Twelve days of silent meditation

On the first day of sitting:

We go silent at 5:00 p.m, but first, we sign in, read over the instructions for the week and wait around for the orientation. I make a final phone call to my boyfriend of six months, letting him know I’ll call him once I’m on the “other side” of this ten day silent meditation. I explained it to him this way: “Some people try bungee jumping. I want to see if I can go ten days without speaking.” A better comparison might be, however, the running of a marathon—periods of elation and complete agony.

During orientation, we are told the parameters of the silence: we are not to speak unless absolutely necessary, and then only to a staff member. We are discouraged from reading or writing. No music devices allowed. Try to avoid eye contact.

We are scheduled for the first sitting meditation at 6:00. The men are separated from the women, and we girls walk up to the dorm area. I’ve chosen to set up a tent on one of the wooden platforms. I pick a site close to a dorm, so that I don’t have to walk too far to use the bathroom or shower. An older woman sets up her tent in the site next to mine. We chat a little, fitting a bit of meaningless banter into the last few moments we’re permitted to speak. It’s her third time here. She fills me in on the shower and chore schedules and then, at 5:00 exactly, bells ring around the center, signifying silence.

On the second day of sitting:

First bell, 4:00 a.m. I hear it, but I refuse to rise. The 4:00 a.m. sitting is not “required”; there are three mandatory sittings per day, with the first at 8:30 a.m. I wake up again at the breakfast bell, 7 o’clock, and wash and dress for the day.

Last night we had our first evening sitting, one never-ending hour, in the meditation hall. There are two teachers, one male and one female, who sit facing us from the low stage in front. They’re married, we were told at orientation, and have been teachers of Vipassana meditation for over 20 years.

Breakfast inside the dinner hall: there’s homemade oatmeal with all the trimmings, and whole grain bread, and fresh fruit…and…NO COFFEE. No coffee? This is going to be more difficult than I thought.

On the third day of sitting:

I drag myself awake and up to the meditation hall much later than the first bell, but before the breakfast signal. It’s maybe around 6:00 a.m. Last night, the older woman in the next tent snored so loudly I had to put a pillow over my head. Obviously, I couldn’t go tap on her tent or yell out a simple “Pipe down!”

I have a terrible caffeine headache in the afternoon and lay in my tent reading and re-reading the only literature I had, the instructions for Vipassana, which were passed out during the orientation. I don’t think this reading constitutes cheating, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, I’m fascinated by the precepts one is to take before beginning the meditation cycle, such as, “I will not sleep on high or luxurious beds” and “No sexual activity of any sort.” I wonder how many people here sneak away to masturbate up in the tree limbs with their down pillows.

It’s really difficult to avoid eye contact with other people. I realize how automatically our eyes are drawn to each other’s. I’ll simply be trekking up the path to the meditation hall and glance at the woman meeting me, hoping we don’t trip over each other. The eye contact is our only form of communication to avoid a collision, but because we’re not speaking, our locked gazes are incredibly intimate. I work on keeping my eyes to the ground.

Meanwhile, it’s fantastically hot, probably in the 90s. Another of the precepts requires that we wear clothes that cover our upper legs (no shorts allowed) and arms (no sleeveless shirts or tank tops). I have been wearing the same long skirt and t-shirt since day one and will have to get creative with my remaining clothing.

But so far, the sitting meditations have been going well. I sit for as long as I can and follow the breathing pattern we were taught and then my mind wanders off and then I start over again. I seem to be able to sit for about thirty or forty minutes before I need to shift my legs or bend my back a bit. I am slightly bored.

On the fourth day of sitting:

My back hurts badly during meditations, especially up between my shoulder blades. I try to stay focused on the breathing technique, but my mind is a monkey that has written at least two short stories, ten letters, and a business plan for a recipe book while sitting in the meditation hall.

The food here is amazing—all organic and vegetarian, with clear vegan options. Yesterday we had veggie lasagna and home-grown salad. There are people who come here to cook for all of the folks meditating, and there are about sixty of us. In fact, all of the staff members are volunteers. There is no official cost to learn the meditation technique or for room and board. Donations are made through “suggestion” on the last day we’re here.

“Dinner,” by the way, is served at 12:00 and the final “meal” of the day is tea, which is served at 5:00 p.m. One of the precepts is “I will not eat after midday.”

At night, the woman next door snores incessantly, loudly. To make matters worse, the dorm I sleep near has an outside light which was left on. With the snoring and the electric light shining through my flimsy tent, it was a rough night. I catch myself talking out loud to…me…more than once. “Dammit,” I say, while turning over.

I talk to myself at other times too, like when I’m looking for something I’ll say “I thought it was in here…” sort of absently as I dig through my bag. I suppose I talk to myself a lot.

I look forward most to the evening “talks,” which are video screenings of lectures given by S.N. Goenka who is the living teacher of this type of meditation, I guess. We listen and watch the two screens in the meditation hall. Mr. Goenka gives anecdotes and comedic sketches of what happens to a person who is practicing Vipassana meditation. I know it sounds dorky, but he is such a peaceful and sweet man, and his voice is so soothing. I feel comforted and less alone in this intra-personal exploration when he gives his “talk.” Plus, we watch TV every night. It’s a reward.

On the fifth day of sitting:

After breakfast and the morning meditation, I clean the dorm bathroom. There are detailed instructions about how to do so on the inside of the cleaning closet, so none of us has to speak to each other. I mop the floors and scrub the sinks and showers, wipe the mirrors clean. The facilities are surprisingly new with thoughtful and simple architecture. There’s great AC in the dorms. Next time (and there is a next time) I am not bringing my tent.

A woman leaves during the mid day meditation from the hall and we can all hear her sobbing outside. I wonder if her pain is physical or emotional—or if there’s a difference. It’s the loudest noise I’ve heard so far. My back has gone from a low throb to a general fiery pain that settles in to my bones and muscles about fifteen minutes into each hour of meditation. But I begin to notice moments where the pain seems smaller—or lighter—or where my mind seems larger than it. I don’t know how else to explain.

At least the food is good. I have found that there is nothing to do after the midday meditation but nap—or wait for the next meal.

On the sixth day of sitting:

I discover the pond. Golden circles of light on the water. Little rabbits in the field nearby. After lunch, but before my nap, I walk around the pond five times.

Last night during the evening talk, the meditation instructions changed. We have been challenged to not move our hands or legs or open our eyes during the three mandatory hours of sitting and we now must begin to observe our body from head to toe, going really slowly, bit by bit, piece by piece. When we can identify a sensation, say above the left eyebrow, we move to the next inch of the body and wait until we can observe sensation there. I have parts of my body that seem to either have no sensation at all or take a long time to indicate any feeling. It’s not as if you can scratch your head to see if you can feel it—we’re not supposed to move. You’re to wait until you sense each area of your body. I notice that am completely numb on parts of my head and my left leg has a serious problem with communicating.

The lead staff member for the women stops me on the trail back from the dining hall and reminds me to sit up all the way during the evening talks; I can’t lean back on my elbows or prop my head up on a blanket. It is offensive to the teachings of Goenka to lie down in front of the video screen. She offers me a back rest if I need one.

I nod as she talks to me, silent.

On the seventh day of sitting:

Today I wash some of my clothes in the outside sink with castile soap and hang them on a clothesline to dry. There are other women’s clothes here, too, and it seems like our shirts and dresses hanging on the line are secret communications to each other: these are my clothes. My clothes speak to your clothes. They talk about where they’ve been. They imagine the next time they’ll be worn.

Last night, S.N. Goenka reminded us that we always meditate. When we walk, rest, eat, and sleep. He tells a story where he claims he did not need to sleep during a 45-day meditation, that he existed in the boundary between waking and sleeping. Recently, while dreaming, I realized I was having a dream and, with much difficulty, tried to control what was happening. Is this the same thing?

When I eat breakfast and mid-day dinner today, I sneak glances at the other women. Some eat real-l-l-y slowly with their eyes closed. I try it too, since there’s nothing else to do. When you eat your food this way, you discover a lot of textures and flavors you’d been missing. It’s a little bit gross even, like with a banana. But also, I felt really grateful for such good food and I stop thinking about what’s coming next, like the walk around the pond or my nap. Colors seem brighter, too, or maybe I’m just noticing them more.

On the eighth day of sitting:

I get up today and yesterday at 4:30. I am starting to enjoy the early morning meditation, which ends with a long Hindi chant over the sound system by S.N. Goenka and his wife. I am amused that my two favorite parts of the day involve the video talks and morning music. I also love the bells that ring all over the center for meals and meditations. I am a creature of stimulus.

I’m not as daunted by the hour-long sittings as I was a few days ago. This morning I am able to sit the entire hour without moving my hands or legs or opening my eyes. Tears run down my face afterward, but they felt really cleansing, relief tears. I can better understand the woman who cried a couple of days ago.

On the ninth day of sitting:

I’m not kidding: today, during the mid-day meditation, as I practice the technique of observing the parts of the body, my entire being seems to, like, dissolve. It’s something similar to when your foot’s asleep, except it’s your whole body—head, torso, all of it. I can feel that my whole body is made of vibrating particles. Like on Star Trek, when the characters “beam up” from some Martian landscape and they pixilate onto the Enterprise platform until whole, like how that must feel.

I wish it had lasted longer.

On the tenth day of sitting:

I forgot to mention that on Day 7, the snoring woman moved her entire set up to another site. I can’t ask her about it, so I don’t know why she’s moved, but I also discover another little looping trail, up behind the women’s dorms, with about seven more tent platforms. She’s moved up there, maybe for more privacy. Sometimes after I walk around the pond, I walk this other loop too.

Also, after a third night of the outside light glaring into my tent from the dorm building, I make a decision. I see the light go off inside main dorm, so I know people were going to sleep. I walk over, open the door quietly, and flick off the light. Maybe I am supposed to find some peace with the light instead of turning it off, but fuck that. A most restful sleep follows.

On the eleventh day of sitting:

I am pretty sure I’m a meditation master. I can sit without moving each time we have our hour-long sessions. The pain that has plagued me in my back comes and goes, but I’ve also learned to observe it—and see that it’s got hot and cold areas and often pulses or moves around. I’m kind-of friends with it now.

This is our last day of full silence. Tomorrow we begin talking again at noon. Will we hoot and holler? Will we have a big fiesta with the teachers who have been modeling a perfect sitting technique these last ten days? Will anyone complain about the accommodations or the weather of this last week?

Though I’m not supposed to look, when I catch people’s expressions, most look genuinely content and completely internal. There are some women here who look like regular tried-and-true hippies, but then there are other girls like me, with modern haircuts and plastic bracelets or converse sneakers. These are the people I want to talk to tomorrow. I want to see if anyone else had a Star Trek dissolving moment.

On the twelfth day of sitting:

We “break silence” after the noon bell, which also signals our final dinner. When we arrive at the dinner hall, there are posters and tables set up like a tiny Vipassana literature faire. One poster describes the breakdown of food and lodging costs per visitor, which is about $200 for all twelve days. One poster describes the hundred or so Vipassana centers around the world and how one might travel from center to center—always with a place to stay. I write out a check for $200.00.

At lunch, I talk to an eighteen-year-old girl about going to college in the fall. She hated the last ten days here and said she survived it by laying in her bunk and psychically communicating with the stuffed animal she brought with her. I don’t bring up my moment of dissolving to her.

On the walk back to the dorms to clean up and move out, I chat with an older woman from Lebanon. She doesn’t say that she’s seen horrible things in her life, but I can tell. This is the eighth time she’s done a ten day meditation. I don’t talk to her about dissolving either.

I load up my sleeping bag and tent into my car, shake hands with a few people, grab my cell phone from underneath the car seat where I’d stashed it on the first day. There are sixteen new messages. I look forward to the drive, to seeing my lover, to chocolate and reality TV. I welcome myself back to (un)reality.

29 responses to “Twelve days of silent meditation”

  1. Dave says:

    I loved all your observations in this piece, Lisa. Have you gone back for another retreat yet? Do you manage to sit on your own on a regular basis?

    I took a vipassana course earlier in the year and got into the practice just enough to start to see how valuable it could be. But I’m lazy and haven’t kept up any kind of schedule at all. A friend who practices in another Buddhist meditation tradition tells me I should just jump in and sign up for a month-long retreat (he doesn’t do the silent ones, though). Some kind of retreat at least is something I’d like to work into my plan for the next year.

  2. Swells says:

    Tremain, in al honesty and with zero irony, I’ve always been jealous that you’re a better hippie than me. I have it in me but I don’t always come through. Also, your piece reminds me of the beginning of the fantastic movie we just (finally) saw, “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” which starts with a (non-silent) hippie retreat (but is nothing like this post). Love it. Queue it up, everyone.

    Finally, I wanted to communicate somehow how appropriate it would be for this post to get no comments until 12 days from now, but no one picked up my telepathy and Dave broke the silence, so . . . Shout it out! Great post!!

  3. Ruben Mancillas says:


    So many things came to mind as I was reading this. LIke, couldn’t the first three days be the opening of a dystopian Atwood novel?

    And with all the Haynes talk of late, I couldn’t help but think of Safe too.

    Re: day four, I would pay whatever they could “suggest” as long as they could do it directly to my mind.

    On that sixth day, I thought for sure that the pond you discovered was a hallucination of sorts and went back to my Handmaid’s Tale freakout.

    Lisa, you’ve already given so much here so pass on these simplistic questions if you like but I’m prompted to ask how you got into this? It’s just so completely alien to my world and yet you make it seem so accessible. Dave is in the loop but how did you find out about this particular program, was your Star Trek moment of epiphany what made it “worth” it, and what do you hope to “accomplish” next time? That is, are there stages of growth in a way or is it more a cleansing/purging/recentering process?

    Thanks for a post that made my morning.

  4. Scotty says:

    T: loved the post. Hated the ending. I wanted you to realize that you couldn’t handle the (un)real world any more, and travel from center to center…for ever and ever and ever.

  5. Tim Wager says:


    I had a lot of fun reading this, being reminded of how little we pay attention to the tiny details of our sensations and thoughts pretty much all day every day in our over-stimulating world.

    This morning I woke up to the radio telling me that the Arctic melted a lot faster this summer than it has in the past, that China continues to choke on growth, that there’s another damned debate among the Republican candidates tonight, that . . . I just wanted to switch it all off, and that was before I got out of bed.

    Reading this post was a little like meditating; it helped calm me down. Many thanks for that.

    P.S. I, too, thought the pond was something you conjured up in your mind while meditating. Are you sure you didn’t bring it up on the holodeck?

  6. Scotty says:

    holodeck: maybe the geekiest reference ever made on the Whatsit.

  7. Rachel says:

    #6: Maybe not. We did have one guy openly muse about getting a Ben Franklin tattoo. Not to mention the whole fantasy basketball thing.

    Lisa, your experience fascinates me and I want to experience it vicariously, I really do, but my brain crashed at “no coffee.” Clearly I would be a bad meditator. My thoughts would be, roughly, “coffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffee.” For twelve days.

  8. Tim Wager says:

    With all the geeks who write and read the Whatsit, Scotty, I don’t think we want to get into a geekiest reference throwdown. No one would escape unblemished.

  9. Scotty says:

    Believe me Twag, it was praise, not an invitation to throwdown.

  10. Tim Wager says:

    Shucks, Scotty. (blushes)

  11. brooke says:

    Maybe I am supposed to find some peace with the light instead of turning it off, but fuck that. Sometimes you just have to turn off the light…

    This was a wonderful and relaxing post, peppered with just enough sauce. Just the kind of experience to counter balance the gluttony of the holiday season. I’ve considering going on some kind of meditative retreat, but I doubt I could do 12 days of silence, to say nothing of no coffee. I did two Outward Bound trips as a young man, both of which included three day ‘solos’ which consisted of silence, fasting and general asceticism in the woods (all alone). It was really tough, but also pretty empowering.

  12. LP says:

    This kind of feels like most of my days — working alone with my laptop, sitting at coffee shops trying not to make eye contact with people, dreaming of the time when evening shall come and I can at last exercise my vocal cords among friends. I can barely do it for 4 hours, much less 12 days.

    And yes, I occasionally talk to myself, too.
    [Why’d you tell them that!]
    [Shut up!]

  13. Jeremy says:

    My clothes speak to your clothes. For some reason, I really love that line, among others here.

    You and I have talked about this whole silent meditation many times, Lisa, and I always marvel at your having done it. Having accomplished it. I just can’t imagine it myself (even now, after a whole post about it), which is why I’m so intrigued, which is why part of me wants to do it too, even though I’m the least-hippie person I know, even though part of me thinks I’d just be wasting 10 or 12 days in which I could be reading or eating sushi or watching season 4 of The Wire (which was just released on DVD, by the way). My other fear would be having the same song stuck in my head for 12 days. Plus, they separate you from the girls? No fun…

  14. Beth W says:

    Lisa, I loved the post! It was interesting to hear about your experience. I would be concerned about the boredom. I took the discovery of the pond literally and thought I would spend a lot of time there.

    FYI, the dreams when you know your are dreaming are called lucid dreams. I read a book about it a long time ago. You can practice at controlling the dreams. But why would one want to work so hard while sleeping?

    The format of the piece – “On the first day of …” – reminded me of the The Twelve Days of Christmas.

  15. LT says:

    dave: i don’t sit daily, weekly, or monthly since i’ve returned, though i did do a second ten day retreat. it was in the winter, really cold, and much more difficult the second time. less physical pain, but way more monkey mind.

    swells: but you could have really good hippie hair if you wanted to. and you have a really great hippie-girl smile.

    ruben: primarily, i “got into” wanting to try vipassana through yoga classes. i really just wanted to try not speaking for ten days. what did i want to accomplish? um, vacation?

    beth: i know it’s called lucid dreaming. i’ve seen waking life. ; )

    everyone: the pond is real, i swear. but the holodeck…not so real.

    and, finally, someone noticed the “twelve days of christmas” reference!!

  16. Lisa Tremain says:

    Hi all,

    I just wrote a much better comment than this one will be, but I think the spam filter ate it (Dave, can you release?).

    Anyway, I’m stuck in round-table essay readings all day, so no time to comment again appropriately…but I’ll say this:

    the pond is real.

  17. Scotty says:

    #13: My other fear would be having the same song stuck in my head for 12 days.
    Funny stuff.

    BTW, Tim, your reference is still the geekiest because of the assumed-knowledge involved.

  18. Bryan says:

    Thanks, Scott. Because all I have to say (now that I’m breaking my 12 hour vow of silence since I first read this very fun post overnight) is that getting a Ben Franklin tattoo is badass, not geeky.

    I mean, look at this face!

    I’m also thinking about getting this one.

  19. Scotty says:

    And Crockett has the cajones to bite m’man Ben’s look?! D-Crock don’t know jack ’bout no wild fronteir.

  20. Beth W says:

    #15 I was really excited about waking life but couldn’t muster the attention span to sit through it.

  21. autumn says:

    great post + good read, especially during this holiday time when everything speeds up and can get frantic.

    I remember you coming back from this and how I just wanted to pick your brain. I would really like to go sometime, but I always find alternative plans for ‘vacation’. I think I borrow experience sometimes and that you have gone somehow filters to me. I mean, if we are all dissolved into one. (oh, I hear Scotty snapping somewhere.)

    one thing for certain, after you did this I was forever sure of your great strength. you are an amazing lady–and one of the best hippie geeks I know.

  22. Marleyfan says:

    Powerful post LT. Along with Brooke #11 , I loved this line: Maybe I am supposed to find some peace with the light instead of turning it off, but fuck that. Must have been the dialectics of the peaceful with the obscene.

  23. cynthia says:

    very interesting and intreging plan. I should try it some time.

  24. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    My clothes speak to your clothes. They talk about where they’ve been. They imagine the next time they’ll be worn.
    thats beautiful.
    my ex boyfriend did this once and he called me to report his experience. he sad it was the hardest time for him, he began to feel crazy. at one point he screamed i haven’t spoken in almost two weeks. i asked him, then why does your voice sound so horse? from all the screams inside was his response.
    i loved this post.
    and as usual i think i will be the end of this thread. \
    hey, i work nights.

  25. LT says:

    BW, I think that the Dylan tatoo would be hot, but when are you gonna represent? How about this one?

  26. LT says:

    That’s tattoo, right Cynthia?

  27. Scotty says:

    Julie, I’m sorry to hear that you and Jeremy broke up.

  28. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    thanks scott, yeah, his night screams just got to me.
    just too much in the dead of the night, you know?
    hey did he invite you to our house concert friday night?

  29. 25: when i go for it it will probably be this one. thanks for keeping your eyes on the ladies.