Peace and Quiet

A silent meditation did more than clear his mind.
Writer: 
August 8, 2016

The dining hall was packed. Forks clinked at plates piled with lentils and rice. Wooden benches creaked. Someone occasionally cleared his throat. But amid the bustling of seventy-five men, not a single word reverberated off the rafters. 

In fact, it had been almost a week since any of my dining hallmates had spoken at all. I was at a Vipassana retreat—a ten-day meditation course designed to cultivate mindfulness and equanimity where participants observe, among other things, a vow of silence.

I first heard about the course years ago from a work associate and had been looking for the right time to give it a shot. Faced with a break between the tumult of business school and what promised to be a hectic new job, the timing for a head-clearing experience could not have been better.

I decided to apply for training at a former boarding school in the Quebec countryside. The aesthetic was part church, part hotel, and part summer camp, and the grounds included a small wooded trail that I would walk many times over the course of my stay.

From the moment I arrived, it was clear that language wouldn’t be the only thing I was giving up. After completing a bit of paperwork, I placed anything that might distract from the training—phone, notebook, pens, a largely ignored copy of The Sound and the Fury—into a small cloth bag and relinquished it to instructors.

All students agreed to a number of precepts, including adhering to a strict vegan diet and abstaining from stealing. Additionally, we agreed not to communicate with fellow students. The scope of this agreement extended beyond talking: We were to cultivate an environment of isolation. No gestures, no eye contact. If someone is following you through a doorway, they explained, you let the door shut on them. It felt like living in a bad dystopian movie. 

A typical day consisted of around ten hours of meditation in a dark gymnasium loft interspersed with meals and breaks, starting at 4:30 a.m. and ending around 9 p.m. In each meditation session, I sat cross-legged with pillows under each knee, trying to monitor the air passing through my nose and other sensations across the body, but also found myself sifting through a bizarre pageant of obscure memories, hare-brained business ideas, inane jokes, and other mental detritus that blared over my brainwaves.     

As an introvert, I didn’t mind the silence. Time between meditation sessions passed quickly, as banal activities became endlessly fascinating. During breaks, men lounged and stared out the window, like cats gazing at nothing in particular. Chores that were at first repulsive became an opportunity to build character and an engaging distraction. I conceived of an alter ego, known on the chore sign-up sheet as “Toilet Man,” who volunteered for as many shifts cleaning the toilet as possible and performed his deeds in secrecy.

On day six, we began to sit for periods of “strong determination.” The goal is to refrain from breaking posture—no shifting weight, no tilting your head—for sixty minutes. By observing itches, aches, and urges, we would train our minds to react to disturbances in normal life with equanimity. At times I wanted to give up, but each time I looked over, my fellow meditators seemed to be at peace, somehow immune to the mental sideshow and intense physical discomfort the training brought me.

Finally, the tenth day came, and the vow of silence ended. After so many days without conversation, the act of putting nouns and verbs together proved surprisingly challenging—each phrase was like a chess move. The dining hall was filled with chatter as those who remained exchanged high fives, e-mail addresses, and life stories. One man had survived a horrific bus crash because, on a whim, he decided to move from his usual third row on the top of a double-decker bus. A second was making ends meet as a street performer. Another was on his fifth Vipassana course. 

Before the final meditation session, I introduced myself to the guy who sat next to me for ten days. It was like talking to a high-school friend. Somehow, in the silence and the “strong determination,” we had forged a solidarity. 

Rahija ’06 works in marketing for Etsy and occasionally plays music with the band he cofounded at Duke, Bombadil.