02.11.2020 Spirituality

Finding Silence

A Vipassana retreat is not for the faint hearted but its benefits can be profound, as David Zenon discovers

Blue Mountains, Australia, 2010: I was enrolled in the most dreaded thing on my bucket list—my first vipassana.

Vipassana is a 10 day retreat in which participants take a vow of silence and are strongly encouraged to follow the program’s strict laws, which include meditating for at least 10 hours a day, abandoning all communication devices including all electronic devices, and relinquishing reading, writing, exercising, touching, or even eye contact.

Any religious practice or symbol is strictly forbidden—even yoga. Jewellery is forbidden.

Participants sit on the floor, and are expected to be especially vigilant in not moving (unless overcome by discomfort) whilst exploring the sensations in their bodies.

Hung up on every empty wall, the schedule stares you in the face—it’s more like a glare really:

4:00 am: Wake up gong

4:30-6:30 am: Meditation time

6:30-8:00 am: Breakfast

8:00-9:00 am: Mandatory meditation in the hall

9:10-11:00 am: Meditation

11:00-1:00 pm: Lunch break

1:00-2:30 pm: Meditation in the hall or room

2:30-3:30 pm: Group meditation in the hall

3:30-5:00 pm: Meditate in the hall or in your own room

5:00-6:00 pm: Tea break

6:00-7:00 pm: Group meditation in the hall

7:15-8:30 pm: Discourses

8:30-9:00 pm: Meditation

9:00-9:30 pm: Question and answer session

9:30 pm: Bedtime

This is my interpretation of the schedule:

4:00am Wake up gong: I found it almost impossible to abandon my warm bed in the cold and dark of 4am. Isn’t the darkness best left for sleeping? If I made it to the toilets, it was an enlivening experience showering under the stars.

4:30-6:30am Meditation time: I would usually wander around in my mind, and courageously gather myself in a heap in the hall, covered by blankets and a scarf. Shivering, I would grab some quality meditation, before slumber usually gripped me so strongly that a nap was the inevitable result — yet I would hold on for as long as possible, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t snore and embarrass myself.

6:30-8:00am Breakfast: Usually huddled around the food, warming my hands on the toaster and kettle, I would gather some warm food, usually the same options — oatmeal topped with seeds and stewed fruit, toast with peanut butter and a warm tea. Most participants looked like they were exiting a bomb shelter having not slept much, exhaustion and cold written on their faces, yet relieved to see the light emerging.

There was always some time after breakfast for another nap, or toilet visit.

8:00-9:00am Mandatory meditation in the hall: Three times a day, group meditation sittings were held, where the energy was focused and steadfast, and there was a real drive to have the best meditation. In these “strong determination” sessions, any movement was discouraged. Disturbances were generally kept to a minimum during these times. The sun was beginning to warm the hall by now, and with the shivering dampened, and a full stomach, there was a renewed sense of vigour and hope about me. My best meditations were always during this timeslot, as I was physically comfortable and still relatively fresh at these times.

9:10-11:00am Meditation: This time would drift away slowly, with meditators soldiering on in the rooms or listening to an audio recording of Goenka’s instructions in the hall. He would conclude these sessions with chanting, which to untrained ears sounds peculiar at best.

11:00-1:00pm Lunch break: Lunch was usually tasty and all-vegetarian. There was a basic salad and an interesting vegetarian dish. Usually a generous portion of cheese available, and even dessert. Lunch was enjoyed in silence (like everything else), it seemed to be a worldly pleasure that took on increasing importance to meditators as other pleasures were reduced or taken away completely. There was also a trend of mindful (slow) eating, and some curious and eccentric behaviour from participants, from praying over their food, to eating in slow motion. Everyone developed noticeable habits and most people liked to sit in the same place every day. The most sought-after positions were taken outside, with the mountain views popular.

After eating, I would always go exploring the property and finding ways to stretch and exercise my body, even though all practices (even stretching) were illegal according to Vipassana laws. A quick sprint here or there, or a couple of press ups kept me sane! The body is severely depleted and in constant pain sitting all day, and one has to steal stretches whenever one can get away with not being detected by the Vipassana police force.

Capturing the energy of the sun was a real godsend at a place like this. Participants were desperate to feel some rays on their meditation-parched skin.

1:00-2:30pm Meditation in the hall or room: This was often a below average time for me. When not meditating, I would take a nap or do some stretching. This time was set aside for meeting with the teacher, if you had a question. All questions would be answered with the same understanding, compassionate tone and essentially the same answer: “Just observe it. Keep practising.” My questions ranged from how to deal with sexual thoughts (or frustration), how to manage bodily pain, distracted thoughts, or repeated thoughts about past experiences and making plans for the future.

I realised that the questions were pretty much irrelevant as the answer would always be the same – just keep observing your breath, be steadfast, be diligent in your practice.

2:30-3:30pm Group meditation in the hall: The second group session of the day. All would be in attendance.

3:30-5:00pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room: This session was always the hardest, fighting fatigue, excruciating body pain and never able to find a comfortable position.

5:00-6:00pm Tea break: A pleasant break from the routine. New students were allowed a pleasant snack of chocolate, fruit, cheese and tea. Repeat students were allowed just tea. This was a great time to be outside walking, stretching and enjoying the setting sun. If I could fit in a shower, this was a great time to freshen up.

By about the second day, one’s body would already be adjusting to having one main meal early at 11am. The problem would be that one would naturally over indulge to get through the day.

6:00-7:00pm Group meditation in the hall:

Another mandatory setting where usually I had a little bit of resolve if I had had a decent walk and/or shower, yet energy levels were dropping as well as motivation to keep going. My mind would start to wonder over all the things in life I wished (or fantasised) about doing.

7:15-8:30pm Discourses: Each evening, we would sit down to watch a video by the teacher, Goenka. Although a little out of sync with modern life, the age-old Buddhist teachings are still helpful and inspiring. Goenka’s unconventional oration in parts was entertaining and a fresh break from the meditation routine. His usual message (take away), again, was, “If anything arises, just observe. Keep practising diligently.”

8:30-9:00pm Meditation: There would be an audio explaining the technique for the following day, and then practice for about 1/2 an hour.

9:00-9:30pm Question-and-answer session: By this stage, most people trundled off to bed.

9:30pm Bed time: My body was always aching by this stage, and Goenka’s characteristic words were usually echoing in my head, like the phrases he particularly enjoyed repeating, like “perfect equanimity”. Eventually fatigue would take over, and I would sleep deeply.

What is the philosophy behind this program?

In the Buddhist tradition, vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā is to see into the nature of reality or as the official vipassana website claims, it means to “See things as they really are.”

“Make an island of yourself, make yourself your refuge; there is no other refuge. Make truth your island, make truth your refuge; there is no other refuge.” ~ Mahā-Parinibbāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya, 16.

In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, vipassanā refers to insight into the trinity of understanding the nature of reality in Buddha’s discourses, known as the “Three Universal Truths”:

  • anicca (impermanence)
  • dukkha (suffering or better translated as unsatisfying)
  • anatta (no self or the realisation of agelessness or non-self)
The process of vipassana in this tradition places the centre of awareness on bodily sensations.

This consciousness of the rise and fall of the breath, and the changing nature of sensations becomes a meditation on annica (impermanence).

This philosophy subscribes to a belief that inner harmony comes from the observation of somatic experiences, and the more one observes oneself (essentially sits with the self), the more the mind becomes still, pure, and harmonious.

And in turn, the more the mind stills—the more we become free from our suffering.

The Buddha taught śamatha (calm abiding) in tandem with vipassanā to reach paññā (wisdom). These are required for a wholesome meditation practice.

In the Pāli canon, both these mental qualities are the pathway to developing a still mind.

Śamatha is the practice of calming the mind and its “saṅkhāra” (mental defilements, agitations, or formations). Śamatha is usually taught via single-pointed awareness or breath-mindfulness founded on śīla(morality).

In the modern vipassana teaching, the philosophical focus always returns to annica (the changing nature of phenomena) as the gateway to nirvāṇa (Pali: nibbāna)—the liberation from suffering.

What did I learn from this retreat?

How do we face our suffering and feel it without losing ourselves in drugs, alcohol, television, or mind-numbing foods?

When we look at our suffering, we must examine it closely, and allow ourselves to feel without judgment.

Suffering, like a child, will only get worse if we are unkind to it.

The mind is an illusion. It is not real. Our thoughts and feelings feel real to us, but we must be patient with our minds, and have compassion for ourselves. Compassion is the space that lets us feel—lets us cry, scream, curse—without questioning.

The mind is directly or indirectly always causing and manifesting our suffering.

Hence the importance of an inward practice where we can access, at least for a short while, beyond the mind.

It is usually the reactive mind or thought response to phenomena that bring forth a type of dissonance where we are disconnected from our source.

This disconnection can bring a profound disharmony and suffering as we struggle to accept what is happening or what happened around us.

It is not what happened—it is the time lag to accept and integrate whatever the event.

Then, for many of us, it is the story that makes us suffer. If something happens, the suffering does not exist with the story associated with it.

The story is what keeps our suffering alive.

It is the “whole” of becoming human that is often neglected, where the inner meets the outer. This “whole” is in embracing all aspects of the self without running away from feeling by embracing numbness.

Would I do it again?

I’ve subsequently sat two more retreats in this tradition. I regard it as a prelude to exploring authentic Buddhism, and finding a saṅgha (community).

I feel that in many cases, because of its Draconian approach, it puts people off Buddhism for life, and often turns them off meditation too.

The focus on suffering in vipassana seems more distinct than in other Buddhist traditions, with the exception of Zen Buddhism.

I would also advocate the importance of having a writing pad or journal so you can write down your thoughts.

Whilst sensory deprivation is helpful, writing things down is essential to clear the mind—otherwise, one constantly recycles or regurgitates the same thoughts for 10 days. I also prefer having some reading matter.

I would say, with certainty, I will be sitting in more of these in the future.

David Zenon Starlyte

David is a channel for Divine wisdom. His intuitive coaching, speaking and healing sessions invoke purposeful shifts into deeper connection, confidence, self love, abundance and happiness. An empath, David’s healing is focused on bridging the gap between addressing core wounds and reaching limitless possibilities, to living an extraordinary life. David’s passion for synthesising Eastern and Western approaches to spiritual wellbeing, has seen him immersing himself in the biblical tradition as a monastic, studying Western Naturopathic Medicine and Buddhist / Taoist Healing under three living masters - Master Chen in China, Grand Master Mantak Chia (Time magazine’s top 100 most spiritually influential living people) in Thailand and Ajahn Brahm (one of the world’s foremost masters of meditation) in Australia.

For more information, he can be found at: Website: http://davidstarlyte.com, , Email: davidstarlyte@gmail.com , Facebook: http://facebook.com/iamstarlyte