What It’s Like to Go on a Silent Meditation Retreat: The Strange, the Challenging, and the Ahh-MAZE-ing!

Silent Meditation Retreat 1I’ve just returned from a weeklong retreat in Northern California that was part silent meditation retreat and part mindfulness education training. While I know this post cannot possibly convey the full extent of the AMAZINGNESS that I experienced on retreat, I want to share what it was like to take a brief dip into the deep-end of the meditation pool!

Silence

I worried about the silent portion of the retreat {see Exhibit A}, but it ended up being delicious.

Exhibit A:

{and lots of people did wear makeup. I mean, there’s SUNSCREEN in it and all…}

We spent two and a half days in silence. “Silence” meant no talking or communicating (hand signals were not allowed), no reading, no writing, no checking email or Facebook or connecting at all with the online world. We ate all our meals in silence. It was a complete “going within,” with the gentle and kind instruction to simply “Do YOU.” {We did have opportunities to ask questions of the teachers during silence}.

The strange & challenging

It’s a very different way of being in the world when you “go inside.” We were told not to make eye contact with others or do things like holding doors for people. THAT WAS REALLY WEIRD. I had a hard time stifling my inner “Minnesota nice” and I really wanted to smile and say “Good Morning!” to everyone I saw. Once we broke silence, I felt like Buddy the Elf: “Smiling’s my FAVORITE!”

During silence, I alternated between feelings of “this is AWESOME and I totally need to go on a 10-day silent retreat!!” to “this is the most ridiculous thing I have ever done and I think I am going to go crazy!” {Often within a fifteen-minute span of time!}

I went through a period when I convinced myself my roommate was REALLY mad at me. I mean, she didn’t talk to me or even look at me for TWO WHOLE DAYS! When you live with another person for two days and don’t speak, your natural inclination is to think something is wrong, to think YOU have done something wrong. But it was all in my head. Isn’t that how a lot of it is? The stories in our heads are often in complete misalignment with reality.

The amazing

It hadn’t even occurred to me before the retreat how liberating it would be to have permission to not engage in small talk, to not feel like I needed to fill the silence to avoid a sense of awkwardness.

It’s amazing to live for a few days with EVERYTHING stripped away — so many of the “things” we do during the day are often strategies to avoid our thoughts and the mess in our heads. It was incredibly powerful to have the gift of time to explore my inner world, to finally have continuous silence in order to listen to myself.

I discovered that silence really isn’t silence – it’s already a pretty noisy world. Even though no one is speaking, car engines run and air conditioners hum, birds tweet and doors creak. How often do we listen to the world itself, instead of all the voices trying to fill it?

Listen to the world itself.jpg

Once we broke silence, I noticed after just a few minutes of speaking and engaging with people again that my heart rate sped up dramatically. I started sweating. After a loud and engaging lunch, I went back to my room and took my phone out of “airplane” mode. Emails, texts, and Facebook and Twitter notifications bombarded me. I felt panicky and dizzy and sad and overwhelmed and shaky. I felt fragile. I wanted to cry.

Two days of complete digital and social detox revealed to me just how much energy my engagement with the world requires, and how much stimulation the digital world delivers. It’s overwhelming. In “regular life,” it’s such a part of my day that I’m not aware of the low-grade anxiety and nervous activation that stays with me constantly. By spending time in silence I tuned into my nervous system, discovering what truly calms me and what overstimulates me.

Walking Meditation

We practiced walking meditation sessions of 30-45 minutes each, in which we walked slowly and deliberately, eyes focused just a few feet in front. The point is to bring your mindful awareness to walking — to the sensations in the bottom of the feet, in the legs, the torso, and to the feel of the wind and the sun. Which sounds lovely but we looked like a bunch of zombies practicing really slowly for a field sobriety test.

The strange & challenging

At the end of walking meditation, a bell would ring. And all the zombies slowly walked back into the meditation hall, heads down, silent, as if we’d joined some creepy cult and we were all heading in to drink some Kool-Aid. I had to stifle a laugh the first time I saw it.

With my eyes open, there was a lot more distraction — I wanted to look at the trees, the mountains, the sheep, the sky… It was a powerful taste of the way in which our attention shifts and flows inward and outward, inward and outward.

The amazing

I enjoyed walking meditation a lot more than I thought I would. Our instructor told us that when we noticed a thought {or that we had been lost in thought for several minutes!}, we should stop, and allow the thought to pass. Physically stopping my movement with each observed thought powerfully drove home how frequently my mind wanders!

Sitting Meditation

The strange & challenging

Forty-five minutes is a long time to sit in meditation. It’s a LONG time to watch the random cognitive vomit that the mind throws up when the body takes a moment to rest. I found myself pondering questions like, “When a bee stings you, does it know it’s going to die?” and “Did the Roman alphabet develop from the Phoenician alphabet?” Seriously, people, we’ve got a lot of random shit in our heads.

I also had an entire 30-minute session devoted to Flea and Tick Meditation {not Flea and Tick MediCation — if you’ve arrived here searching that phrase, I’m sorry, I’ve got nothing for you, but I love that you’ve read this far!}.

In case you’re unfamiliar with this form of meditation, it goes a bit like this:

{Note: this meditation is generally done on the first day of the retreat, following the retreat director’s welcome speech that warns attendees of the need for tick checks each night, and shoe removal to avoid the spreading of fleas.}

Breathe…
My arm itches
I’m pretty sure that’s a tick
I should really check to be sure…
No, I should bring awareness to the itching sensation…
Remember that time the dog had a tick on his ear? Remember how it got to be like dime-sized before we found it? And we didn’t have matches in the house so we had to hold a paper clip in a lighter to heat it up and then use that to fry the tick and get it out?
Yeah, time to totally check that out… it’s a tick
Oh, sweet, no tick!
Breathe…
Remember that time Abby got a tick in her head and we noticed it in the bathtub and we just tried to pull it out and a leg came off and then just the leg was stuck in her head?
Breathe…
I wonder what’s actually in the tick removal kit? Matches? Ointment? I bet it’s organic…
Okay, now THAT is TOTALLY a tick. I’m just gonna peek…
Oh, sweet, no tick!
Breathe…
Okay, that is ABSOLUTELY a crawling sensation this time…
Shit! It’s a real bug!
Wait, was that bug brown or black?
I think it was black…
Aren’t fleas brown? I mean all those pictures in my PowerPoints on the bubonic plague show them as brown, so I’m pretty sure that was NOT a flea… Sort of sure…
Breathe…

This is a VERY EFFECTIVE practice.

The amazing

Some of my meditation sessions were similar to the one above. Sometimes the mantra that got me through meditation was “ring the f*cking bell. RING. THE. F*CKING. BELL!”

But some of the sessions were amazing. It’s an amazingness, an AWE-someness that I can’t even put into words. I experienced deep, sweet, and profound tastes of clarity, awareness, and lovingkindness. I discovered not that I have a bajillion thoughts racing around my head {insect meditations aside}, but that I often have the same thoughts over, and over, and over… And in two and a half days of meditating in silence, I could observe where my mind likes to land. I could see the roots of the tree in which my monkey mind swings and jumps.

While the purpose of meditation is to find the moments of awareness, discovering the destinations of my flights away from the present was powerfully instructive. Those sojourns took me to my passions, my North Star, my home. This discovery allowed me to glimpse a euphoria similar to the one Billy Crystal’s character in City Slickers experiences, when he found his “one thing” that pointed to the purpose of his one precious life. We find it when we sit in stillness, allow the mind to rest, and listen to our inner knowing.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I unlocked the secrets of the universe or anything. But I do have a clearer understanding of what’s important to me and of the path ahead. And as Jack Palance (Curly) advises, once we figure that out, “the rest don’t mean shit.”

 *****

My week in retreat and training reminds me of the words I wrote a year ago when I reflected on the difference between travel, and taking a journey:

 Travel is physical movement, exploration of new parts of the world. It moves you outward and away from your known universe.

A journey is emotional, perhaps spiritual, an exploration of new part of your identity, your soul.  It moves you inward … yet still possibly away from your known universe.

Travel introduces you to new people and places.

A journey introduces you, or reintroduces you, to yourself.

I am so excited about my travel and my continuing journey toward my North Star. Thank you for letting me share it with you.

Namaste

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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
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Comments

  1. Wow. I don’t know if I could do it, but I am so intrigued by the silent part of your retreat – and the rest of it too, actually. Your part about “no reading” would be so hard for me!
    Triplezmom recently posted…Things I Learned While I Wasn’t BloggingMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says:

      Yes, it was hard to not read…. but it was nice to go to bed so early each night because there was nothing else to do! I slept wonderfully!!

  2. Wow, I’m speechless. Your description of how you felt when confronted with the return to FB, texts, and so on – that confirms something for me that I’ve been feeling. Thank you. And I wish you well on your ongoing practice journey. Blessed be.
    Linda Watson recently posted…Dream Journal SketchesMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says:

      Thanks, Linda. I have been better about limiting my social media time, and I am committed to changing my habits in that realm. Thanks for the kind wishes.

  3. Loved this…especially the part about waiting for the bell to ring…you never fail to make me laugh!

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says:

      So glad to hear it Holly! :) While it was a week of meditation and contemplation, I laughed a lot too. What a great combination!

  4. Sounds like an absolutely wonderful experience!
    Susen @ Dabbling Momma recently posted…Flower Cutting and Fine Motor SkillsMy Profile

  5. I devoured every single word in this essay. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. I am dying to do something like this!

  6. This reminds me of a yoga retreat I went on in 2000 and we spent a lot of time in silence. I will never forget the experience of being at the airport on my way home and shutting myself in the bathroom to weep because I was so entirely overwhelmed by the world. I think I need to do something like that again!

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