An intensive Vipassana meditation retreat promises to help you “see things as they really are.” But will it be worth ten days of torture?
If you were given a free trip to anywhere for 10 days, where would you choose to go? Cocktails in Hawaii? Sun worshipping in Bali? An African safari? How about a donation-funded retreat that involves 4am wake up bells, absolute silence, abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol, only two meals a day, and a high chance of excruciating pain from 100 hours spent sitting in meditation?
Huh? Any takers?
“Life changing,” is how I most often hear the Vipassana meditation retreats described by those who have braved it. Out of curiosity and an apparent addiction to torturous experiences, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to attend this course in Asia for years. I searched for one while living in Thailand, but found that even in the remote corners of the country they were booked up months in advance. I thought I’d missed out.
But recently I discovered they run Vipassana courses all over the world, including right here in Victoria. And while it will lack the exoticism of golden monk garbs, gecko calls, and the warm hug of tropical air, when you’re sitting cross-legged listening only to the sound of your breath and the wild screeches of your crazy monkey mind losing its shit inside your skull, it doesn’t really matter where you are. It will mostly suck either way.
So beginning this afternoon, I will be engaging in 10 days of ‘nobel silence.’ No chatter on the inside of my head, no chatter on the outside, and no acknowledging other people whatsoever. Even if I have something urgent to say like Ohmygod I’m so bored, or, Holycrap my knee caps feel like they’ve been whacked by a baseball bat, or, Who farted?, I cannot rant at anyone, not even through my seven different social media platforms.
Maybe you’re wondering why a person would put themselves through this kind of thing. Well…
A break from pointless distractions.
During every silent beat in my day, I’m compelled to reach for a digital device. It’s an itch that I simply must scratch, an overwhelming OCD impulse. Much of the time I don’t have any real purpose for disappearing down an internet rabbit hole, but I generally wake some hours later in a slack-jawed stupor, scrolling through Buzzfeed lists of cute cats doing stupid things.
I don’t even like cats.
The internet is an endlessly exciting tool, but it’s also just a giant porn machine. Travel porn. Cute animal porn. Meme porn. Craft porn. What-are-other-people-doing-with-their-life-and-dammit-I’m-jealous! porn.
Louis CK put it beautifully when he said:
“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s being a person.”
What will it be like to spend ten days away from this constant stream of noise? Given that I can’t read, write, socialise, or even exercise during the retreat to keep myself engaged, what will I find in the deepest recesses of my silent mind once everything stops? (Hopefully not images of cute cats doing stupid things.)
To become wondrous like a child.
I haven’t been making much art lately. To me this is tragic. After giving everything to my first book to help it succeed, I’ve come to associate art creation with sheer exhaustion. An idea will pop into my head and for a minute I will think: Oh, that’s a great idea! I should make that. But the burst of energy quickly turns to memories of all-encompassing exhaustion, and the fragile seed of an idea is immediately crushed by defeated thoughts: Too hard. Too draining. Sleep = better.
Yesterday I was reading the paper and I saw a write-up on my favourite artist, Leunig. In it he said this:
“I notice that, in contemporary life, all sorts of people are wanting to meditate and be mindful, and be wondrous, like a child again. It’s happening everywhere. It really is a reclaiming of a more open-minded, innocent state, instead of the embittered, prejudiced, over-educated, brain-ridden constricted state which Western society finds itself in.”
Perhaps the “embittered, prejudiced, over-educated” brain he’s referring to is what forms after too much time spent online, watching TV, reading papers—consuming rather than creating. Perplexed generations of the future will surely look back over our frantic Tweet streams about the twerking habits of Miley Cirus and facepalm in disgrace.
We busy ourselves with unimportant topical issues, gobbling down content until we’re in a frenzied froth, then we blast our heated opinions at anyone who will listen. This is an outrage! I think it should be more like this! I think it should be more like that! But nobody is really listening. Nobody cares. These topical pingpong matches are just cheap distractions to keep us from the discomfort of what is there inside us when all the noise stops. And what could that be?
Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” I don’t know about you, but I want to find out what that is.
I’ll be back in a few weeks to tell you how it went.
What about you? Do you think you could sit in silence for ten days?