I spent three days meditating in the mountains of Australia during which I barely said a word. I thought I'd hate it. Instead, it changed the way I've thought about my own mind in the years since.
My friend Sarah randomly proposed one day that we sign up for a meditation retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Blackheath, New South Wales, about two hours west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains. I was skeptical enough, but per most of life's best moments, I said "fuck it" and we were on our way.
A short train ride from Sydney brought us to the meditation compound. There, the proprietors separated us into men's and women's quarters so we would not be "distracted." It was then that I learned we would not be able to speak for the rest of our stay. Things were about to get interesting.
The sound of silence is often "ka-ching"
As one of the biggest travel trends of the past decade, silent retreats are big business these days and, like Burger King, you can have them your way. You can bask in the quiet of an upscale resort with clothing-optional outdoor baths overlooking Big Sur, or keep mum in austere Trappist monasteries in Iowa. Silent retreats trace their history back to the days of the Buddha but have picked up steam as ever more of us seek an escape from modern life (or maybe from election season).
Are some of these retreats overhyped, overpriced bullshit? Almost certainly. But that hasn't stopped an increasing variety of willing participants from trying them out, with varying degrees of success. The type of meditation I would be experimenting with traces its modern roots to 1969 and, as I was about to find out, is certainly on the more basic side, without flashy touches or corporate wellness packages. Speaking of distractions.
Shutting the hell up starts with breathing
I checked into my bunk room with another guy who I wasn't able to talk to, and then hit the common area where they gave us the lowdown on what to expect. The goal of the retreat, as I understood it, was to remove all thoughts from our minds so that we could glimpse, if only for a moment, the feeling of enlightenment. (I'm pretty sure they didn't use that word, but from my reading of Siddhartha at the time I was pretty sure that's what they meant.)
The next day we filed into the "great hall" and there he was: the yogi. White robe, flowing beard, seated cross-legged in front of us, the whole deal. After we were given mats and little stools to rest our legs on, it began.
"Focus on your breath," our instructor said, in the calmest meditation-dude tone possible. "Just imagine your thoughts are like monkeys, hopping from branch to branch. When a thought comes, recognize it, and let it pass." The goal was to stop our "monkey minds" from jumping from one random thought to the next, which can be a source of stress and unhappiness. He told us repeatedly to focus on our breath "going in one nostril, and out the other" as we inhaled and exhaled, over and over again.
That was pretty much all we did for three days straight.
After a while, strange things begin to happen
At dawn each day we were up eating oatmeal in the cafeteria, then off to the great hall for hours of uninterrupted meditation. After noon we were given breaks for "recreation time" -- which mostly involved wandering around the surrounding Blue Mountains.
And that was the first time I started to realize this whole meditation thing might actually be working. I was picking up rocks and hitting them with sticks, just screwing around, when I realized I was really connecting -- like, hitting the shit out of these rocks. As I watched them sail far out over the cliffs towards the mountains, I thought to myself, "What the fuck? I sucked at baseball as a kid." Then I realized my mind, finally uncluttered, was so focused that I was able to perform this simple task as never before.
There I was, reveling in my newfound superpowers, just jacking these rocks, when I accidentally broke my "noble silence." I thwacked a rock way up in a tree and noticed a dude from our retreat perched waaaaaay up on a branch, just chillin'. "Shit," I said, chuckling. "Sorry, dude." Luckily no gurus were around to see this blatant (yet inadvertent and entirely reflexive) speaking transgression.
On the third day of meditation, I finally did it. I reached the glorious moment we had all been striving for: For a moment, my mind went truly blank. The bliss lasted only a few seconds before the monkey burst in and I thought to myself, triumphantly, "I have no thoughts in my head!" which, of course, is a thought, so I had to start all over again. But for that instant I grazed that transcendental state these yogis speak of, I have to admit, it was bad. Ass.
I did make one memorable phone call
When the retreat ended and we were able to break our silence, I realized it was my dad's birthday and I figured I'd give him a call back in Chicago to tell him what I'd been up to. You know, freak him out a little. My dad's an old-school Italian who prefers hard work to wasting time meditating in Australia with hippies. I knew he'd get a kick out of this.
I asked the guru if I could call my dad. "Hmm, your father," he said. "You are close with your father?" I said it just happened to be his birthday and I wanted to call him for kicks. The guru just stared at me blankly, stroking his long-bearded chin. Finally he agreed to allow the phone call -- as if we'd just reached some epic, peace accord-level decision.
I rang him. "Dad," I said. "I've been meditating in the mountains for three days!" My dad’s reply came back: "Holy shit! Did you see Tyson bit Holyfield's ear off?" (This was right around the time of the epic 1997 Mike Tyson/Evander Holyfield "Bite Fight.") I knew then that we were existing at that moment on two totally different planes, and no one who didn't experience this firsthand would ever know what it was like.
I met up with Sarah again on the way out and, back in Sydney, we again tried to relate the experience with our friends, but as with my dad, it was like we were on this higher level of consciousness and we could no longer relate. This feeling of superiority didn't last long, however. We all got schnockered that night, and by the next day, my smug glow had dimmed.
I haven't been able to replicate the experience in the nearly 20 years since. But I never forgot it, and I suspect that if you get the chance to try it -- really, actually shut your brain up for a few days -- you'll find it trips you out, too.
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