I Am Woman, Hear Me Shush: My 10 Days of Silence


No phones, no chatting, no talking, no texting. Can you imagine spending ten days in complete silence? That would be challenging for the best of us, but we’d find a way around it with notes and emails. But imagine ten days in noble silence: no eye contact, no writing, no gesturing or communication with others. You must stay completely in your own space and you just have to live with it. Oh, and the only thing you can do is meditate.

Welcome to the Vipassana retreat, which teaches a meditation technique developed 2,500 years ago and is becoming ever more popular in the western world.

The retreat rules are: no talking, no communication, no yoga, no work, no reading or journaling. For ten days. You get two meals a day and afternoon tea, a teaching in the evening, and hours of seated meditation all day long. The first meditation bells rings before dawn. Here’s my journal – after the fact. Remember, no writing allowed!

-Ground Zero: All participants gather at the retreat center for orientation. Men and women are separated at this time and remain so for the duration; we don’t want any distractions here! This is our last chance to talk and it’s interesting to note who among us are naturally the chattiest. We all have our eyes on Juna, easily the most energetic and wordy among us. How will she fare?

    We are given dinner and silence begins. An evening video lecture in the meditation hall introduces us to the theory behind Vipassana meditation and we all settle into our dorms for a quiet, good night’s sleep.

-Day One: Our first real Vipassana teaching begins. We are seated in the large meditation hall, men on one side, women on the other. We’re all perky, sitting with our spines straight, ready to begin. The teaching guides us to notice the breath as it moves in and out of our nostrils. And that’s it. For an hour. Every meditation session that day tells us to do the same thing. I become very interested in my nostrils, as there is nothing else to do.

-Day Two: Breakfast is a luxury. We eat in silence, but savor every delicious bite. II’m enjoying the silence thus far, and notice how most of what I normally speak out loud is not necessary to say at all. The whole world could function perfectly fine with much less useless chatter. I sink deeply into the silence and enjoy another day of observing the breath in my nostrils. I’d never noticed those tiny sensations before. It feels indulgent and strange to focus on something so trifling as my nose all day. And the evening teachings provide something to look forward to – any stimulation is appreciated.

-Day Three: The first bell of the day rings at 4 a.m. and a few troopers rise out of bed for dawn meditation, but since this one is optional, I keep sleeping. I squelch the guilt and wake up a few hours later to yet another day of noticing my nostrils. My nostril sensations are quite exquisite.

Most of the women take advantage of our private walking track outside. We’re not allowed to jog, but can walk around a grassy area. I pay close attention to the springtime buds on the trees, and every blade of grass has a story to tell. “Please,” I  ache, “somebody tell me a story!” In my head I make up songs in snippets of other languages that I know.

-Day Four: By now I’m getting a little stir-crazy. My mind is racing with thoughts of what I have to do when I get out of here! I’ve never felt so motivated and active in my life! And yet all this energy has to stay put. I must observe it. I must be a Buddha. Ahhhhhh!
I notice that Juna, the very chatty girl, is walking around at breakneck speed. What’s she trying to get away from? She must be going crazy. I’m going crazy!
At least the meditation has changed. Now that we’re exquisitely sensitized to our nostrils, we are told to begin observing sensations around our entire body. We’re guided in a very clear course from the tips of the toes to the top of the head. One little body part at a time. The point is to cultivate an equanimous mind. Sensations of pleasure or pain? Don’t hang on to them; observe them and let them go.

-Day Five: Mealtime is always a blessing, a break from the boredom. Observing every sensation in my body is great if I can find something erotic to focus on”¦oh yeah, we’re not supposed to let our minds wander. Notice the sensation on your forehead. Notice the sensation on your knees.
Back in my dorm at break time I watch the second-hand on my analog clock and practice counting in French, backwards. I notice some of the men are conspicuously absent from their cushions in the meditation hall. They must have run away. So far all the women are still here.

-Day Six: This was my worst day. This was the day I contemplated running away. But I carpooled here in another person’s car, so I couldn’t leave if I wanted to. I have to surrender. My mind rushes around like a pack of wild horses, full of ideas for travel, projects, writing, and I’m not allowed to jot a single idea down. The loss! Outside I walk slowly in the grass – inside I am running.
I discover a forbidden diversion. I remember that I have my sewing kit with me and use colorful threads to embroider on my underwear. I now have a pair of panties with the word anicca embroidered in pink. Anicca is a common word in the Vipassana teachings; it means “Ëœimpermanence.’ I wonder if the girl in the bed next to me notices what I’m doing? This is, after all, a prohibited activity. What’s she gonna do, tell on me?

-Day Seven: Poor Juna. Whatever she’s going through, it seems like it’s worse than me. She looks like she’s about to explode. I’m having a nice time, no traumatic memories or anything like that, and my mind is being trained to become precise and delicate instrument for tracking bodily sensations. That ache in my back from seated meditation – observe it. The itch on my head – that’s a samskara arising and floating away. I’ve never noticed my body so deeply. Still, I’m always thrilled by afternoon tea. I drink Bengal Spice with soy milk. I indulge in sex fantasies to pass the time.

-Day Eight: Oh my God, is this still happening? Just for a change of pace, I attend the 4 a.m. meditation, but find myself falling asleep during the process. Still, I’m happy for the diversion from routine. I’m calmer than I was a few days ago. What else can I do? I just have to carry on. I’ve grown accustomed to the silence and rather enjoy it! I do wish, more than anything, that I could pull out a notebook and write.

-Day Nine: We’re on the homestretch here. There’s lightness in the air. I’m surviving. The guided meditation is getting very interesting. No longer am I noticing sensations on the surface of my body – I’m being guided to notice sensations deep within. Suddenly my body is no longer bony, fleshy matter, but a vibrant mass of bouncing electrons and squiggly sensations. This is really cool – almost psychedelic! Finally I understand what we came here for.

-Day Ten: I know this is the last day and I’m a little sad. By the afternoon we’ll be allowed to talk again and I’m not exactly looking forward to that. The silence tastes good in my mouth. Today we’re taught metta meditation – loving kindness. This is somehow anti-climactic after the buzzing sensations I’ve felt inside my inner space.

Then, the rules are lifted, the retreat is over, and we all have a few hours to relax, unwind, and socialize before packing our bags and heading home. I hold off on talking for as long as I can, but once I begin to speak, the floodgates open. I realize I have nothing interesting to say. It’s just old stories and patterns coming out in verbal form. We listen to Juna, who talks a mile a minute about her family, her job, her boyfriend, how crazy she was during the silence. I feel disoriented. I want to go back to the peace and the quiet. I will never think of talking in the same way again. We had all set out to escape the noise of the world and ended up confronting the noise of our own selves.

Image: riotjane

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