This is what happens when you spend 10 days silence
“The silence and the continuous meditation on the breath causes the mind to begin to feel physical sensations in the body at a much more subtle level than it has ever felt in the past.”
I first heard about Vipassana back in 2007 (a year before I did it). My friend Alejandra and I were drinking cheap wine in my small NYC apartment; exchanging life stories and talking about our bucket lists when she mentioned an intense silent retreat. “My roommate just came back from Vipassana” Alejandra said with the low intonation of someone who is revealing a secret, “she was glowing, happy and so serene.” I was immediately intrigued so I asked a million questions: What is Vipassana? What do you mean by being in complete silence? Didn’t your roommate go crazy? Alejandra said her roommate doesn’t talk about it, that there’s no way to describe it “to understand it, you have to do it.”
After graduating from college, I lived a nomadic life for a few years: moving cities, changing boyfriends, backpacking throughout Europe and Southeast Asia. It was an emotionally exhausting and exhilarating time. Eventually, roots started to develop: New York became my home, I had a stable and fun job and I fell in love with the man I thought to be “the one.” Two years into this, my “gypsy” self started to rebel. “She” had been settled for too long and demanded an escapade while my “homie” self was happy and didn’t want to compromise her perfect life. Breaking up or packing my bags wasn’t an option any more. To avoid an internal anarchy, I started looking for options that would satisfy all my different selves. The answer came to me quickly. Alejandra’s stories about the mysterious silent retreat had been hunting me for months.
I had never meditated in my life, but spending 10 days in silence seemed adventurous enough to get me out of my comfort zone and rekindle my life. Plus, I simply felt too curious to know what would I find in my head after being quiet for so long.
Half my friends thought I was brave, the other half (including my mom) thought I was crazy: Who, willingly, wants to put themselves into isolated “captivity”?
I said my goodbyes, as if I already new that the person coming back would be a different one, and took the bus from Port Authority, Manhattan en route to Shelburne, Massachusetts. I closed my eyes and tried to fight the scary thoughts that came to me every other minute: What if I can’t do it? What if the pain is too unbearable? (I had read too many blog posts about how physically painful Vipassana could be).
Upon arrival, I was asked to hand in most of my personal belongings such as books, phones, notebooks, etc. This only increased my excitement and nervousness.
The Vipassana schedule is very rigid, wake up is at 4am and students meditate for about 10 hours a day. There is very little guidance. Two teachers —one for women and one for men— are available to answer brief questions about the technique or side effects (i.e.: intense back or leg pain are common). At night there’s a one-hour video of S.N Goenka (the man who re-introduce into the world the ancient meditation technique practiced by Buddha). But the setup is for students to find most answers within them.
I knew my mind was cluttered by a constant flow of thoughts, but I’ve never paid attention to my thinking patterns. Now, I was forced to listen to my brain without any distractions.
If I would have taken a recording of my mind during the first couple of days, it would have sounded something like this—a fight between my “consciousness” and my “subconsciousness.”
What am I going to do for my birthday this year? It’s going to be impossible to find a table for 12 people. Veronica, don’t worry about that now. Relax and meditate. I can’t believe I didn’t make a reservation before I came, now I’m screwed. Veronica, stop it! There’s nothing you can do from here. Go back to focusing on your upper lip, you’ve already wasted 15min. Argh! It needs to be a fun place, but not too expensive or obnoxious. There’s nothing you can do now, you still have 8 more days. Stop thinking about it and concentrate. Ok, let me know focus on the breathing.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
At the beginning, the thoughts were the same, over and over again. I tried rigorously to persuade my mind to stop thinking, to focus on my breathing, to meditate. But no-no. It was impossible, my mind kept running.
Every time my brain produced a thought of myself not being able to find a restaurant, I felt slightly anxious, and every time I tried to get rid of that thought, the anxiety increased.
The first few days went by like that: a noise brain and an annoyed consciousness trying to quiet it down. But every night, Mr. Goenka would virtually ask his students to simply observe… observe the thoughts, observe the body. Without touching, without judging, without moving (you are not supposed to move while meditating, even if you are in discomfort or pain).
On day four something changed. For the first time, I was able to “observe my thoughts” without feeling any uncomfortable emotions. I was able to “observe:” my birthday is coming up and I don’t have a restaurant booked; but this time no sensations arise. No pressure in my chest, no emptiness in my belly. The thought was just that: a thought.
This probably is one of my biggest takeaways from the whole experience: what bothers me is the unpleasant sensations a thought can create in my body, NOT the thought itself.
Soon, I stopped thinking about my birthday altogether and my brain started to produced other random thoughts. But since I was becoming better at observing, I suddenly wasn’t interested in controlling, changing or attaching myself to a feeling or notion. I was just a spectator, noticing the marvelous journey that my mind and body where taking me into….
Each time I sat down to meditate —and we meditated in chucks of 1-2 hours— I waited eagerly to see which road my brain would take, and how deep to its center we would go to. On one occasion, I revisited a memory from when I was in high-school; my first kiss. The images came as if the experience just happened. It is difficult to describe... but it felt like the woman sitting in the meditation hall was my 14-year-old self. The memory was so vivid I could almost touch it.
In general, we can describe experiences, we can even describe sensations: we were making out in this kitchen, he embraced me and I felt my heart exploding etc., but I can’t actually feel the excitement down my spine or the taste of his lips in my mouth. I can only talk about it. Vipassana allowed me to re-experience some old memories and sensations. It was magical—I’ve found a gate to the past.
The Vipassana method is about body scanning. When practicing, students are supposed to scan each corner of their body and observe any sensations happening on that area: tickling, heat, pain, sweat, etc. There are millions of things happening to our body: air caressing our arms, blood moving through our veins, hair touching our shoulders. We are exposed to so much stimulation that it is impossible to feel the subtlest sensations. But imagine what you could feel if you paid close attention?
On the 9th day, we were asked to meditate 24/7. I chew and savored every mouthful of rice, every sip of water. I felt the floor on my feet during each step; I heard the birds tweeting, and the trees cracking. I truly lived in the moment 20 hours of my life (I was so calm and energized that I only needed 4 hours of sleep that night). At one point I wanted to take a shower and feel the water running through my body for the first time, but I couldn’t move. I was floating on my bed, feeling how each part of my body touched the mattress.
We are allowed to speak on the 10th day (we actually leave the center on day 11th and arrive on day 0, so it’s really a 12-days affair). I noticed how my words came out of my mouth very slowly. It took me longer to speak in English, everything was coming out in Spanish. I was also very thirsty. I’ve been breathing though my nose for 10 days, but as I opened my mouth I started breathing through my mouth (I was surprised to learn I did that).
I cried several times during the retreat, but on the last day I felt calm, free, strong and lighter. I felt joy.
Port authority welcomed me with noisy horns and a strong smell of dirt and sweet peanuts. I went over my experience and marveled and the amazing journey I had just been. How long the bliss would last, I did not care. I had learned how my mind works, how I can obsessively think about a topic over and over again and how those thoughts create unpleasant or joyful sensations on my body. I had learned to observe my thoughts and let go without controlling (at least from time to time).
Back in the city, I started thinking that truly living in the present is all consuming—we can’t do anything else if we just live in the present. We can’t plan, we can’t dream, we can’t remember. We become a sensation, pure energy. It’s a magnificent experience but, to me, an impossible way to live. Revisiting the past and the future give us comfort, it pushes and pulls us in the right direction, it inspires and teaches us. Vipassana taught me to carefully stand in the present while being able to peek at my past and my future without obsessing about it.
Today, a decade after I arrived to Shelburne, I’m still impressed at how much Vipassana changed my life. Although I cannot always separate thoughts from emotions, I am much more aware of the patterns of my brain. I sometimes obsess about what restaurant I should book for my birthday or how my colleagues are smarter than I am. But now, instead of fighting and trying to control the thoughts, I let the tape run, it never lasts too long… And when is over, I am also ready to move on.