This year, my holidays were spent like no other. I spent my Christmas Eve agreeing to enter “noble silence” for ten days, this included no communicating through cell phone, laptops or any other technological gadgets and no speaking or gesturing to those around me. No reading or writing was allowed either (my jaw dropped with that one too.) My New Year’s Eve was spent meditating in a meditation hall with about 100 other people for an hour and a half before our bedtime (lights out were at 9:30pm.) The only celebration was heard from the neighboring farm lands nearby in which the residents were lighting off fireworks as I laid my worn head to bed.
I had first heard about this 10-day silent meditation retreat from classmates at a local meditation group that I attend in Portland, OR. When I had heard about their experiences with it, I was fascinated. One of my classmates compared it to a Native American Medicine Journey, a journey where you go completely within. I stashed the idea of it away in my brain as something I ought to try sometime, maybe in a couple years when I could accrue that many hours off of work. My meditation teacher kept discussing it at class as the weeks went by. I found out that the 10-day silent meditation was free and they also offered it during the holidays so you don’t have to ask for as many days off of work as you might need to otherwise. I signed up in May 2014 to attend a 10-day silent meditation retreat from 12/24/14-1/4/15, that May I remember thinking how I wouldn’t have to worry about it for quite sometime, as it was more than seven months away. As the months and weeks crept closer though, I started wondering if it was that good of a decision. Everyone else would be spending the upcoming holidays with family and friends, while I would be falling off the radar. As the week prior to leaving for the retreat came up, I received this text from my sister, who has attended a few retreats herself, but none longer than three days: “Sad, it kinda feels like you’ll be crossing over to the other side for ten days.” When I received that text, I took a deep breath, I really wasn’t sure what I had signed up for.
When I first pulled up into the land that the Northwest Vipassana Center is located on, the whole vibe of the land and the building was incredibly peaceful. After registering inside and getting the itinerary booklet (see picture below) I made my way from the building to the women’s residential suites. As I walked along the pebbled path towards what would be my home for the next ten days I saw a couple of deer eating alongside a marsh area with the peak of Mount Rainier in the back round. I remember feeling elation and getting the sense that the next ten days were going to be very relaxing.
I made my way back to the building after setting up my bed and meeting Kate, my new roommate whom I found out was also on her first 10-day retreat and had traveled down from Seattle with her best friend from high school. I sat in the dining area of the building, sipping on hot tea and chatted with a few girls that were sitting near me. I had found out that two of them had done a 10-day retreat before and the girl sitting across from me, Lacey, was at her first retreat. Lacey and I interrogated the girls that were veterans of this retreat, asking them what we should expect, what had happened for them last time, and more. One of the veteran girls seemed a little distraught as she mentioned “I don’t know if I’m ready to go through this work again….” with a far-off look in her eyes.
The last of the meditation-goers were checking in and trickling into the dining area. We were provided a light dinner and instructed to get anything we needed from our cars afterwards, to make sure all of our technological gadgets were handed in to the staff and to meet at the meditation hall in about a half an hour for the first group meditation. There was a frantic energy in the air, it seemed that people were gabbing just for the sake of noise because we all knew that the “vow of noble silence” would start after our first group meditation. I used the time to meet a few more new people and to get acquainted with where everything was on the premises.
The time drew near 8pm, the big moment of our first group meditation and the official end to communication of any kind. We stood outside the meditation hall, awaiting the teachers to enter first. I met two girls and spoke nervously with them, one had mentioned that she and her boyfriend decided to sign up together for this, the other girl mentioned that a friend in Portland had told her about the retreat. We seemed to be talking just to talk, just to get the last words out we could, all of us knowing that in less than ten minutes we would have to be mute for a week and a half. The teachers entered the building and close to forty of us followed them in. We took off jackets and shoes and were instructed to grab any pillows, blankets or chairs that we would want to use as our meditation tools for the next ten days. One of the assistant teachers started calling out names, and one by one people were directed to their assigned seats. I remember a thought crossed my mind in which I felt that I was at Heaven’s gate or something–waiting for my name to be called to enter a whole other world.
We met in the meditation hall three times a day, at 8:00am, 2:30pm and 6:00pm. Our days consisted of ten hours of focused vipassana meditation, the first three days we focused on the sensation of our breath and the area near where we could feel the breath the most–the area on or near the nostrils. The middle of the ten days, days four through six we started doing focused meditation called “body scanning” which consisted of placing our awareness on each body part. With body scanning, we would start at the top of our head and move down piece-by-piece (the forehead, the ears, the nose) just noticing any sensations, be it pain or tingling or anything. We were instructed not to label anything, but to just be aware of it and notice it’s changing form. The last three days we were taught of “free form” body scanning which consists of starting at the top of our head down to the bottoms of our feet, scanning up and down in more of a flowing fashion. If we had troubles with this, we were instructed to go back to body scanning piece-by-piece. We could also speak with the teachers after the evening group meditation or during lunch break if we were having any particular troubles with the meditating.
There were a couple major moments that stuck with me the most during my 10-day retreat. On night three and five, I had incredible dreams and also visions as I tried to fall asleep. On night three, every time I tried to close my eyes to get to sleep, there was a light show going on beneath my eyelids. There were magnificent colors swirling and dancing, if I didn’t know any better, I might have thought someone had spiked my evening tea with magic mushrooms. Then, on the fifth night I had what I can only describe as a deeply spiritual experience which I found to be extremely comforting. On that particular night, I had some troubles initially falling asleep, but I finally did drift off at a relatively early hour–around 10:30 p.m. or so. I had a very vivid dream (it seemed as real to me as me typing these words out and hearing the hum of the washing machine below my kitchen floor right now feels to me.) In the dream, I headed to the group meditation hall, walking the pebbled path from my residential suite to the building, everything covered in dew from the damp weather that early morning. I sat down in my assigned seat, wrapped my blanket around me and was aware of all the other meditators around me. We all closed our eyes to start our meditation and immediately I got the sensation of no longer having a body, I felt so light and free. It felt so completely right, as if this was what I have been longing for my whole life. I then realized that I had dissolved into oneness with all of the other meditators. I then darted awake in my bed and looked at my clock–it stated “12:30 a.m.” I then fell asleep again and had this same exact dream three more times, always darting awake as my conscious mind realized the feeling of oneness, I awoke again at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 a.m.
I went into the ten day retreat with expectations that it was going to be easy for me since I have been practicing daily meditation for two and a half years, but it was far from easy. When I came back to Portland and was asked multiple times about my experience, the best way that I could describe it to people was that it was tormenting, yet transformative. I didn’t have too much trouble with the no-talking rule as I am an introvert, but I did miss my phone a lot and not being able to write or read was excruciating for me. The retreat really instilled into me the changing nature of reality: physical pain, emotional pain, food, people, circumstances, ideas, locations–all of this is coming and going continuously. The retreat got me more comfortable with the idea of impermanence and it also reminded me that we can start over at any moment by focusing on our breath.
I highly recommend these types of retreats for anyone, it is not affiliated with any religious sect and accepts everyone from every back round. The facilities are run off of donations, but no one is turned away for lack of funds. The way that I am going to donate and give back is to be of service at future retreats. One thing that I have mentioned to friends or family members that have expressed interest in this retreat is to realize that when you attend one of these, you are not going for the purpose of rest and relaxation (I had that wrong estimation myself.) What these types of meditation sits truly do is break down a ton of barriers within you and can create profound healing. It brings you into acceptance of what is, as the itinerary booklet states, “Vipassana means seeing things as they really are.”