By Abeer Jabaji, Personal Development Coach
In our high-speed world, many of us feel communication-burnout. Life is full of noise.
Even when we’re alone, we’re usually still chatting with friends or scrolling through social media on our phones.
Most of us rarely experience silence and a true connection to our own self. So a few months ago, I set out on a meditation silent retreat to discover inner peace. The inward journey was a challenge, but what I discovered surpassed my expectations.
The sound of the gong was ringing in my head, pulling me out of a dream. As rational thoughts scrambled to assemble in my head, I felt annoyance and resentment. No, it can’t be 4am already! I have barely slept four hours and now it’s time to wake up! I changed and walked to the main meditation hall to start day one of my 10-day Vipassana silent retreat in Ramlieh, Lebanon. I sank down heavily on my assigned cushion in the lotus position, alongside my fellow meditators.
I arrived at the retreat the day before by bus, along with fellow meditators. This beautiful ecolodge in the foresty mountains would become my home for the next 10 days. The weather was perfect and the air was charged with a sense of secrecy. It’s as if it were hiding some kind of wisdom that it will divulge to all of us in due time.
We went to the big hall with our luggage to meet the male and female supervisors sitting behind a desk.
The female supervisor handed me a few papers to read and sign. I signed a contract that stated that I am to work for ten days, from morning to evening, 4am to 9pm and meditate for 10 to 11 hours a day. No phones, music, computers, reading or writing were permitted during the course. I am to abstain from intoxicants and killing other living creatures (mosquitoes and spiders included). I handed in my application and was assigned a room. The supervisor asked me if I was ready to hand over my mobile. At that point, my heart dropped. Not that I am a fanatic when it comes to social media or connections; it just felt very hard for me to turn off my mobile, put it in a bag and leave it with her. I am very connected to my kids and family and no day passes without me talking to all of them. That was the hardest move for me. I had already given my daughter an emergency number to use if anything really urgent came up.
With dragging feet, I carried my bag upstairs. We went down to eat a purely vegan meal. No dairy and no wheat were included! Then we congregated in the meeting hall to go over the rules and expectations. The rules continued as such: we must remain segregated from the opposite sex and shall not communicate in any way or form with any female fellow meditator either. We should also suspend the rituals and practices of yoga and any form of exercise. There is a small nature path within the centre boundaries for walking to be used only during resting periods. Students may eat fruit for dinner, which is at 5pm and is the last meal of the day. Students must take a vow of noble silence: silence of body, speech and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students is prohibited. This means no talking, no gestures and no eye-contact. We may speak with the teacher only through scheduled appointments.
At the grand meditation hall, each one of us was assigned a spot made up of a cushion placed on a square mat. Our Vipassana teacher, who flew all the way from Canada, sat on a dais at the front, facing us. She introduced herself in a very calm voice. Her whole demeanour was so comforting that it helped lower my anxiety over giving up contact with the outside world. A recorded voice boomed into the silence and our instructions started. At 9pm, we retreated to our rooms for sleep.
Day One crawled slowly amidst the chatter in my head and some kind of disbelief then realisation. There was just me, I and myself. I knew it was going to be tough, but no one who did it before warned me.
All they said was that it was a great experience and that I would become more balanced or what is called more “equanimous”. I was tempted by the idea of finding answers to my life and finding who I really was, finally, which proved not to be the case as I learned later on. The ten-day programme doesn’t take away grief and sorrow. Diseases are not suddenly cured and one doesn’t walk out with a halo around their head. Vipassana is not a relaxing getaway. It felt like taking out my brain, descrambling it and putting it back in.
Day Two came and went as if in a dream. My back started to hurt and my anxiety level went up. I couldn’t sit still and I couldn’t concentrate or follow my breath.
I kept thinking of my family.
Day Three found me plotting my escape. I convinced myself this wasn’t for me. My agitation increased even more. My back was killing me and I suffered from lack of sleep. I wondered whether my anguish and frustration would go away.
I vowed on Day Four that I would see this through to the end and see myself victorious. Vipassana teaches that nothing is permanent – not our pain and not our happiness. Everything comes and goes. What is constant is change itself. The past is dead and gone and the future is yet to come. We only have power over this current moment. Now. This is how we transcend our misery. The days continued in a more comforting rhythm. I accepted what is, and even started to really enjoy it. I started living each moment. I enjoyed the small things in life that I usually took for granted. The taste of food in my mouth. The sound my footsteps made when I walked on the designated path on the mountain trail during the break. The sound of the birds singing in the trees. The light breeze that kissed my face, and the dazzling stars at night. I even came to respect my back pain and let go of it. I realised, again and again, a knowing that I had known all my life but kept it at bay and only brought it forth in moments of reverence and this was one. We are all connected.
The same feelings reverberated in me on Day Five.
I looked forward so much to the teachings at the end of the day.
Mr Goenka, our teacher who we see only on DVD, warned us that Day Six was going to be difficult. This was not the case for me. It came and went at the same pace as the day before, but with more new learning and fresh insights. My heart was overflowing with gratitude.
Day Seven was the tricky one. How can we tame the mind? The dark thoughts that we invite willingly and then when we try to kick them out forcibly, they sit tight, clutching the edges of our sanity?
Day Eight was light and full of wonder again. I felt reborn.
Day Nine seemed to drag on. I was feeling so good and quite ecstatic. It was exactly at this point that I realised the full meaning of equanimity – to look at things equally and objectively. Everything in life has two sides: the positive and the negative.
On Day Ten, we were allowed to break our silence by the end of the day, to mingle and to get to know each other. I couldn’t stop talking! In silence, I would perceive others through feelings rather than through direct communication.
Day 11 was departure time. As we scrambled onto the bus, I was struck by a huge sadness. I was leaving this enchanted dwelling for a place where I would soon be bombarded with the reality of life and attacked by its noise. I felt sad to leave my tranquillity behind. Only through the continued practice of Vipassana meditation, can I hope to find peace and liberation.
How did it all begin?
Two thousand five hundred years ago, Gautama Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree for 49 days and got enlightened. He discovered “Dhama” – the law of nature. He taught about the eradication of suffering and liberation from misery. He created Vipassana meditation, which is the practice of continued close attention to sensations in our body, through which one ultimately sees the true nature of existence. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and not as we want them to be. Vipassana enables us to experience peace and harmony by purifying the mind, freeing it from suffering and the deep-seated causes of pain. In our time, Vipassana has been reintroduced to India, as well as to people from more than 80 other countries, by Mr SN Goenka. Although he passed away in 2013, his message and teachings continue to affect the lives of thousands of people around the world. The retreat is offered free of charge, including shelter and food. At the end of the retreat, if a retreat-goer feels she or he has benefited, they may make a financial donation to enable other people to attend and learn the technique.