Being silent is something that doesn’t come easily to me. I’m always talking to someone, listening to music, or reading (Facebook, a novel, or live updates to a baseball game. Go Giants!).
So, it was quite a departure for me to spend a night and a day in silence at a church retreat recently. About 30 people came to the Mercy Center in Burlingame. We met on a Friday afternoon and got our instructions for the retreat.
We would be able to talk during dinner, but after that we would be silent from 7 pm until 3:30 pm the next day. During that time we would do a series of meditations, alternating sitting, walking, and lying down. We were asked not to speak or even make eye contact. We were also asked not to read, write, or use any electronic devices, aside from an alarm clock.
We each had a private room with a simple bed, desk, sink, and closet. There were community bathrooms on each floor. Meals were included.
The thing we did most was pay attention: to our bodies, our breathing, our thoughts, and our surroundings. This was not altogether a pleasant experience. Sitting for long stretches got physically uncomfortable at times, and paying attention to your thoughts can show you just how cluttered and chaotic your mind is.
I noticed I spend a lot of time planning what I need to do next, even if it’s days, weeks or even months away. I have negative self-talk about eating junk food and being overweight. I judge people for inane things like what they’re wearing, how they move, and whether they were following the instructions.
Noticing these thoughts allowed me to create distance from them. Instead of just accepting them as truth or fact, I observed them objectively and let them go. After awhile, I was able to have short stretches of time where I didn’t think that much. I just felt my breath moving in and out of my nose and lungs. I felt the smoothness of a tree leaf. I smelled a rose with my full attention. I savored my food and felt grateful that I didn’t have to prepare it and that it was healthy. I felt my legs, knees, and feet as I walked super slowly and with purpose.
The Mercy Center has an outdoor labyrinth that’s surrounded by trees and flowers. At the entrance to the labyrinth I asked for help being present and eating healthier. As I walked into the labyrinth I focused on my breath and on letting go, of my anxiety, my worries, my ever-present thoughts. When I got to the center, I ran my fingertips over a tall rock and felt myself filling with peace, stillness, and lightness. As I walked out, I imagined myself carrying that lightness back into my daily life.
The calm and lightness I felt from the retreat lasted about 20 minutes after I left the Mercy Center on the last day. I immediately ate ice cream and was already checking my phone at red lights. I’ve had many false starts at writing this blog post because going to a retreat is supposed to bring some amount of enlightenment and empowerment to really change my life, right?
I did learn some new mantras at the retreat, which I’m still using.
(while inhaling) think, “Breathing in, I am breathing in.” (while exhaling) think, “Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.”
(while inhaling) think, “Breathing in, I calm my body.” (while exhaling) think, “Breathing out, I smile.”
What I think I got most out of attending the retreat is that I’m not alone on this journey to find my calmest, most empowered self, and as difficult as it is to make time for myself to slow down and just be, it’s sometimes the most important thing I can do. There’s no shortcut to epiphanies or transformation, but it’s all going to be okay if I take life one breath at a time.
Please share in the comments your experience attending a retreat, whether it was silent or not.