In the last weeks and months, we have been spending a lot of time on meditation. Especially because we spent a lot of time on the product development of the newly launched hejhej-bolster. It supports your meditation seat and embellishes your meditation experience. Especially now, in such turbulent times, it is so good to pause and look at the situation from a different perspective. Meditation and yoga are totally fascinating tools for us. Feel free to try it out!
Mia is a passionate yoga student and teacher and shares her personal experiences from a 10-day Vipassana Silence Retreat in Bavaria below. You will also learn why meditation is so useful to strengthen your mind, but at the same time, it is not enough as a single tool to solve problems and save the world.
Thank you so much, Mia, for sharing your personal experience with us today. First of all, what is meant by a silence retreat, or more precisely by Vipassana meditation?
My silence retreat experience took place at the Dhamma Dvāra Vipassana Meditation Centre in Triebel. The Vipassana Association is a recognised association which offers courses on a voluntary basis and on a donation basis in order to bring the benefits of meditation to the public. The aim of a 10-day meditation course or silence retreat is to learn and experience the technique of Vipassana meditation without external distractions.
How is Vipassana meditation different from ordinary meditation?
Most meditation techniques involve using the breath or reciting mantras to concentrate the mind and draw attention to a focus in order to quiet thoughts. The word “Vipassana” means to see things in a self as they really are. At the beginning you also have the breath as an anchor. With the sharpened attention, one then observes physical sensations. Scratching, pulsating, throbbing, contact with the floor, touching the clothes on certain parts of the body should serve as access to recognise impermanence as a law of nature and truth. Anicha, as Goenka often quotes, is the law of nature which says that everything is impermanent. Neither rejection nor desire for a sensation, emotion or event should create equanimity. This means being okay with everything that happens inside and realising that all experiences are fleeting no matter how beautiful or painful they are.
In my particular retreat, the guidance was spoken by Goenka and played over the tape. So it was not a guided meditation, but initial instructions that I could focus on during the meditation.
Why did you decide to go on a silence retreat for 10 days and what were your expectations?
Having studied various meditation techniques for some time and have practised meditation for a number of years, and having many friends who have already completed the course, I felt like doing it. Before, I was silent once in the monastery for several days. However, this was self-initiated and without any framework or guidelines. After a personally very intense year, it was clear to me to finally go to Triebel for a guided silent retreat.
I think at the beginning you hope for a lot from such a stay – calmness, serenity, inner peace, maybe even problem solving by sitting out. At least that’s how I felt! But in general, all I can say here is: the more you can detach yourself from expectations, the more you can engage with the experience and accept it. And 10 days of silence not only brings calm and inner peace. I can say that much in advance.
What did your meditation routine look like before and did you specifically prepare for it? How do I know I am ready for this?
Quite different, but regular – I would say that the intention was to find myself sitting for at least 20 minutes a day. That usually worked out very well, sometimes life just got in the way and that’s totally ok. A month before the course, I made an effort to sit in the mornings and evenings. A few days before I felt ready, but as neither body nor mind is made to sit for such a long time, you will obviously and intentionally encounter resistance and limitations, no matter what your preparation was.
How do you know you are ready? No matter how long you’ve been meditating, it’s about meeting yourself in the here and now and noticing what is – anyone can do that.
What exactly does a day during a silence retreat look like?
From the beginning of the course until the morning of the last day of the course, ‘noble silence’ must be observed. This means silence of body, speech and mind. Any kind of communication with participants, such as gestures, sign language or eye contact, is not allowed. Likewise, no outside communication is allowed. You must stay on the silence retreat site and not use any reading or writing materials. Unfortunately, I had to leave my hejhej-mat at home. The strictness and discipline required of you here by the many rules are intended to create a supportive atmosphere in seclusion. Of course, this is very difficult at some times, but personally, I found this framework very helpful. Usually, you start the day at 4 am, then it alternates between the fixed three group meditation and free meditation. By free meditation, I mean that you are free to meditate alone in your room or in the meditation hall. Now the question arose for me: do I even meditate in my room? Crazy, but yes. Somehow you are there to do just that. Food is eaten in the times in between and there are short breaks to rest or do anything else that does not fall under meditation.
Do you have any practical tips for preparing a comfortable meditation seat that really allows you to sit in peace for 10 hours a day?
As already mentioned, I am convinced that no body is made to remain in the same sitting position for 10 hours a day. However, it is wise to think about what is the most comfortable seat for you. I have alternated between Vajrasana – heel sit and the classic Sukhasana – cross-legged sit, in both sits I think the bolsteris very helpful. But one seat is enough and saves you the long thinking before you start meditating. Try it out at home and arrange your own ‘spaceship’ with meditation cushions/bench, blankets and more bolsters.
According to the philosopher Patanjali, asanas are the preparation for a good seat, so a regular yoga practice is definitely helpful. In general, however, it was forbidden to do other sports, including yoga, during my silent retreat. But no one will forbid you to do side bends, twists and smaller stretches in your room. But they do make a difference. Shaking out and walking a lot, even in the smaller breaks, were my saving grace.
Did you ever have the thought that you would like to cancel the whole thing or was it clear from the beginning that you would really go through with the 10-day silence retreat?
Before the course starts, you must agree to stay for the entire duration of the course in writing several times when registering online and on-site. So I went with the attitude of completing the course – with some doubts and fears, of course.
To be honest, I never had the thought of giving it all up. For far too long I waited to get the place and organise my life around it. In the meantime, staying was also simply motivated by practical reasons. But I don’t mean that you will never think about what it might be like to leave – I have been there many times.
For the most part, it was not a pleasant experience but as a friend said to me just before: ‘It’s just another experience that you come out of and will be ok’.
What was the most important learning for you that you learned through these days in the silence retreat?
To be able and allowed to express, move, laugh, live fully. That, and to walk in silence, as a privilege.
And now, do you continue to meditate every day? How do you see the tool of meditation after your stay in a silence retreat?
Yes, like before, I meditate daily again. What has changed is the deep experience that I can now connect to. I would like to go again, but I don’t know if it will be next year or in five.
For me, meditation is not a substitute for confrontation or experiencing conflict, whether with myself or in relation to others. What it does is give space – create retreat and Triebel and the conditions there could do that quite well.
Would you say that now, with regard to the current situation in the world, it is exactly the right thing to go into silence and really feel into yourself, or can it perhaps become too intense?
Practising mindfulness is a skill. Meditation trains your mind for stressful moments and builds resilience. In many cases, an untrained mind is not a good buddy because without meditation we are more likely to identify with the experience, thought or emotion. Meditation allows us to direct this and raises our awareness that we have a choice. A choice of what we deal with and how much we can carry.
If we want to be effective in supporting others, it helps to be able to detach from emotions for the moment, especially when they are no longer helpful, such as in prolonged extreme situations like a pandemic.
Disclaimer: This course is not recommended for trauma processing as there is no trained staff on site.
Especially now, it is essential to position oneself politically. “Focus on the positive” and “We are all one” do not work globally. This attitude promotes deception and a false sunny outlook. There are people who are treated differently in this world based on different indicators. If we do not see these problems as a problem and even ignore them, we reinforce them even more because we do nothing about them. If you focus only on the positive, you avoid the negative, which only feeds the whole thing. It is so urgent to understand that unfortunately, we are not all equal and that we have to actively do something to stand equal at some point. Neutral behaviour means being on the side of the oppressors. Peace is not lived through neutrality but through courage and commitment.
Meditation does not end with the gong. Quite the opposite, actually. It helps us to go outwards and let life live through us.
Oh wow, thank you so much for that conclusion and the reference to the current time, Mia. Your words have inspired us very much. Thank you also for sharing your very personal Vipassana experience.
Foto Credits second and third picture: Marlen Albrecht @goldmarlen
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