Suzanne also writes a subscriber blog on Substack entitled The Reluctant Yogi. This is her latest post about how she survived a Vipassana silent retreat:
Vipassana; Noble Silence & Full-On Crazy in Little Britain
2016 was an odd year. I broke my shoulder, the country voted for Brexit and I got married. Marriage aside, it was a miserable time. The UK overnight became a more hostile place. And breaking my shoulder couldn’t have come at a worst time, with new classes and a big new corporate client.
I needed a timeout, a place to regroup and get myself together. I’d wanted to do a Vipassana ten day silent retreat since my twenties but had never got round to it. Now the time seemed right; with a repairing shoulder, I didn’t have much else to do. My husband was horrified. Four weeks into our union and I was taking myself off for 10 days of silence. “Already?” he exclaimed. His Catholic family didn’t help either, piling on the scorn – to them he’d lost me to demons a month in. It was an undeniably rough time for him too.
The retreat was in Suffolk, about an hour from where I live. My husband drove me there. I remember getting really emotional, sobbing “I’m so sorry, I promise I won’t do anything like this ever again”. “And then we drove mostly in silence, perhaps he was preparing me. Before we arrived at the centre, I had him pull in at a village shop, where I bought a stockpile of chocolate bars. I hid them in the bean filling of my meditation cushion, apart from the largest bar which I ate at a frightening speed. My husband still talks about it now, one of those stories he always follows with a French “horrifique!”. I’m not even a big chocolate fan but I was beyond logic at this stage.
The location was an old manor that had been turned into a holiday centre for school trips. Think MASH meets Downton Abbey. The manor house itself looked lovely but the rows of prefab bunk houses didn’t fill me with confidence. I couldn’t say goodbye to Alex without crying, so I told him just to hoof me out of the car and drive off. How odd it must have looked to the beaming Buddhist faces on the meet and greet team, as my husband’s old Jaguar sped around the circular drive, pausing just long enough for me to stumble out with my overnight bag and chocolate filled zafu before roaring off.
It was like being admitted to Buddhist prison (I’ve never been to prison but I’ve seen films). I was interviewed by two ladies who asked lots of questions about my mental health and explained again that I wasn’t going to be able to talk, just in case I hadn’t understood the concept of a silent retreat. Then they took my mobile phone, wallet, pens and paper, and anything else that could be remotely distracting, and I had to sign a worryingly high number of disclaimers. I was ushered into a dorm with 4 bunks. It was filthy and hardly heated at all. Welcome to meditation boot camp.
One of the big principles of a Vipassana retreat is the removal of distraction. For that reason men and women are segregated throughout. But that first evening we ate together, like the Last Supper, and people who had done one of these retreats before swapped horror stories and tried to spook newcomers like me. Someone struck a gong then we were shown to our places in the Grand Hall which was really just the sports hall with a big telly and meditation cushions. Noble silence had begun.
And it felt really noble for that evening. A sense of love and light descended on me and I got a little woozy with spiritual righteousness. I was going to be beatific, glide my way through this on an enlightened cloud. I felt at peace sitting cross-legged, thumbs pressed to index fingers. I’d come home. Then my leg went to sleep and my right hip started to hurt. The toilets were filthy and were designed for children. The other women in my room snored and farted. Twenty four hours without Twitter felt like eternity. The full horror of what lay in front of me dawned.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
For the first four days I went full Larry David. On the joining instructions we had clearly been told not to attend if we were unwell. The last woman to join my dorm was heavily with cold, sniffing, sneezing, coughing. I was outraged. We were all going to get it. In the time allocated to speak to an organiser I raised this but was met by the old “it will pass” waft of the hand. By day three we all had it. The Grand Hall was awash with tissues, people blowing their nose, wrapped in a dozen blankets. I learned to say “I told you so” silently in myriad ways.
Morning meditation began at 4am – we were awoken by the sound of a gong, and then a flashlight in the face if we refused to rise. When I got unwell you bet I refused to rise. The monitor told me I was letting myself down if I failed to get up. What she didn’t realise is that I’ve heard that off my mum my whole life. It means nothing. I rolled away from the flashlight and went back to sleep. I was unwell, and it was all their fault.
After breakfast we would return to the hall for more meditation. On Day 4 I got called forward with a couple of others to speak with my teacher, a ray of calm called Karen. This was a real low point for me, certainly not one for Instagram. Full of cold, freaked out by the lack of cleanliness, bored out of my brain, and incensed about everything, when she softly asked how I was doing, I let rip. I’m unwell, I can’t breathe through my nose, the showers are disgusting, my hip hurts all the time, I miss coffee, I’m bored. She looked at me neutrally, raised her hand and said the dreaded words “Suzanne, this will pass”. This will fucking pass. WTF. I lost it. I took off out of the hall and walked around the garden for hours. Should I leave? What was I doing? A dialogue raged within me until the part of me that couldn’t face my husband if I quit won out. It was a turning point.
After Larry David I went a bit strange. I knew nothing about the other women in my room as we hadn’t talked before the silence. So I projected all kinds of stuff onto them, about who they were, their names, what they were thinking. I went through various stages of hating them and feeling that they hated me. The girl with the cold I had turned into my nemesis. But then she started lying in bed crying. For days. The organisers were clearly worried. I went from hatred to empathy. It was a big lesson in projection.
We had to listen to a lot of the Vipassana guru, SN Goenka’s chanting, especially first thing in the morning. I didn’t understand the language or what was being chanted. So I started making up my own words. I don’t remember exactly what I came up with but it wasn’t Om. And I’m not sure what vibrational quality my offering had but I repeated it a lot. I’d say it activated my crude chakra if anything, if such a thing exists.
In the moments I wasn’t meditating, I walked. Round and round like a prisoner in a yard. The centre was in a small village, and I worked out that if I walked to the far end of the centre’s perimeter, there were builders working on the house across the street who played the radio. I could just about make out the music. It provided respite from myself and my vulgar earworm chant. I took great joy in creating signs too, disobedient ways to communicate. It started with the word “Help” in twigs and stones. I’d leave that on the perimeter. One day when the windows steamed up, I wrote, “Help, Kidnapped by Buddhists” in reverse in the condensation. Nobody came for me.
That might have had something to do with a brewing hostility in the village. I had noticed on arrival that it was quite the patriotic little village, with more than its fair share of England flags and bunting, no doubt emboldened by the Brexit vote. The organisers of the event were mostly of colour and spoke with an accent. They had introduced themselves, sex offender style, to the villagers and explained what they were doing. I can only imagine the reaction in this Brexit bastion to being told that over one hundred people would be arriving to practise Buddhism. On our third day, the villagers complained about the noise!? All was not well with our nationalistic neighbours. I would have offered to go tell them “This will Pass” but, hey, I had taken Noble Silence. One for the organisers.
And I had bigger fish to fry. As it turns out a big life changing fish. On day five they cleaned the toilets and showers. My cold started to clear, the sun came out. I started to feel less resistant. My hip stopped hurting. I had caught up on my sleep and wasn’t nodding off in the hall anymore. I got more serious about mastering the meditation.
There is something very authentic about SN Goenka. We had to watch videos of him every evening. I didn’t really listen to much of it but he seemed pretty excited about what he was offering. And I appreciated the simplicity of it all. There were no frills or false promises. Do the work, get the results. The teachers were the real deal, simply guiding you through the battle with yourself.
I always get a hard time off my TRE instructor that meditation is just dissociation, floating away with the fairies. And of course it can be; there is nothing to stop people sitting & dreaming about what they’re going to do when it’s all over. I did more than my fair share. But if Vipassana is done properly it is totally embodied. Starting by observing the breath, then the space above the top lip, then extending to observe the pulsing of the entire body. As I practiced, I was astounded by what I experienced.
And of course, it wasn’t magic – in the absence of input, my mind flat-lined. The noise diminished and meditation became easy. Occasionally a memory would bubble up but invariably they weren’t important memories. Just innocuous events I could barely remember, people long since forgotten. I became calmer. I was barely breathing by day 7, maybe once a minute, sometimes longer. I felt flows of energy in my body. The chakras lit up like Vegas. All the things I had learned about in yoga training but never really believed, I now experienced. It was a perpetual state of “well, I never”.
The final three days of the retreat were three of the most wonderful days of my life. I started to understand yoga, in the sense of what the yogis had uncovered as they’d sat in meditation. The yogis didn’t have science, they had internal investigation. And they described the phenomena they discovered in the language of their day. Words that we now associate with women who have changed their name to Shakti and who waft in from the beach in Bali to tell us all to spread love and light. And that has diminished the yogis’ findings; this stuff is real and available to us all.
My experience of Vipassana and of being silent for 10 days was life changing. I realised that the noise in my mind is caused by my lifestyle and what I put in. It’s no wonder we struggle to meditate given all the distractions and information we process every day. Few of us can retreat from the World long enough to enter real silence, so we make do with shortcuts to peace.
It taught me an obvious lesson about the futility of battling a situation. Once I resolved to stay, I surrendered, and then it got easier. I also learned about the nature of bonding. In the silence of the dorm, deep friendships had miraculously developed, as we had all battled our own version of hell. On our last day when we got to speak, none of us turned out to be what we’d imagined. Also, between us we had smuggled in chocolate, mobile phones, cigarettes, and even gin – if only we’d known collectively, it would have been a very different 10 days.
And I had a direct experience of the subtle body, something I had been very wary about teaching because I wasn’t sure it existed. The certainty gained from my silent experience, changed my yoga practice completely. It also made me certain that spirituality is body based, rather than magic, and that we will one day hold scientific explanations for it all.
As my husband drove me away from the retreat, I gazed at the Brexit flags and bunting. Perhaps I was overly sensitive, but it occurred to me that in this nationalistic epicentre, I had found profound wisdom and peace. Five years on that’s still what I’m trying to do every day in this country in meltdown, in these crazy times. It will pass?
You can subscribe to The Reluctant Yogi here, for weekly tales and musings emailed directly to you.