The Silent Retreat That Empowered Me
Finding herself at a crossroad in her life, Shereen Soh decided to reset her buttons with a 10-day meditation retreat. Here’s what she learned
My friends thought that I was pulling their leg when they learned that I was going to do a 10-day silent meditation retreat.
After three consecutive months of working intensively on a project, I was feeling quite burned out. My original plan had been to travel overseas during my break, but I’d been too busy with work to plan ahead. As a result, I wasn’t able to get the flights I wanted. I began searching for alternatives online and that’s when I chanced upon the idea of a Vipassana retreat. I was instantly drawn to it… I was in-between relationships and mentally at a place where I was keen to engage in some serious soul-searching. I wanted to know what it would be like to get to know my mind in a setting where I was truly alone in utter solitude and free of all distractions.
I’d tried simple meditation before, though I had never been disciplined enough to practice daily. But here I was, about to plunge right into the deep end of the pool – Vipassana means “to see things as they really are”. Discipline, equanimity and hard work are cornerstones of the practice. The 10-day silent retreat would require me to take a vow of noble silence and meditate for 10 hours a day. I would also have to withhold all forms of communication (such as talking, writing, or gesturing) and abstain from my favourite “everyday activities” (like reading, listening to music, exercising or using technology). This was not going to be a walk in the park, and yet, the decision felt so right.
Perhaps it was serendipity – the upcoming course dates coincided perfectly with my break. Vipassana retreats are held all over the world, but here in Singapore, it’s usually held on St John’s Island, a serene location largely untouched by modern tourism.
I was excited and eagerly looked forward the retreat.
When the day arrived, my journey into silence and introspection began. These are my top three takeaways:
Lesson #1: Disconnect to reconnect
Stripped of all access to technology and what it provided/facilitated, I was initially very uncomfortable. I had become so dependent on my handphone that I felt like I had lost a limb when I had to surrender it at the start of the retreat. I didn’t quite know what to do to keep my mind entertained. What was I going to do with myself? I thought that I might go insane, but I couldn’t be more wrong.
Away from modern day “noise” like constantly on-going Whatsapp chats, social media affliction, intrusive work emails, and addictive Netflix series, I slowly discovered a sense of freedom that I hadn’t felt in years. The rare opportunity to sit in quiet and stillness is a very powerful experience. Untethered from the demands of the external world, I was free to dive into my internal world and reconnect with who I was.
Lesson #2: Don’t fall prey to your mind
Meditation teaches us to create space between ourselves and our thoughts, so that we don’t get caught up in rumination. The mind is an incredibly powerful conjurer. It distorts the reality we perceive and creates stories… stories that are replayed over and over again… stories about how we’re always being judged by others as not being good enough, or that we’re having it so much harder than others because life isn’t fair to us… It is when we get caught up in these negative thought streams that we buy into the stories of our mind and create our own suffering.
One of the key lessons that I learned from Vipassana is to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves, so that we can detach from them and recognise them for what they are. They are our thoughts – and our thoughts aren’t necessarily the “truth”.
Lesson#3: Just when you think you can’t, you can
There was a lot of meditation during the retreat. They usually ranged from one to two hours, and alternated between group meditations in the hall, or meditation alone in your room (some people took it as a chance to go back to their rooms to nap).
Vipassana practice calls for a sort of mind-over-matter “non-reaction”. This means that regardless of the pain you feel as your legs start to cramp up, and no matter how intensely your body is crying for release, you carry on with the understanding that everything is transient – including pain. So instead of reacting to the pain, learn to refocus your attention elsewhere and you’ll realise eventually that just like all else, that pain too, will pass. Over time, this practice trains you to better manage your response to the vicissitudes of life.
I admit that there were many times when I felt like I couldn’t take another minute of not being allowed to even wriggle a finger while sitting cross-legged on the floor, especially during those “strong determination” sessions. But every time I wanted to give up, I told myself to stay just a little longer.
Every time my mind whispered, ‘I’m done with this, I can’t carry on anymore,’ I somehow managed to dig up a little bit more willpower from reserves I didn’t know that I had.
Over and over I went through the same internal struggles. And at the end of the 10 days, I had become aware of the deep well of power lying inside me. I know that I can tap into it for strength whenever I need it. This knowledge has been extremely empowering.
Would I do it again?
Absolutely. Those 10 days of silent meditation tested the limits of my mind and body, but the process was also profoundly calming and eye-opening. I haven’t got it all figured out – I’m still me, a wider sense of perspective that makes me feel a tad wiser. The experience has altered me at a deep level, and ironically, it’s one that I find myself reminiscing on occasion.