10 days of silence: The new way to check out of life

More people are choosing solitude over cocktails to help recharge from the stress of life.

By Cassie White

You’d think that waking up at 4:00am to meditate all day for 10 days, staying silent and not making eye contact with anyone would be most people’s idea of hell.

Well, that’s what my mates, colleagues and clients said when I mentioned my plan to sit the 10-day Vipassana meditation course in the Blue Mountains.

No talking, texting, internet-ing, reading, writing, napping, or any other form of distraction for 10 days. It’s just you … and the contents of your head.

Terrifying, right?

Apparently not, since every course I tried to get a place on last year was booked out.

This year, the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Blackheath, near the highest point of the Blue Mountains, is running 22 of these courses, with teachings held in English, Hindi and Khmer.

Patrick Given-Wilson, who runs the centre, told me that despite being open for bookings three months in advance, the donation-based courses often book out two to three days after opening.

“When we started 30 years ago, we’d just get hippies and the more spiritually adventurous people,” he says.

“But now it’s bankers, lawyers, doctors, business people, teachers, nurses — right through to students and retirees.”

Meditation has become so mainstream that major companies offer workplace courses to staff, since study after study is finding it helps to reduce stress and absenteeism, while increasing productivity and creativity.

A completely secular practice, the Vipassana website describes the style of meditation as “a practical way to achieve peace of mind and live a happy, productive life”.

So, basically, it’s offering the golden key to happiness. No wonder I couldn’t get a spot.

Emotional rollercoaster

Laura McKenzie has done several silent meditation stints, from six days to three weeks, using different forms of meditation.

“My Vispassana experience was a rollercoaster,” she explains.

“I thought it was equal parts amazing and hard work. I definitely had ‘why am I here and not sipping cocktails on the beach?’ moments.”

She says one of the best things about being silent and having no distractions from the contents of her head, is that she notices all the unhelpful behavioural patterns she (and all of us) gets caught up in, in daily life.

“I loop around particular subjects that really upset me, but they’re actually nothing,” she says.

“I’ll be moved to tears and get angry or upset, but the beauty of these retreats is that I can see more clearly how all these things that upset me are just in my head.”

Silence is golden

That, says Mr Given-Wilson, is the reason his courses are so popular.

“There’s an appreciation, conscious or unconscious, that we all have stuff in our conditioning that we’d like to deal with,” he says.

“You’re getting rid of what makes you un-peaceful and agitated. You’re confronting the stuff inside.

“No guru is going to place his hand on your head and say, ‘Alright, you’re a happier person now’. Part of the charm is that you’ve done it yourself.”

Still, remaining in complete silence for 10 days without even a book to read or a notepad to empty the contents of my head onto seems really daunting.

Both Ms McKenzie and Mr Given-Wilson reckon it’s actually the easiest part.

“The silence enables you to go deep inside yourself. Sure, you could meditate, then chat about it over lunch, but everyone has enough mental chatter without making more of it,” Mr Given-Wilson explains.

“People really appreciate the silence so they can focus.”

Hard yakka

The most difficult element is physically trying to sit completely still for long stints, Ms McKenzie says.

Each meditation sitting is one hour, followed by short breaks and longer meal breaks, from 4:00am until 9:00pm.

Sitting upright with your eyes closed, focusing on the sensations in your body and not allowing yourself to fidget is the biggest challenge.

“Pain sets in and becomes a distraction because there’s nothing else to distract you,” she says.

“Sometimes it’ll seem like my leg’s about to fall off, but of course it’s not.

“Other times I have body-dissolving moments which are amazing. There’s a complete calmness when I’ve been sitting for a while, where everything is tingly. I also have so much clarity.”

No silver bullet

While achieving peace of mind and a happy, productive life is the dream for everyone, Vipassana (or any other form of meditation) isn’t promising a silver bullet.

Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy and a meditation practice needs to be consistent in order to feel its benefits, Ms McKenzie says.

Obviously a vow of silence isn’t going to fly back in the real world. But a daily practice helps to prevent her falling back into old behavioural patterns and unhelpful habits.

“It allows you go back to the core of who you are, without all the layers of work, stress, lack of sleep, not getting enough exercise and whatever else makes you reactionary,” Ms McKenzie explains.

“These days there’s much more of a delay between my thinking and reacting.

“I still get angry and judge and do all the things I’d like not to do, but I’m much more aware of it now. Things just bother me a lot less.”

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