The Mail on Sunday- Learning Meditation
23 June 2013
'Can I take the silent treatment?' asked one professional talker, when faced with nine wordless days at a meditation retreat
It's 5pm and minus three degrees as I pull up at a town in the foothills of the Himalayas in a taxi covered in monkeys. They've been hanging on the roof for the last five miles, trying to grab my Doritos - the most comforting food I'll see for the next nine days. I jump out of the cab and dash along the dusty road past the queues of rickshaws and street-food stalls. Walking through the gates of the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama Ashram, I am transported to a very different place. The grass is vibrant green, trees and flowers cover the grounds and the mountains rise up majestically in the background. Immediately I feel at peace.
I am greeted by a girl with pale skin, braided hair and an American accent, who looks like she's stepped out of a 50 Cent rap video. This is not very ashramy.
She gives me a key to cottage 32 and promises to introduce me to Swami Radha, the meditation teacher. Swami Radha is a serious-looking woman from Minnesota who puts her hands together to greet me with a ‘namaste'. She's not what I'm expecting. I like my gurus to be elderly Indian men with long beards and beads, not Americans in leisurewear.
Swami Radha is right-hand woman to 80-year-old Swami Veda, the spiritual director of the ashram. He's also co-founder of a meditation centre in Minneapolis and many students come here to study with him. In a few days he'll be going into total silence for five years. I'm not sure I can manage five minutes.
I arrive just in time for the 6pm group silent meditation. Every evening all students of the school come together in the meditation hall to sit in silence for an hour. We are instructed by Swami Veda, whose deep, resonating voice guides us. ‘Draw all your senses to yourself,' he begins. ‘Bring your mind's attention to the seat you're sitting on. Draw around yourself three circles of light so that no sounds from outside will enter you and resolve that the mind shall not cross these protective lines of light.'
Since I have never meditated before and am not allowed to ask what to do (there are signs everywhere saying SILENCE), I improvise. It doesn't go well. I look around at the others who are all doing nothing, in the dark. I've been travelling and I haven't spoken properly to anyone for four hours; I just want to chat.
Dinner is rice, vegetables and dhal, eaten off a bench sitting on the floor. In silence. I go to bed wearing leggings, jogging bottoms, a T-shirt, jumper and shawl, feeling hungry. And cold. I am being deprived of all the things I need to function properly. Heating, talking and cake.
Day 2The bell goes at 4.15am. I am in no mood for a yoga session for joints and glands. It takes place in the dark so there are fewer distractions. Regular yoga practice is meant to lead to a stronger, more flexible body and on a subtler level helps remove energy blocks - all of which will apparently help me meditate. During Savasana - a pose lying on my back - I fall asleep and snore so loudly the teacher has to wake me.
Next is my meditation class with Swami Radha, where at last I am taught how to meditate properly. She tells me how to sit (on a pile of blankets, legs crossed, knees touching the floor, spine straight, chin tucked in, hands on knees), how to breathe (slowly, smoothly) and which mantra to chant in my head to quiet my thoughts and draw me into a place of inner silence. The theory is that bringing the body and mind to their most natural, relaxed state in this way will help you find the path to your true self.
After 20 minutes setting up my blankets (the folding technique is very involved), I think, ‘How long before I am bored, get cramp or start thinking about George Clooney?' (Ten minutes, if you want to know.) It is still only 7.45am; I've been awake for three and a half hours and haven't even had breakfast!
Day 3Up at 4.15am again. It's killing me. I go to the shop over the road three times for Kit Kats and muffins. I also need someone to talk to, and the man in the shop looks like an Indian Brad Pitt.
The minute I sit down to meditate the floodgates of thought open. I think about an argument I had with my mum 20 years ago when she wouldn't let me dye my hair blonde. Then Rod Stewart's autobiography which I read on the plane. Next thing I know 25 minutes have passed and the session is over.
Day 4My breathing in meditation is getting less noisy. I think about what jokes to do at my gig in Norway and how gross my toes look (I need a pedicure!). Good or bad, at least I'm doing an hour's meditation now and my mind is wandering less with each session. Eating in silence is relaxing. If someone comes into the dining hall, we smile but don't chat. It's not awkward because everyone knows the rules. Focusing on your food is better for your digestion and weight. You don't overload by eating aimlessly while talking. I'm getting used to eating less, but enough. I realise that comfort in the mind manifests as comfort in the body. I don't need to make myself feel better by eating cake.
Later I take a ‘digestive breathing' class. I speak briefly to a young man from Denmark.
Conversations are not banned as such, but once you get used to not verbalising every thought, you find you don't actually want or need to talk much. The more I meditate, the more I get into the habit of voicing only things that I feel really matter. Like ‘Where's the toilet? Where's the vodka? I really fancy you.'
Day 5Today is total silence day at the ashram. There's no communication, not even smiles. It is not just a question of abstaining from speech; you need to give your mind something to do so that you are not caught up in the thoughts you are not verbalising.
Having now been taught a variety of different ways to meditate, today I pull them all out of the bag. I try contemplative walking, taking a silent stroll along the River Ganges with two other students. I begin to enjoy being in silence. When I get back to my cottage that night I feel alive. I am very aware of myself and everything around me. I write jokes nonstop. Swami Rama says, ‘Creativity flows when the mind is free of anxiety.' This is becoming apparent. I know I have a mountain of work to do - a tour to prepare for, gigs in Norway that I'm anxious about, people to call, a tax return to do - but instead of wanting to get on to my computer (strangely, this is permitted in the ashram), I'd rather go to the meditation hall. I feel as though I could very easily never speak again.
Day 6This morning Gerry, a 60-year-old teacher from Devon, approaches me outside the meditation hall. Her 40 days of full silence have just ended - and now she can't shut up! She has found out that I am a comedian and reels off routines of her favourite acts, killing all the punchlines in the process. Her verbal diarrhoea is magnified by my silence. It's a revelation to me just how much rubbish people talk.
I am beginning to feel tuned in to myself in a new way. In silence I discover that everything becomes sorted and that I really don't need to say so much in order to communicate with people.
Day 9 and Beyond...Swami Rama's teaching says that ‘meditation is fasting for the mind'. In the same way that not overloading the body with food allows it to regenerate, so keeping the load off your mind - by staying silent - helps it to renew itself. Renewed is exactly how I feel as I prepare to leave.
On my flight home I am given the worst seat on the aircraft, at the back next to the toilet. Normally I would be furious and stressed. Now I remain calm.
Regardless of what is happening in my life, calm and tranquillity are now my benchmarks.
I try to meditate every day for at least 20 minutes. Some days I'm too busy, too tired or too lazy; when I have a lot on my mind, meditation is more difficult. But the more often I meditate, the better I get at it. My work improves when I meditate regularly. In Norway I storm every night. Russell and co are right - meditation can help you perform better, whatever you do. It's made me a better comedian. I don't care what anyone else thinks.