It’s only now, a year later, that I can begin to process what happened in those ten days.
A curious thing happens to the other members of the group in meditation, and you see it in them before you observe it in yourself. About four days in, without speaking a single word, the spectrum of colours in nature become much more vivid. You see people bending over and staring at leaves and flowers for a long time. It hit me hardest in a forest, playing truant from an hourly meditation class to walk solo in the grounds. I stopped to study the bark in a way I hadn’t since childhood. It felt natural and innocent, unguarded in a way that so little is now.
I know it’s a good day for surfing: very little wind and weak sunshine, but a certain energy in the air that means something if you are attuned to it. My mind stretches out to the nearby Welsh coastline, imagining which spot would be breaking when. It makes me want to escape, but I have another six days inside: six more days of rising with the gong at 4am and sitting for up to ten hours a day. In the hours of strong determination, Adhiṭṭhāna, the other hundred people gathered here in meditation seem to barely flinch.
When I told my friends that I was going to spend ten days in silence, people seemed a little bit put out. ‘Why?’ some asked, ‘why on earth would you put yourself through that?’ It was a similar reaction to telling people you write poetry for a living. It’s like you’ve overstepped the narrow box of sanity. I tried to dress it up as a chapter in a book I was writing, but really I had wanted to visit a Vipassanā centre for over ten years and for the first time I had few enough responsibilities to try it out.
Vipassanā is an ancient Buddhist technique, kept alive in Burma, which is supposed to give an insight into the truth of reality. It is a free course, run by volunteers, for which participants provide a donation of their choice. There are no attempts to elicit interest in any religion, only the technique – the alleviation of human suffering. There isn’t a single person who would not benefit from the experience. In terms of exactly what the process is, I don’t believe that there are any restrictions on talking about it, but equally I don’t believe you can accurately describe a tube-ride. It is something for the doing.
It’s good to be up before the birds, like a really early dawn run to the coast. The air has that morning pinch. The sitting brings on a stillness, and the hunger (there is no eating after midday for old students) a certain focus and sharpness. By the end of the ten days, you feel very empty, but very alert. It feels like the culmination of a feral surf trip, where the sole focus has been the pursuit of waves. This type of single-mindedness and devotion could certainly be considered spiritual, if surfing culture hadn’t deemed our ‘sport’ something wildly different.
Very human cracks quickly appear. I cave on day nine and steal a pen to write down all of the poems, plans and dreams I’ve had inside. My roommate, who I find out after is called Anthony, packs up his bags and leaves, only to return later that day. Several people disappear, the weight of the silence bearing down on them. The man immediately behind me obviously struggles, rarely making it through an hour of stillness. Later, I hear that they found him amongst a flock of seagulls in a nearby field. I guess I’ve had some form of training; surfing and Vipassanā share a requirement for patience and stillness. You need to be comfortable in your thoughts to be open to either experience, to allow the ego to step aside, to lose control.
It’s only now, a year later, that I can begin to process what happened in those ten days. Our culture urges us to be frantically busy at all times. Taking ten days to be still is anathema to productive society. Yet silent meditation, Vipassanā, is certainly not a course in taking it easy. It’s hard work that requires patience and persistence. Like surfing, the more time you spend, the more you start to see that the curriculum is infinite and how little you know.
There is no hastening the ten days, a little like waiting for a wave. Nothing you can do will speed each passing hour that you sit in silence. The realm of meditation is like another great ocean stretching away in every direction, with the same infinite scope of learning. The stillness at the heart of surfing, that freeze-frame moment in the heart of motion, is a meditation in and of itself. I left ten days of silence more convinced than ever that we are just breathing, paddling, unconscious monks.