A symphony of silence

I find it quite funny that I actually posted more regularly while I was away with no phone, no computer, no internet, than I have on my first week back in the real world. I suppose it won’t come as a surprise, then, that the lack of technology or, indeed, any form of communication, was actually the easiest part of the whole experience.

For those of you who haven’t followed my last few posts, I spent the last 10 days of October (well, technically a couple of days of November too) away in Hereford on a meditation course/silent retreat in order to learn the vipassana meditation technique.

I talked about it so much I thought it was hardly fair not to tell you everything I can remember (which is a lot, when there is nothing else to distract yourself with). Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take cameras in with us so I have no photos, but I thought it would be pleasingly ironic to illustrate my experience with music instead. I’m sure you can imagine how many infuriating songs I got stuck in my head throughout the experience, with no other noise to drown them out. [At this stage I feel compelled to point out that these are not representative of current or past music tastes]

Definitely the first and perhaps the most annoying of these was “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” from The Sound of Music. This happened for two reasons. First, we were awoken at 4am by a gong, followed by another gong at approximately 4.20am to signal the imminent beginning of the first meditation session of the day. It felt very much like a call to prayer, augmented by the fact that we would be getting up in the middle of the night, in fairly basic rooms, in the quiet and sleepy countryside. Hence, nuns. And the fact that I did feel like a slightly wayward nun. Secondly, my twisted mind couldn’t help but peer out from between the surrounding trees and accommodation buildings at the gently rolling green hills and vaguely sheep-like dots, and think to itself that “the hills are alive with the sound of silence”. Hence, the sound of music. Don’t judge me.

From a slightly different genre, at one point (actually, at several points but I’m not about to admit it), “This is now” by Hatebreed popped randomly – and quite uninvited – into my head. During a meditation session. Always during a meditation session. The whole point of the vipassana technique is to observe the current situation of your body/mind/life, having accepted that everything is in a constant state of flux. The technique teaches and demonstrates the law of impermanence, making it irrelevant to get attached to anything in life – and attachment causes misery and suffering. Quite a few times, obviously, I caught my mind wandering – hanging out in the past or dreaming about the future – and had to remind myself, “Claire – everything changes – this is now“. Hence, Hatebreed. Again, I have a delicious sense of guilty irony in the fact that I am thinking about a band called Hatebreed to help me practice a technique encouraging love and compassion to all beings.

Perhaps a less startling soundtrack was “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt. We were to observe Noble Silence; that is, silence of mind and body – no communication of any kind be it speech, eye contact, gestures, writing, and so on. Funnily enough, the silence was possibly the easiest part for me! I’m fairly quiet as it is (though my clients don’t seem to think so…), and it was so peaceful – meals were enjoyed slowly, every mouthful attentively savoured, with no awkwardness of who to sit with and how long to hang out after the meal. Plus, the lunch queue moved so fast as people didn’t stop to chat about what was in the pots (more on the food in a later post!) – on the tenth day we were allowed to break our silence, and it took so much longer to get food! Then I had to choose my table, and felt really awkward throughout my meal as the women around me were speaking Russian to each other and ignoring me, finally sat with people I could chat to but then realised I wanted a shower and needed to say my goodbyes and see-you-laters. I really didn’t think the silence and lack of communication would be so easy – but I do feel it has carried over into the real world, as I feel slightly more aware of what I say just for the sake of small talk. I probably make everything more awkward for everyone else now, but my mind feels more peaceful and less filled with mindless chatter.

Another embarrassing one, was “I feel so alive” by P.O.D. This only happened a couple of times, after a particularly good meditation session and then whilst pre-planning this post and remembering the songs that came and went.

I do not know what goes on in my brain sometimes. I distinctly remember getting the shouts of “Clean cup, clean cup, move down, move down” from the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice in Wonderland stuck in my head; we were to focus our attention on a point at the top of our head, then gradually move our attention down our body, paying attention to every sensation along the way. The teacher – S.N. Goenka, instructing from decades-old audio recordings – was repeating, “slowly move down, move down…” and bang. Childhood reference stuck in head. At one of the few times it is unappropriate for that to happen.

I can’t really put into coherent words the whole experience – and this playlist certainly does nothing to bring you closer to imagining it – plus, if anyone were to go on the course themselves, I wouldn’t want to give them any expectations, as I think it is best approached with an open mind. So far, I have kept up the recommendation to meditate twice a day, though I’m not quite managing the hour twice daily that was prescribed – at best I am getting two 45-minute settings. But it is good motivation to get up a little earlier, get to bed a little earlier and with more time between staring at the computer and shutting my eyes, and I do feel like something in me has shifted a little. Not life-changingly, no big epiphanies, but I accept that changing lifelong patterns and reactions will take more than 10 days of silence. So watch this space, I guess, and stay tuned for more posts on the experience (obviously, I mean the food).

And if anyone stumbles across here who has practiced vipassana meditation, or is thinking of attending a course, please give me a shout!