Nothing happens at a silent retreat
November 5, 2015 9:29 AM   Subscribe

I'm stuck on part of a short story I'm writing. My main character is at a silent Vipassana retreat, but I'm not comfortable having so much of the action be internal. Aside from natural disasters and the like, what are some weird/dramatic things that could happen there that are realistic?
posted by mermaidcafe to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Bad weather? Food poisoning? Back go out during yoga? Lost luggage?
posted by wenestvedt at 9:32 AM on November 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Just because people aren't talking doesn't mean they aren't communicating. And if people are communicating, there can be conflict.
posted by kindall at 9:33 AM on November 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


Hearing voices.
posted by jimw at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Health problems with an attendee? Heart attack or stroke.

Going more "out there" - a mental break by one of the attendees due to unresolved mental health issues.

The Dark Knight of the Soul
posted by permiechickie at 9:35 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Arrival of an unexpected guest.
One of the participants in the retreat starts talking or singing, possibly ecstatically.
There is a physical accident, as someone drops something. Maybe the chalice.
An important object goes missing.
A quadcopter is seen to be spying on the ground.
Power outage.

Of course, if Miss Marplr or Jesssica Fletcher is in attendance, someone's gonna die.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:39 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


When I did Vipassana one person started building rock sculptures-- you know, the free-standing kind where you simply balance one rock on top of another and try to build a tower as high as you can. Other people picked up on it and it evolved into an informal competition where everyone was trying to build the highest tower. There was no head to head competition, you'd just be walking around the compound and see a new record-high tower someone had built.
posted by Troupe of trained rats at 9:44 AM on November 5, 2015 [12 favorites]


If there is group meditation, and the room is warm and people aren't drinking enough, it's very plausible that someone might faint. That could be odd, frightening, or comical as you wish.

I only say comical because I still remember a kid at my school fainting in a choir practice, right onto a glockenspiel. It was definitely the funniest passing-out I've ever heard.
posted by greenish at 9:46 AM on November 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Are there rules? Someone's breaking the rules and someone else doesn't like it. (Like, maybe someone's sneaking their cellphone, or smoking, or...)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:51 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, I was at a retreat once and an acquaintance who was going through a rough patch (and was a major drama queen to boot, if I'm honest), got up in the middle of a meditation session and ran out of the building screaming. That was pretty dramatic.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:53 AM on November 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Something happens on the outside world, something that people would want to talk about. Some participants learn about it, some don't, and the etiquette of breaking into someone's retreat is complicated.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also, I've served as the head cook at small retreats and that's definitely not really relaxing.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Nothing hugely dramatic, but some odds and ends that have occurred during silent meditation retreats I have been on:

- Guy falling asleep during lying-down meditation, snoring hugely, initiating massive giggling fit that rippled through the room beautifully from person to person even as everyone was struggling to keep it together and not make eye contact. Every time it died down, someone would start again, and it was much funnier than it had any right to be, just because everything was otherwise so peaceful.

- Person texting instructor re: being lost and needing directions. In our case this was nondramatic, just our leader person stepping out for a minute, but I can imagine a more dramatic call could occur.

- Crying fits

- People tripping over each other during walking meditation

- Instructor starting to cry while reading a poem/koan/thing.

Stuff that I could imagine happening but have not actually experienced:
- Building infrastructure issue (power outage? fire alarm?)
- Food allergy to snacks provided by leader for meditative eating purposes
- Injury during yoga postures

Stuff that I have written poems about that I find hilarious but that would probably not happen in your case:
- Meditation class getting together and deciding en masse to eat the instructor as a more direct way of gaining her inner peace.
posted by Stacey at 9:56 AM on November 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


I went on a silent retreat once with a bunch of college classmates for a course and we had a yoga lesson wherein nearly half the class farted when they did downward dog for the first time. I didn't fart; instead I fainted because the combined smell of so many gross farts and the godforsaken incense the retreat coordinators put in every goddam room made me hold my breath for too long.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:57 AM on November 5, 2015 [9 favorites]


Well, if you're looking for "stranger than fiction," there was this weird case at a silent Buddhist retreat that ended in death.
posted by bluefly at 10:14 AM on November 5, 2015


I participated in a Vipassana retreat once, and these are some of the things that took place:

- Farting. So much farting during the meditation, all around you, while you're specifically reminded to keep concentrating on breathing in... Sometimes I had tears flowing from my eyes from straining so hard to stifle my laughter.

- People having explosive diarrhea (I'm sorry this got so scatological, but this was a bunch of Westerners in India).

- Everybody freezing their asses off, unable to communicate it to anyone in charge in order to at least get extra blankets.

- People sneaking outside the retreat for a cigarrette, getting caught.

- I decided to quit halfway through. I was first taken to see Grandmaster McMindfulness to plead my case, and got a furious talking-to before he let me go. Afterwards an organizer told me apologetically that the guru "was not a very compassionate man". (Hey, wasn't compassion one of the main purposes of the whole practice?)

- I had to communicate my decision to leave to my now-husband with improvised sign language. He got the message and followed soon after.

- The next day, another participant wanted to quit. The organizers refused to give him his passport and let him go, so he climbed the fence in the middle of the night. No passport, no money, but he was just happy to bum a cigarrette from us.

So that was it for me, but I've also heard stories of people having wordless sex, and anyway the mood on the final day is supposed to be euphoric. I've also heard it's not uncommon for people to lose their grip, start to hear voices, or cry constantly. And you're not supposed to even notice anyone else's distress.

I've also heard a story of a meditation instruction CD getting stuck, and the ensuing silent confusion when there's no personnel around to fix it, and nobody's even supposed to look at each other to coordinate some kind of solution. Still tickles me.
posted by sively at 10:17 AM on November 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Sex with the teacher and of course lots of hallucinating. They could be linked or not.
posted by cairnoflore at 10:22 AM on November 5, 2015


I went to a Vipassana retreat and there was this one guy ... he had this tendency to bite his lip. A nervous tic I am sure. Every time I went to eat, there he was biting his lip. I could count time by him biting that damn lip of his. At the end of the time, when we were all able to talk again my roommate mentioned that he'd met someone who'd done the course 19 times. It was the guy who bit his lip!

I did a course over the Christmas - New Year break. The minute that we were able to go to our phone lockers, this guy rushed past everyone, hurriedly opened his locker and turned on his phone. Mind you we're in rural Herefordshire. Finally, the bars come up and some people start getting messages. This guy is decked out in leather gym pants and a very fancy sweater. He came to the course with two mates who look just like him. "I didn't get any messages", he announced. The guys, who were maybe an entourage of some kind had absolutely nothing to say to this guy's sadness. It was a very strange moment as I am sure all three were wondering what the future would be like.
posted by parmanparman at 10:32 AM on November 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Vipassana Vendetta.
Vipassana Romance.
posted by janey47 at 10:56 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sharon Salzberg's talk on perspective has an interesting discussion of a retreat in Hawaii where the teachers are informed that an earthquake has occurred and a tsunami *may* be on its way, and there's nothing they can do - too remote to be able to evacuate, etc. - and she is in a conference with a student who is talking about the pain in their knee. She said it was a great way for her to understand the effect of perspective on dhukka. (I *think* it's this talk)
posted by janey47 at 10:59 AM on November 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Spalding Gray, in one of his books (sorry, can't remember which), goes on a retreat and starts having very...entertaining visualizations that just won't stop. You should look it up.
posted by nanook at 11:19 AM on November 5, 2015


9/11
posted by ReluctantViking at 11:31 AM on November 5, 2015


Ooh, or long lost lists see each other for the first time in years.
posted by ReluctantViking at 11:32 AM on November 5, 2015


I actually heard some stories from teachers who were on retreat on 9/11/01 and how they came to the decision to wait to tell the retreatants about the attacks. As someone who does vipassana retreats fairly regularly, I would not want to be told.
posted by janey47 at 11:40 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a book, In Search of the Warrior Spirit by Richard Strozzi-Heckler, about an experiment in which Army Rangers were taught Aikido.

Part of the class involved an extended meditation retreat during which the Rangers had to give up alcohol, tobacco, and meat and spend most of the day meditating (I'm not sure if this was Vipassana, but I suspect that wouldn't have changed anything in their responses). Strozzi-Heckler relates that some of them took well to the meditation, and some of them really did not and became really angry.

He suggests that the act of meditation itself might have allowed submerged feelings to come to the fore. Alternate possibilities, such as nicotine deprivation pissing people off, or anger at the idea of having to spend more time doing something that seemed to them completely useless, weren't floated by the author, but they come readily to mind.

You could use this as a potential source of dramatic tension. If you want to keep things simple, I'd go with sively's idea of someone sneaking out for a cigarette. Of course, this means that someone has to supply the cigarette, which could lead to interesting developments.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 11:47 AM on November 5, 2015


Bird hits a window?
posted by Gilbert at 11:57 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Adam Cadre wrote an article about his miserable experience at one of these retreats. A lot of neat details. For example, one of the rules at the retreat is that it's 100% vegetarian, stated as "no killing". Unfortunately this means no killing of the ants swarming in his room either. The intense focus can also apparently lead to hallucination.
posted by rollick at 12:07 PM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh boy, creepy insects. Or snakes.
posted by Namlit at 12:14 PM on November 5, 2015


My favorite story from a silent meditation retreat my sister went on was how she decided she detested this one other woman on the retreat by the way she sat when she ate. And she really respected this other guy by the way he walked.
Then the last day they were able to talk to each other about an hour from the end and everyone was completely different from the random personas my sister had created for them in her head.
posted by rmless at 12:30 PM on November 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Someone is easily offended by a quirk of someone else's practice, setting off a slow arms race of passive aggressive actions.

Someone has an annoying trait (whistles loudly through nose while breathing, clears throat constantly) and silently the gang pulls through to offer an ingenious solution.
posted by theefixedstars at 12:40 PM on November 5, 2015


My favorite story from a silent meditation retreat my sister went on was how she decided she detested this one other woman on the retreat by the way she sat when she ate. And she really respected this other guy by the way he walked.

Then the last day they were able to talk to each other about an hour from the end and everyone was completely different from the random personas my sister had created for them in her head.


This. Silent practice and our craving for social interaction creates so much room to project all kinds of stuff onto other people. You can easily get into a situation where A sincerely thinks of B as an arch-rival for someone's attention, or a manipulative piece of shit, or an amazing leader sacrificing herself for the good of the group, or whatever, and meanwhile B has no idea that any of this is going on (and is maybe caught up in their own projected drama with C, who meanwhile...).
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:50 PM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've done a lot of these. Things that have happened:
-people fainting during standing meditation (many times, can be very scary if person is old or weak)
-somebody developed a crush on me and followed me around handing me notes
-somebody gets angry at a teacher and screams at them (never in a group, but in a silent retreat you can hear screaming through many walls)
-people hearing voices or having panic attacks for other reasons
-extreme weather even necessitates everyone performing extra work in silence or evacuating buildings
-people get sick and need care but refuse to leave retreat
-people overwhelmed by feelings of togetherness give out chocolates or similar, starting chaotic chain of gifts, public messages of support, etc.

I don't mean to be flippant about these things. Retreats are intense crucibles and I feel that each of these things has been understandable in its own way.
posted by Cygnet at 1:50 PM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


My favorite story from a silent meditation retreat my sister went on was how she decided she detested this one other woman on the retreat by the way she sat when she ate. And she really respected this other guy by the way he walked.

Then the last day they were able to talk to each other about an hour from the end and everyone was completely different from the random personas my sister had created for them in her head.

This. Silent practice and our craving for social interaction creates so much room to project all kinds of stuff onto other people. You can easily get into a situation where A sincerely thinks of B as an arch-rival for someone's attention, or a manipulative piece of shit, or an amazing leader sacrificing herself for the good of the group, or whatever, and meanwhile B has no idea that any of this is going on (and is maybe caught up in their own projected drama with C, who meanwhile...).


This is what we call "vipassana vendetta" and/or "vipassana romance". It's a known hazard. Most teachers I've sat with will mention it so that if it happens to you, you'll know what's going on.

I mostly get REALLY PISSED OFF at the noise people make, either because of clothing rustling (HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW HOW MUCH NOISE THAT MATERIAL MAKES) or because they break some rule or other (I'm a "angry" type, so I follow rules closely).

The benefit is that if you are seated near someone who is a good example, it can actually heighten your own practice.
posted by janey47 at 3:26 PM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Your character could run into someone important from their past. Someone to whom your character needs to communicate for some reason. Or someone your character doesn't recognize is desperately trying to communicate to them but can't for some reason.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 4:43 PM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Kundalini awakening crisis. There may be better descriptions but this one may give you some ideas. I've never experienced it but I've heard it can be pretty intense. I've also heard of people faking it, so there is that too.
posted by BoscosMom at 4:47 PM on November 5, 2015


-A fire.
-Someone has a heart attack.
-Someone stumbles off a cliff or balcony.
-The person running/hosting/whatever disappears or runs away or something.
-Someone flips out and screams because they can't take the silence any longer.
-Character encounters someone from his/her past.
-Character hallucinates or has a dream sequence.
-Character does drugs and hallucinates or does something crazy.
-Character sees something that triggers a flashback to another part of their life.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:52 PM on November 5, 2015


Silent metaphors.
As your character walks along the nature path, what does a frog do that implies something about the plot? How do the trees lean on or push against each other?

Or could we be surprised to overhear loud sex at the silent retreat?
posted by jander03 at 5:46 AM on November 6, 2015


I should also add that the food is all you can eat at these places so people end up being total gluttons because they realise after day one that they can only eat fruit and teas after two o'clock. The banana scramble is how one old timer explained it to me.
posted by parmanparman at 7:43 AM on November 6, 2015


What are the squirrels and birds outside your protag's window up to?
posted by Jacqueline at 10:55 AM on November 6, 2015


Lots of odd things happen:
1. One guy meditating behind me started hitting me during seated meditation. When I turned around it looked like he was having a stroke. The instructors "woke him" and he had no recollection of the flailing around he was doing. He was fine afterwards
2. Men think about food, sex, and the Star Wars films, and not much else. I rewatched Empire in my mind about 8 times
3. At the end when you can speak, it takes about an hour or two to actually start speaking cause you haven't done that in 2 weeks
4. One guy I spoke with gave everyone super-hero names. "Military Hat Guy" was one, I forget the rest, they were funny if nothing else.
5. I also realized I should open a McDonalds/brothel down the road from the place
posted by Farce_First at 2:14 PM on November 7, 2015


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