Recently I completed a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat in Sri Lanka based on the teachings of S.N. Goenka. Strangely enough for some, this has been a goal of mine for a long time!
After arriving at the centre we all gave in our mobile phones and that was the end of our connection to the outside world for our time there.
Every morning we were woken at 4am and then there were 10 hours of sitting meditation throughout the day, interspersed with time for meals, rest and watching videos of Goenkas' talks as he is not alive now. Silence was adhered to at all times apart from short discussions with our teacher and the odd communication to and from the staff.
The food at lunch was delicious, all vegetarian curries with rice but curry for breakfast was sometimes a little difficult to face for a Westerner! The accommodation was very basic but actually it is amazing how quickly you get used to sleeping on a metal bed with wooden slats and a foam mattress on top. And the cold showers were very invigorating!
The retreat centre is located just outside the ancient city of Anuradhapura which is famous for its Buddhist temples. It was based in its own beautiful grounds and as with most places there, abundant with nature. Sri Lanka is a very wonderful island and during my travels I was fortunate enough to see wild leopards, many types of birds, and temples at the top of mountains, along with a people full of laughter and beauty. So it was very enjoyable to spend the ten days surrounded by wildlife and trees in the warm temperatures of an island off the coast of India.
Our daily routine.
Every morning all the students would walk through the dark to the meditation hall to sit on a cushion and meditate for two hours. Dawn would break a half hour before our return to the canteen for breakfast. Men and women were strictly separated during meditations, meals and our sleeping quarters were apart too. We were not meant to make eye contact with each other, male or female and this was very helpful in keeping the concentration and self-inquiry.
Lunch was at 11am and a definite high point of the day as the food was very good. Relaxing in my room was also pretty pleasant too. Sitting in a cross-legged position for over an hour at a time can be exceedingly difficult.
We had tea at 5pm and then listened to Goenka for an hour and a half every evening, as he would talk us through the next days program and what we were aiming for. Lights out at 9.30pm.
What did I get out of the retreat?
Firstly, I went on the retreat with some knowledge of Mindfulness and Buddhism and with eight years of personal meditation under my belt. I had already done a five-day silent retreat in the UK and had trained to teach the 8 Week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course.
I am also very interested in meditation, in fact it really is a big part of my life. So I had that base to work from, whereas I found out at the end of the retreat that many of the students had never meditated before.
Ten hours is a long time to stay focused and sit and connect to your body and breath, it really is. I could manage 6 or so and then tiredness or aching legs would make it more difficult and the focus would wane. But when I was fresh and really attuned it was quite something. I actually felt very privileged to be given this time to spend meditating every day, without having to cook or communicate or work or be anywhere else other than in the moment!
And the results began to flow and build and I really dealt with things I had not looked at in years from my childhood, from my whole life. I had mental/physical manifestations that would relieve me of any pain I was having sitting still. It was as if I was on a journey that just appeared as I sat and focused and oftentimes it was quite surprising where it led. I replayed moments I would rather not look at and then had to take responsibility for them. I reviewed my life and some sadness that was so poignant I was driven to take myself back through those moments and send love to the child I was in my past. And all with equanimity, without trying to cling to or feel aversion for anything. That is a big part of Buddhist teachings.
It was very different to my usual meditation practice, where I generally focus on opening to sounds and the breath until I quiet the chattering monkey-mind and find my stillness and space.
I found it all quite cleansing, interesting and yes life-changing.
How do I feel now?
Firstly it was quite abrupt to go from silence to talking with all the other lovely people who had taken the journey with me. It had been such a profound experience that trying to talk about what had happened was putting a damper on it. And then I was still travelling and flying to Australia, back home and now finally I am on my own to look back at those 10 days and decipher what has changed since then.
There is a sensation of empty-openness within me that is very relaxing and I notice I can accept and listen to people without losing attention or my own self-worth. Less mental hurrying and more composure. I also feel that after all the scraping through my past, the physical issues that I looked at, the reasons I did or did not do things, I have set a path to move along towards a deeper and more lasting meditative practice. This retreat was so different and nitty-gritty to anything I had done before, I may now be more able to open to the idea of letting go of egoistic tendencies that affect me and begin to step towards an awareness of my connectedness to everything.
Who knows where this journey will lead but what I do know is that it is the most fulfilling, enlightening and interesting thing I can be doing with my life!