My roommate was laying on his bed, staring blankly at the bare ceiling.
We were sharing a tiny concrete cell roughly 7 square feet in size, and we hadn’t spoken to each other in 8 days.
Normally if you haven’t spoken to your roommate in 8 days it’s because you’re fighting.
But we weren’t fighting.
We were meditating.
When I arrived in Myanmar in 2013 the only thing I knew about Vipassana Meditation was that it was spelled with two s’s and that it lasted 10 days. I had some experience with meditation from my time living in Japan but had never meditated longer than, oh I don’t know, maybe 60 minutes in one go.
Boy was that about to change.
You can imagine my surprise when I was exposed to the Vipassana agenda: 4:30am wake, 10 hours of meditation, sleep.
Rinse and repeat until you either pack up and run for the hills or you reach some kind of meaningful insight.
There was to be no speaking, no reading, no writing, no listening to music. We were even asked not to make eye contact with the other attendees. There were 120 of us sitting together everyday in the meditation hall, but in reality we were all alone.
As the days turned I felt as if I was slowly sinking down through the depths of the ocean like a scuba diver. No movement, just observation, until eventually all my thoughts gave way to total darkness and boom, my feet landed on the bottom of the ocean.
Whoa, I remember thinking. I’ve never been here before. What is this place?
It was there, at the bottom of the ocean, where I’d spend the next several days running a mental and spiritual marathon.
Here’s what I learned:
When you turn down the volume of the external, you can start to hear the internal.
I had been working in a “boiler room” setting in the recruiting industry for 4 years in Tokyo before I quit and found myself walking into this 10 day retreat. My head was full of noise and had been for years.
Internal voice? What the hell was that? I’d never heard it.
But as the days without any external noise or stimuli rolled on, I began to hear a faint voice inside that seemed to come from a different source. Somewhere deeper.
It wasn’t the voice of society, the voice of my job, the voice of the news, or the voice of my friends and family.
It was my voice.
And of course I hadn’t heard it. I had completely drowned it out.
But there I sat quietly, engaging in the very first conversation with myself.
It was pretty cool.
Looking back I realize now that this was the begin of a new relationship, and it’s this internal voice that I turn to today when I’m in need of guidance.
I call it my “internal navigation system,” and the good news is that we all came equipped with it.
I am the root cause of all my suffering.
One insight that hit me like a ton of bricks on Day 4 was the realization that every single moment of mental and/or emotional pain that I’d ever felt was the result of how I was responding to something or to someone.
It wasn’t the something or someone that was causing my frustration or stress or heartache. It was my own response that was causing my suffering.
The weight of the realization and the clarity with which I saw it was unbearable. I’m not sure I’ve ever fought harder to hold back tears than I did on that day in Burma.
As tapes of my past played back in my head I saw over and over again how comfortable it was to play victim in life. The dialogue had always been the same: the cause of my frustration was what he said, what she did, how my boss acts, what this job demands, how bad this traffic is, what this government is doing, this situation I’m in.
The cause of everything that frustrates me is obviously out there, right?
It’s in here.
The worst part about it was that I had another 40+ hours to sit together with this insight in silence when all I wanted to do was run from it.
The silver lining was that if I was the root cause then it would follow that I could be the root solution.
Over the course of the next few days I would begin the process of reconfiguring my internal software to see if I could practice choosing my response to whatever happens in life.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I was going to need a daily reminder.
So I had “the power to choose” tattooed in small font across my chest.
Everything is temporary.
The Vipassana technique helped me do the only thing there really was to do while sitting in silence for 100 hours straight: observe.
When there was a pain in my foot I observed the pain and well, since there was nothing else to do I took my awareness and went closer to the pain, zooming in to see what was really going on.
Hello, pain! What’s going on down here?
As I focused on the subtle sensations of the pain I noticed that they were in constant flux.
In a second there was slight pain here but in an instant it was gone.
Now it was over there, and now it was a bit sharper.
I did the same thing with mental and emotional states throughout the 10 days, whether feelings of frustration, or peace, or awe.
I zoomed in, and in doing so came to see that they too were not fixed, but in constant flux.
I was witnessing impermanence: the notion that all aspects of life are in constant flux. Our physical body, our joys, our frustrations, our relationships, our health, our status.
They may strengthen, weaken, or evolve but one thing seemed clear to me: they don’t stand still.
There is nothing to cling to.
Every day is truly a new day. Every moment a new moment.
Stillness facilitates insight.
When I’m driving 50km/h and I look out the window, the view is a bit blurry. When I’m driving 100km/h, the view is extremely blurry.
But when I stop at a red light and look out the window, things are clear.
This is what I like to call “the physics of insight.”
If you want to see things clearly you have to slow down. The faster you’re moving the more blurry life will be.
The challenge here is that with the incessant busyness of the modern era we are rarely still. We are constantly moving, we are constantly connected, and we are constantly bombarded with external stimuli.
I have a friend who climbs into a float tank every time he needs to make an important life decision.
He always comes out with an answer.
I’m both stubborn and strategic about how I use silence, and anyone who knows me knows that I make it a leading priority to carve out blocks of silence into my life.
Invitation for dinner and drinks? So sorry, I’ve got a date with silence.
My time with silence allows me to reflect, gain insight, and check-in with my internal guidance system.
Silence, is my secret weapon.