Silent meditation retreat: What’s it like?

Tayla Gentle

For well-traveled writer Tayla Gentle, the most transformative trip of her life didn’t take place in some far-flung land—but at a 10-day silent meditation retreat just a hundred or so kilometers from her front door.

It’s my
birthday, and not a single person has wished me a happy day. I’m not mad about
it. In fact, I’m not even sad about it. There are rules, you see. And singing
happy birthday would definitely be breaking a bunch of them.

I’m nine
days into my first Vipassana retreat—a Buddhist meditation course involving 10 days
of noble silence and no eye contact, reading, writing, exercise, technology or
meals after midday. Basically, no stimulation whatsoever.

some, the prospect of 10 silent days sounds like heaven. For others, it’s
closer to hell. For me, it’s the wildest trip I’ve ever taken—and it didn’t
even involve a passport.

Arriving at the Vipassana retreat in eastern Victoria, Australia, felt much like arriving at a cult. Or at least what I presume arriving at a cult would feel like. Men and women were segregated, innocuous-looking forms were signed, and the leaders took away our phones and car keys. See? Cult. That, or prison. We’re introduced to our bunk mates, sent to bed, and the next day, without so much as a bang or a whimper, the world as I knew it ended and a silent world awoke.

Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is an ancient non-sectarian meditation practice dating back (and beyond) to the 5th-century BC days of Siddhartha Gautama AKA the first Buddha. The aim of the game is self-transformation through self-observation. Vipassana is all about connecting the mind and body, and learning to remain balanced in the face of difficult internal and external experiences.

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In basic terms, it’s like learning mind control. Vipassana teaches you how to liberate yourself from unhappiness and how to quit spreading that unhappiness, like the common cold, to the people around you.

But the journey to liberation is not an easy one. It takes work, mental fortitude and discipline. It takes 10 hours of seated meditation per day and to feel your bodyweight in pins and needles. It takes practice and, even then, you’re not guaranteed perfection.

Nowadays there are hundreds of donation-based courses running internationally, and all of them still use Goenka’s mellifluous voice to remind people to focus on their breath, dissociate from aversion, rid themselves of attachment, and remember that everything will pass.

The latter, however, is especially hard when you’ve got two dead legs and a literal pain in your backside. Even if you’ve built yourself a throne of blocks and blankets, sitting with discomfort is never easy. In that sense, Vipassana is not unlike economy air travel.

My greatest source of discomfort came from the two women seated behind me who had matching cases of the flu. You try remaining balanced when the people behind you are hocking lurgies. You try focusing all your attention on the tiny triangle above your upper lip when all you can hear are their rattling inhales. You try finding inner tranquillity when tiny flu particles are slamming into the back of your head. I was doing my best to remain compassionate, but I was quickly developing an aversion to the fixed seating plan.

If day one was jetlag and day two was culture shock, by day three I was finding new perspectives on the world. I’d stopped reaching for my phone and I’d started saying hello to tulips. I started watching magpies feed and cherry buds blossom. It was as if I’d never seen nature in such detail.

It made me think of the original adventurers. The men and women who discovered new lands, sailed seas, climbed mountains, crossed glaciers. What were they thinking out there on their own? We hear of the physical hardship—but what of the mental journey? What inner battles were being fought while they sat ensconced in snow or hunkered down on board a ship?

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On day seven, I woke in a wave of anxiety. But instead of being able to call a friend or sweat it out, there was no escape from my cloudy brain. So I got out of bed with the gong, walked up the hill in the rain, sat on my mat and told my mind to shelve the negativity. I told my mind that I was taking back control. And guess what? My mind responded. I was free, possibly even liberated, for the briefest of moments. It was as if my visa had been approved and I was cleared to enter…

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