I picture a tree when I imagine a silent mind. Still and grounded. It is simply right there, inviting sunshine and rain, allowing itself to grow and bear fruits, letting its leaves to fall and wither, allowing flowers to blossom and seeds to be planted, giving others a shade, a place to rest.
When was the last time your mind was peaceful and quiet? No phone app to thumb through, no social media to peruse, no book to read, no pen and paper to put your thoughts in order, no human being next to you to talk to. It might sound like being in a 19th century prison camp.
But it was a 10-day meditation retreat called Vipassana which I attended right after I quit my job. My friends jested it seemed like being in jail for 10 days. But being trapped was the last thing that would ever happen to you there. My goal then was to set my mind free, away from the noise, pollution, distractions in and out of myself.
Yes, it was a challenge of sort, a new experience. I had been meaning to try Vipassana for years but I simply could not have the time. Once the time and opportunity came, I had to seize it.
There in Dasmarinas, Cavite, about 50 kilometers south of Manila, is Sico farm, the meditation place surrounded by full grown mango trees. There were two dozens of people who came before me. After briefing us of what to transpire in the next 10 days, the volunteers of Vipassana led us to our residence halls. Men and women were segregated. But we were gathered all together at meditation hall for the daily meditation sessions.
We had our first vegetarian meal that evening. We can still talk to each other as the Noble Silence will start after the first evening session. So everyone was chattering in a rush fully knowing that the next days will be completely silent.
What was silence in 10 days like?
I have been drawn into the practice of quieting the mind since the time I attended a trauma seminar for journalists organized by an organization teaching meditation called Brahma Kumaris 7 years ago. But sitting still for an hour with my eyes closed in an attempt to declutter my mind has always been difficult. My mind would stay still for 5 minutes but after that it will wander off to what I should be doing after an hour, to what happened yesterday, to what I want to have for dinner, etc, etc. Quieting the mind is easier said than done.
In Vipassana, our schedule was rigid. We started to hear the sound of the bell, our wakeup call at 4 a.m. Then, we started meditating at 4:30 a.m. You can choose to meditate in the meditation hall or in your bed. But it proved wise for me to choose the former because in some occasions I ended up happily snoring in my bed instead of focusing on my breaths.
There were hours when we were required to sit in the meditation hall for the group meditation. The group meditation was guided by the recorded voice of the Vipassana pioneer S.N. Goenka in the beginning and end.
In one day, we sat in silence for 11 hours. But during the rest and breaks, any form of communication, be it a gesture, eye contact, or notes, is not allowed.
I broke the rule when I accidentally used the mug of my seatmate in the table (with her name plastered on it rightfully calling for attention) out of, well, ironically, unmindfulness. I giggled unable to control myself and showed her my blunder. She didn’t laugh. (But she laughed so hard while we were talking about it after the Noble Silence was lifted and the retreat was over.)
During the breaks, I can’t help but talk to myself in my head. I had so many stories in my mind while I lay under a mango tree. To be honest, it fascinated me that I wasn’t bored at all. And, I wasn’t scared of possibly going insane. But in those breaks, I allowed my mind to wander because sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed and your mind focused for hours could be hard work.
The first three days were difficult. I simply could not focus. But after some time, meditation for hours became easy and refreshing.
Vipassana, which means seeing things as they really are, teaches one of India’s ancient meditation techniques said to be rediscovered by Siddharta Gautama. While anchored on Buddhism, Vipassana has a non-sectarian approach so people from different religions may try practicing it. Vipassana trains the mind to be equanimous. Such a big word.
Equanimity is the “evenness of the mind,” the capacity for mental composure despite adversities. I have loved this word the first time I heard it. It was like a balm to my agitated mind.
After days of watching my breaths, the sensations in my body from my head to my feet, “their rising and passing away,” it dawned on me, why meditation can bring me equanimity and why monks are among the happiest people on earth.
Vipassana certainly taught me what it means to be alive.
Did I become a new person after the retreat?
My friends asked me this over dinner after the retreat. “Of course not. How can 10 days change me in an instant?” My friends thought they will see a new me, someone totally zen.
But what happened was I gained an ancient knowledge and practice which I strive to continue to incorporate into my daily life.
After 10 days of Vipassana, I felt victorious. It was the same feeling I had after my trek in Mt. Apo. But the real challenge is putting it into daily practice.
Note: Vipassana courses are run on a voluntary donation basis. Those running it accept donation only from old students. There is no charge for the teaching, the food or the board and lodging. But students who benefited from the experience may donate, according to his or her volition and means.
I got news that Vipassana Philippines no longer holds its courses at Sico Farm in Dasmarinas, Cavite as it is preparing for its transfer to a 3-hectare property in Tiaong, Quezon. For more, information about Vipassana, you may visit their website at http://www.phala.dhamma.org.