Interest: Vipassana Silent Retreat – Can Vital

“Your body is always present.” This is what our teacher Christiane Wolf suggests in her Dharma talk at the retreat. Vipassana means “seeing clearly” or “insight meditation” , or  “التأمل الواعي” in Arabic. It concentrates on bringing awareness to our body and its sensations. Observing our thoughts and emotions without judgment, observing them just as they come and go. This mindfulness technique helps reduce stress and anxiety according to research, and from personal experience, it backs up this claim. It is a secular method of meditation with roots from Buddhist teachings.  Anyone from any religion or background can practice it. The schedule for the day at the retreat starts at 7 a.m. with an hour of stretching and a body scan meditation, followed by breakfast at 8 am, then back to the meditation hall for a silent meditation lasting 30 to 45 mins.  Then comes the walking meditation (30 mins), which consists of slow and mindful short walks, back and forth between sitting and walking meditation until lunch at 12:30 p.m.  A resting break follows until 3 p.m. where we do yoga outdoors on the deck, then we head back to the meditation hall with a talk about mindfulness techniques with a “loving kindness” meditation, which consists of sending love and compassion to people of your choosing; people you may like or dislike, to yourself or generally to all humankind. Dinner is at 6 p.m., and the final meditation of the day is in silence before bedtime at 9 p.m.

This repeats for:

One week 

Outskirts of Barcelona

Mountains of Mediona Catalonia 

We sit, alone

Twenty other meditators

Middle of nowhere

Fourteen nationalities 

All over the world

In a circle

Eyes closed

Breathing together

Into our minds

Understanding, curious, open

What our next thought will be 

Here and now

Alone, with others 

We listen to our brains

Our bodies 

Talk to us in silence

Yet so much chatter 


Here and now

Silence in our hearts

All to come to one understanding

Everything we do is in our heads. 

We were sitting, walking, eating, breathing, and sleeping in silence.

I struggled the first few days.  Leaving my kids, husband, family and friends behind as if I am now dead, with no trace of me, and all communication stands still for one week. Awaiting my awakening, or better yet, my understanding of the human brain. I didn’t see how much I was naturally distracted when I first realized that I couldn’t sit still by simply doing nothing.  I couldn’t read a book, listen to music or check my phone, which are things you do when you are alone right? Not in a silent retreat. You just sit down and watch your crazy brain go, just observing, until you are reminded by yourself to come back to either your breath, or sensations in your body.  Our body, which is always present.

This was my first retreat, a silent one! I was full of love and frustration at the same time.  I wanted to learn and get out of my comfort zone and I did, but I didn’t know how to be fully there, as my mind kept pulling me to moments and thoughts in the past or the future.  Every time I tried to be in the present I set a goal for the future.  For example, during a seated meditation, I was thinking about lunch time, or when I will go on my next hike, my mind racing and always wanting to do something, unable to be still.  This was my biggest challenge, more so than not talking which I was okay with.  My challenge was to find a way to just be there without thinking of the future or the past. I had a few glimpses of myself in the present moment but if you added them all up, they would barely make up a full day out of the seven days at the retreat! Sitting in silence doing nothing may create a different experience for each one of us, but in my opinion might result in the same outcome. We all come out of it better humans. Less angry or frustrated and more kind to ourselves and others. More compassionate and understanding of ourselves and others. I always say that everyone has a story, and we may all be suffering in our own way.  When I say suffering I mean, the stress and worry we carry in our heads, the inner voice that talks to us all the time through the good, the bad and the ugly.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned from the talks were: The 5 Mental Hindrances for being in the moment are:

1- Sleepiness. 

2- Restlessness and anxiousness. 

3- Wanting mind through the five senses.

4- Not wanting mind and ill will.

5- Doubt.

And Tara Brach R.A.I.N method to practice radical compassion, which stands for:

  • Recognize what is happening;
  • Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
  • Investigate with interest and care;
  • Nurture with self-compassion.

Other topics included the differences between empathy and compassion which was a huge light bulb moment for me. Empathy is important to feel someone else’s experience, but sometimes it can have a bad effect on us especially if we take the pain of others as ours. Compassion on the other hand, is being kind and understanding of someone else’s suffering without embodying the pain.  You let it go through you without clinging or identifying with the suffering and pain. This way you can help people or help yourself without the emotional burnout. Of course, too much compassion and empathy can be harmful in both instances, especially with a selfish approach to be compassionate and empathetic.  That is why wise compassion is more balanced. Knowing when to help and when to be there can make a huge difference. 

I have learnt so much and it was totally worth the mental suffering.  I had to get out of my comfort zone to grow and be more mature about life. It was also good to slow down, especially in a world where everything moves so fast and so much is demanding our attention. I think I might do this once a year. Can Vital is such a beautiful property owned by a Danish architect and his Spanish wife. They rent it to all kinds of retreats. It has around 13 rooms, a beautiful kitchen garden, where our Chef, Cissi got most of the vegetables from.  She fed our souls impeccable vegan/vegetarian home cooked food while we meditated and sat in silence. The place has a sauna room, swimming pool, outdoor deck for yoga, indoor meditation hall, gym and dining /tea room.

The place was surrounded by beautiful views and trails, so its nature alone can heal, let alone the silence and meditation. Atmajyoti, which is a yoga center based in Sweden run by Vivika, was in charge of all our needs and demands and organized the whole retreat. I recommend any kind of retreat like the one I did once a year for mental and physical health. 


Books: Waking Up – Sam Harris

Before reading this book, I knew it would be challenging. Not only because I just recently had a newborn baby, but as is the case with Sam Harris, what the author frequently attempts to make us understand is beyond the capacity of our evolutionary brains to digest simply and effortlessly. Sam Harris has fascinating ideas, he makes the reader think outside the box, in a manner beyond what our genes and neurons are designed or accustomed to do. In Waking Up, he presents his view of the self, or the I, the ego, the ghost in the machine, the thinking narrator in your head,  That voice that just won’t give, it won’t shut up.  And what is the view, it is that ALL of this is an illusion!

I know, it was hard for me to digest as well, and had me wondering who it was really that decided which route to run this morning, or why I would prefer muffins over cupcakes? Well, according to Harris, {you} have already decided, or more correctly, {your brain} has the decision made way before we act on the consideration and the decision itself. In sequence, we are a product of our thoughts, and our thoughts a product of our consciousness, followed by our consciousness being a  product of our brain. These are just a few of the many factors that makes us who we feel we are;  our genes, surrounding environment, our direct and indirect experiences play vital roles. The main issue here to focus on is back to that damn voice in our heads, narrating everything we do.  So constant and not shutting off for one second, yet the identity of this narrator remains a mystery.  Who is doing that? In fact, there is no one.

According to Harris, we think that there is someone in our heads, and this might have something to do with the cerebral cortex, the Amygdala and other components of the brain that creates in us this illusion. To expand on this, our brains function in a linear manner.  To describe the operation of the brain in the form of linear function, questions like “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” and “Who created the creator?” might mimic the activity of its form of function.  In essence, a cause and effect form of thinking, but in fact we cannot think this way about the way we think anymore.  We need to expand in broader dimensions, taking into consideration breakthrough after breakthrough being made concerning the universe and our immediate surroundings.  There is a need to rewire our brains, by going against the grain of its evolution in order to better understand (again) what the universe is made up of or who we truly are!

I find Harris’ idea liberating just thinking of it in theory, even if it is still not fully understood.  It is like quantum mechanics, it is there, it is relevant, but it is very rare to have someone fully explain it properly! To put things further into perspective, I would like to share an experiment I read about from another book called The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood, also strongly recommended. OK so try this at home. Stand in front a mirror about two feet away and move your eyeball side to side without moving your head. See if you can notice the eye shifting. Now call someone to stand next to you, and let them see if they can observe the eye shifting. I want you to try this and if you happen to realize something, think about it.  I won’t say what it is here, but it has to do with the idea of self illusion. It is very interesting, trust me!

In conclusion, what I liked about this book is that it speaks to the reader from a secular point of view, regarding a subject that is in us all.  We are all spiritual in one way or another, for me, it is when I am afloat in an outdoor swimming pool looking at the clouds above, and slowly I  carry my gaze outwards, creating a three dimensional ‘reference view’ of where I am at that moment, at that particular spot on this earth, and that image in that particular spot of our vast universe. It’s in these moments of cognisant insignificance, created by the ‘significant’ mumblings of my mind and the daily interactions of my life that make me feel spiritual.  The dichotomy is difficult, actually quite sad to accept, but the abundance of beauty, whether in nature or in our bonds makes it easier to swallow.  With this in mind, and with Harris’ ability to rid the subject matter of any connection to religion or new age movements, Waking Up presents the realization to selflessness through meditation and dedication to the thinking of thinking.  A requirement, one hell of a complex brain, and the ability to explore it. Enjoy!!!

Music: Ma – Guru Ganesha Singh & Snatam Kaur

Articles: Can Meditation Make You a More Compassionate Person?

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