In the last few years I have met fascinating and inspiring people who have done a Vipassana (a 10 day silent meditation retreat) and I had the loose idea that I would attempt it myself one day. But it was definitely something on the safety of the horizon, something that would happen in the far off future. I loved the idea of embedding myself in a meditation but I was terrified by the prospect of being alone with my thoughts for 10 days, without speaking or even making eye contact with anyone (phone, books and pens are banned).
To add to my own fears, I had heard horror stories from friends. One friend told me how she had broken down and left after 4 days and had never felt the same again. Another had ran away on day 3 and driven around Blackpool at 3am singing to the radio at the top of his voice and waiting for his ‘captors’ to give him his phone back.
But an opportunity came up in the beginning of 2018 and I ran out of excuses not to do it. I had been living in Mozambique and had planned to stay there for three months but my plans changed unexpectedly. I found a Vipassana programme in South Africa and before I knew it I was heading south.
From what I read online, the retreat programme was strict, it required that we dressed conservatively and ate simple meals, with only fruit and tea for dinner. Women and men would be separated, with their own dining halls and accommodation areas. Each meditator would live in total isolation, no communication, not even eye contact, allowed.
I met up with a group of people joining the retreat at Cape Town airport and and shared the 2-hour taxi ride to the retreat centre; they were a completely mixed bunch: a young Dutch guy on sabbatical, a South African woman who worked as a consultant in Cape Town, an American couple that ran a safari in Zimbabwe. I must have looked helpless because a friendly South African woman took me under her wing and gave me survival tips to get me through the next 10 days.
So, with a sense of feeling a bit lost, I started the Vipassana. To my surprise I found I was enjoying myself. I liked waking up early and meditating for two hours before breakfast. And even though I couldn’t communicate with anyone, I felt a strong sense of care and support. For example, the food was cooked by volunteers who worked for free because they believed in the benefits of the meditation. These strange, kind people were peeling carrots because they cared about our peace of mind.
Our meditation retreat was right next to a wildlife reserve. One morning at breakfast I spotted rhinos grazing on the mountainside, the next day it was zebras and wildebeest – sometimes in the meditation hall you could hear lions roaring in the distance.
We had spent the first three days of the course (that’s about 30 hours of meditation) training our attention on our breath, we learnt how to feel the most subtle sensations, like the touch of breath on the skin inside our nostrils.
Then on day 4, we trained that acute awareness to the rest of the body. This technique, coupled with the act of sitting still for one hour without moving, was the heart of the practice. When you felt physical discomfort (as you inevitably would), you had to stop yourself reacting to the pain and learn to observe the sensations instead. The theory follows that we will be able to apply the method to the outside world and remain equanimous (or stable) in the vicissitudes of life.
In Sanskrit Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’, we were training ourselves to live without craving or avoiding experiences, simply to experience things as they really happen.
I found myself enjoying the challenge, even sitting on the floor for hours became palatable.
But then on day 5 I found a biro in the bottom of my wash bag and my resolve crumbled.
I was sorting through the few items I had when I found a pink Bic pen (NB - any form of writing material was strictly forbidden). At first I was exhilarated at the chance to write, I tore open a paracetamol packet and started making notes, when the gong sounded for afternoon meditation I was flush with excitement, I hid the pen back in the washbag and scurried to the meditation hall.
Once I was seated my brain went into overload, I couldn’t let go of this problem, that problem, that one thing I need to arrange, that email that had surely arrived while I was in isolation. My mind would not let go of these plans for the future and my meditation was obliterated.
At one mealtime, I caught myself staring longingly at an electrical socket, wishing that I had something to charge, wishing I could re-engage with the world. When no-one was looking I held my mug to my ear like a pretend phone.
The rest of the day’s meditation sessions were futile, there was no way I was going to redirect myself back to the fizzing feeling in my toes, my mind was on the run. I even spent an hour worrying about why my sister hadn’t used a gift voucher I had given her 2 years ago.
But I couldn’t just hold my breath for 5 days when I could finally do all of the things I was so preoccupied with (like give my sister a talking-to for wasting my gift voucher). I was forced to fight the desire to live in the future (I will be happy when X or Y happens). I had to surrender and learn to live in the present moment.
And I did eventually manage to wrestle my mind back to that hard cement floor and continue my practice, but there still remained a bit of an obsession with a better time than now – that’s something I’ll always be working on.
I’m sure other people in that meditation hall had more profound experiences than me. It turned out that the lady who took me under her wing was on her 17th Vipassana course – that’s nearly 6 months in solitary!
But all journeys are different, one of the purposes of our noble silence was to prevent us from comparing our experiences. If the only great realization I had in 10 days is that I have a tendency to live in the future, then that’s still the greatest realization in my Vipassana history and something to be proud of!