PHYSICAL CHALLENGE: The rest is silence…

The Gong Show
The Gong Show

So why sign up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat? It’s like this: my head is like a hoarder’s house, like an extreme-hoarder’s house – bursting at the seams with so much junk and clutter that I struggle to find the treasure amongst the trash. I know there’s some gold in there somewhere but right now, it’s lost amongst the detritus. I figured 10-days of hardcore meditation would be akin to going into the proverbial hoarder’s house, hazmat suit and all, and giving it a good clean-out – throwing out the thoughts and beliefs that no longer hold true and which cause me pain; preserving and putting in place those that serve me well; and creating some space and light so it’s not such a scary place to be, where new thoughts and opportunities can flow and flourish. Aside from that, I desperately need the discipline that a drastic measure like this surely requires.

With all this (barely) in mind, I signed up for the 10-day Vipassana retreat on the understanding that it would not be a holiday, it would not be relaxing and it would not be easy. From the little I read, I was expecting it to be quite gruelling so packed my bag accordingly with clothes that looked like they came from a range called ‘Depression’ featuring a colours such as ‘drizzle’, ‘thundercloud’  and ‘misery’. It looked like I was dressed for rehab and in fairness, I kinda was – a 21 year and 13 day addiction (at the time of admission) to Matthew – 18 years blissfully intoxicated; a few months of weaning him into a new life; and the balance in the throes of an enforced cold-turkey with moments of clarity and sobriety. Of course, when I turned up, everyone else was dressed in a rainbow of flowing fabrics and whilst there were a few girls who looked like they were wearing their boyfriends clothes, they did so in that casual designer way whereas I looked like I might be wearing my fathers clothes – it didn’t have the same effect!

More significant perhaps than what I did pack however, was what I didn’t. No makeup, no jewellery, no laptop, no books for either reading or writing and … gulp… no phone!!! All considered contraband for their distracting qualities and so were either left at home, locked in the glovebox of the car for immediate use upon release (makeup, notebook and pens) or handed in for secure lockup (purse, car keys and … gulp again … phone!).  I have to admit that handing in my phone was genuinely difficult though I’m sure the scene would’ve looked quite comical as I continued checking it even as I was handing it over and it was being placed into a bag. Another addiction I was hoping the 10 days would work out of my system.

Male Area - no girls allowed!
Male Area – no girls allowed!

After the electronic umbilical cord was cut, I joined my fellow female inmates for a last supper and chat before orientation. Gender segregation was enforced from the get-go with the men and women sitting on different sides of the room for the introductory talks. Being in the same room though gave us all the opportunity to check each other out before the silence and aversion of eyes began. It must be said that, on the whole, it was a very good looking intake (of around 100 people) on both sides of the fence! I think there must have been some recruiting going on in modelling agencies. After we were given the lowdown on our voluntary incarceration, we were taken on a tour of the beautiful Blackheath bush property and led to the meditation hall where our pre-allocated meditation ‘stations’ awaited us in neatly laid out rows – old students up the front, new students down the back. The first thing that struck me upon entering the hall was the smell. To me, it smelt like spiced gingerbread which put me in mind of Sweden and Christmas time – it wasn’t a memory of my own that was being stirred, perhaps too many tins of IKEA’s pepparkaka in Christmas’ gone by! Each of us had a mat, roughly 1mx1m, and a block cushion for sitting on. We were each invited to take a meditation shawl as we entered as well (aka polar fleece blanket). Over the coming days, these simple set-ups would be transformed into elaborate nests of additional cushions, bolsters and blankets as we each struggled to find a comfortable position for 11 hours of meditation a day.

During that first session, we were introduced to our teacher, S.N. Goenke. He teaches the exact same course in hundreds of Vipassana Centres around the world via prerecorded video and audio – just as well considering he passed away late last year. He is represented in person by assistant teachers, one male and one female, who are alive and well and present in the room. Although I would come to adore Goenkeji, it was not love at first listen. He has a very distinctive vocal style which includes a lot of repetition of difficult-to-understand words and what can best be described as growling. During chanting, he sounded to me like an old drunk on the street who, just when you think he’s passed out, rallies to belt out one more line of a song before passing out again. At other times, it sounded like he was imitating racing cars that would invariably breakdown at the end. I imagined that he had a mass of wild, matted hair and a crazy, out of control beard. I was very disappointed when I discovered that he looked more like an elderly businessman with no adornment of any kind. I would’ve loved to have shared these observations with others but the session ended with the proclamation that our Noble Silence had begun. It would have to wait 10 days by which time my judgements were gone or rather, the urge to mock had transformed into a warm affection.

During that first session, we were required to reaffirm our commitment to 5 precepts we were to abide by for the duration of the course:

  1. to abstain from killing any being (all meals were vegetarian);
  2. to abstain from stealing (all the good stuff was locked up anyway);
  3. to abstain from all sexual activity (the boys were locked up too);
  4. to abstain from telling lies (no speaking, no lies!);
  5. to abstain from all intoxicants (ah, so he couldn’t have been drunk!).
Succulent garden
Succulent garden

We also reaffirmed our commitment to stay for the full 10 days. This was reiterated several times, including signing a document at registration declaring that we understood that we would not be allowed to leave for the duration. By the end, the wisdom of this was abundantly clear – the 10 days are structured to gradually and cumulatively impart the Vipassana technique. The process goes deep and can be very painful (physically and emotionally) at times. To leave before the end, is like leaving in the middle of an operation. For it to work, the procedure needs to be completed and the full technique taught. On that note, Vipassana is a technique as opposed to a religious right or ritual. It is entirely non-secular and can be practiced by anyone of any faith or of no faith at all.

A quick word on Noble Silence before I go on. It’s more than simply not talking – it’s silence of the body, speech and mind and extends to not communicating with fellow students in any way, shape or form – no eye contact, no gestures, no nothing. Despite everyone’s bemusement at me not talking for 10 days, that turned out to be the easiest part of the experience (except around reflex niceties like “after you”, “thank you”, “excuse me” etc). Silence of the mind on the other hand, that’s the killer!

I’d like to say that Day 1 started with the dawn of a beautiful day but it started way before that! In fact it started as all subsequent days would – with a 4am wakeup gong and I’ll tell you now, there is no snooze button on a gong! Another gong sounded at 4.30am to signify the beginning of meditation.   I won’t bore you with a run down of every day because they were all much the same in terms of the schedule which was as follows:

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break (no meal, just a piece of fruit for new students; tea for old students)
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room – Lights out

That’s 11 hours of meditation a day! For someone with an occasional 15-minute guided practice (I love Deepak and Oprah’s 21 day challenges!) that’s a big ask! Although I later found out that many people slept through the morning session, I can honestly say that I was up every morning and meditating at 4.30am (or at least trying to!). Where the option was given to meditate in our rooms, I almost always opted to stay in the hall for improved concentration and less temptation to meditate laying down under the covers (technical name for this position is ‘sleeping’). One time, I had a nap after breakfast and slept through the next gong. Next thing I knew, there was a knocking at my door then the manager face appeared to tell me that I was supposed to be in the hall meditating. The worst part was being busted sleeping with my teddy bear who I’d smuggled in to keep me company (there was nothing in the rules about teddy bears) – I couldn’t even say anything to explain myself, I just had to feel the shame as I scurried up to the hall.

Wallaby food
Wallaby food

Another time, I left one of the group session to go the bathroom. Before I could put my shoes on, the manager intercepted me to tell me that we’re not allowed to leave during the group sessions – at other times it’s ok. On that occasion, it was worth the gentle scolding because there in the garden, only steps away, was a gorgeous little wallaby munching away on the flowers – it was just her and me and it was amazing. Further up the path, I saw two birds that I’m going to say were Lyrebirds, I don’t think they were but I don’t know what they were and you didn’t see them so I can’t really be contradicted. I saw the same wallaby a couple of days later during a lunch time walk. I broke my noble silence in so far as I pointed at it to another passer by (without eye contact mind you). She stopped as well. Although it wasn’t unusual to see people just standing and staring at nothing, when you see two people doing it in the same direction, you figure they’re looking at something which meant that soon, there were about 6 women standing silently, staring at a wallaby. As a testament to our silence, she stayed for about 20 minutes before hopping away. I’m sure we must have freaked her out. When I took a little squiz at the scene, it kinda freaked me out too! Very ‘Children of the Corn‘.

Aside from that, there truly was little contact with other people. Of course we were aware of each other and some people made themselves known more than others. Despite signs everywhere instructing us not to do yoga, people seemed not to be able to help themselves. I think the reasoning behind the rule is that no one likes a yoga poser! In the context of a yoga class, of course, but outside that, it’s just showing off! Seriously though, it was once again about limiting distractions. I’ll admit, I was often found in child’s pose after a long session to stretch out my back but I would’ve looked like an unobtrusive grey lump on the ground and the greatest risk was that someone would unwittingly climb on my back and bust out a standing tree pose!

Speaking of my back though, I have a dodgy one. I’d been told before hand that there were backrests and chairs available for those in need of them. None the less, I had to ask the assistant teacher if I could have one (you’re allowed to speak to the teacher with concerns about your practice and to the managers about material needs). I was cross-examined and quizzed on the nature of my back pain – How long had I had it? Between which vertebrae was this alleged bulging disk? Had I seen a doctor about it? Luckily I knew the answers and even had my physio’s card in my purse if necessary – it wasn’t – I was granted a backrest and I was one of a lucky few. The older ladies had chairs but amongst the rest of us, there were only about 4 backrests. Meanwhile, over in man-land, it looked like a movie cinema with entire rows of backrests! Their assistant-teacher was clearly more lenient than ours. They were even allowed to lie down during evening discourses whereas if we even thought about it, there’d be a manager right there to tell us to sit up.

Noble silence in the Meditation Hall

Given how eager I had been to do the retreat, I was surprised to find myself feeling very resistant to it as early as Day 2. Day 1 had been relatively easy – I suppose it was all new and had novelty value. I remember sitting in the dining room and listening to the sounds of 50 sets of cutlery cutting and scraping away against plates – it sounded like music or wind-chimes. On Day 2, it sounded like a deafening clatter! I found myself getting annoyed at the slightest things and Goenkeji’s voice was like nails down a blackboard. Day 3 was slightly better but I was still frustrated that all we were doing for the third day in a row was observing our breath. I was also frustrated that I didn’t seem to be able to concentrate for more than 5 minutes at a stretch before the fairies would carry away my thoughts again. And oh, the places my mind would wander! Even if I’d had pen and paper, there’s no way I could have documented the endless parade of thoughts and images that crossed my mind – I expected the memories and the future planning but what took me by surprise was the volume of imagined conversations between people I don’t even know about things that seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with me! Also, the constant appearance of animals – none of them real and most with incongruous teeth. At the ferocious end of the scale were the terrifying snakes baring row upon row of sharks teeth. At the adorable end, little hamster-like creatures laughing their heads off as they tried on the ‘false-teeth’ of much bigger animals like sabre-tooth tigers. They were having a ball and even made me laugh! Lot’s of cat-like beasties too. If anyone out there is a talented illustrator/graphic artist, I’d love to get some of these images out of my head and onto paper before they fade much more!

It wasn’t just waking images that seemed more vivid either. I had some crazy dreams bordering on hallucinations! There was one night in particular where the wind was howling up a storm through the trees – ‘wind’ is my favourite weather but this was spooky! All night, the door to my bedroom was being blown open and shut and each time it was, I dreamt that someone else came into the room as though they were looking for something – they looked at me and then they left. Then it all got a bit Dickensian with ‘visits’ from people who were looking for me. At one point ‘Matthew’ sat down on the bed and we had a long conversation. I could have sworn he was really there but it wasn’t ‘my Matthew’, it wasn’t ‘new Matthew’, it was some other ‘ethereal Matthew’ full of calm and grace. He pissed me off because it was only Day 2. He eventually left and I actually got up and locked the door. Another night, I dreamt that my dentist had advised I take out all my front teeth (again with the teeth! Classic dream symbology!) and replace them with falsies even though there was nothing wrong with them. I woke up from the surgery in my parents bed which had been set up for my recovery. Matthew was there again when I woke up in the dream, I felt woozy. When I managed to stand up, I started to bleed severely. I asked Matthew to get my Mum but he seemed in no rush to do so because he was fascinated by the blood show. I kept bleeding then passed out. I started to come around, aware that I was in hospital attached to machines. I knew someone was there by my bedside. My eye’s started to open and I started to say a name “M… ” GONG!!! GONG!!! GONG!!! 4am wake up! Was I going to say “Mum” or was I going to say “Matthew”? Who was there? I’ll never know! Mind you, as I write this description, I’m struck by how blatant the meaning of it is and I’m going to bet it was my Mum at my bedside.

Things started to improve for me on Day 4. Like an Indian Mr Miyagi, Goenkeji began to reveal this wisdom of the previous days ‘wax on wax off’ style breath observation and we began to learn the Vipassana technique in earnest. Unfortunately, this also signalled the beginning of the Adhiṭṭhāna i.e. sittings of ‘strong determination’. What that means is that for the three, hour-long group sittings each day, we had to hold our posture without moving for the duration. If you think that sounds easy, I challenge you to try it! It’s agony!! After everyone realised that, it was actually very funny to see the foyer to the meditation hall before these sessions – everyone was stretching and limbering up as though we were about to run a marathon rather than go sit in a room for an hour. But this was extreme-sitting! I know that sounds like a sport I’d excel at but surprisingly, I was not a natural athlete. It took me several sessions before I found a position that I could hold for the full hour and that was basically by feathering my nest with cushions and perching in such a way that I physically couldn’t move without rearranging the stack. The first 30 minutes were bearable, the next 15 minutes were painful, the next 10 intolerable. At the final 5 minute mark, Goenkeji would break the interminable silence with his chanting. After days of wishing he’d shut up, his voice never sounded so sweet, so welcoming and so slow!!! The internal dialogue went something like “Come on man, sing! SING!!! Let me hear that beautiful voice of yours… (he eventually sings) … SING FASTER!!!!”  The limbering-up sessions began to drop off as the days wore on and we gained the collective wisdom that no matter how you prepared, it was going to hurt. Nonetheless, there was a handful of us who’d loiter in the foyer until the last possible minute, watching the clock as though it were counting down to our execution, but not once were we killed. As the proverb goes, I actually felt myself becoming stronger. As soon as I stood up at the end of each session, my back pain – past and present – disappeared! By the end of the week, I was so flexible, I could kiss the ground in front of me from a cross-legged position!

My nest of strong determination
My nest of strong determination

The hardest day for me for was Day 7. Matthew’s birthday and the anniversary of his brothers passing. This was the first in 21 years without any communication at all. Whilst I doubt he even noticed, it was profoundly significant for me. I shed a constant stream of (silent) tears pretty much all day despite constant attempts to bring myself back to the technique. At one point I looked down to see two perfectly round wet patches on my top. It wasn’t the first time I’d cried – Days 2 and 4 were pretty soggy too – but by Day 7, I was so deep into the process that every cell felt raw and exposed. I think Teddy got a bit of a shower that night too. Luckily Day 8 came along like a revelation. We learned and applied the final stage of the technique and it felt as though I was made of pure energy, like my entire physical structure had converted into vibration (which, according to quantum physics, is actually the truth of the matter). After a particularly intense session, I floated out of the hall feeling totally stoned (Mum and Dad, I only know how that feels because of a ‘cultural immersion program’ I once undertook in Amsterdam!) and I don’t think I was the only one. Everyone seemed to be floating and it was a particularly subdued lunch time. I had to stop and lean on a tree for a little while just to get grounded again! It was amazing!

Later that afternoon, I had more ‘sensational’ experiences that seemed to give way to profound visions after which the sensation would stop. This happened several times in a row so I lined up to speak to the assistant teacher about them, thinking I’d had a major breakthrough… I hadn’t. When I told her what I’d seen and asked if it was part of the process, she simply said no, it was a distraction and that when I see any images, I should put them out of mind and return to the technique. Well, that was a buzz-kill! I wanted so badly for them to mean something but I had to remind myself that I had come here for these 10 days to submit to the discipline of the practice and learn all I could from the teachers of it.

And now, a word about gas. I think we’re all mature enough to acknowledge that farts are universally funny. In a room where you can hear the blood coursing in your ears and your heart beating, there is little to no chance of sneaking one out without being heard (along with all other kinds of internal squelchers and squeaks. Bodies are noisy!). The first one was let fly on the first night by someone on the women’s team – it was loud and crisp like a tennis ball being lopped over to the other side. It was all I could do not to call out “Women’s team: 1”. I lost count of the score but I can tell you that the men’s team most certainly won the belching competition! I started to suspect they were being given fizzy lifting drink with their meals. Unlike farts, burps aren’t always funny. The first time, yes; the second, less so; the third, time to get some new material; the fourth, just plain gross; the fifth, starting to feel nauseous; the sixth, thoughts of violence arise – increasingly so with each subsequent belch… unless you’re deep in meditation, in which case, they don’t even register.

Eventually Day 10 arrived by which stage I was starting to experience the early signs of Stockholm Syndrome – I was getting nervous about being released back into the wild despite the difficulty and intensity of the preceding days. We’d been told that our silence would end on Day 10 and that we would learn an additional technique – Metta (i.e. loving kindness) – to help reacclimatise us back to the real world and to act as a salve on the very deep wounds we had opened and ‘operated’ upon ourselves. I expected some grand gesture or banging of the gong to announce we could speak again so I was surprised when I checked the daily notice board at breakfast time to find a note saying that our noble silence was now over. I read it three times to make sure I read it correctly, then pointed it out to the lady beside me – we looked at each other, very uncertain but the sign was clear so I said a very shaky “Hello?” – it felt so naughty and she mischievously replied back with a simple “hello!”. We spoke softly but it carried across the room as though it was over a loud speaker. All eyes were on us. We pointed at the sign as if to blame it for the aural intrusion. People clustered around and whispered conversations quickly bubbled up. I sought out the woman I’d been sitting next to in the hall and with whom I’d wanted to speak so many times, if only to apologise for my restlessness or share some pain. I found her and we spoke, albeit still in hushed tones. A cranky old student blurted out “no speaking!” which shamed us back into silence again right after I timidly tried to defend us by saying “the sign said we can speak”. All this happened within a minute or so before the manager caught wind of our whispers and rushed in to see what the ‘commotion’ was about. She saw the babbling crowd around the board and instantly realised the mistake that had been made – they’d put up the wrong sign! She whipped it down and told us to be silent again. Whoops!

Meditation shawls hung out to dry

After the next session and practice of the new technique, we emerged from the meditation hall to find a sign declaring our noble silence was now officially over – in an instant our noble silence collapsed into ignoble chatter! I can’t tell you how joyous the explosion of energy was and how strange everything sounded. Faces that had been downturned and dour for days suddenly lit up with the brightness of the sun. Where we’d previously moved singularly through the space, we now moved as a noisy swarm barely a few feet at a time. The elation of connection was profound. The ability to share the experience with others who’d traversed it alongside you was gratifying. All the those unexpressed thoughts were reunited with their words and set free.

It was so interesting to finally speak to people who you’d made so many assumptions and guesses about just to see how closely they aligned with the truth. Turns out the girl in front of me is a model; the one two rows ahead and to the left is a creative type; the girl next to me is french and so on. There was only one person I didn’t like – she had an obnoxious strut – and when she spoke, I liked her less but amongst 100 people, that’s not bad. Most assuring though was the revelation that everyone who’d looked like perfect statues of Buddha during practice were also struggling with pain and concentration and that to them, I appeared just as still and silent. At last count, we lost around 6 women (and likely as many men), several of whom seemed to be doing so well. There was definitely a lesson in this about the deceitfulness of appearances!

Although gender segregation was still in force around meditation and meal times, the lines definitely started to blur as common areas were opened up during rest periods. It was amusing to share stories now the ‘veil of mystery’ that separated us had been dropped. It turns out that they didn’t get any fizzy lifting drink after all, just a poor digestive reaction to fruit (on that note for those who are interested in how my strategy of juicing for a month up until the retreat went: it worked in terms of satiation – whereas most people reported feeling hungry with only 2 meals a day, I never did. Mind you, I didn’t properly consider the effects of switching from an all liquid diet to an all solid one overnight… I won’t go into detail other than to say that it messes with your system! It also caused one of the worst skin breakouts I’ve had in a long time as all systems were bought on deck to help process the food!).

Day 10 was not the end though. We got a sleep in on Day 11. The gong didn’t sound until 4.15am! We had a final meditation session and discourse and then time to tend to our self-assigned cleaning duties. I opted to clean the Pagoda out of curiosity. Throughout the time, the old students were often instructed to go to their cells but we newbies were never told what that meant. I figured I could have a sticky beak if I was cleaning them! As the name suggests, they are actual cells, like solitary confinement without a window in the door – just 4 solid walls and a concrete floor. Yikes!

Solitary confinement in the cells

After clean up, we shared one final meal and exchange of details before it was time to reclaim our valuables and go our separate ways. After 10 days without my phone, I was anxious about getting it back. I didn’t know if I wanted to turn it on straight away for fear that it would rob me of my last moments with my new friends! But there was one thing I wanted to check… before going in, I’d entered another Instagram competition. This time is was to win a Thermomix. The winner was due to be announced on registration day but I hadn’t heard anything by the time I handed my phone in. Nonetheless, throughout the 10 days, my mind would occasionally pose questions like “where will I put the thermomix?”, “what will I make with it?” and each time, I’d laugh to myself and say “you haven’t even won it, you’ll just be disappointed” to which another voice would reply “maybe… but we have won it!”. I can’t explain it, but I felt certain. When I turned my phone back on, it chimed in with 315 emails and 52 messages – just too many to even start looking at. So I went straight to Instagram to confirm what I seemed to already know – I had indeed won the Thermomix! Woo hoo!!! Goenkeji had warned us that it wasn’t unusual for people to experience an upturn in luck once they started on the path of Dhamma!

My luck continued to hold as I went to pack my car (rather, my friend Janet’s car which I had loan of) only to discover the rear left tyre was completely flat. As a never-car-owner, I had no idea what I should do. Rather than panic as I may have done 12 days prior, I instead remained equanimous as we’d been trained so thoroughly to do, and went back inside to seek help. I explained what had happened to one of the managers and was overheard by a rather handsome Swiss member of the boys team who gallantly offered his tyre-changing-services. He co-opted a nearby and equally charming French team member and they set to work changing the tyre. In the end, Mr Swiss (who admittedly did all the work) thanked me for the opportunity to change the tyre because he’d forgotten how much he enjoyed doing it. I was able to return the favour by giving him and another guy from Israel (seriously, it was like the United Nations!) a lift half-way back into town. That’s as much as the episode amounted to but in light of some deep self-esteem issues that had also bubbled to the surface, I couldn’t have prescribed a better salve for the tender wound that had been exposed only days prior.

In the rather momentous week since my release, I’ve been asked several times how the retreat was and whether or not I enjoyed it. As you can see from the sheer length of this blog – there’s no simple answers to those questions and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the experience or delved into the realms of insights gained. The most common response amongst the ‘inmates’ in surmising the experience is ‘intense’ but even that doesn’t come anywhere near the magnitude of it. There’s no denying it was a whole lot of hard work. What I found most difficult was maintaining my concentration. What I missed most was my camera (mostly for the ever-changing view from the dining room balcony over the top of the Blue Mountains. It was like natures own PowerPoint display of the very lessons being learned on the theme of impermanence. Every day, the scene was completely different – some days there’d be clouds sitting in the valleys; other days we were enshrined in clouds; other days still – peerless blue skies. On the 7th day, the hardest day, the sky was pink at one point with wispy grey clouds flying by as if to say ‘this too shall pass’, and it did). What I enjoyed most was the feeling of gratitude for this opportunity. It bears mentioning that there is no cost at all for doing the retreat. Everything is run by donations of time and money by former students (only former students are able to donate and volunteer). The idea is that for the 10 days, you live the life of a monk/nun which includes humbling yourself to live on the charity of others. Of course, upon completion of the full 10 days, you’re invited to make a donation to provide the same opportunity to someone else in the future. There is no pressure to give though and you’re asked only to give what you can afford, both financially and in service.

Sunset on Physical Challenge #2
Sunset on Physical Challenge #2

Would I recommend the Vipassana 10 Day Silent Meditation Retreat? Whole heartedly! For anyone who is suffering and seeking profound change and who is prepared to sit with the discomfort of doing so. Goenkeji often said that this course is not an intellectual curiosity, it is entirely experiential. You are not asked to believe what you are told but to believe what you experience. The process you undertake, you undertake alone. The answers and insights you find, you find alone. In essence, you get out of it only what you put in. Whilst I believe that everyone could benefit from it, it’s really only going to benefit those who truly want what it offers and are prepared to work diligently, patiently and persistently for it.

Would I do it again? Had you asked me that on almost any day, I would’ve said ‘no way!’  and yet by the conclusion, I was already wanting to book in my next course. Half the students there had done it several times before. One guy I spoke to was on his 13th course (and just as many again as a volunteer). They recommend that you re-sit the 10 days once a year and that’s what I intend to do.

Is the hoarder’s house in order? Not completely but I’ve made neat piles to continue working through. Perhaps that was the greatest lesson of all – the need to keep working at and practicing those attributes I want in my life because nothing is for once and for all – good, bad or indifferent. In fact, the practice of equanimity and compassion takes it one step further to the realisation that there is nothing that’s truly good or bad anyway. As Shakespeare wrote “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I went into the retreat with the expectation of major breakthroughs and radical changes but what I found was far more subtle, simple and sustainable and for that, I am grateful.

Coming soon: Physical Challenge #3 – Swimming! Like every Aussie kid, I was taught through school how not to drown and thanks to my Rubenesque physique, I float like a cork but I’ve never really learnt how to swim. Stay tuned, this month things are going to get wet and wild!



  1. Another brilliantly written post sister. You have such a gift for writing, you have the ability to take the reader with you on your journey through the highs and lows and you create such a beautiful vision as you do it.

    I think you are ding the world and yourself a disservice by not doing more to share your writing with a broader audience. You need to meditate on how to increase your audience and get busy doing exactly that.

    B. Xo

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Thank you so much Bec, it means the world to me to be thought of so highly by you. I’d dearly love to increase my readership so am open to any and all suggestions. I’ll ask the meditation fairies for some ideas as well.

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