I really wanted to write this blog while actually going through the 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat I attended a few weeks ago, but we weren’t allowed any phones, books, journals or any writing material! This meant that while not meditating, which admittedly wasn’t that much of the day, there wasn’t anything to do after meals apart from sit in our rooms or walk around the grounds. Being silent meant that we not only couldn’t talk to anyone, but we were not supposed to communicate in any way, therefore we weren’t even allowed to make eye contact.
It does seem extreme in many ways – no communication and meditating for around 11 hours a day (with breaks of course)! Having experienced it though, I understand why it’s so strict and why the intensity is so important, which I will explain later. Having already done a 5 day silent meditation retreat, I actually wasn’t concerned about the silence because this allows you to really focus on your own personal experiences and process them. By connecting with someone else it could potentially draw you into old patterns, for example caregiving or people pleasing, which would distract you from your own introspection
Before I attended the Vipassana retreat I had heard from a few people that it was like a mental marathon and I have to say I would agree, although well worth it. Obviously, there were breaks in the day, for breakfast, lunch and at teatime, but between 4am and 9pm there were nearly 11 hours of meditation in the hall, plus another hour+ sitting in our space on the floor listening to the teacher as he explained the philosophy etc. I have to say that these evening ‘discourses’ were on the whole very interesting as I began to understand how it fitted into SIRPA’s understanding of pain, which is why I was so keen to write this blog.
The discomfort of sitting!
The main challenge was not the silence and not even the meditations, but sitting for so long, especially on the first day! We could use as many cushions as we wanted and could use a backrest or even a chair, but it’s amazing how uncomfortable sitting can become, however comfortable you might be at the start! Our awareness of the discomfort was heightened because we were only resting our attention on our breathing, rather than trying to concentrate by regulating it or using a mantra, which might have distracted us a bit.
On the 4th day we began to learn the actual Vipassana meditation and from then had 3, hour-long sessions a day where the aim was not to move position at all. At the end when we were able to talk to each other, we all mentioned that as the hour went on, although the aches and pains increased, literally the moment our mind wandered and we wondered when the hour was going to be up (you keep your eyes shut throughout), the pain increased! This will be no surprise to those of us who have experienced pain and know that our thoughts and emotions can not only ‘fuel’, but trigger pain.
At the end we laughed about how pains would move around and one minute our hip would ache, then our back, then even our shoulder etc, for no apparent reason because all we were doing was sitting there with as much support and padding from cushions as we wanted. Gradually of course we became used to it and towards the end of the retreat I was able to sit quite comfortably for 1 hour and 20 minutes without moving.
The meditation itself
The meditation was taught in stages in order to first be able to focus our minds, which for most of us is such a challenge. So many people tell me they can’t meditate, or they can’t stop their thoughts, so they don’t pursue the practice. Although there are other ways to take time out from our hectic lives, meditation can provide real episodes of calmness in the day and of course the evidence shows it is beneficial for our health and wellbeing.
In order to train our minds to focus and not drift off into thoughts about the past or future, the first 3 days of practice were based on focusing on the area around our nose where we could feel the air going in and out in order to learn to be mindful. Everyone will have had thoughts, but the more we practiced (11 hours a day!) gently and compassionately bringing our attention back when it wandered, the easier it became to retain our focus on the sensation of air going in and out of our nose. This therefore helps break the unhealthy habit of the mind which involves wandering off into thinking about the past or future usually at times when it’s not appropriate, often causing so much self-induced stress. It is challenging to train our minds so I began to see why such an intense course to learn the meditation is so important.
Towards the end of the 4th day we were instructed to move our focus to a smaller area as we practiced developing our ‘felt sense’. This is basically the awareness of sensations within our body and on the surface of our body which are constantly there, but which we are mostly unaware of. In the western world there is a tendency to always focus on what’s going on around us, rather than to investigate internally what’s going on. After starting to develop this awareness of our felt sense, we were then guided to move on to scanning our body in order to begin to fine tune our felt sense throughout our whole body. Over the following days we were also led through how to improve not only our awareness, but how to make the process itself more fluid.
I have to say it was a very peaceful place with even the birds and squirrels being happy for us to walk past and be close without showing any fear. Break times were spent in our rooms or walking in the grounds although while I was there, there was heavy rain every day but it was still nice to get out and contemplate in the fresh air.
So that was the practical side of the retreat and in my next blog I will explain the philosophy, why it’s important to develop the felt sense in order to break the habits of the mind, as well as how it fits with the SIRPA approach to regaining health.
Georgie Oldfield MCSP
Physiotherapist & Founder of SIRPA