Lessons From A Silent Retreat
I guess that – maybe – in my frantic preparations to pack for the five-day mindfulness retreat, I may have missed the instructions. I knew to bring loose clothing for yoga, comfy outfits for long stretches of sitting meditations, and plenty of paper to write down my reflections along the way. I knew to bring an appetite to engage in new practices, to be ready to come out of my comfort zone, and that – despite the relaxing allure – the days would be end-to-end, filled with hard work.
So when I sat down for the opening session and looked down at the agenda in front of me, I mentally checked off all the activities ahead that I knew to expect. Yoga? Check. Meditation? Check. Study? Check. 18 hours per day in silence? Not so much…
Somehow I had missed the note about silence in the description of the retreat, and all of a sudden I felt completely unprepared for the days ahead. How would I connect home? How would I process my experiences? If the meals are bland, how would I ask people to pass the salt?
Five minutes into it, I get it. I totally get it. The silence is beautiful. The birds outside are cooperating nicely and chirping a magnificent backdrop for our first moments of silence. I’m steadily approaching Bliss.
Ten minutes in, I’ve achieved Nirvana. I am pure consciousness. This is what it’s all about, folks. I peek around the room, wondering if my fellow participants have joined me on this new, higher level of being. A thought creeps into my head: It could get lonely up here.
Twelve minutes in, I start thinking about my kids. Then my wife. Then work. Then work some more.
Seventeen minutes in: When’s lunch?
Leading up to the silence, I become intensely anxious. I spend the first 20 minutes of silence watching my mind race back and forth between things I have to do back home and reasons why a silent retreat isn’t right for me. When my mind finally exhausts itself, I enter into a true silence, and observe what happens.
My shoulders start to relax from their perpetual tightness. My breath slows down, and my heart rate follows suit. It only lasts for a few precious moments, but precious they are.
Days 3 through 5
Follow this trajectory as I slowly give myself up to the silence, and observe – happily – the results. When we come out of silence for the final time and circle around for the closing session, I assign myself some homework. In addition to the regular meditation practice that is a required part of this program, I also push myself to experience more moments of silence. So – in silence – I write out my challenges:
- Spend the first 15 minutes at work without talking. What do you hear?
- Every day, walk around the block once or twice without talking. Resist the urge to multitask and make a phone call by leaving your phone behind.
- Next time you’re in a coffee shop or restaurant by yourself, try eating or drinking without talking to anyone, and without relying on your phone for entertainment. Does the coffee taste different? Does the food?
- In the car, try turning off the radio and driving in silence. What thoughts come to mind?
I don’t know what I will discover in the silence to come, but – after surprising myself by surviving five days of it – I’m eager to find out.
August 22, 2019