Imagine a world without sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Then remove cigarettes and alcohol from the equation. For good measure, why not banish meat too. And then to top it all off, let’s pretend that neither speaking nor reading exist on our plane. This is the reality of a Vipassana silent retreat, and in this world there’s only one thing to do: meditate.
Allegedly the same meditation technique that Gotama the Buddha harnessed in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment and reach nirvana, the practise of Vipassana stretches back about 2500 years into the past and its spread is global, even if its teacher is no longer with us here on Earth. Burmese Vipassana master S.N. Goenka passed away in 2013, but his wisdom now lives on in the audio and video recordings that participants on a retreat are privy to.
Alongside the occasional question you’re permitted to ask a (living) teacher at the end of another long day devoid of the usual distractions, Goenka’s multimedia presence is one of the few breaks in what’s described as ‘noble silence’—that’s silence, by the way, that extends to a blanket ban on gestures, eye contact, and interpretive dance.
Despite that, the idea of subjecting myself to ten solid days of noble silence deep in the pine woods of northern California was still an intriguing proposition. After all, if Leonard Cohen could manage an entire five months in seclusion as a Buddhist monk—a spell in which he was given the name ‘Jikan’, which roughly translates as ‘the silence between two thoughts’—then perhaps it was time to follow his lead. Perhaps it was time to close my mouth and open my mind.
Unlike Jikan, conversion wasn’t my aim. While Vipassana is Buddhist in origin, video-Goenka considers the technique to be secular so there’s no question of converting to Buddhism. In essence he asks that you accept only two ideas: One, that all things must pass. Two, that the way to happiness is to greet this news with equanimity.
It is important to remember, though, that Vipassana isn’t really about intellectualized pontification. Instead, it is about observing your body and the sensations that emanate from and throughout it at a level bordering on the microscopic.
The first three full days of the course are dedicated to Anapana meditation, which means just observing the sensation of your own breath coming in and going out through your nose. All that nasal-gazing comes in handy on the fourth day when you’re introduced to Vipassana and your now carefully sharpened mind is set free to examine your entire body.
It’s a strangely sensual experience, that borders on being, well, sexy. Granted most of the time when someone tells you: “Move slowly from head to toe, taking notice of every sensation,” they haven’t been dead for the last five years.
Understandably, ten near solid days of silence doesn’t affect everyone identically. Many of my fellow Vipassanas told me — on the final day, of course, when speech is allowed again – that they found the experience deeply therapeutic, opening up and healing long-suppressed mental wounds.
Personally, I find prolonged periods away from the world profoundly boring. And panic-inducing, too. Oh, and frustrating: there were points where I just wanted to steal a marker pen from the bathroom and write notes on paper towels.
Meanwhile, the guy sat to my immediate left finds the meditation so overwhelming that he often sounds as if he’s repeatedly coming to shuddering orgasms. I’ll have what he’s having.
In the end, as I leave the retreat, I feel a change coming over me too. I’m filled with a sense of bliss and wonder. The world is at my fingertips. My face is lit by a warm glow. They’ve finally given me my phone back.