No phones. No music. No writing. No reading. No talking. I began to digest the fact that this seemingly contemptuous litany of ‘no’s’ also meant: no whining, complaining, venting, tweeting, texting, blogging, blabbing, pinging, poking, sending, receiving, screening, downloading, uploading.My mind screamed, “No way!’ as I headed into a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat for the first time a few years ago. A close friend and colleague of mine in New York had been raving about it for years, and I finally decided to look into it.
Vipassana, according to its mission statement, “is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, and means ‘to see things as they really are.’ It was rediscovered by Buddha more than 2,500 years ago and taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills—as the Art of Living.” After some initial research, I discovered that there are Vipassana meditation centers all over the world, and that the facilities and coursework are all completely free of charge. Yes, free. See for yourself at dhamma.org.
“Free vacation in Zen paradise,” read the headline in my brain and before I knew it, I was enrolled, packed and en route to the center I’d chosen in Massachusetts. Once there, I was assigned a roomie, a cabin, and a designated meditation cushion—and gently stripped of almost everything else. I looked around during the orientation, my fellow meditators looking doe-eyed without an iPhone or Blackberry on which to focus.
And so we began…
These initial days were all about quieting the mind, the foundation of all meditation. In Vipassana, this is done through simple observation of the breath. Yes, three days of observing your breath. Sound maddening? I thought so too. But actually it calmed me down, and dare I say, made me a little less mad.
According to S.N. Goenka, the world’s leading teacher of Vipassana meditation and founder of the first center in India in 1969, “we naturally have ‘monkey minds,’ minds that want to swing from branch to branch.” Our minds jump from thought to thought, an endless labyrinth of associations that can (and often do) drive us completely nuts. The goal is to slow that monkey down. And possibly get him to sit still for a moment, and then a minute, and then several minutes…
With my mind now more noticeably still, I was finally ready to go deeper. I learned how to practice the virtue of ‘equanimity’ by observing or methodically scanning my body for sensation. I was taught to simply to be a witness to the natural ebb and flow of my anatomy, which fortified my grasp of ‘“the universal law of impermanence,” a hallmark of Vipassana’s teachings.
By this point, that vow of silence did start to feel like a vacation of sorts, a respite from the external world, that world that often precludes us from truly going inside. I relished in the quiet of those days, and held imaginary dialogues with daisies and ladybugs, debated with the caterpillars, and looked for my own personal graffiti in the clouds. I realized that I was essentially being handed a tool that I would be able to carry with me for the rest of my life, and found myself approaching each “sit” with more clarity and intention.
I was armed with the ability to observe reality as it is and not as I would like it to be. To separate my consciousness from the endless barrage of my thoughts. To slow down that monkey. To just be.
I felt euphoric, rested, inspired, informed, and in touch.
I didn’t even miss my iPhone.