Breaking The Silence

To quote Kenny Rogers, sometimes ‘you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em’ and after just 48 hours at the silent meditation retreat outside Mumbai, I knew it was time to pack it in.  I had booked a visit to the Vipassana International Meditation Institute on the advice of a friend (much younger and obviously more agile), to explore 10 days of silent meditation. Vipassana means to see things as they really are and follow Buddhist style teachings.  I would take a vow of ‘noble silence’ for the full 10 days to learn the techniques.  When I applied for a spot I was still working in a very stressful job, so I was looking for a way to calm my mind and spirit, quiet all the chatter that would start the moment I’d open my eyes in the morning.  After being off work for 4 months that wasn’t really an issue any longer, but that’s not why I quit the experience.  I was prepared for the mental challenge and looking forward to learning how to meditate properly without the fear that they would try to indoctrinate or brainwash me into joining a religion or cult.  This is a multi-denominational program that doesn’t rely on mantras or visualizations to achieve that inner peace.  I hired a car and driver to take me to the institute in the town of Igatpuri, about 140km from Mumbai.  I arrived early afternoon in the sweltering heat, unloaded my bags and went to the registration area to sign in.  It was a lengthy, tedious process with nearly 100 men, (men and women are strictly segregated from the moment of arrival – even married couples) all doing the same thing.  We had to fill out numerous forms, sometimes repeating the same information over and over again, then move to the next table for more checks and instructions. We would wait in orderly fashion sometimes on benches and when the first person in line would move out we would all shuffle one more position, it felt very robotic but I guess that’s how they are able to maintain order.  At one of the last tables I was interviewed by a man who told me I would have to remove my bracelets and ring, and when I couldn’t get one of my small bead bracelets off… they cut it off (I had been told giving up body ornamentation was for veteran students only). I was finally assigned to my room and sent to one more area where I would surrender my valuables plus my mobile phone, iPod, laptop, pens, paper, books, anything that could distract me from the meditation process.  For me that meant my big backpack, which I had loaded up with all those things earlier, keeping my clothes and toiletries in a separate bag.  When I finally found my room I was pleasantly surprised to learn I had lucked out with a private cabin with an overhead fan, a single bed and my own bathroom, no shower though, just 3 buckets  and a pouring cup.  I dropped my bags, filled a bucket and decided to give everything a wipe down (since it was in the men’s enclosure, men are not known to be the cleanest).  There’s hot water only available from 6:30-7:45am each day so I used cold water and shampoo (you improvise when you have to).  We hadn’t begun the ‘noble silence’ yet, so I walked around the grounds of the campus and of course people were staring at me, something I’ve been getting used to especially  in India. One man actually asked me why I had earrings and a nose ring, I responded ‘because I like them’ and that seemed to shut him up.  I met a young man from Germany who had both ears pierced as well.  He had taken the course once before at the Vipassana Centre in Germany that was housed in a former Nazi facility – very weird.  He told me he had just come from a meeting where they wanted to kick him out because he hadn’t been using only Vipassana techniques since taking the course.  He had managed to convince them he would follow the rules.  It was strange because whenever we would pass each other after that, we had to maintain ‘noble silence’ which meant no nodding or gestures, avoid touching and absolutely no talking, so while we would recognize each other we would quickly look away.  You learn to keep your head down to avoid breaking the vow.  Despite that I would still see people staring at me, whispering, gesturing to friends, I even saw one group of older men trying to check out the forbidden ‘female section’.  Exercise and yoga are also forbidden, but the campus is huge and is nestled in the mountains so it is very hilly with lots of stairs so you get a good workout anyway…  it is also very very hot!  There are meeting areas scattered around the campus called Dhamma Halls and one large golden pagoda in the middle with rows of windows in the  bottom third where there are ‘cells’  where people are sometimes sent to meditate.  There are other rules you have to abide by; no reading or writing (keeping a diary is absolutely forbidden), no smoking, you must maintain modesty at all times which means no going shirtless or wearing shorts, no outside contact, no cameras and you must surrender yourself completely to the teacher, which means don’t question them just take what they are saying as the truth.  You have to give up all other rites, rituals and other meditation techniques, no incense, beads, rosaries, singing, dancing or praying.  You also have to accept the 5 precepts; abstain from killing (everything is vegetarian), abstain from stealing, abstain from all sexual activity, abstain from telling lies, abstain from all intoxicants.  Veteran students also have to abstain from food after noon and abstain from using high and luxurious beds (my bed is off the ground but is far from luxurious – a thin mattress on a wooden board and no pillow).  You are also not supposed to pick up any plant or animal, dead or alive, which may explain why all the footpaths are covered in bird excrement.   You don’t pay anything,  it’s all donation based, but new students are not allowed to make a donation until they complete the course.   As I waited for things to begin I realized I was bored already, what do you do in your down time except walk around the campus with your head down or sit in your room staring at the bare walls. It’s like a kinder, gentler form of prison (although prisoners can at least communicate).  It does feel safe though, a good setting for relaxing the mind.  As I sat in my room waiting for the introduction to begin, I saw a flash of white light across my window – ‘am I losing my mind already?’.  I opened the door and saw my neighbour was out taking pictures! he looked at me with a guilty look on his face before running back inside his cabin. It’s a big no-no and I wondered how he was able to smuggle his camera inside the compound.  We all gathered and were separated into smaller groups of about 20-25 and were introduced to the techniques.  We have to focus on our breathing – that’s it- and not try to control it like other meditation practices, just focus on breathing through our nose.  That first session was only one hour but already every muscle in my body was screaming in pain.  We were able to shift position and the entire room was constantly moving from one position to the next without getting up or disturbing others.  We were all assigned cushions that we would sit on in the same place each day.  We also had to keep our eyes closed during each session so we wouldn’t become distracted.  Occasionally the silence would be broken by the teacher chanting over speakers around the room, that low, deep, throaty droning sound of Buddhist chants… it was actually soothing.  This was just the introduction, the next day it would all begin… and here’s how our daily schedule would look:

4am- morning wake up bell

4:30-6:30 –meditation

6:30-7:15 – breakfast

7:15-8:00 – rest

8:00-11:00 – meditation

11:00-11:45 – lunch

11:45-1:00 – rest (also when you would have private meetings with asst. teacher)

1:00-5:00 – meditation

5:00-5:30 – tea

5:30-6:00 – rest

6:00-7:00 –meditation

7:00-8:30 – teacher’s discourse (explaining the techniques)

8:30-9:00 – meditation

9:00-9:30 – question time

9:30 – retire to room and lights out

The first session of the day I was finding it hard to focus because of all the distractions: outside from the dozens of crows loudly waking up, dogs barking continuously, a rooster crowing. And in the hall itself non-stop coughing (someone or another was always coughing in every session), sneezing, people yawning out loud, snorting, clearing their throat by hoarking loudly (a bad habit a lot of Indian men seem to have –it’s disgusting!), burping, farting (yes I said it), there was even a guy snoring!  But worst of all was the pain that was building, the muscles in my back and my joints; feet, knees, hips and spine.  I’m not sure if all of that was from holding positions for so long or if part of it was the heat and altitude, even my hands were hurting.  After lunch I was relaxing in my room when suddenly there was a loud pounding on my door, when you are in the midst of so much peace and tranquility (outside of the meditation hall) it is very unsettling and frightening to hear something so loud.  I nervously opened the door and there was a little old man with a note saying the assistant teacher wanted to see me… ‘oh oh what had I done wrong already?’  When I got to the hall there were about 30 of us all lined up, single file, seated on the floor in 3 rows waiting to speak to the 3 assistant teachers (the TEACHER is only seen and heard on DVD – he’s not actually at the centre).  It turned out he just wanted to know how I was finding sitting for such long periods because of my arthritis.  I told him it was painful but he said I would learn to control it.  He told me some pain is physical the rest is psychological… try telling that to my swollen joints.  In the middle of the 4 hour afternoon session I was starting to question whether I should continue.  The pain was excruciating, and when my feet started tingling and getting pins and needles, I started to wonder about the safety of sitting cross legged for hours – what about deep-vein thrombosis? (I haven’t been able to find any evidence of it yet, but it was definitely another concern.)  After the 3rd hour I got called back to the assistant teacher in a small group.  He wanted to know if we were able to maintain focus.  One guy said he had a feeling of electrical shock and another said he had a feeling of lightness like he was floating on a cloud – what drugs were they on? The Assistant Teacher told them it was just the mind playing tricks, I think it’s because I could hear them hyperventilating during meditation.  I decided I would try to stick it out, but I would not jeopardize my long term health.  I enjoyed the solitude and introspection, but I think I’d prefer doing it on a deserted island somewhere instead of sitting next to a group of burping, farting and hoarking men.    The next morning I was in position and trying to stay positive – at 4:30am- and I had a very good first hour. I was able to block out the distractions and remain focussed… but then the pain started.  After breakfast, during our 3 hour marathon session I had completely lost it.  Every joint in my body was on fire and time seemed to stand still.  I would try to focus on my breathing and when it seemed like 10 minutes had passed, I would check my watch and realize it had only been 2-3 minutes.  It was agony and near the end of the session, I was starting to plan my escape.  I realized I had better ‘zen’ moments watching the surf roll onto the beach or staring at a sunset or being hypnotized by the flames in a fireplace.  This was torturous and the worst part hadn’t even started yet.  On Day 5 you begin 3 one hour sessions each day where you maintain your position without moving.  It’s called ‘Sittings of Strong Determination’.  This was just not going to happen for me.  I’m sure it works for a lot of people… I gave it a shot, but decided I’d had enough. After lunch I went to the assistant teacher and told him I was leaving. He was shocked and said ‘you know you can change position now’.  I said it just wasn’t going to work, it was too painful.  He finally said okay and filled out a note for me.  I then had to be escorted to ‘the office’ where I had to wait my turn outside the “principal’s” door.  I had to explain myself again, they were not happy but saw I was determined.  They made me fill out more forms and gave me a note that I would have to show security or they wouldn’t allow me to leave the grounds… just like prison.  They called a car to drive me back to Mumbai, but wouldn’t allow me to call and book a hotel room until I left the campus.  As we drove out the front gate I started to smile.  I felt  huge weight lifting off my shoulders and I felt free… I didn’t look back.

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3 Responses to “Breaking The Silence”

  1. Amanda
    March 6 at 11:12 am #

    OMG it sounds like prison – only worse as you said!!!! Burping, farting – I would have been giggling and gaging – that would have kicked me out! Ha ha, good for you for checking it out though and NOT wasting your extra days on it!!

  2. Feliks Perera
    March 6 at 2:29 pm #

    Hi Darren,
    this is a frightening experience. I only hope that you do not suffer from some trauma later on. To the western culture this is all a nightmare. So it is to those in the asian culture educated in the neural sciences. The poor and the ill educated can accept these things, but not a thinking mind with the frontal lobes working well. I remember explaining to you about these deep breathing exercises. You can shut down the Parietals very easily. I am glad that you wrote it all in this blog, as many will read and will stay away from all this mumbo jumbo. Many educated indians too do not follow this crap, but many westerners with mental issues get sucked into it. You are a very talented man and you can cope with life without any of this. However, this is an experience you can write and talk about when you get back home
    cheers Feliks


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