Silent Retreat Reflections
When I set my intentions for 2018, one thing that I knew I wanted to do was a silent retreat.
As meditation has become a consistent practice for me, I have learned the value in taking space and turning inward; the power in the pause. But 20-30 minutes of meditation is much different than multiple hours of sitting in silence with yourself.
I was (and still am) fascinated by the various accounts of profound experiences at Vipassana retreats, and I became interested in giving it a try myself. However, the more that I talked with people who either had valuable experiences at shorter (and less rigidly structured) silent retreats, or had struggled with–and ultimately needed to drop out of–the full 10-day Vipassana, I came to the decision that I would prefer to start with a smaller, safer option.
I ended up booking a 3-day silent retreat at Silent Stay Retreat Center in Vacaville, CA. And let me tell you – it was BLISS. The brief experience was packed with insight, meaning, and power. I returned home feeling deeply relaxed and rejuvenated. Three days in silent solitude was ten times more restorative than 10 days in Hawaii.
Going into the experience, I was expecting to discover new insights, but wasn’t really thinking about it as being restorative. Perhaps the most valuable insight that I gained, however, was just how restorative silence can be.
The key isn’t just the silence though. It’s also the act of abstaining from consumption. While I was there, I wasn’t taking in any external media or messages. I wasn’t talking to other people, I wasn’t using my phone or computer, I wasn’t watching movies or shows, I wasn’t listening to music or podcasts, and I wasn’t even reading any books. I was (willingly, by choice) forced to focus all of my attention inward.
It made me realize just how out of balance our attention and energy usually are. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with advertisements and messaging from so many sources. We spend hours upon hours on the computer and on our phones. Even when we are alone, we have our earbuds playing music, podcasts, and audiobooks. We are constantly consuming, focusing the large majority of our attention and energy outward.
No wonder we all feel so drained!
Regardless of whether you are introverted or extroverted, we all need a balance in which we have some time to focus within; some space away from the outside noise. In today’s world, it is all too easy for this need to go neglected.
The power in the silence is not the act of not talking, but rather in the act of listening.
It was also interesting to realize how foreign an experience it was for me to have NO agenda for the day–no to-do list or plans whatsoever. I would be doing some yoga or out for a walk and think, “I should finish up soon,” only to catch myself and then question, “why?” I literally had nothing that needed to happen that day. I am so used to needing to move on to “the next thing” that my brain just automatically goes to that pattern.
In a related way, it was pretty amazing how long and full the days felt. I mentioned to a friend that at the end of the day I was lying in bed thinking “wow, I did so much today!” and he replied, “…but you weren’t doing anything.” To which I responded, “exactly.”
There was no mindless activity. I was present in every moment, in every activity. Even if that activity was just sitting and watching the fire dance in the fireplace for half an hour (which I absolutely did during one rainy morning).
Another notable insight was the lack of anxiety I felt. As much as it may look like I emit this calm, peaceful presence due to all of the meditation and yoga in my Instagram stories, the truth is that I do all of that self-care because I need it, haha. Calm is not at all my natural state – I am easily stressed and anxious.
But at the silent retreat, I was naturally calm. Certain things that would normally cause me to feel an anxious response felt easy to let go. Sitting down to meditate didn’t feel like I had all of this tension to untangle; instead, I was already feeling at ease, and I was just settling deeper into that state.
This made me consider that perhaps I am not “an anxious person,” as I had come to label myself, but rather simply a person who is highly sensitive to the onslaught of outward-sourced energy that we typically take in each day.
I was reminded just how important it is to stay on top of these self-care practices. I can all too easily start shortening my meditations, give in to the urge to check social media, and convince myself that I “don’t have time” for yoga sessions or longer runs.
But when I take care of myself and do these practices, I create a better mental and physical state for myself. I live with more peace and less anxiety. I refill my internal energy stores and I am more focused, more productive, and more creative.
Speaking of creativity, prior to the retreat, I had been feeling quite drained. Despite having ideas of various projects I knew I would like to do, when I found myself with a spare hour or two to actually create something, I was tired out and uninspired. I wanted to want to do these things, but ultimately I didn’t have the creative energy.
During the second day of the 3-day retreat, I felt a wave of creative energy. I thought of some new ideas that I was excited to start working on, and I wrote a number of passages and poems. In stark contrast to how I had been feeling for the past few months, I felt full of inspiration and drive to create.
It was also really comforting to realize how at ease I felt just being alone in my own head all day. It was empowering to recognize that I didn’t need the distractions or entertainment; I was totally content to spend my day in meditation, doing yoga, going for walks, enjoying time outside in nature, journaling, preparing and eating food, and just being present for all of it.
I was proud to note just how much progress I have made in this regard. Growing up, I felt afraid of my own brain. I felt like my fears and anxieties had power over me; that I wasn’t able to control them, but instead was a victim to their loud voices.
I also used to feel really frustrated and anxious when I felt like I hadn’t been “productive” with my time. The idea of “not doing” and rather “just being” was basically unfathomable. I didn’t yet understand how productive it can be to take some space away from working and creating.
This is all to say that I have come a really long way from the perspectives I held previously, and I am grateful for the progress I have made.
SO – since coming home, what’s changed? How am I carrying forward the lessons into my daily life?
Honestly, the reintegration process has been somewhat difficult. It was easy to make time for meditations and daily yoga, or to stay off of social media, when I set aside time with the intention to have that experience. Back in my busy routine and every-growing to-do list, it takes much more effort. I am working to create new habits, but it takes time to do that.
Since coming back, here’s what I have changed:
- Longer meditations (30 minutes): Previously, my goal was to do a 20 minute meditation each morning. Prior to going on the silent retreat, I had started slipping into the habit of telling myself that I didn’t have time for a 20 minute meditation, so I would often do just 10. Now, since returning, I have returned to my dedication with at least 20 minutes, and most days do my current goal of 30 minutes.
- Evening meditations: I have also added an evening meditation that I do before bed. So that it feels like an approachable practice (not so daunting that I don’t do it at all) I am starting with just 10 minutes. Already, it has been helpful in curating a calm internal state before I lay down to try and sleep.
- Morning yoga: About 3-4 days per week, I spend about 30 minutes in the morning doing some yoga stretches.
- Limited social media time: I have been trying to limit the time I spend on my phone, especially scrolling through social media. In the morning, I don’t turn on my phone until I am done with my morning routine and ready to start working for the day (on days when I go for a long run this can be over 2 hours after I first wake up). At the end of the day, I also turn off my phone before I start my evening routine – usually about an hour or two before I go to bed. When I do use social media, rather than checking periodically throughout the day, I set myself a time window in which I am present and focused on social media (and after which I won’t go back on). Lately, this has been about 15 minutes in the morning or middle of the day, and 30 minutes in the evening.
- Eat more meals *just eating* - This is the one goal that I am least effective in making change with so far. I eat most of my meals in front of the computer screen. But I am truly making an effort to have at least one meal a day just focused on the meal itself. Maybe writing this blog post will help me to commit more fully ;)
- Taking a break on the weekends – I used to work every single day, including weekends. Usually I would work less on the weekends, but I would still be working. But now I try to take a full break on the weekends, instead allowing for more space to relax and refresh – to separate from thinking about work projects and instead spend time with friends or on my own with no looming to-do list. This distance, moving away from the drone of constantly trying to “be productive,” has made a big difference in alleviating feelings of burnout.
Although not perfectly by any means, I am definitely carrying many of the insights and lessons from the silent retreat with me. It was a truly powerful experience that I am so deeply grateful for, and I am perpetually amazed by how much it affected me in just 3 days.
I feel certain that this will not be my last silent retreat. I honestly feel like I want to do something like this at least once per year in the future, and ideally twice each year. All it takes is a few days turning inward to create a mindful, heartful reset that restores and rejuvenates the mind, body, and spirit.
In the video linked above, my friend Mel (who also attended the retreat) joined me for a conversation about what is was like to do the 3-day silent retreat and what we learned. Although we were there together, we each had our own unique personal experience. She had some additional insights different from mine, that I think will resonate with many of you. Please watch the video if you are interested in hearing us discuss all of this.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment on YouTube to let me know, send me a DM on Instagram, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I may take a day or two to reply, but your message won’t go unanswered.
Have a beautiful day, and may you find a few moments of sacred silence to reconnect with yourself.