Insight from a silent mindfulness meditation retreat
I recently returned from a five-day silent mindfulness meditation retreat. Naturally, my family and friends wanted to know, how was it? It’s a bit like when someone asks you about your trip after travelling to a foreign land. Where to start? It was one of the nicest things I’ve ever done for myself. The experience nourished my body and mind.
Truthfully, a couple of days before the retreat I had anxious moments of why did I sign up for this?
I was wishing I would have just booked a trip to Bali to sit by a pool and drink cocktails while reading a good book. At the same time, I was craving a long deep practice, wanting to be a student.
I was nervous. I had been on yoga retreats, but this was my first dip in the pool of silent meditation. Since the retreat was only 1.5 hours drive, I calmed my fears by telling myself I could leave at any time. Just hop in my car and take off. A completely rational idea, yes?
Despite my apprehension, I was in a good place. In past months I had been doing a lot of emotional work, letting go and releasing old hurts, so my heart felt light. Which was useful since I was about to be plucked from my reality into a life with no phone, no internet, no reading and complete silence. We were allowed a journal for writing when the teachers were giving instructions around the retreat theme, the four foundations of mindfulness.
Our days commenced with a morning movement practice of stretching to prepare the body for sitting.
The daily schedule went something like this: instructions, sitting, walking, sitting, walking, sitting, then a meal with free time.
Repeat after lunch. After instructions, the sitting practice would sometimes be guided, but for the most part, the sitting was an open awareness meditation.
The mindful walking practice was walking ever so slowly in a ten-step radius, with awareness. Imagine taking a step and rolling from heel to toe, feeling the muscles engage and sensing into the entire body while paying attention to both your internal and external experiences. Seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, thinking while in nature.
I began marvelling at the mundane: flowers, critters, trees, sky and even my thoughts.
I expected time would drag, but during the walking I found myself immersed in the now and often surprised to hear the bell ring to invite us back to sit. The walking practice helped me to slow down more and cultivate paying attention. It grounded me with steadiness, allowing room for me to attend to arising emotions and thoughts.
The sitting, the formal meditation, was everything. I experienced the full spectrum of emotions and thoughts. At times challenging then easy, loud then quiet, busy then calm, heavy then light, complex then simple. The oppressive heat of the Australian summer was an excellent teacher as I cultivated equanimity while sitting with sweat rolling off me.
The sitting opened me up to meet myself with spaciousness.
I was able to allow unpleasant thoughts to unfold instead of trying to figure things out, while
I savoured the silence, no longer bound by social pleasantries or the need to fill space.
My loud mind started to quiet. I quickly realised how often I speak just for the sake of speaking.
There were opportunities to speak. During instructions we could ask questions, a small group and a one-on-one meeting with the teacher were opportunities to discuss our practice. However, the majority of the days were spent in complete silence. A unified group of nearly 40 retreatants ebbing and flowing without saying a word.
I did speak a few sentences during the retreat. I’ll preface this to say I’m a fragile flower in the heat, always favouring mild temperatures. With a couple of sizzling days, I was learning to cope with my steadfast aversion to the heat. I just allowed the heat to be as it was and chose to stop focusing on my self-imposed suffering. That is until my roommate went to shut the window before bed; I had to speak up.
The other speaking instances were regarding my dietary requirements. Would you believe, “gluten-free” was my recurring phrase? I would appear in front of the cook hoping he would read my mind so I didn’t have to speak. Alas, I squeaked out the words on more than one occasion.
As the days rolled on I felt all of me slowing down. My nervous system soothed as the mind and body downshifted into rest and digest mode.
Freedom enveloped me in the silence and the stillness. I became aware of when I was pushing or pulling against the thoughts, emotions and sensations. Less struggling gave me more spaciousness to meet the phenomena with more ease.
The greatest gift from the experience is the change I’ve noticed in my daily life. My meditation practice has expanded with longer and more consistent sits. I’ve slowed down with a renewed sense of presence. Best of all, I’m cultivating spacious responses to all the challenges and the joys of this one precious life.
The retreat was organised by the Mindfulness Training Institute