These days when speed is glorified and we love to jump straight from one activity to the other, taking time to do nothing seems to be a luxury or a very lame idea. Taking five precious days to sit all day long “just being” seems daunting and scary. After all we are only one click away from each other, and from our favorite song or TV show.
But, how often do we click to get closer to ourselves?
That is what a silent retreat is for. Complete days full of sitting, breathing, hearing our surroundings and being still with the stream of thoughts in our head, getting comfortable with ourselves and our environment.
No speaking. No eye contact. No music. No reading. No sexual activities. And no texting or sending smoke signs for someone to rescue you. For a kinetic learner social being, this sounds like self imposed solitary confinement.
Well, this is exactly what I treated myself to weeks before my birthday, five days of full NOTHINGNESS.
I attended what is known as a “sesshin”, a retreat in the Zen tradition intended to “touch the heart-mind”. Even though my meditation practice is influenced by Vipassana and Mindfulness I decided to give this retreat a try. After all, one of the main reasons I practice is to remain open, and both types of meditation aim for the same thing in different ways.
I did my research about the center and attended one of the sitting periods before signing up. As much as it is good to remain open, it is also wise to take care of yourself. It was listening to the teachers dharma talk at the Zen Center Of San Diego that gave me the courage to sign up. I knew there was a lot for me to learn there.
An extensive talk with my dear friend and teacher Karen K Redding, who has been in oh so many silent retreats, gave me an idea of what to do the days before and what to expect while on retreat.
I found out on day one of the retreat that it wasn’t all sitting in silence. There were daily mindful movement morning routines, interviews with the teachers, dharma talks, walking meditations and work practice.
My days in silence were filled with pretty much every emotion and feeling you can find in the dictionary and other ones that we can’t even name. The first days were definitely the hardest, the “settling in”. I wanted to get out of there immediately and it felt like I had a straight jacket on. I had all kinds of cramps, body pain and even my nails were itching. My thoughts were going like a roller coaster and my breath was my only anchor. I wanted to “fit in” and didn’t want to bother or offend anyone. I was so caught up in following the rules and regulations that I was missing the whole experience.
The days that followed I experienced many insightful moments and openness states. The judge in my head decided to take a break and calm and peace took over. I became more aware of all the people that were in the room with me and connected with them from my silent spot. Of course these insightful moments weren’t constant, they came and went like waves in the ocean. Realizing that I can access those places is to me what’s important, now that I know they are there I can get to them easier.
After all those hours of sitting, I’m still far from enlightenment. I didn’t find the holy grail and I didn’t have a life changing breakthrough. I did though, face suffering, pain, joy, happiness and many other states in new ways, paying kind attention.
It might be the same old me here, but now I relate to myself and others from a different place: with compassion and boundless love for this life and our shared humanity. It’s amazing what can be done with a change of view, loving guidance and a little help from my friends.
If you have a daily meditation practice and are looking into doing your first silent retreat I would encourage you to do it and see what you find there, I’m sure you’ll surprise yourself.