What does silence mean to you?
Is it peaceful?
Are you afraid of it?
When's the last time you just sat in silence?
Last weekend I experimented with these thoughts as I decided to join my boyfriend on a silent mediation weekend retreat in Idyllwild, CA.
I've been wanting to deepen my meditation practice, as it relates to the yoga philosophy petals of Pratyahara (to withdraw) and Dhyana (total absorption).
We both had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We had heard that these retreats help people with stress and anxiety or to deal with difficult situations. We also thought it would be nice to escape and try something different.
If you ever plan to attend a silent meditation retreat than the following is a SPOILER ALERT!
We were greeted kindly at the check-in office, given our rooms assignments and told that we were allowed to talk until the procedures meeting at 6:30. This was a relief that we had a chance to get to know some of the other participants. There were about 8 of us newbies and about 10 that were part of the team as residents or monks. Two of the participants were not aware that this was meant to be an entirely silent retreat. This came as quite a surprise to them at dinner. We started dinner with a chant about knowing where our food came from and only eating if were deserving in our practice. What are the criteria for being deserving? I'm not sure, but regardless, it was a delicious salad, soup and warm, soft sourdough bread.
The procedures were about what to do when each bell rang, how and when to bow, our hand positions, and our three sitting options: sukasana (easy sitting pose), virasana (sitting on your heels with your knees in front of you) and lotus (both feet tucked on top of each other). Luckily, we could also practice those positions on a firm cylindrical pillow. We were supposed to lengthen our spine, look 3 feet in front of us and soften our gaze. We were all dressed in black to keep from distracting others. We were also expected not to move for the Zazen period of time, which is unknown.
Then, all of a sudden, silence began.
And the silence continued...
Wait! I thought they were going to tell us more!
What are we supposed to meditate on?
Isn't this a beginners mind retreat?
How long are we going to sit here?
Up until this point, I have only experienced guided meditations, in which a voice, usually from another yoga instructor, meditation workshop leader, or meditation app voice would discuss a topic such as focusing on your breath, feeling the weight of your body press into the earth then rise up to the sky, spinning chakra points, a mandala artwork, a burning candle, a mantra (positive phrase), or a concept. There is also usually background music.
I quickly realized that there would be no guidance. Even though I was seated in a room of 18 people in a square formation, I felt so alone. Just me and my thoughts now.
What should I think about?
I guess I'll try to remember some of my past meditations. I can think about the weight of my body. So, I breathe into any achy parts. Then I start reciting positive mantras: I am happy, healthy, and calm. I am happy, healthy, and calm. I am happy healthy and calm...
Finally, one of the leaders suggested that if you are not practicing mantras or chants in your head, than an easy place to start is by counting your breaths. The goal is to get to 10. This seems easy enough, but somehow my thoughts kept creeping up after I get go about 3. "I wonder how long I have to sit still. I wonder what tomorrow will be like. What are my goals for next week? I probably should have apologized for that snappy statement that I made to my boyfriend today. Shoot! Now I have to wait until Sunday. I hope I don't forget. Oh, I'm supposed to be counting. What number am I on? Okay, I'll start over. Inhale 1...exhale 1... Inhale 2, exhale 2... I bet I can do more than just 10. I made it to 114, but now I'm bored.
Ding, the bell rings. We bow, gently stand up and begin our slow-as-a-snail walking meditation. Our foot moves in the length of half of a foot-step with each breath. This goes on for a few minutes until wooden blocks are clicked together and we walk briskly around the room for about 5 minutes. This is thrilling. I'm so grateful to be moving my body again. The wooden blocks are clicked again and we find our way back to our seat for more sitting! AAAGGGGHHH! How long this time?
Okay, I'll practice the Chakra meditation, but I can't remember what each one is called. Oh well, I remember the colors and where they are located, so I'll just imagine spheres of color, one at a time, with my breath, swirling inside of me. This is pleasant, but now I'm bored again. I'm supposed to be counting, so maybe I can just make counting a bit more exciting.
Oh yeah, that's probably where people got the idea to count sheep. Goats are really cute too! Kind of like the goats from the Lonely Goatherd, Lady-odle-lady-odle-lay-hee-hoo. Inhale, there's one cute goat, exhale. Inhale, there's two cute kissing goats, exhale. Inhale, now they had a cute baby goat, exhale. Inhale, now mama goat comes along, exhale. Okay that was sweet, but I'm running out of a story line, so I'm going to switch to monkeys and especially revisit my Monkey Forest experience in Bali.
The bell rings! Yay! Time for walking again! Then we get to go to bed at 8:30pm. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that there is no cell phone service up here and we are not supposed to read or write for the entire weekend. We are simply to remain aware in our own mind.
The next morning we arose at 5:30am, just enough time to squeeze in a few Sun Salutations before meeting for some more Zazen. This time, in between counts, I started singing in my head, remembering lyrics from some of my favorite feel-good songs. This is actually really calming.
After breakfast we went to work doing dishes and chopping food for lunch and dinner. I had the pleasure of peeling beets, chopping croutons, and slicing cabbage. I've never been so excited to perform these tasks in silence. At this point, anything is better than sitting still. I have a new appreciation now for chores. They make me feel alive and accomplished. There's nothing else that I need to be doing at this moment, except putting my entire attention on this task.
Finally after the next Zazen, one of the leaders spoke for about an hour about finding intimacy in the unknown. This is quite a complex topic. There is much unknown in silence. How can we approach the unknown in conversation without the attitude of" I already know that?"
After lunch, there's a break for about an hour and a half, so I sneak off to climb the mountain. I was thrilled to see a squirrel and hear the sound of wind rustle through the burnt branches of Manzanita Trees. The air was thin, but I felt every breath as I explored the moment of this unknown place.
Then I was able to do 45 minutes of power yoga before the long Zazen afternoon session, which was the longest and hardest one! This time my mind wondered quite a bit. Thinking of my favorite past memories and planning/dreaming for the future. But then, I would remember that I'm not in the present, so I would go back to counting my breath. The carpet in front of me is starting to come alive! I'm seeing bunnies, skulls, dragons, and other strange creatures pop out of it as my gaze softens. This is a strange and interesting moment.
In the evening we have another Dharma talk about thoughts and trying to free our present mind from our identity.
The next morning, there is a service with a lot of chanting and bowing to Buddha. I didn't subscribe for this part. I am surprised that we are allowed to start talking during breakfast, right after the closing circle.
We were able to exchange our shared surprises and learnings.
People are asking me now if I would be interested in doing it again or a longer silent retreat.
My answer is "No, thank you." I compare this experience to climbing Mt. Whitney. It was extremely difficult. I'm really glad I experienced it. It felt rewarding at the top. However, I have not desire to ever go through that again. Another new, unknown mountain, yes. Just as I would like to explore other types of silent retreats or meditation practices, especially ones that involve yoga.
Have you ever experienced something similar?
What did you take away from it?
Please share your comments below :)