“Where’s your coat?” I demanded as my son and I headed to school one morning. When he shrugged I shouted at him. I regretted my outburst as soon as his head dipped and guilt crept over me. Eight year old boys always lose things — why do I get so angry? Anger and frustration always seemed so close to the surface, bubbling away. I wondered if the 10-day silent retreat I’d just booked would help me manage my emotional reactivity better. Meditation is not a panacea, but I was hoping to learn how to see my emotions arrive quicker — so I could decide whether to react to a trigger — or not.
Ten years ago I would never have imagined I would meditate regularly, yet in 2012 when a rare illness left me blind and paralysed for almost a year I’d needed new ways to manage the trauma. That experience opened up the spirituality doors and in 2017 I began a meditation experiment with Cambridge neuroscientists that changed everything. I set out on a “meditation road-trip” to explore ten different techniques as part of a ground-breaking experiment. This silent retreat would teach me a style of meditation called Vipassana, and was number nine on our list. It fol-lowed other techniques such as mindfulness, Christian meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM) compassion and hypnosis. I’d spent 8 weeks practicing each method with an EEG (electroen-cephalography) headset capturing my brain activity via electrodes on my scalp. I was curious to discover which (if any) of the different techniques might stop me worrying, connect me to others, sleep better or in this case, stop me shouting at my children.
Arriving at the retreat we were segregated into male and female dormitories. The rules were strict, no phones, no notebooks, no pens, no talking and no eye contact. I agreed to the monastic schedule and 10 hours of daily meditations, wondering what I had got myself into. Vipassana is a Buddhist technique devised by S.N Goenka, a Burmese-Indian spiritual leader that teaches an in-tense form of concentration meditation.The course was taught using crackling audio recordings of the late Goenka, along with nightly video presentations. After a week the meditation hall had be-come familiar territory as I sat on my mat surrounded by my fellow students. We’d spent hours observing our breath in order to sharpen our mind’s focus. Walking every day proved a good dis-traction from the tsunami of memories that bombarded my mind. A critical inner voice was so loud that I wondered if the other women could hear it. Clearly, my anger was still in residence. Everything on the retreat was so regimented that I began to feel institutionalised.
By the end of the ten days I was ’sweeping’ my focus up and down my body, starting at my face and ending with my toes. On the last day I was counting the hours, desperate to go home. I under-stood the technique and I was prepared to ‘give it a go’ as Goenka asked, but I wanted to see my family again.
Back home I slotted back into familiar routines and practised Vipassana for two hours each day. After meditating I felt a strange calmness that I hadn’t experienced before. I felt floaty and — almost serene.
A week later I was still shrugging this serenity off, when a curious thing happened. Driving my son home from school a stationary car swerved out in front, nearly causing an accident. Normally I would have shouted or hit the horn, but this time I simply braked hard. My son gawked and asked why I hadn’t yelled. For once, he thought I had good reason. After a moment I realised that I had no anger inside of me. It had been extracted by the root — as Goenka had predicted. I had never expected such radical and tangible results from my Vipassana training, but something had changed.
Even though Goenka recommended practising Vipassana twice a day (accompanied by your fam-ily) I struggled to maintain this commitment. Soon I only managed 45 minutes each day and even-tually stopped using Vipassana altogether.
While I expected my old volatile emotions to return, they didn’t — not with the force they’d had before. I felt recalibrated. However, my glasses were not entirely rose-tinted. While Vipassana suc-cessfully improved my emotional resilience, I could see the accumulative effect of the other nine practises at work too. If anything, the retreat had consolidated those experiences.
Meditation is not a cure-all, but it can offer bespoke methods to target specific issues like stress and anxiety. It can boost creativity, focus, emotional connection and self-awareness all of which can benefit our relationships, careers and personal lives. The Vipassana training (and meditation really is training) provided me with the means to switch off anger. I did not need to remove anger entirely (this is a vital, life-saving mechanism) I only needed to moderate it. However, Vipassana was an extreme way to do this, and isn’t for everyone. The Vipassana organisation has strict entry protocols in place. Sleep deprivation, silence, and isolation were stressors and I was glad to leave.
At the end of my three-year experiment I had learnt new methods to be kinder to myself and to connect to my family in deeper, more rewarding ways. I’d finally discovered how to sleep better and a technique that boosted my creativity. My discoveries resulted in a book, Finding My Right Mind: One Woman’s Experiment to put Meditation to the Test, which is a guide for anyone curious to find the right meditation style for them. My Vipassana training left me able to take things in my stride and I felt a deepened love for my family. My son said I didn’t shout as much. In fact, he told me, I smiled more. Ten days of silence changed things for all of us.
Vanessa Potter is a meditation advocate and author of Finding My Right Mind: One Woman’s Experiment to put Meditation to the Test (Welbeck Publishing) priced £12.99, available online and from all good bookstores.