Te noho puku: What 9 days of silence taught me.

Day 0:

Nervously, I pulled up to the carpark of Dhamma Medini, the Vipassana Meditation Centre, located deep in the native bush of Kaukapakapa, north of Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland). The sun was setting and a cold drizzle had set it.

My mind was still whirring away, busy processing all the tasks I had and hadn’t completed leading up to my 10 day retreat. Waikawa (baskets) of freshly dried laundry in the back testament to the non-stop nature of my life leading up to the course.

Walking up the gravel drive to the main dining hall, there were some awkward, non-verbal exchanges with other students, as I wasn’t sure if our silence had already started. I passed a couple of young hippies in a campervan who were showing their mask exemptions to the volunteer at the gate.

Quick to judge, I immediately wrote them off as Covid-denying non-conformists, and was thankful for the silence rule to save me from being rude to them. I would continue to silently judge them for 10 days, annoyed at the injustice of everyone else meditating in masks while they could breathe freely. On the 11th day, everything changed…

But on that very first night, I was grateful to find two young, mask-wearing wāhine sitting at my designated dining table. We hit it off immediately, and I discovered that this was their second rodeo. “We’ve just got to get through the first 4 days”, they warned me. “After day 4, it gets much better”.

I choked down my lentil soup as I tried to make sense of this ‘heads up’. They sensed my fear and reassured me that it’s better not to know anything about the course, just to experience it as I go. I’m not sure that helped calm my apprehension.

My nervousness compounded as I handed over all contraband, including my phone, pens, paper, wallet and keys. Had I remembered to reply to everyone I was supposed to? Had I set up enough vacation auto-replies? Too late now.

I felt like I was standing at the edge of a giant chasm, ready to take the leap but not knowing what was down there. I was terrified.

Noble silence began after dinner, but to be honest, this was the part I was looking forward to the most. As a kaiako, I talk for a living. Be it reo Māori or reo Pākehā, I get to the end of the day and my throat is usually sore. Not talking for 9 days felt like sweet bliss.

We all made our way to the meditation hall for our first sitting, women to the right, men to the left. Not sure where the non-binary folk went?

Square meditation cushions were lined up in a beautiful grid arrangement, and mood-lighting created a calming atmosphere. We silently filed in and found our designated cushion. By the end of the course, that spot became a comforting oasis, but at the very beginning, it represented a prison of my own mind.

5 minutes into the first sitting, and I could feel my mid-back screaming at me. I wriggled around a bit, changed my leg position, and it got better. 5 minutes later the pain was back. “You’ve supposed to be medita

ting, Laura.” No-one told us we couldn’t talk to ourselves.

“Become aware of the small triangular area between your nostrils and your upper lip”,

Goenka’s soothing monotone reassured me that it really was very simple and easy.

5 seconds later, I was back to analysing my business and working on a serious side-hustle.

Thus ensued a restless session of silent business-planning and telling myself off for being really bad at meditating. As soon as the chanting started to close the session, I breathed a sigh of relief and allowed myself to wriggle with more vigour.

Later in my single bedroom, my mind was still whirring away as I set my alarm for 3.55am.

Day 1:

Weather: Pouring down all day.

4.30-6.30am: meditation session was relatively unsuccessful, unless you count

making serious headway on the financial planning of my imaginary side-hustle a success.

6.30am breakfast: Slow-cooked scotch oats with stewed raisins and prunes (delicious), and rosemary tea (first time).

I’d recently recovered from a head-cold, and had an emerging sinus infection that was worrying me. I justified sleeping through one of the meditation sessions in the morning to allow my body to rest. Felt a bit guilty about it.

11am lunch: Brown rice (or pasta) with pasta sauce, steamed broccoli and salad with balsamic vinaigrette. I wolfed everything down and even went for seconds, knowing this would be my last proper meal till 6.30am tomorrow.

I slept through another session in my room, surprised at how tired I was given my lack of activity. When I resumed meditation, I’d have to lie down every 20 minutes for 5 minutes to relieve my back-pain. Any longer than 5, and I’d be back to sleep. I was up and down like a yo-yo, trying not to look at the clock, trying to focus on my breath, and trying to extend my periods of sitting.

2.30pm group sitting: This afternoon session quickly became my most dreaded sitting. My back started out ok in the morning, but as the day went on the pains came thick and fast, each time I moved a new one would sprout up like a horrible weed. One minute here felt like one hour.

5pm fruit dinner: Yes, you read that right. We received fruit for dinner. And only the new students. The old students got lemon-ginger tea for their sins. As I tucked into my delicious fruit salad of apples, bananas, oranges, pears and kiwifruit, I looked across at my table buddies who were not eating, and felt guilty. I quickly gobbled it all up and went for my daily treat, a 3 minute hot shower.

7pm discourse: Every evening we had an hour-long pre-recorded discourse, filmed in the 90’s, somewhere in the States. I discovered that Goenka is really a likeable, relatable fellow, who tells good jokes. While we couldn’t talk, there was no laughing ban, and we all laughed heartily whenever we could. Mask-exemption lady laughed especially loud, which I resented as I imagined all those droplets spreading around the room.

Day 2:

Weather: Freezing cold and raining again.

Breakfast: Same as yesterday, but with thyme tea (another revelation). Think mixed herbs meets boiling water.

Lunch: Most delicious tofu vermicelli stir fry I’ve ever had (felt very happy). Silverbeet salad with lemon tahini dressing. Chocolate cake for the gluten eaters (felt sorry for myself).

Meditation progress: Only cheated (slept) through one meditation session in my room, but slept after brekkie and lunch, my new routine that I’d continue till day 10. I still felt tired, like I was catching up on sleep after a super-hectic school term. My back still felt sore, but I could sit for 25 minutes before needing to lie down.

Fruit dinner: Perhaps due to a lack of talking or other distractions, this was the best fruit salad I’d ever tasted in my life. I savoured it slowly and mindfully, but not without a little guilt for my buddies.

Day 3:

Weather: Showers easing.

4.25am: Still in bed. Contemplating sleeping through my session. After all, I’ve got to recover so I can meditate diligently. Pushed past this whakaaro, got up and struggled through another session. At the end, I was craving my asana (yoga) practice, I felt so creaky. I did some sneaky cat/cows and sun salutations and felt guilty, as we’d agreed to not practice yoga or any other meditation technique.

Breakfast: Porridge with stewed apples. Not as sweet as stewed raisins (felt disappointed). Coriander tea (also a let down).

Lunch: Gluten free spinach pie with mushroom sauce, steamed carrots, fresh salad with balsamic vinaigrette. I was overjoyed with today’s lunch, and went back for seconds.