why I chose to go on a silent meditation retreat


There was a moment, sitting at the desk in my Sydney home-office on a Sunday afternoon, with my boss texting notes for the news release due out first thing Monday morning, my kids fighting over the TV remote, and my partner feeling increasingly distant, when I felt overwhelmed by the noise. Not just the assault on my eardrums, although there was plenty of that, but the overwhelming and unending clamour for attention. All I wanted was peace. And quiet.

Remember that? What happened to “quiet”? Who turned up the volume in modern life – and why does it feel almost impossible to turn it down?

My search for answers led me to many places, including to the work of American neuroscientist, philosopher and author Sam Harris. In 2014, his book Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality Without Religion became a New York Times bestseller. Its enduring popularity, and the success of Harris’s podcast and meditation app, suggests there are a great many people like me, hungry for meaning that is free of dogma or hocus-pocus, in this frantically busy but spiritually empty secular age.

In his book, Harris pithily sums up the modern dilemma: “We manage to avoid being happy while struggling to become happy, fulfilling one desire after the next, banishing our fears, grasping at pleasure, recoiling from pain – and thinking, interminably, about how best to keep the whole works up and running. As a consequence, we spend our lives being far less content than we might otherwise be. We often fail to appreciate what we have until we have lost it. We crave experiences, objects, relationships, only to grow bored with them. And yet the craving persists. I speak from experience, of course.”

An avowed atheist, Harris posits that many religions have evolved to address this problem.

But too many “ask us to entertain unfounded ideas about the nature of reality – or at the very least to develop a fondness for the iconography and rituals”. As an alternative, he recommends Vipassana, the meditation technique outlined by Gautama Buddha as a practical guide to achieving insight or “clear awareness”.

It is widely taught that the Buddha himself insisted nobody should embrace his teachings on blind faith, but only try the methods with an open mind, to see if they work. The best-known modern teachers of Vipassana are true to this instruction, holding retreats that teach the technique without proselytising or even inquiring about attendees’ religious affiliations.

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Perhaps as a result of this openness to scrutiny, Vipassana has become one of the meditation techniques most closely analysed by Western scientists. It is also taught for free.

Those who are lucky enough to land a spot in a beginners’ 10-day silent retreat – many in Australia book out months in advance – are only asked to consider making a donation upon completion. I signed up faster than you can say “4am wake-up bell and only two shower cubicles for 15 women”.

When my partner Peter and I arrived at the retreat pick-up point in Hobart, I realised it had all been a dreadful mistake.

The bright yellow cotton overalls I’d thought were so cool when I discovered them at a coastal market in Queensland a few weeks earlier now felt too cool, in an entirely different way. Freezing, in fact. And damp. And not looking at all like the rest of the retreatants at the bus stop, most of whom were dressed either in multiple layers of natural fibres (the women) or fleecy tracksuits (the men).

Everything I had read about Vipassana retreats had warned that the first few days could be brutal.

In contrast, I looked like a slightly addled children’s television presenter, the type who does interesting things with glue, toilet rolls and glitter, and occasionally climbs into a laundry basket to sing The Wheels on the Bus while wearing a false moustache and gesticulating wildly.

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There would be no singing or gesticulating, wild or otherwise, as the wheels on the retreat minibus went round and round to the Vipassana centre nestled in the foothills of Mount Dromedary, about 30 kilometres north of Hobart. Instead, a thick and gloomy hush descended, as if we were prisoners being moved to death row.

Day 1

All about trying to stay awake. So tired! Everything I had read about Vipassana retreats had warned that the first few days could be brutal. Denied all of its usual toys and distractions, the mind often throws the cognitive equivalent of a toddler tantrum. The more you ask it to calm down and be quiet, the more it screams in rage and self-pity. And after the first half-an-hour or so holding the same position on your meditation cushion or stool, various parts of the body will join the angry chorus of recrimination. So much for serenity.

I was plagued with drowsiness. As each session settled into stillness, I felt a familiar weight descend behind my eyelids, a fog spread through my head and then my head would begin to nod … nod … nod …

And snap! I would jerk awake, only to begin the wrestle with sleep all over again. It was frustrating and exhausting: a vicious cycle in which the effort to resist fatigue only drained more mental and physical energy. But I was determined to carry on. This was Vipassana, after all. It wasn’t meant to be easy, was it? Then I discovered we weren’t even doing Vipassana yet.

In the first of a series of evening lectures, we learnt we were actually only doing anapana, an exercise that involves focusing exclusively on your breath as it flows through your nose.

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Specifically, on any feelings we could detect in a small triangle from the edges of the nostrils down to the top of the upper lip. It’s not a lot to focus on, which was entirely the point.

Having arrived with our senses dulled from constant noise and distraction, we learnt it was important to spend time sharpening focus. Launching straight into the finer points of Vipassana would otherwise be a bit like handing a surgeon an axe and asking them to conduct a triple-bypass. No matter how well-intentioned the doctor, you’d have doubts about their likelihood of success.

But for me, the challenge was different. I was the surgeon with an axe, who kept dozing off just as her blade hovered over the main artery.

Day 2

Better sleep. Still battling drowsiness in morning session, then … enlightenment!?!? When I resumed my place on my meditation stool, it seemed the dreaded “nods” were back.

The day before, during our regular check-in interview (the only time apart from emergencies when students are permitted to speak), my teacher had suggested I try to focus on the sensations around impending sleep.

Kneeling on my stool, I recognised more than just the familiar heaviness in my eyelids. I identified a slight shift in where I could feel my breath in my throat, and a change in tension around my solar plexus. All of this occurred in the seconds before I began nodding.

Time quickly blurred and lost meaning in that familiar, slightly stuffy hall. Then it happened: what seemed like an almost audible “crack”, as if a pane of glass had snapped and fallen away.

At the same time, I had an experience best described as putting your head above water after a lifetime swimming beneath the surface. With the “crack”, my head broke the surface and all the sensations that had previously seemed so muffled and blurred by fatigue came into stunning focus.

I felt immediately, intensely awake – more awake than I could remember being before. My hearing seemed to have sharpened exponentially too, because suddenly I could detect bird calls and even the shifts of the breeze in the eucalypts outside the hall.

It was, quite simply, blissful. What’s more, not only was I able to sit perfectly still, I now felt a clear awareness of my body – a heavy, thick presence somewhere beneath my observation point – without feeling anchored to it.

Suffice to say this was not exactly the reaction one expects upon announcing one is now a Buddha.

Obviously, I had achieved enlightenment. My only query, as I floated above my meditation stool, was what I would do with the remaining eight days at the retreat: would I simply be left to drift along in my new-found bubble of joy, or would the teacher issue me with some sort of special Buddha accreditation to recognise I had attained this privileged status?

I could barely wait to be called up to my next check-in interview. The teacher’s reaction was less enthusiastic. “It’s important not to get swept up in the drama of the sensations,” she pronounced. “Try not to follow them. Keep observing your breath and what you’re feeling around your nostrils.”

Suffice to say this was not exactly the reaction one expects upon announcing one is now a Buddha.

Day 3

By Day 3, I was almost crying with boredom. Focusing on a couple of square centimetres between your nostrils and your top lip for up to 10 hours a day will do that to a person.

Day 4

On this day, we were introduced – finally – to Vipassana. And not a moment too soon. Had I been asked to focus on my top lip for one more day, I might have bitten it off.

The technique of Vipassana was ostensibly simple. We were directed to widen our attention, moving our focus slowly and systematically through the various parts of our bodies, from head to feet and back again. Along the way, we were to note sensations as they arose and passed. The point was to step back and recognise the impermanence of these sensations (including thoughts and emotions), and to remain unattached from all of them.

Sounds simple, right? And it is … until you have a bead of sweat forming on your chin, and all you can do is observe the detail of that sensation, as it slowly fills, clings to the skin, then trickles down to the very bottom of your face, before dropping and rolling into your cleavage. Only to have another one takes its place.

Or until the mosquito bite you sustained during last night’s late toilet dash begins to itch incessantly.

There was something hypnotic about the quiet routines of the day. Illustration: Gregory Baldwin/illustrationroom.com.au

There was something hypnotic about the quiet routines of the day. Illustration: Gregory Baldwin/illustrationroom.com.auCredit:

Day 5

Silence has turned us into cows.

In my memory, Day 5 was the day I stepped over an invisible threshold and discovered how silence works to a rhythm; a sweet, slow song of its own. There was something hypnotic about the quiet routines of the day. Stripped of distractions, I found myself noticing and revelling in the beauty of small things: an especially sweet slice of rockmelon; the intensity of stars when urban light pollution is non-existent; the point on the path where all the ants crossed together in a jostling formation only they understood.

These rhythms were particularly evident at lunchtime. Served at 11am, lunch is the main meal of the day on retreat; true to monastic traditions, experienced retreatants eat nothing more after midday, while new students can choose to eat two pieces of fruit for dinner.

Fortunately, our meals were the best type of vegetarian cuisine: fragrant curries, warming stir-fries and colourful salads. I had fretted about being hungry when I first learnt of the “fruit at 5pm” rule. But the meals were so nutritious, I was never hungry. Plus, we were hardly burning up the kilojoules meditating all day.

At lunch, we lined up to serve ourselves at the buffet, before taking up positions outside in the sunshine: at the edge of the small deck, on a small bench, or on tree stumps that had been roughly fashioned as stools.

Eating had become a reverie in itself; each fork or spoonful chosen carefully, each mouthful slowly savoured. I had read about “mindful eating” previously, as a means of easing stress and aiding digestion, and it made sense, especially as I often ate lunch at my desk without even thinking about it. But I had never been able to do it for very long.

To be honest, in the outside world of multitasking, to-do lists, and 24/7 news feeds and social media updates, I often felt guilty for focusing on anything exclusively for an extended period.

I had seen contented cows, grazing on pasture, do exactly what we had just done whenever an unfamiliar person trundled past their patch.

On retreat, mindfulness came naturally. We had nothing to distract us or demand our attention. And so we simply appreciated things as they arose, just as we had been doing inside the meditation hall. The only difference was that we were encouraged to be equanimous – neither clinging to the pleasurable, nor avoiding discomfort – while meditating. Eventually, the goal was to take that equanimity into the outside world too. But for now, I was happy to bask in the sunshine; I would have clung shamelessly to every pleasurable beam if I could.

Several other women appeared to be doing the same at lunch on Day 5, when a stranger arrived. It was the hurried, purposeful way he walked that really distinguished him from the rest of us. Absolutely nobody hurries on retreat, except perhaps when they have slept through the pre-dawn gong for early meditation.

In the outside world, the appearance of a tradesman would barely rate a flicker of interest. But on Day 5 of a Vipassana retreat, a fast-walking stranger was the most exciting thing since … well, for me, since seeing an echidna on Day 3. Our heads lifted almost in unison from our lunch bowls as he passed. We watched intently, still chewing on our vegetables, as he fumbled with a lock on the door of a shed, and appeared to check something on a clipboard.

The weight of our attention was almost palpable in the air. Then The Stranger turned and disappeared back towards the retreat kitchen.

And that was it. That was the excitement for Day 5. Our collective gaze held in the direction of the kitchen for a few moments longer in case the disturbance returned. Then slowly, one by one, our heads dropped back over our bowls and chewing resumed. I had seen contented dairy cows, grazing on good pasture, do exactly what we had just done whenever an unfamiliar person or vehicle trundled past their patch.

I wondered whether it was insulting to compare my fellow retreatants to cattle. But then I thought about the lives many of us had left behind, if only for 10 days: lives spent locked away from natural light, force-fed a diet of news alerts, emails and social media updates, with the greatest value placed on how much you produced each day. That life was just like being a battery hen. I’d rather be a dairy cow any day.

Days 6 & 7

I am a bubble-chaser. I have to stop chasing bubbles.When asked to describe the state of mindfulness that may be achieved with Vipassana practice, veteran teacher Joseph Goldstein often draws an analogy to going to the cinema. “Becoming aware of thought is like coming out of a movie theatre after being absorbed in the story,” says the man credited, along with friends Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, with bringing Vipassana to the West in the early 1970s. “Through mindfulness, we gradually awaken from the movies of our minds.”

Bestselling author Tim Ferriss, of The 4-Hour Workweek fame, describes it slightly differently: “[It gives you] the ability, if you are inside the washing machine, to become an observer and to step six inches to the other side of the glass … so that you can observe what is moving around.”

The things “moving around” in that washing machine are your thoughts, along with a hotchpotch of physical sensations. Recognising that we don’t have to be part of this cerebral jumble – that we can exist separately to it rather than be defined by it – is a small step towards enlightenment, if you’re a practising Buddhist. And, if you aren’t, a big step towards everyday sanity.

Day 8

Day Eight delivered the fires of hell. At 6.30am, after our first meditation session, our teacher announced that the authorities had declared a day of extreme fire danger, with temperatures forecast to climb over 40 degrees, and gale-force winds expected to stoke several blazes that were already burning in the region.

We had to evacuate. We were to collect our belongings immediately after breakfast; a bus would take us to a community hall in a country town, out of harm’s way.

The kicker: despite what sounded like an impending apocalypse, we were expected to remain silent. We would continue our meditation sessions as normal once we arrived at the hall, our teacher explained, and there would be no need for us to speak in transit.

Of course, it was a wonderful opportunity to practise equanimity, by accepting the conditions without resistance or craving for something different. Failing that, it could have been a beautiful lesson in humility, recognising that equanimity was more difficult than it may have appeared in the relative peace of the retreat. Instead, as the hours ticked by inside that remote church hall, wave after wave of anger broke over me.

Anger that my long-awaited retreat had been disrupted. Anger that the teacher wasn’t providing us with updates about the fire and whether we might leave before nightfall. Anger that the men had access to a small area of lawn on their side of the hall, while the women had only the baking bitumen of a car park. Anger that I couldn’t operate the tap on the hot-water urn, and that I had dropped my water bottle for the umpteenth time. Oh – and anger at myself for being so very, very angry. There was a lot of that.

Finally, our teacher gave us an update. The crisis was over; we were going home to our retreat.

The final days slipped by like silk. After the disruption of Day Eight, nothing seemed as difficult; I felt a surge of gratitude just to be meditating again in the relative peace of a carpeted hall, with wallabies grazing outside and my private bedroom offering sanctuary during breaks.

The standard 10-day Vipassana retreat actually ends on the morning of Day Eleven, with the ban on speech lifted on the preceding afternoon to give retreatants an opportunity to recalibrate their minds to “normal” life. That transition was gentle, but not gentle enough for me. After a few hours debriefing with the other women – many seemed intensely familiar, but I was only now able to learn their names – my head was crackling with static.

Eventually, I slipped away for one final solitary bushwalk before sunset.

Christine Jackman’s Turning Down the Noise (Murdoch Books, $33) is out September 1.

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