Have you ever experienced complete silence?
A state of ‘zero-noise’: no distracting sounds, no disturbing thoughts and,
most importantly, no ticking time. Total peace. Does it exist?
Five weeks ago I left my southern comfort
zone and travelled to a small village north of Barcelona to do a Vipassana course – a 10-day silent retreat. Vipassana is a very old meditation technique
from India. It’s the same technique that was used and taught by Siddharta
Gautama, also known as the Buddha. Given that I am the author of The Little Buddha, I felt kind of obliged to give it a try.
The centre, Dhamma Neru, was a bit of a
mixture between a rural yoga studio, a friendly monastery and an alternative
prison. There were 60 participants, 30 men and 30 women, strictly segregated.
Put simply, you were allowed to bring only one thing: your self! No books, no
music, not even pen and paper. Phones had to be handed in at registration. No drugs, no talking, no physical contact – no nothing! All external stimuli were removed so
that you could focus on what’s inside.
The timetable: Wake-up gong at 4am, meditation
until 6.30am, breakfast, shower break, then more meditation til 11am, lunch,
rest. 1pm back to meditating, once in a while a 5min break to stretch and walk
in the garden, 5pm dinner (= 2 pieces of fruit and a tea). 6pm – guess what? –
more meditation, at 7pm a lecture, followed by another session of quiet sitting
and then at 9.30pm bedtime. Like this for 10 days. Did I mention that I don’t
like rules and routine?
How did it go? At first I found everything
BUT silence. For four days I had computer screens and email layouts running
through my head, I just couldn’t switch them off! It’s actually quite scary how
we get hooked on being constantly connected. There were a million thoughts and
questions and doubts, a storm raging outside and the guy sleeping in the
bunk bed underneath me was snoring so badly that my whole mattress was
vibrating. But even worse than these noisy distractions was the pain of my
legs: after two days I thought I might have to get them amputated once I’d
finish this adventure. Before the course I was meditating once a week for 15
minutes, now I was sitting cross-legged for over 10 hours – each day! It was so
painful that, to me, Buddha lost his loving kindness and turned into a nasty SM
practitioner… There was a lot of tension and frustration, my mind was like a
wild animal – it didn’t want to be tamed!
The basic law in Vipassana is called
ANICCA. It’s the law of impermanence – nothing ever stays the same, everything
is changing constantly. And this is exactly what happened: slowly but surely,
the pain went away. Then it came back, went again, came, went, and so on. The
same thing happens with all other sensations and emotions, they come and go.
During the 10 days you learn to observe this constant change and to look at it
with an equanimous mind. And so equanimity, a word I didn’t even know before,
became the most important mission of the course: to create neither desire nor
aversion, to abstain from reacting. Whether it’s pain or ecstasy, it’s neither
good nor bad. It just IS.
After five days, everything started to slow
down. Walking, eating, breathing, thinking, it all happened more peacefully.
Hurry was replaced with patience. Each hour and each moment became longer, and
suddenly there was time for things we usually don’t have time for. Like washing
clothes by hand or observing a small flower for minutes on end; following birds
through the sky and watching clouds roll by; listening to the sound of silence;
doing nothing. On the morning of day eight, even the clock in the bathroom
stopped ticking. Past and future had become non-existent, eradicated by the
strongest drug there is: the human mind.
Some of the timeless moments made me feel
severely anxious, others put a happy smile on my face. The whole time in Dhamma
Neru was a big challenge – physically, mentally and emotionally. It was painful
and peaceful at once, beautiful, crazy, humble and intense.
Before starting the course I thought that the silence shouldn't be a problem, I was actually looking forward to shutting up for 10 days. I was mainly worried about having to sit for such a long time. And yes, the sitting proved to be rather painful, but with practice the pain lost its power and intensity. What I had totally underestimated though was the difficulty of not being able to speak. The silence itself wasn't even the problem, it was the fact that a bunch of people were sharing a relatively small space, all having intense experiences, and nobody could express them! During the second half of the course, on several occasions I could see how people were struggling to not lose the plot, me included. There was a moment
when I thought I couldn’t handle it any more and I almost left. Then I
remembered the words of a friend, ‘if you think you can’t continue, you still
can go three times further’. So somehow, I stayed. And I am very glad that I
On day ten the silence was broken and we
spent the day talking – a lot! I hadn’t laughed so much in a very long time, it
was blissful and worth all the hardships of the previous nine days. The most
beautiful part was that, even though none of us had ever talked to each other,
immediately there was a feeling of familiarity. Having shared this very unusual
experience in the same space, it didn’t take many words to make new friends.
Many people had similar stories to tell,
but ultimately everyone had a very personal journey throughout the ten days.
There was one guy who seemed pretty indifferent to the whole experience, saying
it had been a bit painful at the beginning but otherwise nothing noteworthy
happened. To contrast this, when I came into the garden after breakfast early
on day nine, there was this crazy dude hanging horizontally in a tree,
singing (illegally)... In between these two extremes, pretty much everything happened.
Now, not everything about the course was
perfect. Personally I found some of the rules too rigid and there were a few people who I couldn’t relate to. But most things I really liked, or at least
they made sense. I’d even say that the general setup is quite pure. I love the
fact that the course has been kept free from any commercial interests –
students are not charged anything! The administration staff, kitchen, cleaning
and maintenance staff, even the teachers, they all work on a voluntary basis.
Donations of money and/or time are welcome and encouraged, but there’s no
obligation. Furthermore, Vipassana is a technique which is free of any mantra
or ritual, and although it has its roots in Buddhism, it’s not limited to any
religion. There’s no God to be worshipped, no Guru to be followed. It’s just
you, your body and your mind.
Vipassana literally means ‘to see the
things the way they really are’. It’s an ‘Art of Living’, with the aim of
reducing suffering and increasing happiness. Less Ego, more Love. Getting rid
of judgement and expectations and accepting life as it is. Sounds great, doesn't it? As so often, it is easier said than done...
It’s important to remember that doing a
Vipassana course is not a pleasant trip on a cruise liner. While I think that
most people would greatly benefit from it, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to
everyone. It requires courage to show up and a willingness to work very hard on yourself. Like a sailor searching for a peaceful island, you’re
bound to come across heavy storms, and not every storm is fun. Anger, fear,
grief, greed, hatred – we all carry ugly stuff inside that wants to come out.
As Mr Goenka, the principal teacher of Vipassana, says: ‘You undergo deep mental
surgery’. That’s pretty accurate.
The result of the surgery? A purified mind.
Well, obviously ten days won’t turn you into a saint, but you definitely get a
proper mental spring cleansing. Healing some wounds, getting rid of old
conditioning that serves absolutely no purpose, and of course: feeling more at
peace! Plus, you’re being given a great tool for daily life – you just have to
Since I got back from the course, three weeks
have passed. I've managed to keep meditating every morning for an hour, and
sometimes a little bit in the afternoon too. What has changed?
My mind is still a wild animal, but occasionally it smiles now ;-). I tend to worry less –
whether it’s about money, little pains or unfulfilled dreams. I seem to be
observing more and reacting less. There’s more compassion and when I get angry
the anger disappears relatively quickly. I’m living and thinking more
healthily, although there’s still lots of room for improvement. But hey, small
steps are steps too.
Finally: have I found silence? Some, yes. But I
think the problem of ‘finding’ lies with ‘searching’. Because as long as you
search, there’s effort, and if there’s effort, there’s struggle. Struggle causes
tension, and tension prevents you from being truly receptive. The problem: if
you’re not open to receive, you won’t find. So, the bottom line is this:
Silence, like all other real treasures, cannot be found. It comes to you – once
you let go…
Bhavatu sabba mangalam – May all beings
For those who are intrigued: