They say silence is golden, but I can’t say I ever really understood why. Silence, while holding the potential to promote peace and calm, can be outright deafening. As an activist, a researcher and a writer, I have often viewed silence as complicity in the face of injustice, as the withholding of truth, or as a blatant refusal to adopt a position. I have long viewed my own recurring silence as a social weakness within otherwise dynamic conversation when everyone else seems to have something worthy to contribute. As a novice meditator, however, I have finally, slowly, come to view silence as a tool, a means of heightening ones ability to hear, see, feel, and perceive beyond the voice we thrust into the world and, most importantly, beyond the voices that storm within.
Silence was the name of the game throughout a recent meditative journey I undertook here in Thailand, one that made me reassess my entire relationship with my thoughts, speech and actions. Earlier this year I applied for and was admitted into a 10-day immersive vipassana meditation course in the tradition of the late, great S.N. Goenka. The course is one of the more common forms of what is colloquially referred to as a “silent meditation retreat,” although apart from the beautiful grounds of the Dhamma Kamala Vipassana Centre in central Thailand in which my course took place, I can say with confidence that there was hardly anything ‘retreat-like’ about it.
There are no real guidelines for determining when one is actually ready for such an undertaking. I had first heard of this meditation technique a few years prior and at the time, I was convinced that I would not get much out of it – my mind was “too all over the place”, I thought. At the turn of the new year, however, my mind had been offered a chance to calm down a bit through a few months of long overdue self-care, freedom from the confines of a desk job, and an extensive amount of travel through a region of the world where enormous golden statues of one particular man meditating are literally everywhere you look.
Throughout this period, my failed attempts at maintaining any sort of useful meditation practice with the use of apps and audio recordings led me to seek out opportunities to internalize my practice a bit more and reduce any reliance on outside assistance. After all, if, as the Buddha said, we are each responsible for our own liberation, then why should I be guided through every step of the path by the voices and chanting of others? My practice screamed out for structure, for discipline. And as anyone who has done vipassana can tell you, this is about as structured and disciplined as meditation gets (and comes with yet another voice and chanting that is sure to be chiseled into your brain for years to come).
I had done a fair amount of research before committing to what many would consider a rather drastic measure, as evidenced by the look of shock on everyone’s face when I told them what I was getting myself into. Vipassana – which means ‘to see things as they really are’ – was the meditation method reportedly used by Siddhartha Gautama himself as he sat down beneath the bodhi tree, determined not to move until he attained enlightenment. It seemed to work for him, and has since been passed down for over 2,500 years, and in the last century has spread to hundreds of meditation centers in every corner of the globe. It cuts across religious, cultural and national divides and invites students to take part in a means of true liberation, and all for free (the courses run off donations from students, who give what they can at the end of the ten days).
Vipassana challenges us to accept the current reality that we are in without any judgment, without any aversion, and without any cravings for the present moment to be any different than what it actually is. Having seemingly failed to improve my ability to accept the present moment through the “Acceptance Pack” on my Headspace app (no offense, Andy), I was hoping that vipassana would offer me a method that I could potentially use to ease the suffering concomitant with a life-long refusal to live in the present.
I had read that the purpose of these courses is to fully immerse in the vipassana method without any other variables in the equation to dilute its potential. This meant ten days of no speaking, no eye contact, no reading, no writing, no music, no yoga, no exercise, no drugs or alcohol, minimal food, and, oh yeah, about 12 hours of meditation per day. All of these guidelines are developed in order that students may approach their practice with morality/virtue (citta) by honoring the Five Precepts – to refrain from harming living beings, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from consuming intoxicants, and perhaps most interestingly for me, from speaking false truths, lying or gossiping. Honoring all of these precepts and guidelines offers students the ability to practice as though they are working in solitude, and fosters an environment in which one can develop right-concentration (samadhi) so that the mind may be purified of unwholesome states.
While I do not aspire to monkhood, nor even lay-Buddhism, I did take this as a challenge to detox and spent a few weeks leading up to the course refraining from consuming any intoxicants. I experimented with intermittent fasting, and I remained mindful of the speech I engaged in (assisted by the monk on whose farm I stayed and worked for a week prior, who regularly reminded us to “try not to talk too much…and don’t talk bullshit”). I played with silence in new ways, tried to make myself listen more, rather than always fumbling with words in an attempt to make unnecessary conversation.
While preparing, I still tried to refrain from forming too many expectations for the experience and went in with as open of a mind as I could muster. Anyone considering taking such a course should try to avoid internalizing any past students’ review of it (including my own) as the experience is highly subjective and will, without a doubt, not match any expectations one may have for it.
I did not permit myself to read reviews, blogs, or articles about people’s experiences beforehand (feel free to stop reading now, and come back to this once your own vipassana is behind you). I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I was open to the journey ahead…though nothing could quite prepare me for the journey within.
After a 12-hour overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, followed by a very wet and hectic morning in the city, yet another three hour bus, a miscalculated drop-off, a long hour of hitchhiking and walking the remainder of the way to the centre, I had arrived at Dhamma Kamala. My pilgrimage behind me, I met the volunteer assistant teachers who would address any issues should they arise, I handed over my phone, headphones, books, journals, pens, snacks and any other distractions to be locked away in a safe for the duration of my stay, and after a brief orientation, the assignment of our meditation cushions in the meditation hall, and a brief time for questions, the ‘noble silence’ officially began.
We began each day at 4 a.m., generally the first thing that any vipassana reviewer will lament (as did many in my course). There was something quite eerie about the sound of a bell ringing through the trees, the chilled darkness of night still hanging the air, and row after row of bedroom doors quietly opening, with a precession of white-clad men and women filing in perfect, orderly fashion towards the meditation hall and taking their seat at their assigned cushions. Cult imagery aside, the week was not one of blind faith and automated practice, but one of fierce determination, a determination that was essential to make it through 12 hours of seated meditation, infrequent light meals consumed in absolute silence, and nothing but our own minds to keep us company.
The first three days are simple, in theory. One begins with anapana breathing by focusing only on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nostrils, and soon narrows that focus to the small triangle just below the nostrils and above the upper lip. One simply observes the breath – whether it is deep or shallow, fast or slow, whether it enters the body through one nostril or both simultaneously, whether it leaves the body through one nostril or both simultaneously, whether it tickles the upper lip or flows gently over it. One merely observes, not making any judgement or labeling these sensations, and when thoughts arise, never allowing the mind to remain distracted for long before coming back to a focus on the breath. Through this process, one is meant to develop a finely tuned focus, or samadhi, a composite of three components of Gautama Buddha’s Eightfold Path: right concentration, right mindfulness, and right effort.
The simplicity of this introduction to the technique was the crux of the challenge. On a physical level, I consider myself to be a flexible person, and I assumed that sitting in lotus position would be the least of my worries throughout the week. I could not have been more wrong. My back ached, my thighs trembled to hold up my body, my shoulders tied knots in themselves as big as golf balls in a matter of hours. Years of apparently poor posture were fast catching up with me, and even my myriad combinations of two, four, and up to six small cushions propping up my butt and legs did little to ease my pain. I had expected the course to be a rigorous mental exercise, but was not prepared to feel so much physical pain. It felt like a kind of torture, but I knew, on some level at least, that this was exactly what the ego-mind wanted me to believe.
The actual vipassana approach itself began in earnest on Day 4, when students begin to observe sensations throughout the entire body, “from the top of the head to the tip of the toes, from the tip of the toes to the top of the head.” Again, this is merely a process of observation: observing any and all sensations that may crop up along the way as one scans from the head to the neck, arms, hands, chest, stomach, back, legs, feet, toes, and back up to the head once more. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, whether gross (easily noticeable) or subtle, all sensations are to be observed. Simple, right? Not quite.
Each sensation must not only be observed, but practitioners are challenged to completely accept each sensation for what it is, recognizing that no matter what the sensation, all are united by a common law of nature: they are all temporary. There is no sensation that is permanent, and each scan of the body reveals this. Each is slightly different, with pains in the back rising and subsiding, itches on the nose fading away when not tended to, pleasant tingling sensations suddenly disappearing with any subtle shift in concentration. Each must be viewed with absolute equanimity, or upekkhā. This process goes beyond mere intellectual understanding and allows us to engage with impermanence at an experiential level, in order to ultimately cultivate citta, or wisdom.
I must admit, I struggled through those first few days of posture, back pain, limbs falling asleep and mind running off to a million places per second. I never seriously considered leaving early, but I doubted my abilities to continue throughout a number of sittings. My primary motivation for starting down the path of meditation in the first place was an effort to quiet and calm my “monkey mind”, to keep it from running amok, and to prevent it from taking over my emotional well-being with obsessive focus on the past, the future, and the myriad perceptions of lack and limitation in the present. Once the vipassana technique began, along with three 1-hour sittings of “strong determination” per day wherein students are not allowed to move a muscle, the mind began to show its true colors, and proved a far more formidable foe than mere physical aches and pains.
It’s fascinating what the mind will do when all of our daily distractions are removed. I recounted entire film plots in my head, from start to finish. I had stretches of time where I imagined my entire body had solidified into an immovable mass of rock, where I could not convince myself with my eyes closed that my head was any less than 100 meters off the ground, where my mental conceptualization of my physical self morphed into a luminescent mess of jagged spikes and rolling hills of muscle that took up the entire meditation hall. I seem to recall reminiscing on every memory I have ever had in my life often reimagining memories to assess how life would be different if even the smallest moments had been different.
Even for someone who considers himself deeply in touch with both body and mind, my “mind-body” was behaving in ways completely unfamiliar to me. It felt like a psychedelic journey gone horribly wrong. Soon, my gross physical sensations began to give way to more subtle ones. First in the arms, then in the face, the feet, toes and parts of the legs. These were, admittedly, quite pleasant, which of course led me to crave their presence in my body rather than sensations of itching or aching, which of course is the very act of craving that the approach challenges us to avoid. I found the attempt to view with equanimity all the sensations the body had to offer to be virtually impossible at times, but with practice, it began to make sense. Through all the pain, through all the rules and guidelines, I soon felt that I was getting somewhere.
Many vipassana students find the strict discipline and enforced silence to be grueling. I agree the rigid structure was a challenge, but a welcomed one for me. Surprisingly, the highlight of my experience was the silence itself. Ten days free of conversation, small-talk and mindless chatter strengthened by self-maintained solitude afforded me the opportunity to quiet my mind more than I had ever been able to before. It also allowed me to cast my chronic social anxieties aside for a while and have the freedom to not interact with anyone but myself. The strict wake-up call and regular daily schedule forced me to sit and to focus, to cultivate concentration, and with time, to begin to acquire a sense of wisdom once I was able to tap into what I felt to be a wholly different realm of consciousness, one where consciousness itself was turned on itself and at times, ostensibly silenced altogether.
Through this silence, I recalled seemingly insignificant moments in my life where I realized I had generated aversions towards innumerable situations, people, places and ideas. I was transported into physical sensations that I had not felt since I was plagued with night terrors as a small boy. I was forced to confront my impatience, my anger, my depression, and my self-deprecation head-on. Most of all, I was forced to forgive. By the final meditation of the week, one that incorporated metta, or loving-kindness meditation, I was engaged in a fully immersive process of forgiving all those who had done me harm over the years.
I forgave former friends who had betrayed me, former lovers who had scarred me, former strangers who had intentionally or unintentionally chipped away at my self-worth. Even more transformational was my ability to finally perhaps the last of my lingering anger and resentment towards my father to a sort of rest, viewing him and his missteps with whole new level of compassion and understanding. To me, this alone was worth all the physical discomfort of the week.
Invigorated, I then worked to use this space of mindful forgiveness to the rest of the world, or at least the half of it that has, in my often less-than-nuanced view, been the cause of so much suffering that I see in my work every day. I pushed myself further to extend that very compassion and understanding to all men everywhere who have been socialized or otherwise pushed into lives of violence, of anger, of hate, of ignorance. I saw how much of my long-held lack of faith in the ability of men to adopt more gender-equitable attitudes stemmed from an inability to fully forgive the man that had put that worldview into my mind in the first place. I walked away from the course with a renewed sense of optimism for the world and a restored faith in my ability to use this compassion to better work with men and women, boys and girls in the fight against violence around the world.
On Day 10, following this transformational and very soothing metta meditation, I emerged from the meditation hall, seeing the world with new (albeit teary) eyes. That afternoon, the ‘noble silence’ was brought to an end and course participants were finally permitted to interact. All the background characters to my journey who I had only seen in passing through the week (and made up stories about in my easily-distracted mind) were now fully engaged in feverish conversation about their experience, elated to be able to speak to another human being again. I joined in to the extent that I could as we all exchanged our struggles, our moments of clarity, and which reptiles and bugs with which we distracted ourselves in desperation over the ten days when given the chance to walk around the compound.
What I found once the silence had come to an end was that I felt far more disappointed than relieved to re-enter the world of conversation. I had traveled deeply into my inner-self and unearthed dimensions of my being that I had never tapped into before. And here I was chatting with a group of men about bugs. Trying to articulate what I had just been through felt false, and yet the social pressures immediately returned to accurately convey in words the indescribable experience I had just gone through. Social anxieties crept back in, and I missed the silence as soon as it was gone.
So then, perhaps there is something to be said for silence. I have always been a rather quiet individual, usually lost in thought rather than contributing much to conversation whenever I find myself in groups. The word pensive has been used to describe me far more than I would like. Vipassana is intended to help us better understand how we relate to ourselves and others, and the silence therein truly allowed for reflection on this. However, I’ve found that since the vipassana, since basking in that 10 day silence, communication did not become easier, per se, but when I tune back into that inner-silence before speaking, I find a clarity that I was unable to tap into before. The challenge, of course, is tuning in to the silence, the stillness, and knowing how to incorporate that into one’s daily interactions. This is in addition to the ongoing challenge of finding my way to the cushion each morning to allow myself to sit with the silence that I may need more of in order to fully discover my own truth.
As fascinated as I am by Gautama Buddha’s teachings, I am not a Buddhist, nor do I aspire to be. Apart from simply not wanting to play a part in patriarchal religious institutions, I do not believe that a life spent meditating in hopes of attaining nirvana is a worthwhile use of my time on this Earth when there is so much injustice that I know I can actively fight while I am still a part of it. Lifting the world out of suffering, for me, means working together and taking action against it, not working on oneself in isolation.
However, vipassana did offer me my first glimpse at personal liberation, liberation in this lifetime. Liberation from anger, from resentment, from hatred, from fear. Off the mat, I have been better able to view the feelings and experiences in my life with equanimity, even with heightened clarity. For a while after the course, I actually found life refreshingly easier to deal with. I now had a tool that I can use at my own disposal to recognize suffering as it arises, in whatever form, understand that it will pass like everything else, and not attach to the more unpleasant side of life or crave that the pleasant bits stick around forever. This is a lifelong path, and like any good critically-minded student, I will continue to explore other methods before I make an informed decision about what really works for me, but I truly recognize the utility of dedicated practice in a way that I did not quite appreciate before.
As I write this, three full months since that 120+ hours of meditation at Dhamma Kamala, and roughly an hour a day of meditation since, I am filled with a similar range of challenges that I faced going into the course: unpredictable levels of self-confidence, stifling social anxieties, and a mind that still has the power to take control of my emotions and elevate my insecurities. Returning to Bangkok on “Day 11,” I recall observing with new eyes the ubiquity and detriment of power: power in the hands of the institutions that manipulate our fears, our self-doubts and our aversions to satisfy their own insatiable craving for accumulation. I observed millions of people all around me, swarming in a frenzy of consumption, convinced they need the material goods they see in order to be happy, each using the money for which they toiled to buy an image and lifestyle for themselves that conforms with the norms that have been handed down to them by broader social forces. I remember observing all of this, but for the first time, rather than judging, or craving to run away, I allowed myself to feel nothing but love and compassion for all that I saw – for all of us who have been socialized into a world to think that we are supposed to be, look like or talk like people we may have never wanted to be, look like or talk like in the first place.
The compassion I cultivated for those around me that day, and that which I extended to the perpetrators of violence, misogyny and sexism around the world, is more and more critical in our modern world, where those controlling the world’s lands, resources and information continue to try to separate us and make us fear each other with every new headline, every electoral campaign, and every stupid, hateful tweet. While they try to convince us we are all different, we must remember that we are all united by the same law of nature: we are all temporary beings in a temporary world. It is more important than ever before to view all those we perceive as different with compassion, with an open mind and a kind heart, and recognize how much we all really do have in common.
As a possible starting point in this realization, we must all find our own means of cultivating the silence necessary to turn inwards, to quiet our inner-critic, our socialized collective conscience that tells us we must conform to what the world wants us to be or we will never be happy, and recognize that true cessation from suffering comes from within. The work starts inside each of us, and while meditation is not the only path, it is one with profound potential to teach us to appreciate the unmitigated freedom of silence, the blissful peace that comes when we stop telling ourselves to be somebody else, and fully love and accept who we are, right now in this beautiful, messy, bewildering moment.