Secret Society of Stillness

November 17, 2019

December 23, 2020

If you’ve ever wondered if I can stop talking, you’re not alone. I, too, wondered the same thing as I prepared for my first silent meditation retreat last month. But before we get into that, a quick update on where I’ve been.

For the past few months, my writing has slowed down as other activities in my life have picked up. Most notably, I completed a 3-month 200-hour yoga teacher training in June, and also went through a 4-month teacher training program for Search Inside Yourself (SIY), a leadership program born at Google that combines mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and neuroscience.

As part of the SIY program, teachers-in-training are highly encouraged to immerse themselves in a meditation retreat. Luckily for me, attending a retreat has been on my personal list for nearly 2 years. So this training provided a great nudge in that direction.

I’ve known for awhile that I wanted to attend a vipassana retreat, which is a 10-day silent meditation retreat that grew out of the Buddhist tradition. I was very fortunate to be given a long break from work, and during this time I took a trip to India where I decided to take the plunge and sit for my first retreat.

What's unieque about vipassana?

First, let’s cover the basics. The hallmark vipassana experience is a 10-day, silent, residential retreat. The program is very strict. Unlike other silent retreats, there is no reading, no writing, no exercise (save walking), no eye contact with others, and even no Instagram. Wild, I know. The reason for all of these rules is to help you go deeper into the experience and obtain the best results from your stay.

Second, the vipassana technique is unique in the world of meditation because it is primarily taught through these retreats. While vipassana is taught in different styles, the most prolific is in the tradition of S.N. Goenka, a Burmese meditation master who helped spread vipassana globally during the 20th century. It might surprise you that they consider the 10-day retreat the ‘primary school’ of vipassana, and serious practitioners move onto 30-day or event 3-month retreats.

The Goenka-style program that I took part in is taught around the world in over 100 centers, where the structure is identical and the key teachings are transmitted via audio and video recordings from Goenka himself (who passed in 2013). After 10 days of listening to Goenka, he becomes like a loving grandparent. If your grandparent was sternly encouraging you to sit for 10 hours of meditation a day.

Third, the vipassana technique taught by Goenka is non-sectarian, and is purposefully stripped of religious context in order to be accessible to anyone, regardless of faith. One of the philosophical underpinnings of this tradition is that for knowledge to become wisdom, each individual has to experience it themselves. Thus, you are encouraged to be very skeptical at the outset, and to simply experience the technique for yourself and then make your own judgement about its effectiveness.

Lastly, the retreats are free. Run by an international non-profit called Dhamma.org, the vipassana technique is taught at no cost and supported purely through donations by former students and other beneficiaries. This is quite an impressive achievement, and it really helps make this training accessible to anyone that can leave behind their work and family commitments for the time.

Why would you subject yourself to ten days or pure silence?

I know, it sounds crazy and impossible at first. I had some hilarious reactions when I told people about my plans.

On the real, many great thinkers, religions, and spiritual beliefs call us to developer greater self-awareness and understanding of who we are at a deeper level. The Ancient Greeks put it simply with their famous aphorism, “Know Thyself.” Vipassana can be seen as a masterclass in knowing yourself and for that reason alone, it might be worth your time.

Another reason, although you might balk at this at first, is that silence is golden, and enjoyable. Silence brings you a level of peace and solitude that we so rarely get to experience in the modern world. Silence allows things to settle, so that we can look more closely inside. I was very surprised to find that 10 days of silence was actually much easier and more enjoyable that I had anticipated.

Finally, this is a crash course that will teach you in great detail a very powerful meditation technique. Quite a few students on my retreat had never meditated and were there just to learn the basics. This was their way of diving in head first.

What did I learn from this?

I’ve deliberately saved this part for last, as I don’t want to spoil the surprises that are in store for you, and also because any lessons I’ve drawn from my experiences are personal. That is a key perspective of Goenka, that all knowledge must be experienced within oneself before it can be integrated as wisdom.

However, I hope that by sharing a few of my reflections, some of you reading might be encouraged or perhaps inspired to investigate this tradition more.

Impermanence: everything in life comes and goes. The best emotions, the worst emotions. The happiest times, the worst times. This is a fundamental teaching of vipassana. There were many moments in meditation where I felt that if I didn’t scratch an itch or stretch my back, that the pain would never go away. But each and every time I sat with the sensation for long enough, they passed.

Equanimity: related to the lesson on impermanence is equanimity. I like to think of equanimity as a visualization. Imagine you’re a rock in a flowing river. No matter the strength of the current, you remain steadfast. In life, we can’t avoid the ups and downs, but we can cultivate an inner strength that allows us to face it all with ease, or equanimity.

Mental Space: modern life is full. Full of engagements, full of activity, full of deliverables, full of everything. It’s so rare to have peace and quiet to just experience life without all the doing. Creating space for solitude is one more reason, and maybe the reason, you might consider a similar retreat.

Wait, where's this "Secret Society of Stillness"?!

Thanks for reading this far. Unfortunately — or fortunately depending on how you look at it — there isn’t any secret society. Dhamma.org is well-known, extremely transparent, and far from secret. Check them out if this post inspired you.

Happy meditating :)