Last October I went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat.
If I’m honest, I had initially applied months before, hoping to impress a guy. By the time I actually got a place on this popular course, the guy was long gone. But I was still signed up for ten whole days of silence, averaging nine hours of meditation per day, with nothing but my thoughts for company.
And so I arrived at the centre, in the middle of nowhere, put my phone, reading and writing material in a safe and was allocated my own curtained-off section in a dorm.
I was relieved to note that the other women in my dorm looked fairly normal. No white-person’s dreadlocks, no fishermen’s pants, and no excessive piercings.
We made our way into the Main Hall for our first sitting.
This is Vipassana. A method of meditation as old as Buddha, though not officially affiliated with any religion. You take five vows at the start of the course – to abstain from stealing, killing, all intoxicants, sex (including with yourself) and telling lies (hence the Noble Silence).
You are woken every morning at 4am by a gong, which divides your time here into a structured schedule, and you are in bed by 9.
You eat delicious vegetarian food and the whole thing is presided over by S. N. Goenka, the world teacher of this form of meditation. Along with his team of two teachers and several volunteers, he guides you through what is a very intense but actually highly precise process.
We spent the first three days doing nothing but focussing on the breath, or more accurately, the space between the nostrils and the upper lip.
For. Three. Days.
Just at the point where I was ready to pull my own eyebrows out, Goenka decided that our minds were now sharp enough to learn the Vipassana technique.
It is a gradual process of feeling and observing sensations in your body and during the next seven days we were guided deeper and deeper into the technique.
I can confidently say that it was the single most difficult thing I have ever done.
There wasn’t a day where I didn’t seriously consider escaping through a suspicious looking gap in one of the hedges. And, if I’m perfectly honest, I spent a significant amount of those nine hours planning my escape route. I also worried about whether I’d locked my car, became convinced I hadn’t, imagined some thug masquerading as a zen, enlightened yogi breaking into it and exactly how many shades of whoop-ass I would unleash on him. I also remembered I hadn’t left an emergency number with anyone and then proceeded to imagine in gory detail exactly what kind of emergencies might be happening right now, as I sat there, trying to concentrate on that triangle of space between my nostrils and my upper lip.
I cried a lot. Silently. And I had several panic attacks, all whilst maintaining my lotus position and the same zen looking expression that everyone else at the centre seemed to be wearing.
Every time I made it to the next gong I felt like I’d run a mental marathon and I started to promise myself little treats for getting through each day: Day one was a big bowl of sticky toffee pudding, Day two – several cocktails, Day Three – a massage and so on.
Every evening we piled into the Hall for Discourse – my favourite part of the day. We would sit and watch a video of Goenka give a teaching and I was pleased to discover that this humble internationally renowned spiritual leader was an absolute joker.
The guy was a comedy genius. He had us laughing despite ourselves and at one point I got so caught up in his joke that I repeated the punch line loudly and looked around to see who else had heard, before remembering where I was and that I was meant to be silent.
Goenka’s rich, deep voice started and ended each sitting with a bizarre groaning-singing that freaked me out for a few days, before I came to love it – if only because it marked the end of yet another meditation.
He explained that our suffering came because our lives were a series of reactions to external influences and that was why we had been taken out of our daily routine and brought here, where there were no distractions and we could learn to observe ourselves with equanimity.
He also explained that the pain caused by events in our lives were called Sankaras and with no new Sankaras being created here, the old ones would come up to be experienced and released.
And boy did they come up. Wave after wave of them. Bizarre dreams about primary school incidents I didn’t even know were an issue. Rage and remorse and shame and fear. Lots of fear.
He told us that the second and sixth day would be the worst and, like clockwork, there I was, crying in the toilets, silently, trying not to disturb everyone else’s vibe.
But then Day Seven came. And sometime in the second sitting of the day I felt it all shift. And suddenly I hit this incredible high.
I floated around feeling every cell in my body buzzing, light and high as a kite. I was blinking really slowly and just wanted to sit and do nothing but watch this beautiful world do its thing.
Then I started to worry a bit, cos I thought, if I stay like this I wouldn’t be able to do anything practical, like drive or cook. But after a few hours I gently landed back on earth and found myself in a more manageable state of mind.
And then Day Ten arrived. Day. Frikking. Ten.
It is impossible to describe the relief and elation, but also the nervous confusion about how to step back into the world again.
When Noble Silence was broken, we hugged and talked and I finally met my dorm-mates properly. They were such a great bunch of women. And, of course, we discovered that we had been through very similar experiences – we had all been convinced that we had pissed off everyone else by not being silent enough. We had all made up bizarre stories in our heads about what others were thinking and we had all cried silently and considered fleeing and seeking asylum in the neighbouring village.
And we had all faced our deepest fears. And survived.
It took a few days to acclimatise back into the pace of London life. And I was acutely aware of just how much we are bombarded with input every minute of our hyper-connected lives.
As I scrolled through Twitbook I felt equal parts craving for connection and information, and also dizziness and overwhelm.
I was, of course, relieved to be back. But that time with myself was very precious.
What used to be my biggest fear – being left in my own company for too long – has become one of my biggest pleasures, and I relish the moments where I can sneak off and just hang out for a bit with my fabulous self.
I meditate every day, even if it is just for ten minutes and there is definitely a teeny bit of space between my thoughts and feelings, and my reactions to them. Sometimes.
I have already gone back for a three-day booster. And I’d like to think I’d go back for another Ten-Dayer, but I think I need a couple more years to recover.