"A Silent Meditation Retreat Experiment"A Silent Meditation Retreat Experiment

So I’m in my mid thirties and I worked in aid and development most my professional life. Unfortunately, the compassion I had for the less privileged, my desire to earn clean money or the malaria, dengue and typhoid fevers I had in faraway lands during work assignments, didn’t necessarily make me a better person. In March 2014 I found myself at the same silent meditation retreat with people from all walks of life and from all around the globe. Here we were, investment bankers, gamblers, graphic designers, stay home moms, development aid workers feeling the same misery and on the same boat, searching for a way out.

The idea to attend a 10 day meditation retreat in noble silence had been sitting on my mind for several years, with a couple of attempts that ended in last minute cancellations. I truly wanted to feel ready for the experience to be able to satisfy as much of my thirst and curiosity as possible. If there existed a technique, an ancient method, a different path that could help me acquire a more peaceful state of mind, a means for positive change in my life, I had to allow myself to it. I couldn’t put on a happy face anymore when a number of life events went downhill all at the same time and who was I kidding; I had rage, I felt anger, resentment, guilt and wild mood swings. I also had a big question mark about why everything sometimes went so wrong when I was trying so hard to make it all better. I wanted to ditch the attitude of looking up at the sky yelling ‘’hey dude, should I just go now and come back at another life?’’.

During a phone conversation with my only sister who cares a lot about me, we decided that I needed absolute solitude or complete silence for a little while to figure out the roots to the eventful drama series that had become my life. It made a lot of sense because I had been living on a tropical island in Indonesia for the past 7 months and I still found it difficult to concentrate on a peaceful mind and to stay away from drama. In contrary, I was in a panic state, the time was ticking and I wanted my dreams to come true ASAP. Running around like a headless chicken, I was constantly searching for something, unable to do nothing to just relax.

As I was chatting to a delightful friend of mine one day who runs a café by the beach, she told me about the Dhamma Jawa Vipassana Meditation Center in Bogor, Indonesia just a couple of hours’ domestic flight away from where I was. My friend was talking about the same 10 day silent meditation retreat I had had postponed a couple of times in the past. She had attended once last year, and her husband had participated five times. When others joined our table and the conversation, telling me about how peaceful and grounded my friend looked when she came back from the retreat, I decided it was time for me to help myself. There was a retreat starting shortly and I signed up with no second thoughts. When the time came and I flew over, it felt like the first day of school. There wasn’t going to be any coffee break chit-chat or making new friends though.

On day 0ne, I was the first one to arrive at the Center and my name was the first on the list. Keen. Fellow meditators started hailing soon, majority checking in solo, no one seemed to know each other and we were all on the same boat with curious and a little anxious eyes. We handled in all mobile phones, electronics, books, paper, pen, food items and valuables to be safe boxed for us for the duration of the course. We were shown to our rooms and had a couple of hours before the noble silence started the same evening. I had short chit-chats here and there with a young backpacker from California who was there to check it out as she was on a low budget and the retreat was free of charge. I also had a lovely chat to an Indonesian-American young woman who said she was there to see the men cry. There were quite a few female participants from Russia, a fashion designer from Mexico, a German traveler, a few Australians and a few ladies from nearby Jakarta. Soon we were separated into male and female sections, not to see participants from the opposite sex again until day 10. My curiosity and hope regarding what was about to happen made me realize how little I had asked my friend about the whole thing and how quickly I had made up my mind.

The noble silence started at 8pm on day 0. We were asked not to speak, have physical or eye contact with each other until the end of the retreat. I was shown a bed in a 4 bed dormitory and had three roommates with whom I could oddly not speak. It felt almost rude not talking to people and only focusing on myself but that was actually the whole point. At 8 o’clock, we all gathered at the grand hall for the first meditation session on time. Each participant was assigned to a meditation cushion, with their name on it. There were no further instructions before the lights went dim and a pair of Western looking teachers walked in silently. They looked so calm and grounded that it made me feel at peace. They both sat on their high platforms, facing the audience. The male teacher briefly introduced himself and his wife and explained that they’d be our guides during the course. I never knew their names but I was to later nickname them Mr. Divine Light and Mrs. Moonshine. Mr. Divine Light announced that we would all meditate together, so I closed my eyes and just sat there. Then something magical happened. A very unusual chanting started and I was convinced that the voice belonged to whoever was the creator of the crop circles. I was thrilled! After about ten minutes, it more started sounding like Mongolian throat singing. I was still very happy about this mysterious chanting and the unknown source of it. At the end of the one hour meditation session, I went to bed so excited I could not sleep all night.

We were to get up at 4 am the next morning, and every morning thereafter, to start meditating at 4.30 am in the main hall. On Day 1, we were instructed to observe our breathing and so we did for 11 hours observing the breath in and the breath out. It was the longest day of my life. It was very difficult to concentrate on my breathing when I had so many things on my mind. I also hoped that we would be given a short summary on world news at the end of each day. However we weren’t given any rundown on world news during the entire course and it felt great.

On the evening of Day 1 and every evening afterward from 7 to 8pm, we watched a video discourse of S.N. Goenka, who was the owner of the Mongolian throat singing voice and I don’t think he was involved in leaving the crop circles. He just had a very deep voice somewhere between a tenor and a baritone.

On Day 2, after breakfast, one of the girls in my dorm left. Every day, there was a breakfast break at 6.30 am, a lunch break at 11am and a tea break at 5pm. All other times, we were meditating. It was demoralizing and scary to think how long I would last, how long each one of us was going to last. I went through the first three days repeating to myself that there was no other place where I wanted to be and it was true. Despite the 4am wake up bells, 11 hours a day sitting meditation sessions, no dinner, no smoking, no alcohol and no practicing of any sports, no watching the birds, no this and no that policy, I stayed. I really had nothing better to do than to help myself out of my misery or what I called a set of misfortunes and disastrous events.

The retreat was free of charge and we were basically living on the charity of others who had completed the course before and decided to make a donation. Not being able to choose the type and quantity of my meals reminded me of difficult work missions at remote locations and was therefore a little traumatizing.

Throughout the retreat, I’d have a much better understanding about the reason behind the noble silence. We are social beings and feel better relating ourselves to others. There’s also curiosity about how others are getting on with their practice, are doing it the right way, are we feeling what we are supposed to be feeling, how does the same practice affect others and what is their progress? The noble silence protected participants from all these destructions and helped keep the focus on self.

Every day, I started looking forward to the video discourses. Only English speakers watched them as a video, speakers of other languages listened to the translated audio version in separate rooms. The discourses on Day 3 and day 5 had a deep impact on me, helping me to realize about my craving patterns. Goenka was talking about misery and cravings that we develop ourselves and their effects on our lives and our souls and it made a lot of sense.

On Day 5, we started practicing the Additthana; the sitting of strong determination. It is a one hour meditation session practiced three times a day until the last day. During Additthana, one is determined to remain completely still without moving a finger or opening an eye and of course keeping the whole sitting posture for the entire hour. It is an hour long move-fasting and quiet a painful thing to do. On the afternoon Additthana session on Day 5, I swept myself off the most comfortable position and hoped to remain on the cross legged for the hour. I had had a motorbike accident six months before which left permanent damage on both my knees. Therefore, after the initial half hour, the physical pain started taking over my meditation. Soon the pain became unbearable but I convinced myself that it wasn’t going to kill me. But the soreness got worse and worse and I started crying, silently. As the tears rolled down my cheeks and chin, causing itchiness, my runny nose joined the parade and soon I was sweating. I had a blocked nose and my lips were also filled with a mixture of tears, sweat and slime, blocking my ability to breathe. My bodily pain was joined by a feeling of suffocation and I had no connection with the people around me or the world outside. I started crying more intensely then because it was like a mini-simulation of my life in the past ten years. I still sat determined not to let go of my position until the chanting started at the end of the Additthana sitting, it would be a disaster to disappoint myself. I didn’t let go because it wasn’t an option. Just like life sometimes. You can’t let go because it’s not an option. I felt lucky that I didn’t have to put on a happy face on top, so in that sense, Additthana was better to me than life is sometimes. In real life, no one wants to be around your negative energy when experiencing grief, heartbreak, depression or all at the same time and you’re better off just listening to Nina Simone singing You’ve Got to Learn and pop a Xanax. That Additthana session will stay as a memorable hour of my life in my memory.

At the discourse of the same day, Goenka talked about how we get addicted to cravings for what we don’t want to happen. It was an outstanding discourse, and I am not one to be impressed easily when it comes to Guru speeches.

On Day 7 appeared a cute little puppy at the Center. The poor thing was sniffing every one of us so enthusiastically without getting much of a response. Out of all places it had come to choose the one where people weren’t allowed to show any affection to it. This reminded me of a past relationship. However, towards the end of the day a few of us had given up on the animal cruelty and pat it a few times and even fed it biscuits. Our situation and the Center where we were looked like a bit of an institution at times, everyone looking down while walking, our moonwalk and the silent dining room line ups. The puppy had become our joy in just half a day, it was lovely to have it around, until the next morning a computer printed note was hang in the dining room which read : PLEASE IGNORE ALL ANIMALS (DOGS, CATS ETC.). So I went back to my favorite activity of rubbing on the rosemaries in the garden. But there was no lamb to go with it.

It was an interesting experience to observe people during the breaks. Not knowing what they sound like, what they do in life and what brought them to this retreat. I guess the noble silence provides one with the necessary compassion as it lowers our tendency for judgment. Despite the wow of silence, it wasn’t hard to figure out the chatter birds who had very quickly discovered the nun free blind spots to whisper each other a few words which was cute.

On Day 8, I found a little note on my breakfast table advising me that I was assigned to the meditation cell number A-8. I remembered that the previous night I had left a note on the notice board out of boredom, which read : SILENT DISCO TONIGHT, ROOM TBA. I don’t know why I did that, I guess it was just too much discipline for me and I had missed to laugh and have fun. So I thought I was being punished with solitary confinement to meditate in a cell. I had no idea what a meditation cell was and after the many Additthana sittings, it had started crossing my mind that we were being trained to attend a S&M fetish party at the end. However it was no punishment. We were taking turns to meditate in meditation cells and each meditator was appointed to a cell for two days. That’s why people had been disappearing at times throughout the course, when I thought they were just sleeping in or taking a nap, which isn’t allowed. The cell was a tiny changing cabin like room of about 1.5 sqm with a meditation mat on the floor and nothing else and I was told to sit facing a certain direction. I meditated as instructed, observing all the sensations in my body from head to toes and from toes to head.

On Day 9, I was proud of myself as I had now no doubts that I’d complete the course. I decided to look into other Vipassana Centers in other locations, especially in India. Apparently, there were also 20, 30 and 45 day retreats. One might as well learn to read minds in a 45 day silent retreat I thought.

On Day 10 from 10am onwards, the noble silence left its place to the noble chatting and we were all quiet happy to clear our throats this time because we could actually speak. There was even a fruit punch at lunch and bread crumbed mushrooms that looked like KFC chicken and a few of us got really excited even just with the resemblance.

The repeated equanimity and anicca (impermanence) principles of this course reminded me of the Philosophy for Change course I had undertaken at Sydney Community College some time ago. This was the Meditation for Change version which isn’t very far from stoicism in its philosophical essence and advocating for positive change for all, starting from within.

All in all, it had been a spiritual journey and a meditation marathon. A great option for those of us who are pushing limits to train for a half marathon or the corporate triathlon. We might as well complement our wellbeing with a silent meditation marathon. At the end of the day, it’s a unique experience where one has nothing to lose but much to gain.

When my friend picked me up on Day 11 after breakfast and our cleaning duties, I was keen to go for a run, swim, jump, eat ice cream and to chat away. I also decided to increase the acts of kindness in my daily life and stick to my meditation practice on a daily basis.

May all living beings be happy. 

Janset Berzeg

Social Impact and Capacity Building Consultant, MA International Development, BA Labour Ec. & Ind. Rel. – Australia Awards 2010