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Silent isn’t strong… except on a meditation retreat

CALM writer and supporter Fabio Zucchelli shares his diary from a recent ten day silent meditation retreat

“I’m going on a ten-day meditation retreat soon”.

“Ah, that sounds lovely, really relaxing. It’ll be nice to get some time away from it all, some peace and quiet. I bet you’ll get through a lot of reading.”

“Yeah, you’re not allowed to bring books.”

“Hmm. Well I bet you’ll meet some pretty interesting people.”

“It’s silent. Not even gestures or anything”

“No way. Man that’s tough. Well, I guess you can get back to doing some writing again then.”

“No writing materials either. And no phone.”

“No phone?! Bloody hell, what do you do all day then?”

“Um, meditate I believe. Ten hours a day.”

At this point in the conversation I had with pretty much everyone I spoke with about the retreat, their expression now became one of genuine horror, having started so strongly but drooping one notch with each realisation, kind of like a time-lapse video of Jamie Redknapp turning into Harry Redknapp.

So, what is it? And why the hell would anyone do this? It’s called Vipassana, and it’s existed in some form for around 2500 years. The idea is that it’s Buddhism in its purest form, totally devoid of religious belief, dogma or ritual. It’s basically a meditation technique that teaches you how to develop equanimity; that is, to stop reacting purely based on whether you either want something (craving) or want to get rid of something (aversion). In Buddhism it’s called the Middle Path, and it turns out, it’s really quite a thing. The catch is, you can only develop it by stripping away all the stuff that fills up pretty much all of our focus, leaving you just with your own mind. Hence no phones, talking, reading, writing, exercising (other than walking around the site), total abstinence from drink, drugs and sex. Rock’n’roll it is not.

The ten-day retreat in its current form was developed by a Burmese guy called S.N. Goenka, who passed away a couple of years ago. After a lot of trial and error, he found ten days to be the shortest possible period for the Vipassana process to properly unfold. And as he says in one of the daily video talks, “This process is like performing surgery on the depths of your mind, and there’s no anaesthetic I’m afraid. You need to experience the pain in order to heal”. And boy was he right. But in a good way.


Dhamma Dipa Meditation centre, Hereford.

Day Zero

Yep, there’s a day zero. Talking is allowed, so everyone just mingles, although they split the men and women apart straight after registration. Goodbye women for ten days. The average age is surprisingly young, and although there are a fair few Trustafarians, there are generally fewer hippy-types than I’d expected. The site is amazing, a converted farm out in the Herefordshire countryside. It’s all really clean and tidy, and the accommodation is basic but perfectly nice. Some get their own rooms, but I’m in a dorm. There’s a purpose built meditation hall, which is pretty cool. Also, the (vegetarian) food is really quite good.

Day One

Up at four. Yep, 4am. From 4.30, two hours of meditation before breakfast. We’re expected to sit on cushions on the floor, with our legs crossed. Oh boy, this is going to hurt. Pretty much since moving to secondary school twenty years ago sitting crossed legged was a no-go for me. I ask the teacher if I can sit on a chair. He says the pain is part of the process. Awesome. The meditation itself involves following our breath by observing the sensations in the nostrils. It’s called Anna Panna, which sort of sounds like a South-East Asian pornstar. We’re doing Anna Panna ten hours a day for the next two days, Goenka tells us, in order to build our concentration and ‘quiet the mind’ to prepare for the proper Vipassana meditation. The mind wanders constantly, which is really frustrating. During the breaks (6.30-8am, 11am-1pm, 5-6pm), desperate for some time off from concentrating, my mind flies off into fantasy, wondering whether Man United have made any new signings, and a load of random nonsense. Bedtime at 9pm; my head hits the pillow and the next thing I know it’s Day Two.

Day Two

Anna Panna all day. My mind is still flitting between memories, plans, fantasies, worries, comparisons… you name it, I think it. I start to notice how all these thoughts are either about the past or future, or in the case of comparisons, about craving to be a certain way. I notice how the more I’m neutrally watching sensations in the present, the more ‘stable’ my mind feels. Frustration, anger, despondency, anxiety, all comes up, but I start to see how it never lasts more than a few minutes at a time if I keep coming back to breathing. Hmm.

Day Three

We continue with Anna Panna for the first half of the day, then do a similar thing but including the sensations on the area between the mouth and nose. At first I can’t feel a thing, but slowly I start to feel the breath on this area, and it becomes clearer and clearer. But the mind is all over the place in the evening. I must be doing something wrong. I feel despondent, like I’m failing, and go to bed miserable.

Day Four

For the first half of the day we continue with the extended Anna Panna, then we stop feeling the breath and just observe naturally occurring sensations on the area between the mouth and nose. What naturally occurring sensations?! Excuse me, there’s nothing here mate. There’s definitely nothing. Oh, hang on, maybe there is. Oh yeah, there totally is. I’m all over this now. I’m awesome. I’ve totally got this.

Day Five

Today we get introduced to the real thing: Vipassana meditation. This involves a detailed, thorough (and I mean thorough) investigation of the sensations on the skin throughout the body, going slowly from top to bottom. And we’re told the important thing is to remain equanimous; that is, not to crave sensations if you can’t feel anything, and not to feel aversion towards pain when it comes up (and boy does it come up).  It’s a real struggle. I crave for sensations. I feel aversion to the pain. I’m failing. I feel aversion to thought of failing. This seems to make the pain in my legs worse. Hmm, interesting.

Day Six

Vipassana again. I gradually start to notice more and more sensation in all the different parts of my body, a kind of tingling. This feels good, really good. And somehow the pain is still there, but I’m reacting to it less and less, and it somehow starts to lose its intensity. Soon I’m just watching it as ‘pain’ without seeing it as my pain. Then, the pain turns into tingling. I feel bliss. I want more of this. Wow, I think I get it now! I think I’m enlightened now! Wow I am so smart, I bet I’ve reached this stage before anyone else!  Later on Goenka tells us we might start to feel pleasant tingling sensations, and that importantly, we must guard against craving these sensations as otherwise they’ll disappear immediately. He also says we should guard against thoughts of ego. Fail.

Day Seven

Vipassana again, except we get introduced to the next level of enlightenment, which as I’m learning, involves the next level of pain. We’re instructed to sit perfectly still with legs crossed for three separate hour-long sittings. So far I’ve only managed up to twenty minutes at a time before shuffling at least a little. The pain is severe, but again, the more I develop equanimity, somehow the less powerful it becomes. I’m awesome! Hang on, no I’m not. I’m just following instructions, just watching sensations. Maybe I’m neither awesome nor a failure. This ‘middle path’ feels really good. Oh, it’s gone. It just feels as it feels. Ah, there it is again.

Day Eight

The hour-long sittings are definitely a lot more manageable now. There’s a guy sat right behind me who has been spluttering, coughing, clearing his throat, doing some kind of weird thing with his mouth non-f**king stop for the past three days and it’s been driving me crazy. My mind-set had been one of ‘How am I supposed to meditate with this guy? Seriously?’ Now I have fewer thoughts of slapping him up, and the shooting him in the face fantasy has basically gone altogether. I start to develop warmth towards him, like he’s helping me to learn equanimity, and perhaps he’s not having a great time himself with hay fever, or TB or whatever it is.

Day Nine

Perversely, now that I’ve nearly reached the end, for the first time I’m not counting down the days and hours before returning to normal life. It’s almost like the absence of all the stuff I was missing so horribly ((ahem) ‘seeing’ my girlfriend, eating meat, hanging out with friends, reading, running etc.) wasn’t actually the cause of my suffering; it was me craving those things that made it so unbearable. I now look forward to those things, but I’m not desperate at all. They’ll come when they’ll come.

Day Ten

We’re allowed to talk again. We all suffer from verbal diarrhoea, spouting out every last thought we’ve had over the last nine days. All the heartache, the anger, the pain, the self-doubt, the gradual sinking in of the teaching, the lightness, the feelings of warmth, the ease of being. We’re all relieved that we stuck it out over ten days, and feel privileged that we chose to do it.

…Oh and I can also confirm that it is definitely not a cult. There was no financial exploitation (it’s totally free), and no charismatic leader had their way with me. Result.

If you would like to find out more about the Dhamma Dipa Meditation centre, visit their website HERE

Header photo credit: Lavender Vanilla Sky via photopin (license)

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