Meditation practice is found at the heart of ancient Indian culture and is now being openly adopted in popular culture to help achieve a sense of calm and wellbeing. The last decade has seen a rise in the meditation movement with various forms of meditation gaining active interest in western culture. From transcendental, and mantra meditation to visualisation and focused meditation, there was one form of stillness which had caught my curiosity; Vipassana. I’d heard it was an experience similar to a cross between an episode of Star Wars where Yoda trains Luke Skywalker in a forest to be a Jedi master and an episode from the TV series ‘I’m a Celebrity get me out of here!’.
Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient forms of meditation and is like no other. Adopted by the Burmese it is now popularly associated with Buddhism practices. The concept being, through 10 days of noble silence and non-association with external factors you can create awareness of your deep consciousness. When practised continuously, this meditation teaches how to identity and help exercise control over behaviours, and has been known to break habits which no longer serve us…breaking the bad. The benefits include decreased levels of stress and anxiety, improved concentration and mental clarity, increased energy and improved relationships through greater balance when facing challenges.
This type of meditation has been describes as life-changing. It’s mentally ruthless and unforgiving, designed to push you close to your mental limits. These are the rules; 17 hours of non-stop meditation, no speaking, body gestures, eye contact, association with the opposite sex, no use of phone, writing material and zero contact with the outside world. Imagine if you’ve crashed landed a plane on a desert island with minimal food and shelter and are not able to communicate with your fellow surviving passengers…this is Vipassana. Despite this extreme and bizarre sounding environment, this practise is deemed an effective gateway to purity of mind, inner peace and boundless compassion. When I read about it, It sounded like torture on a mental and physical level, I was curious to know how far my spiritual agility could endure this challenge. So of course I signed up!
Based in the middle of an isolated mountain woodland, each day began with a 4am alarm sounding a gong. This gong was the only sound to notify of meal times, meditation breaks and sleeping; the only 3 things your life is immersed in over 10 days. The meditation practise takes place in a communal hall. There’s no chance of a sneaky roam around to see who else was on this journey of self enlightenment as there are teachers quick to correct you with a stern reprimand of observing the vipassana rules. An allocated meditation space was regimentally organised with mats, and a single pillow, the only luxury item being considered was a small wooden stool to help you keep upright during repetitive hours of self reflection. Fellow participants switched on individual architectural flair, building their small meditation space with mat upon mat in an attempt to ease comfort until the end result resembled something out of the ‘princess and the pea’ fairy tale.
Each day consisted of 17 hours meditation with breakfast, lunch and short breaks. Breakfast was served a few after hours after waking, with lunch being the last meal of the day at 11am, yes 11 in the morning!. The only food morsel consumed after this time would be a choice between a delicious pink lady apple or kiwi fruit and a green tea between a meditation break. Never have I appreciated a piece of fruit so much as I did during these 10 days. The only sound in the kitchen halls were the clanging of cutlery against bowls by fellow meditators shuffling their way around the kitchen space, which after a few days became synonymous to a psychiatric ward during peak lunchtime hour. The meals were raw vegan with zero trace of salt, sugar, ginger, garlic and after many days what seems like no taste either. I reminded myself I wasn’t there for a Michelin star plant based restaurant dining experience but to focus on pure enlightenment even though I didn’t know fasting was thrown in for good measure.
After 3 days into meditation. it was announced Vipassana was about to start. This baffled me somewhat as I wondered ‘what have we been doing for the last 3 days!?’ I soon realised having little distraction of all stimuli including taste, the mind is then more readily set to take on the actual Vipassana practise. Prior to this, the practice was preparing your body and mind for this gruelling next phase. Every night there was a video presentation of the founder of the mediation practise and like a caring, understanding, older, wise Indian uncle, he would take you through what you probably were experiencing and what you can prepare yourself for the next day. Also after the third day, Vipassana takes a higher form and requires you to remain catatonic and maintain your mediation posture with zero movement for each session. Whether it’s the physical strain to hold postures with complete stillness for hours on end, or the mental challenge of silencing the mind, this was not for the faint-hearted. Just like a trial on the TV series ‘Survivor’ where contestants drop off one by one leaving one last person standing, sure enough, after the first 5 days the numbers in the group lowered as participants fell until the original group was halved in size.
This was an emotional rollercoaster ride like no other. It’s a practise of choice-less observation, where your mind takes you, is beyond your control. This may be memories which bring feelings of nostalgia or could be fragments of your past left dormant which bear an ugly truth. Either way, the purpose of Vipassana is to teach you techniques of how to identify triggers for your own behaviour and bad habits. When these challenges arose, moments of silencing the mind were called upon and attained, which felt like small victories. After 10 days of observing noble silence the last gong rang and I was free to break the spell of silent sound. After silencing the mind and living a very basic existence there was no rush to revert back to old habits with vices I’ve relied on.
In todays modern world where unavoidable distractions of daily work schedules, social connections and pressures, both external and internal are ever present, do we have the rare opportunity to close off from the outside world and only take focus on the mind. We take on fitness activity to train the body but where do we go to train our mind? After all is it not also a muscle? The Indian meditation practise of Vipassana offers the permission and environment to allow this workout to be created and reach a sense of equanimity. You may not become a Jedi ninja warrior being able to master force mind manipulation but you’ll certainly be less likely to respond to others with a version resembling Dr Banner mutating into ‘The Incredible Hulk’.
I hadn’t come into the experience to specifically develop new habits but new behaviour patterns have since, certainly emerged and I’m existing in a different manner. My body is healthier, my mind is calmer and my spirit is soaring that little bit higher. Perhaps silence really is, golden.