Lessons from Vipassana Silent Meditation
Amongst many things on the list of a person living on edge and immense curiosity seeking spiritual connections around the world, Vipassana was not on my list. There is a hermit side to me that led me to believe I did not need the challenge. I only chose to go for the very ‘shallow’ reason.
I am a Yoga and a Meditation teacher in Dhaka. Earlier this year I found out I had a nodule in my throat that is caused from over usage, common amongst teachers and singers, and it meant I had to stop teaching/ talking immediately and after a surgery there would be no talking whatsoever for a while. For someone who keeps herself physically and mentally fit, I was completely caught off guard. I could not think of doing anything in my life I love that did not require speaking. I was devastated trying to come to terms with the fact that, even post-surgery, it will never be the same again. But then there was a deeper inner voice that asked that I listen to the message from the universe. Patience and faith would eventually explain why I was being put through this.
On Feb 14th I decided what better way to spend Valentine’s Day than to treat the most important thing in my life: my body? I had the surgery with an incredible doctor, Dr. Alamgir Chowdhury, in Dhaka and took off to Thailand for therapy. The recovery from this surgery is very fast, so you become functional in about a day, in all other aspects, except that you cannot speak. I figured Thailand would be a good place to recuperate, since English is not widely spoken and I would be reliant on Google translate anyway. I am a yoga teacher, so I should be able to keep my cool and meditate my way out of any pain and suffering. Except, I wasn’t prepared for the frustration of not having a voice. The sound of one’s own voice is something, like many other privileges in life, we tend to take for granted. In the following days,I had some very unusual tantrums followed by days of frustration and eye rolls,I finally began to get comfortable with nonverbal communications, Google translate, sign language etc.
Then the universe spoke. Well my friend Manuel did. He suggested a Vipassana course – silent meditation in the south of Thailand, at a monastery known as Suan Mokkh, for 11 days. I would have no reason to speak to anyone, lots of time out in nature and fresh air, healthy meals, no exposure to smoke etc—all necessary re-quirements to get closer to my healing process. I am a vegetarian and I had done my share of staying in ash-rams and therefore felt no holdbacks at the idea of minimalism that a monastery was possibly going to make me practice. I instantly felt elevated. Little did I know what I was signing up for.
Embarking on a Monastic Life
The word Vipassana means “looking inwards for clarity’’ and it is the oldest meditation practice, believed to have been taught by Buddha himself.
I arrive at the monastery and find myself being interviewed by a lady who clearly was a female monk or devo-tee of the monastery. The ‘world’ around me will be in silence with me. No more of the moments of total exasperation. Smiling, I hand over my cell phone, cash, books, valuables etc to the locker clerk and she points me to the direction of the women’s dorm.
I walk across an open field surrounded with trees and notice a tall tower with a massive bell at the top and find my room for the next 11 days. Inside is a wooden bed with a wooden pillow and they provide a mosquito net and a blanket. I look around for a fan, a mirror, a dresser or perhaps just a ‘real’ pillow but nothing! Minimalism it is, then.
That evening 80 of us gather at the monastery’s meditation room, which is at most a shed where we lay a sack, two small cushions and a wooden meditation bench. Men sit separately to the left and women to the right, in perfectly aligned rows. This is where we would be sitting 10-12 hours a day. We are addressed from an altar by the lady monk I chatted with earlier that morning. After an introduction to the place, rules etc, the bell rings and we begin our silence.
Seeking Monastic Balance
I spent those 11 days waking up on that wooden bed and wooden pillow, at 4am to a soft bell muted, yet persistent enough to banish sleep without raising your heart rate. The meditation taught was a breathing technique known as Anapanasati- meaning breathing in and out with mindfulness. Sounds simple, right? Here’s the secret. The simpler the mediation the further discipline it requires. We are flooded with the devel-opment of different style of meditations – guided mediation, walking meditation, sleep meditation, dance meditation, laughing meditation etc. just to name a few—all for good reasons. The sole intention is that you quiet your mind through any of the techniques you most connect to – much needed in this day and age where work, life, socials and social mediamake it impossible to control the monkey mind.
We meditated Anapanasati about 8-10 hours a day, seated on the sack. We were given two meals – breakfast at the crack of dawn after meditation and optional yoga, and lunch, which was served at 12.30pm, after which there was no more food served. You had to hand-wash your clothes (which were always plentiful because of the heat). I bathed in a common space with 40 other women, where you are traditionally required tokeep your sarong on. We listened to 2 hours of Dharma talks (Buddha’s teachings).
You had to pick a chore (seva). I opted to clean the floors of a meditation hall, just because I always detest cleaning floors. It was after all about getting out of my comfort zone and challenging myself. I also made a personal vow not to look at the mirror or check the time in those 11 days.
Let’s just say this monastery made all the other ashrams I had ever spent time in, look like 5 star hotels. At the least, at the ashrams in India I could ‘charm’ my way into finding a ‘dhobi’. But the monks you met here meant business. For hours of meditation they never twitched or changed positions. They didn’t expect that of you,but in their peaceful demeanor, in silence, they led us by example. Somehow you were guided by the energy created.
Every time I felt frustrated with food, heat, back pain or so desperately wanted to exchange words with the kind looking lady next to me, I could not break the vow. There are many moments where we express exaspe-ration at such trivial matters, that if we only chose our thoughts and words more mindfully, we would find more clarity and naturally a way to peace.
What do you hear?
I would never hypocritically call this an ‘amazing’ experience. Far from it! But it was deeply profound. There were numerous times I wondered why I was putting myself through this when I could easily call a Grab and in 30 minutes be enjoying a margarita on some beautiful beachside. But then it became like that sweet pain in life or the tingly feeling during yoga or stretching, where you know it’s killing you but if you persevere, there will be pleasure post the pain. The faith in short term pain for long term peace.
The goal of meditation is to quiet the mind, so we can hear more. Not hear the noise around us but rather something deeper-our intuition, wisdom and beyond. We were amidst nature surrounded by trees all over and birds chirping away in a hundred different tunes. Although there were 80 of us sharing space meditating, eating walking etc all in full silence, but ironically it was very loud. Loud from the sounds of constant whoosh of the trees and through the breeze you heard the birds.
“When you talk you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new” – Dalai Lama.
Mother or Nature
Often yogis receive praise over glorifying ‘ego’ photo shots of trying to stand on heads or twisting into a pret-zel, which I am also grateful for. But personally, I find meditation one of the hardest tasks in life- the art of stopping your thoughts. And when you do, you hear something much deeper- messages beyond what meets the eye or physical experience. I heard Mother Nature.
On day 4, I was having a premonition - a piercing feeling about my mother and that I had to reach out to her. The Covid news was breaking out when I left the city and I was suddenly worried sick. I felt a deep pain in my heart during meditation and was yearning to hear her voice. My heart felt a hundred pounds heavier. I stopped myself from walking up to a volunteer (Dhamma friend) to request an emergency phone call just to hear her voice. I continued to courageously push away the thoughts but it only got worse. When you connect with nature you connect to your mother. After all she is the only being you were in touch with, prior to being born. Your home was your mother’s womb and your only connection to earth. And hence connecting to nature (trees, birds) combined with quieting the mind through hours of meditation, connects you to your life’s deepest relationship, which is your mother. The silence was also surfacing all aspects of our relationship- the questions, remorse, regrets and unconditionallove.
After two days of lack of sleep, anxiety and suffering, attempting to control these thoughts, it dawned on me. The way to do it is not to fight the thoughts but come to acceptance of the thoughts. The more you fight the thoughts the stronger it gets. When you can’t worry any longer, you learn to let go, with your purest love and compassion in your heart.
How do you just let go?
On Day 6, I started to practice non attachment. In short, being okay ‘not knowing’. Not being emotionally attached to anything in life. Not a house, a car, money, friends, siblings, family, achievements, successes, fail-ures, no pillow, no “dhobi” and not even my own mother. It is not that you stop loving. You just re-learn to love without expectations. After all nothing in life in permanent. The only assurance in life we have is death. I felt like my heart was being brutally ripped apart and put back together. The Dhamma talks were repeatedly teaching us, to accept suffering in order to experience growth. This was excruciating beyond words and somehow was to lead me to peace.
During the evening breaks before the last leg of the meditation session, I used to go into the natural hot spring, at the back of the monastery. As I would backstroke and gaze up at the coconut trees covering over it, I knew this was it! This was heaven. The calmness after a storm, the growth after deep pain and how we evolve after suffering. This is what makes it heaven. Until you know the pain you don’t recognize the growth. No great man, whether it be Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, received the fruit of their labour without hardship. No love stories ever became great without pain and suffering.
We ended the night with a mindful walk around the twin ponds, feeling the cool grass under bare feet and the moon light beaming at you. Every fibre in my body was getting heightened each day and rooting deeper with earth.
Being left to yourself
We are extremely fearful to be left with our own thoughts. We convince ourselves that what we consider to be ‘me time’ and brand as ‘self care’ is spent being busy working out, walking, watching Netflix, getting our nails done etc. We are never in stillness listening to our thoughts and connecting to our consciousness. Our biggest fear is spending time with our true self- doing nothing, explained as Zen, in simple cross legged seated posture, listening to our breath. It’s a daunting feeling. Combine that with no talking and with complete basic needs. The only communication you can have is through energy— with the birds, the trees and maybe the humans around you sharing the experience.
We have been so conditioned that we have been running away from our thoughts all our lives. We fear being ripped off of our attachments- dining out, shopping, parties, socials, feeling own self-importance because of the work we do or our possessions. We fear change. We fear death. And this is what this old Buddhist practice of Vipassana teaches you. It brings you in connection to your true self. You get angry, anxious, frustrated, sad, scared and then finally you accept to find your way to peace. You let go of all identity and ego.And when you do, this peace is like no other.
Breaking the Silence
On the 12th morning when we were asked to break the silence, I couldn’t stop talking even with my rusty, broken voice. Getting to know the 80 meditators from around the world I shared space but barely made eye contact with, somehow felt so familiar,as if we had all known each other all our lives. I learntthat we all came from all walks of life, from CEO’s of Fortune 500 company to the hippie who ran out of money and decided to join the monastic experience. We talked, some exchanged contacts and I’m grateful for one soul, Daren, to have started a group where we continued to stay in touch about post Vipassana life, on Whats app.
I arrived back in Bangkok on March 12th. Checking into an Airbnb condo somewhere in upper Sukhumvit, walking through the chic lobby, with high ceilings with chandeliers, overlooking manicured gardens, watching a doorman open the door for me, trying to conceal my awe. I took a long shower, throwing my clothes in the laundry, watching the city skyline light up at night — a far cry from where I was just until that morning. Will I remember and practice what I had learnt or was it just a matter of time until it fades and I am back to my usual life of materialism?
The next morning I woke up to the news of the virus now being called a pandemic, the New York governor blasting the Trump administration for supplying no ventilators etc. CNN is usually the master at making us feel like that the world is always falling apart, but this time it had pretty valid reasons. While I knew it was only a matter of time until I went back to my dependency on my capitalistic world, I wanted this sensation to sink in for a bit longer to be able to take away something more.
Lo and behold, two weeks later I was forced to return to Dhaka and go into quarantine. I returned to a city unrecognizable without any traffic, honking, no hustlers at the airport, no office goers, and people around me in complete panic. Mother Nature had sent the world to Vipassana.
Amidst this chaos, ironically, I was experiencing peace. The air was cleaner, the birds were out and chirping and I trusted that people wouldslowly come to acceptance of their suffering that was thrown at them and find their way to peace. Losing my voice taught me how important it is to listen to the inner voice, to your heart and what every religion is trying to teach us- connection to God within.