Here I go into my third meditation retreat, and the first one in complete silence. Gulp. No talking for a week? No eye contact, no hugs, wait, what??? Why this form of tortuous depravation? Instead of looking at a ‘no contact’ retreat as the experience of losing contact, we are invited to reframe the concept. We are invited to experience the gifts and benefits of silent personal reflection. Our world is pretty noisy most of the time. We can look around and notice most people’s attention engaged in some way or another. People chatting, watching television, checking cell phones, reading newspapers, hugging, fighting, driving cars, caring for children, working jobs, and simply living our busy lives. With smart phones attached to our hips, we are in a 24/7 cycle of communication. There is an emerging phenomenon known as communication-burnout.
So with this realisation, I am totally happy to lock away my electronics for the week. Gulp. Did I mention my Candy Crush addiction? As for the ‘no human contact’ rules, I was a little more reluctant to play along here. But again we are invited to notice our needs, wants, desire for human contact. How can we possibly notice these things, while we are wrapped up in the thick of them? It is not until we are invited to refrain from talking or looking or hugging each other, that we have the opportunity to take that step back and reflect on why we need to do it in the first place. Are my interactions always healthy? Am I using human interaction as a way of comforting or distracting myself? Why is this even helpful to notice?
With mindfulness practice, we are trying to learn to cultivate the tools to be ok with ourselves, and our daily situations just as they are. Content with out having to change, hug, talk. Basically cultivating peace of mind, and self-reliance. I can only imagine the list of things this will help me with in my life. When I am lonely, I have habit of reaching out to the wrong people, anyone really, just to get some contact or comfort. To be able to comfort myself with mindful awareness… hmmm. When craving fried food, or chocolate, imagine having the tools to decipher whether we are actually in need of nourishment, or just bored, anxious, lonely, and in need of comfort food…hmmm. When sitting in my room, and feeling anxiety, boredom, restlessness, I tend to reach for my video game (Candy Crush) to distract me away from experiencing unpleasant feelings. Could I possibly learn to sit with these feelings, and let them pass? This is the very reason I signed up for the retreat! Bring it on!
Our current meditation teacher Frank led us skillfully into this insight retreat. He advised us that we will be directing our kind awareness towards the four noble truths of dissatisfaction. And then applying the Buddhist heart practices as antidotes to ease our dissatisfaction. Frank is very seasoned in his ability to help others expand their awareness of the mind, breath, and body. Helping us to free ourselves from our innate tendencies to cling to, and identify with our thoughts.
The week leading up to the retreat, I asked many people how they felt about it. The responses were varied, but the overall tone was one of fear, anxiety, trepidation. How can I sit for that long? What happens if I can’t handle it? What if my body gets too sore? What if my mind is just screaming at me the whole time? What if I burst out crying? What if my presence, and my discomforts distract the other people? What if I get depressed and lonely, and have no one to reach out to for support?
Frank has skillfully set up the retreat format to include an internal support system. Frank offered us guidance throughout the retreat, and I personally never felt abandoned or alone. We were encouraged to write notes addressing our concerns. We were offered group discussion time. We had the amazing support of Deb, one of our life coaches, who was facilitating all the logistics of the retreat and to make sure everything ran without a hitch. On the subject of support, having 20 other retreatants beside you was a huge support system. All of these people going through the exact same things you are, is quite comforting. Also inspiring. When a person goes through moments of wanting to quit, they can look around the room and realize that their very presence inspires others. Frank really managed to create a safe container of ‘all for one, one for all’.
Personally, I had a very different retreat experience compared to my first one, exactly one year ago. During my first retreat, I had a very hard time enjoying the sitting at all. My mind was restless, my body restless. Nearly every minute of the first retreat was spent with a recording playing over and over in my head – “are we done yet?” But this retreat was quite amazing. My mind was like a perfectly behaved child at the supermarket. No temper tantrums, no screaming, no urges to get up and walk out. Of course I did not have pure bliss the whole time. Of course my mind had racing thoughts on many occasions. But the thoughts would simply come in, pass through, and leave. I was able to sit back, and observe my thoughts passing through, and not attach to their stories. I felt free.
One retreatant reported having very vivid dreams every night. Some reported not sleeping much at all. Frank assured us this was normal. He said our minds will be all over the place, in and outside of meditation. One person reported so much physical discomfort, and the burning desire to quit early. But the person persevered, and was happy in the end, to have completed the journey. A person with English as a second language reported that being in silence was amazing, because the fear of not understanding others, or not being understood, was not an issue, as there was no language communication.
Roughly half of the community was in silent retreat, and for the other half it was business as usual. Well, not really. The non-retreatants were so generous in taking on extra community work, as to allow the retreatants complete immersion in their meditation experience. They were also much more quiet than usual, to respect our need for silence. The retreatants were wearing mala beads around their necks, as to signal ‘we are in silence’. The rest of the community were very respectful in not attempting eye contact, or communication. This was a real gift. A relief really.
Once we came off the retreat, the non-retreatants were very gentle with us, welcoming us with warm hugs and smiles. When you haven’t hugged, talked, or made eye contact for a week, reintegration can be a very magical experience indeed! Some people cried with each other. I actually experienced a very shy period, where I almost felt as though I forgot how to interact with people. Gradually I warmed up, and noticed myself becoming acutely aware of my interactions, and my words. And whether or not they added value to the situation, or were just excuses to fill the silence. I suppose this was the very crux of the retreat! I am so grateful to have this new heightened awareness. I feel like I have a whole new perspective on the community, and my involvement in it. I can’t wait to sign up for the next one!
by Marisha Schaefer