Creativity in Silence

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“What you seek is seeking you.” — Rumi

I can’t sit still, I love to talk, and reading and writing are my favourite activities. So when I first heard about Vipassana – a ten-day silent meditation retreat – I thought it sounded torturous.

It was my friend Swati who sold it to me by saying I always kept my physical space streamlined, yet I had never decluttered my mind. After contemplating it for years, I finally applied and got a seat at the Dhammasarita Centre in Maharashtra for July.

Founded by SN Goenka, there are Vipassana centres across India and the world. Using an ancient meditation technique rediscovered by Buddha 2500 years ago, it is non-sectarian and anyone from any background can participate. The format of the course has been smoothly standardised across all the centres: we follow Goenka’s recorded voice instructions in Hindi and English during meditation hours, and watch him speak on video for ninety minutes every evening. The centres are free of cost. We are provided accommodations and meals, and asked to observe all their rules.

These include no speaking, unless to teachers or staff about practical matters, and no eye contact with fellow students. All electronic devices along with any reading or writing materials have to be handed in when we arrive. I’ve heard from friends of Vipassana’s profound benefits, and vow to stay open to everything. But as I hand my phone in, it suddenly becomes real and I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.

Day 1 (and I am definitely counting the days here) is overwhelming. I am disoriented for much of it. I miss the 4am start and sleep through the first two hours of meditation. There are eight more hours of it throughout the day. We are asked to surrender to the experience.

I feel better on Day 2 as the routine becomes familiar. I am soothed by  the on-the-minute timing of the schedule, by the bells that ring out to remind us of the start and end of things. This may be the only place besides the military that doesn’t succumb to Indian Stretchable Time.

The actual meditation part is no more tricky than I expected: I try to focus my mind and get distracted within seconds, so spend most of the time gently pulling it back.

What is difficult is how I literally cannot sit still for more than 30 seconds – and to realise how appalling my posture is. I’m not unfit, but I’ve spent decades sitting hunched over my laptop or collapsed on soft seating. My back feels weak. This is the only time in my life I even minorly envy pregnant women, who are given hardboard to lean against as they meditate. At the end of every hour or two, we are asked to “take rest”, an expression favoured in India over “take a break” or “get some rest”. I have the same desperate urge as when sitting on a long haul flight in economy to stretch out on a flat surface.

Not reading is excruciating. In an average week in my normal life (for Vipassana is now appearing deeply abnormal), I read three new books, a dozen blogs, several daily newspapers, and listen to about twenty hours’ worth of cultural podcasts (which is like reading via the ears). I’ve rationalised this volume because I don’t watch TV, play video games or waste time net surfing, though I see it might be excessive. Sitting in Vipassana, however, it sounds heavenly. Just as being on an Ayurvedic retreat some years ago had me dreaming about chocolate, here I fantasise about the books I will soon read.

Not writing is the worst of all. Normally I write a detailed diary and this blog, and am always working on some fiction. There’s one that began as a comedy of errors short story 20 years ago when it was published in a literary journal. I expanded the idea to a novel and began work on it before getting stuck on a murder mystery sub-plot. Over the years I’ve jotted down random ideas for it. I decided a month ago to finally write this book. Yet I kept stalling.

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On Day 3, my mind – after spending Day 1 recalling recent events and Day 2 fretting over my to do list – is a little more calm. Then something dramatic happens. In one flash, the book’s story appears fully formed in my brain. It’s as if I’m standing in front of a giant mural and I can see it in its entirety as well as its individual brushstrokes. I see how the mystery story is the main plotline and how it connects together absolutely all the random lines I’d been writing haphazardly for 20 years. It’s like a giant piece of machinery with a thousand moving parts all suddenly slotting into position. I’m so emotional that tears stream down my face.

We’re allowed to ask questions at the end of each day. I go, weeping, to ask if I could write for 10 minutes (as any writer knows, the Fear of Forgetting is terrifying). The assistant teacher reminds me it’s against the rules.

Still crying from the drama of it all (20 years!) I go to my room to prepare to sleep. I rummage in my handbag for lip balm, and find a pen I’d forgotten I’d packed. I have three choices: I could leave the centre and go home to write. I could stay and write furtively. Or I could surrender to what I’d committed. I’m tempted by the first, but settle on the third. I will stay and I will not write. For now. I shove the pen back inside my bag.

There’s one other foreigner, a young Chinese woman. We meet with the one English-speaking assistant teacher together every other day to report on our progress and problems. We also watch the English videos every evening in a separate room. It rains one night and she doesn’t have an umbrella so I share mine with her. All this is done in companionable silence. Given the no-eye-contact rule, I don’t really know what she looks like.

Despite my love of conversing, I find the silence restful. (Not that people can’t be annoying even when silent: cutting queues, blocking doorways, wearing noisy jewellery during meditation). I hadn’t realised how draining social niceties can be; not having to make small talk is the most peaceful of all. I do however accidentally speak twice to fellow students; once when someone sneezes and I say “bless you”; another when I bump into someone and apologise. I could be the sole survivor of an apocalypse and my mother’s well-trained daughter will still be polite to debris.

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Over the next several days I meditate in earnest. My book idea continues to expand and solidify in my mind. I eventually go from fidgeting every 30 seconds to every three minutes, though that’s the most I manage. And every day I consider leaving. This is the toughest thing I have ever voluntarily done. The hours feel interminable.

We are not allowed to exercise beyond walking. I resist the urge to do squats and push-ups. Note: I never get the urge to do squats and push-ups but it’s like the time I was told before an MRI scan to not take deep breaths and that became all I wanted to do.

The food – Indian vegetarian – is tasty and plentiful. We help ourselves, eat mindfully in silence, then wash our own plates and cutlery. I like this routine. I eat freely the first two days before being reminded by Goenka in the video to eat less than usual. I see it is more taxing to meditate while the body’s busy digesting a lot of food. Also, I normally walk a lot and burn some 800 extra calories from my daily swim. Here I am literally sitting on my butt all day. So I cut down on the quantity – until the staff realise I don’t consume tea or dairy. They take me in like a tragic orphan and heap second helpings of everything else onto my plate. I’m too touched to refuse.

Though I brought enough clothes for the duration, I wash the previous day’s wear by hand before I shower. This gives me something to do in the resting hours, which pass just as slowly as the meditation sessions. I am grateful for my friend Chai’s advice to arrive early the first day in order to get a single room, which are distributed on a first come, first serve basis. Spending my non-meditation hours studiously ignoring someone in a cramped space would have made it all the more onerous.

I sweep my room and clean my bathroom daily. I pull out my nail clippers and tweezers with regularity; my brows and nails have never looked so tidy. I walk after every meal but my overall lack of movement makes it difficult to sleep at night; I get only about five hours after tossing and turning. When the monsoons begin in full force on Day 5, I get cabin fever.

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The purpose of Vipassana is to purify the mind. The process is compared to surgery where festering blockages are removed; we are warned of passing through uncomfortable stages as old thought patterns clear out. I twice had major open abdominal surgery where in the immediate aftermath I felt helpless, trapped and faintly hysterical. This is exactly how I feel now.

Vipassana teaches us to see things as they really are. In that “this too shall pass” way, we release our attachments, especially our cravings and aversions, as we experientially understand how impermanent everything is. I am already painfully aware of this; I was 10 years old when my brother died. I have built my entire life on the premise that nothing is permanent.

I know that all we have is the present. The more I meditate on this, the more I yearn to do what I really love: write. To not waste any more time. If these are my last days on earth I would rather be putting words down, not sitting in the lotus position with my eyes closed. I feel done. On Day 7, with three days left, I ask to leave the centre.

The teachers and staff, all of whom are exceedingly kind, urge me to stay on; an incomplete Vipassana will not give me its total benefits. I relay my appreciation of all I have learnt: the silence, contemplation, clarity, and perspective. I know I wouldn’t have grasped the entire book’s story if my mind were not this still. I don’t regret coming here at all. But I am sure about leaving. I am released on Day 8 and take the train back.

I don’t eat animal products and am an occasional social drinker but as if to draw a line under the experience (and I say that with love), I order a cheese pizza and a bottle of vodka. I don’t call or speak to anyone, though I do record my book’s notes into the Voice Memo app on my iPhone.  Then I sit down to write. It’s like coming home.

*For further information and to find a Vipassana centre, go to www.dhamma.org.

A version of this essay was first published in the Saturday Literary Review in The Daily Star on 8 August 2015.

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” — Khalil Gibran

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18 thoughts on “Creativity in Silence

  1. Fantastic Nupu Press! Now I have found the courage to attempt Vipassana. Look forward to the new book :)

  2. Loved it. Seemed a bit scary – Vipassana. I am claustrophobic and not being able to talk seems suffocating. But you are definitely brave to be able to continue for as long as you did. Love your writing Nupster!

    1. Thank you! I am amazed at myself for lasting that long, frankly! In some centres, you are put in a small cell which is apparently easier for meditation, though that would not work with your claustrophobia.

  3. Was waiting to hear all about this experience… it made my eyes well up . i now wait eagerly for the book you are writing. Does this experience have to be so rigid.. it sounds frightening

    1. I should have said from the outset that of course it’s my experience and everyone’s will be different. But there’s no doubt that it’s a tough experience – without it, it wouldn’t have the effect or power that it does. Thanks for your lovely thoughts. Big hug.

  4. Great read Nupu,thanks.I’am planning to embark to a 10 day vipassana course,it’s always been in my mind for a long time,hope that I will manage until the end.

  5. Hey Nupu! Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m going for a ten day course end of this month (hopefully). Been planning on it since 1999!! Sounds like ages?? Yeah, that’s because it was last century. Very nice read. Thanks again.

  6. What would be your description of meditation viz a viz your normal life? Would it be a contradiction to state that “one can meditate while walking the normal routine of ones life?”

    1. Hi, thanks for writing in. One can certainly move through life being present and mindful, but meditation as I see it is a concentrated focus away from our daily activities. As the Zen proverb goes: “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” I try to be mindful but when it comes to meditation, I can say with some force (and sadness) that I am entirely useless.

      1. In asking you about meditation, I wanted to get a sense of how it translates in the context of (y)our life perception. Life in society and profession is like existence in a force field, which orients and aligns us along some force line, constraining and confining our inner world, or our essential selves. Meditation, can then be viewed as a time off from this existence, to give our inner self an unconstrained hiatus for growth and adjustment in this cocoon of existence. Meditating while striding through life then would amount to living life as an “outsider” in the sense that we deal with situations and contexts in total freedom from “selfish” and “self-interested” perspectives. You might say this would be living life in mesmerized state of disinterest, as a facilitator of what is naturally equitable or harmonious.

  7. Hi Cuz! no wonder I don’t see you in FB! Wonderful read!! Reminded me a bit of EPL :) Still waiting for you novel. TC…

  8. Hello Nupu, this post moved me. I have known people who have undergone the Vipassana course, but none have shared such insights from the actual experience as you. Silence and stillness scares me. Even as I type these thoughts down, I am plugged to my iPod, while checking time to make sure I don’t miss my favourite TV series new episode. Hence this post gives hope to me, that someday I will find my solace in silence and stillness.

    1. Thank you very much, Shruti. Though I fled early from the course, I can now still reach – some five months later – some semblance of stillness within, even when surrounded by chaos and noise. Good luck in finding your silence!

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