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Silent contemplation: Recorder reporter takes 10-day silent meditation challenge

  • Lisa Spear in the Main Hall at the Vipassana Meditation Center on Colrain-Shelburne Road in Shelburne. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Lisa Spear in the Main Hall at the Vipassana Meditation Center on Colrain-Shelburne Road in Shelburne. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Lisa Spear in the Main Hall at the Vipassana Meditation Center on Colrain-Shelburne Road in Shelburne. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • The area designated for the teachers of meditation sessions in the Main Hall at the Vipassana Meditation Center on Colrain-Shelburne Road in Shelburne. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Lisa Spear in the Main Hall at the Vipassana Meditation Center on Colrain-Shelburne Road in Shelburne. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt



Recorder Staff
Friday, July 01, 2016

While I have never been a big talker, I also never thought I would take a vow of silence for 10 days. But when I discovered the opportunity to meditate in silence, free of charge, for more than a week at the Vipassana Meditation Center, I decided to take the challenge.

When I entered the center, tucked in the farm hills and woods not far from the center of Shelburne Falls, I locked my iPhone in my car, said “goodbye” to my friends and family and prepared myself to sit in silent contemplation for about eight hours a day. Sleeping, eating — all activities at the meditation center are done mindfully.

The center’s meditation hall is where I spent most of my time during the retreat. It was a dimly lit space where it looked like more than 100 people sat, some up straight with perfect posture, others slouching.

The meditation center is where people come to learn the Vipassana technique. They are guided gently by the voice of the center’s revered teacher, Satya Narayan Goenka, widely known as S.N. Goenka. He died only months before I arrived at the center for the first time a few years ago.

Before his death, he traveled the globe helping to open meditation centers and teaching the masses about a technique that transformed his life. A businessman from Burma, he discovered Vipassana meditation and started teaching in India in the 1960s.

Now there are centers all over the United States. The courses are paid for by donation and open to all and have catered to hundreds of thousands of people from all backgrounds, including Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews. The centers are run on volunteer work and courses are in multiple languages.

The Vipassana Meditation Center in western Massachusetts was the first center to open in the United States more than 30 years ago, and meditators from around the world make pilgrimages to the center in Shelburne, down Colrain- Shelburne Road, where they are given a bed and a warm meal.

The people in the meditation hall are strangers, meditating together. Some have traveled hundreds of miles to sit in a dimly lit room, not allowed to speak or make eye contact for at least 10 days, but somehow there’s a feeling of being connected.

During some meditation sessions, participants meditate in their rooms. The rooms are modest, mostly bare. Some have one bed. My room had three beds and consequently I had two roommates. We shared one bathroom and still managed to get through the whole retreat without speaking or communicating in any way.

After an hour of sitting in the meditation hall, a few stray snores could be heard. The only other sound I could hear was my breath rushing in and out of my nostrils. I sat on a cushion, surrounded by people, yet 100 percent alone with my thoughts.

I tried to straighten my back, but it would ache. I pulled my legs into a pretzel underneath me, but my feet went numb. I focused on the air, cooling the inside of my nose, but then I felt like I needed to sneeze. When I heard the shuffling of my neighbor, I knew I was not alone in my discomfort.

I learned during the meditation sessions to just “observe all the feelings” as they arose, without responding. Inevitably, all discomfort passes.

On the first night, I watched a video of Goenka explaining how daily habits cause suffering.

“Your body and your mind, both, have become prisoners of their own habit patterns of life. Now you are doing something to which they are not accustomed,” said Goenka, a man with deep lines in his face and silver hair.

“The final goal is to purify the mind and beautify the mind, not just at the surface level, but to beautify the mind at the deepest level, the root level,” Goenka said.

He explained that by concentrating on your breath, you can sharpen the concentration of your mind. But it doesn’t come easily, only with patience and persistence, will one be successful in their meditation practice.

“You will find that your mind is getting concentrated easily, your discomforts are passing away, passing away,” he said in the video. “Just observe the bare breath. Nothing but breath.”

As days went by, some people started to breakdown around me. It wasn’t uncommon to walk down the long hallways in the meditation center and hear sobbing. Other times, in the middle of a sit, someone would breakdown in tears.

In another instance, the woman sitting behind me started to yell out, each yell louder than the last. A meditation center volunteer rushed to escort her from the room until she was calm enough to return to her meditation cushion. But by the last days of the meditation retreat, the stray distressed cries had simmered down as people settled into their meditation practices.

Throughout the course, the meditation sessions are broken up into periods ranging from one to two hours, with one break in the middle of the day to walk in the woods or on the path outside the center. No eye contact is allowed, no body language is allowed, and no communication of any kind is permitted.

People who are not able to sit on the floor because of physical limitations can sit on chairs. Those with psychiatric problems are generally told to consult their doctor before embarking on a 10-day meditation retreat.

Meditators promise to leave their vices at the door when they enter the meditation center. There is no alcohol, smoking or drug use allowed on the premises. Meditators are also separated by gender.

About 19 meditation retreats are held at the center in western Massachusetts per year. The courses are almost always full, and there is almost always a waitlist.

The retreats are held, back-to-back, with a few days set aside in between for volunteers to clean and prepare for the next course.

At the end of my retreat, I spent the day sweeping the hallway floors, wiping down the windows and saying my first “hellos” to my roommates of 10 days, who only moments later I would have to say goodbye to.

Upon leaving the meditation retreat, I took with me the message that the Vipassana Meditation Center is open for everyone — to help quiet their minds, and to make life a little bit easier and a little bit calmer.

The Vipassana Meditation Center at 386 Colrain Road in Shelburne Falls can be reached by calling 413-625-2160 or visiting: www.dhara.dhamma.org

You can reach Lisa Spear at: lspear@recorder.com or 413-

772-0261, ext. 280.