Silence in Sri Lanka
I was nervous and excited, unsure of what to expect from 5 days living in silence with complete strangers at Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre. I’d practiced quite a bit of mediation before, but not so much seated meditation and certainly not sitting for hours in the same space for 8 hours a day.
Upon my arrival I was greeted by one of the volunteers, who took me immediately to the dining hall for lunch in silence. I was pleasantly surprised with the food, it was delicious vegetarian rice and curry. Still my favourite food so far in Sri Lanka. I was then given some instructions on etiquette, a pillow, blanket, sheet, four candles and a box of matches, before being shown to the room. Which was pretty much as I had expected, a modest room with two (big enough to sleep on without moving) concrete beds and mattresses, two cupboards, side tables, and a lampshade made out of a plastic butter container lid : ) The electricity is limited so you are encouraged not to use much and told to bring a torch and an alarm clock to get you out of bed at 4.45am for 5am group meditation.
As more guests arrived, I unpacked in my room and the introvert in me really hoped I wouldn’t get a roommate to share my tiny room, as I embarked on my week of introspection.
We were told to be at the dining hall at 3.30pm for tea before starting our first group meditation. It felt so strange to be sat in a room with people being silent. I felt awkward and at a loss of where to look. A little bit like being on the tube in London but with friendlier faces and instead of being on a train you are in Sri Lanka on top of a mountain surrounded by glorious, unspoilt nature.
4pm and onto the meditation hall, where we were met by Upul Nishantha Gamage. Upul is one incredibly wise, humble and generous soul and the main facilitator and meditation teacher at Nilambe. He runs retreats here for people in the hope that they will begin to ‘see reality through mindful composure’ or to ‘see things as they really are’ through sitting in silence and through practising specific mediation techniques. For the first two days during group meditation, we practiced ‘Ãnãpãnasati’ which is Pali for ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’. Where all we do is focus on the breath, the natural breath.
“To rise from this mechanical, depleted, imprisoned life of slavery and to liberate yourself, just know that you are inhaling and exhaling. If someone knows that they are breathing, they are a living being. They are awake and not asleep, not a dead body but a living being, a vigilant person. There are two ways of living, either as a dead person or as a living one.” - Upul
Your body aches, goes numb and you get pins & needles when you sit so long in one position. We are taught to sit through the pain and watch it disappear as it eventually will… because everything is impermanent, even pain. Easier said than done, your mind really works hard to get you to move! The whole process of mediation is about not controlling your thoughts but gently bringing your awareness to a point and when the mind wanders, which it will. You are asking as you would ask a dear friend, to please come back to the breath. There is no sense in fighting with the mind, only making friends with the mind. ♡ This way we can become more aware of our thoughts, rather than running away with them.
After an hour group mediation we head out into the garden for nature meditation. One of my favourite parts of the day! We just sit and take in the nature, just observing and focusing all our awareness on the wonders of nature. After a whole day of meditation, your awareness is in such a heightened state, that when you arrive at this point it can feel like you’re on acid or ecstacy, hypnotised by the leaves blowing in the wind or being so content in watching a butterfly or an ant go about its business. When the gong sounds we head to the dining hall to be greeted with a light snack of white bread, butter and jam (my least favourite meal of the day). We are given a light meal in the evening because by this point our bodies are so tired and it will be harder for us to stay awake during the evening chanting and meditation while our bodies are working hard to digest and as we are are sitting most of the day we don’t burn a lot of energy. So we don’t need a huge amount of food. As with everything at Nilambe we do things mindfully, this includes eating. How often do you eat just because it’s lunch time or dinner time, not because you are actually hungry? If we are mindful we can listen to our body and know when we are actually hungry. Which is why intermittent fasting is something I have started recently, which has left me feeling lighter and I somehow seem to have more energy after fasting for 16 hours at a time.
Every evening at 6.40pm was chanting in the meditation hall, which at first we were all a bit quiet with but by the end everyone started getting more involved. Then more group meditation and discussion time with Upul. Where we are free to ask any question and Upul will answer. When he speaks he is meditating, with his eyes closed, he thinks very carefully and takes his time before speaking or answering a question. Speaking in constant, wonderful metaphors and he always addresses us with ‘Dear Friends’. The first day I don’t think anyone was brave enough to ask a question but as the days went on we got into some juicy topics like ‘Enlightenment/awakening’, ‘how to practice love and compassion with people who have hurt you or your family?’ and ‘why was there a bucket tied to the ceiling?’. You know, all the usual philosophical subjects.
And then off to bed at 9pm, with no room mate. Yes!
As day two rolled around I was already feeling really happy, Nilambe had such a nice feeling, I loved being in nature and I love being quiet. How nice it was not to have to make small talk with people and just be able to sit together in silence. Aside from the 4.45am gong, after 5am mediation, tea and self practice yoga at 6.30am in the yoga hall you are feeling pretty damn good. After yoga is breakfast and then working mediation begins. Which can consist of anything from sweeping of paths, gardening, cleaning toilets, etc. I really enjoyed helping in the kitchen and helping Upul restock his literature. On the last day I cleaned the library, which is locked during retreats. It’s filled with books on every religion, meditation, every yoga book, and lots of different books on philosophy. You could spend another few months there just reading them all. You are invited to stay on a few days after the retreat if you so wish. I don’t think anyone did, but I was considering it. Working meditation was very important according to Upul as life is mediation and mediation is life. So working meditation teaches us to be mindful in everyday life and it also allows us to experience kindness, Mettã and patience by serving others.
Then we sit again for more group mediation, before lunch and rest time for an hour and then more of the same in the afternoon, yep you guessed it. More meditation! By bedtime you are completely knackered and my sleep was filled with dreams that were really vivid. I remembered every detail each morning.
Day three and I’m feeling properly blissed out, although I’d been struggling with the breath awareness. Whenever I brought my awareness to the breath my mind would begin to control it and rather than being aware, I was forcing the breath. I met with Upul to discuss this and he tells me this is totally normal and it will come when the mind is ready. Try to focus awareness on the body or to the sounds around you.
Today we were allowing our thoughts to just flow and observe them without latching on to them. I found this much easier and quite enjoyable, like watching tv almost! It’s so interesting to observe your thoughts. We have 50,000- 70,000 thoughts per day, which means we have between 35-48 thoughts per minute. Upul teaches us how to create some space between ourselves and our thoughts and reminds us that we are not our thoughts or our emotions. Once we can sit and take the time to notice just what is going on within us, it will help us to not cling to those thoughts and emotions and see them for what they really are. Just thoughts. And thoughts create emotions. Thoughts pass, emotions pass, everything passes, because everything is impermanent. Once we can understand this, it will help us to understand ourselves, our patterns and behaviours much more and with more love and compassion. In turn this will help us to live more honest, loving and fulfilling relationships with others. Because after all we are all humans and although sometimes our ego may tell us we are amazing, none of us are perfect. We are human and we have faults. It’s about accepting these faults and being kind to ourselves. ‘Be your own best friend’ as Upul would put it.
The days begin to feel like weeks as day four chugs in. Being so mindful of everything you really savour the moment and it feels like so much has happened in each day. I had really started to go into myself, each session was a new realisation, my fears, my thoughts, my past, my present and what I want for myself in the future all becoming clear. Day four and five we practised Mettã (loving kindness) meditation, where we meditate on the heart and we send kind thoughts to ourselves and then to the people we love and then to the people who have hurt us. It’s quite a powerful process and definitely gives you the warm and fuzzies.
Day five was beautiful, we had group meditation outside by the pond and practiced more Mettã, forgiving ourselves and then others for past mistakes. He said our hearts are as delicate and as soft as the petals of a flower. Which made me cry. Obviously. I thought of all people who had hurt me and all the stupid things I’d ever done and realised that on most occasions, every time I’d been hurt, was a result of me or them acting out of fear. And I forgave everyone including myself.
He then gave another enlightening talk about attachment and how we attach to ourselves rather than be our own best friends. And therefore we attach to others in this way. And that we need to bring awareness to the inner judge within all of us, constantly judging ourselves and others. The perfections that we expect of ourselves, and when we fail to live up to those perfections our inner judge punishes us, by not letting us sleep or eat for example. And how practising Mettã can help to cultivate the love within us.
And then to top off the love, a van load of local villagers came over to bring us lunch that they had made us to say thank-you for coming all this way to Sri Lanka to learn about Buddhism. Honestly the kindness is too much! My heart may burst! And it was the best food, made with pure love ♡
Some more subtle tears during the afternoon mediation and then a walking mediation up to the top of the mountain to most stunning view over the mountains and a magic sunset that we all watched together in beautiful silence.
On the day we leave, the retreat finishes at lunchtime and we are allowed to talk to each other for the first time! Even though I had already broken my silence on a few occasions already ; ) We got to learn everyone’s name and where they are from, what they are doing and how their experience was. We had so much to talk about that we all met up in Kandy that evening for drinks and talked about absolutely everything we couldn’t talk about for the whole week into the late evening hours.
I left Nilambe feeling like a different person, with a calmer mind, a lighter heart and a wealth of knowledge. Since the retreat I’m sticking to a daily meditation practice of 20 mins every morning and making an effort to be more mindful in everything I do.
And this was just a warm up, for the next challenge... the 10 day silent Vipassana next month. OMG!!
THE WAY TO PRACTICE DHAMMA (General Timetable)
04.45am Wake-up Gong
05:00 am - 06.00am Guided Meditation
06.00am - 06.30am Tea
06.30am - 07.30am Mindfulness In Motion *(Self practice)
07.30am - 08.00am Breakfast
08.00am - 09.30am Working Meditation
09.30am - 11.00am Guided Meditation (standing/sitting/walking)
11.00am - 11.45am Talk
12:00pm - 02.00pm Lunch, Reflection and Rest
02.00pm - 02.30pm Walking Meditation
02.30pm - 03.30pm Group Meditation
03.30pm - 04.30pm Herbal drink/Working Meditation
04.30pm - 05.30pm Group Meditation
06.00pm - 06.40pm Evening Snack
06.40pm - 09.00pm Chanting, Group Meditation and Discussion
The cost is only to cover the food and accommodation, Upul does not take any money for his teachings, they are completely free along with his countless library of free literature, he has written that you are welcome to take with you. You are welcome to leave a donation and it is for a wonderful cause.
Please contact Centre via email and be patient until you get a reply. No phone line or Electricity in the Centre.
Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre
Please visit Retreats page to know the available retreat dates and fill the Application Form if you wish to stay at Nilambe Meditation Centre.
It is not possible to stay other than scheduled retreats. As there are limited rooms you have to make a reservation at least three weeks before to the arrival date.