Ten Days of Silence: Russian Spiritual Retreat

PHOTO by Kostyazar / Depositphotos
Vipassana, a meditative practice that is becoming increasingly popular in Russia, forces its participants to take a vow of silence for ten days

During that time, any communication with the outside world is not allowed. In an attempt to find out whether such practices are helping change lives, Afisha.Daily talked to a woman who did Vipassana in the Urals.

Marina Belykh

38 years old

Before Vipassana

I worked at a large media company for 16 years. I started as a night DJ at Rock FM (and after that I worked for Love Radio, Energy and Europa Plus), became a project manager, then a PR-specialist, and I ended up as a senior manager. At some point I realised that I didn’t want to do it any longer. I didn’t want to sell people what they didn’t need.

I have three children. I realised later that they lacked parental love but I refused to notice it. Four years ago I quit my job to be with my children. At the same time, my husband and I decided to get a divorce. Divorce is always painful and it feels like something is torn from you.

I was not exactly at a crossroads but I was going through a paradigm change. I left my career, divorced my husband and was looking for something simple and real. I wanted to escape the consumerist world, which I inhabited all the time. My friend said, "Hey, why don't you try Vipassana?" I knew nothing about it but I decided to try it, hoping it would help me find peace. Children need a stable and happy mom, not one in pursuit of a new car or lipstick.

At Vipassana

I signed up to visit a Vipassana centre in the Urals because the nearest available dates were there. A woman can't always go somewhere because of her children, but I asked my relatives to help without explaining where I was going and why. I'm an adult and if I need to go somewhere for ten days, that means that.

Russian spiritual retreat

When I came to the centre, I first thought it was a cult — wonderful hosts, peacefulness, everyone feeling the same vibes. I thought it was a game, a kind of a quest that we all were on. I wasn't frightened: a game is just a game. In Vipassana you can't talk to anyone. At the same time you live in a room with six girls, each with their own habits. It turned out to be hard. I had a silent conflict with one and it's much worse than a verbal one! You couldn't share your thoughts and the tension was rising. At the end of Vipassana, when we were allowed to talk, this girl and I had a discussion and we understood each other.

The first day was easy. You are enthusiastic about the new situation. The second day you start to think too much, it all goes wrong, people lack communication. The hardest thing was to give up smoking. I confess that I hid a pack of cigarettes and smoked under the pines on the third or fourth day. Generally, Vipassana is a very humane practice. Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You want to sleep in the room instead of meditation? Okay, it's your decision.

On the third day of 12 hours of meditation, I went outside and saw that all the stars are at different heights, have different colours and brightness. For a second I thought I had gone crazy and I got frightened. The teacher said that I finally stopped thinking about myself and saw the world. It was my personal feeling, not provoked by any drugs. There was a moment when I even wanted to retire to the monastery: this was true happiness! This was better than any orgasm, money, extreme sports or travel. The feeling can be compared to the birth of a child and how the first few minutes, when the baby is on your chest, are the happiest in your life. Vipassana reminded me of those feelings. Only this time it was the birth of myself.

On Pain

I don't have a subtalar joint in my foot due to an injury. It's a miracle that I can walk and even wear heels from time to time. Of course, I feel severe pain sometimes. I told the teacher right away that I couldn’t sit on my knees, a posture which they recommend.

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He asked if the injury happened a long time ago and when he found out that it was six years ago, he said that there was nothing there, so let's try. I was indignant: nothing there? I even had a certificate of disability! But I believed him. The leg ached so much, that I had tears in my eyes. I tried hard to ignore it but all my thoughts went back to pain. Vipassana teaches you to observe your breathing and turn off the internal dialogue. Every day the pain became less and less: first a ripple, then a slight tingling, then nothing at all. I was sitting on the injured foot for four hours and didn't feel pain. Then, of course, I came back to reality and the pain returned. You have to do Vipassana from time to time not to lose this skill.

Changes

Vipassana is a physiology-oriented technique and, unlike other practices, you don't need to visualise or think of anything. It's a kind of exercise for the brain. With the help of the body, you learn to feel the world around.

I can't say that Vipassana changed my life but it became the impetus for change. I moved from a small provincial town to Moscow. I am fond of Montessori education now and I am getting an international certificate to be a Montessori teacher. Vipassana changed my attitude towards my children. The four of us are different, that’s normal, and I learned to listen carefully to them, to talk without haste and respect them. Some people still ask me, "Marina, how do you get so much patience and energy? How it is that you are always so calm and cheerful?" I don't promote Vipassana but I tell them that it was the catalyst for this change.

During Vipassana, my senses of smell and hearing became much more acute. I remember standing on the street and I heard the sound of an approaching car and smelled gasoline, but nothing was there. After four minutes, a car passed by. Finally, after fifteen years of smoking, I quit. I overcame the fear of pain and started skiing, and I established a good relationship with my parents. But the most important thing is that I stopped struggling against the world.