Personal Insight into 10-Days of Silence and Meditation
Thirteen years ago, I attended a life-changing residential Vipassana Course at the U.K headquarters, Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire. This ten-day course had the most profound effect on my life at that time and created a paradigm shift. I attended some more recent three-day courses in the north and again experienced real benefits. On the strength of those, I went ahead and signed up for another ten-day residential over the New Year period. On several occasions, when asked what my plans were for the holiday period, I said that I was taking ten-days of silence and meditation. The reactions were shock and awe, also misunderstanding as to what it was all about. This article is in response – an attempt to dispel any myths and provide a fuller explanation. It will also serve as a reference to anyone who feels compelled to attend a course. The account is a personal reflection of my experience.
During the run-up to signing up, I had felt a real need to escape from the constant bombardment of news: the sickness of wars and terrorism, heightened surveillance and lack of privacy and freedom in all areas of life, the horrors of climate change, global financial and political instability and the eradication of traditional values. Everywhere, I felt assailed by relentless marketeers and shady scammers. Good sense and experience was telling me to ‘unplug’, however the effort involved in processing or trying to avoid it all, just left me numb and unable to make decisions effectively. I felt my normal state of happiness eroding and I was on a downward spiral.
In the world of technology when the hard disk of a computer requires unscrambling and cleaning up to create more space, it would receive a file system defragmentation. This is exactly what I needed, an opportunity to press the ‘reset’ button – a brain ‘defrag’.
The day finally arrived. On the 28th December 2016, I travelled up the M6 to just outside Grange over Sands. The course venue was Castlehead Field Studies Centre, hired exclusively for the event. The centre is an impressive Georgian mansion set amongst 20 acres of land with a small river running through. On arrival, I registered with the reception desk, had my room allocated and then, according to the rules, handed over my phone, car keys and cash. Being a bit of an information junkie, I had a real wobbly moment – how would I manage without constantly checking my phone for emails, social media updates and Google. Moreover, there would be no chance of ‘doing a runner’ without my car keys. The wobble only lasted a moment – after all, having done this before, I knew what was in store, although I felt sure that there would be some withdrawal symptoms when going ‘cold turkey’.
On introducing myself to some of the other students, it became clear that there were many ‘new students’ on the course. One is classed as either an ‘old student’ (oldies) or a ‘new student’ (newbies). An ‘old student’ will have attended at least one ten-day course previously. Of the forty or so females, over two thirds were ‘new students’ and roughly thirty males, with a similar ratio.
Arrival day is day zero and the talking ban (Noble Silence) takes effect during the first meditation, in the evening. No talking, gesticulating or eye contact for the duration of the course. For any technical problems or questions regarding meditation, the teacher is available, or one can speak to the male or female managers to resolve any practical issues.
As well as the talking ban, students are barred from making eye contact, gesturing or touching each other. No outside food, reading or writing materials or cameras permitted. There is no yoga, jogging or exercise of any sort other than walking and discreet stretching.
Most of the accommodation is in dorms containing two bunk beds. There is a strict policy of segregation between genders; a screen splits the dining hall and the walking areas are sectioned off, both inside and outside to prevent any contact.
Being the eldest of the female group, they allocated me a single room with en suite. This was a total surprise and very welcome. No rushing down to the communal shower and toilet blocks at peak times as on previous occasions. The thought did occur – lets stick the old bird in her own room as she’ll keep everyone awake snoring or nipping off to the loo all night! They must have remembered me from my last visit!
A day in the life of a Vipassana Meditator
The 4 am Wake-Up Call
To celebrate my first ever ‘age-related benefit’, I offered my services as the 4am gong ringer. This meant I had the responsibility of waking myself up at 4am sharp and then everyone else on the female block, every morning for the duration of the course (unless I botched it!). This was a bonging power trip and the pressure was on.
The alarm clock buzzed me awake and I jumped straight up and out of my room with gong in hand. It occurred to me on the first day that there had been no instructions given as to how loud and how often I should gong. I decided to start quietly and build up the volume. Too loud may give someone a heart attack but not loud enough would not wake the heavy sleepers. Standing at the end of the corridor I made my first ‘bong on the gong’ and was surprised to see doors being flung open and a group of women charging down the corridor – it was a stampede of wild horses in flannelette, manes flying and toilet bags swinging wildly. They thundered down the corridor at a hundred miles an hour – I jumped to the wall for safety otherwise I would have been flattened. What a shock! I thought to myself that these newbie Meditators were super keen and did not actually realise what was in store for them. This activity somewhat lost its frisson after that. The following days became the ‘bong my gong’ game whereby I jumped back into my sanctuary just in time, before the charge of the meditation brigade. Starting at the far end of the corridor, I would walk briskly along, lightly gonging and building up the volume. Two loud gongs outside number 12 (very heavy sleeper in there – slept through two alarm clocks and very loud gonging) and that was it – a slam-dunk! Next, I would jump in the shower and then a second round of gonging at 4:20 to signal the start of the first two-hour meditation session at 4:30.
At 6:30, we would all head to the canteen for breakfast. Queuing up for a ladle of porridge from the large vat looked like a scene from Oliver Twist. Careful not to catch someone’s eye, one becomes quite an expert on feet and the eclectic array of feet coverings, personal style preferences and idiosyncrasies. Socks of all descriptions: odd socks, socks with holes and holes with socks! Odd shoes – yes, odd shoes and this should be a fashion faux pas, socks and thonged flip-flops (Japanese style accepted).
The first breakfast experience was a feeding frenzy and bordering on the fringe of lunacy (I was having déjà vu of the 4 am stampede) everyone digging in, swirling and banging into each other. Plates and bowls piled high. I wondered what it would be like stranded on a Bear Grylls island with this starving bunch! The newbies settled down by day four and towards the end of the course, there was a much calmer atmosphere. Feeding time became a more orderly affair of anticipated and intuited winding and weaving – mimicking a well-choreographed dance.
The course is a regime of brutal precision, discipline and hard work – every minute in my schedule had an activity. One of these very important activities or functions is sleep and I got as much of it as I could. After breakfast, it’s back to bed. If I was lucky, I could get a very important forty-five minute power nap. At ten to eight, one of the servers had the essential role of gonging us down to the hall for a whole group meditation.
Following three hours of meditation and one short break, it’s 11 am and lunchtime. Lunch consists of freshly made vegan/vegetarian food served buffet style; usually a rice, pasta, potato or couscous base with curry or vegetable stew and a selection of salads. This is the last meal of the day for ‘old students’.
Following lunch and a walk along the river, it’s ‘siesta’ time. An hour of bliss and then ‘BONG’, it is 1 pm and back on the job – meditation until 5pm, according to the teacher’s instructions.
Newbies can have fruit at 5 o’clock. As a hard liner ‘oldie’, I had a cup of hot water with lemon and crucial forty winks.
The sessions in the hall are in the style of either teaching of the techniques by the late Mr Goenka and practical application of the same, or the Pali chants. Mr Goenka’s chanting helps set the mood for metta – feelings of loving kindness. The teaching is in audio format and occurs throughout the day. The evening discourses are via video.
Goenka was of Indian descent. He was however, born and raised in Burma (Myanmar). After receiving fourteen years training from his teacher he then settled in India. Mr Goenka has taught tens of thousands of people in India and throughout the East and West. Courses are held regularly around the world.
The technique represents a tradition traced back to the Buddha. Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dharma – the path to liberation. The way from misery to peace and happiness.
Somewhere along the way, Goenka’s chanting and his little comical phrases with cute accent became stuck in my head, for days on end. I thought I was losing it at one point! Then I started thinking about the Kylie song…. this was even worse, ‘Can’t get you out of my head’ became a self-fulfilling prophecy and I had two squatters upstairs!
The Meditation Hall
We meditated with guidance for roughly 10 hours a day broken up by meals and free time. (Free time involved activities such as sleeping, walking and personal needs.)
The meditation hall, strewn with pillows, blocks, stools and blankets are signs of desperate attempts made by students to find at least minimal comfort during the long days of sitting on the floor in meditation. Small chairs had been placed at the back of the hall and back-rest contraptions were also available. Allotted with a two-foot square cushion space, this is then yours for the duration of the course. Some of these spaces were minimal and tidy and others looked like mini-cities built of blocks, blankets and paraphernalia.
The foundation of the practice has three elements to it. The first one is called sila (pronounced ‘Sheila’) which means moral conduct. One agrees to abide by five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct and no intoxicants. The second is samadhi, the practice of sharpening the mind, making it one-pointed and strong. The third, panna (pronounced ‘panya’) means wisdom or insight and is the process of purification. Vipassana meditation aims at the highest spiritual goals of total liberation and full enlightenment. As a by-product of mental purification, many psychosomatic diseases are eradicated and Vipassana is said to eliminate the three causes of all unhappiness; craving, aversion and ignorance. The meditation releases tensions, knots and negative habitual patterns held in the subconscious mind.
On day four we are introduced to adhitthana, ‘sitting with strong determination’. Oh, man! This is not for the feint-hearted. One hour of meditation and total stillness. We are encouraged to hold the body straight and still without changing position or opening our eyes. The meditation releases the tensions held in the subconscious by non-reaction to bodily sensations, whether they be light, subtle and pleasant or gross, heavy and unpleasant. It is extremely difficult not to react by moving, when wracked with intense, painful sensations and maintain a detached, balanced and equanimous mind. It is indeed very challenging, when every fibre of your being is urging some reaction. I remember my first course – overwhelmed by the pain in my legs and yet determined not to move. These sessions left me sobbing like a baby under my blanket. If one has to move however, one does. There is no keisaku here, as in the Zen tradition (a hall monitor, who walks around whacking sagging meditators with a three-foot ‘encouraging stick’).
The first 30 minutes are fine. However, during the next 15 minutes, the intensity of pain increases quickly and the last 15 minutes are pure torture. Time seems to stand still as you wait patiently for Mr Goenka’s voice – ‘Annica’ a word meaning impermanence. From there on, you still have five minutes of him chanting but you know you are on the home straight.
Each subsequent course incidentally, does become much easier. As Mr Goenka says, everything is impermanent, ‘changing, changing, changing’. Nowadays, I can observe objectively – the sensations, whatever they are, as just sensation and without any reaction or thinking of them as ‘good’ and to chase or cling to them, or ‘bad’ and run away in avoidance. Bizarrely, at some point, the pain had lost all its power. For me, it was a simple letting go and dissolving into the process. Unsure whether it was a surrendering of the ego, it was an emotional and humbling experience. It was on my second three-day course that I finally got it!
The Long Day’s End
The daily discourse (lecture) takes place every evening and lasts for just over an hour. Mr Goenka, is projected onto the large screen and he explains everything in great detail. If the days are the ‘how’ of the practice, these evening lectures constitute the ‘why’. Goenka calls the system – The Science of Mind and Matter and the Art of Living. I really enjoyed his talks; a very affable, sweet man who had a great sense of humour. I guess the newbies had forgiven him for the previous torturing sessions, as there was always much laughter. His lectures were rich with stories, analogies and funny anecdotes all serving to clarify his message loud and clear. I feel certain that these talks were the cement that held the course together, delivering the underpinning knowledge, wisdom, and encouragement.
After the discourse, it’s lights out at 9.30pm.
This was our routine day in, day out. Day 10 however, was slightly different but followed the same itinerary of group sittings and meditation.
Day 10 is called a ‘buffer’ day. At lunchtime, the noble silence ends and the chitchat begins. This is to prepare students for their entry back into the real world.
After breakfast on Day 11, I collected all my belongings, made a donation to the charity and then it was home time.
The big question you may ask is why anyone would subject themselves to a whopping 100 hours of meditation (boot camp style) and I ask myself that too.
Deeply buried memories I really thought that I had dealt with and moved on from, had a habit of popping up with strong emotional charges. I let them play out with the same non-reaction and equanimity of mind. It is hard to explain but I do feel different, in a good way.
You start to see all the things in your life you sometimes take for granted – family and friends and the many other blessings.
I now appreciate how vital the state of happiness is on every level. How it affects our health and colours our mental outlook and how we view the world, our subsequent reactions and ultimate reality. I understand the importance of standing guard to protect it and how vulnerable happiness is to the onslaught of hate, violence and scare mongering prevalent in the world we now live. How vital it is to stay focused and alert to downward spirals into personal negative traits and bad habits. Maintaining a regular meditation practice as protection from these things is crucial.
The practice has given me a broader perspective on situations and the ability to look calmly at issues from many different angles – I can see the futility of worry and fear and that everything is just a manifestation of my own thoughts.
The training of long periods of focused attention produces deeper concentration and I seem to execute jobs more quickly and with greater accuracy.
So dear reader, I hope you found this article interesting and enjoyable and perhaps even feel inspired to take a course yourself.
To sum up my experience Swami Rama’s quote below, says it very nicely.
‘We are taught how to move and behave in the external world, but we are never taught how to be still and examine what is within ourselves. At the same time, learning to be still and calm should not be made a ceremony or a part of any religion; it is a universal requirement of the human body. When one learns to sit still, he or she attains a kind of joy that is inexplicable. The highest of all joys that can be attained or experienced by a human being can be attained through meditation. All the other joys in the world are transient and momentary, but the joy of meditation is immense and everlasting’.
By Shannon Riley-Gregson
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