I cannot tell you how many people (especially women) looked at me in sheer terror when I said I was going to a silence retreat over Labor Day weekend. “There is NO WAY I could do that!” “I wouldn’t survive even an hour.” “What is wrong with you?” This is just a smattering of the reactions I received. I have to say, I was a bit terrified myself, and if I wasn’t going through an enormous pivot in my life, I probably would not have devoted an entire holiday weekend to meditation and silence with a total group of strangers. In retrospect, I was glad it was strangers and that I only had to be responsible for myself.
The Art of Living has become a way of life for me now and it is fantastic. I began on this path in June and attended the Happiness Program. It coincided with my huge life pivot. I learned of a Silence Retreat that is offered at their retreat center in Boone, North Carolina. My curiosity got the better of me. After all, the Happiness Program had changed my life! In the end, the program was the best thing I could have ever done and it was the most arduous. The silence wasn’t the arduous part–it was facing my own thoughts through meditation. But in the end, the sweet, glorious clarity was worth all the pain.
So here are my insights from my silence retreat:
- Authenticity. During the first 24 hours communication is allowed. Most of the group were complete strangers. Everyone I came in contact with were truly present and authentic. We did activities like sharing our life story in ten minutes (it’s amazing how at 56 years of age, I ran out of material) or sharing our top ten qualities and weaknesses with a complete stranger can break down our façades. It’s impossible to share an idyllic “Leave it to Beaver” childhood when your partner just shared their father was an alcoholic and their mother psychotic. It’s humbling, real and raw.
- Childhood. There were several activities that were rejuvenating, like dancing with our eyes closed and coloring with crayons like we were eight-years-old again. When was the last time you made a smiley face on blank white paper with purple crayon or swayed freely to music without worrying that someone was watching. There is joy. There is freedom. There is connecting with yourself without the parameters of adulting. I learned to embrace my inner child.
- Relax. When we entered the silence portion of the program on Saturday afternoon, we were not allowed to read, write, text or use our phones. As our instructor Mona said: “This is a time of relaxation.” So relax. It might have been the altitude or perhaps the lack of constant distraction of being “connected” to the outside world, but I was exhausted. Perhaps it was from the lack of cortisol constantly spiking from text and Facebook notifications, but I really relaxed. I am not a nap taker, but I can tell you that every free moment I had was back in the television free room, laying on my twin bed “relaxing.” Perhaps even better, I didn’t feel guilty in the least about relaxing. This was my weekend, and I was going to relax.
- Clarity. We spent probably ten hours a day in meditation. Yes. Ten long freaking hours, mostly in silence or in periodic “focus on your nostrils.” This was the arduous part. There were several times where all I wanted to do was to run screaming from the room. There were parts of my body I didn’t know could hurt from sitting in meditation for an extensive period. BUT – the moments of clarity? When my mind was completely and utterly free of thought (which is rare for me, even though I meditate daily), that was complete nirvana. It may have been for just ten seconds. It may have lasted a minute. But to be completely detached and in full consciousness was completely liberating. I learned how to find clarity.
- Humanity. The final activity after we had broken our silence was completely life affirming. There were some fifty people on this silence retreat (including four – yes, four – married couples). Even after the first day of interacting with folks, I didn’t know the majority. For some 60 hours, no one said “please”, “thank you” or “sorry”. Perhaps a smile or holding the door for someone, but besides that, we were all islands. In the final activity, I was seated across from a woman I didn’t know. I was told to look into her eyes as if she were a child. She smiled. I smiled. Her eyes welled up. My eyes welled up. In silence, I was completely connected to this woman and her face is forever etched in my memory. We don’t need words to connect to each other. Sometimes we just need to look into someone’s eyes to see their humanity – to feel them and to feel as one.
By Sunday morning at the retreat, I swore I would never do it again. But now that I am home and in such a state of peace and balance, I know I can and will do it again. The metaphor that is frequently used is the snow globe no longer has the flakes swimming around. The clarity and peace is priceless.