Vipassana is an ancient meditation tradition that uses, among other elements, silence and mindfulness of breath to achieve insight into the self and the universe.
As part of a week-long workshop that I recently took part in, the participants were asked to practice ‘silence’ or an extremely diluted version of Vipassana in the evenings after dinner until brunch the next morning. We were not permitted to read or play charades or entertain ourselves in any way.
Practice silence, I thought. How absurd. There is nothing to actively practice. And how right and wrong I was.
The biggest lesson I learned during the silence was that only in silence can one monitor their thoughts. Not what we think necessarily (although that it is important too) but more, how often we think, where thoughts begin and end, where the mind goes and when thoughts turn into convictions.
My initial understanding was that we should use this time to reflect or think or work through emotional baggage, but I felt that I had nothing to work through at that particular moment in time. Then, I realised I actually had a mountain of work to do. I needed (and still need) to learn to stop filling the silence with internal monologue and action. I need to learn how not to think. To learn how to be. Just be. Without distraction, without entertainment, without conversation.
The conversation part was pretty easy for me considering that I spent my first year in Germany in relative silence. I am a naturally loud and exuberant person from a country where people sing and dance during political demonstrations (I <3 SA) and where loud and excitable conversation is the norm. Moving to Germany was like an extended public Vipassana. I couldn’t speak German, didn’t know anybody and the rumour of northern Germans being a rather un-chatty bunch is, in my experience, true. And so I spent a lot of time not talking, which means I listened a lot more. But not talking doesn’t immediately mean that you observe and listen to yourself and the quality of your own thoughts. I can’t stress enough how thoughts turn to convictions which influence actions. You feed your thoughts with more thoughts and some thoughts are little monsters that shouldn’t be fed.
Nothing revelatory happened to me in the evenings and I often started the Vipassana by reading so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the loud sound of my reeling mind banging around inside my head like a punk band. But after a very interesting conversation before the silence began and with some surrender, I started to listen and realised that a lot can be achieved by doing nothing. By just listening – to the noises around you, to the sound of your breath, the aches in your body and finally to what you think when you think no-one can hear those thoughts. Only through observation and acknowledgement can we begin to discover and change. Oh yes, and I slept really well.
If you’re interested in vipassana meditation, these sites are quite useful: