Over a dozen years ago now, I traveled to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts to participate in a week-long silent Buddhist meditation retreat. We practiced Vipassana meditation, or as it is more commonly known, mindfulness meditation.
Vipassana is a form of mindfulness meditation that comes from the original teachings of the Buddha. It is a way of observing oneself without judgment, and it is said to be helpful in achieving enlightenment. During Vipassana practice, one tries to observe sensation, thought, and experience objectively; that is, one tries to remain equanimous with all that arises and all that is experienced, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, by appreciating the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Vipassana meditation is also known for its calming effects on the mind and body. By focusing on the present moment and observing sensations without judgment, practitioners can reduce stress, anxiety, and even physical pain. It provides a valuable tool for managing and coping with daily life challenges. (It’s a valuable meditation technique, and there is plenty of information to be found online about it if you’re interested in learning more.)
So, anyway, back to the retreat in the Berkshires. I had been practicing Vipassana meditation for a couple of years and decided to go on this particular silent retreat to deepen my practice. Also, at the time my son had just turned 7, so a week of silence at a retreat center in the woods sounded perfect! However, in the case of Vipassana retreats, “silence” means more than just not speaking out loud. It means no communication with fellow participants whatsoever—for example, we were not to write notes to each other or to use non-verbal communication. We weren’t to read or to journal. Our instructions were to try to keep our eyes towards the earth when moving about so as not to make eye-contact with anyone accidentally. We ate our meals in silence, all at the same table, sitting next to and across from one another. We completed our daily work assignment in silence (I was in the kitchen in the early morning prepping veggies for lunch). We practiced A LOT of seated meditation (hours a day) and some walking meditation, all of course in silence. The optional daily yoga asana class (silent except for the teacher) was such a relief for the body after all of the sitting. It was also a great relief for the mind which was seeking some sort of stimulation. Once a day, there was a question & answer period after the dharma talk, and people could raise their hands, and if chosen, ask their question. We each got a 30 minute one-on-one session with one of the leaders during which we could speak. But otherwise, we were silent. We were trying to remain in a state of meditative silence as much as possible, 24 hours a day.
I went into the experience with excitement and also nervousness. The first day upon arriving we were still allowed to speak — we were oriented to our work assignments and our rooms and to how things would operate during the week — and then in the evening we entered formally into meditative silence. So day 2 was the first full day in silence, and about half-way through it, my mind was saying, “What the f@$k did you get us into???” And of course the SI joint injury I had been nursing back to health flared up making sitting still on a meditation cushion for hours at a time next to impossible. It felt like I was fidgeting constantly to relieve the discomfort in my back. Was it too late to get out of this and go home?
I stuck it out. It began to rain on day 3, and it rained and rained and rained for the rest of the retreat, all the way until the last day. The walk from the dorms to the meditation and dining hall was muddy and soggy. At one point, the sump pump located directly below the meditation hall turned on and became a huge distraction for me, as I didn’t learn what the noise it was making was until after we came out of silence and I could ask. Whump-thump. Whump-thump. Whump-thump. Whump-thump it rhythmically repeated. “What IS that?” My mind doggedly demanded an answer.
For another participant, a housefly was a huge distraction. During Q&A she said a fly had been buzzing around her ears and wouldn’t leave her alone during the whole 45 minute meditation period we had just finished. She wanted to know how she was to handle such distractions during practice. The teacher said we should all remember that there will always be a fly, metaphorically speaking. Or a sump pump. Or any number of other distractions. Some distraction will always try to tempt our minds away, and/or our mind will go out seeking distraction. Something will be around to try to knock us out of a state of equanimity. Our job as meditators is to try to stay mindful, present, awake, aware, and non-judgmental to whatever arises within or without. We’re to try to lean in to the experience. Be here now as Ram Dass said. This is hard work.
And let me tell you, in being silent for a week, I really began to see 1) just how busy, talkative, and chatty my mind really is; 2) just how much of what goes on in my mind is complete rubbish; 3) what a sweet relief it is to rest—even if just briefly—in a mind spacious and free of that noise and clutter, what the Buddhists call “blue sky mind.” And despite my mind’s early protestations, by the end of the retreat when we formally came out of meditative silence, I really never wanted to speak again. Something had shifted. As we debriefed and discussed our experiences, it seemed this was true for many of us.
By purposefully coming into outward silence, and staying there for awhile, we allowed our minds the time and space to come into stillness and (sometimes) silence. We could see our habits of mind and the workings of our egos more clearly. We became aware of the mind’s near constant craving for stimulation and distraction. We became aware of our mind’s efforts to pull us out of the present moment and into the past, the future, or memory. We trained in staying present, quiet, and still within, even when things (Flies! Thunder! Sump pumps! Smells of Dinner Cooking!) were happening externally. Silence allowed us to strengthen our mindfulness muscles, and the retreat allowed us to experience firsthand the power of silence.
I’m excited about the Jivamukti Yoga focus-of-the-month for February, “Enjoy the Silence,” written by Juan Sierra. It’s a good read—check it out here.
Blessings and love,