My First Vipassana: What I Learnt From A Vow Of Silence
After the first year of the pandemic, Francesca Camporeale went on her first Vipassana in search of a radical remedy for her mind. From appreciating the subtleties of life, to gaining a deeper sense of awareness she left with a newfound perspective.
Vipassana is often dubbed a meditation bootcamp and with good reason. Vipassana is the oldest form of Buddhist meditation and is allegedly the primary technique that Buddha taught his followers as they embarked on ‘The Path’. As a vow to silence, this 10 day meditation retreat isn’t a soft and restorative escape from life...
It’s hard work. Gruelling, exhausting, agonising at times. Yet in my experience and that of many others, it’s 100% worth it.
As 2021 came to a close, I felt weary, depleted and dispirited. I knew I needed a radical remedy, something that would help me reframe my experience. I’d kept Vipassana stored in my mental first aid kit for a time just like this (and a time I actually felt brave enough to go ahead with it).
The Vipassana technique is one of purification; of the senses, mind, and body. In my experience at 4.30am the gong chimed for the first meditation sitting. Breakfast is at 6am, lunch at 12pm, tea and fruit at 5pm; everything in between is meditation and solitude. Other than a daily slot, when you can book in for a chat with the teacher, no form of communication is allowed; reading and writing are not permitted either.
I loved and loathed the experience, in nearly equal measures. These were lessons that helped me make sense of that paradox; universal truisms and home truths that came to me whilst on retreat, and have stayed with me since.
Laughter is the purest form of connection
The strict no communication rule (including no gestures or eye contact) on this time-honoured course serves a purpose. You’re on an inward ride and you don’t want any diversions or signage taking you off course.
However, for all your discipline, it's almost impossible to avoid the occasional meeting of eyes. That millisecond of connection with a fellow sitter can be enough for you both to tap into the comical undercurrent of what you’re doing and perhaps the playfulness and deeper, cosmic comedy that is existence itself.
To avoid an explosion of raucous laughter (and consequential glares from the staff) you both turn away, burying faces into meditation shawls as you convulse in silent hysterics. You’re teleported back to the innocent, gleeful mischief of childhood school days and it feels glorious.
The seeds you plant, grow
You are what you eat and you are also what you consume mentally. Everything you take in leaves its imprint on the unconscious. Once you stop putting in, the detox begins.
Some time around Day 4 or 5, my brain started to sort through the clutter, a garbled series of images playing out in my mind as I meditated. Characters from lockdown’s Netflix marathons, scenes from social media and clips from the news. And attached to each of these images, a lingering sensation or a looping thought pattern that won’t quite budge.
You might have previously thought what you watched, listened to and scrolled through was fairly inconsequential; that it was up to you what concepts and images you chose to hold onto. Turns out, on the fertile plains of your unconscious, all the seeds sprout.
What do you want your brain to be busy with? Just as you take care of the food you eat, you become aware it’s as important to be selective with what you feed your brain.
You don’t need words to get to know someone
You’re in a shared dorm for 10 days and 11 nights with total strangers. Over this sojourn you all sleep the same, eat the same, do the same.
Apart from the little you were able to glean from brief conversations on the orientation evening (before the spell of silence is cast the following morning) you have hardly any idea what brings them here. And yet, without speaking or making eye contact, over the course of these ten days, you feel each other. Profoundly.
What some might call the auric field is somehow more palpable in a setting like this, if you’re open to it. When the social anchors we latch onto to relate, judge and familiarise are out of reach, the ego takes a backseat, and instead you tune into each other’s authentic essence.
When the ten days are up, you feel an inexplicable closeness with these humans for what you’ve just been through; alone, but very much together.
Humans make a lot of noises...
Cough. Sigh. Squelch. Burp. Sniff. Other than to graze, stretch, and sleep, 80 humans gather in a barn-cum-meditation-hall for the majority of the day. This lends perfectly to a deepening realisation that, at the end of it all, we really are just animals.
In silence and deep focus, 80 minds endeavour to surpass cravings, transcend suffering and access infinite bliss (no big deal). Meanwhile, 80 bodies unite in a collective chorus of bodily sounds (and smells) which serves as a humbling reflection of our very earthly, very creaturely ways.
‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.’
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Irritation and compassion are close relatives
Call it mood, call it temperament, call it state of mind... The rigorous repetition of the daily meditation and routine on this course allows you increase your awareness of what each day brings to your seat and to acknowledge that how you experience life is ultimately down to... You.
Yesterday as you sat to meditate, you were unable to ignore the comedy of that barn animal chorus. Today, the serial covert burper (Q: how to suppress a burp in a silent room? A: The covert, swallowed burp) behind you becomes the target of your pent up irritation, and the focus of your narrative:
How can a person burp so much in one sitting? It’s officially impossible to meditate now. Maybe I should ask to move?
And tomorrow... you witness that same burper with empathy and compassion, recognising the discomfort and embarrassment they must be feeling to be burping so incessantly.
I have everything I need
Capitalist conditioning tells us the solutions to our problems are found in something consumable: a product, service, a course. This limiting belief has crept into spiritual territory too: Social media and wellness ‘trends’, present you with a list of endless purchases and experiences promising spiritual awakening. More crystals, more sage. More gong baths, more cacao, more microdosing.
Admittedly, it’s this way of thinking that led me to enrol for Vipassana in the first place.
But, what if in reality, all you ever need to find contentment and balance was in you all along? What if the answers to life’s challenges are patiently existing somewhere in your inner realm, waiting for you to be still enough to just hear?
How wonderfully liberating it feels; the truism of countless songs and poems suddenly resonates: I have everything I need to get by.
"You already have everything you need to be content. Your real work is to do whatever it takes to realise that.”
Tech is killing our calm
There’s no shortage of content to be found about the negative impact tech is having on our wellbeing. But when our tech usage is so enmeshed in how we live day to day, from communication and apps of convenience to internet banking, it’s hard to really comprehend the extent our devices are impacting how we feel.
That considered, 10 days and 11 nights with no tech, save for a good old alarm clock, can bring up a mixed bag of reactions.
On one hand, just the prospect of a digital detox this long can have you exhaling with relief. On the other, the thought of receiving 10 days’ worth of communications in one go after the retreat is enough to trigger low level anxiety all over again. Feels like we’ve entered a lose-lose situation here: damned if we do, damned if we don’t...
With the retreat in full swing, I forgot about the existence of my smartphone and it felt great.
Upon completing the course, I found a new sense of calm, a very welcome feeling. This time away from tech has anyone re-evaluating their dependence and relationship with tech devices:
Why do I feel so compelled to reply to a message so quickly? And am I even capable of ignoring the ping of a dopamine-inducing notification, thus delaying gratification?
Why this impulse to scroll away a quiet, empty moment in my day – why not be with that emptiness instead?
On checking out, this sleek rectangular block of metal is returned to you; it suddenly felt like an alien in my hand, a heavy energy.
The line between heaven and hell is visceral
10 days in the retreat can feel like groundhog day at a spiritual prison camp. Even the mundane cornerstones of the day seemed to mock me as I trudged on through. Equally, there were days that I floated around in what felt like a utopian dream, surrounded by serene beings and luscious nature. I practically felt my wings growing.
The lingering question of whether you’re losing your mind as you swings fervently between these two states...I couldn’t help but ask myself who decides what qualifies as a good experience and a bad experience anyway?
With a bit of distance from attaching myself to my thoughts, I was able to understand the distinction between good and bad for what it simply is: a trick of the mind. Heaven and hell on earth can be found in the same place... it really just depends on you.
The ancient practice of Tantra presents us with the concept of Advaita, translating as ‘not two’ or ‘one without a second’. This relates to the absence of duality between subject (you) and object (what you perceive) and extends to all that you experience. The binary separation of perception (good, bad, beautiful, ugly...) is born from the senses, not from reality; in reality, there is only oneness.
On the course, the scenes and motions you go through repeat again and again, day in day out, to an uncanny degree. It’s that repetition which allows this non-dualist philosophy to take root, deeper than merely an intellectual understanding, as you witness the drastic ebbs and flows in your perception whilst the external experience stays, well, the same.
With this realisation I was able to take a step back from my thoughts and observe with acceptance my fluctuating human perceptions, realising they no longer have to define you.
Magic happens between 4 and 6am
The early morning schedule was one of the aspects of my time on a Vipassana that terrified me the most.
Remarkably, I can say that however adamant you may be about not being a morning person, this can shift. Thanks to the collective accountability of sleeping in a dorm and the ultra vigilant volunteers who will come and wake you, should your meditation cushion be vacant. After three days of feeling like a total zombie and the reliable routine, my trusty circadian rhythm adapted.
Not only do you adjust, but you discover something: there’s magic in the air just before daybreak. In the yogic tradition, your mental temperament at this time is known as Sattva Guna, the state most conducive to positivity, creativity, and meditation. This period just before sunrise is called Brahma Muhurta (literally, ‘time of the brahmins’, i.e priests and highest Hindu caste), for how potent it is with spiritual energy.
Discovering the benefits of these early starts feels like you’ve just been let in on an early bird secret. You witness your mind at its softest and most receptive; untouched by the worries of life, tuning into something much more profound. You wonder how you can possibly have another lie in without experiencing FOMO.
The hardest part is after
Now the real test, of course, is leaving the vipassana. How well will you integrate this newly found, sattvic behaviour into your life, once you’ll have more to do than simply sit and breathe all day?
And so the longest, hardest, and most blissful 10 days came to an end; it was time to head back into the world. S. N. Goenka, the original vipassana teacher, whose lectures we watched each evening, likens Vipassana to brain surgery... and after those 10 days, you can see why.
I went in a hardened, frazzled mess and I came out unwound and tender, craving the infantile comforts of toast with jam and sweet chai. The next challenge: how to remain steeped in the residue of all I had both learnt and released and gently integrate this practice and way of being into my daily life.
I’m not suggesting one Vipassana course is enough to revolutionise your life and reprogramme your brain entirely, but it certainly made for a very powerful way for me to get started. Consider it a crash course in mindfulness.
Of course, the results and experience will vary from person to person, but if you go in with acceptance, no expectations and a good dose of patience, I promise you will reap some benefits.
Francesca is a freelance writer and editor based in London.
Her interests have always kept her orbiting the realms of wellbeing, self development and community wellness, and she previously worked as a vegan chef, travelling around Europe and the UK cooking on retreats and events.
Francesca’s work is inspired by ancient wisdom and modern tools, patterns of the natural world and human nature, and a quest for holistic balance.