Let's start with the fact that 10-days of silence and no mobile phone access petrified me more than being away from family and sitting long hours meditating. The latter two being very important deals given my umbilical cord with my family is yet to be severed (and my daughter's from me), and that I have spent 35 years resisting any form of spirituality that involves discourse and practice.
But for my 35th birthday, I decided to take the plunge for assorted reasons and excuses. Two factors that are completely unrelated information for you, but were important to me: a) Prince Siddhartha became Gautam Buddha at 35 (yes, one must have aspiration) and b) I was feeling unduly masochistic (it paid off!)
My overall experience, in one word, was FABULOUS. No point giving you a blow-by-blow account but suffices to say that I benefited enough to feel tremendous and immediate calm in my head, and loved it enough to want to go back again. I did just that last month by attending my 2nd after a break of 1.5 years. The second time around was different but the benefits and the belief in the tool has exponentially increased. This got me talking to more people and exploring what keeps my peers from experiencing Vipassana for themselves. Sure enough, there was a lot of paranoia, rejection and skepticism.
"You need to be silent for 10 days"
Err, being silent isn't such a bad thing when you are trying to ditch the thousand extraneous distractions in your daily life and focusing on your own thoughts, fears, wants and needs. That said, let me clarify. The course requires you to practice "Arya Maun" (Noble Silence) and not "Maun" (Absolute silence). Meaning, you stay quiet for the sake of focusing and not distracting anyone else with your words, eye contact or gestures. However, you can definitely talk to the course admins and the volunteers in case you have a problem. Additionally, you also have interactions with Assistant Teachers where you can have your doubts clarified and problems addressed. Out of courtesy, you talk softly. No, your vocal chords will NOT stop operating I can say with certainty.
"You need to switch off your phone"
It is fabulous to unplug. Yes, work and family will survive without you. In fact, I would like to believe that if I am a good enough parent and manager, work will happen in spite of me, not just because of me. The craving for the phone (and I carry two) doesn't even register once you are onboard because you will be amazed by the things you have stopped noticing: The wind in your hair, the birds in the trees, the birthday, I decided to take the plunge for assorted reasons and excuses. Two factors that cat playing with a twig or even your own stream of consciousness. It's fascinating. And calming. If you fear a crisis, the centre has contact numbers that you can share with those who matter and in case of emergency, you can be reached. You are NOT locked away in a boot camp. And frankly my dear, dilute that sense of self-importance.
"They starve you"
This one is funny but the truth is you get unlimited and wholesome food during mealtimes. Yes, it is vegetarian, and the schedule feels alien on the first day. Trust me, you AND your digestive system, sync almost immediately. The benefits are two-fold: Your power to concentrate increases when your system is not sluggish and on a more shallow note, the discipline gives you a fabulous detox and your body will thank you for it. Skin clears, fat sheds and yes, anyone looking to quit their fashion sticks, here is your chance.
Other misconceptions can be cleared with a wave of a hand without justifications. Firstly, it is not a money making racket as the course (learning, food and stay) is completely free. Secondly, it is NOT a missionary drive out to convert people to Buddhism or some such. It is simply a secular self-awareness tool not dictated by any religion but perfectly applied to any faith should you be practicing any. Thirdly, this is not a cult of a demigod. The Lt. SN Goenka is a delightful "margdarshi" (path shower) who is well-read, relatable and adds enough humour and anecdotes to explain (via video discourse) the evolution and philosophy of Vipassana without any ivory tower or saffron garb. He especially charmed me with references to atomic science and a reference to the song "Ik Onkar". Fourthly, while the schedule lists around 15 hours of meditation, three 1-hour slots are mandatory. That said, doing everything you are required to do, minus any policing, will help you make tremendous progress. Last but not the least, Vipassana does NOT change you. Yes, that's the truth. It only helps you declutter and focus on who you really are. And if you ain't loving yourself, your thoughts and your own company without urban props, all the more reason for you to explore this 8-fold path. Be happy!
The author moonlights as Editor-Special Features at ZMCL when she is not switching her hats of being a mother, photography/media teacher and closet yoghurt lover.