I can't sit still, I love to talk, and reading and writing are my favourite activities. So when I first heard about Vipassana – a ten-day silent meditation retreat – I thought it sounded torturous. It was my friend Swati who sold it to me by saying I always kept my physical space streamlined, yet I had never decluttered my mind. After years of contemplating it, I finally applied and got a seat at the Dhammasarita Centre in Maharashtra for July.
Founded by S. N. Goenka, there are Vipassana centres across India and the world. Using an ancient meditation technique rediscovered by Buddha 2500 years ago, it is non-sectarian and anyone from any background can participate. The format of the course has been smoothly standardised across all the centres: we follow Goenka's recorded voice instructions in Hindi and English during meditation hours, and watch him speak on video for ninety minutes every evening. The centres are free of cost. We are provided accommodations and meals, and asked to observe all their rules.
These include no speaking, unless to teachers or staff about practical matters, and no eye contact with fellow students. All electronic devices along with any reading or writing materials have to be handed in when we arrive. I've heard from friends of Vipassana's profound benefits, and vow to stay open to everything. But as I hand my phone in, it suddenly becomes real and I wonder what I've gotten myself into.
Day 1 (and I am definitely counting the days here) is overwhelming. I am disoriented for much of it. I miss the 4:00 a.m. start and sleep through the first two hours of meditation. There are eight more hours of it throughout the day. We are asked to surrender to the experience.
I feel better by Day 2 as I now understand the ins and outs of things. The actual meditation part is no more tricky than I expected: I try to focus my mind and get distracted within seconds, so spend most of my time gently pulling it back. What's difficult is how I literally cannot sit still for more than thirty seconds, and to realise how appalling my posture is. I'm not unfit, but I've spent decades sitting hunched over my laptop or collapsed on soft seating. My back feels weak. I have the same urge as when sitting on a long haul flight in economy to stretch out on a flat surface.
Not reading is excruciating. In an average week in my normal life (for Vipassana is now appearing deeply abnormal), I read three new books, a dozen blogs, several daily newspapers, and listen to about twenty hours' worth of cultural podcasts (which is like reading via the ears). I've rationalised this volume because I don't watch TV or waste time net surfing, though I see it might be excessive. Sitting in Vipassana, however, it sounds heavenly. Just as being on an Ayurvedic retreat some years ago had me dreaming about chocolate, here I fantasise about the books I will soon read.
Not writing is the worst of all. Normally I write my diary and a blog, and am always working on some fiction. There's one that began as a comedy of errors short story twenty years ago when it was published in a literary journal. I expanded the idea to a novel and began work on it before getting stuck on a murder mystery sub-plot. Over the years I've jotted down random ideas for it. I decided a month ago to finally write this book. Yet I kept stalling.
On Day 3, my mind – after spending Day 1 recalling recent events and Day 2 fretting over my to do list – is a little more calm. Then something dramatic happens. In one flash, the book's story appears fully formed in my brain. It's as if I'm standing in front of a giant mural and I can see it in its entirety as well as its individual brushstrokes. It's clear how the mystery story is the main plotline and how it connects absolutely all the random lines I'd been writing haphazardly for 20 years. It's like a giant piece of machinery with a thousand moving parts all suddenly slotting into position. I'm so emotional that tears stream down my face.
We're allowed to ask questions at the end of each day. I go, weeping, to ask if I could write for ten minutes (as any writer knows, the Fear of Forgetting is terrifying). The assistant teacher reminds me it's against the rules.
Still crying from the drama of it all (twenty years!) I go to my room to prepare to sleep. I rummage in my handbag for lip balm and find a pen I'd forgotten I'd packed. I have three choices: I could leave the centre and go home to write. I could stay and write furtively. Or I could surrender to what I'd committed. I'm tempted by the first, but settle on the third. I will stay and I will not write. For now.
There's one other foreigner, a young Chinese woman. We meet with the one English-speaking assistant teacher together every other day to report on our progress and problems. We also watch the English videos every evening in a separate room. One night, it's raining and she doesn't have an umbrella so I share mine with her. All this is done in companionable silence. Given the no-eye-contact rule, I don't really know what she looks like.
Despite my love of conversing, I find the silence restful. Not having to make small talk is the most peaceful of all. I hadn't realised it was so draining to participate in the social niceties that are not required here. I accidentally speak twice to fellow students, once when someone sneezes and I say “bless you”; another when I bump into someone and apologise. I could be the sole survivor of an apocalypse and my mother's well-trained daughter will still be polite to debris.
Over the next several days I meditate in earnest. My book idea continues to expand and solidify in my mind. I eventually go from fidgeting every thirty seconds to every three minutes, though that's the most I manage. And every day I consider leaving. This is the toughest thing I have ever voluntarily done. The hours feel interminable.
We are not allowed to exercise beyond walking. I resist the urge to do squats and push-ups. Note: I never get the urge to do squats and push-ups but it's like the time I was told before an MRI scan to not take deep breaths and that became all I wanted to do.
Though I brought enough clothes for the duration, I wash each day's wear by hand before I shower. This gives me something to do in the resting hours, which pass just as slowly as the meditation sessions. I sweep my room and clean my bathroom daily. I find nail clippers and tweezers in my bag; my brows and nails have never looked so tidy. I walk after every meal. When the monsoons begin in full force on Day 5, I get cabin fever.
The purpose of Vipassana is to purify the mind. We are warned this could involve uncomfortable stages as old thought patterns clear out. I twice had major open abdominal surgery where in the immediate aftermath I felt helpless, trapped and faintly hysterical. This is how I feel now.
Vipassana teaches us to see things as they really are. In that “this too shall pass” way, we release our attachments, especially our cravings and aversions, as we experientially understand how impermanent everything is. I am already painfully aware of this; I was ten years old when my brother died. I have built my entire life on the premise that nothing is permanent. I know that all we have is the present. The more I meditate on this, the more I yearn to do what I really love: write. To not waste any more time. If these are my last days on earth I would rather be putting words down, not sitting in the lotus position with my eyes closed. I feel done. And so, on Day 7, with three days left, I ask to leave the centre.
The teachers and staff, all of whom are exceedingly kind, urge me to stay on; an incomplete Vipassana doesn't give its complete benefits. I tell them my appreciation of all I have learnt – the silence, contemplation, clarity, and perspective. The practice of focusing on the internal rather than being distracted by the external. I know I wouldn't have grasped the entire book's story if my mind were not this still. I don't regret coming here at all. But I am sure about leaving. I am released on Day 8 and take the train back.
I don't call or speak to anyone, though I do record my notes into the Voice Memo app on my iPhone. Then I sit down to write. It's like coming home.
Nupu Press is a writer and film producer. Her blog is at www.nupupress.com