A Mind In Knots: Why I’m Going Silent for 10 Days

“When wanted things do not happen…we start tying knots within.“ 📷: Tim Boote

On December 6th, I’m going on a mental adventure.

After several years of consideration, I will participate in my first 10 day silent meditation retreat at the Southern California Vipassana Center near Joshua Tree, California.

Leading up to the retreat, I’ve received many wonderful, curious questions about my upcoming experience. This is my genuine attempt to answer the top 3 questions — including “Why are you doing this?!” — as best as I can.

Where I’m headed: SCVS in Twentynine Palms, CA near Joshua Tree National Park.

1. “Wait….are you actually going to be silent-silent?”

Yup. Silent-silent. No speaking to the other 60 participants. No hand gestures. No written communication. No smoke signals. Keep your carrier pigeons at home.

All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation.

Why do this? The idea is to reduce outside distractions so that we can focus on our inner world. Which is why on top of Noble Silence participants also agree to:

  • No physical contact (bye bye, hugs)
  • No eye contact
  • No reading
  • No writing
  • No music
  • No exercise / yoga
  • And, obviously…no iPhones. These dangerous devices they lock away on day 1 in a valuables safe. Do we have the key? I don’t know. But I don’t want it.

Sound scary? Yeah, I thought it sounded ridiculous when I first heard about it 6 years ago. I’ve heard what’s difficult for each person varies significantly and often differs from their expectations going in. I’m most curious to explore how “no exercise” and “no journaling” will impact me.

2. “So, what DO you do all day?”

Short answer: meditate. A lot.

Here’s the schedule, with its legit-early wake up bell:

Thankfully my body clock will be on EST when I arrive ⏰

First, if you’re reading carefully and wondering about the “discourse, question time, and interviews” above and how that fits in with Noble Silence, here’s what I’ve understood:

  • The Teacher’s Discourse is a lecture; we’re silent.
  • Question Time is more like the teacher thoughtfully answering 1–3 questions fielded from a group of 30. Pretty quiet.
  • The Teacher Interviews are optional, last 15 minutes, and you usually get 1 question and a cryptic answer.

So more like you might ask 2–4 questions in the course of a week. Pretty silent.

Second, you’ll probably notice there’s quite a bit of meditating on the schedule. I did the math (because I like math), and it equates to about 45% of your 24-hour day spent meditating.

25% of a day sleeping (6 hours) doesn’t sound like much sleep to me.

“That’s a lot of meditating,” you will say.

Yes, I agree with you. And, yes, I do feel intimidated. I’ve had a daily meditation practice for about 4 years now. Yet, the whole situation feels akin to doing a little 0.5 mile stroll every morning and then signing up for the Leadville 100 ultra-marathon.

Which begs the real question…

3. “Why are you doing this? (And why would anyone do this?!)”

Great question.

I’ll begin by sharing that thousands of people — including those who have never meditated — participate in the same retreat each year.

They are able to participate in the same retreat because it’s a standardized 10-day Vipassana course, taught in the S.N. Goenka tradition. Each year, 179 locations in 109 countries offer >1900 of these courses.

So what are all these people seeking?

I can only speak for myself, so I only will: I’m looking to better understand my own mind so that I can have a more peaceful, happy life.

Joshua Tree National Park is 15 minutes from the retreat center. Will try my best to limit landscape daydreams.

A Vipassana course is designed to provide universal, non-religious, anyone-can-do-it guidance on how to practice self-observation. The tradition maintains that self-observation helps us to “see things as they really are.” Which in turns provides the possibility to develop a “balanced mind, full of love and compassion.”

Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind.

It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.

Fundamentally, it is mental training designed to enable self-transformation through self-observation.

As I’ve observed through meditation practice, the untrained mind is pretty wild. Left to its own devices, our minds are constantly comparing, judging, wishing, wanting, and chattering. It’s as if our minds tie themselves in ever tightening knots of stress and anxiety.

Through my own meditation practice, I’ve seen some of my own mental knots loosen over time. It’s come primarily through observation, and slowly over time.

That gives me hope of how our minds can change.

In closing, I’m choosing to be silent for 10 days in hopes of knowing myself better. While it could be seen as an extreme approach, I’m truly excited to have prioritized what is a huge chunk of time to investigating my mind. Our mindset is our most essential tool for well-being, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore.

Jan 2018 update! I’m through the retreat and have written about my experience. You can find it here:

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Writing on meditation, behavioral psychology, and applied ethics. Stanford MBA, Bain alum, certified Koru Mindfulness teacher.