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The Sounds of Silence – My Experience at a 10-Day Silent Meditation Course – Part 1

I’m recently back from a 10-Day Vipassana silent meditation course. It was one of the hardest things I‘ve ever done and one of the most cathartic, profound and valuable.

I shared my experience with a few close friends and family members and decided I should probably write about it – as a way to process the experience and to have it to refer back to. Plus many people have asked me about it, but it’s difficult to explain in a 10 minute conversation.

As I sat down to write, I realized it was not going to be a regular length blog post. In fact, it was going to have to be a series of posts.

Today I share Part 1 – how I came to do the course in the first place and the lead up to it. Part 2 will be some highlights of the actual experience and then Part 3 will recap my takeaways and key learnings.

Enjoy!

Vipassana 2018 – Part 1

My 20 year flirtation with meditation

I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time. Probably since I read Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert in 2006. I’ve longed for a chunk of time to sit in contemplation, immerse myself in spiritual teachings, find a community of like-minded individuals, like Gilbert did when she went to India in the Pray section of the book.

In fact, as I re-read that section as I prepared to write this, I had forgotten Gilbert actually tried out Vipassana while she was at the Ashram and shares a bit about the teaching and principles in her book.

For me it wasn’t so much about having a guru, spiritual teacher or being a devotee like Gilbert described. My interest was more about learning a meditation technique and immersing myself in it. Something about the discipline, structure, testing yourself and your mind that really intrigues me. Crazy as it sounds!

I’ve meditated on and off for the last 20 years. Every self-help book and approach I’ve read about to find peace, joy and happiness, suggests meditation as the key path.

As a seeker and an introvert (always in my head), I’ve been looking for the thing that will help settle my active mind and bring me some peace and harmony. I’ve read a ton of books and articles on meditation and truly believe it would be so beneficial for me.

I’ve tried a few different styles or approaches to meditation – Shambhala, mindfulness, Path of Bliss. I’ve read books. Taken classes. Downloaded apps.

And while many of these practices resonated with me, I’d try them for awhile and then stop. Nothing really stuck. I never really made any progress with it. Such a busy active mind. I’d try and sit for 20 minutes a day, but wasn’t seeing any results so I’d give up. I feel like I’ve never given any method a fair trial, or practiced it constantly or long enough to realize the benefits. Intellectually I wholeheartedly believe in it, but experientially, I’d get bored, distracted and give up.

An auspicious gift

Last summer we were on vacation with a couple friends who had attended a few Vipassana courses. They shared their experiences, benefits and a few details about the process. I hadn’t realized there were centres around the world offering the exact same 10-day meditation courses. I was intrigued.

When I returned home I researched the nearest centre and found the Ontario Vipassana Centre, a two-hour plane ride away. I saw dates that could work and marked my calendar for the day the registration opened.

Registration day arrived and I got my application in right away. I heard back a few days later on my birthday that I was in! Was this a birthday gift from the universe? How auspicious to receive word on my special day.

Holy shit! Was I really going to do this?

The dates worked. I had air miles to fly to Toronto. The course is free (they do suggest a donation after the course is complete) so financially I could swing it. After mulling it over and discussing it with my husband, I could see no reason not to do it, so I booked the plane ticket.

With the logistics in place, I had four months to do more research and prepare.

Preparing to go

I had lots of questions: What do I need to do to get ready? Should I be training to sit a certain amount of hours each day? Should I learn and practice the technique in advance? How hard is it going to be?

I read the website many times. Talked to a few more friends and acquaintances who had attended Vipassana courses. Watched videos of people with their top tips for surviving the 10 days.

I learned it is best to approach with an open mind. With no pre-conceived ideas. That there was no real preparation you could do. So I didn’t read too much about the teachings, approach, background or history. I didn’t let anyone’s opinions sway me.

I printed off my packing list which includes what to bring and what not to bring. I purchased a pair of twin sheets for my bed (yes you have to bring your own bedding), bought a new meditation cushion and selected my “simple, modest, loose and comfortable outfits.” Did I even have a pair of non skin-tight yoga pants? Maybe a shopping trip is in order!

The “Do Not Bring” list included books, diaries, journals and other reading/writing materials, smart phones or tablets. That’s right. No reading, writing or listening to anything but your own thoughts for 10 days. Yikes!

Your enrolment has been cancelled

Three days before Christmas and about three weeks before I was due to go, I received an email that my enrolment had been cancelled. I had just woken up, checked my email on my phone and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the subject line: “Vipassana course: Your enrolment has been cancelled! CANCELLED! WTF!!!

My heart leapt into my throat and I jumped out of bed in a state of utter panic. “What the hell. I have a flight booked. I’ve told everyone I am doing this. No! No! There must be some huge mistake. This can’t be true.”

I ran to my computer. The email said I didn’t confirm my registration. But yes I did. I always follow the rules. I clicked through the confirmation page the day I received the email. I was even taken to the ride share page and have a drive confirmed with a lovely lady in Toronto named Trudie!

I called my husband in tears. He reassured me. Calmed me down, “But the email said they were giving my place to the next person on the waiting list,” I sobbed.

In a series of panicked emails and phone calls to the centre, to registration, to any contact I could find, I explained, “I am coming. I have a flight booked. This must be a technology error. A glitch must have happened with the website. Please hold my spot.”

After a very frantic few hours, I received word that they were not sure what happened, for some unknown reason my confirmation didn’t take, but they would manually add me back in and confirm my place.

What a relief. I felt my cortisol and blood pressure start to normalize. Okay. Everything is back on track. I can resume packing and preparing.

Dealing with the skeptics

To many (maybe even most) people, Vipassana may seem severe, impossible, unfathomable.

In Eat Pray Love, Gilbert describes it as, “The Extreme Sports version of transcendence…it’s physically gruelling too.”

And it is. It’s intense, demanding and arduous. It’s not a spa retreat. It’s hard work. And I was up for it.

I hadn’t challenged myself in a long time. I was in a funk. A rut. A negative downward spiral in my head. I was stuck.

When I read the description on the website, it felt like it was exactly what I needed,

“Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.”

Not sure who could find fault in this? I mean who could argue with freedom, peace and happiness?

One person in particular could. My mother.

“So you’ve wanted to do this for a long time have you? You have friends who have done this?” she’d question with skepticism.

“Why do you have to go for 10 days? Isn’t there a shorter one?” she’d ask. “Like maybe three days would be better?”

“It sounds like a cult? Are you sure they aren’t scientologists? Sounds like it’s their way or the highway.”

Boy she sure was pushing my buttons and testing my mental impurities. I needed the meditation even more now!

“I don’t think meditation ever killed anyone,” I reassured her.

I know she loves me and was worried. This is unknown territory. Total silence. 10 hours of meditation a day. Rigid rules. Not being able to leave. And not being able to talk to me for 11 days or see my face. It does sound extreme and I’m sure she just couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to put themselves through this.

“So you’re going to go and dwell on your thoughts and think about your problems for 10 days?” she said latching on to me with tears in her eyes as I was leaving for the airport.

“Actually mom, I’m going to do the opposite. The purpose is to NOT think for 10 days.”

And off I went.

Read Part 2

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Rachelle Boudreau February 20, 2018, 1:15 pm

    Michelle, thank you for sharing this! I can’t wait to read more. What a challenge…one day I may be brave enough to do the same.

  • Dawn February 20, 2018, 1:41 pm

    I’m intrigued, can’t wait to read part 2

  • Genevieve Kennedy February 20, 2018, 2:12 pm

    OMG, Michelle, I have always wanted to do something like this and I also have the books to prove it. I loved your story it’s so familiar. Can’t wait to hear the rest, hurry and let us know. Thanks, thanks, love it and you too, Big Hugs, Gen

    • Michelle February 26, 2018, 4:07 pm

      Thanks so much Gen. Part 2 coming soon.

  • judy prosser February 20, 2018, 4:07 pm

    Can’t wait for Part 2 Michelle. I’m on pins and needles.

  • Sheila February 20, 2018, 8:57 pm

    I cannot believe how many things you told us – that I think in my mind. Why is it so hard just to enjoy the moment, accept things as they are and go forward. Anyway, I am going to Meditation tomorrow night at 700 until 900. I am anxious to find out how to just relax and not think or worry about anything, Do I need to bring a cushion – I probably won’t get up. Thanks for sharing Michelle..

  • Susan February 21, 2018, 1:52 am

    So excited to read this, I’ve been wanting more detail about your incredible journey. Stoked for parts 2 and 3!!

  • Mom February 26, 2018, 8:04 pm

    I remember when you left for the airport and can remember saying I hope it’s everything you want it to be. I had come to the realization that this was going to be a good place. It was my initial reaction when I didn’t know anything more than you were going someplace in Ontario and so on …that I felt nervous about the whole thing. I do trust your instincts – they’ve always been right on ‘- I’m going to try mediation myself – Sheila is going to a class and I think after her class ends I’ll give it a try. Keep up the good work and your journey…. Love ya ..

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