10 Days of Silence
I am off to begin another 10 days of silence today. Many people have asked me over the years about my training for the mountains. They are usually referring to the physical training, but the truth is the mental side is often more important. 5 years ago I heard about these 10 day silent meditation retreats. I was racing as a pro triathlete at the time. I now try to make it to one of these retreats every year or so to recharge the mind and sharpen my mental discipline.
Here is the blog I wrote shortly after my first experience with the retreat. From now until March 5th I’ll be sitting like this silent…
From a blog that I wrote December 2011:
It’s the offseason and with that comes the time of year when my body gets a little rest from the constant physical pounding of the year. Most other triathletes I know take this time to eat, drink, be merry, and enjoy all of the other things in life that we miss during our usually disciplined existence. My teammates and friends all called me crazy, but I took this time to dive into the power of my mind by attending a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Keep in mind, I had never meditated a single day in my life, nor would I generally consider myself the typical meditation/yoga/spiritual retreat “type”, and here I was jumping into the life of a monk for 10 days; maybe I am crazy?
You may be asking, what is a “silent meditation retreat?” Well here are the basics:
– The meditation is called Vipassana, based on nonsectarian Buhddist teaching (any religious dogma would have sent me packing).
– The course lasted 11 nights and 10 days, over which time I took a vow of “Noble Silence” that included abstaining from speaking, reading, writing, eye contact, physical or any other form of verbal or non verbal communication.
– Each day had the same 17 hour rigorous routine beginning at 4am and ending at 9pm
– 12 hours of each day was spent in meditation with the other remaining 5 hours left for teaching discourse, meals and short breaks. (The vow of silence is maintained continuously for the entire 10 days).
– There were only two meals a day, and after 11am all you could have was tea and fruit until 630am the following day.
– The meditation is guided by a teacher, so although students are completely silent, instructions are given throughout the course of the days to teach and guide the proper practice of Vipassana.
– The retreat center is located in Onalaska, Washington amidst rural farmland in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens (about 30 miles south of where I was born in Olympia, WA).
– 33 men and 47 women attended the course (about 10 quit midway through), but other then time spent in the meditation hall, the men and women are entirely segregated from each other; separate dining hall, residence, walking grounds etc.
– It is completely free to attend the course. All 250 Vipassana centers around the world exist solely on donations both monetary as well as voluntary staffing at the retreats.
Needless to say this was a huge challenge, considering I don’t think many people who know me would describe me as an introvert. My inspiration for going was to get in touch with the power of my mind since, in my opinion, the mental toughness required in triathlon is even more crucial than the physical demands it takes to achieve greatness. I certainly accomplished the goal of learning quite a lot about the power of the body and mind as it specifically relates to racing. Overall however, the revelations I had about my personal life upon this lengthy time of introspection were even more profound.
The part of the practice that pertained most to triathlon was the three, one hour “sittings of strong determination.” Each day morning , afternoon, and evening there were mandatory group sittings in the meditation hall. We all sat on our predetermined mat on the floor in any posture we wanted (cross leg, kneeling, half lotus etc). However once the hour began we were not allowed to move or rearrange our posture in any way. Hands and legs remained crossed and eyes closed until the one-hour was finished. As you might imagine no matter how comfortable you start your body begins to feel many sensations over the course of an hour sitting still on the floor. As an itch on my face arose, or a sharp pain in my back or legs came up, I had to remain still. The meditation teaches you to simply observe the sensation on your body objectively without any attachment of craving or aversion to specific sensations. The idea being that all sensations in life are temporary, and thus to attach aversion to pain, or craving to blissful energetic moments creates an unproductive habit and pattern of the mind. This was extremely tough at times. It’s hard to remain in perfect emotional equanimity when all I wanted to do was uncross my legs to make my knees stop throbbing. But true to the teaching all sensations do pass, and the painful sensations eventually subsided. I am eager to put this lesson into practice in my racing and training. I’m not going to pretend that it will be easy to observe objectively my body when my heart rate is at 190 bpm, and my body is near collapse. However just as in the meditation all sensations are temporary, and if I can have an unattached objective approach and not fear the pain as it comes in racing and training, I am certain I will be able to push much further and harder than I have in the past. This will take diligent practice to perfect, but I certainly feel that I am armed with a new and very powerful tool for my racing.
As I was walking into the meditation hall on the first night in the moment before we were to begin the vow of silence I was filled with many emotions; excitement, nervousness, and a general what am I doing here? I caught a familiar face out of the corner of my eye. Mackenzie Brown, the daughter of my Moms best friend, was walking into the hall. I have literally known Mackenzie my entire life, yet neither of us knew we were both going to be there. Although we did not have a chance to exchange so much as a glance the rest of the 10 days, it gave me strength in the harder moments to know that someone so dear to my heart was in the same room as me sharing this experience.
Spending that much time alone without distraction makes it impossible to hide from yourself. Although much of the time was spent in meditation trying my best to be present in the moment I could not help but dissect and relive the past joys and struggles of my life. As I said before, this was the most rewarding part of the entire experience for me. On several occasions I found myself crying as I relived pain and trauma, and just as often I found myself laughing out loud (turns out I find myself pretty funny!). Many memories that I thought I had lost came flooding back in perfect vividness. The reliving of many of these memories was particularly moving because similar to a dream I could feel every sensation of the memory. One particular instance stands out when I relived numerous swim meets from when I was under 10 years old. Not only could I remember the setting of the small inconsequential local races, and pool decks, but also I relived the races stroke for stroke. I smiled watching myself as a little boy compete for the pure joy of competition, without any outside expectation or stress.
I’ve been a skeptic in the past of the idea that we can feel “energy” from other people. However as I got more in touch with my own emotions, I began to feel the energy of others very strongly. The student who was seated directly behind me in the meditation hall each day began to really struggle with the retreat. At first I could tell he was struggling by his elevated breath while meditating, but now I realize it was much more subtle than that. He was clearly carrying some serious personal demons and I could feel that energy as we sat in silence next to each other. This particular guy ended up leaving on the 6th day, and I spoke to his roommate after the course and he told me that the kid was violently tossing around and crying out in his sleep. I have a great deal of empathy for that type of struggle. Conversely, I was able to experience the heighted sense of joy and love in the room when we closed the final meditation of the course projecting positive energy to the people around us. I will be the first to admit that if I had read this last paragraph at any other time in my life I would have been sure to scoff with skepticism. But after experiencing this firsthand, I am convinced that we possess the power to project and feel beyond our basic five senses.
My roommate told me after we broke the silence that on the eight and ninth day I woke him up as I was hysterically laughing in my sleep.
The morning of Day 10 I awoke to find a perfectly clear winter morning as a full lunar eclipse was taking place. It was an amazing omen for the last day.
I have never been told that I talk or laugh in my sleep, but surely this was a good sign of my general positive mental state. I began the course with a great deal of fear that I would relive deep-rooted sadness and trauma from my past. I was fearful that if left alone to dive into the dark corners of my mind I had the potential to freefall into negativity. I was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite to be the case. Of course I dove into the hard memories at times, like reliving my burn accident for example. The ten days were full of obstacles and challenges. However, overall I found that I got even more in touch with the positive aspects of my life. More than ever I am grateful for all of the wonderful family and friends that I have. I am overjoyed with that fact that I have support in my life that allows me to wake up every day and pursue my deepest passion of competing in the Olympics. Although I have never felt that I have taken the positive in my life for granted, this experience reaffirmed at my core how blessed I am in my life.
Thank you for taking the time to read and support my personal journey. I’m sending a deep level of love and gratitude out to every one of you.
*All the pictures in the post were taken after the course, as I was obviously not allowed my cell phone during the 10 days*
For further reading on the course, check out their website: http://www.kunja.dhamma.org/