In May 2005, I completed an 11 day Silent Meditation Retreat in Hereford, UK. Here is an account of the experience.
I’ve just got back from my retreat which was an amazing experience with lots of ups and downs. It actually made me realise that I am physically and mentally much stronger than I thought. I really had to push myself beyond my limits and never thought of giving up even though sometimes I felt like it.
Going back to a more normal life is quite stressful. The noise, the buzz of the city, any kind of fast movement from people to cars and my mind trying to take control over me again is overwhelming.
One could think that spending 11 hours per a day meditating wouldn’t be tiring but trust me, it is. Vipassana meditation (as taught by S. N. Goenka) is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It’s an internal journey, where you observe but don’t judge and don’t react to anything whether it’s a physical pain you feel somewhere in your body, a positive or negative emotion that arises, like a feeling of joy or sadness.
When I arrived at the meditation centre I had a very good connection with an English woman from the Midlands who now lives in Goa and a Dutch woman who’s been in the UK for a very long time. We had a laugh and a chat before starting what is called “noble silence”.
Just 5 minutes before starting our first hour of meditation I introduced myself to the person who was going to be my roommate for 10 days. Her name is unusual and I couldn’t remember it from the beginning, then noble silence started. It was ok at first but then got very weird especially not talking to my roommate. We were like an old couple who no longer talked to one another!
The first 3 days we were taught a method for the preparation of the Vipassana meditation technique. The aim was to shut off our mind where all old memories and future thoughts come from. It is very hard to keep focused not only because your mind tries to trick you by bringing up any kind of thoughts or memories (and our minds are so incredibly clever, trying everything possible to distract us) but also the outside noise from other people. So, it’s very noisy inside out!
We were 98 students sitting in the meditation hall. By doing this work you are trying to train or tame your mind. At the same time, you have to deal with your body where you feel pain from your head and neck to shoulders, legs and back. In my case, the first two days started with neck and shoulder pain. It was so bad that I thought I was not going to make it. But then the pain moved to a different area of the body and later on, the main pain was in my lower back. All this is due to the sitting position without changing posture or changing posture as little as possible.
But they also say that the pain you feel comes from emotions stuck in your body.
So, by not moving (not changing posture) you stop reacting to the pain and instead observe it and then it will go. Well, that’s what Goenka says. He repeatedly said to us in the evening lectures that everything arises and goes away. So, when sitting started feeling uncomfortable, I constantly reminded myself everything arises and goes away. It’s the law of impermanence. Observing and not reacting to any sensations (good or bad) that you feel in your body is the main part of the Vipassana meditation. Really, really hard work!
In fact, your mind and body get rebellious and try to stop you from achieving your goal. It really took three days to stop my mind from wandering and reacting to the inside and outside noise. After that, people’s noises from movement, coughing or breathing did not bother me any longer, and my mind got quieter and quieter.
Day 4 was very important as we were finally taught the Vipassana meditation technique. Two teachers were there all the time in case we had problems. We were not allowed to debate with them any philosophical issues but only problems with our progression. Otherwise, the teaching was done through audio and video lectures in the evening. Straight after being taught the technique I released some emotions through tears and it went on for half an hour only, and then I felt fantastic. It made me realise how powerful that technique is! Quite a few people went through similar reactions but for much longer, some of them cried most days.
Was the most difficult day for me. Most of the day, I tried to rectify something wrong that I was doing as part of the technique. I did it obsessively and completely lost my focus. As a result, I got very bored and demotivated and lost confidence in myself. I think that my mind was trying to talk me out of it and I thought that the technique was not working for me. Even though I was extremely demotivated, I decided that I would not leave the centre under any circumstances. So I went to see the teacher in the evening who told me how to deal with that issue. I was then determined that I would work very hard the day after and would succeed.
I started my day at 4.30am with all the determination, motivation, strength and confidence that I could muster and carried on through the morning with only a few 2 -5 minutes breaks and a breakfast break. At 10.30 am (half an hour before lunch) I started feeling tired, opened my eyes to see the time and was wondering if I should stay in the meditation hall or go to meditate in my room (at certain hours you could meditate in your room but I always stayed in the hall, I preferred it). I decided to stay in the hall and tried to give my best for the last half an hour before the break. It was the best decision ever because this is when I went into my first meditative state. In that state, you feel fully in the present moment, the now, you are one with everything around you and your mind is still. That day, I achieved the best meditative state out of my 10 days! Of course, after that, I got my strength back and felt wonderful.
I started feeling tired and decided to change some of my rules. The rules of the centre were very strict and you had to follow them to the letter and I also implemented my own rules on top of that. I started having more small stretching breaks during meditation sessions. I thought that I had to be a bit more tolerant and flexible with myself especially after having such a good result. Again, it was a good move because I enjoyed my day more and went into some good meditative states.
Nothing special happened. My lower back pain stopped me from going into a good meditative state. I tried to stay in the same posture without moving for as long as I could until the pain was so excruciating that I had no other option than moving. It was like a constant stabbing pain, real torture. So, not too good. I had that pain most of the time but some days were worst than others. But, once I got up it was gone and my back felt very strong and my flexibility was as good as before.
So, this is a proof that the pain was not real but an illusion created by the mind and observing it from the moment it arises and waiting until it went was the goal. Sometimes the pain went and that was a victory but most of the time I had to move before it could happen. I really really struggled with the pain. I don’t think that I am intolerant to pain because I pushed myself very far, well I think that I have but it is difficult to evaluate. Anyway, I had two more days to go and at that point I was looking forward to finishing.
We were told that we would start talking again that day, to give us a chance to exchange experiences before the end of the retreat. They would give us instructions closer to the time. That was very exciting news! Otherwise, that day was pretty similar to day 8, with lots of physical pain. At that stage, I couldn’t take it anymore.
Mid-afternoon, we were told that we could talk outside of the meditation hall. That was a very special moment for all of us. We all had tears in our eyes, we all felt light-headed and were shaking inside. And then, we talked and talked and talked, non-stop! It was very weird because even though we did not know each other or had no eye contact at all, no communication whatsoever, (as per the rules), there was that closeness, togetherness. We were in the same boat despite the fact that we were all living in our own world. After a good ninety minutes of talking, we had to go back to the hall to meditate for another hour and then attend the evening lecture until 9pm.
Was a bit of a relief to know that it was the last day. It was not too easy to focus and meditate, but all in all, it was all right. That day we were taught another meditation technique called Metta. You meditate and use this method at the end of the Vipassana for 10-15 minutes. Even though I love both methods, I have to say that ending with Metta is very magical. I absolutely love it! In that technique, you send love to anybody you want to, friends, family, whoever and it feels great. They are lots of groups of people who meet to meditate and use this technique to send love to the universe. Some groups used Metta meditation or similar methods after the 2004 Tsunami disaster. People say that it is very powerful. I don’t know much about it yet, but as I know that what you send to the universe, you’ll get back, it makes sense to me that it could be incredibly powerful in helping yourself and others.
We meditated for ninety minutes before then all mucking in and cleaning up the centre, then departing for home.
By the way, I forgot to mention the rules. No talking whatsoever, not even a gesture, or any eye contact. You look at people’s feet for 10 days. I was wearing a cap all day long to avoid accidental eye contact. Being curious, the cap strategy helped me avoid looking at people.
We were up at 4.00am daily and finished our day at 9.00pm and tucked up in bed by 9.30pm. Not dissimilar from the life of a monk or nun! We meditated for 11 hours a day with breakfast and lunch as our main breaks. The very strict rules stopped us from being distracted and this is something that you understand only when you are there.
It was also mixed, but men and women living in different areas which are not a big surprise and not a big deal at all. By the way, there is nothing religious or sectarian about this place but the founder is Indian-born, brought up with very strong Buddhist beliefs (Theravada Buddhism I think). It did not bother me too much because it was just a tendency and I did not feel pressurised at all.
The food was very simple healthy vegetarian meals, very similar to my cooking. Accommodation and everything else was pretty basic but practical which was perfect. The organisation of that place is amazing. There are centres all around the world (can’t remember the exact number, but let’s say lots).
It’s funny that if you compare this organisation with a big corporate you could see that a big company has all the latest technology, is located in the best area with the most sophisticated offices, yet they are so disorganised. On the other hand, the meditation centre facilities and way of life are so basic but the way everything is so well organised, a sense of sophistication pervades. This is impressive given that they are solely funded through donations.
The centre is located in Hereford on the Welsh borders, in the beautiful English countryside. Outside of our daily routine, we could enjoy birds singing, hundreds of rabbits with their babies running around and grazing. We could also walk but the rules did not allow fast walking or any fitness training or even practising yoga. The rationale was that these could create distractions and stop us from progressing in learning the technique.
I wrote this account of my experience 11 years ago, but here is an update on how I feel about it now.
I found this retreat to be a very important part of my development because it taught me the power of the mind and what could be achieved. Although I stopped practising Vipassana meditation many years ago, I now chant daily which is another form of meditation.