Tag Archives: retreat

My Journey into and out of Silence

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.

Retreating into Silence

Tomorrow I’m going to an overnight silent retreat with my church. I did the church retreat a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. It wasn’t a silent retreat though.

An angel signaling "quiet"

One of the signs my depression is getting worse is the voice in my head runs on and on. It’s not even that I’m thinking. Sometimes it’s music playing in my head, sometimes it’s me narrating to myself something that just happened. I never really experienced a truly quiet moment until I started taking an anti-depressant.

I have tried having periods of silence though. Before we had kids, I would take a weekend day and just not say anything or talk to anyone. This would drive my husband absolutely batty. He wanted so desperately to be able to talk to me. I confess, I kind of enjoyed his frustration, it was cute.

Years ago, I used to be afraid of silence and being alone. I somehow instinctively knew that it strips you down to the bare bones of who you are, and I was afraid of what I would find. I was terrified that some horrible part of me would bubble up to the surface.

Now I understand that getting quiet and noticing the thoughts, sensations, and feelings that come up are the best way for me to let go of all distractions and to notice the peace and calm that’s present in every moment.

It seems a little contradictory to be surrounded by a big group of people, then insist on being silent. Are we still supposed to make eye contact? Do we smile at each other? I’m not sure. We’ll get to talk to each other during the orientation and dinner. Then we’ll do guided meditations and be in silence until the afternoon of the next day. We’re not supposed to read or write at all.

I’ll be honest, the thing I’m most looking forward to is sleeping. My dog Maggie has been keeping me up for about four or five nights. I let her sleep in bed with me, and she was all polite at first, but then she showed her true colors and started hogging the bed. Now I’m putting her in her crate at night, but she cries and barks for awhile before settling down. (Note: If you adopt a dog that is crate-trained, make sure you always put her in her crate when you leave the house and at nighttime. It will be better for everyone, trust me.)

Retreat is always kind of a funny word to me. It implies defeat, a “running away.” In some ways, I guess it is, running away from the hectic daily routine, the overwhelming to do list, the constant needs of my husband and children, my dog, my friends, my kids’ schools, etc.

It is also a “treat” to take care of myself. It feels almost child-like to care only for my own needs. I suppose some people might consider it selfish, but most people I think recognize self-care as something we all really need. None of us is the Energizer Bunny, try as we might to imitate it. We can’t always “keep going.” Sometimes it’s our responsibility to stop, and listen, and rest.

I don’t expect the retreat to be life-transforming, but I hope to experience some healing: physically, emotionally, mentally. I hope to connect with the people from my church and to whatever it is in the universe that binds us together. Some people call it God. I just know that when I get really quiet and still sometimes I do sense Something that is beyond my thoughts, worries, and fears. I know way deep down that I’m okay, we’re okay, and in the end, we’re all going to be okay.

Do you carve out time to sit in silence? What do you get out of the experience?