Jennifer Karchmer was a student in a ten-day silent meditation retreat in March 2011 through the Northwest Vipassana Center, known as Dhamma Kuñja, located in Onalaska, WA. What follows is Jennifer’s personal experience as told in interview form.*
What was the impetus for doing a 10-day silent meditation retreat?
A few years back, I learned about the retreat as a housemate mentioned she had a friend who completed it in Washington state, and said it was amazing. I was shocked you could do that in the USA. I assumed you had to go to India or Nepal to do something like that. After some research, I signed up and went within a few months.
How would you describe the retreat?
During the ten days, there is a regimen, a very specific daily routine. You can’t just deviate and say, “I feel like going shopping now,” or check emails. First of all, you are totally disconnected from technology, no Internet, cell phone, texting, email, phone, and even writing or reading material is prohibited. I say ‘prohibited’ but as you learn about the program you realize that you’re putting yourself into as pure a state as possible mitigating any distractions that will take you away from why you’re there – which is to meditate. Basically the only activities you are engaged in during the ten days are eating, sleeping, of course meditating, individually and in group, going for short walks in the meadow after meals, and occasionally doing a hand wash of laundry during a break period. Other than that, no exercising, yoga, jogging, reading, sunbathing, sex, alcohol, or even caffeine. Men and women have separate sleeping and eating quarters and entrances into the meditation hall. I didn’t even pick up a pen for 10 days, which was very jarring for a writer.
Before I departed, I described the retreat to a friend. He said, “it sounds like prison.” I was taken aback because all I could see was freedom – freedom from all of those distractions that we are consumed with in our modern lives. We never shut down. Even when you go for a one-hour yoga class, are you really out of the element?
During the ten days how well did you follow the schedule?
I followed it very closely, almost perfectly, except I have to say, on the first day I did take a nap during one of the meditation times and it felt so good! Every day at 4 a.m. someone walked around ringing a chime, a very subtle, but loud enough chime that was beautiful to awake to. At that hour, it was pitch dark, and on occasion, raining and cold. I actually looked forward to getting up, brushing my teeth and throwing on layers – a wool sweater, long shawl, covered in a blanket. When I got settled into my space in the meditation hall, it felt like a cocoon.
Did you ever feel like, “Get me out of here! This isn’t for me”?
No, I was very much on board the moment I learned about it. I knew it would be difficult but that was what drew me in, the challenge. In fact, on Day Two was my birthday, which is a very exciting and social day for me, but when I signed up I realized that I’d have to give up birthday cake and cheers. Normally I would be hanging out with friends and celebrating as it falls on a holiday (St. Patrick’s Day). To honor the day, I wore green socks and a long green scarf and felt really happy nonetheless. It ended up being like any other day with no fanfare and it was fine. I still turned one year older.
How does the noble silence work? You really can’t talk for ten days?
You take a vow essentially that you will follow Noble Silence and not talk or communicate with others. I will act in solitude to focus on myself. It’s not to punish; rather to focus on YOUR meditation. You’re not there to socialize or get to know people. Maybe afterward you might network or hang out with like-minded people, but even before the program began we had a few hours to settle in, eat dinner and ask questions and I felt a calm anxiety, if you will, wash over me like, hey let’s get on with it. I’m a very talkative and extroverted person in most situations and looked at this as an opportunity to shut all of that down and get in tune with another part of myself, my soul. I wondered, do I talk so much and ask questions because I’m afraid of the silence? Why am I always trying to fill the spaces? Do I feel like it’s my responsibility or something?
If you had a problem, question or needed clarification on the meditation, you could sign up for a 5-minute interview with the assistant teacher. I took advantage of that three times so technically speaking, I wasn’t “silent” but did follow the Noble Silence to a “T.”
What I found that was freeing about it, was all the chatter that takes place during the day that’s unnecessary and outside ourselves. For example, if it were at camp or a conference let’s say, I would have been much more interactive with my roommate, “What did you think of last night’s discourse? Save me a seat at the mess hall. Want to go together to the blah blah blah…? And on and on. All of that is dropped. You don’t care what anybody else is doing, wearing or feeling. Of course, I kept up personal hygiene, like showering and brushing teeth, but you realize how much time we spend in front of the mirror in our daily lives. And that coming from someone who doesn’t wear makeup or do her hair all big like in the 1980s. It sounds selfish but that’s just one way of looking at it. Really it’s about introspection. You’re asked to act as if you were in solitude. Of course there are practical matters. If you’re taking a walk in the meadow and another person is heading right toward you, you’ll get out of her path. You still act with compassion but it’s for yourself and in turn that makes you the best person you can be so you can be there for others.
At one point as we were gathering for a group meditation session in the hall, I accidentally bumped into another woman. Without even looking at each other, we each instinctively sort of grabbed each other’s hands to balance ourselves and moved on. One of the other tenets is no physical touching. For a moment, I was like ‘uh-oh’ we touched each other, but it was physics, as two objects collided, which is just part of nature.
What was the hardest part?
Physically it was sitting still on the floor for two hours. Because of a knee injury, I requested a chair but challenged myself a few times to sit in the classic meditation position, on the floor, back straight knees crossed. I’ve read on some blogs and online conversations that were critical of the retreat, that you’re asked to “torture” yourself, which is bullshit. That’s just people who don’t understand, or are not at the right place to really get the most out of the program. [I want to say they’re just being babies but it’s not my place to criticize others.] The idea behind the meditation is to sit, literally sit with whatever it is you have going on, that could be back pain, an itch on your nose, or emotional pain. You can make some small shifts of course. For example, there were a few times I said to myself, let’s sit on the floor and see how it goes. Once or twice, I got up to move to the chair but what I found was that I dozed more easily in the chair because I was so comfortable and wasn’t really meditating. When I sat on the floor with my knees screaming after 30 minutes, I sat with that pain and observed it. Hmm, what’s going on here, can I endure it, who cares, don’t analyze it, just sit with it. Same with the little itch on my nose, rather than immediately scratching it, I learned not to react to every little thing.
We live our lives in reaction to others, and to things occurring outside because we want to control. This, of course, is all of my observations about my experience and is in no way what the program tells you to think.
Were there any issues that came up for you?
Of course. I think that’s what the retreat is all about, allowing stuff to surface that we normally don’t deal with because we’re distracted with modern life keeping us busy. I noticed I had two main themes: one was work-related. I had a negative interaction with a client just a few days before the retreat. I thought I handled the situation as best as possible but it rattled me. He seemed dissatisfied, and the interaction put me through a test. During my meditation, I felt it come up almost every day. I questioned my reactions, and felt like I could have been more compassionate, a better listener to this person. Then I realized I was beating myself up about the situation, and it was in the past. Goenke talks about “being gentle” with oneself, so I worked on letting myself off the hook.
The other main theme for me was a romance that had occurred a few months prior. It ended abruptly and although I knew I needed to move on, I was dying inside to see this person and just talk again. We had many lovely memories and my heart was still connected. I just couldn’t seem to accept that since we were apart physically, how was my heart still over there? I was running the tapes in my head of the good times, trying to relive, even rewrite, the ending. Through meditation, I started to accept what had occurred and just observed it, rather than justifying my actions or deconstruct his words or actions. Why did he do this yet say that? There is so much that is illogical in love, yet I spent so much time trying to make sense of it. In meditation, first I recognized my physiological responses like increased heart rate, lump in my throat, butterflies in my stomach, when I felt him. These are real responses. Rather than placate or shut them down, I worked on accepting and eventually calming my body, my mind. I’m not an expert at this for sure. It’s a work in progress, but at least now I’m on the path.
What did you like the most about the retreat?
Each night at 7 p.m. there was the discourse. This was interesting because here you are in the middle of the woods, no technology, cell phones, sitting in this beautiful meditation hall, and then you see two big TVs, not ‘big screen,’ but large enough that a hall full of 100 people can see and hear and you have S. N. Goenka taped on a DVD. It’s the most basic video – someone must have set up a tripod and just hit “record” as he was talking to a live audience. I’m not sure where it was recorded, but it says “1991. At a few points, the camera zooms out and you see his wife sitting next to him, and there is some coughing, lots of laughing on tape. In fact, I wasn’t sure if it was disrespectful to laugh but he’s very funny telling these stories. Many of them are fables and metaphors for life. You know, the boy who goes down to the river to fetch water for the family and he’s careless and when he returns he learns something huge about life. I found the discourses eye-opening because they were entertaining, but also so informative. There is a lot of science in the meditation technique as explained by Goenka and this made me feel rooted. I’m not very comfortable with religion that you follow blindly so his discourse helped me see that the entire program was all about choice. As a skeptical journalist, I felt critical of what I was going to hear and be exposed to. I was thinking, “you can’t get me to drink the fruit juice,” but after learning more, I was willing and excited to go deeper.
I also loved soaking up the sounds of nature, which included silence. There were cows mooing and a rooster, cock-a-doodle doo each morning! I’ve lived in several cities (New York, Paris, Reykjavik) and have found I’m becoming allergic to traffic – the noise and movement of cars. I do own a car, and spend most of my time walking with my two feet or riding on bike and have moved further and further away from the vehicle as a way of life. Sure, a road trip with friends is fun, but I’m becoming more claustrophobic in the metal box. The center where the retreat is held is a lovely area with a meadow and it takes literally 90 seconds to walk from your room to the meditation hall or mess hall for meals so everything is right there. I guess you could call it compound, but that word could have a negative connotation.
Did anything make you uncomfortable? Or how comfortable did you feel?
The first part that sticks out for me is that it’s free. Yes, people can’t believe that you’re going to be housed and fed for ten days and not have to pay. I recognize that it’s a luxury to be able to take off ten days from work, but I have created a flexible schedule and lifestyle in my profession and took advantage of that. It’s run entirely on donations from others who have already gone through the retreat. I think they don’t accept donations from people who’ve just read about it [need to verify this]. Because they accept money only from people who really believe in it, and it’s going strong shows the power and strength of the program. I’m living proof of that. When I returned home, I made a cash donation, nothing huge, but I felt like, hey, someone else made a donation so that I had the opportunity to take part. I would love to give back now as a volunteer so that someone else too can do it.
Is it religion?
Goenka specifically addresses this in his discourse, that Buddhism isn’t a religion. At least what we’re doing at the retreat isn’t a religion. It’s not a blind faith thing. In fact, vipassana meditation is a technique. And contrary to what some believe, you’re not controlling your breathing or focusing on a Buddha, or saying “om.” You are literally observing, just being there. Accepting what you have. You are not judging, evaluating, criticizing, or even making yourself feel happy about it. If you feel happy, then you observe yourself feeling happy at that moment. If you feel like shit for whatever reason, then you observe that. The first few days are about adjustment, and you have close to 100 people in the hall, coughing, sneezing, shifting, getting up, going to the bathroom, going outside for air, blowing their nose, everything except talking. Part of the process is handling those distractions too – observing that I’m getting pissed off because the woman behind me is clearing her throat every five seconds. That’s part of life, observing what’s going on there and accepting it. You can’t control everything or everyone around you.
Goenka explores craving and aversion. These are two basic emotions we go through regularly, daily, and they show that it’s not just about feeling good in life but rather finding a balance. Sure we all want to be happy, but even when we win the lottery and we’re happy about the $$, or we meet some cool guy who becomes our boyfriend, those things can go out of whack when we crave them. Conversely, we really kill ourselves when we feel hatred, jealously or aversion to those things we don’t like. Again, balance.
On the science, physical side, what I really liked was the routine and that all I was doing was meditating, literally quieting my mind and body. I lost five pounds in those ten days. I ate just what was given to me and took no more than that because I knew physically I wouldn’t be expending the kind of energy I do at home. I wasn’t exercising my body, and was sitting a good portion of the day. Also those meals taught me to be more grateful about food and that on a daily basis in my home life, I’m eating for like three people. I can do with less, but in our regular routines, with convenience stores surrounding us, and Starbucks on every corner, they are reminders: “Oh yea, I need a coffee, I could use a candy bar,” and on and on. It could even be healthy stuff we crave, going to the nutrition store or Food Co-op to buy something. But they are just reminders of stuff we’re brainwashed to do versus trusting our bodies to tell us when we’re hungry. It’s a huge challenge to break out of that routine, that mold, and ignore and work against those messages. That’s why diets are a sham.. They will never work for people in our modern age, I believe, because we are constantly bombarded with messages that tell us to eat and consume.
On the retreat, there are timed consumption periods, and volunteers are taking the time to prepare meals, and people have made generous donations so there is food. What am I going to say after a eating a nice bowl of rice, with fresh vegetables, tofu and a salad? Are there cookies with that? Gimme more? From a practical standpoint, the retreat is also very accommodating. Before you even arrive, you’ve filled out an extensive application asking you questions about your familiarity to be sure you’re on board with the concept. Also, if you have food allergies, medications, low blood sugar, you need a midday snack, or special food requests, they will totally accommodate that. In special circumstances or emergencies, people can make a phone call, or in some cases depart early but these are discouraged to preserve the true program. It’s very disruptive to the rest of the participants to have people leaving early or talking on a cell phone, so that part is taken very seriously.
I had the opportunity to serve during one program and that was very eye opening. Unfortunately, I myself had a medical issue, not an emergency, but something that I deemed important enough to handle at home. I departed after serving only three days but I had learned lifetime about myself.
Would you talk more about that Jennifer?
After having done a ten-day, I knew I wanted to give back in some fashion. I had made a small financial donation, but really knew the importance of volunteering and how you can get so much out of the program by being part of the behind the scenes. Volunteers run the kitchen, prepare meals. This was a little daunting for me as I have two left feet in the kitchen. I had offered to clean bathrooms. What I really wished to do was be the person who rings the 4 a.m. chime. Remember how lovely I said that was? Yet, I realized it was kind of immature for me to be picky about a voluntary role and really just wanted to help in any way I could.
I was one of the last women volunteers to arrive at a retreat I went to in Oregon in December 2011. They were all set in the kitchen but needed someone to serve as Female Manager. I remembered the woman who was the Female Manager at my first retreat. She seemed to be walking around a lot with a small notebook, which seemed right up my alley. I agreed and then learned it was a 24/7 role as you’re are basically the liaison between the students/participants and the AT (assistant teacher). Anything that comes up for students like “I need a bar of soap, are there extra blankets, do you have earplugs to drown out my snoring roommate, how do I know if I’m meditating correctly, I need a special chair.” For all of these issues, the women students come to you. My role isn’t always to find solutions but to refer them to the AT. Some of the easy things like shampoo, or a Band-Aids I can get, but anything about technique or emotions, need to go to the AT. You’re basically on call the entire time, so students are coming to you at all hours of the day.
For some students that becomes an excuse to talk to someone. We would whisper, and if a student had a complex situation, I would ask them to come to the side or another room so we would not distract others with our talking. Two of three days I was there, I was woken up by loud door knocking right at 4 a.m. I literally jumped out of bed, and wiping sleep out of my eyes: “Yes, what’s going on? How can I help?” A distraught woman said, “I have to go home. This is not for me. I just need the car keys. My husband is in the program too. He can stay but I just need to get out of here.”
“OK, OK,” I said. “Let me get dressed and I’ll confer with the AT. Is everything else OK?” “Yes” she said. “I just need to get out of here.”
I set up a meeting with the student and AT and the woman departed an hour later. It wasn’t my business why she needed to leave. The student always takes that up with the AT so basically you’re a facilitator.
During the afternoon sessions, a student can request a five-minute interview with the AT. Because it was cold outside, I sat in the hall as the students asked her questions so I was privy to those conversations. I sat in the back of the hall, so it was impossible for me not to hear. In honoring confidentiality I won’t share specifics or identities, but in one instance, a woman explained how she hears music in her head and she can’t make it stop or turn it off. The AT explained that it’s not your role to turn it off, but to observe it. Like everything else, just let it exist. It sounds like easy work to just sit back and observe but that’s the hardest work will ever do as human.
Were there any “ah-ha” moments for you during the meditation?
During one evening group meditation everyone was in the hall, including all of the men, all of the women and all of the volunteers, kitchen staff, literally everyone in the hall meditation. It was Day 6 or 7, when we’re all on board with the technique, people have found their comfortable spots, they’re not getting up every five minutes, coughing and movement is minimized, and the hall was so quiet you could literally hear a pin drop. That collective understanding and behavior, like every single person here in this room has committed to the very same thing at least for this time being, it was very beautiful and magical. It made me feel like peace is possible. If every person were to commit to even a few minutes every day to meditation, in their own way, that energy, around the world is powerful. That part of the meditation I enjoy – the science, and energy part of it. I felt it and those things you can’t take away.
What was it like breaking out of Noble Silence? Getting back into the swing of real life? Driving away from the retreat?
Ending Noble Silence on the second to last day was very emotional for me. It was a huge accomplishment. I really couldn’t believe I had done it. We had breakfast that morning and after the group meditation, the Noble Silence was lifted, which meant talking was allowed once you left the meditation hall. You were asked to respect the silence in and around the hall. I remember hearing some women cheering and laughing and felt it was a little disrespectful because they were so loud around the hall. I’m not sure why I felt that way about other people. When I walked out of the hall, I cried. Here I was permitted to start talking yet I didn’t say a word and wanted to be alone. As lunchtime was approaching I was hungry and saw they had laid out a fabulous lunch for us with all kinds fresh salads, hummus, tabular, fruits and sweets specially prepared for this day. Someone hugged me in the mess hall and my reaction was, there’s no touching! It was so loud in there with people talking and giddy and I just wanted to sit alone and eat my meal. Overwhelmed is the only word I can use to describe how I felt. I sat in the corner and had tears spilling down my face into my food. After lunch I sobbed in the meadow. I went for a walk and then took a long nap. By dinnertime, I was back to the self I recognize and excited to talk and share stories and get to know people. I guess I just needed that release and it felt good. I know it sounds sad but it’s just what happened for me and I’ve accepted it. I don’t need to deconstruct it or explain it or feel wrong because it’s a different reaction from others. In a similar way, it’s not my place to judge how others handled the breaking of silence, like how they were cheering or gregarious.
Departing the next day was surreal a little bit like a ‘Twilight Zone’ or when the movie the “Wizard of Oz” goes from black and white to color. I had carpooled with two women on the way down so we had a lot of conversation, stories and laughs. On the way, back they had each found other rides that were going directly to their towns so I rode alone, and welcomed the solitude. I really didn’t want to get into a whole debrief with other people critiquing the program, “Did you like it? What did you think of this or that?” I really just wanted to reflect on my own experience but truly that’s what it was all about. The drive was about five hours to get home so I had a lot of alone time at the wheel. Even just pulling away from the retreat, which is a rural tiny little town, and getting on the highway, was weird. Like, oh yeah, life is still going on. There’s a gas station on the corner, diner over there and police pulling people over for speeding. None of that stops, even though you’ve just focused on meditation and not talking for ten days.
How have you kept up your meditation and incorporated it into your regular routine?
That has been the most difficult part. When I first returned, I was doing meditation every single day for about a month. Under the program, you do meditation for one hour in the a.m. and the p.m. I never thought I could support that much time but felt like I could devote at least one hour in the mornings. I started lopping off, at some point and then totally fell off the wagon. That experience itself I’ve used as a learning tool. I wasn’t too critical of myself, and believed that I would get back into it organically. What I have noticed on a more practical level is my everyday experience of being in the moment, breathing and noticing when my shoulders are shrugged and tight. I’m often (like several times a day) reminding myself to get back in the moment. I carry some anxiety in my profession, hitting deadlines, planning things out in my head, what I’m going to write, and then realize that’s all future stuff. It doesn’t really exist. So in just one moment, I can bring myself back, gently – to the present and say, “Am I OK? Right now, this very moment? What do I need? Oh, I have everything I need. OK then.”
Would you do the retreat again?
Yes. In fact, after departing early from the one program where I served as a volunteer, I’d like to return and be a student again. It’s a different experience when you serve, very gratifying that you’re helping other people out, and you get in tune with your compassion. But I realized that I am immature, or in my own infancy of this meditation and need to build more of a foundation so I would like to return to a full program. It’s sort of scary signing up for a program because you need to commit well in advance, like a few months, because you’ll see it filling up online and then there’s a waiting list. It’s kind of scary for me because I have this internal thing about not wanting to miss anything so I’m poor at making scheduling commitments. I don’t fear whether I can do it, but more like, can I handle stepping out of modern life for a time, and coming back a changed person.
~end of interview~
*This interview was conducted in April 2012 in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Here is a blog piece written by a former participant:
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