I recently attended a 5 Day Silent Meditation Retreat through Mindful Academy International with an open mind and not a ton of trepidation. I spend a lot of time alone and quiet during the week without talking unless you count my dogs who never speak back. I also have been practicing mindfulness for some time now so while each experience is different, I know I have some tools to survive. The thing I pre-planned the most was trying not to fall asleep after a few hours of practice.
What Happens At a Silent Retreat
We arrive on the first evening and spend some time getting to know others in the group before we take silence later in the evening. This is helpful as even though we don’t talk to anyone, we’re still sharing this experience together. Later that evening, we take our silence and don’t get to speak for another 5 days with the exception of one hour of group support. We also don’t do anything…… that means no phones, Instagram, making it through Emma Watson’s book club, or anything that would take us away from “here” or “now”. Very similar to what I recall life being in 1992.
The rest of the time we meditate together in a variety of ways: sometimes together in silence, practice on our own, and or guided meditations together. We also have talks by the lead instructor; the theme for this retreat was joy, compassion, equanimity, and love.
The first full day of meditation was a breeze and relatively enjoyable. We have views overlooking a mountain and the sun was out in full force which is a pure joy coming off of an incredibly unsatisfying layer of gloom of Chicago in the winter. There were small moments of joy that I was able to experience fully. Those snippets of bliss would easily be missed if I was chit-chatting or messing with my phone. I very, unmindfully and with attachment, hoped the next day would be just as easy.
The third day was the second full day of silence and I was miserable. I got some sort of traveling stomach bug and it was uncomfortable to sit up, lie on my back, or try to keep my stomach from audibly making itself known to the group during meditation. It was a nice way to point out that while the day prior was pleasant– nothing ever lasts. I was incredibly uncomfortable but outside of one practice where I genuinely felt too ill, I stuck out the practices.
While the practices were incredibly challenging and literally gut-wrenching, I did have a nice shift….and not in my bowel movements. When both teaching and practicing mindfulness, we often do our best not to judge the practice as being good or bad, we just show up. To be honest, at home, when I’m feeling terrible, I do not show up. I lie down and make myself invisible under the covers and binge on whatever exerts the least amount of self-reflection and critical thinking on Netflix. I don’t beat myself up about this but on days I’m physically miserable, I’d rather not force myself to experience temporary discomfort during meditation. However, during the silent retreat, I stuck with it. At the end of the day, the practice didn’t feel there was any more or less impact than showing up the day before with the pleasurable and comfortable experience.
On day four, I was still a little uncomfortable but it began to ease up. Again, I showed up, I practiced. I suppose you could call it a medium day. It was interesting that even with silence how you feel connected with the other human beings in the room. I had no idea what they were thinking if they were thinking or the intimacy of their experience but I genuinely felt connected and supported without the need for words or whatever stories we all had in our own heads.
The last day was a half-day of silence and by then felt relatively easy and shorter. It was nice to break the silence and verbally connect with people from all of the world that you have this shared experience with.
Reflecting on the Experience
Overall the experience was rewarding. When I talk to people about it, there is an expectation that there has to be some earth-shattering experience after not speaking for 5 days. For me, there were little shifts, moments of ah-ha, pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Silent retreats can be life-changing for sure but the more you practice silence in day to day living and simply being, the more taking this time off becomes a part of the overall experience of life.
Concerning technology and disconnection, I know some people feel naked without their phones. I personally was looking forward to it until I had someone in my family who became ill while I was away. That was stressful. My head started preplanning the quick and sudden death this family member would have and want to have one final phone call with me before they died but would be unable to reach me. This didn’t happen. They were fine before we went silent. I promised to check my phone in on my breaks just to make sure. Nothing happened. Another experiment in seeing how much stress planning the future that never happens affects our mental state.
There is a richness in noticing the present moment experiment no matter how pleasant or unpleasant. While shorter mediation practices are wonderful, having the time to commit to silence gives space to allow things to happen and practice just being with the experience