The Challenge: It can be very difficult to sit in silence or to be alone.
The Science: Silence, like meditation, can increase self-awareness and self-acceptance
The Solution: Try sitting in silence during various parts of your day–and breathe!
You’re likely aware of the many benefits of meditation. Research shows that it increases positive emotion and life satisfaction, reduces pain and inflammation, increases social connection, helps you get more focused, improves empathy and compassion, makes you more resilient during tough times, and decreases stress, depression, and anxiety. I mean, what’s not to love?
But it can be intimidating to get started. I struggled for years to develop a meditation practice, even though I knew full well how good it would be for me. Eventually, I decided to attend “meditation boot camp” as I nicknamed it: A ten-day silent Vipassana insight meditation retreat. Aside from sitting ten hours per day, during the retreat you’re not allowed to speak, read a book, write in your journal, exercise (beyond slow walking), or listen to music. All you do is hang out at the private party in your head.
I have since attended three Vipassana retreats. One was with Spirit Rock Meditation Center. The other two were programs run by followers of S.N. Goenka. These centers are located across the globe and are free to the public, including lodging, meals, and guided instruction. Amazing, right?
Even if you’re terrified, even if you have no interest in being a monk and you’re not an extremist by nature, sitting in silence for ten days will blow your mind. Here’s why:
We’re all gunning down the metaphorical freeway of our daily lives at 90 mph. It’s remarkable to watch how your mind and body react when you step away from the errands, cell phones, TVs, computers, and yes, other people—even those who love you.
Eventually, whether it takes one day or five, your mind slows down, and you become keenly aware of the present moment. You notice every fluffy cloud that floats across the horizon, every beetle that wiggles across your path. An intangible but deeply felt sense of spaciousness opens up in your head and around your heart.
Practice Mindful Eating.
How often do you sit down to enjoy a meal without any distractions—just you and your food? I’d bet it doesn’t happen very often.
When you do nothing but eat—and when, let’s be honest, eating a delicious vegetarian meal is the highlight of your day—you become extremely mindful of your food. You notice the sensations of biting and chewing. You enjoy your meal more and, as an added bonus, you eat less.
Cure Yourself of Boredom.
If the prospect of sitting for ten days with no distractions terrifies you because heaven forbid, you might get bored… then I urge you even more strongly to try it. You will get bored. But then you’ll find your way through the boredom to curiosity about what is happening each moment in your mind, body, and surroundings.
This is powerful because it can cure you of constantly seeking distractions. People successfully use Vipassana to rid themselves of addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, and even hard drugs. The awakened mind is never bored.
Don’t Scratch the Itch.
One of the first observations you’ll make is how inclined you are to avoid pain or discomfort of any kind. The moment you feel an itch, you’ll reach to scratch it.
But in Vipassana, you’re encouraged not to move unless you are in real pain. Just sit for one full hour without stirring. The amazing lesson of this practice is the realization that, in most cases, the discomfort passes. Or that by going into it without avoidance, you can lessen the pain.
Make Friends with Your Suffering.
As you learn to sit with your physical pain, so, too, you learn to sit with your psychological pain. While you meditate for ten days, you will experience happiness, anger, sorrow, resentment, and desperation. It is okay to feel negative emotions. And all of these emotions will pass. You will learn that you do not have to let your pain own you. You can take a step back, observe it from a neutral position, and breathe, knowing that it won’t stick around forever.
Get a Natural High.
You’re not supposed to meditate in order to get that rushing, tingling feeling of bliss that will overcome you at some point during your ten days of silence. But once you feel like you’re drunk, high, or just had the best sex of your life without any outside stimulation… well, you’ll want it again.
The trick is not to get addicted to this powerful sensation. As with any other high, you’re supposed to just watch it from the neutral observer position in your mind. Then let it go. It’s amazing training for life.
Experience Love for the Planet.
I loved the oak trees that dotted our Yosemite landscape. I marveled at the deer that appeared by the lake each morning. Nature fed me. As it does all the time—it’s just that I’m not usually conscious of it in every precious moment. Meditation puts you back in touch with your appreciation for this living planet.
Fall in Love with All Beings—Including Yourself
After many days of sitting in silence and experiencing the full range of human emotions, I found myself overwhelmed with compassion for all living beings. Thousands of times, I silently recited the classic Buddhist prayer, “May all beings everywhere be happy and free from suffering.”
Far more challenging than tapping into this deep well of empathy for humanity was finding compassion for myself. At first, I would beat myself up when I didn’t stay focused during a meditation session. Eventually, I came to forgive myself (more about forgiveness here). I saw clearly that I was doing the best I could. I found joy welling up from within my heart as I tapped into my true “Buddha nature,” which is love.
Get Clarity in Your Life.
Each Vipassana retreat brought me clarity. For example, I went into the first one feeling overwhelmed by anxiety after my divorce. I saw how I needed to trust in things as they were in spite of my lack of control. Not only did I rid myself of insomnia, but also I emerged feeling positively joyful.
What truth will your Vipassana retreat reveal to you? Only ten days of silence will speak the answer with unabashed honesty.
Be Your Own Master.
My favorite American Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, quoted author Anne Lamott during his dharma talk: “My mind is like a bad neighborhood; I try not to go there alone.” What are you really afraid of experiencing there? Hurts from your past? Anxiety about the future? Boredom? Whatever happens, you will survive it. No one has ever died meditating.
When you come out the other side, you will feel a tremendous sense of freedom. You will have tamed your own wild mind. How incredibly liberating is that?