreign land. I feel very fortunate to have had this experience. This journey that has taken me both outside of my comfort zone and into the uncharted land within is one that I will never forget.