Work patiently and persistently; you are bound to be successful. ~ S.N. Goenka
When you tell people that you’re going to spend 10-days in total silence, there’s really only one reaction you get:
“Yes, 10 days.”
“In silence? Like, no talking?”
“Yeah they call it ‘Noble Silence’ so it’s actually no communication whatsoever; no talking, no reading, no writing, no eye contact, no gestures, no physical touch.”
And then more often than not they stare wide-eyed and say, “I could never do that.”
But that’s what I did at a Vipassana meditation centre in rural Quebec. And while the Noble Silence was a challenge for the first couple of hours, the real work (and I mean real, hard, push-you-right-to-the-edge-of-your-meditation-seat work) was in trying to silence my thoughts, even for a couple of minutes.
My primary motivation for attending a Vipassana course was to experience the discipline of the technique; rising with the 4:00AM wake-up bell to spend nearly 10 hours of the day in meditation, following a strict code of conduct, and challenging myself to stay. I have a tendency to cut and run when goings get tough if I’m not immediately experiencing a benefit to my hard work, so this provided an opportunity for me to see what I was really made of.
Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique that was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. After being banned in India a few centuries later, the non-sectarian technique in its purest form was preserved by sages in Myanmar (Burma), where it experienced a modern revival in the early 20th century.
The current teacher of the 10-day meditation course is S. N. Goenka (1924-2013), a retired industrialist who brought the technique back to India in the 1970s before bringing it to North America. Today, there are nearly 200 Vipassana centres around the world, taking in tens of thousands of students each year.
Upon applying for and arriving at the course, you’re required to accept and agree to five precepts for the duration of your stay; abstaining from stealing, lying, intoxicants, sexual activity and killing any being. If you don't count the crazy-wild NSFW shit that came up in my dreams and the handful of mosquitos that I slapped dead without a moment’s thought, then the rules were easy to follow when you’ve committed to not communicating with anyone.
Before the period of Noble Silence began, I spoke with a woman who jokingly remarked that choosing to stay at the centre was like a form of self-imprisonment. In the first few days of the course, she wasn’t entirely wrong: a strict daily timetable, limited outdoor periods, no physical contact with other inma– I mean, meditators, and no cellphones or other personal valuables.
Taking workout inspiration from Orange is the New Black, I found myself doing pushups and tricep dips off the edge of my bed and hip mobility drills in between sitting sessions to maintain some degree of physical strength. The effort paled in comparison to the mental strength required to focus on the meditation practice.
As the days wore on, I came to realize that actually, the self-imprisonment happened long before I entered the centre’s gates. I was living in a penitentiary of my own making. A prison of my mind. And I would have to work incredibly hard to free myself.
To silence my mind, I had to confront the noise head-on. I wasn't prepared for all of the thoughts that came up during the course, but the process helped me learn a few things about myself and my mind.
The mind, in and of itself, is ignorant.
We often hear in yoga or meditation classes about trying to tame the “monkey mind,” the seemingly random and disconnected trains of thought that bounce around our head without much, well, thought. Unlike the image of a chimp swinging smoothly from branch to branch, in the first few days of meditation, my mind seemed more like a rabid baboon lashing out at anything it can get its hands on. Many of my thought patterns were incredibly volatile, angry and aggressive. This surprised me because I don’t think anyone would describe me in those terms. In fact, I pride myself on being able to keep my cool in most situations.
But with nothing to do but sit in silence and stillness, I seemed to have given space for the darkest parts of me to rise to the surface. What’s more, the thoughts appeared completely disjointed—I’d go from reliving a memory of a shameful moment in one thought to playing out a future fantasy in another.
The Vipassana technique argues that destructive thought patterns are rooted in one of two possible characteristics: those that either spark a reaction of aversion or a reaction of craving. Both the feelings of aversion and of craving occur when we become unable to see things as they are, and either reject the true reality or wish for a different experience.
What is this “true reality”? It’s the law of nature; that nothing in the material or the mind-body world is eternal. In the Pāḷi language, this ever-changing state of impermanence is called anicca, and by observing things in this way, we free ourselves from suffering.The practice of Vipassana trains the mind to become less reactive by equanimously observing actual sensation in the physical body at any given moment. As you meticulously and systematically scan every inch, you must remain alert and aware to stay neutral about what you observe; not reacting to painful sensations with aversion and not reacting to pleasant ones with craving.
What became very clear for me through this practice is that while you can regulate your mind through concentration, your mind cannot self-regulate. The mind is unable to plan or anticipate where a train of thought will lead.
...And yet, your mind matters most.
Our thoughts precede all types of verbal and physical action. In other words, you can only ever make a decision based on the quality of the thoughts in your mind.
Goenka described, in simple terms, the stages of mind through which we perceive our world. First, we cognize some sort of input from our senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch). Then, we determine if we recognize it or not based on our past experience (has this happened before), which triggers a physiological reaction in the body (subtle or gross sensation). And finally, we react to it; either with aversion or craving.
The first three stages happen in a split second, so the final reactionary stage is the only response we can learn to control.
Conditioning and thought patterns lie dormant in our subconscious minds like landmines hidden in an abandoned minefield. As I experienced, if you’re not careful (or lack the awareness), as soon as one gets triggered, it explodes with reckless abandon and left unchecked, will detonate an intricately linked chain of thoughts, causing mental, emotional and even physical misery.
There were more moments than I care to admit where I experienced reactionary rage to otherwise innocuous events during my meditation. One example was the angry spiral I sent myself on every time one particular woman cleared her throat during meditation.
I know it was one woman because I learned the precise intonation and staccato pace of the noise, which felt like an assault on my senses. I felt personally attacked by the sound as if she was intentionally disturbing my peace and undermining my concentration efforts. I consoled myself that there must be a special place in hell for people who cough, sneeze, blow their nose, or swallow too loudly in group meditations. Not to mention the negative self-talk I subjected myself to in moments where I felt like I wasn’t “succeeding” at meditation or when it seemed like I was regressing due to the disruption. After each clearing, I’d spend several minutes stewing in my own misery and imagined calling her out from my very high horse.
That’s when the latest wave of wisdom from Goenka was transmitted to me: Vipassana aims to purify the mind by freeing yourself from the mental suffering of thoughts that only serve to multiply your misery.
Any time you have a thought of ill-will, animosity, anger or hatred towards another person, you always suffer first. You’re polluting your mind with that negativity—the person remains completely unaware of the strife you’ve been waging. And even if you were to express that negativity outwardly, how you react to anything – a person, a situation, a thought – is your problem, not theirs.
“You suffer first” became a mini mantra for me for the remainder of the course. Anytime I’d catch myself slinging mud around my mind, I’d remind myself that the habit wasn’t hurting anyone but me.
To be fair, these internal moments of hostility and aversion were punctuated with deeply intuitive project ideas and productive mental planning sessions. In these moments of what felt like pure creative genius (the ego loves to relish in self-aggrandizement as much as it tortures itself with its lack and inadequacy), I agonized over not being able to write anything down. I’d walk laps in the circular footpath while mentally repeating each brilliant idea as if carving a trail would solidify the thought’s imprint in my brain’s grey matter.
And then there were the inane thoughts.
There were too many to count, but here’s a sample of how the mind will do ANYTHING not to be subjected to a single point of focus:
- “Huh. When you cry upside down, tears roll down your forehead instead of your cheeks.”
- “What is the biological purpose of crying? Why does liquid pour from our eyeballs? Must Google this later.”
- “I’m a writer with no pen,” (always said in the voice of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, from the scene where she’s getting picked up by a bass player in a cab).
- “‘How to Train Your Bladder’ would be a really boring movie about a woman who gives herself a UTI from sitting in silent meditation too long.”
- “If someone is alone in a forest and says hello to a little toad, and no one is there to hear it, did she really break her vow of silence?”
- “What kind of psychopath peels an orange with a paring knife?” (and a day later: “I am now the kind of psychopath who peels an orange with a paring knife”).
It’s dismissive and inaccurate to suggest that thoughts don’t matter. They do, to the extent that we can examine their qualities, understand their impermanence, and use that awareness to approach to take reasonable and appropriate action to our environment rather than reacting to it.
Towards the end of the course, fewer and fewer random thoughts trolled my mind (either that or I succeeded in not indulging in them), and mental silence was easier to come by.
Having said that, breaking Noble Silence on Day 10 was an exhilarating relief.
Walking into the foyer, I spotted two of my roommates chatting (despite sharing a room, I only knew them by their footwear until around Day 5) and we excitedly shared about our experiences. It was a great comfort to know that we all went through similar struggles throughout the course and that they too had their own moments of irrational rage and frustration.
Although prohibiting any form of communication seemed a bit extreme before arriving, I now completely understand why it’s necessary. It’s only through withdrawing from the external world as much as possible that one can begin to examine the mind deeply. And for that, I would absolutely do another 10-day course, and I would sincerely encourage anyone interested and prepared to do the work to join a session as well.
All courses are free to attend, based on the principle of dāna—that your place was provided by donations from past students who received a benefit from the practice and want to enable others to benefit as well.
There were a handful of moments in meditation where I feel I really experienced a quiet mind and was completely in the present moment. Admittedly, those moments felt blissful, and I’d come out elated.
And there were a handful of moments early on where I thought I couldn’t handle the torment and I might leave.
And there was every moment in between; each one changing, each one impermanent. Anicca. Anicca. Anicca.