When I mention to people, I am going away for 5 days on a silent retreat their reaction is usually one of incredulity. Silent Retreat, goodness I could never do that. Which, to be honest, on my first foray into this world were my thoughts exactly. In fact, my friends, family and myself thought I would be back within half an hour. Thankfully I stuck it out that first year and have been going every year since. The most recent being bank holiday weekend in August.
So, what happens on a silent retreat, well quite a lot actually. The setting is usually in a large building with lots of green spaces around it and plenty of accommodation on site. The accommodation on this particular retreat is always pretty basic, but as long as it is clean and I have a room of my own its never really an issue.
On arrival I see some familiar faces that like me go every year and a lot of new faces. The trouble with silent retreats is that you don’t have a lot of time to chat and get to know anyone. However, the bond is there and hugs are dished out like we are old friends. Everything is taken care of, your meals, drinks, information all sorted out on this first evening. Then to your first night in your small room to contemplate turning off the phone for the next four days. Texts have to be sent with emergency contact numbers and then sleep, which for me that first night is usually restless.
The next morning our group of 50+ people goes into silence. For me that moment is a relief, it is something I have been looking forward to for months and I embrace the literal switch off, knowing that for the next 4 days no-one in this group will bother me, and I won’t bother them. It is that sentiment that I come for, to be unavailable to anyone other than myself is bliss.
I, as most of us are, am constantly at someone else’s beck and call, whether that be my children, my work, friends, even the dog. To have the freedom to eat my lunch and then leave the table to sit in the sunshine alone without anyone asking me, ‘where are you going, can I come, can you do this first’ is truly liberating.
The days are long, up at 6 for yoga at 6:30, then a long meditation before breakfast. Then we sit in guided mediations and teachings throughout the day into late evening 8 or 9pm. Each meditation taking you deeper and deeper into your unconscious mind. It is a strange sensation to explain. It is a place of deep reflection and thoughts come at you from all angles, but somehow without the ‘charge’ they may have had in the outside world. Troubles that you have been coping or not coping with for years are somehow resolved. My first year I cried most of the time, as if my entire mind and body was going through some sort of exorcism. I even had an epiphany where my younger, happier self arose within me, with joy and pleasure that I had finally allowed her back in. Weird I know.
And the best thing about being in silence, I don’t have to explain my tears, I don’t have to justify my thoughts or actions or my life to anyone but myself. The other side of that is I don’t have to listen to anyone else’s story, get caught up in their drama, or feel anything for them.
Liberating is how I would explain it. If the person beside you is weeping softly, you let them weep, it is their experience, not mine. To have the space to weep is good.
We walk in the grounds, we look at the sky, the grass, the plants with new eyes, because there is nothing else to distract us. With each meditation we go deeper and deeper and old thoughts or memories become less and less distracting, giving space for new thoughts, new ideas, and a sense of release.
When the final morning arrives and we have finished our yoga and early meditation it is time for the silence to end. On the first day the teacher tells us that we may find it difficult to come out of the silence. I know when I heard that the first year I came I couldn’t believe it, I thought I would be desperate to speak.
But here I am 5 years on and I don’t want the silence to end. It’s like leaving a place of such sheer pleasure it is a wrench. The group all gather on cushions or chairs towards the front of the room and are invited to break their own silence with one word. It takes ages before someone starts the process off. ‘Thank you’ ‘Gratitude’ ‘Joy’ ‘Love’ ‘Calm’ ‘Happy’, are just a few of the words spoken and so it goes on until everyone in the room has broken their silence.
Yet it is still very quiet, there is no mad rush of energy and noise as we leave the room for our final breakfast, there is connection, but no interrogation as to ‘how it was for you’.
As I drove away that afternoon, I felt gratitude for my life, for everything I have, and gratitude that I have found the way to silence through meditation.