Ten days of “nobel silence”. One hundred hours of still meditation.
For the past twelve days I was introduced to Vipassana mediation at the Dhamma Kūṭa center outside of Kandy, Sri Lanka. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. After this experience my mind feels lighter, sharper, nimbler than I can ever remember.
This is the longest time in my life I’ve ever gone without speaking or eating meat. For the duration of ‘noble silence’ we were not allowed to make eye contact with other meditators or walk with them, we could only speak to the teacher if we had a question about the practice. I’ve never felt so isolated while being surrounded by so many people.
Every day our meditation schedule followed the same routine:
4:00am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 Meditate in the hall
6:30-8:00 Breakfast & rest
8:00-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
11:00-1:00pm Lunch & rest
1:00-2:30 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
2:30-3:30 Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
5:00-6:00 Tea break (new students get tea and crackers, old students only get tea)
6:00-7:00 Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 Retire to room; lights out
During the first two days of meditation we were instructed to focus only on our respiration, the sensation of breathing in and out of our nose. You are supposed to breath your normal breath, neither too hard nor too soft. Just naturally. The teacher told us that focusing on this small area would train our mind, and it would become sharper. Day two was one of the hardest day. My back ached from sitting cross-legged the previous day, my mind was filled with random thoughts. After lunch was the hardest part of any day, because we had only short breaks from 1pm until 5pm. It was the longest stretch of the day. I sat there in the darkened hall, looking around at my fellow meditators and was struck by the fact that overweight elderly men were having an easier time than I (a fairly in shape 22 year old) was having.
On the morning of day three I woke up refreshed, and actually eager to get into the hall. After breakfast we were instructed to start focusing on the area just below our nose and above our lip. Focus on the sensation of your respiration against this patch of skin. I felt nothing. Nothing at all. I sat there trying to keep my mind silent for hours, and I couldn’t feel even my breath blow against my nose. We broke for lunch and afterwards I took my requisite nap. When we sat down again at 1pm I started to feel my breath against my lip, and it all clicked.
On day four we began practicing Vipassana, the ancient meditation technique developed by Buddha some 2500 years ago. Though deeply rooted in Buddhist teachings, Vipassana centers around the world maintain a non-denominational stance, and they welcome all religious beliefs. Vipassana seeks to gain an awareness of sensations across the body. These sensations can include: temperature, perspiration, itching, or just about anything else. You start going methodically from the top of your scalp, to each place on your face, down the front of your neck to your stomach, then the back of your neck to your shoulder to your fingers. Examining the body slowly and fully. On day five the teacher asked us to start trying to do this in a flowing manner, examining the body in a sweeping motion from top to bottom and from bottom to top.
The goal is to be aware of sensations but not to react to them; take the sensations without a feeling of pain or pleasure. All sensations are impermanent, and being attached to them is what leads to suffering. You are trying to learn to see what things truly are, and to separate the mind from the body.
Day six was, by far, the hardest day. I could only get my mind to be still for one of the sessions. The rest of the day my mind raced around, and I tried to quiet it as best as I could. One of the volunteers who served us food must have recognized what a rough day I was having, because he brought me some extra sweets at lunch.
Day seven was the first time that I managed to go a full hour without moving or opening my eyes. I exited the meditation hall for breakfast feeling incredible. My mind is truly empty. Vipassana is an attempt to control the subconscious mind, to empty it and allow the conscious mind to have full control.
On day ten nobel silence was lifted, and for the first time I was able to speak to the 60 other meditators. There were participants from China, the Netherlands, Italy, the UK, America, and Sri Lanka. For the first hour or so everyone whispered to each other, but the voices gradually got louder as we all became accustomed to speaking. People’s faces glowed.
I vividly dreamt every night during meditation. I easily woke up every morning at 4am. I stopped feeling hungry after two days (we were only given two meals a day). It was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. There were days that dragged on for endless amounts of time, and days that flew by in what seemed like a breath.
On the morning of the 11th day after cleaning our bunks and having breakfast, I spoke with the elderly teacher who had been instructing me for the course. Her final words to me were “those who practice Vipassana always die with a smile.”