Silence speaks volumes, if you are prepared to listen.
Reliance on technology — from our smartphone, laptop, PCs, iPad and tablets — is taking a bigger toll on our mental wellbeing than we can put a price on. As yogi’s ourselves, we yearn for the moment of the end of yoga class when we can escape into Shavasana (otherwise known as Corpse Pose). After that 10–15 minutes post-practice dreamy bliss we leap back into our day, both guilty of checking our phones almost immediately. Conversations start flowing in the yoga studio and we step outside, right back into the thick of everyday life, albeit feeling calmer and more centred. What if that peaceful tranquility lasted for a day, or ten. Would you cope? Would you be brave enough to face what that might uncover for you?
On discovering that our friend Gary Leung did a Vipassana Silent Retreat for TEN days, we were in awe. No talking, by anyone except the meditation teachers, for 10 days. They were able to schedule a 5 minute conversation with the Teacher about technique or if they had material problems we could talk to the Manager. Still, 5 minutes isn’t a long time to talk each day is it? He openly and generously shares his experiences here. Namaste, Gary.
“It’s like having your brain exploded and put back together and exploded and put back together again, over and over,” said Chester, one of my fellow meditators.
“Yeah,” concurred Rohan. “It’s like taking the red pill in the Matrix.”
A group of four of us were sharing our experiences shortly after Noble Silence had ended on the tenth day of the Vipassana 10-day silent meditation residential course. I pondered how I could explain what I’d just been through to people. It was such an intense, extreme experience. How is it possible for people to understand it if they haven’t been through it themselves?
As an older type-A millennial, I live a busy life:
working on my startup, holding down a couple of side jobs, collaborating on passion projects, and picking up other consultancy gigs. Two friends, independent of each other, had recommended the Vipassana course to me. They were both close friends, and they knew my tendency to get stuck in my head. I would get so occupied with completing task after task, rushing from meeting to meeting, just to keep on top of everything, that I would lose track of myself and how I was feeling. Often that was to the detriment of my health and wellbeing. It was common for me to forget to eat lunch because I was so busy. Regularly functioning on about four hours of sleep is the modus operandi of many entrepreneurs. My friends suggested Vipassana to help me get in touch with my body and improve my awareness of myself and surroundings.
As I handed my phone to the kindly young South Asian male meditation server on the evening before the first day, I felt an immediate sense of relief. Yet, that had been the moment I was most dreading in the weeks leading up to my Vipassana course. For nearly all intents and purposes, my life runs off my smartphone. It’s the alarm I wake up to in the morning, it’s my calendar, my emails, my messaging on Facebook, Whatsapp, Slack and other platforms, directions to get around, my workout routine, daily Headspace meditation, and the switch to turn off my smartlights and track my sleep when I go to bed. Giving up my smartphone for 10 days had been my biggest worry about the Vipassana retreat. Then, as I wheeled my suitcase through the bush path to my dormitory room, my mind started racing. I forgot to reply to Line’s message, I should’ve talked to Ben about our upcoming events program, will my colleague remember to handle our web domain renewal? On and on, thoughts raced through my mind of things I should’ve handled before giving up my phone. Oh well, I reasoned, there’s nothing I can do now. It’ll have to wait for 10 days.
The 4 am starts didn’t bother me.
Only having two vegetarian meals a day didn’t bother me. I was fine with staying silent. Surprisingly, I wasn’t even missing my phone. It was the meditation that bothered me. Getting through it. All 10 hours of it each day. The meditation technique itself, for the first three days, just involved focusing on breathing. But I couldn’t help my mind from drifting. And it drifted to dark places. A failed relationship with an ex-girlfriend. Another failed relationship. A business dealing where I felt I’d been wronged. My mind would agonise over unpleasant memories, and before I knew it, hours would have passed when I should have been focused on breathing. It was difficult, but not unbearable. I figured it’s part of the process. I’ll get through it and grow through this, I told myself.
On day four, we were introduced to the Vipassana technique itself, sequences of focusing on different parts of the body in long scans from head to toe. At least during the body scans, my mind drifted less often to unpleasant memories.
Day five saw the introduction of Addhitana, hourly ‘sittings of strong determination’. They occurred three times a day, during which we weren’t allowed to move, change posture, and open our eyes. Addhitana brought major pains — pressure pains in the legs, sharp and dull pains in the back, all sorts of pains in the body. In response to these new requirements many more people left the course.
“You are learning how to observe [pains] without reacting, to examine the sensations objectively, without identifying with them,”
explains the teacher, the late SN Goenka, through video-taped discourse lectures in the evenings.
Pains are explained as psychosomatic manifestations of difficult unconscious repressed memories.
I was skeptical and was sure that most of my pains were just from sitting for long periods. I did understand however, from my psychology studies, that people did sometimes feel physical pains associated with repressed emotions and memories from past traumatic experiences.
Day seven was the first time I was able to sit through an Addhitana hour in the cross-legged lotus position. With that, came a deeper understanding of the Buddhist concept of anicca, or the reality of impermanence.
I experienced severe pains in my legs and back during the Addhitana hours, but understood the pain was impermanent and bound to pass away.
My mind did still wander to difficult memories, in particular, to a bad breakup with an ex-girlfriend a few years ago, but with the understanding of anicca, it became much easier to let go of those memories and emotions.
After Noble Silence ended on the last day, some fellow meditators described experiencing stabbing pains and feeling lightning strikes through their body. They talked about being haunted by old memories and not being able to sleep for days. My experience was relatively mild compared to theirs, although I could understand and empathise with them. Everyone I spoke with described a positive experience, despite the pains and traumatic memories. After it all, I’d say I’m happier and feel lighter, even though I’m sure there’s more inner demons soon to come to the surface.
The return of my phone was greeted with mixed feelings.
I dreaded the flood of messages, emails and notifications I knew would come as soon as I switched it on. Perhaps more so, it was what my phone represented — it was leaving life by the ringing of the gong in the retreat, the return to the frenetic pace of life by notifications — calendar notifications, message notifications, email notifications, all the notifications. Yet, this was the device I so feared parting with going into the course. The phone screen exploded with notification popups after popups. I was oddly calm about it. Perhaps I’d learned to observe without reacting? Or maybe I figured I’d been away for 10 days anyway, people could stand to wait a little longer. To the outside observer, it wouldn’t appear that my relationship with my phone has changed — I’m still hopelessly dependent on it. However, I would say my attitude to my phone has changed. I feel like I’m less of a slave to my phone. I’ve been progressively disabling unnecessary notifications for most apps. I’m less reactive to the notifications.
It’s now been three weeks since I finished the Vipassana course. Vipassana gave me a sense of perspective, and upon exiting the course I resolved to let go of a few of my projects to take better care of myself, and put more time and effort into the projects I truly care about. Whilst I’ve had intentions to meditate daily, I can’t say I’ve kept up the regular practice. SN Goenka, through video-tape, recommends one hour of meditation in the morning and one hour before bed. I’m not sure meditating two hours each day is realistic for me. I think I’m still grappling with trying to integrate Vipassana into my day-to-day life. Even so, I feel I now have a sense of calm on a deeper level. Vipassana’s value is really as a tool to manage one’s mind and self.
The Vipassana technique trains awareness and equanimity.
The technique itself focuses on sensations in the body, however, emotions and other mental reactions are felt as bodily sensations. Awareness is extremely important for entrepreneurs to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, recognise their mistakes, perceive others accurately, and build strong teams. The first step towards self-awareness is identifying negative emotions, stress and anxiety, and recognising what things cause these emotions in your life.
Vipassana trains equanimity so that one does not react to the sensations one experiences in different situations, and can therefore live a balanced happy life. Doing startup is an emotional rollercoaster, as illustrated by Paul Graham’s startup curve. Strong equanimity will help you deal with the emotional highs and lows of startup, and beat the Trough of Sorrow. I associate equanimity with grit and persistence, one of the most important skills of a successful entrepreneur. Even if you’re not an aspiring entrepreneur, Vipassana will develop your awareness and equanimity to help turn any goal you have into reality.