In the summer of 2005, having just moved to Montreal, I took the bus to the Eastern Townships for 10 days of silence.
Upon arrival I handed over my pen and journal, my earbuds and iPod, along with the book I had been reading.
I was gifted one of only five private cabins just outside of the main house where I could spread out and be comfortable without any concerns for the roommate that those inside the main building would have. I found a pencil under the bed and its tip was worn right down to the wood. I wondered who had been in the room before me, and what they were scrawling on with the exhausted illegal writing tool. I was excited-scared.
As all of the other participants arrived, fifty of us, we casually mingled around the property until the bell called us into the main dining room. Just before the drape was pulled across the thread that divided the space into two halves—men and women—I caught a glimpse of a couple who were returning for the second time. They smiled at one another and hugged, one of them started to cry. Oh fuck. What have I gotten myself into?
I barely remember the structure of the first day, but as the routine of meals and meditation settled in, I wondered seriously, how I was going to get through the next ten days.
There was a brass bell that hung from its wooden handle on the front door frame of the main building. Someone walked the property at 4am clanging that thing so loudly the trees quivered. The first meditation of the day was to begin after the second bell at 4:30. There were days the second bell would sound before I heard the first. It was a special kind of hell, but I was appreciating the challenge having heard so many of my peers rave about their experience at Vipassana. It took me three days to finally get quiet. There were 10+ hours of meditation each day, and despite there being a technique to follow that was meant to bring the mind into the body, I spent much of my time performing a silent soundtrack of music in my head. When thoughts would pop up, I would have a song ready to complete the experience in my mind. I’m not entirely sure I wasn’t also dancing a bit on my meditation cushion. During the short walking breaks, I skipped and kicked my legs out in front of me to get the blood moving through my lower limbs. It was all a bit silly.
Things changed drastically for me on day three when we gathered for the first short meditation of the day—one hour, the short meditation was ONE HOUR. We were instructed not to move. No opening the eyes, no stretching the legs, no moving the hands. Suddenly the music stopped. All I could think was why no one had told me about this!? I wasted the first three days of technique-training and now I was being thrown into the stillness and silence completely unprepared. The method was not difficult and suddenly I was clinging to it as if it were the only grounded thing in a world without gravity. As per the instructions, I scanned my body, beginning at the top of my head on the right side. As soon as I felt sensation, my awareness would move the tiniest bit south in search of my body’s response to the spotlight of my attention. This continued until I felt every bit of my flesh through the cognition of my mind. My God, sitting is painful. The back of my head on the left side began to ache, and then my knees begged for movement as they cramped in their folded position, causing my feet to go from tingling to burning and then numb. A relentless ache settled into the bone as my feet cycled through this sleep-wake-repeat that was unbearable. But the instruction was to continue sequentially scanning the body despite the distraction. It’s really hard to breathe through that kind of unnecessary pain. Every ounce of concentration went into surviving that hour. My breath was shallow and while one side of my brain remained inside, scanning my body, the other was begging for release.
Goenka’s recorded chant broke the silence and I heard the sudden sobs of a woman behind me just as my own also released. Through urgent punching tears, I covered my face with my hands and wept with pain and relief.
We learned through observation that each one of us had a crazy person living inside of our head. The places she goes in the quiet moments are astonishing. She’s an absolute nutcase and I’m humiliated by her existence. I must never reveal her to the outside world. During the evening discourse on day four, the room erupts with uncontrolled laughter as Goenka refers to our internal crazy. How does he know? I’ve never seen this man before in my life, and he’s telling an extremely accurate story of my experience, that is also everyone else’s. The release of the laugh feels amazing.
At lunch I observe others as my form of entertainment. Meals, we learn quickly, are the only thing we can—sort of—control. The mind does all kinds of ridiculous things in meditation when technique falters, and I know for myself, I would let it; until the pain in my body pulled me back. In the dining hall, we could gain momentary comfort from stuffing our faces. I watch as meditators journey from stoic repose to desperate vultures around the food table. Collectively, we came to expect that every second day there would be dessert. I’m not sure if it’s a game of the servers, but the plate of fresh baked cookies would be set upon the table once we were all seated, shamelessly filling the void of personal connection through the comfort of food. One by one meditators abandon their half-eaten meal to grab a handful of cookies. HANDFULS! OMG. The emotional friction just thinking about not getting to the plate before it emptied was excruciating. We were reduced to indulging the crazy person living inside, the one who might actually crack over the loss of a cookie, and no one seemed to care if they were responsible for denying the next person of that last crumb. I just watched. And judged. Watched the vultures and felt my own panic rise. Thankfully there was always another cookie on the plate by the time I finished my meal. I indulged my own smug superiority, rewarding my restraint with an increased sense of pride. This was how I felt good. For the others it was a handful of cookies. For me it was judgment of them. I’m not proud of that.
Sometime after day five, wondering how I’m going to manage even one more day of silence, I start thinking about how I can get out of the mandatory don’t-move meditations that were scheduled three times each day. I wondered if I got the hiccups if someone would kick me out. The thought has me chuckling silently as I settle onto my cushion trying to remember which knee should be folded first to keep the pain from beginning too quickly, as if it mattered. Scanning my body, acknowledging and ignoring the burn in my knees, the silence is broken by a sudden chirp from somewhere behind me. Then a giggle. Chirp. Giggle. Chirp. Shuffle.
A woman near the door has the hiccups and she is being kicked out of the meditation hall!
Someone close by is giggling. I can’t believe what is happening. There is so much unexpressed emotion inside of me, I’m not sure I can hold it down. The giggler runs from the room, I can hear her bounding down the stairs, and just then from the far end of the corridor, another loud hiccup. I completely lose it. I have my head in my hands and my body is heaving with laughter. I’m snorting, and tears are running down my face. I cannot make it stop. The deep rumbling sound of suppressed hilarity in my throat is making things worse. I’m laughing at myself for predicting the hiccups and then laughing again because the crazy person is also psychic and she’s now shamelessly exposing herself. I’m surrounded by several dozen stoic meditators, but I’m all alone inside this comedy scene. Why haven’t they kicked me out yet?
The meditations begin to blend into one another. The first sit of each day is two hours, and on day seven I’m so exhausted by the busyness of my dreams at night that I find myself unable to stay awake. My body keeps slumping. Over and over again I awake just before my head hits the floor. It’s worse than the laughing fit. I break the rules, go to my room and sleep until breakfast.
Day nine is my 33rd birthday and the sunset is spectacular. I’m starting to appreciate the rhythm of silence. I’ve learned that alleviating the pain by repositioning my legs is ineffective. The sensation comes back with more force only seconds after the adjustment. If I remain still, the intensity peaks and then disappears for good. So many lessons in this one tiny exercise, and the resistance to learning it is astonishing.
Our final discourse is delivered in two groups: one in the meditation hall, one in the dining room below. A man in the other group has what resembles a psychotic break initiated by Goenka’s constant repetition of a single word throughout the talk. He is quietly ushered outside and I hope that the event is just the momentary emergence of his inner crazy and not anything more serious. But I’ll never know. Apparently psychotic episodes are not unusual during these courses.
Following the discourse we participate in one last meditation. This one is only 30 minutes but it feels as lengthy as the two-hour 4:30AM sit. I feel anxiety rising inside as I abandon the technique in anticipation of social interaction. As the subtle white noise of the recording fades out and meditators stretch their legs, one by one exiting the hall to join the buzz of conversation on the first floor, I am frozen on my cushion.
For ten days we have silently journeyed together through the rough terrain of our internal grounds. No one is going to understand how I feel right now better than these people, yet I’d rather remain alone inside the bubble of all I have just experienced. After another twenty minutes of self-inflicted isolation in the meditation hall, I creep down the stairs to join the group, but I don’t want to. Immediately I am embraced by a stranger and the emotion I was avoiding escapes in one heaving cry of relief. And I’m fine.
I am glad I experienced vipassana when I did. I would not do it again now. No way. Those ten days were among the hardest I have ever experienced, and the most worthwhile. It took ten days to learn the lesson of avoidance through the wisdom of my body. TEN days. It’s so simple I’m not sure if that amount of time is unreasonable, or a pithy.
I feel the looming challenge of the post COVID re-entry. If it doesn’t arrive for another year, I have that much longer to anticipate how I am going to make myself want to crawl out of my shell and join the world again.
I can wriggle and repeatedly adjust my way out of discomfort, but until the embers of disquiet completely burn up, there will be no final relief. The choice becomes impossible: feel, watch, experience the thick unwieldy texture of fever until it evaporates, or fight it. Run, deflect, deny. Live as best I can in the blissful moments between that looming avoidance, until the fatigue of the fight forces the sensation upon me anyway.