Quiet Time

As the pace of life quickens, the number of applications for ten-day silent meditation retreats has gone through the roof.
A story by Greg Emerson Bocquet.

No talking. No reading. No writing or listening to music, or checking voice mail. For practitioners of Vipassana meditation, who follow these rules for ten, 20, even 60 days at a time, going “off the radar” means exactly that.

While most people accustomed to the fast pace of modern living would consider breaking off all communication with the world impossible, more and more are turning to the practice of Vipassana to help quiet their minds. Since the group’s only advertising is a website that provides information about courses and registration, this increased interest is generated purely by word of mouth. But it is not only the New Age, spiritual types who are drawn to this form of silent self-observation; these days, people from all walks of life and all ages, cultures and religious backgrounds attend the basic ten-day courses.

Barry Lapping is one of a handful of practitioners who, after learning the technique from S.N. Goenka, the modern leader of the Vipassana tradition, brought it to the United States in 1982. “From the very young to the very old, the highly professional to the CEO, to the ditch digger, to the unemployed, the white, the black, the yellow, the red, all of these people have come,” Lapping says. “Because every human being—no matter where they’re from, what nationality, what race, what religion—every human being works in exactly the same way.”

The numbers back up Lapping’s claim. He runs the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, Mass., which is able to accommodate 140 meditators at a time, making it the largest center of its kind outside of India. These days, every course has a waiting list, each with up to 100 names. Last year, 7,161 people participated in the ten-day retreats—the most common of the Vipassana courses held throughout the country—and hundreds signed up for the three-day, 30-day and 45-day courses.

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For those who are uncertain about taking the plunge into silence, the fact that the retreats are absolutely free helps many decide to give them a try. All retreats are funded by donations from people who have already completed a course. Besides allowing the group to claim nonprofit 501(c)(3) status, the arrangement has philosophical underpinnings. “There is no commercialization in this process,” Lapping says. “People can give whatever they feel, understanding that everything they have received in these ten days is because of the donations from the people who have come before.”

So far, the system works. It takes about $600,000 per year to run the courses and maintain the center, and according to Rick McCabe, the group’s treasurer, the donations consistently produce a surplus.

“If donations drop off because of this recession we are in, we will be fine for a few years,” McCabe says. More than fine, the center is expanding. Construction has begun on a massive gold-topped pagoda that will provide individual meditation cells for course participants.

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What’s It Like?

The retreats, which happen throughout the world and at 23 locations in the U.S., bring participants together in quiet, rural settings to sit and meditate for ten hours a day. While the practice is taught in group meditation sessions, the experience is highly individual. For first timers, the initial sensation tends to be one of utter physical pain.

Brent Kim, a 30-year-old who works as a public health researcher, took his first Vipassana course in India in 2007. The overwhelming discomfort proved to be more than he could handle, and he left the retreat on the fourth day. “The first day I sat to meditate for ten hours, but it felt like 30,” Kim says. “With each progressive day, my knees hurt, my back hurt and the more I would mentally complain, the more the pain hurt. I couldn’t handle it.”

Students are expected to endure the pain, trusting that the body will learn to sit without changing position so the mind has a chance to take over. Justine Ngo, 26, remembers very distinctly the moment the transition occurred. “It was day six that I finally sat for a full hour. That was when I first discovered the difference between the physical and the mental discomforts,” she said.

While many participants undertake the practice to process some mental turmoil, the application form for a Vipassana course specifically warns against people with mental disorders taking part. Sometimes, the mental and emotional stress can be overwhelming. Dmitri Iarikov, a 25-year-old student at Virginia Tech, says his emotional state changed from hour to hour, every day, ranging from moments of divine enlightenment to emotional despair.

“There were days when I was wishing that the pain would start, because all this fear, this anxiety, would come up and I would just wish my knee was just hurting,” he says. “So I would focus on that instead of being between my ears again thinking, thinking, thinking.”

Back in the Real World

On the last day of the course, students are once again permitted to speak, allowing them to share their impressions of the previous ten days. But ten days of silence effects each person differently. While Kim remembers a failed first attempt at starting a conversation, Iarikov describes the opposite. “When they actually let us talk to people and let us out of this little world we were confined in,” he says, “it’s like this valve just went off and all the steam came out.”

Often the biggest challenge for the practitioners is to maintain the mental balance and control over their stress levels once they return to the real world. Teachers recommend a minimum of two hours of meditation per day, following the Vipassana teachings of self-observation for an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening.

While ten days may seem like a long time, these retreats are meant as an introduction to the practice, not a miracle cure for life’s ills. “After ten days, you realize that even after all that focus, all that amount of work, you have a great feeling,” Ngo says. “But you’re just scratching the surface.”

This story first appeared in FLYP Media in June 2009.