Last year I spent 10 solid days in silence. I didn’t have a phone, Netflix, music, books, yoga mat, pen or paper. Nothing! You can imagine that I learnt a lot from the experience. I choosing to write about this now, so many months later, as these life lessons have stuck with me!
The 10 day course was a Vipassana Meditation retreat in Hertfordshire, UK. The course is run in centres across the world and is dedicated to the teachings of the Burmese-Indian teacher, S.N. Goenka. In every centre the same methodical system of meditation techniques are taught. The first three days consist of focusing on the breath at the tip of your nose, during the later days you move on to repeating a body scan and the final days are spent isolating sensations on individual parts of the body. The idea is that through observation of your body and mind in the present moment you see reality as it really is, not how you wish it to be. Vipassana is actually an ancient pali word meaning ‘the right way to see’.
I signed up to the course on a rather reckless spark of curiosity! What I had actually decided to do didn’t really sink in until I arrived at the centre; an isolated complex of buildings in the heart of the British countryside. That evening I handed over my phone and signed a declaration agreeing to the terms and conditions. These included absolute silence from that night until 10 days later, no external stimulation (technology, reading and writing material, exercise, music, alcohol), separation of men and women and strict adherence to the daily course structure. It then hit me what I had signed up for!
‘Each day involved rising at 4am followed by 10 ½ hours of meditation…’
Each day involved rising at 4am followed by over 10 ½ hours of meditation. The sittings were broken up by a light vegetarian breakfast, lunch and an afternoon break. Apart from some fruit during this last break we didn’t eat from 11.30am until breakfast the next day. During these breaks we had access to a small field. Walking here was the only exercise permitted and I came to love the frosty mornings wandering around in it, despite walking the same circle a million times.
The 10 days were of course a massive personal challenge and many peoples idea of torture. Indeed the pain that came from sitting cross-legged for hours on end might have been the hardest part. What I discovered from these days of sitting alone in silence made it all worth it though and I have to say I’d do it again.
‘Rather than converting people from one organised religion to another organized religion, we should try to convert people from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation and from cruelty to compassion.’ S.N. Goenka
10 Lessons from 10 days of Silence (there are a lot more!)
- This too shall pass… change is the only thing guaranteed in this world. Bodily sensations rise and fall away as does everything else. Attachment to an object, situation, person, experience or emotion (even happiness!) can only result in a certain extent of suffering that comes from its passing. Enjoying something for how it is in that moment and then having the ability to let it go can be liberating and empowering. It can be a challenge to put this into practice in our lives, but even the awareness of this has helped me endure life’s hurdles with a lot more strength!
- The importance of learning to be with yourself and love it! It may be an obvious lesson but the reality of being with only myself all day every day, made me acutely aware that I am born, live and die alone so I better be happy with who I am and the contents of my mind. Learning this lesson in practice, rather than theoretically, is empowering. If your contentment and inner-joy does not rely on anything or anyone else then you are truly FREE.
- The value in stillness. Having so much space and silence enabled me to go back into the world with fresh eyes and a renewed attitude. Without stillness in my busy life and mind I find I am often just running and reacting. Stillness (meditation, mindfulness, reflection or contemplation) helps me to gain perspective, make choices that are based on my own truth and choose my actions with more consideration. I’m just a better person!
- The power of habitual thought patterns. Observing my thoughts made be INCREDIBLY aware of past thought processes that no longer served me but still had power over my actions!
- The beauty in the little things. A simple, more mindful life made me appreciate a sunset, a sharp frost or the crispy leaves in winter with such intense feeling! I still always find that it is the little things that bring me the most joy in life.
- Slow down. Slowing down and living more mindfully brought so much more meaning to my everyday actions. The process of really savouring my food for instance made my meals so much more satisfying. I try to remind myself regularly to slow down and enjoy!
- Complaining, stressing and impatience only ever hurts myself and never helps the situation. Again maybe an obvious lesson but really experiencing it in practice made me internalise it so much more. Despite being in pain from so much sitting, having my willpower and patience extremely tested and often wishing Day 10 would come right NOW, I chose to settle into a state of acceptance. I realised that negative thinking was only causing me suffering. Settling into the present moment and just letting each moment, hour and day be brought such a relief. We have one, short shot at living in this world – why ever wish it away!
- ‘We are the sum total of our experiences’ (Thomas Gilovich). After a few days my everyday routine, interests and influences felt like a distant memory. With everything I knew stripped away I had space to observe myself. It made me very aware that my values, beliefs and interests are largely comprised of my past experiences; they make me who I am. With this understanding I realised that I have the power to be whoever I choose to be. I am completely responsible for the quality of my thoughts right now, I can let go of old ideas and I should choose with extreme discernment which belief systems I go on to internalise. This leaves me free to choose my own future and create the life I want!
- I am so much more than just my thoughts. Aligning myself with the present moment, being grateful for the little joys and cultivating a positive mind-set made me realise just how much I could contribute to our world, if I just got out of my own head!
- Equanimity, equanimity, equanimity! The power of a balanced, even mind can bring so much freedom. I realised that I do not need to react to bodily sensations, whether painful or pleasant, but could just observe them. This translated to my thoughts, feelings and day-to-day external events. I became aware of how I could attach to a sensation, how I often labeled a feeling, emotion, thought or experience as good or bad, happy or sad, exciting or dull….. It is a a quality that takes continued practice but I still try hard to practice non-attachment and let go of the labels that I create. This frees me from self-harming habitual thought patterns, makes me more receptive to new possibilities and I am grateful for the moment as it really is.
So all in all, those hours of sitting in silence were really worth it!!
‘Detachment is not that you should own nothing…. but that nothing should own you’ – Ali Ibn Abi Thalib