What 10 days of silence taught me
I arrived at the Vipassana centre in Phitsanulok (Central Thailand) hot, sweaty, wide-eyed, with my iPhone firmly clutched in hand.
I had been thinking about doing a full ten day silence and meditation course retreat for a while but I didn’t think I could go ten days without talking to anyone. I didn’t think I could sit with my own thoughts for that long in all honesty. But as my meditation practice became more consistent and it grew into an essential part of my daily life, the idea of ten days sitting in meditation, no phone, no email, no social media, going deeper into my practice, became more and more enticing.
Arriving in Chiang Mai the evening before travelling down to the centre, it started to sink in what I was about to do. I would tell people that I was here just for one night and leaving for Phitsanulok tomorrow to do Vipassana - making namaste hands for emphasis to make up for my lack of Thai. They would nod in recognition and express their understanding of Vipassana by gesturing their arms and hands gently resting at their root centre/lower stomach area symbolising a peaceful Buddha like posture which had an impact on me and felt like the deeper, more symbolic image of what I was about to embark on.
The next day I had arrived at the Vipassana centre to a warm and efficient welcome from the staff volunteers (and former Vipassana students) and within 20 minutes was getting ready to give up some of most utilised belongings - my phone, books, kindle, iPad, passport, wallet, notebook and pens, and with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, a realisation that I was about to go 'off the grid' for ten days.
I won’t go into the detail of the Vipassana technique and the process, I’ll leave that for you to experience for yourself one day. It's hard to condense everything I experienced into an easily digestible blog, so here's just a snippet of what I learnt that might just be interesting for you too:
1. Your thoughts aren't as scary as you think.
When I told people that I was going to do a ten days of silence and meditation, the common response was "oh silence for ten days, I’d go mad with my own thoughts".
I thought I would too, but I didn’t. In the first few days, as my mind and body got used to being so still and without distractions, I had several thoughts/worries/replays of past conversations or events that were very present. They were things that were generally in the back of my mind anyway and took up more mental space in my day-to-day than I gave credit. They were the white noise buzzing in the background.
With each day I sat, my entire system began to settle. The anxious feelings attached to those thoughts started to ease, soften and dissipate.
It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you down. It's the pebble in your shoe. - Muhammad Ali
Most of us worry about allowing the white noise to come to the surface, to face the things in the back of our mind that makes us feel anxious, worried or angry.
We fear that addressing those thoughts that don't get much daylight, will throw us off-course from the life that we're living. So we drown out the white noise with more noise.
When we realise that we're carrying thoughts, beliefs and worries around with us like a heavy backpack, we start to understand how they can slow us down, make us feel heavy and affect how we show up at work and in our relationships...and they're not as scary as we think.
2. Silence is golden - and essential for you to innovate.
Not talking to anyone, not even non-verbal communication (eye-contact, smiling, physical gestures) and removing all other ways of ‘communicating’ with myself (books, notepads, phone) allowed me to listen much more deeply. While everything around me got quieter, my inner voice, my intuition, that connection to the creativity we all have within, got louder.
I was desperate to journal after my longer meditation sessions. I resisted for the first five days. I really wanted to stay true to the Vipassana process.
But, I cracked.
When I handed in all my personal belongings in to be secured away on that first day, I knew I had a print out of my flight ticket in my bag and a pen in there somewhere. After five days of silence, stillness and meditation, I scribbled notes, insights and ideas down ferociously like I’d just learned to write.
Studies of the human brain tell us that we have five brain wave frequencies - Beta, Alpha, Theta, Delta, Gamma. In our day-to-day waking state, we operate on a Beta frequency - meaning we're alert, working, interacting, analysing, problem solving, thinking. We drop into Alpha when we're not thinking as hard about what we're doing, like; running, washing the dishes or taking a shower.
When we meditate or sit in stillness we drop into Theta frequency.
Hence why insights and ideas come to us often in Alpha and Theta frequencies, when we're in slower, more rested brain states. (Delta is when we're in deep dreamless sleep and Gamma, is a faster frequency associated with higher states of consciousness).
When you allow your brain to rest and slow down, your creativity, ideas and solutions to complex problems can show up.
(FYI – I felt so guilty about doing this that I put the pen and paper away again the next day and didn’t write again for the rest of the course!).
3. Let nature inspire you.
With little to entertain my mind during the times I wasn’t in meditation or eating, I became
ultra-sensitive and in awe of the environment around me. The constant sounds and vibrations from the surrounding jungle, the way the rain on the meditation hall roof made me feel, the clouds passing across the mountains in the distance, the plants and insects I’d never seen before.
There were little moth larvae that would make themselves the most beautiful, delicate, lace like cocoon on the edge of the steps walking back to my room. The resilience of the armies of giant black ants going about their business in my room. This filled me with wonder for the world that we usually ignore. Seek and you shall find. It’s all there waiting to inspire us.
I never really understood the word ‘loneliness’. As far as I was concerned, I was in an orgy with the sky and the ocean, and with nature. – Bjork
4. Being present is not always easy.
Even when all you have to do is be present.
Ellen Langer, Ph.D, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard has been studying mindfulness for over 40 years. Before it was even trendy. Her work revealed the profound effects that increasing mindful behaviour had for people. We understand that practicing 'paying attention to what's going on around us, instead of being on autopilot' and being in the present moment, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity and boost performance.
We also know it's not easy.
We're hard wired to spend time replaying events from the past or worrying about things that have not yet happened in the future.
Which is why we call it a practice. Noticing what's happening is the first step.
Spending so much time noticing what my mind was doing was fascinating. I understood that the mind will do anything to take you away from the present moment if it can. Even when you have very little to distract it.
I thought a lot about how fantastic it would feel when I had my phone back again (iPhone addiction is real folks!). I avoid eating meat but I fantasised about eating a greasy burger with onion rings and blue cheese. Don’t get me wrong, the food at the centre was delicious; home cooked vegan Thai food and I wanted for nothing, but the mind still wanted to wander. I often walked through the steps of my journey back to Chiang Mai and the two hour Thai massage I was going to get once there.
None of these things ended up being as I had fantasised them to be (I didn't have the greasy burger but I did devour a pack of Pringles - not worth it!). It was all my monkey mind's ploy to take me away from the present moment.
If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present. Gratefully. - Maya Angelou
5. Embrace simplicity.
Most of us feel like we consume too much in our daily lives. Whether it’s food, stimulants (caffeine, sugar, alcohol, drugs) news, entertainment, clothes, house hold belongings, entertainment, even being with others.
Stripping away all the excess for ten days left me savouring the joy in the simple things. Sweeping my room, sipping fresh ginger tea after my meals, walking slowly on the ‘exercise’ path and taking in the details of the different tree species, the sound of the gong after 90 minutes of sitting meditation (ah that sweet sound), getting to know the names and stories of the people that were meditating with me at the end of the course.
In a world that's getting increasingly more complex, there is joy in simplicity, and joy is essential to our well-being.
6. What people think of you is your own inner experience.
There was joy in spending all that time with a group of 50 plus people without the need for any communication. We were on our own individual journeys but we were journeying together. Naturally I spent time wondering who they were and why they were there. Women and men are split into separate living quarters and sit on opposite sides of the meditation hall. Most of the women journeying with me were seasoned Thai women that came to do Vipassana regularly. Being a newbie and without smiles and small everyday interactions, it was easy for my mind to drift to thinking 'I'm not doing this right' or 'I'm not wearing the right thing' and therefore, 'they don't like me'.
It made me realise how much we do this in our daily lives and at work. 'I'm not doing it right', 'I'm not wearing the right thing', 'they didn't smile at me this morning' so therefore 'they don't like me'.
This is all our own inner experience. Most of the time other people are too concerned about their own inner experience and if they're 'doing it right' to be thinking about you.
7. A smile goes a long way.
Saying that, a smile goes a long way in helping us connect with others.
Five days in, emotionally I felt fine but had a question I wanted to ask the supervising teacher about the technique and listening to our body. We could book a ten minute slot during the lunch break so I scheduled my slot and as soon as I walked into the meditation hall, the teacher smiled at me, said ‘Hello Natalie’, I burst into tears!
I had underestimated what was perhaps going on for me internally but I also know it was the simple power of making eye contact with someone, a smile, a kind face and a human connection.
8. Your way is your way.
It’s easy to get caught up looking at others and feel like we need to do what they're doing. In the first few days, I would pay a lot of attention to other people and how they were sitting, how many meditation cushions they had or when they would arrive/leave the meditation hall and adjust what I was doing accordingly.
As my mind and body settled into the stillness, I began to know what I needed, how I needed to sit and understand my own rhythms instead of looking at others for prompts.
Their experience and needs are theirs and yours are yours.
9. It's all about rhythm and discipline.
Getting up at 4.00am everyday sounds brutal but I got into a rhythm. The set schedule gave me a structure in which I could focus purely on what I was there to do – meditate, practice and learn.
When you set yourself a rhythm and are disciplined about it, you set the parameters in your life to allow you to focus on what's important.
10. Discomfort is inevitable.
Sitting for up to 8 hours a day (with breaks) was exhausting on the body. You get used to it as time progresses but for the first few days I spent a lot of time dealing with the mental and physical discomfort of sitting for such long periods of time.
By day three I was feeling physically exhausted but mentally razor sharp. My body ached like nothing I'd experienced before. But you learn that sitting and experiencing the sensations of a numb leg or a burning back muscle is all part of the process.
We are so used reacting to any source of discomfort and look to change it immediately.
Sitting with the physical discomfort helped me to understand how quick we are to react to pain and discomfort in life and business. Don’t be so quick to push the discomfort away. Step into it and enquire what it’s presence is there to teach you.
11. We must feel it to learn it.
We know that the mind influences the body state and the body state influences our mental state. To understand something, to learn something, we have to experience it in our bodies, to feel it.
This is fundamental to the teaching of Vipassana. You learn how our mind works through our reaction to sensations in the body.
That’s why you commit to ten days of practice. Cognitive understanding is an important part of learning. But when we feel it, that’s when the magic happens. Our bodies are able to hold the cellular memory of the experience, we embody the experience. That’s when true transformation happens. That's when a theory becomes a practice.
12. Take time out from 'what' you are to get to know 'who' you are.
Leaving behind my role as coach, business owner, wife, daughter, friend, for ten days, gave me time to drop into who I really am beyond all of those things.
When you have space and time to just be, without the expectations of the roles you have in life, you give can allow your mind and body to explore what's important to you - what you believe in, what your values are, what really makes you jump out of bed in the morning and your heart dance.
When you have a deeper understanding of yourself and your inner compass, you make decisions from an easier, calmer place, even when they feel risky. You have a better sense of what you need and what's right for you and your family, your team, your business. It helps you to weather the storms and the natural ups and downs that come with life and the business you lead. It allows you to step more into the flow of your life.
After completing the ten days, I realised it wasn't just another personal achievement I could tick off the list. It was just the beginning of a life long practice. There are no quick fixes, easy downloads or overnight transformations. What I learned from ten days of silence continues to reveal itself in my life and work.
There are hundreds of Vipassana centres all over the world and course attendance is by donation. You can find more information here https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index