Like many in our busy world, I have been on a quest to find inner peace. I’ve spent hours, days & months trying different things to ‘find happiness’, from hot yoga to to self help books, hypnosis and natural food remedies…I feel like I’ve tried it all!! So, why am I trying to ‘find happiness’? Cause in my photos I’m sure I look really happy…. Well, this is true most of the time. Except times like these:
“For many months I have felt a desperate restlessness in my mind, an emptiness in my soul and darkness in my heart. Although I have wonderful people surrounding me and a beautiful life, my mind is clouded with doubt and uncertainty. These are feelings that I’ve never experienced before, and that are driven by fear and darkness. I do not feel safe. I do not feel comfort in my own skin. So many times I wish I could run away from myself and escape these suffocating anxieties in my head. But no matter where I go, and as much as I try, I cannot escape.”
That’s a little excerpt from my e-journal. I know.. Scary huh? For me too.
Now, I have an incredible life. I’m a musician and traveller, I have an amazing family and incredible friends, AND a super awesome community of followers. The universe always finds a way to take care of me and for this I am happy, and I am grateful. But I am also guilty of sugar coating all the glossy moments, while leaving out all the shitty ones.
So I’m getting real with you now. REALLY real…. Things haven’t been so good in my head lately. My mind is tired and my soul is restless. I’ve been doubting myself, my art, my life. In these moments, the only thing I know what to do is to constantly search for happiness. Happiness to me is the feeling of OKness (just made up a word, yup!) with life. Having true acceptance of myself and of the world in every situation, without any expectations.
I’ve tried a number of different methods, but nothing seemed to do the trick. My experiments weren’t giving me the results that I so badly craved. Instead, I just kept spiralling deeper and deeper into a sea of brokenness and the most unsettling feeling of being lost and alone. Since this has been my reality for at least two years now, I decided that is was time for me to try something new… And that ‘something new’ happened to find me last month: Vipassana Meditation.
For those who aren’t familiar, the Vipassana technique means to observe your physical sensations without reacting. You are to notice your sensations and watch them pass. If you have an itch on your nose, you are not to scratch, and you will find that it eventually passes. This technique is a teaching to demonstrate that everything changes and nothing is permanent. It is a tool for you to embrace the present moment without clinging to the lovely things or without running away from the not so lovely.
Fair enough. After reading up, it all seemed pretty straight forward and legit. So I embarked on a journey to a centre near Cape Town, South Africa, to continue my quest in finding inner peace and happiness. But this time, I was going to attempt something that scared the heck right outta me… to be completely silent, completely alone, for ten whole days, with nowhere to turn except inward.
I quickly realized that this is a VERY intense, VERY immersive approach to meditation. I learned that there are centres all over the world offering silent meditation courses nearly every weekend. In these courses, you are to spend 10 days at a secluded centre, in noble silence, where you cannot speak or make eye contact with others, you cannot read or write or listen to music or do exercise for ten whole days. In addition to the ‘cannots’, you are also expected to meditate for 11 hours each any every day. Yup, you read correctly. You have to sit cross legged in the same position on your bum for 11 hours in silence every. single. day. Sounds fun hey!!?
We began each day in darkness before the sun rose, and ended in darkness after the sun had fallen, and during those long ten days, it felt like the moon was my only friend.
The 10 Day Journey
So let’s start from the beginning. I really didn’t know much about the place, the technique or the people I would be spending the next 12 days with. I blindly emailed a couple of car pool offers on the website rides board, and connected with someone who agreed to take me to the centre. We arrived in the early afternoon in Worcester where the centre is located, to register and get settled in. As a nice surprise, we had our own individual rooms and bathrooms which I was not expecting at all. The grounds were beautiful, with rocky mountains surrounding the huge property, and views overlooking a small town in the distance. The female side (men and women are separated during the 10 day period) was right next to an african game reserve which made the stay even more exciting, knowing I might possibly see some beautiful rhinos or elephants against the fence during my stay.
At this point, I’m not gonna lie… I was feeling preeetttty excited. How lucky am I to get my OWN room, my OWN bathroom, breakfast lunch and dinner prepared daily, and ZERO contact with emails or facebook or anything electronic. Finally, some well deserved peace and quiet me time!! Curiosities were running through my blood as to how the next two weeks would pan out and then it started… The sound of the first gong bell echoed in the sweet african air. Our meditation was about to begin, and complete noble silence was expected from now on until the morning of the 10th day.
Each morning consisted of a 4am wake up bell, and were to begin meditating from 4:30 to 6:30, joining the sun as it rises. Following this, we had an hour and a half for breakfast and rest until the next gong rings at 8am. I felt a lot of curiosity and weirdness about the technique on the first day. We all walked into the hall so quietly, like little blind mice, lining up in a row. We each had our own pillow setting in the hall with our names written beneath, all in perfect alignment. Once everybody was in the hall and settled in their places, two elder ladies – our teachers – walked in with beautiful flowing white clothing, and sat at the front of the room on white blocks, overseeing everybody. Nobody moved…Nobody said a word… The silence was deafening.
Then, all the sudden a loud deep voice boomed from every corner of the room. It was the sound of S.N. Goenka chanting over the surround sound speakers placed throughout the meditation hall. Goenka is a well known Indian-Burmese Vipassana teacher who has become world famous through his traditional teachings of this practice. It is his voice that we would be hearing every day, nearly every hour for the next week and a half. As his chanting first blasted through the room, I actually had to hold back my giggles. I found it hilarious that I would put myself in a weird situation like this one. Of COURSE I would do something so odd and out of the ordinary. I would expect nothing less from myself 😛 LOL. I was really quite entertained at the whole situation. I had no idea what I was hearing, but it was strange and beautiful.
For the curious kittens out there…above is a photo of our DAILY schedule. Yes it was the same thing every day.
After morning meditations from 8-11, we got a two hour lunch and rest period. We lined up in the dining hall, everybody looking at the ground, being sure not to disturb others’ silence. I slopped the yummy food on my plate and found a spot alone at a table that faces the wall; this is how I spent my meal times during the entire course period.
After lunch I wandered the grounds, enjoyed the view, and absorbed the teachings of the morning. By 1 pm we were off to mediate once again, either in our rooms privately, or in the hall with the group. This went on until 5 pm when we had a one hour, light dinner, consisting of some fruit and a cup of tea. MMMMMMmmmm… soooOoOo filling. :/ Finally, from 6-9 pm we finished off the day with two meditations in the hall and a one hour briefing video, explaining what teachings we will be practicing tomorrow.
And that was my every single day for 10 full days at the centre. The first three days were the hardest physically, but the easiest mentally. I was actually just focussing on keeping awake during the meditation hours. (Shh! Don’t tell anyone…) I was constantly fighting sleep, and often found myself somehow dozing in my upright sitting position on the pillow. I’m surprised I never actually toppled over during one of my little sneaky naps. Pfffff. I was also battling the physical pain in early days, as the constant cross legged sitting really started to get to me.
Soon Goenka’s chanting mesmerized me into a comfortable state during my hall meditations. By afternoon on the third day, I was ‘observing’ the deep knot in my back and vivid colourful and morbid images started appearing in my thoughts. I sat in deep hypnosis, and it felt as if I was pulling the demons straight out of the sharp pain in my back, one by one. And then finally, it broke. The pain in my knees went away, the knots in my back went away, and my whole body felt comfortable and warm. My mind was clear for a few brief moments.
As day 4 rolled in, I was finally able to sit in a comfortable position without moving a single bone in my body for a whole hour (yayyy!!!) All was well, until the REAL work began… Day four was the day we had to start practising full body scans and really feel EVERYTHING that was happening inside of our bodies. And while I probably should have just left the course early, instead I worked really hard to learn as much as I could, and tested my limits as far as they would go…This day definitely brought on a brand new set of challenges for me that I NEVER expected and didn’t prepare for:
Yup. My old dear friend Anxiety came back for a visit. Horrible, long, suffocating visits, and worse than I had ever experienced before… As a kid I grew up with mild anxiety. Nothing major to worry about, and it’s been so long since I’ve had anxiety that I thought I got over it long ago. But noooo sir. It came back unexpectedly and at full force. I would sit in silence during panic attacks, screaming on the inside, yet trying not to move on the outside so not to disturb those around me. I literally counted each minute, praying for the sound of the gong when I could finally escape that room and breathe. The physical anxieties I was experiencing were very real, and very intense… I would sit for an entire hour with the feeling that I was being choked. Nothing I could say or do would calm my mind. I had sensory overload. Practising the Vipassana technique during times like these means to observe the sensations and not react. So, instead of protecting my nervous system and trying to calm myself down, I used the Vipassana way and felt every terror, heart thud, hot flash and silently gasped for air, for hours on end.
It quite literally felt like hell from the inside out.
That was a new one. I never thought I was claustrophobic before, until this little guy showed up. And he made himself VERY present in my Vipassana… My new found claustrophobia got so bad, I actually had to ask the teachers to sit at the back of the room near the doorway, so that I could see my escape route whenever I felt panicked. And although being near the doorway and sitting at the back of the room helped, my claustrophobia stayed for the rest of the 6 remaining days.
Small bladder syndrome?
Is this a thing? Cause if it isn’t, I am making it up now. I have a tiny bladder, and just the mere thought of having to sit without getting up to pee makes me terrified, let alone DOING IT for ten days. Yeah, this caused a lot of my anxieties. But let me clarify something: We ARE allowed to get up and pee if we REALLY have to, but he teachers prefer that you don’t get up during those one & two hour sessions. Now there were times when I actually couldn’t concentrate on anything else except trying not to pee my pants, so I would get up to pee. And I must say, every time I did, I felt judged. This was really unfair and not right and one of the worst things about the meditation experience.
So, all these horrible things started on the fourth day, and got worse and worse all the way up until the day we left. I even had a panic attack on the last day, even KNOWING that I only have a few hours left. I kept hoping that eventually the symptoms would break and I would be released from the awful things that were happening inside, but they never disappeared. It felt like I visited hell, and came out more burnt than ever. So what happened afterwards was anger and guilt and exhaustion and a real feeling of being broken. I kept thinking, why did it work for some people and not me? Why am I getting worse when others are getting better? Why am I so broken?? After putting myself through 12 days of complete hell, and coming out of it feeling even worse than before, how is that fair? I put in the hard work! I did the time! I was diligent, finished the course and didn’t give up on myself. I went through so much mental and physical turmoil, only to uncover even bigger demons buried in the depths of my broken soul. And they couldn’t release. I couldn’t let go of them. I tried and tried. I tried for 110 hours of sitting in silence, and could only feel them looming over me like dark scary monsters, but never leaving me alone.
And that, my friends, is what my 10 day silent experience was like.
So why did I do it? Why Wouldn’t I just leave? Well, I didn’t want to give up on myself. I had to follow through, merely because the thought of it scared me so much. I figured, if I can be brave enough to sit with myself, by myself, alone in my head for ten days, I can get through anything. I also silently prayed that this too would fix me.
But it didn’t fix me. Before taking the course, I really thought it might be this amazing relaxing getaway where I can learn the “art of living” and find peace in my unsettled mind. And while this happens for some, it certainly does not happen everybody. I think it’s important for everyone to understand that if you attend one of these courses and decide to leave early, you are NOT giving up on yourself. You are simply listening to your body and being gentle with yourself. Showing self-kindness and self care. THAT is more important, than finishing 10 days of something that isn’t good for you. And THAT is one of the biggest lessons I learned from this course.
It’s been a month since I’ve been out and I still haven’t fully recovered. But, thankfully by now I am learning to step aside, and notice the lessons that it taught me. Each day is a new day to recovery and self discovery. It’s so easy to say this because we hear it all the time, but the reality is that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. We are all on our own paths in life, and being present in our own reality is truly the only way. There is no quick fix to pain. It’s a long and tough road, but it’s a road that we’re meant to walk on, if that is our present moment. There is no other way! Being open and accepting to the current road we are walking is the only option, as well as being truly honest with our own reality as it happens. If we are feeling sad, we must just feel sad. If we are experiencing joy, we can feel all the joyfulness in that moment. If we want to leave the fricken 10 days of hell that we are putting ourselves through, then we can leave without feeling any shame!! The key is to be able to find rest in each moment whether good or bad, and appreciate those moments with grace, acceptance and absolute kindness. In practicing this, we will develop our souls in the gentlest of ways: through inner happiness. 🙂
Thanks for lending your eyes to my silent meditation journey!
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Have you had any meditation experiences yourself? Leave some comments below and tell me your story! Or send an email 🙂 I’ve love to be in touch with each and every one of you.