I did a 7 day silent retreat. Here’s what I learned.

May 10, 2023 0 Comments

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Note: This article mentions sexual assault.

At the start of a recent seven-day silent mindfulness meditation retreat, I wasn’t surprised at how noisy my mind was. I’ve never been known as the quiet type. I got good grades in high school, but I was always talking and handing out notes to my friends. This is pretty much what my meditation practice looked like, except the chatter was internal. I knew that a silent retreat would require a tremendous effort. I was not wrong.

My journal entry from day one says:

The morning meditation was difficult. The first 20 minutes were fine, but then there was restlessness, discomfort and commotion. I reminded myself to focus on my breathing and just experience the discomfort. It would pass. In the meantime, how do I deal with the discomfort? Then chatter: “How long does this meditation last? I thought it was only half an hour! God, don’t tell me it’s 45 minutes! I can’t sit still for that long! Oh! Why am I so cold? It was much warmer in this room yesterday. Time to have breakfast? My feet are freezing! I wonder what will be served for breakfast? Oh! I have to meditate!” Okay, awareness returns to the breath. Fortunately, every breath is an opportunity to start over!

This is what my first silent meditation retreat was supposed to look like. I was there because I signed up for a two-year mindfulness meditation teacher training with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. One of the requirements was to attend week-long silent retreats. For this terrifying prop, I chose the Mount Madonna Women’s Retreat, a retreat center in California founded by the silent monk Sri Baba Das. I had previously been there for a yoga therapy training with Gary Crafts, so I was comfortable with the location. I thought it would help me overcome my reluctance to be silent for so long.

As a yoga and meditation teacher, I often hear comments like, “I can’t meditate; my mind is too busy.’ Well, welcome to the club! After nearly 20 years of teaching, I still need to practice calming and centering my mind. I hoped that silent seclusion would help me cultivate a consistency that would overcome the barriers I often created to sit on my pillow. I hoped to ease my worries by committing.

What I learned in silent meditation

It takes time to penetrate

So what is seven days of silence? For the first couple of days on this retreat, I ran into my standard perfectionism/anxiety mode. Am I doing it right? Do I really need to give up my phone? How will I be silent during this retreat? I found myself placing unrealistic expectations on my work rather than embracing the experience.

Considering how stressed I tend to be, it took me a few more days to let go of the trit. Soon I fell into the rhythm of the daily schedule: I wake up at sunrise; meditate; breakfast; meditate; break; meditate; dinner; meditate; break; meditate; dinner; free time.

Over time, a sense of freedom emerged as the silence allowed me to relax into the process and direct my energy inward. I didn’t feel obligated to engage in social conversation. Silence paved the way for me to relax. It helped cultivate the process of feeding my spiritual growth.

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About halfway through the retreat, I noticed that I became very compassionate and kind to myself. I gave myself what I needed. The weather had gotten really warm and the facility in the mountains surrounding Monterey Bay didn’t have air conditioning, so I took a nap when I got tired of the heat. I went hiking when I felt energized. I participated in the wonderful ceremonies and rituals offered at Mount Madonna. My dog ​​has been at home for the last few weeks so I didn’t give my phone away as suggested. It was important for my peace of mind to check the daily updates, so I allowed myself to do so.

When I returned home, I was surprised to find an unwillingness to let go of the silence. I just didn’t want to say much. I found solace only in my diary. But it only took a few days to return to the usual routine of life. It was then that I realized the value of a daily practice that keeps me on track and moving through life with purpose rather than habit.

As I reflected on my experience, I realized other ways that time in silent meditation had changed my view of the world and myself.

Your nervous system can change

During the first two days of the retreat, I experienced slight leg twitches. It felt as if some high-voltage energy voltage was accidentally leaving my body through my legs. Over time, as the tension changed to relaxation, the twitching disappeared. By giving myself permission to turn off my electronic devices and experience the silence of a remote mountaintop location, I was able to experience what it felt like to turn off the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight switch. I could begin to find comfort in the embrace of parasympathetic “rest and peace.”

Extraneous thoughts become clearer

As my nervous system relaxed over the next few days, I noticed a change in my thinking. My training in mindfulness meditation taught me that the mind can clear extraneous thoughts. Thanks to my personal practice, I have learned not to get attached to those thoughts or emotions that arise. Instead, as they seep to the surface, they can be invited to move up and out of our consciousness like clouds passing through a beautiful blue sky. You may have heard the saying, “You don’t have to believe everything your mind thinks!” Well, you don’t even have to I think about everything you think!

Most of the thoughts I had were unimportant and did not require action; they were just remnants of my mind processing information from my five senses. Gradually these thoughts slowed down and were more like whispers than a loud voice trying to distract and get my attention.

Deep memories can be revived

About four or five days into the retreat, some of the thoughts that came to my mind were memories of situations and events that I hadn’t thought about in years. As I reflected on them, I realized that these memories were part of what shaped me as a person.

At one point, a Linda Ronstadt song stuck in my head, and it brought back a memory of an older man having sex at my friend’s prom. I remember feeling so guilty at the time. (This was before the #metoo movement). Now, looking back, I feel the rage I suppressed 40 years ago. Here is another discomfort for me to sit.

Sad thoughts about my aging dog turned to memories of my dad’s death and I thought about the privilege I had to comfort him as he passed. Being able to sit and reflect on these memories allowed me to understand myself on a deeper level. As I sat with sadness, loss, and grief, I was able to cultivate a genuine compassion. I felt guilty for the care I was able to provide in my dad’s last days. During the meditation, the guilt was replaced by the recognition that I had done my best.

Intuition becomes more accessible

My experience with silent relaxation has helped me to understand that when my mind becomes quiet and focused, I am more open to developing intuition and spiritual guidance. As I have learned to embrace silence, I trust the wisdom of the universe and my own intuition more. I accept the words of St. Teresa: I am “exactly where I am supposed to be.” It is in silence that deep listening and deep understanding takes place.

Practice is a lifelong pursuit

Of course, there are barriers every day that interfere with the time I set aside for silence, but I go to my pillow to find silence and peace. Every day is an opportunity to pause, reflect, and understand how my mind works. Meditation helps me cultivate a more intuitive, intentional way of responding to the circumstances of my life. I realized that my quiet practice was making my life more positive and joyful.

About our contributor

Helen Patrick. E-RYT 500 is a Certified Yoga Therapist and Certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher. She has studied yoga and meditation for over 40 years and taught for over 20. Her passion for sharing the gifts of meditation and yoga was born from her own transformative experiences and a desire to provide tools to ease her suffering for students and readers. She believes that mindfulness creates a more friendly and peaceful existence with yourself, allowing you to flourish in your relationships with yourself, others and the world.

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