agenda by Yasmine Awwad

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In a world that is full of noise, with communication at a near-constant, silent retreats are becoming increasingly popular. They are places of real quiet, offering a chance to switch off not only from technology but also from engaging with the people around you. They provide time to focus inwards.

The retreats vary, from monk-like austerity to luxury mindfulness centres, but the most prominent are the Vipassana courses. Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’. It’s one of India’s oldest meditation techniques, rediscovered 2,500 years ago by Gautama Buddha. Its foundation is in Buddhism, but the courses are secular; you don’t need to be a Buddhist to learn the technique. Over ten days, step by step, you are taught how to pay attention to your mind and body. For the first three days, you observe your breath. For the next seven, you observe your body, scanning your limbs in a specific order, focusing on each sensation before moving on to the next, and taking part in daily ‘strong determination’ hours when you’re not allowed to move at all. If you feel pain or discomfort, if difficult thoughts or memories come to the surface you must observe the feeling but not react. The goal is a calm mind and a better understanding of yourself – transformation through self-observation.

There are places that offer silent meditation retreats all around the world. Yoga retreats in Oaxaca, Vipassana Centres in the UK, short courses at California’s Esalen Institute, founded during the 1960s counterculture movement. Many people go to India, Nepal and Southeast Asia.

The retreats can be life-changing: “I didn’t expect to feel so profoundly different. I felt like another person. Just within ten days, I felt extremely clear-headed and calm.” Leah Larwood, a freelance writer and poet from Norfolk, travelled to Northern India. “The time that passed afterwards and the year or two that followed was the happiest time of my life. I’m confident the retreat was the springboard for that.”

This renewed sense of focus and energy is hard-won. The immersive courses can be difficult. Meditation starts at 4:30 am and bedtime is 9:30 pm. There are short breaks for meals and rest, but otherwise, you meditate all day, in groups and on your own. In the evening, the teachers give lectures on meditation techniques. Students share rooms.

“I was really anxious beforehand about not being able to communicate – the thought petrified me in fact. However, when it actually came down to it, it was really liberating… it felt simple and good. The hardest part was having to share a room with three others and I was allocated the top bunk. I like my own space, but this of course was a deliberate part of the experience and a test of one’s ego!” The course was sometimes difficult, but it was a benchmark in Leah’s meditation practice. “Sitting for long periods was also a challenge at times but we did walking meditation and had lots of wonderful fresh air too, silently watching the snow monkeys play in the trees.”

For people going through hard periods in their lives, spending so much time alone focused on their own thoughts can be confronting. Taking part in a silent retreat can be an emotional, uncomfortable experience. And it isn’t just talking that’s forbidden. There is no non-verbal communication or eye contact allowed, no reading or writing, no music, no physical activity and no quitting; on entering the course, you commit to completing it. 

“The most difficult thing was being with myself without being able to do anything else. I am a very proactive person and I do so much during my daily life.” Tiziano Antico, a web developer and marketing manager from Treia, undertook the 10-day Vipassana course in Italy last summer after a stressful year. “I had never completely realised what my thoughts were about. I was surprised to see where they were directed. I noticed how our emotions and our thoughts are linked to the sensations in our bodies, but we never pay attention to them.”

Months later, Tizanio still notices the differences in himself: “I don’t care too much about my phone or any other electronic devices – I am not ‘addicted’ to them anymore. I have discovered that beauty is in the present moment, in people, in life experiences and in nature. If I want to talk to someone, now I prefer to meet them instead of having endless conversations on the phone.”

As our lives become busier, more and more people are turning to meditation to find balance. Silent retreats provide a tool to help tune out the world, to focus on the present and pay attention to what is going on inside. They are a travel experience unlike anything else.

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