Lessons in Isolation: How a 10-Day Silent Retreat in Japan’s Countryside Helped Me Cope With the Covid ‘New Reality’

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In February 2020, shortly before the coronavirus crisis fully hit Japan, I went on a silent meditation retreat in the middle of the Japanese countryside. This is how it helped me prepare for our new way of life.

“Oh, and there’s one more thing,” our teacher says, unfolding a crumpled piece of paper. 

I’m crammed with 60 students in a makeshift classroom in the middle of Chiba’s countryside for the final lesson of our silent meditation retreat. Ten days of pain, hunger and social deprivation had schooled us into graduates of Vipassana, the orthodox meditation style taught in 94 countries. For those unfamiliar with its influence, Vipassana’s advocates include everyone from prominent CEOs to bronzed influencers recently booted from the beach and forced to #quarantineandchill. 

Certified with a prestigious diploma in zen, we were ready to be released back into the world with no clue that in the meantime the world had essentially gone
to sh*t.

“The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus 2019 to be a global health emergency. You should avoid crowds and stay at home,” our teacher announces. Someone tentatively raises their hand and asks, “So, like, can we just stay here?”

New Year, Fresh Start 

January 2020: Newly jobless and single, and reeling from a challenging year that included being hit by a car and burgled (thankfully not at the same time), I needed a break. So I followed in the footsteps of a high-strung colleague who had gone on a Vipassana residential course the previous summer and emerged so serene she even talked slower. 

Learning the fundamentals dictated a spartan curriculum of all-day meditation, strict abstinence and a vow of silence. In my mind, this sounded like a relaxing way to detox, shed those holiday pounds and avoid having to talk to people. “I just need to be alone,” I told curious friends after I’d secured a place on a course at the Dhamma Adicca Vipassana Meditation Centre in Chiba. 

Expectations vs. Reality

Day one of waking up in darkness was a reminder to always read the fine print. At 4:30am, I was sat cross-legged in a freezing hall as pre-recorded instructions from SN Goenka, the Burmese father of modern-day Vipassana, asked us to simply concentrate on the breath going in and out of the nostrils for the next 10 hours. “Was it stronger in the right or the left? Just observe,” he crooned over the speakers.

After about a second someone sniffed. Another person started adjusting their blanket and clearly couldn’t find a warm enough arrangement. Over the other side of the hall, a chorus of stomachs began questioning when breakfast might be. The point, Goenka said, was to sharpen the awareness of our minds. We needed to build up stamina for mental stillness by repeatedly bringing our concentration back to the breath, just as you might build a booty through endless squat reps (though he didn’t use that metaphor). 

“The militant timetable of meditation, twice daily meals and exercise in the yard made me want to scream.”

By day three, the novelty had worn off to be replaced by a stabbing sensation in my actual buttcheeks. Minutes felt like hours. It was impossible to stop my mind from slopping all over the place like a drunk salaryman on the Yamanote line.

Day four we were told that the first three days were just a warm-up. Again, we followed along with the voice, but this time we had to scan our bodies and watch out for any sensations. Heat here. An itch there. Numbness, well, everywhere. Once we’d found the sensation we simply had to … do absolutely nothing. 

In Vipassana, mental and physical pain are inextricably linked. When something frightens us, our heart rate quickens; angers us, our chests tighten. Through the practice, you learn to observe these bodily reactions and bring yourself back to balance. With this holistic training, you should eventually find yourself batting away whatever turd life pitches at you with perfect equanimity.

Gradually, it did get easier. By day six, I was able to stretch the periods of mental stillness further. When my calves burned with cramp on day eight, I didn’t budge. By day nine, I relished the chance to be alone with my thoughts so I could slap them down like a game of Whack-A-Mole. On that final day in the dining hall, I was deeply upset that my time in isolation was over. Lolz.

Coping with Isolation

As Covid-19 tightens its grip on Japan, medical experts warn of an “emotional pandemic,” a global rise in mental health issues triggered by the virus and compounded by the disorienting effects of social distancing. #Stayhome memes make fun of the fact that we’re not getting dressed and are drinking more. But these are signs of the spread of another pandemic: depression. 

While I couldn’t use the center as a hiding place to wait out the virus, I did get to experience a bootcamp in enduring isolation before Japan’s state of emergency came into force. Some of the lessons were inadvertent — like how establishing a routine is so important. During the course, the militant timetable of meditation, twice daily meals and exercise in the yard made me want to scream. In hindsight, I can see how it gave us much-needed stability. If you’re working from home, it’s easy to divide the day into coffee time and wine time. Make sure to get up, sleep and eat food on a regular schedule so you don’t end up drifting, killing the hours with worry.

“When the code of silence was lifted, the joy of being able to connect with people was almost overwhelming.”

Exercise also helps. In Chiba, jogging and yoga were deemed too distracting so we’d workout by circling the small patch of grass next to the dorms. I’d try to go fast, looking (and feeling) like a total loon. After 15 minutes, I’d realize I’d power-walked a fair distance and the dopamine hit gave me the energy to meditate again. A Tokyo-sized apartment likely has the equivalent area of that piece of lawn, but you have a virtual library of workout videos and live classes to mix things up. As studies show, lack of exercise can double your risk of depression – not a statistic you want to entertain when you might already feel lousy.

Another unexpected lesson I took home from the retreat was the relief of a forced media diet. Without my phone, I missed the news so much I took to reading the back of my shampoo bottle. But I recognize that the current freedom to view the latest headlines at a whim is unhelpful. WHO recommends checking the news only once a day. Even then it should mainly be for gleaning practical information. 

Instead, use your data to chat with loved ones. Not talking to anyone for long periods is not nearly as freeing as I thought. Actually, it’s awful. When the code of silence was lifted at the end of the course, the joy of being able to connect with people was almost overwhelming. Interaction, even virtual, is an undeniable mood booster.

“Our teacher told us to always remember that we were not alone.”

What about meditation? That thing I did in the dark for 100 hours. Its benefits might already be familiar: reduced stress, enhanced concentration and improved emotional well-being among others. You don’t have to sit with the lights off or fight pins and needles – Vipassana is just one type of meditation. There are lots of alternatives to explore.

For me, Vipassana meditation has proven to be a reliable weapon when negative thoughts have reared their heads. I’m generally able to sit with anxiety, fear and sadness and see them for what they are: sensations. Then, they pass. Before the coronavirus bombshell was dropped in the dining hall, our teacher told us to always remember that we were not alone, that there was a global community of Vipassana students, old and new, where we could seek support and friendship. 

Social distancing and self-isolation are part of an unfamiliar battleground for us all. Lessons about the profound future repercussions of coronavirus are coming to light each day. It’s clear that we’re all having to learn a lot, fast. But it’s comforting to know that we’re in it together. 

For more information on Vipassana, including where to find and book a course, go to www.dhamma.org

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