Sit Still and Be Quiet – Ten Days of Silent Meditation

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WMD’s- Weapons of Mass Distraction filter into our lives 24/7

Rarely do we get the opportunity to unplug for more than eight hours at a time and that’s only if we sleep that long! I chose to unplug completely, surrender all my electronic devices, go into silence and meditate for ten days. Could you?

There are hundreds of different types of meditation taught in this world. Why did I choose the Vipassana technique? The Buddha created this type of meditation 2500 years ago which seemed to make it more reliable to me. Is its methodology still suitable and applicable to our present lives? I decided to dive in to find out.

There are 155 Vipassana centers in the world. I chose the one in the western region of Java, Indonesia, near the city of Bogor.

It’s about a one hour drive from its sprawling capital of Jakarta. The lush, mountainous region is ideal for contemplation, complete silence and instruction. 

The group of participants, an equal balance of men and women, about fifty each, agreed to surrender their electronic devices for this rigorous mind training and to sit still and be silent for ten days.

Upon my check in, I had a small inkling of what boot camp must feel like to new military inductees. No head shave included thank goodness, nor uniforms, but regimented with plenty of rules.

When I applied for this course months before, I signed a contract of sorts, agreeing to proper ethics, behavior, dress code (modest) and completion of the ten-day course.  Handing over all my electronics and valuables, I was given receipts for pickup at the conclusion.

I asked for a single room instead of a shared room or a dorm, as my friend recommended. I played the senior card, which I do when I want to be comfortable. My friend had recently attended and said that it worked for her. I was told to come back after everyone had registered to see if they could accommodate me and was assigned to a shared room till then.

Multitudes of accents chattered around me, everyone getting to know one another during the orderly but lengthy registration process before the course officially began. I’m quite a social person by nature, but for some odd reason, chatting didn’t interest me. I was already into the silent mode before the course had begun. Not talking with anyone was probably interpreted as unfriendly by some; however, I smiled and made eye contact, something that wasn’t allowed once the course began. Seating assignments for all our meals were also given at registration.  Sitting on folding metal chairs at long tables facing the wall, or tables for two, sitting side by side, not across from each other, were the only two options for all meals. I sat next to the same person at a tiny table facing someone’s back for ten days, just a tad more interesting than the wall that she was facing!

Males and females are separated throughout the course, staying on different sides of the meditation and dining halls, and accommodations on opposite sides of the property. Obviously, this is to help with the other distinct form of mass distraction.

My assigned roommate was already arranging sheets on her bed in the tiny room when I entered. I went back to the reception and requested my own space once again, but told, none were available.

The rooms were basic, sparse and clean; the food, fresh and vegetarian.

After a simple dinner, orientation with Noble Silence, the course officially began. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. There should be no talking nor any other form of communication including physical contact or eye contact. While students may exercise during rest periods by walking around the center, neither yoga or other physical exercises are allowed. That’s right, not even yoga! This is my go-to form of exercise for the past twenty-five years. I was already experiencing a little anxiety about not exercising for ten days. How would I feel?

Typical Daily Schedule

4:00 a.m.  —   Morning wake-up bell

4:30-6:30 a.m. —   Meditate in Dharma Hall or in your room

6:30-8:00 a.m. —   Breakfast 

8:00-9:00 a.m. —   Group meditation in Dharma Hall

9:00-11:00 a.m. —   Meditate in Dharma Hall or in your room according to teacher’s instruction

11:00 -12 noon —  Lunch 

12 noon–1:00 p.m. —  Rest, private Q&A session with teacher (via sign up sheet)

1:00-2:30 p.m. —  Meditate in Dharma Hall or in your room

2:30-3:30 p.m. —  Group meditation in Dharma Hall

3:30-5:00 p.m. —  Meditate in Dharma Hall or in your room

5:00-6:00 p.m. —  Tea 

6:00-7:00 p.m. —  Group meditation in Dharma Hall

7:00-8:15 p.m. —    Teacher’s Discourse in Dharma Hall

8:15-9:00 p.m. — Group meditation in Dharma Hall

9:00-9:30 p.m. —   Open Q&A session in Dharma Hall

10:00 p.m. — Lights out

Did I enjoy waking each day at 4 o’dark as my friend Beth, a former flight attendant called it? Not at all! Did I choose to meditate at 4:30 in my room instead of getting dressed for the meditation hall?  Yes.

Breakfast and lunch were all-you-can-eat, self-serve style. I imagined”Tea” listed on the schedule at 5 p.m. to be English Tea, with nice little cookies and tiny sandwiches cut into interesting shapes. Wrong! It was tea.  Served out of a metal bucket, so sweet and strong I couldn’t drink it. Served with a lonely slice of melon next to it, that was the last meal of the day. I tried to console myself that first night, knowing I would break-fast in a mere thirteen and one half hours. I also made a note to self, fill up on breakfast and lunch from now on.

The last event of each day, 7:00-8:15 p.m., was Teacher’s Discourse in Dharma Hall shown on a small video screen. These were taped teachings by the founder Satya Narayan Goenka who took his last breath on September 2013. He has left a lasting legacy of the Vipassana technique and Centers, which is now available for people to learn throughout the world.

Each night a different topic, building on the last to help us understand Vipassana Meditation practice; all practical lessons on how to live a more balanced life, free from suffering of our thoughts, desires, and every day worries.

The first three days were focused simply on respiration (Anapana.)  Feeling the air pass in and out of my nostrils and over the skin directly under my nose, that’s all!  For hours I sat cross-legged on a pillow just being aware of my breath coming in and going out of my nostrils. To liberate from suffering, there are 3 steps in the training; 1. morality, purity of actions (sila), 2. concentration, control of one’s own mind (samadhi), and 3. wisdom (panna).  The precepts of this course and Noble Silence are means to help students to stay moral and keep purity of actions, so then, the students can obtain a calm, focused mind. And only when the mind is calm and focused, one can gain wisdom and insight which purify the mind further.

Living in a mountain monastery with a strict vegetarian diet in small quarters, communal bathrooms, and a tough 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily schedules, I felt like a monk.  By day three I was aware that my external thoughts were beginning to drift away. Each day my internal emotional landscape fluctuated, from questioning myself regarding this particular choice and being grateful for the experience. My physical body took on new challenges due to sitting for hours and not exercising. The teaching of equanimity was timely at this juncture. With equanimity, there should be neither craving for pleasant things or aversion for unpleasant things. Of course, we could enjoy all the pleasure and luxuries in this world, but remember that everything is impermanent, so when these pleasures leave you and one day they will, you aadon’t crave for their return. Nothing is guaranteed forever in the first place, was the lesson here.

On day two, returning to my room after lunch, I saw the bed next to mine was cleared of the mattress and all my room mate’s belongings.  Was it something I said? No, it couldn’t be, I was silent. Could it be that the Universe conspired to give me private accommodations after all?  I found out later that Day 2 and Day 6 is when most people decide the course is not for them and drop out.

Even if I wanted to quit I couldn’t. I grew up in mid-west America, my DNA etched too deep inside of me. If you say you’re going to do something, you damn well better do it! You just don’t go back on your word. I was there for the duration no matter what.

Another term was introduced to the class, (adhitthana) confirmed determination that can’t be shaken under any circumstances. We got to practice this too during meditation. This also meant no wiggling, moving, scratching or stretching. I’m a fairly active person so just the thought of this goal, to sit with back straight on a cushion without moving for one hour seemed impossible. Meditation, whatever form, is called a practice for a reason. You are practicing what you have been taught. It was challenging but useful to observe an itch, a kink in the lower back, a dry throat, and really feel it, without reacting to it.  Sometimes. it went away, other times intensified, or moved, but objectively just observing it without judgment, without reacting to it is the practice. Observing an annoyance, pain, an itch, discomfort, noises, actually worked. This teaching transfers into a useful skill in my daily life, learning to observe the situation without reacting to it. The fact that eventually, I did sit for an hour, three times a day, several days in a row without moving amazed me. 

The question arose, why are 10 days needed in this particular setting? The answer, this is designed to help the students to experience first-hand the world within. We can borrow knowledge from others, but the experience of other people isn’t our own reality. It is our own reality only if we have experienced it ourselves. This is also a good answer when people ask me why I do the challenging things I do! To experience something myself.

Let’s face it, living in the modern world is hard to bear at times. Stress and depression are so common that now many of us are seeking a solution.  People are turning to meditation more as they fail to find the answer through worldly paths. Even those who are not on a spiritual path find it useful to focus and calm the mind so that it functions better. Science has now proven that to be one of the many benefits of meditation.

People asked me if the ten days flew by or did it drag? One day just turned into the next as I got used to the schedule, and soon fell into the flow of things. With my mind calm and clear, I eventually lost track of days and dates, as it is easy to do without clocks on the wall or any devices beeping, reminding me. As I finished meditation one morning and left the meditation hall before breakfast, I heard animated voices outside.  I immediately found it an unpleasant and unfamiliar sound to my ears similar to nails on a chalkboard. I was shocked at the noise level. Then it dawned on me, the course was finished! I really had lost track of time. I didn’t join in any of the groups immediately; I had come accustomed to not speaking and it seemed strange to use my voice. I just observed from the side lines and it was a no brainer that many of these people had become good friends during these ten days, talking amongst themselves prior to this last day even though we were committed to silence. My blatant naiveté showed up once again!  “Oh, I thought we were supposed to be silent the entire time,” I thought to myself……

It felt like an important accomplishment when the course was finished. Was it worth it? From my own experience, it was challenging but worth it. I know I like challenges and the feeling I get when I have finished something I wasn’t sure I could. I learned new techniques that translate into my daily life, more patience with myself and others. Not getting upset so readily (usually) when things appear to not be what I planned. This has been so useful as things don’t always go as I want them to, especially when traveling. It was something I found useful time and again long after I had left the center.

That farewell morning was spent cleaning our rooms, bathrooms and the grounds thoroughly while everyone chatted amongst themselves. At breakfast, people talked of their plans, what they were doing and where they were going next.  One woman I had admired for her elegance and presence during the course, talked about her upcoming five-day journey across Java, beginning within hours. Iwona named many of the places I had on my bucket list and some I had already seen. I had nothing to lose and feeling quite calm and focused I walked into her room later while she was mopping the floor, and introduced myself. I asked her if she would like company on her travels, as I would like to go along and pay my share of the expenses. She seemed taken aback at first. “Holding the mop in midair, she said,”I need to think about it.” I continued on with my own cleaning duties. Fifteen minutes later she met me outside with a big smile and said, “I would be delighted to have you join me!” 

Two hours later her prearranged driver picked us up for the first leg of our exciting five-day journey across Java stopping at all the high lights, ending with a ferry to Bali, but that’s another story.

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