I woke up at 4 a.m., meditated a total of 11 hours, and ate my last meal of the day at 11 a.m.—for 10 days. Where to begin?
Well, the noble silence, as it is called, started at 7:00 p.m. We gave up our books, magazines, iPods, and phones. The men and women were separated, and all forms of communication were strictly forbidden. No talking, laughing, reading, writing, gesturing, not even smiling. There was also no payment and no commitment. I would live on the charity of others.
The silence was a prerequisite for the meditation I was to do—vipassana—a technique of moment-to-moment self-observation that was practiced by the Buddha and is now offered in nearly every country of the world by groups like the Art of Living Foundation (artofliving.org) and dhamma.org. What it is supposed to do is to allow people “to see things as they really are.” This you do by observing what happens to you during the silence. Whatever you experience, the key is not to react; you simply observe the feeling.
The first meditation session of the day started at 4:30 a.m. with an hour of “strong determination,” which meant I was not supposed to move my body—at all. Not in response to any sensation that I felt on my body, pleasant or unpleasant. I was to sit completely still and let any sensation arise, observe it, and let it pass. As I sat in strong determination, my knees ached, I had pins and needles in my foot, my legs were numb, my lower back hurt, my neck was strained, and my nose itched, then my cheek, then my ears—and through it all, I was supposed to remain completely still. I was not to give in to any sensation that I felt. I was to stop being a slave to my mind and instead learn mastery of my mind.
The hunger and tiredness, from minimal food and sleep, were easy compared to the three hours of strong determination each day. A good many times I reacted. That is the nature of reaction. But on my fourth day, I did not scratch the itch on my nose or stretch my leg, not even just a little. I didn’t move my neck from side to side to ease the strain. I just sat from moment to moment, for what I have to say was the longest hour of my life.
I longed for that hour to be over—desperate for the chanting to start. Chanting indicated that we had only five minutes left. Just bring on the chanting. Then something happened. As I observed the sensations of my body, they began to pass, without my doing a single thing. Even as I write this, I am amazed how it all just passed, without any effort on my part. I did nothing, and the discomfort went. I actually laughed. How could this be? My knees stopped aching, the numbness in my legs vanished, the itching on my face came and went, my lower back felt fine. It was as if I had just sat down to meditate, and I could have done another hour easily. Amazing. Every sensation arose, only to pass, without a reaction.
As the days wore on, times in my life when I had reacted with anger, sadness, hurt, or despair floated to the surface of my mind. The people and the situations that had caused me such pain appeared faded and distant. What I saw was that the pain came from my own reactions, not from the person or circumstance. I actually witnessed this for the first time. I was not in denial or pretending that what I had felt was not real for me. I observed the experience. This enabled me to detach myself from the reaction. I was no longer really interested in the reaction, but rather in the process of self-observation.
I had thought that having my past experiences surface would be painful or difficult to deal with. They were not. I felt detached. I was observing the feelings that I had felt—and for the first time I could see that I had a choice, in everything. I could always choose. This was my greatest discovery, and one that could change my life. I mean really change my life.