Kris McIntyre tries a ten-day silent meditation retreat in The Blue Mountains, around two hours from Sydney.
A holiday from me
Finding the perfect holiday is one thing. Where to go to escape the ho-hum of daily life is a question answered with a plethora of beautiful, exotic, entertaining and adventurous places. But where do you go when it’s you that you want to get away from? Devoid of personality through lack of contact with others I found this to be the only place I have ever had the experience of escaping myself. But it’s not an easy exit by any means!
Thou shalt not speak for 10 days
When I told people I was heading off a ten-day silent meditation retreat most of them thought I’d gone mad. Not talking for any length of time is unfathomable to most. As it turned out, not talking for ten days was the easy part.
I chose to go to the Vipassana Meditation Centre closest to Sydney, Australia. Perched on the edge of the World Heritage–listed Blue Mountains, it has a simple beauty and serenity conducive to its purpose. On arrival, we are shown to our dormitory accommodation before the evening briefing. There are about 80 of us from all walks of life – young and old, hippies and business executives, schoolteachers and sportspeople – crammed into what after this briefing will be the male-only dining room.
The rules for the next ten days are handed down: No contact with others, no talking, no touching, no gestures, no eye contact. No tobacco, drugs, alcohol, or other intoxicants. No yoga or physical exercise (we are allowed to take gentle walks on the grounds, but anything more than that may be disturbing to other meditators). No music, reading or writing. No jewellery or skimpy clothing. No rosary beads, crystals, charms or religious objects. No contact with the outside world. No leaving before the ten days is over (but it was inevitable that some did). No fun.
What am I here for?
“Vipassana” means “to see things as they really are”. Based on the teachings of Buddha some 2500 years ago, it is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques whose popularity has spread throughout the world. Despite it’s Buddhist roots, it is non-denominational and non-religious, meaning anyone regardless of religion or creed can practice it. The basis of the Vipassana lies in the premise that happiness can be found by learning to observe ourselves and the events that happen to us, instead of reacting with what the information brochure refers to as “craving, aversion or ignorance”.
The Daily Grind
Our days began early: 4am to be precise. Every day was the same. Twelve hours of meditation a day and little else beside meals and rest periods before lights out at 9.30pm.
The set up is in some ways bizarre. The Meditation Hall is divided in half with separate entrances for males and females. We are each allocated our meditation space and the numerous props, including cushions and stools to make the unbearable task of sitting still for twelve hours a day partly bearable. We have three “teachers” present, but all they seem to do is turn the on/off button on the audio- and VHS-taped lectures from the head of the Vipassana movement, Mr S.N. Goenka, and elusively answer our meditation questions in private.
Days 1 to 3
During the first three days we begin the process of mastering our monkey minds by observing our breath entering and leaving the body to the drone of Goenka’s taped instructions. The boredom, constant babble of crazy thoughts in my head and the pain of sitting still is incomprehensible. Five minutes feels like five hours and the only thing to look forward to is the amazing vegetarian meals served up. I think about individually plucking the hairs on my legs to help the time pass by.
By the fourth day, our minds have quietened enough to learn the Vipassana technique – observing sensations in the body and developing “equanimity” by learning not to react to them. It sounds simple, but the effects are profound. I experience flashbacks to childhood memories, dreams for my future, and huge emotional and physical releases. I also find a strange sense of self, devoid of my personality and the distractions in my daily life.
Finally, on the last full day we learn the meditation of “metta prana” (or loving kindness) summed up in Goenka’s last words, “may all beings be happy”. The last day is also our shock absorber when we are allowed to speak and share our experiences before entering the real world again. Talking again feels weird and we approach each other like nervous teenagers at a high school dance.
Back in the Real World
I find myself calm and alert, but it takes a while to get used to the noise and stimulation of the city. I’ve benefited from the experience and would even do it again, but admittedly I struggle to keep up the recommended practice of meditating for two hours a day.
Do it, but only when you feel confident you are ready for it. And if you intend to embark on this journey heed the advice of those I knew who had gone before me: “Work hard and don’t leave!” The warning seemed strange at the time, but trust me, heed it well.
Where: Vipassana Meditation Centres are located throughout the world including Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America, Latin America, India, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Bookings: You must reserve a place prior to your arrival. See the website for information about upcoming course dates.
Cost: Courses are run solely on donation, so there is no cost other than what you can and are willing to donate.
Reading: Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald (Broadway Books/ Random House). This entertaining account of an accidental life and spiritual quest in India gives an hilarious account of Vipassana.
How to get there
The Dhamma Bhumi Vipassana Meditation Centre is located at Blackheath, approximately 90 minutes drive west of Sydney. The Centre gives you instructions on how to get there when you reserve your place.