I had been wanting to do a Vipassana silent retreat for over 12 years, but I kept chickening out: “Ten days without speaking or even writing? Ten days, with 10 hours of meditation each day? Ten days without phone, books, wine, music? Getting up at 4AM?“, until somebody much younger and braver than me kicked my butt. Off I went, a tiny bit afraid but doing it anyway.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana means ‘to see things as they are’, and the word appealed to me from the start. It is one of the oldest Indian meditation techniques that had been lost to humanity and rediscovered 2500 years ago by Gautama (the historical Buddha). It remained secret to most of us, until S.N. Goenka, a former businessman in search of a cure for his migraine, discovered a small group of practicioners in Burma. To date, Mr Goenka has trained 800 teachers all over the world. One can only learn the technique by completing a 10 day course. Some say it is the Buddha’s most pure form of practice, without rites, mantras, or any form of worshipping. A simple meditation made to eradicate the root of our suffering caused by craving and aversion (and ignorance), with the most important element to teach the mind being ‘impermanence’. ‘This too shall pass’ is the message.
Simply put: after three days of focussing on breathing and sensations around the nostrils, one learns about impermanence by observing how bodily sensations come and go, teaching oneself to stay equanimous towards either pleasant or unpleasant sensations.
So what’s the deal with 10 days of silence?
Yes, 10 days without communicating, notes, books, music or contact with the outside world. And no, not even a “Could you pass me the salt please?” at dinner! I speak from experience when I say it is best not to read too many personal experiences before one does a retreat, as the silence is there in order for you to totally make it your own experience. But hey, people are curious and I am a writer, but I’ll try not to get too personal 😉
10 days of meditation?
The routine is strict: wake up gong at 4AM, breakfast at 6.30, lunch at 11AM, tea and fruit at 5PM, and lights out at 9.30PM. In between, there are about 10,5 hours of meditation each day, of which 4 group meditations with instructions. For a few hours one can also meditate in the dormitory, or take walks in the garden. On the morning of the 10th day, everybody is allowed to speak again. This day feels pretty festive and is organized to make the transition to the outside world a bit easier.
The Israeli documentary about the effects of Vipassana meditation on Indian prisoners, ‘Doing Time, Doing Vipassana‘ (52’) is utterly touching.
For Vipassana courses all over the world, go to http://www.dhamma.org
And here’s another interesting article: ‘The brain in our belly’