Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
For well-traveled writer Tayla Gentle, the most transformative trip of her life didn’t take place in some far-flung land—but at a 10-day silent meditation retreat just a hundred or so kilometers from her front door.
It’s my birthday, and not a single person has wished me a happy day. I’m not mad about it. In fact, I’m not even sad about it. There are rules, you see. And singing happy birthday would definitely be breaking a bunch of them.
I’m nine days into my first Vipassana retreat—a Buddhist meditation course involving 10 days of noble silence and no eye contact, reading, writing, exercise, technology or meals after midday. Basically, no stimulation whatsoever.
For some, the prospect of 10 silent days sounds like heaven. For others, it’s closer to hell. For me, it’s the wildest trip I’ve ever taken—and it didn’t even involve a passport.
Arriving at the Vipassana retreat in eastern Victoria, Australia, felt much like arriving at a cult. Or at least what I presume arriving at a cult would feel like. Men and women were segregated, innocuous-looking forms were signed, and the leaders took away our phones and car keys. See? Cult. That, or prison. We’re introduced to our bunk mates, sent to bed, and the next day, without so much as a bang or a whimper, the world as I knew it ended and a silent world awoke.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is an ancient non-sectarian meditation practice dating back (and beyond) to the 5th-century BC days of Siddhartha Gautama AKA the first Buddha. The aim of the game is self-transformation through self-observation. Vipassana is all about connecting the mind and body, and learning to remain balanced in the face of difficult internal and external experiences.
In basic terms, it’s like learning mind control. Vipassana teaches you how to liberate yourself from unhappiness and how to quit spreading that unhappiness, like the common cold, to the people around you.
But the journey to liberation is not an easy one. It takes work, mental fortitude and discipline. It takes 10 hours of seated meditation per day and to feel your bodyweight in pins and needles. It takes practice and, even then, you’re not guaranteed perfection.
The journey began, as many journeys do, with jetlag. On the first day, I slept right through the 4am wake-up gong. And then I slept through my lunch break, my tea break, and two hours of meditation. I’m pretty sure I snored, and I’m pretty sure the whole meditation hall heard me. My body felt as if I’d taken the red eye to Los Angeles, not traveled an hour from my home in Melbourne.
I spent two days trying to remember a Shakespearean sonnet. I started writing a novel in my head. I designed my dream home right down to its Moroccan mosaic bathroom tiles.
With no means of communication with the outside world, I felt like an explorer stepping into unknown terrain. And that unknown terrain is my own mind. I have no map, no compass, no means of navigation outside my mat, my breath and the recorded guidance of a man named S.N Goenka.
Goenka is a little like the godfather of Vipassana. Five centuries after Buddha spread the word across the subcontinent, Vipassana was lost to India. Its integrity, however, was preserved in Myanmar where the method was passed down via generations of monks. By the 1960s, it had reached young Goenka who returned the technique to India and introduced Vipassana to the wider world.
Nowadays there are hundreds of donation-based courses running internationally, and all of them still use Goenka’s mellifluous voice to remind people to focus on their breath, dissociate from aversion, rid themselves of attachment, and remember that everything will pass.
The latter, however, is especially hard when you’ve got two dead legs and a literal pain in your backside. Even if you’ve built yourself a throne of blocks and blankets, sitting with discomfort is never easy. In that sense, Vipassana is not unlike economy air travel.
My greatest source of discomfort came from the two women seated behind me who had matching cases of the flu. You try remaining balanced when the people behind you are hocking lurgies. You try focusing all your attention on the tiny triangle above your upper lip when all you can hear are their rattling inhales. You try finding inner tranquillity when tiny flu particles are slamming into the back of your head. I was doing my best to remain compassionate, but I was quickly developing an aversion to the fixed seating plan.
If day one was jetlag and day two was culture shock, by day three I was finding new perspectives on the world. I’d stopped reaching for my phone and I’d started saying hello to tulips. I started watching magpies feed and cherry buds blossom. It was as if I’d never seen nature in such detail.
With no external stimuli, my mind was starved of information. But it was also quieting down and creatively opening up in a way I’d never experienced. I spent two days trying to remember a Shakespearean sonnet. I started writing a novel in my head. I designed my dream home right down to its Moroccan mosaic bathroom tiles.
I battle bouts of restlessness followed by claustrophobic contractions. My mind screams at me to open my eyes while my skin alternates between sweat and goosebumps.
The first time I made myself laugh was a big deal. The moment I realized I enjoyed the company of my own brain was an even bigger deal. Reading the back of my shampoo bottle began to bring me great joy. Looking in the mirror even more so. With no eye contact allowed, the eye contact I’d have with myself became somewhat profound. It was like greeting an old friend every time I brushed my teeth.
On day six, the weather set in. Gone were the afternoons of sunshine and here were the foul winds. Weary explorers could be seen trudging up the mud hill at four in the morning, arms wrapped around their midsections and faces obscured by scarves. A silent army ready to wage yet another war on their monkey minds.
It made me think of the original adventurers. The men and women who discovered new lands, sailed seas, climbed mountains, crossed glaciers. What were they thinking out there on their own? We hear of the physical hardship—but what of the mental journey? What inner battles were being fought while they sat ensconced in snow or hunkered down on board a ship?
On day seven, I woke in a wave of anxiety. But instead of being able to call a friend or sweat it out, there was no escape from my cloudy brain. So I got out of bed with the gong, walked up the hill in the rain, sat on my mat and told my mind to shelve the negativity. I told my mind that I was taking back control. And guess what? My mind responded. I was free, possibly even liberated, for the briefest of moments. It was as if my visa had been approved and I was cleared to enter new mindfulness territory.
By this point, we’d moved into the ‘strong determination sittings’. These hour-long meditations involve keeping your hands and legs totally still, and your eyes closed, for the full 60 minutes. It’s hard. Like, really hard. I battle bouts of restlessness followed by claustrophobic contractions. My mind screams at me to open my eyes while my skin alternates between sweat and goosebumps.
It’s uncomfortable and a little bit scary in the same way that hiking at altitude or traveling solo can be uncomfortable and a little bit scary. But it’s also rewarding. I learn that you really can put a thought aside and come back to it in an hour. I learn that it’s totally possible to detach from your pins and needles, and if you do, they eventually go away. I learn that it takes a brave traveler to enter the deepest recesses of their own mind.
After all, not every meditator made it to the tenth and final day. I watched as grown men cried and left the compound. One woman, who seemed unable to ever slow down, practically ran from the course. And yet, I wouldn’t have spent my 29th birthday any other way.
There is so much to learn about the way our brains and bodies work, the patterns we register, the memories we hold onto, the behaviours we normalize. And even after 10 wholly silent days, I still feel as if I’ve only just begun to explore a tiny corner of this unknown world. Luckily, I don’t need a plane, train or automobile to continue on this dhamma journey.
Tayla Gentle is a freelance writer and producer specializing in adventure travel. Her work has featured in outlets such as Lonely Planet, AFAR, AWOL and Red Bull Australia. Her spirit country is Myanmar.