I was that kid who’s report card in school always read “talks too much”. From long conversations over the phone to spending the night chatting away under the stars, I have always loved sharing stories, connecting with others and utilising this wonderful ability of speech that we have been given.
Yet earlier this year for ten days, the longest period since learning how to talk, I kept quiet. Completely silent. Not a word was spoken. And I’m not just referring talking in the traditional sense – with our mouths. This was ten days of no eye contact, no texting or emailing, no technology. No pen or paper. No writing or reading. Just me.
Upon telling some friends I was going to a 10 day Vipassana Meditation Course – some were excited by what might come from it, some had done it themselves and encouraged me to go for it, many couldn’t understand why someone would do such a thing and thought it was choosing to enter some kind of prison. The meditation rooms are called ‘cells’, you receive two simple meals a day, there’s a strict routine where you wake up at 4am every morning and meditate for 12 odd hours a day. I soon realised that I was in a prison indeed. I realised just how imprisoned I was, by my own mind.
Day one was tough. The mind was mad. All I was asked to do was observe my breath, yet I went on the journey of a lifetime! I traveled from the past to the future, all around the world, through various memories and dreams, role and relationships, as the mind showed me who was boss.
Not a whole lot changed going into day two. I was shocked that despite my strong intention to be here and now, despite any meditation I had previously practiced, I was still a victim in the hands of the mind. By day three however things began to change. The mind began to give up, and in the days that followed, it finally silenced allowing me to discover a world within me that I had barely stepped foot into before – you’ll have to try it out!
Just over a month later, here are three learnings from the experience that I have strived to incorporate into my life:
One: Awareness in one aspect of life leads to awareness (and change) in others
The first few days of observing your breath are quite remarkable. I noticed how more breath enters through my left nostril than my right nostril, the journey it takes through my nose, and how outgoing breath is actually warmer than ingoing breath. This heightened awareness of just my breathing, soon began translating into many other areas of my life.
I’d delight at the taste of plum, observing how it tasted sweeter on one side of my tongue compared the other. I’d spend half an hour marveling at the sky and the constant change of colours, clouds, and patterns. I’d walk more consciously – paying attention to my posture, something I have previously struggled with. In the shower I was awake to the sensation of every droplet falling on my body. When so aware of the amount of water I was using, I couldn’t help but reduce the length of my shower.
Over the last month, I’ve become more aware of my emotions and thoughts, how I react to people and situations, of even simple things like the impact clutter in my room has on my state of mind. Checking my phone in every free moment has lot it’s appeal and I am finding much more joy in being here and noticing what is going on around me.
Two: Our default tendency is always to change things outside rather than look at ourselves
I’m not so flexible so you can imagine sitting for 12 hours a day was a struggle. During the first few days, I changed my posture every half hour and experimented with the wide range of sitting positions that my fellow meditators took up. It took a few days for me to realise that no matter what position I took, my legs would ache. The position wasn’t the cause of the ache. The real pain came from the mind choosing to react to the feeling in my leg, wishing it were not there, and giving it more attention. Changing posture provided a temporary relief. Choosing to accept and simply observe the pain led to the sensation subsiding and provided a long term solution.
In much the same way my natural tendency when something is uncomfortable is for me to avoid the situation or thing that I am finding challenging (checking social media when work is challenging is a classic example!) I’ve realised how this only leads to temporary relief (although I am still doing it!) and the key to any lasting change, rests in my own hands, my own thoughts, and my own mind. An empowering realisation!
Three: Our state of mind is hugely affected by what we take in through our senses.
For ten days you have no choice but eat small and healthy meals twice a day. You can only see, smell and engage with the surrounding trees and meditation campus. The absence of technology and interaction means there is no opportunity to be exposed to any form of external negativity. As a result, after a few days, the only things that played through my mind were the hymns that were chanted everyday. My mind became free of the worries, thoughts and ideas that would usually flood it. I was just happy, for no reason, and reminded of the clarity and peace I find when days are spent hiking in nature.
Since being back, I’ve strived to be more careful with what I eat, read, watch, listen to, and speak about. I’ve cut out engaging with many forms of media that I’d usually engage with and questioned what things really are of benefit to my life. It’s been challenging to be disciplined but I am certainly more aware of just how much of an impact everything I take in has on my state of mind.
If a ship changes its course by just one degree, many kilometres later it will end up in an entirely different destination than it otherwise would have. I feel like ten days of slowing down and taking a hard look at myself has helped me recharter my boat not 1 or 2 degrees but a whole 90 degrees. Maintaining this new course and practicing what I have learnt has been the real challenge, but one that I am certainly motivated to keep pursuing. If you ever get the opportunity, I highly recommend giving a Vipassana course a go!