On the Cushion: 10 Days in Silence

Gosh. It’s been five days now since I completed my first 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course and I’m still struggling to put the experience into words. As with all intense experiences, the rush of it fades quickly with time, so I fear that the longer I wait, the less able I’ll be to really capture any of it. It already seems like a lifetime ago. So, I’ll do the best I can now and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good (one of my favourite phrases these days).

I’ll start by telling you the thought I had many times throughout the course:

This isn’t a meditation course.
This is meditation boot camp.

And it was. It was hard. Like, really hard.

The first bell goes off at 4AM and the final one to signal the end of each long day does not go off until 9PM. Over 10.5 hours of meditation, learning this ancient technique, with a couple of too-long breaks in between (what does one do when they aren’t permitted to read or write or listen to music or practice yoga?! Answer: they walk endless laps around a snowy field, wearing a distinct path around the perimeter, complete with passing lanes and all. That, or they lie on their bed staring up at the ceiling, wishing they could nap, and then regretting the attempt as they only become groggy once the next meditation session nears).

 

Repetitious instructions and painfully wretched chanting (who let this man sing for so many years, is what I would like to know). A weird call-and-answer type thing at the end of each session, which I only wished to participate in simply for the opportunity to sing (I ultimately opted out, as it was too weird for me, chanting in another language, not entirely sure of what it meant). A physically gruelling and exhausting practice that continued to make me doubt my ability to ever walk again. Three times a day, for an hour each (a “Power Hour”, I called it in my mind), we would sit in one position and do our best not to “open our eyes, hands, or legs” (again, who let this man suggest we would open our legs during meditation. He clearly needed someone in PR, or a better translator).

At the end of each of these sessions, I thought to myself: this is my life now. I cannot get up. I’m stuck and thus, I will die here.

Of course, I did get up. I wrestled my legs out from under the meditation bench I borrowed from the centre and held my knees gently, willing them to forgive me and move again. Eventually, I stood and hobbled out of the meditation hall to begin the ritual of pee, drink, sit, repeat. Each one of us would perform the same cycle, walking down the hall like zombies to the bathrooms and the water fountain, more as a way of getting the blood flow back to our lower extremities, less out of the need for hydration. Some of us would stop at what I thought of as the unofficial “stretching station”, the nook where meditation cushions were once stored and where we could reach for our toes without being scolded for breaking the rules.

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The Stretching Station, once again stocked full of cushions.

As any athlete would know, that level of physical endurance can only come from having the required mental stamina, not allowing yourself to talk you out of it. Thankfully, I leaned on the patience and space I had created in other practices, such as yin yoga, therapy, and even acupuncture. I had already begun training my mind to use my breath to bear with uncomfortable sensations. I had been practicing how to sit with discomfort, both physical and mental, and not allowing it to dictate my life. In that way, I saved myself the mental battle that certainly comes to newer meditators, of beating oneself up over not “doing it right”. Yes, I could sit still for the hour. I readjusted the tilt of my pelvis when I felt I’d lost my most upright posture, but otherwise – to the detriment, perhaps, of my poor knees – I managed to keep my position. Physically, that is; I totally opened my eyes at least 90% of the time, partly to see who seemed to be struggling the most and send them well-wishes, partly just to check the time. An hour is long. 

Many people struggle to spend that much time inside their own heads. For me, as with the physical sensations, I’d already made peace with my mental chatter, so I wasn’t too worried about that, and it did not prove to be a source of frustration. The mind’s job is to think and I was trying to convince it to take a vacation; there was bound to be some pushback. So I let it come and go and come and go, and eventually it gave up and got a little quieter. Or sometimes it didn’t, and that was okay too. No point in arguing with it. Just let it be what is it. What did annoy me though, was the horrific volume of saliva my mouth produces. My god, what kind of monster needs to swallow this frequently? Why?! (We all did, in fact.)

See, part of the technique is to watch the sensations that arise – objectively – as they are the body’s response to some type of stimulus (taste, touch, smell, sound, sight, or thought), and that by not reacting, we can allow this sensation to pass away. These sensations may be a result of a current stimulus, but can also arise from our stored memory. By giving these sensations the opportunity to be seen and held without judgement or reaction, they too can be let go. It is a cleansing and lightening process, as painful as it can be. This particular technique is introduced on the fourth day; so at least at that time, your mind is given a task. The hours pass slightly quicker with something now to do and the volume of your chatter lowers a little bit and turns off all together for the occasional moment.

As for not talking that whole time, I didn’t really feel the need to talk, but my god, did I yearn to connect. But Noble Silence means freedom from communication of any type. No eye contact, no touch, no gestures, nothing. So my other greatest challenge was surviving this complete isolation while surrounded by beautiful, brave, strong humans doing this incredibly difficult thing, unable to support each other. I was so immensely grateful for their presence, in awe of each of their stamina and determination to struggle through, and absolutely devastated that I couldn’t reach out to hold anybody’s hand or give a gentle hug. To say, I’m with you. You’ve got this. And, holy shit, this sucks. 

That longing for connection was not limited to the other meditators. On multiple occasions, I cried at the inability to express my gratitude to those who volunteered to take care of me during this whole process; they cooked all my meals and cleaned up after me, so that I could spend 10+ hours a day doing nothing but meditate, sleep, and eat. Seated elbow-to-elbow between two other meditators, staring at the wall, tears streaming down my face, eating the most incredible kale I’ve ever eaten in my life, feeling that this was so. fucked. up.

How can people learn to have greater grace in this world without engaging with others? Everything I’ve learned recently has asked me to be more open, more human. I have worked hard and dug deep to find the strength to be vulnerable, to know myself, and to learn how to ask others for what I need. And now I’m being asked to ignore the person seated beside me?! It still brings tears to my eyes now to think of this impotence of isolation.

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My acupuncturist knows me well; this is the message she has placed on my cranky wrist to remind it and me to love openly; to move with an open heart. I do not know how Noble Silence can align with this objective.

I was able to connect deeply with several of my fellow meditators on the final day of the course. Mid morning of the 10th day, we are permitted “Noble Speech”. I felt a pang of regret at the warmth I knew we had all missed in those 10 days. I felt a bond there which I knew would have strengthened us all had it been palpable in the exhausting days of silence and hard work. Instead, we felt a constant worry that people didn’t like us (as if someone could judge you when you don’t speak!) because all the normal social cues are tossed out the window. No pleases, no thank-yous, no you-firsts. Just awkward steps back when two people approach the hot water. Just someone who stands up as you go to sit down, with no explanation (umm.. do I smell?). I wondered if it was wrong to think that the effect of the technique could be so much greater had we been permitted just an hour a day to connect in our experiences, to spend less time wondering if we were doing it right or if what was coming up for us was normal. To take strength in knowing it was just as difficult for everyone else as it was for you, despite how rock-solid and badass most people look on the outside. Maybe then there could be less fidgeting and cushion-piling in futile attempts to prop oneself up high enough to escape the inevitable pain. Maybe the realizations – the pain will come anyway and it will only last so long as you reject it and no amount of cushions will save me, not even 14 of them – would come that much sooner; that if you give up and give into the process, it will actually become easier.

I have always been a feely human (an incredibly apt description borrowed from a recently-discovered podcast with the same title). The work done and examples set by courageous and brilliant women such as Brenè brown, Liz Gilbert, Jen Pastiloff, Glennon Doyle, and Cheryl Strayed have led me to have a strong belief in the need for human connection, requiring us to be open, honest, vulnerable, and brave. I feel this amplified tremendously now – as if that deprivation has heightened my awareness of my need for this humanness. I’m still unsure of how to reconcile the differences between these two ways of being; embracing the fierce emotions I feel and living a fully exposed life vs this Buddhist approach of equanimity (freedom from craving or aversion). Open-hearted-ness vs ego-less-ness. In my opinion, this equanimity stuff sounds a lot like living a life on anti-depressants (which I believe are absolutely necessary for some, don’t get me wrong): curbing the lows while simultaneously limiting the capacity for joy; putting up false walls between yourself and others in order to not have attachment.

Selfless is an idea commonly used in Buddhist teachings. This term seems both entirely apt while also completely ironic when describing Noble Silence, depending on the way you look at it. On one hand, yes, it is indeed selfless, as you take your entire self out of the picture. However, it is also incredibly selfish, in that you sacrifice every ounce of compassion you might have in order to pursue your own personal interests. I struggle to understand how either of those things could be useful. Likely that is simply my own ignorance in these very beginning steps of the practice. What do I know?

So here I am on the other side, knowing all the frustrations I had with the teaching style and course structure, and yet still considering serving (being the one who cooks and cleans for those sitting a course) in Duncan in a couple weeks’ time. I am also re-starting my search for work overseas, but feeling like the quiet (though not the complete silence that comes with being a meditator) is pulling at me to see the experience from a different angle. I’m feeling like I should take advantage of the centre here while I have it. Plus, the more work I do on myself, the more strength I have to offer the world.

As a final note: what I’m glad I knew and what I wish I’d known about the course before I’d gone:

  • First, let’s talk attire. This was my number one concern in the weeks leading up to the course. The Code of Discipline reads: “Tight, transparent, revealing, or otherwise striking clothing (such as shorts, short skirts, tights and leggings, sleeveless or skimpy tops) should not be worn.” and I took this very literally. And if you’re a woman, more than likely you’re in a human body and if you’re in a human body, more than likely somewhere between your hips and your thighs, you have a butt. And more than likely, no matter how “loose” the pants, it’s impossible not to “reveal” that butt by wearing them. Basic sweatpants? There’s my butt. Pajama bottoms? Butt city. This does not matter. As long as they’re not leggings, no one will care. Let me tell you: it is much easier to find shirts and sweaters that cover said butt (for your comfort’s sake) and just rock whatever pants you have available than it is to wear leggings and need something that goes to the knee (though I was not the only one wrapping a scarf around my waist and calling it a day – so there is that).
  • If you’re unsure of what the centre has to offer, or you’d like to avoid buying something strictly for the course, just send them an email ahead of time. I didn’t know how much bedding they would have and didn’t want to gamble on there not being enough, so I borrowed a thin blanket, bought sheets, and used my scarves as a pillow, even though that was actually totally unnecessary. Especially if you’re travelling with a carry-on, just get in touch before you go to have them put what you need aside for you.
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Even my relatively new centre had many clocks and flashlights available at registration.

  • Same goes with an alarm clock: I liked to have it just in case. I only once woke up to it, but slept poorly if I was relying on the bells. The first morning, I most definitely slept through them (and thus asked to borrow a clock thereafter). The other mornings I slept in by choice, but a girl likes to have autonomy 😉 
  • The food was incredible and I wasn’t ever hungry. I also brought my own tea just in case, but it wasn’t needed either; there was green, black, chamomile, decaf chai, and peppermint (with honey!). I was happy to have my travel mug to take tea to my room between meals (no access to hot water was available in those times). I also used my travel mug to make instant coffee in the evening, to have when I woke up at 4. I felt quite proud of this meditation-hack 🙂
  • I brought melatonin and found it very useful the first few nights to regulate my sleep pattern. I took it between the evening discourse and the final sit so that I was asleep as soon as my head hit the scarf/pillow.
  • I also brought tiger balm and was very paranoid about it being heavily scented (strictly prohibited!), but just used it at night and no one seemed bothered by it (though I left it in the laundry room one night with a note, hoping everyone could share in the icy-hot relief, but it disappeared immediately and I certainly wasn’t going to ask the administration if they found it). My roommate said she was really into the menthol and eucalyptus, but if she didn’t, I would have felt bad to have annoyed her each night. As far as scented products go, many people used their regular shampoos and soaps and again, I don’t think anybody minded. Even the administrator smelled quite fresh after her showers, so I wasn’t the only rule-breaker. I would just chat quickly with my roommate next time before silence starts to see if there’s any products they a) hate or b) would like to share. Also consider establishing a system for regulating the room temperature; my roommate and I had to talk eventually because when it’s below zero outside, you kind of need to clear it before you open the window.
  • Speaking of which, I was very nervous that I would be cold, but I was only chilly for a minute a couple of times in the evening in the meditation hall after they’d been airing the room out. You will not need to bring super warm stuff. But of course bring whatever makes you the most comfortable – I wish I’d brought my favourite blanket!
  • Part of me wonders if having snuck a journal in would have helped me to give thoughts a resting place so I could focus on the meditation. In the first few days, I was constantly “writing” this post in my head, and I thought it would be easier just to quickly jot points down so I could allow my mind to rest. I’m experimenting with this now and feel like it could either be very helpful, or it could totally backfire by indulging the mind and allowing it free reign the whole time. I know for now that it is hard to tell if it would be useful in the process, but I surely would appreciate it now, as my mind is scrambling to capture the whole 10 days in one go. So the more I jot down, the more comes up. But at least I feel like I’m less likely to miss something. Same goes with the talking – perhaps had we been allowed an hour a day to vent, it wouldn’t be such an eruption at the end! This would be something I could experiment with if I serve a course, too, as I believe servers are permitted to write.

I’m not 100% convinced I’ve caught everything here, but 3000 words seems like enough for now. If you’re ever considering doing a course, or you’re signed up and have questions, I’m more than happy to chat! Use the contact links to find my social media or send me an email! Happy sitting!

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