The first time I considered the concept of a ten-day silent meditation retreat, I was on retreat in California, watching the sunset from atop the Sierra Nevada Mountains and discussing my first meditation experience with an effervescent Swedish woman. She got right to the point: “You should do a ten-day silent meditation retreat.” I was incredibly intimidated–I’d only just begun my yoga affair, and the thought scared me. She warned, “People either make it, or I’ve seen some people who go crazy.” A mere three years later, I found myself never forgetting what she said; I was sitting for the ten-day challenge and experiencing all that she said and then some.
“Please, promise me you won’t lose your ego,” was my friend Kamil’s only request when I announced my intention to enter Illinois Vipassana Center’s meditation retreat in July of 2005. My dearest confidant and I had many discussions about the cult of personality and our affection for our own. My marriage was approaching that summer, and it seemed like perfect timing to be embarking on a conscious practice of being in the present moment. I had to confront the fear of spending ten days alone with me: no writing, reading, talking or eye contact; no escape.
The decision had been made, and I started putting together my online application. I was accepted within a week with the caveat that since I was a yoga instructor, I must not practice any other energy or meditation work so as to give the approach a fair chance. I began packing the instructed necessities and omitted the restricted items: no books, journals, music, pills (unless cleared), tank tops, jewelry, food or distractions. I bought baggy t-shirts, packed homely sweatpants and started to savor the idea of being unattractive, or at least not preoccupied with my appearance, for ten whole days. I started daydreaming of the relaxation of it all. It began to seem like paradise: no outside responsibility, no worries….
Vipassana Meditation Center is one and a half hours north of Chicago, west of Rockford, in Pecatonica. A lonely farm road leads to the iron-gated retreat grounds; a huge willow tree looms over a large pond before the modest meditation hall. We were met at a mess hall of sorts by the volunteer staff. Our living quarters were single rooms–simple, clean, appropriate. Staying at the center costs nothing; participants are asked (not until the retreat is completed) to make a donation. No one is paid–the money goes directly back into the center–ensuring the integrity of the retreat as something you can’t buy or quantify but must simply experience.
We were instructed to watch a video that was meant to be sobering: we were about to sit for ten days, having absolutely no contact with anyone else and refraining from sexual conduct of any kind. If we had questions, we should sign up on the sheet, and one of the “instructors” would address them. There was one person for the women and one for the men (women and men were separated) who could answer questions only if ABSOLUTELY necessary; otherwise, we should try not to talk to them. They were not professionally trained people, but volunteers who were there to answer simple questions. No psychiatrists, doctors or other medical personnel were on staff. After watching the video, we were to read a set of instructions TWICE and then sign the agreement to hold no one liable. (I found it humorous… This place was surely taking itself way too seriously.)
The Vipassana Center considers this agreement particularly important because the individual’s unfiltered experience is absolutely paramount to the efficacy of this program
–hence the no-contact-with-other-participants clause. In other words, if I were to ask you about your experience, I might then think: “That didn’t happen to me. Should I be experiencing that?” Such comparisons would alter the purity of my own experience. A cornerstone of my learning there was: “The truth is not your truth until you experience it.”
The first two days were a mixture of adjusting and getting used to sitting. I watched thousands of thoughts race through my mind. My back hurt, and it was uncomfortable to sit, but the adrenaline from what I was doing was still invigorating and interesting. The slow calming of my mind was sedating and largely enjoyable. It wasn’t until day three that I realized nothing was going to change about my situation. I was there, completely aware of each second of each minute of each hour of each day of ten consecutive days. Somehow I had this idea that something more was going to happen, but the program was what it was: ten hours of meditation each day.
During breaks, I began to feel the effects of no input–no sound, no talking, no feedback. At home, if I got upset, I could get up, walk or call someone. Now, solo, I was sorting through my emotional attachments, deliberately mining to the heart of what I could not let go. I learned that my body reacts to the subconscious before I realize a feeling is taking hold. It went something like, “Ho hum…I feel good…I’m tired…ouch, my back, damn it…go away….err…” It was just after this pain would arise that my belly would churn, and some time later unsettling thoughts came up. My body was alerting me, but I kept denying this and spent a lot of time rationalizing. I ebbed from thinking to feeling to observing to trying to let go forever. A nightly video discourse led by a lovable and poignant S.N. Goenka (the founder of these centers) informed us that when these reoccurring thoughts crop up, we were to greet them with, “It is what it is, nothing is good or bad, it just is…” I was silently reciting anicca, pronounced (ah-nee-cha), the Sanskrit word meaning impermanence. No matter what arose, no matter how overwhelming, it would ultimately pass.
Day four and a half was personally annihilating. Several of the original 40 participants were gone. One radiant and hard-edged young girl behind me began crying. She left the hall and tried to drive out of the gates; volunteers intervened and she was taken by ambulance. Though she returned a day later and completed the cycle, her presence seemed jittery and breakable. Internally, I felt the same way–I kept clinging to the mantra, “It will pass.” It was at this time that I began to think of the most difficult things I pushed out of my mind on a daily basis: my brother’s early death at 19 was obvious, but then came more subtle issues like feelings of anger and resentment toward people in my life. I began to experience each thought; studying and reliving them tortured me and actually made my body ache. My futile attempts to justify my gripes were growing redundantly clear, but I still felt unable to let go. I started to be present as each personal tragedy, like a tide, rose and fell for a duration equal to my mind’s intent to hold it, and I waited desperately for them to pass, and for some way for me to let them. None of these things were happening, and yet I was experiencing them as if they were now, as I sat quiet, in a hall, for 10 days re-creating every last painful second. Why?
Each time the pain subsided, I felt I had learned this lesson of impermanence, but then, I still had 50 hours of work left to go and another round of this punishing mindf@!% began! My dislike for my self-imposed predicament became another source of pain: A couple days, OK, but COME ON!!!!! Ten days just isn’t necessary….Then this too would pass. The interesting thing was that at home, after my usual 20 minutes of meditation, I could get up, walk away, listen to the radio, call a friend, eat something or DO anything. None of these outlets were available to me now, and I began to understand why I drove all the way out here. As S.N. Goenka says, “One cannot work to liberate oneself from the impurities of the mind while at the same time continuing to perform deeds of the body and speech which only multiply them.” Yet this new found realization also passed, and I started to wonder if it was a conspiracy: “How are ‘they’ getting us to do this???”
One would think day nine would be greeted with joy–it was my worst. I began to think, “Here comes my snap, just like the Swedish lady said. I’m going to run out of here screaming!” It rose up, all the pain, all the emotional turmoil. It broke like a dam; I cried uncontrollably and then, amazingly, it passed. I don’t know how many times I had read and heard–in every yoga book and in every teacher training–about the impermanence of things. But I never truly observed or experienced the roots of fear, anxiety and pain until for ten days I bore witness to and experienced the fact I was the creator of it all.
The morning of the tenth day, the silence broke, but few words were spoken. It was odd to hear my own voice vibrating through my ears as we calmly shared our experiences, from those who fought the entire time to those who felt euphoric. Everyone’s account was dramatically different–the common thread being that everyone felt the gargantuan impact; however we described it, the experience was life-changing.
When people ask me what I received from this, I must admit, my answer changes. At first, I focused on the clarity of being present in the moment–things as simple as I never forgot where I parked the car, to our wedding, which was so calm and serene that I can, to this day, recall almost every detail. I gained the ability to experience life with equanimity and embrace rather than intellectualize impermanence. All in all, my ten-day silent retreat was a profound and necessary journey within.
Anne Adametz, yoga mentor and Chinese medicine practitioner, specializes in individual, meaningful sessions. Anne also serves on the advisory committee for American Friends of Kenya. In her spare time, she is building a network of trusted resources for holistic and natural approaches to self-care, and yes, she’s still meditating. She may be reached by calling 608-577-9642 or E-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.