Sunday, 24 February 2013

Vipassana Retreat: A Journey into Silence

I went on a ten day Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, retreat over Christmas, at the International Meditation Centre near Chippenham, in Wiltshire. I had some trepidation about going, not least because it was a silent retreat; aside from speaking to the course leaders, we were supposed to not speak for the entire duration. I wondered how I was going to cope, and with a schedule of 6 hours meditation a day, in addition to the Buddhist discourses and tuition time.

But any trepidation I felt was put at ease immediately I arrived and spotted the enchanting pagoda, all lit up like a giant Christmas tree, and I was greeted warmly by a lovely person who showed me around. I was given a quick lesson in the first meditation we would be doing by Roger, the course leader who would be instructing us over the next ten days, and handed over my mobile phone (this wasn't mandatory, but I felt in order to properly immerse myself in the retreat this was a vital step. And so it proved).

It was lonely at times, and it was interesting to see how the mind writhed and wriggled, looking for an external distraction from any kind of pain. I missed people. The combination of a difficult meditation and the adjustment to a heavy meditation schedule meant that my mind thrashed about like a really annoyed mongoose at a heavy metal gig. I got bored and dispirited. It was interesting (and also painful) to see what the mind brought up, both in dreams and also during the day.

And yet. I experienced great feelings of happiness too, along with a sense of profound sacredness; especially in the walk to the meditation hall at 4am in the darkness; in silence, apart from birdsong or the bells on the top of the pagoda tinkling softly. Sitting in silence in the meditation hall felt very special. I cried tears of sorrow and also tears of laughter. Our course leader, Roger, was a very open and gentle person and it felt humbling to be around him. I loved being woken by a gong in the morning, I loved the pagoda with its pretty lights and golden turrets (which looked a bit surreal in the English countryside). And I really enjoyed some of the discourses on Buddhism.

We learned two different types of meditation while we were there, the mindfulness of breathing (anapana) and insight meditation (vipassana, which means 'to see things as they really are'). The anapana really shows how difficult it is initially to calm the mind down. (It was far more difficult than the technique I had learned at the Triratna Buddhist Centre, but because it has given me a greater appreciation of the mind I have far more respect for it.)

The day before we left was talking day, and it felt as though I already knew a couple of people I had been smiling at across the canteen or meditation hall, and I realised just how much we can gauge from body language alone. My joints ached from spending around 5 hours a day sitting on the floor in meditation and listening to discourses, I felt like fleeing for the hills on a couple of occasions and I had an epic battle with myself to not take my phone back from the secure lock-up. And the last couple of days it was a huge battle to do any meditation at all, at times. But, here's the thing. Despite the difficulties, it was still a deeply enriching gift to myself that will stay with me for some time, an inner journey that gave me a sense of achievement and a feeling that the anapana meditation is going to be a great new friend. I would recommend a retreat like this to almost anyone as a way to go into yourself a little deeper. And who knows? Maybe if you have accrued enough good karma you may even become Enlightened.


Sitting in silence, nestled in the embrace of the night sky I hear a blackbird sing- singing for the joy of it all. Singing for love. And it is as though I am hearing for the first time and tears fall, but they are no longer mine alone.

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