Ten Days Of Silence: My Vipassana Experience

My Vipassana Experience: Ten Days of Silence

Signing up for the Vipassana retreat was a very spur of the moment decision. I had never really considered doing anything like this before and knew very little about it, other than the fact that you had to remain silent for ten days and meditate. Within minutes of the retreat crossing my mind, I signed up for a course. In the three days leading up to my departure for the Vipassana retreat, I grew increasingly anxious. I was nervous and uncertain of what to expect. I was afraid that sitting and meditating ten hours a day for ten days would go by incredibly slowly, afraid that traumatic memories from the past might get brought up to the surface during this time and that I'd feel alone and isolated with them, unable to talk to anyone, and afraid that I would physically be unable to sit for that long. At the time I signed up, I'd been experiencing a significant amount of anxiety. It was having a very destructive effect on myself as well as my relationship. I'm a survivor of domestic violence. Some of you already know this, and some of you may not have. While I no longer suffer from flashbacks, the nightmares, and intrusive thoughts, post traumatic stress stemming from this experience has continued to have an effect on me, specifically within my current relationship. Conflict, big or small, often leaves me with a racing heart, crying, shaky and very reactive. It is like having a built in panic switch and once it gets flipped, it feels nearly impossible to shut off. This is a very frustrating and disempowering feeling and happens more often than I'd like to admit (Thank you Evan for learning to handle this with patience and understanding :-). When I signed up for the Vipassana retreat, I wasn't really sure how it would help. I just felt very drawn to doing it. The website explained that Vipassana meditation is 'a technique to purify the mind, remove the roots of misery and eradicate suffering'. I thought it was worth giving it a try.

I felt some relief after arriving at the center. It was in a beautiful location out in the country. There were fields with walking trails surrounded by trees and forest, over the tops of which you could see Mt Rainier. We all met in the dining hall to sign in. There were probably about 35 women (equal number of men though men and women were segregated). There was a feeling of excitement and nervousness as everyone milled about chatting, knowing that in a couple of hours we would take the vow of silence and not be able to communicate with each other for the next ten days. I shared a room with a woman named Liza who rode her mountain bike there from Portland. We didn't have a chance to talk much before taking the vow of silence and it felt very strange to be living with someone who I knew nothing about and couldn't talk to. We had a curtain that divided our room so we had a little privacy but we forgot to talk about things like a shower schedule and what temperature we'd each be comfortable with in our room; things that would have been nice to know before being unable to talk. We were discouraged from even making eye contact so gestures or hand signs were definitely off limits. The silence wasn't as difficult as I though it would be. It was the lack of eye contact that was difficult. I am so used to smiling or nodding at people to acknowledge them when they walk by and it felt very unfriendly to walk around with the same people day after day, observing them and feeling curious about their lives but not able to even give a smile. The purpose behind this was to have us work in isolation. Despite the lack of communication, there was still a feeling of support, knowing that we were all sharing this experience.

The first couple days were very difficult. The wake up bell was rung at 4 am every morning. Surprisingly, this was not as difficult for me as I had anticipated. I was in the meditation hall each morning by 4:30. The first couple of days we were asked to sit and observe our natural respiration. Nothing else. No mantras or visualization. Just observation of our breathing. This was much more difficult than I'd anticipated. I discovered that I had this vivid imagination that I had no idea my adult mind was capable of. It was like having a slide show behind my eyelids; with images of all kinds of random things; people, fantastical landscapes, spiders, disturbing and scary images, monstrous creatures, kaleidoscope and mandala-like geometric shapes and patterns, bright flashes of colors, Simon and Garfunkel songs and constant, endless chatter. My amazement wore off quickly. It was so difficult to meditate with all this mental static! I began to wonder how I'd ever formulated a single rational thought in my life with all of this unconscious garbage in the background. My mind was like an unruly, stubborn child that I was constantly battling with to keep focused. It was exhausting. Every noise in the meditation hall distracted me and I would feel very annoyed every time I heard a cough, sneeze, stomach gurgling and people shifting on their cushions to get more comfortable (eventually I was able to tune this out). At the end of the second day, as I was attempting to meditate, I had this sudden mental image of all the stuff I'd been visualizing being stuffed in a drawer and slammed shut. And then all the noise stopped and the silence I experienced was unlike anything I'd ever felt. I felt this overwhelming sense of serenity and calm wash over me and the relief I felt was so great it brought tears to my eyes. I'd overcome the first hurdle. This came and went the second and third day but got easier and easier as time went on. Surprisingly, time went by much faster than I'd expected. During meditation, I was so focused that before I knew it, lunch time would roll around and we'd have a couple of hours to take a nap, go for walks, sit outside and watch the deer. There was a group of deer and fawns that would walk around, unafraid of us. Sometimes they would do funny things like stand on their hind legs to pull leaves and branches off of the fruit trees and we would all crowd around the window giggling like a bunch of little girls. It made me ridiculously happy to hear after not hearing any one's voice for so long. We weren't supposed to exercise due to lack of facilities so I'd work out in my room on the sly but I was worried my roommate would hear heavy breathing and wonder what I was doing so I had to use any opportunity I had when she wasn't around to get in some work out time. I felt in desperate need of some physical activity after doing ten hours of sitting each day. Every night before bed we would watch an hour-long discourse where Goenka would tell us about why we had been learning the technique we'd practiced that day, common experiences of students on each day, and what we would be practicing the next day. He was a great story teller and I was relieved to discover he had quite a sense of humor. It was refreshing to hear laughter after working in such a solemn atmosphere day after day and I really grew to look forward the evening discourses. It almost felt like an evening slumber party with every one crowded around to watch the video, wrapped in blankets and perched atop their meditation cushions. The mix of Buddhism and psychology was intriguing and made so much sense. It is something I want to continue learning more about. One mistake I made on the first day was breaking the first precept. (There were five precepts- to not kill any living thing, abstain from stealing, sexual activity, telling lies and abstain from intoxicants. A spider climbed across my arm and instinctively I smacked it-and instantly felt guilty. And I kid you not, images of spiders plagued me for days after that during my dreams and meditation.

The third day, we had to narrow our focus to feeling the sensation of our breath on the outsides of our nostrils and the area beneath the nostrils above the upper lip. At first I felt nothing but soon I began to feel tiny sensations as I breathed. For a day and a half we practiced this until we'd sharpened our minds enough to feel even the slightest breath. Midway through the fourth day we were ready to begin Vipassana. From that day on, we had to sit for an hour without moving three times a day. I had the craziest urge to do cartwheels out of the meditation hall after my first hour of this. With our now finely tuned awareness of our sensations, we had to begin scanning our entire body piece by piece starting from the top of the head down. We practiced this for ten hours a day every day through the rest of the retreat. The fifth day was the most difficult for me. It was the day we learned to observe our misery. Much like the experience of discovering how much mental garbage I had going on when I had to sit with it in the beginning, I now realized how much pain was in my body when I focused on it with my sharpened senses. We were beginning to learn how to stop reacting to feelings of craving and aversion-the roots of misery, to change the thought patterns of our minds (As Goenka described it). The idea is that when you experience this on a physical level, it carries over to the mental level as well. It was described as 'eradicating the roots of impurities in the mind'. With every sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, we had to remain equanamous and not react (yes, that includes the annoying itch on your nostril you can't scratch and sitting on your feet for an hour while they've gone to sleep). Eventually, a time came where all the pain just disappeared and I was suddenly able to feel these 'subtle' sensations all over my body. It felt like small currents of electricity, as though my body was no longer this solid object; I felt weightless and also wonderfully serene, resilient, pure, and peaceful. It was as though all these layers had been pulled back to reveal this core part of myself that I'd never known existed, like it had been laying dormant all this time waiting to be revealed. I suddenly realized that it must be like this for every one; we all have this part but it is buried so deep inside that one could easily go their entire life without discovering it. There are just so many layers built up on top that this becomes hidden to the self and others. As soon as I realized this, I suddenly got this feeling of compassion for anyone I have felt hurt by in the past. Even really big things that I never thought I would be able to let go of. I know now that it was never that person's true self or intention for me to experience such long-lasting pain. It was a very emotional discovery and is really impossible to put into words. I don't feel that I can adequately describe what a profound moment this was for me and the sense of relief I felt. I've cried a lot in the past few years; tears of anger, self inflicted guilt, frustration, and hurt, and I cried a lot on this day as well but this time they were tears of gratitude, happiness, relief, healing, and letting go of the past. It was a heavy burden that I hadn't even realized I was packing all this time. From that day on, as I got more and more in touch with the sensations and energy in my body, pain would come and go, just as the pleasant sensations would come and go. I got used to it. I learned not to yearn for the pain to go away because that craving/aversion only brought more misery. When I learned to really let go, it got much easier and I was able to observe all the sensations with equanimity and know that things change and that is the nature of every thing. I was able to let go of a lot of fears I've held about making changes in my life. I've been struggling with wanting to make some big changes but being fearful, always seeing what might go wrong. Now I've started seeing opportunities and options instead of barriers and closed doors. I came to peace with knowing I'm going to have some difficult decisions to make and risks to take, and that in the long run, everything will be alright. Nothing is permanent. I have a sense of security in this that had been lacking previously.

I did have some other interesting experiences. My dreams the first few nights were very scary and nightmarish. Then two nights in a row I had dreams that started as nightmares but ended with me overcoming the thing I was afraid of and my last couple of nights I had good dreams. It coincided with my mental state during this time. The beginning was very difficult but I worked through a lot and overcame some major obstacles in the following days. The other weird thing that happened was that I got so tuned in to my senses that by the third day I had trouble eating.This lasted the majority of the course. The food was wonderful but the smell and taste were so overwhelming that I felt nauseous and sick. I had to force myself to eat most of my meals for a few days. My heart beat also became very distracting at night and I had a very difficult time sleeping.

On the tenth day, at 10 am, the vow of silence was over and we were free to talk with each other outside the meditation hall. It was such a strange experience at first. There was a lot of giggling and it felt strange to talk after being so silent for so long. We ate lunch together and the sound of conversation and laughter left me feeling so happy (oh yes, and the food was AMAZING-all organic, made from scratch, vegetarian food). It had been difficult to get used to eating in silence, the only noises being those of silverware clinking on plates, chewing of food, sipping of tea and the movement of chairs. Eating has always been a very social activity for me and this environment had felt very unfriendly. Now we were all able to mingle and introduce ourselves, talk about our experiences of the past ten days and get to know about each other. The atmosphere had completely changed and there was a lot of smiling, giggling and laughter. I met some really amazing women that I plan on keeping in touch with. It's funny, the closeness I felt with these women despite not speaking to each other for so much time. I also plan to continue meditating daily because even though this experience has led to some very profound moments and experiences for me, I know that it will take effort to maintain and see long term results and benefits from meditation. I'm also going to continue the vegetarian diet. I feel very healthy and lighter after eating vegetarian meals for ten days and it is something I'd been wanting to do for some time but hadn't really made the effort in the past. We all left on the morning of the eleventh day and I came home feeling much more peaceful, unburdened, resilient, fearless, and immensely happy. I can't really express the gratitude I feel for being lucky enough to have stumbled upon this experience. It is definitely something I plan to do again.
Lirpas84 Lirpas84
2 Responses May 23, 2012

Thank you for sharing your story, Lirpas84:)
It is so beautifully written, and in some places it gave me goosebamps:)
I read it only now, because i'm also interested in vipassana meditation. I have been reading books from Eckhart Tolle and while having conversation with my friend about the present moment, he told me about vipassana. I read a book about it and i feel it's something i want to have a go at. I meditate, but always on my own. Today, I booked 10 day course of vipassana, here in UK.
Thank you again for sharing your story and I'm happy it worked for you.
Also i wonder how you feel now about it, 2 years after this experience?


Thanks for sharing that! I just looked into Vipanassa and read about the 10 day retreat. I have kids at home, so I don't think I can disconnect for that long but I would love to do it one day.