The 10 days of COMPLETE SILENCE that changed my life
Going in blind, I had no idea what I was in for;
these were the longest 10 days of my life.
I only heard about this sort of program from a friend who did this many years ago. I had no prior experience in meditation nor had much of a desire more than just to address spirituality in my life — I’m not religious. After googling “Northern California silent meditation,” I arrived at Dhamma Manda in Kelseyville, CA — 1 hour north of San Francisco.
Day 0: Give Up Your Phone
Upon checking in, every student surrenders his/her cell phone and any valuables they wish to keep safe throughout the program. No electronics, no writing utensils, no books, nothing that might distract one from mental stillness. They assigned me to the male dorm (yes, males/females were separated), a building with several rooms of 2–5 people and a communal bathroom. I saw I only had 1 roommate judging by his belongings and…
social anxiety set in at the fear of living with a stranger for the next 10 days. I didn’t even know his name.
But before the program officially started, I met Bob, a middle-aged energetic man, who had been introduced to this program by his son, who was attending the retreat for the 3rd time. I was a little envious that I never had a relationship with my dad where we would be engaged in something like this.
Upon entering the meditation hall, we were introduced by S.N. Goenka (pronounced “g oh – y uh nk – aa”) on video from ’91. He was a high profile businessman in Burma who sought healing after incurring numerous incurable pains. No doctor helped until he learned the practice of Vipassana through a Buddhist monk. Once travelling to India and Nepal, his teachings spread and people from all over the world would travel to learn from Goenka.
The instructors that were leading the course guided us through his teachings.
Code of Discipline: The 8 Precepts
to abstain from…
1. killing any being (why we ate vegetarian meals);
3. all sexual activity;
4. telling lies;
5. all intoxicants.
6. eating after midday (1st timers actually were offered a small fruit plate and tea at 5pm);
7. sensual entertainment and bodily decorations;
8. using high or luxurious beds
On top of the precepts, we were to observe Noble Silence, which basically meant…
no EYE CONTACT
no HAND GESTURES
…in order to achieve mental stillness and promote working in isolation.
beds were made from a simple wooden frame with no box spring but just a mattress pad
Grasping this concept was the most difficult as someone who likes having control in generally most aspects of life. Being as quiet and still as possible in a comfortable seating position, we would focus on the physical sensations around and inside our nose. At first, you question yourself thinking “I’m not feeling anything” and then your mind wanders. Frustrated and lost, my mind wandered and wandered. Many aspects from my past came to the surface that I had been distracting myself with: my family, my friends, my recently lost girlfriend, who had been my crutch in a difficult time of my life.
Felt hot and sweaty.
Anxiety set in.
But you know what?
A wandering mind is OK and normal.
After some consultation with the teacher (yes, you may actually talk to the teacher or course manager for issues), I was set to focus on the return to breath. This was key. You’re allowed to wander, to feel, to respond; you feel what you feel — your job is to observe these things. Once you’re done observing, return to the breath. After 2 minutes, again my mind would wander. Again I would cry. I observed, and I returned to the breath. We did this over and over, for hours and hours, for days and days.
After a day or 2, I started honing on the different sensations surrounding my nose: the warmth of air exiting my nose that I’d feel on my upper lip, the cold breeze tickling my nose hairs on the intake, and even the slight expansion/contraction of my nostrils with each breath. Just observe.
Day 4: Vipassanā
Getting here was a feat! Now we learn the actual technique — prior to this was merely preparation (I know, right?).
We started at the top of the head and scanned one’s body from top to bottom of every physical sensation: tingling of your hair, skin contracting, burning sensations, cooling sensations, even the clothes on your skin, and the pain in your legs.
The objective was to identify, observe, and remain unbiased towards these sensations. Do not react negatively to pain, or react positively to pleasure. Do not react in relief when the pain subsides, and do not react negatively when pleasure leaves. Of course, if you have a response to the sensations, that is fine, just observe it with equanimity.
I was freaking relieved to learn that. I quit learning tablas when I was young because I had to sit cross-legged/full lotus/”Indian style” for the entire 2 hour session. I’m not flexible. I can’t touch my toes bending over, even after pushing myself stretching for months.
It took a few days to figure out the best sitting position. I settled on a combination of butt, knee, and ankle cushions on top of a meditation bench — all provided.
Pro tip: Don’t get a collapsible one; they’re so loud as they collapse!
There were others who had chairs, sat against the wall, or had a floor chair. Whatever works.
By day 7, we were encouraged to remain seated in 1 position without opening your eyes, moving your hands, or change positions. So far I’d last about 45 minutes before my legs went numb and had to switch it up.
But you know what? I heard the ending chants before I had to move today. Yes…
The last few days were so quiet; no shuffling, no belly grumbles — you could sense the collective calmness in the air.
Day 11: Noble Silence Ends with Mettā — Universal Love
Instead of going through all the tragedies of my past and the difficult feelings that risen through this practice, we learned Mettā. This is love and compassion for all. I’ll admit, I’m far away from feeling it, but I tried practicing it. This ended the journey on a much sweeter note.
After morning meditation, Noble Silence ended and chatter erupted. I thought people would stay quiet, and I felt a little anti social, but my week-long roommate, Bob, pulled me into the conversation he was having with others and pretty soon I was one of them.
Talking and sharing experiences with people that I’ve been working with side-by-side in total isolation was one of the most rewarding parts. I met a lot of good people; many who were so multi-faceted and relatable to me in ways I never found before.
Cost of Admission: Pay It Forward
I attended this program completely for free because a generous soul had donated their time and/or money to allow me to have it. This organization does not have private investors; this is completely volunteer run. I had such volition from the benefits I received that I set a monthly donation for my home center in Northern California — the only other donating I do is to the World Wildlife Fund through Amazon Smile. I’m not asking you to donate, and they don’t either, until you take the course and actually feel the benefits for yourself.
Aftermath: Pulling out Saṅkhāras
I’m sad to say I am not practicing in my daily life. The recommended practice is 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour at night. If you’re too busy to meditate for 2 hours a day, then you should meditate for 2 hours each morning and night!
But what I have taken back is control of my life. I’m continually working on being less reactive to situations, especially those out of my control.
Previously, my negativity had been growing inside me like a tree, and I’ve been fueling it with hate, despair, and self-loathing. This tree bears fruit, which falls to the ground, and thus that negative seed is planted in others around me. This dark seed grows another tree, which bares more negative fruit, which plants more dark seeds in others. I am finally working on negating the process of multiplication through active work in my life.
While not practicing, I’ve gained clarity on what I need to focus on in my life to experience real happiness, real peace. No, it isn’t snowboarding down the rocky mountains or biking along the California coast. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I know I’m on a righteous path now.
Take a free 10-day Vipassanā and judge for yourself whether or not it benefits your life.
If you’re too busy, then definitely set aside time to take one.