Quiet: My 10-day journey to inner peace through Vipassana Meditation
It’s a warm, sunny day in May. I’m riding in the passenger seat, as I often am, talking my partner’s ear off as I often do. But this time, it’s different. The chatter is incessant, with a quality of urgency, as the last words leave my lips for the next ten days. I am off to my very first 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course. I am certain she must be thinking, “How the heck is she going to survive a whole ten days without opening her mouth?” And, frankly, I am furtively wondering the same. The introverted part of myself has been yearning for this kind of solitude and inner reflection. But then, there is the side of myself that is not completely comfortable with the idea of being left alone with my thoughts for an extended period of time, with no distractions. No reading. No writing. No exercise or yoga. No talking. No snacking. No scrolling. No Netflix. No working. No doing. Simply, being, which is historically not so simple for me. I truly have no idea what I am getting myself into, so I proceed with my relentless chatter, as my loving partner continues to hold space for my last spoken words.
“What better month for enlightenment and renewal than the month of May?” a dear friend said to me upon my acceptance to the 10-day Vipassana course. Ah, yes, May, the month of rebirth. The month, which was allegedly named after the shy Greek goddess, Maia, who dwelt alone in a cave amongst a mountaintop. And, here I was, an aspiring goddess, embarking upon this journey of silence and solitude. How fitting. Although, thankfully, I would not be dwelling alone in a cave. I was going to be safely nestled amongst the tall pines of the tiny township of Egbert, Ontario at the Ontario Vipassana Centre.
As we approached the sign, the butterflies in my tummy began to furiously flutter. I clung to my partner’s arm with a grip, propelled by an array of emotions, ranging from nervousness, excitement, sadness, gratitude, fear, anticipation, and joy. She reciprocated the squeeze with an unspoken “You can do this, I got you,” which was all that I needed in that moment. We pulled into the lot. I nervously introduced myself to the attendee, who provided me with a map of the grounds. “Oh great,” I muttered to myself. I have been presented with my first impossible task—reading a map and having to navigate unfamiliar grounds in silence with literally NO sense of direction. Is this some kind of joke?
We proceeded to the women’s dorms, where I unpacked my very few belongings and set up my humble abode for the next ten days. After a long embrace, we said goodbye and I thanked her for her love and support, which without, I knew this would all feel much more terrifying. I watched her drive away, and for a split second, I dreamt about what it might be like to run back to the car and ditch this ridiculous idea and head back home to my comfortable little life of distraction and busyness. Maybe next year I would be ready for enlightenment. Alas, I stuck to my guns, as I always do, and made a commitment to myself in that moment: “Okay, Jann, this is going to be hard. Really hard. But you can do hard things. No matter how hard it gets, you are not going home, okay?”
I found some lovely ladies to accompany me to the dining hall, where we were gathering for orientation. They seemed to exude a confidence that told me they had done this before. They knew exactly where they were going and what they were doing and I wanted them to give me all of the answers. “Any pearls of wisdom for a new student?” I anxiously inquired. With a warm gaze and a gentle nod, one of them responded, “You will be fine.” Little did I know, that for the next ten days, I would cling to those words, as a child clings to their parent’s hand in an unfamiliar situation.
Upon entering the dining hall, I observed that all of the men seemed to be sitting on one side, and all of the women, on the other. Soon after, my gaze fell upon a sign that confirmed this was, in fact, a rule to be observed throughout the duration of the course—men and women were to be kept separate at all times. “With all due respect,” I pondered in my mind, “Where would my trans and non-binary friends be sitting?” And, what about people who are attracted to those of the same sex? Should they be segregated into little sub-groups, apart from the main group, in the interest of minimizing any potential distraction or temptation, if that’s what it’s about? Never mind, Jann. You are here as a guest. And, a student. You are here to learn, not to judge. You can be curious but these are not your rules to evaluate. These are not your standards or your practices. These are not your roots, your history, your traditions, your culture. They have opened their door for you, regardless of your background, and you are thankful for that, so put your head down and do what you came here to do.
I found myself a seat and proceeded to listen with an open mind to the itinerary, rules, and expectations to be observed throughout the duration of the course. Afterward, we ate our first divine dinner together—it would be our final meal where words were exchanged—A last supper of sorts. We eagerly connected with the souls and vibrations that would be sitting with and amongst us for the next little while and wished each other a successful course. It was the last small talk I would have to engage in for the next ten days! My introverted self was jumping for joy.
I tentatively approached the meditation hall for our first evening “sit” and discourse by the late and legendary Goenka G. As is often the case, I was the first keen student, waiting at the door. I kept my eyes down, so as not to be tempted to smile at any passersby. I could handle the no-talking (“noble silence”), no problem, but the no-eye-contact or non-verbal cues, namely, smiling, was incredibly difficult being the “courteous Canadian gal” that I am. It felt challenging to have to keep all of the questions and wonderings and ultimately the festering Anxiety all to myself. I realized that typically in this kind of situation, I would be able to connect with a few others and not feel so alone with all of my relentless questions, irrational thoughts, and uncomfortable sensations but this was not an option. No co-regulation to be found here. Self-regulation only. This was the moment I wondered if some people go home early. (I did learn at the end of the course that in fact, there were three women that left the course after the first day or two).
We made our way into the building, removed our shoes, and entered the hall, where there were about 200 cushions set out with name cards on them. I took note of the divide down the middle of the room, assuming that this was the invisible boundary between the men and the women. I found my cushion quite quickly and was so relieved that it was at the very back corner, right near the door. It was like they knew! The sit began with an audio of Goenka G. chanting. It felt strangely familiar and comforting. It was like the words were speaking to my soul, even though I hadn’t the slightest clue what he was saying. I wondered if we were going to have to learn these words eventually, as some of the students were chanting along with him.
During the meditation, I felt my eyes welling up with tears of gratitude, as I thought about how lucky I was to be here. For having the time and space, along with a flexible schedule. For having a partner who supports my free-spirited nature, even though it can be a pain in the ass at times. And, for having a supportive community of friends and family, who don’t always understand my actions and desires but support them whole-heartedly. Well, there it was, my first cry. I anticipated many more to follow.
The first meditation technique we learned was called Anapana. The premise of this technique is to focus your entire awareness on your breath, as it comes in and out of your nostrils—specifically, upon the area above your upper lip and below your nostrils, where you can supposedly feel your breath. To my surprise, I was unable to feel my breath as it left my nostrils, no matter how hard I tried or how focused I felt I was. I felt overcome by frustration and confusion around why I could not seem to “get it right.” I sat there wondering if I was the only one who could not feel her breath upon her lip or if this was the first sign I was not cut out for this practice.
I signed up for a meeting with the teacher the next day (This was the one time that you were permitted to speak but it was only allowed to be regarding any challenges you were experiencing around the meditation, specifically). I let her know that I was unable to feel my breath on my upper lip. “Not to worry,” she assured me. “It will come,” and she nodded a gentle yet confident nod as if she was certain I would get it in no time. Gee, thanks, lady. I broke my silence for that? The impatient side of myself was vibrating vehemently. Her gaze was soft and warm and she was emanating a depth of wisdom and enlightenment one could only ever dream of. I was looking for her to bestow some of that upon me. I wanted concrete tools and strategies to help me feel my damn breath on my upper lip, not merely be told, “N worries, it will come.”
When I got “home” that afternoon, I found myself standing in front of the mirror, pushing down on the bridge of my nose, while strongly exhaling (Let me tell you, it’s amazing, the strange things you find yourself doing, when you have a lot of unoccupied time). Much to my surprise, I was able to feel that sweet sensation of my breath upon my upper lip. By golly, I had figured it out! The truth was that it was actually never going to come for me because it was, in fact, a structural issue with my nose—not my ability to focus my awareness. It was the semi- sideways/upper positioning of my little pug-nosed nostrils. Thank you, Dad, for passing on my once endearing button nose, which is now evidently incompatible with the anapana meditation technique. And, a heads-up to any of my fellow button-nosed people, who are planning to do a Vipassana one day. You’ve been warned!
The days that followed were both arduous and beautiful. I quickly became tired, mentally and physically, from sitting for ten hours a day. Each morning, 4:00am rolled around quickly, as I was awoken by the sound of the gong. It was interesting to note how the reaction within myself shifted in response to the gong throughout the week—initially, it was an “Ugh, 4:00am already?” and slowly and increasingly, it became a sound that brought a sense of comfort, of peace, of gratitude, and joy. It evolved into a sound of inspiration, accompanied by the thought, “Let’s do this!” I would quickly scoot into the washroom, before my next-door neighbour, and would brush my teeth, wash my face, and throw my hair up in a sub-standard bun. I didn’t bother with make-up or eyebrows when I was there.
It was refreshing to not have to worry about my outsides so much when I was there to focus on my insides.
I enjoyed a few good sobs throughout the first three days, which I had anticipated. Thank goodness for a single room! I understood these moments to be a release of energy and emotions I had suppressed deep down for years and years, thanks to the many avenues of distraction in my life. Holding this understanding in my mind helped me to navigate these moments and feel less uncomfortable with them. In fact, they actually felt refreshing and productive in some way.
Mealtime was my favourite time of day. I often found myself thinking about food and wondering what we would be having for our next meal. I practiced mindful eating, mostly because I never wanted the meal to be over and because I knew I had two more hours of nothingness to pass until our next sit.
During the “breaks,” I observed people lying on benches, walking backward, practicing Qi-gong, stretching in the yard, and briskly walking through the beautiful trails, which soon became my greatest companion. Walking through the woods and admiring the beauty of each and every branch, leaf, and twig is the closest to “entertainment” one can encounter on such a course, and I was totally okay with this. Only once or twice did I think about my cell phone that was safely tucked away in a Ziploc bag in some unknown location, until the final day. It felt incredibly grounding to reconnect with nature in such a deep, appreciative way. With each passing day, the colours of the forest became brighter and brighter and each shape and texture, more vivid and pronounced. The pace of my steps gradually decelerated, throughout the week, as I began to shed my deep-rooted propensity for doing in favour of a state of surrender and being.
I never felt alone or lonely, except for one night when I was startled awake by the sound of either a gunshot or some sort of firework (probably, more likely) that was seemingly coming from the field outside my window. Anxiety was alive and in full-force that night, as I had no way of making sense of the sound and no one to check in with about it. It was no special holiday. This was a private property, solely for the purpose of silent meditation courses, so what the heck could that have been? I will never know. My mind concocted all sorts of stories though—the most entertaining was the one that convinced me this was part of the course as a way to “test” us, and how we were doing with our ability to stay present and calm and simply observe our sensations and experiences. So, observe my sensations, I did—Every last heart palpitation and irrational thought that graced by being. Aside from this particular night, I found myself strangely feeling more connected and less alone with these individuals than I typically would at home, even though we never exchanged so much as a glance. It was this comforting feeling that we were all in this together. We all came from different backgrounds and situations but ultimately, we were all there for the same underlying reasons. They say meditation changes the part of the brain that sees us as being separate from others. I really felt this shift happen for me while I was there. And, I suppose, in light of my continued practice, have maintained this feeling even today.
The energy in the meditation hall was palpable. Some sits, the energy felt calm and soft, others, it had more of an intense and restless quality to it. I noticed when the energy felt restless, there also tended to be an increased presence of bodily sounds throughout the hall, such as sneezing, coughing, and even belching! I became so aware of the energy of the people around me. It was so fascinating to me to notice that without exchanging any words with another, I could tell those whose energies I wanted to be near and those whose I did not. Thankfully, the women who had their seats assigned around mine seemed to have a soft, loving energy that felt comforting to be around. This was immensely helpful during times when I felt so close to bolting up and out of the room. And there were those times.
Learning the law of ‘Anicca’ (impermanence) was incredibly helpful, as I became more and more able to simply observe my sensations and temptations without reacting or responding to them. This is a skill, I knew I would hold tight forever. And, it is something that has become an integral part of my teachings with the students and clients that cross my path. Essentially, it is similar to the idea that “This too shall pass.” That nothing lasts forever. That sensations come and go and eventually fade away. Knowing this and experiencing this brought comfort to me, as well as a new layer of healing that my body, mind, and spirit had been yearning for. It felt like it had been the missing piece of the puzzle. Why don’t they teach us this in school?
In the interest of maintaining my sanity and keeping track of the days, I developed a little ritual to close off each day. I kept a little tally on a card in my room—I guess you could say it was the one rule I broke, given that we technically weren’t supposed to be writing. At the end of each long day, a sense of pride and satisfaction washed over me, as I brought that pen to the paper and etched a tic with intention. I felt a little like Tom Hanks, stranded on the desert island in Castaway, only, knowing that after the tenth tic, I’d be heading home. The most difficult day was day six. On the one hand, it was so satisfying to see the five tics that graced the page—I had been silent, alone with my thoughts, and meditating for twelve hours a day for five whole days! On the other hand, the fact that I still had five remaining days of this oppressive, sadistic, nonsense felt cumbersome.
The sitting was hard—probably the hardest part of any of it, actually. Especially, on day five (or was it six?) when we started having to do “Strong Determination” sits—meaning, you pick a posture and you do not move a muscle or single strand of hair for an entire hour. Sounds impossible, right? Try it with a mosquito in the room, which, by the way, you are not allowed to kill because one of the observances is “Non-violence.” So, the only option left is to surrender to the little bugger and let it blatantly buzz in your ear with that god-awful high-frequency torturous sound, over and over again. Anicca! Anicca! The energy during those sits was slightly more intense. At times, I felt like I wanted to jump up and scream at the top of my lungs because it was so damn still and so damn quiet. I would be lying if I said that I successfully made it through every single one of those sits. I worked hard to find a balance of strong determination and self-compassion. It felt really satisfying when I did make it through a one-hour sit without moving my posture. I certainly surprised myself at my ability to drop into that level of stillness—coming from the gal who typically cannot even sit still for longer than twenty minutes!
Napolean Bonaparte once said,
“The best cure for the body is a quiet mind.”
I started to really see and appreciate this throughout the course. I have known that my body is the greatest communicator—It lets me know when it’s time to slow down, and when I do not listen, it persists. Historically, seemingly arbitrary symptoms surface in times of stress for me, even when I may think and feel that all is well. After about five days of sitting in silence, I began to notice that every single symptom I was having prior to my arrival—from skin rashes to night sweats, and sweet cravings to extreme fatigue— had all dissipated. Every single one of them. Perhaps most amazingly, my psoas muscle released on its own after four months of intense hot yoga, physio, chiro, and still no relief! And then, one day, I noticed that it had released—without any physical intervention!
As the final days approached, I found myself feeling light and proud and totally present. I developed a little stretching routine that I would do before and after my long sits and then I would head back to my room and either lie on my bed with my legs up the wall or sit on my little cushion beside my bed until the gong went off for mealtime. It felt nice to move slowly and take the time to nurture my body and mind. The sitting became easier and more comfortable for me, with each passing day. Both, physically and mentally. I could feel my posture improving as well.
I started to feel a sense of excitement brewing at the thought of seeing my partner and sharing my experience with her and others, although, I knew that one could never sufficiently sum up this experience with words. Part of me knew that this was going to remain my sacred inner experience that only those who had shared this experience could ever understand. And, I was completely content with that.
On the final day, we were to break the silence, following our morning meditation. I found myself yearning to hold onto the silence and protect the inner quiet I had worked so hard to cultivate. An older Greek woman who was in my dorm must have misunderstood the instructions and busted out of her room in the morning and shouted at the top of her lungs, “Kaliméra! Kaliméra!” She gave me one of those tight, emphatic, jolly Greek women hugs that almost picked me right up off the ground. I had no idea what she was saying, although I assumed it was something akin to “Hallelujah!” I glanced at her with a smile, and softly brought my finger to my lip and said “Not yet. After meditation.” She brought her hands to cover her mouth and let out a giggle. At that point, there were a few of us gathered in the hallway now and we all looked around at each other and let out a little giggle.
Our final mediation was my best meditation. I felt so focused and so calm. My body was radiating with blissful energy. At one point, I was seeing flashes of light and felt as though I was having some sort of transcendental experience. (Later on, someone shared with me that it sounded like this could have been my “Third-eye opening”). Who knows? Whatever it was, it was pretty wild and I knew that something was happening but was not quite sure what it was.
I will never forget getting up from that final sit. It was the most intense range of emotions I think I have ever experienced. My body felt so light, it was almost as though I floated out of that meditation hall. My mind and spirit were rife with joy, peace, gratitude, and love. I felt on top of the world, and as if absolutely anything was within my reach. I felt so connected to everything and everyone around me and I was no longer feeling protective of my silent little bubble. I wanted to chat with these people, who I’d been sharing a space with for the past ten days and inquire about their experiences. I had created entire narratives in my head throughout the week, about what kind of people they were and the lives that they lived—some of them alarmingly accurate, as it turned out! I felt like some sort of collective group hug was in order.
There is something really special that happens to a group of people that have been vibrating at the same frequency in the same space for an extended period of time. I can’t say what exactly that is but all I know is that the conversations I had with those women that day, were some of the deepest, most soulful, contemplative, and inspiring conversations I have ever had in my life. I wanted them all to be my new BFF’s. But then I remembered the principle of non-attachment. I allowed myself to float about the group and connect with people I felt gravitated towards—ironically, most of them were women who were sitting in the same meditation row as I was. I remained open, with no expectations. Some of us exchanged numbers and we created a group e-mail list to meet up for some meditation reunions down the road. Mostly, it served as a great reminder to me that we are all connected. And, that we are all one. What used to feel like some sort of cheesy hashtag became a very raw and authentic experience for me that I finally understood.
Some people were picked up by their partners in beamers, others, with their entire lives in a backpack, were looking for the nearest bus to catch. I stood there and watched people come and go before me, as I waited for my usually late love to arrive. I waited eagerly, yet patiently, as I contemplated what the next chapter would have in store for me. I wondered how it was possible to feel so incredibly light, yet so entirely full all at once. I took in the sensations and I let them pass. I glanced over at the trees one last time and gave them a thankful nod for their unconditional love and companionship.
I heard a car rolling up on the gravel, and there she was. Could she see me? Was I a recognizable person or some sort of floating entity? Was I glowing? Was I standing taller? Did my outsides match my insides? I was so curious! Where would I even begin to tell her about this crazy journey? I wanted to hug her and tell her all the things but then I also wanted to sit in silence, staring out the window, and process all I had just been through. I climbed into the car, and after a long, loving embrace, we pulled out of the centre. I tried to find some sort of balance between taking it all in and letting it out. It was a lot. I grabbed her arm, looked out the window, watching the trees hurriedly pass by, and continued chatting her ear off. It was as if everything and nothing had changed.