I am probably one of the chattiest, most extroverted, constantly-moving people you’ll ever meet.
When I told people I was going to be silent for 10 days, they laughed out loud at the absurdity of it. To be honest, I had to agree with them, it did sound more than a little bit crazy…..
Over the years multiple things had led me to this retreat, some more frivolous than others.
Perhaps the most frivolous being the fact that I really enjoyed reading the ‘Pray’ portion of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. I’ve always been staunchly non-religious but have kind of been a little bit jealous of those who did have a belief or spiritual practice of some kind. Elizabeth Gilbert’s experience sounded challenging, eye opening and spiritually eye-opening. I wanted me some of that!
I then read the book ‘10% Happier’ 3x over. It’s about a well-known news anchor’s discovery of and journey through meditation. He describes a silent retreat in great (and amusing) detail and while he absolutely hated most of it, something inside me decided that ‘one day’ I would do one. It would be my Everest. Or at least my marathon. Physical challenges weren’t so much of a challenge for me as I love pushing myself physically so I felt that THIS would be the hardest thing I could ever attempt.
The 3rd signpost was from my cofounder Rachel. She did a 10 day retreat a while back with her entire family and came back to work telling us we should all do one. As she said, ‘Verity, if my Mom, who is always busy and loves to talk, can do it, you can do it.’
This year has been a relatively challenging one for me. Mid-forties + 2 kids + being an entrepreneur + well….. Life and I was starting to show the physical strain. Fatigue replaced my boundless energy, occasional despondence replaced my never ending positivity, my hormone tests came back as all over the place and I was eventually diagnosed with final stage adrenal burnout. I’ve been lucky enough to never have had to deal with a severe illness or not being able to keep going at 1000 miles an hour before so this wasn’t only a dent to my physical wellbeing, it was a massive dent to my ego. I had to admit that I wasn’t, after all, invincible.
I started a course of supplements but the biggest change I could make was removing stress from my life for a while and ideally ongoing – this included not exercising so hard (ugh) which has always been my stress management tool. And when I talk about stress, I don’t necessarily mean stress in the most negative form, but I’m also talking about stress in terms of juggling a million things, even though all of them are REALLY fun and I wanted to juggle them. No, I PRIDED myself on juggling them. Something I realize women of my age have been conditioned to do.
So with some trepidation, I went to the Vipassana website (the home of these particular 10 day retreats) and looked up some options. You usually have to sign up for these retreats 6 months in advance on the day they open for registration but something in the universe was definitely on my side and there was one retreat that was opening just 3 weeks before it took place and it happened to be over 2 weeks where miraculously, I had nothing that I couldn’t miss.
So I set my alarm for the day registration opened, put my name in and was accepted later that week. Oh shoot, I was really doing this. I was terrified.
I read all the things I could in advance, packed my bags, said goodbye to my kids and husband and hopped on a plane to California, catching a ride to the retreat center with two other retreat participants.
On arrival, I was unbelievably relieved to get a room to myself. It was super basic but I even had my own bathroom. We were allowed to talk for the first few hours as well as keep our devices. I recorded 11 messages for my family so they could listen to one each day, chatted with other terrified first timers (including a fellow Brit who would, unknown to her, become my silent buddy throughout the retreat.)
We were given a delicious dinner, then received an introduction and were able to ask the, 100s of questions people had.
The rules were:
- No communication of any kind – no eye contact, no talking, no writing, no note taking
- No other rituals or practices e.g. religious practices
- No yoga or exercise – you could walk on a designated path
- Complete separation of men and women
- Only fruit for dinner
- No lying down in the meditation hall at ANY time
We handed all our electronics in. I felt free.
We hit the meditation hall at 8pm and we were off to the races. Noble silence had begun. (That was literally what it was called, I’m not referring to my last name!)
I quickly realized that I’d been so focused on the fact that I was going to be silent for 10 days that I’d kind of skimmed over the fact that this was a meditation retreat and I’d be meditating for 8 – 11 hours a day. EVERY day. I’d never meditated for more than 20 minutes and often did that while stretching because, you know, I got bored LOL!
All the guidance was given over a sound system or over video by a guy who was no longer alive and there were two teachers who were there to enforce rules and answer any questions we had if we booked a 5 minute session with them at lunchtime.
That first evening we received an intro to meditation. Just focus on your breath. We knocked out an hour I believe then headed to bed. I am not generally a good sleeper (another reason I was so glad to be rooming alone) but suddenly, I was EXHAUSTED and conked out pretty early.
The bell rings at 4am every day to wake us all up for a 4.30am meditation. I’m not talking one ring and you can ignore it, I’m talking someone walking around clanging a bell for about 6 minutes right outside all the accommodation so there’s no way you could sleep through it even if you wanted to.
As a total rule follower (unless the rules are stupid!) and an early riser, I jumped out of bed and headed to the meditation room. It was WAY less full than the night before as there was an option to do this session in your room. I later learned that most people went back to sleep!
I knocked out my first ever 2 hour meditation and it was….. Not as hard as I thought! I focused on my breath and although my mind was like a crazy monkey jumping all over the place, I made it all the way til 6.30am when the chime rang and I could finish up and go to breakfast.
The food was out of this world. I made a combo of oatmeal, fruit compote, tahini and sunflower seeds for breakfast and it was SO good that I could barely hold myself back from mmming and aaahing out loud. We then scraped off our plates and put them in the dish racks to be properly washed later.
We’re only allowed in the dining hall for 45 minutes. You eat facing a wall in your own named spot so it doesn’t usually take long to eat anyway.
The next meditation starts at 8am for an hour (with some minor instruction and the weirdest chanting at the beginning an end.) You get a 5 minute break and then you’re back at it for another 2 hours straight until lunch. Lots of people left the second part of the meditation early but I made it my mission to NEVER leave early and I managed it!
Lunch was at 11am and again, the food was incredible. I had 3 bowls of the Tom Kha soup and wished I had room for more.
After lunch we have a long period to rest, nap, take a walk or just sit and drink tea outside. I am not a napper. Never have been. I literally passed out right after lunch and woke up in time for the bell for the next meditation hall session at 2.30pm. We’re supposed to meditate in our room from 1 – 2.30pm but I pretty much never did that and learned at the end that no one else did either!
The next session went from 2.30 – 3.30, a 5 minute break and then 3.35 – 5pm. Dinner at 5pm where first timers were allowed fruit and tea and ‘old students’ were only allowed tea without any milk. I was strangely not hungry for the first 3 days so found this fine.
The next meditation started at 6pm and went till 7pm then we had a discourse for about 90 minutes. This consisted of watching a video of the founder of the organization teaching you about the next stage of the meditation process. He was (is?) an incredible teacher. As you’re not allowed to take notes, he very cleverly makes the same point over and over again using repetition and different stories. It’s incredibly effective. He could be a bit annoying at times but over the 10 days, I learned to adore him.
He constantly emphasized that this is NOT a religion in any way. He doesn’t want anyone to worship anyone or put anyone on a pedestal. There isn’t a greater being who is going to ‘save you’ the only person who can help you is yourself. There’s no mystical heaven or hell, it’s all science-based. This was definitely my cup of tea. Spirituality without the deity.
We end the day with a final, seemingly short 30 minute meditation where you might attempt the new technique he introduced then we finish up at 9pm, head back to our sleeping quarters and lights out by 10pm.
My first 2 days were a sea of gratitude. With 8 & 9 year old daughters (who I love dearly) I think I hear the word ‘Muuuuum’ 1000x a day and with a growing business, you’re always ‘on’ waiting for that next excitement / drama / crisis / celebration. I also hate thinking about what to cook each night that will satisfy me (vegan), Amber (vegetarian), Lyla (jumping between everything) and Lorne (omnivore) so the fact that someone was cooking me delicious vegan food every day and I wasn’t having to constantly tidy up and juggle not only my calendar but that of my kids, meant that I was wallowing in a pool of pure joy.
Day 3 arrived with a swift fall back to earth. I had 8 more days of this sh*t.
My knees and weirdly my collarbones hurt from sitting in the same position. This was challenging.
Luckily, they seem to know the psychology of the students pretty well (given this practice is 2500 years old, they’ve had some time to perfect it) so as day 3 came to an end, they changed up the meditation practice completely and we changed from Annapurna breathing to Vipassana, the thing we had truly come to learn.
I also asked the teacher about a) my busy mind and b) my achy body. She said don’t worry about the mind, I’m just a ‘baby meditator’ so it will take a lot of practice to calm it and b) I could try some different props to sit on. I tested out an uncomfortable looking wooden stool type thing that you’d sit on with your legs underneath and it turned out to be much more comfortable than my super fancy portable meditation seat!
The solution ended up being that I changed position every session, that way nothing hurt too much and after day 3, I didn’t experience anything like the physical pain a lot of other people did I later discovered.
I also set up 10 stones outside my room and decided to mark the passing of the days with a little solo ceremony where I removed a stone and expressed gratitude for being there. This really helped me value my time there as I saw it slipping away.
The big focus of this meditation is attention and equanimity. You give your body attention in different areas and whatever comes up, you just sit with it and don’t react. For example, your toe itches. Don’t scratch it, just observe it and notice ‘I have an itchy toe’ then move on. The idea is that this translates to real life. You start learning to observe those things that are uncomfortable (emotionally and physically) rather than just reacting to them without thinking.
I won’t say anymore in case you one day decide to do this yourself as I’d hate to create any expectations. One of the reasons there’s Noble Silence is so meditators don’t compare their experiences and then potentially are disappointed.
In conclusion, I am so glad I did this when I did it. It helped my nervous system recover a lot.
Am I still meditating?
Occasionally but nowhere near the 2 hours a day they recommend.
Has it changed my life?
Not drastically but I do think I’ve become a little calmer and less reactive.
Do I recommend it?
Absolutely. For the peace and lack of technology alone it’s a worthwhile endeavor and the amount you learn about humankind and yourself is a big bonus.