Embarking On A Mindfulness Meditation Silent Retreat
On the evening of Saturday 22nd January I entered into “Noble Silence” for a week-long retreat. I had spent the earlier part of the day in hyper-chatter mode with my husband. He’s used to the “wow just how much caffeine have you had?!” version of me, but this was a step or ten beyond that. I’m sure he was somewhat relieved to see me, early on Saturday evening, close the door of our room where I was going to stay for the week, in solitude and silence.
Noble Silence means that obviously you don’t speak, unless absolutely necessary. There is “functional speech” where at retreats, in person especially, there may be a need to speak to others in relation to meal preparation or other duties. In our home virtual retreat experience, where some people had childcare or other responsibilities they could not put aside, they were limited to this functional speech. Noble silence also means that you don’t look someone in the eye if you encounter them but instead cast your eyes downward.
First Of All – The Most Obvious Question: Why TF?
I am, unlikely as it may seem to many, on the brink of beginning training to be a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher. Having meditated myself for some years and coached for some time now, I have come to believe that mindfulness is an incredibly potent tool. It serves to both ease people’s suffering and to aid them in achieving more than they may dare to believe possible for themselves. I love to learn and I want to serve at the highest level so I decided that I needed to understand more about mindfulness to be able to facilitate transformative change for people.
I’ve followed author and teacher Tara Brach for some years now and it is her two-year teacher training program with renowned teacher Jack Kornfield that I will be undertaking.
Why a week-long silent retreat? Because it is a prerequisite for the teacher training program.
So I signed up and thought, “How hard can it be?!” I neglected to read some of the fine print and had notions that I might read a few books or get another chapter of my own book written while I had all this peaceful time to myself. Yeah…nope! I discovered on that Saturday morning as I was nervously reviewing the schedule, that there was no reading and no writing either for the week.
What Happens During the Retreat?
First of all to be clear it was a virtual retreat so everyone was logging into zoom sessions for classes. Some people had left their homes and rented Airbnbs or found alternative accommodation in quiet and remote areas. There were 4 talks each day led by teachers who spoke throughout the week on the retreat’s theme of The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. They also guided meditations both sitting and walking during the two-hour classes.
There were minimum attendance requirements for those of us who were on the teacher-training track and I had signed up for more sessions than the minimum in typical form. I found pretty quickly though that it made sense to attend all the sessions if only to give more structure to my time.
Throughout the day and between classes all of us who were taking the retreat in preparation for the teacher-training program were expected to do more “sits” (sitting meditations) or walking meditations. We also had to log our sessions and note main insights with a short form that we submitted at the end of the day.
Although there was no journaling or general writing during the retreat we were allowed to note-take during the teachings and most people did. There was also the opportunity to ask questions about the teachings and so there was some talking albeit limited. There were also two small group sessions where I was in a group with maybe 6 other people where we shared our progress with our practice with the teacher and asked for any guidance we needed.
What Exactly Is Mindfulness Meditation?
Jack Kornfield, one of the leading teachers in this area and a founding teacher of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, describes mindfulness as simply attention. It is a non-judging and respectful awareness of all that is arising in our bodies and minds. I like how writer Alan Watts spoke of mindfulness as a fearless presence:
The art of living is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging on the other. It consists of being sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.Alan Watts
What is mindfulness meditation? It is paying attention on purpose in a particular way to all that arises in us. It pierces through the interpretations, masks and armor that cloud our vision of what is true and real. It is a practice whose ultimate purpose is freedom; the freedom from reactivity, the freedom to calmly choose a skillful response to whatever is present internally and externally.
Yes, in some environments where this topic is raised there is a lot of talk about “the path” and “awakening”. Do not be put off. This practice is accessible to anyone. As the Dalai Lama said
“Buddhist teachings are not a religion, they are a science of the mind.”
Still concerned? Check out the book, The Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson.
How Hard Can It Be?
So that little descriptor of the format of the retreat probably all sounded very fine and reasonable, right? As I write it I’m thinking to myself, well how come you had such a hard time doing something so seemingly simple?
Yes, I had a hard time. Here’s something I wrote at the end of the final session on the Wednesday night:
Fucking hippy shit that takes forever and involves a lot of fucking crying. Like why? Why would I consider doing that for even one fucking mili-second?!
Apparently being in silence and learning to look with a relaxed unattached awareness with all that is arising is not so simple. It would appear that anything that you may have pushed down or away may well pop up and pull for your attention.
Wednesday was the day I unintentionally broke my noble silence with three words. I had arranged with my husband that I would have access to the kitchen at certain times in the early morning and then in the afternoon. No-one would be around and I could cook something simple for myself or just hang out. On Wednesday, when I was in the throws of all my suffering and “fuck this shit” energy, I tripped over our cat as she was trying to get my attention as I emerged from my room.
I stumbled and then snarled at her, “Fuck off cat!” I was too angry to even notice that I had spoken until some time afterwards. I think there was so much cursing going on in my head I didn’t immediately notice that my voice had spoken. Hardly a very elegant manner in which to break noble silence, but there you have it.
When Anger Arises
Wednesday’s theme was Mindfulness of The Thinking Mind which includes thoughts and emotions. We were practicing giving “wise attention” to emotions that arise. This had all been carefully introduced and particular care and thoughtful guidance given with regards to trauma.
We were bringing curiosity to thoughts without getting entangled in them, and to emotions without fueling them. We were also given guidance about grading emotional intensity and to investigate and be with emotions only when well resourced and a sense of safety was sufficiently present. Again this all seemed “fine” in my book and I was ready to tick this box, get it done, and efficiently move on to whatever was next on the agenda.
Then I got into an absolute mud wrestling match with my “Inner Controller”. This is the sentry at the gate of a mountain of emotional content that I have apparently decided over time is not safe to feel. Here we were mid-retreat and shit was beginning to get shook up and the Inner Controller was highly activated and I was in the grip of full on rage.
During one sit the teacher was guiding us to connect to our “heart space” (sorry where? what?) and tap into our self-compassion. My jaw was clenched. What the hell was wrong with me? I was literally white-knuckling this meditation, desperate to keep the sentry on duty and protect from any leakage of messy emotional content. By the end of the sit I was literally digging a finger nail into my hand to take the attention away from emotion and towards the safer terrain of physical discomfort and pain.
It reminds me of the time when I went to see the movie Schindler’s List in the cinema with a friend. The movie had just come out. Obviously it’s a very disturbing and emotional movie and at one point my friend let out this loud sound that I can only describe as a wail of grief. She then audibly sobbed for extended periods during the most disturbing parts of the movie. I was shaken by the content of the movie and on the verge of tears but was steeling myself to contain it all and prevent any external show.
Afterwards I marveled at my friend’s willingness to release such an emotional reaction in public. She wasn’t embarrassed. She was shocked and saddened and capable of being with, owning and expressing what was happening. Huh! That’s not something I was really familiar with. It didn’t feel safe.
One of our teachers had said that one of the biggest misconceptions people have about mindfulness in the beginning is that mindfulness brings peace and quiets the mind. That is not what happens – at least not in the beginning. Instead, she said, we are bringing a kind and loving attention to the mind. We’re trying to be with the mind and befriend the mind.
Enduring The Rest
I hardly slept on Wednesday night and on Thursday I resolved that although I obviously wasn’t going to quit (Self Identity ≠ Quitter!), but that I would get through the experience and then consider withdrawing from the teacher training program. I just had to get through this retreat thing obstacle.
And then something really weird happened. I somehow decided to let it all be. I decided I’m in this and I’ll do this. And then the anger moved and faded.
The jaw that seemed permanently clenched, just released. The teacher that I had labeled “irritating uber hippy geek” and decided was pissing me off to no end, was now sort of quirky, interesting, extremely likable and charming. The people who were always “hogging” the question time were no longer “those fucking typically needy extroverts who always have to hear themselves speak” and became my curious and enthusiastic fellow retreatants (yep! I was getting all open-hearted and weirdly soft).
What I thought was going to be an endurance event softened and expanded into something much richer and for the life of me I don’t know and can’t explain how. It just happened and I would not have predicted it. In my head I had decided that this just wasn’t for me and that I was in fact, and somewhat embarrassingly, someone who willingly worshiped at the altar of self-discipline and invulnerability. That was my model that worked for me and I was not leaving it.
That make-believe identity eroded in the silence, solitude and mindful awareness of those days. It somehow loosened and allowed me to see it as something that yes, at times had been very helpful but at other times unnecessary or downright unhelpful. All the cumulative hours of mindfulness were shaking things up and ultimately for the better. It no longer felt like my Inner Controller was on duty 24×7. That was unexpected and intriguing.
The rest of the retreat felt different. I guess it was similar for some of my fellow retreatants. One woman shared during a Q and A session that she felt as if she only really fully arrived at the retreat on Thursday. There were nodding heads from the rest of the group. “Welcome” was the first response from our teacher. Many of us smiled as we recognized our own experience and silently joined in receiving this welcome.
There was a palpable shift for many of us at this midway point. Time felt different too. It was speeding up. The lethargy and fatigue I had felt at the beginning of the week had lifted and now I found myself naturally waking at around 5am. I found that my mind was clearer and more focused. The breath was easier to stay with when I was practicing concentration, and easier to float back to after staying with openness and curiosity with an experience that arose and invited exploration.
Leaving The Retreat Container
On Sunday just after midday we gathered one last time for our final session and closing ceremony. I had meditated for several hours over several sittings before I logged into the final session. There was anxiety and apprehension. How was I to leave this setting and not lose what had been gained? I would miss these people even though most of our connection had been created in total silence. This retreat container had kindled a certain intimate communion amongst us all.
We were a group of just over fifty people of different ages, with different life experiences and from across the globe who had come together to do this strange thing. We had put Life As Usual on pause for 7 days. We had disconnected ourselves from all external news and stimuli. We had looked inward and witnessed much more than we had known or expected. We had experienced and witnessed tears, anguish, deep sadness, frustration and all shades of emotion and we had remained present and held them all. We had seen clearly the habits of mind that we indulge in and flee to to soothe and distract ourselves.
We had opened our hearts and minds expanding into the fullness of the experience of each moment, seeing it naked and untainted by our stories. We were changed.
One of our teachers on the first day of the retreat had referenced some of the incredible changes that happen at a physiological level when we meditate. Mindfulness meditation literally changes our brains. Consistent practice, she shared, has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus (important for learning and memory), decrease activity in the amygdala (that’s the fear center of the brain – so less stress and anxiety) and even to lengthen our telomeres (these guys are on the end of chromosomes, decrease in length as we age, and are essential for cell division). We’re de-aging our brains and shifting how they operate to a more peaceful, focused, calm and effective mode.
Mindfulness for me has somehow always suffered from poor PR. I had found it a bit too far into the domain of hemp-wearing hippies who, for reasons that are beyond me, insist on drinking everything from a mason jar! Beyond a few simple exercises to connect mindfully to the senses I had pushed this practice to the side and decided it was not really my gig. I was after something more tangible, like a process with clear steps, a timeline, and measurable ROI. I wanted to get “there” faster.
I’ve been wrong about mindfulness and I’m never wildly enthusiastic about being wrong. I, like many, had clung to the idea of the supremacy of the mind; that we can somehow think our way into peace and happiness. Shit! To be honest I’m still kind of annoyed that that isn’t true.
It took me a while to write this blog post because the whole experience was pretty wild and I didn’t want to be that person who was enthusiastically verbal-vomiting about an experience that others just couldn’t connect or relate to. Hopefully my delay has made this more readable and accessible.
One of the final things the teachers said about transitioning out of our retreat container back into our normal lives was that, when asked by others about the retreat, we probably didn’t want to go into too much detail about our experience. Typically, she explained, people won’t get it unless they’ve done something similar or are an experienced meditator. It’s best to have a stock response of something like;
“It was illuminating and I learnt a lot thanks. How was your week?”
My training to become a mindfulness meditation instructor kicks off next month. I’m nervous, in a healthy way, and this retreat has confirmed my choice that this is a great decision for me. I’ve also just booked another silent retreat for later this month, but just two days this time. I guess like there are all kinds of coaches, there are also all kinds of mindfulness meditation teachers. On the one hand I think I’m probably one of the more unlikely candidates ever, but on the other I’m pretty sure I’ll find my tribe and I’ll be the perfect teacher for some people.
Finally a Call For Your Vigilance and Support
If you ever, like ever, witness me drinking my green juice out of a mason jar or, admittedly more worryingly, wearing any clothing that even vaguely resembles hemp, please, please, please feel free to urgently intervene.
P.S. If you’re looking for support on your journey to build your confidence and create amazing things in your life, I can help. It all starts with booking that first complimentary call