Addressing the Mental Chatter During Silent Meditation
“Ok, just breathe.”
“Wow, it’s quiet in here.”
“Seriously!!?? That’s it….”
This is my brain on silent meditation.
Whether I’m sitting in a hall with a hundred people or alone with a hundred thoughts, meditation is a discipline. It’s difficult, challenging and rewarding. And, I’m just getting started.
I drive winding roads and sing along to every song on the radio. It’s a ten-hour drive from Santa Monica to the Dhamma Manda Vipassana Meditation Center in Kelseyville, Northern California. After a few hours, everything fades into a blur of sleepy towns and asphalt. I’m relieved when I finally pull through the gates of the Center.
Popularized by S.N. Goenka, this ‘retreat’ is offered to all walks of life as a gift and teaches the technique of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is defined as a meditation technique where self-observation is the key to purifying the self and seeing things as they really are.
With 4AM wake-up calls, up to 10 hours of meditation a day, and nightly lectures, the schedule is quite rigorous. Plus, all of this is done in complete quiet as the participants have taken a vow of silence for the entire retreat.
Goenka teaches that there are two things that create all misery: craving and aversion. I want this. I hate that.
I feel like I wait a lot in my life. I wait for the highs of achievements and for the lows to dissipate. I have high expectations of myself and need validation that I’m on the right path. I blame myself, overcompensate, try to please and end up on a wheel of disappointment.
Yoga has taught me to manage the ebb and flow, but it has been a long road.
We will first learn the technique of Anapana. We focus only on our breathing and the subtle sensations around the nose and mouth. Our goal is to witness without reacting. The sooner we can detach from the feelings of daily life, the more balanced or equanimous (as Goenka repeats) we can remain towards the ebbs and flows of life.
At night we return quietly to our rooms. I hear the beautiful sounds of crickets outside my temporary home. It’s dark and quiet and lovely until…
Tick tock, tick tock… I lay awake twitching in time to the clock. I turn on the light (to my roommate’s surprise). I try miming to her that her clock is too loud. She speaks, “Can we just talk like adults? Let’s just use your clock.” “Of course,” I say. She apologizes, I feel bad… I wasn’t planning on breaking the number one rule of silence my first night here.
Heigh-ho, heigh-ho it’s off to the hall we go… Half past 4AM and I know, this ain’t gonna work. The numbness in my feet is unbearable. “Just breathe.” The technique is easy enough… for about two minutes until I start thinking about how I haven’t pooped in two days. Hmmm… how often are you supposed to poop anyway?
His voice gritty and rumbly, Goenka chants words in Hindi from a loudspeaker. At every pause, I think he is done, and then he continues with more phrases. Finally, after what seems like a decade, it ends…relief!!
Nope, he’s still going. What is this torture I’ve signed up for??
We move to the dining hall and swarm the buffet, piling food atop our plates. Meditation makes you hungry…who knew?
Later while exploring the grounds, I find a nice bench and watch the sun as it moves past the trees. I forgot about that… that the Earth is constantly in motion. How surreal.
That night I dreamt. A LOT. It was all lucid dreaming: places and people I knew from childhood.
The bell rings at 4AM, and I’m up in an instant. Time for more meditation. I open the hall’s door cautiously and find a seat in the sparsely populated arena.
When I stop fidgeting someone else starts. The more I focus on the little space around my lip, the more I think I may need Botox after this. My eyes open to half-mast hoping no one will see as I peruse the rest of the gang.
Mouth Breather to my right and Acid Reflux to my left create a musical beat in my head. I can’t help but rock along, and I sail away into the story of ‘Vipassana The Musical’ where every bodily noise and yawn is a cacophony.
“Start again,” I hear Goenka say. Start again.
This may be my new password for everything – start again.
By lunch, my roommate has stripped the room of her belongings and has moved into a tent in the forest.
She must be rebelling because of the clock incident. How ruuude.
Back to the hall.
The Kardashians all have names that start with a K. I can’t keep up with them. What are their names? Well, there’s Kim, Kanye, no, that’s her husband, but how convenient, am I right?
“She take my moneeey, when I’m in neeed,” I sing in my head. “Now I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger!”
Kanye becomes the soundtrack of my day.
“She take my moneey, when I’m in neeeeed!!” Oh, Kanye.
Each day, fewer come to the hall for the early morning sit.
I keep my eyes closed: focus on my nose like the paparazzi on Angelina Jolie.
I like my nose. My mom and sisters have this nose. Ok, come back to the nose, not your family.
The time passes. The pain passes. The bell rings. I give myself a mental high five for being such a good student.
I drift slowly from the hall. It’s lovely out. I feel open and balanced. I’m finally getting this whole thing!
My phone rings in my pocket. Nope… just a passing bird. I meander down the path feeling amazing even though there is STILL no movement in my nether regions. Can constipation get you out of a meditation session?
I use breakfast time for another walk. Desperate to hear the sound of any voice, even my own, I try out a few of my new jokes on the pine trees.
“Hey guys, thanks for comin’ out, although it looks like you haven’t gone anywhere in a while!” Ba Dum Tss… I’m pretty sure I laughed harder than they did. And… I’m obviously going insane.
Today we learn Vipassana, becoming aware of the sensations in other parts of our body and how to view it with non-attachment.
I ride a rollercoaster of craving and aversion, hating the person next to me and shopping on Amazon in my mind. And then, my brain gives up, she just lets it all go.
At night, I awake screaming. No one answers and I stand absolutely alone in the darkness. Wait… nope, still dreaming. “Hi, Dad,” I greet my father. I wake up with soft tears on my cheek.
You know, it doesn’t matter how many cushions you put around your body, sitting on the floor hurts. My mind literally, is over it.
We learn to sweep the body rather than going bit by bit. We search for subtle sensations. I feel physically and emotionally great, then horrible to the point where I just bore myself with it.
Lunch is vegetarian tacos.
I decide that the best domestic terrorist idea is to feed a bunch of people beans then have them sit in a quiet, closed room. I leave the hall early if only to save the group from my “wind.”
I notice a woman in one of the tents is moaning with sadness. I hear her cries for hours and wonder what could have happened to her.
I hear a man yell at another for sneezing too loud.
Today there is one cushion under my bum. I tuck my knees under me, one either side of the cushion.
I equalize, balance, equalize. I scan, get distracted, start again.
This morning a man has a breakdown. He cries and exclaims and wanders around like he’s hallucinating. He’s taken out of the hall.
I open my eyes a bit. No one in the front row reacts. I close my eyes and return to breathing.
At lunch, I see a tree stump. I take colored stones and write a message, LOVE, and a little smiley face.
During a break, I see the words have changed to hope and the smile has turned to a sun.
The man who had the breakdown leaves. The gates open up and swallow his retreating car. I can still hear the gravel under his tires, when…, “Another one bites the dust… And another one goes and another one goes, another one bites the dust!” I’m a horrible person for thinking these thoughts during silent meditation.
At lunch, the word on the tree stump reads “chance.” I make the c into a g. “Change.”
We learn the final silent meditation – Metta. We offer love and happiness, forgiveness and balance, to ourselves and others.
We’re set free to speak, to go back to our lives. But instead of jumping for joy, I find myself sobbing like Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone when she uses the post-it stuck to the fridge that says, “Buy more tissues,” as a tissue. The episode passes, and all I can think to say is, “I’m exhausted.”
Every face held down by silence is revealed and they come alive with animation. I get to know their names and abandon the ones I nicknamed them. I was amazed at how their voices sounded and how similar our experiences were.
I made it. I hated and loved and let it all go. Free of spirit, my body was finally able to lighten its literal load too. Finally, sweet detached from my physical and mental torment, it was my last letting go…my final detachment. Now I’m ready to accept the ebbs and the flows.
Laurie Searle is an international yoga teacher leading workshops and trainings with Yoga and Fitness to Go and the Sphota Yoga school. She’s the creator of Lady Yoga, Superhero and F.E.D. Fight Eating Disorders, a 501(c)(3) in Los Angeles: YogaAndFitnessToGo.com.
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