I am just getting back into my life here in Chicago – my home life and my teaching life – after a really intense but really enjoyable 10 day advanced silent meditation retreat with Richard Miller and Stephanie Lopez at Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, California. There are so many gems of wisdom and experience that I want to share about this retreat with you. To do so all at once would be overwhelming – for both of us!!
To give you an idea of what this retreat was like, I think you should know about our general schedule. Our daily sessions began with an hour of chanting, pranayama and meditation in the early morning. Then we had a mid-morning 4 hour practice of seated meditation, bodysensing and a full length yoga nidra meditation. There was an afternoon break to digest our lunch and then a later afternoon 3 hour session of more seated meditation, co-meditation (meditation with a partner), walking and nature meditations, and some lecture periods. Surprise surprise I am sure – our evening sessions were 2 hours of seated meditation and sometimes more chanting, lecture, sky gazing meditations or Q&A periods. It was a lot of information and personal inquiry. We covered so many different types of meditation exercises that layered on the lessons of the day before.
Our silence was with the following agreements: no talking to one another at any time (this meant no whispering or gesturing or note writing – all creative ways to “talk” without actually speaking), no talking on cell phones (no cell phones period), no email or computer use, no numbing out with watching videos or reading fiction (we were allowed to read some of the texts that address the types of meditation we were doing), and in general we were to proceed about the retreat center with a quietness to our movements that belied our conscious awareness at all we were passing through in each moment. We were allowed at designated times to ask questions of our two teachers. We could also leave questions and notes in folders for our teachers and set up times to talk with them one on one when particularly serious things arose – and they did and I needed to!
I found myself feeling extremely creative, awake and clear during this retreat. I did not sleep very much and yet I never felt tired. My appetite and cravings completely changed and I ate a fraction of what I normally do at home. I wrote multiple blogs, almost an entire journal worth of notes and reflections, a bunch of poems and a quarter of a book I am working on – in 10 days time. I dug up some repressed emotional experiences and worked with them in the meditation setting head on. I welcomed, met and greeted all the thoughts I had not been thinking, all the emotions I had not been feeling and all the energy I had not been moving in my daily life back home. It was a tremendously therapeutic experience – so much so that I am sure to be unpacking the insights for many months to come…until I go back next year for more!
There was so much insightful learning sandwiched into every single meditation, yoga nidra and lecture session that I was almost a bit overcome with how to describe it to anyone or even take its wisdom with me into life. Being back at home I took my first weekend in Chicago to distill 5 simple practices that were really important tools from these 10 days. I wrote them down for myself and now I want to share them with you. I think these are 5 ways that ANYONE can bring the benefits of silence, meditation and quiet awareness into everyday life.
1. Take at least one meal per day where you don’t talk, email, multi-task, watch anything or communicate in any way. Uplevel by doing this in the presence of other humans. Eating in silence at first feels quite strange because the action of eating food is typically such a communal and social affair. Once you take those aspects out of eating you are left with two things: yourself and food. When it’s only you and your food you start to realize whether you eat fast or slow, do you taste your food, what do different foods feel like when you chew and swallow, how does your belly really feel after you eat certain things (especially interesting for “healthy foods” that are eating habits you might have inherited that don’t actually work for you), and do you feel distracted or agitated without the commotion of talking and sharing space with other humans socially. I’d love to hear what you learn from this one!
2. At least once per day significantly slow down the way you walk and take in all of your surroundings in detail. Without even realizing it many of us “walk” through our days at a rapid pace. We never feel the ground beneath us in its many forms. What does concrete versus grass versus asphalt versus sand versus gravel feel like? We may not pay attention to how different a bus, car and airplane feel to our bodies and minds. It is so easy in the fast pace of our modern daily life to not even see the surroundings. By the end of the 10 days at Santa Sabina I could tell you in detail where all the different trees, bushes and flower varieties were – and the gardens are extensive. We really took the time to absorb ourselves in our surroundings. I also knew the patterns of the sky and the changing levels of light as each day passed. When you slow down one of your walking or moving routes each day, you’ll start to not only see amazing things but feel a different state of mind or mood in relationship to those things.
3. Give longer periods of “free time” for contemplative practices and Being. In a culture that praises productivity and busyness it is rare to find people who just “hang out.” Without this crucial free time, humans are completely stressed out and fried mentally, physically and emotionally. We actually lose our creativity in direct proportion to our busyness. Making time for “doing nothing” and being everything is one of the most important takeaways I got from my silent retreat. Maybe you sit in silent meditation or feel some yoga poses pass through without a goal or sequence in mind. Perhaps you write free-form following the stream of your consciousness or lie down and take a nap. I dare you to pick an inanimate object and just stare at it for 30 minutes. Try any of these and let me know what happens. I think you might be surprised what opens up when you start to tune in to yourself rather than your “doing.”
4. Turn the technology off. Our technological advances are amazing and incredibly useful, but in so many ways they have overtaken our lives. How would you feel if you left your cell phone in a locked drawer for 10 days? How about 1 day? What if you didn’t check any of your social media for a week? Can you go a day without tv or miss an entire season of Game of Thrones? How long could you refrain from checking the news? I couldn’t believe how much energy and time was freed up to me through the simple actions that were required of me in this capacity at the retreat – no cell phones, no email, no television, no news and no internet. I lost nothing and gained an incredible amount. I also felt better about myself not looking at social media at all. I can decide what news sources I look at and how frequently, and still be highly educated about what is going on in the world. Can we check out entirely? No. Can we limit our time on these devices and set regular office hours for screen time and news time? Yes! And to great personal satisfaction and eventually with deep relaxation.
5. Be flexible with what practices you choose to do each day to sustain yourself in a state of Being and Awareness. I loved the moment when Richard Miller said something along the line of “if you are meditating every day and sitting really long, that’s not it.” What he meant was that we fixate and latch onto external practices to “give” us something when really the entire purpose of meditation is simply to remember our natural state of Being out of the essential nature of everything. This fixation on external practices turns into a vicious cycle that can make us quite rigid. Instead he offered up the insight of feeling each day what actually helps us to stay connected to a state of Being, Oneness and Awareness. Sometimes that is walking the dog, sometimes that is sitting on your meditation cushion for an hour and sometimes that is eating ice-cream watching a sunset.
It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be silent and more aware. It means you will come face to face with whatever may be lurking underneath your physical, mental, emotional and energetic surfaces. It often feels like a case of the “Princess and the Pea” – we didn’t realize things were bothering us so much until we started paying attention and then suddenly every little thing becomes a bit of a bother for a while until there is a natural quieting down. Isn’t it so much more rewarding to welcome all these stirrings and let them come up instead of supressing them or numbing out? I think so! I know so! I hope you will take some time each day to try out these 5 simple ways you can experience some of the insights I found in my time in silence. Let me know how it goes. I’ll share more insights and practices from this retreat experience in the weeks to come to keep you exploring.
I am just returning home from a silent meditation retreat – the third one I have done in a few years. I have been meaning to write about my experiences being silent for two years – but it had been difficult before this last retreat to put into words what really happened to me when I went silent. Here is the beginning of a multi-part blog series I want to share with you about why silence is so powerful…and why I think everyone should go into silence at some point in their life.
Two years ago in November of 2014 I went on my first silent meditation retreat – four days with an iRest teacher named Anne Douglas who I didn’t know very well. She was leading a weekend retreat from a Friday evening to a Monday midday in Dayton, Ohio. It was close, a cheap flight, I liked her the one time I met her at an iRest Teacher Training and the retreat was part of the requirements for my five year foray into becoming a Certified iRest Yoga Nidra Teacher. I signed up figuring four days was an easy start, and committed to silence. Inside I felt really nervous about the whole thing.
You see, I’m a talker – a chatter. I come from a long line of mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces and grandmothers who have the gift for gab. One of my favorite verbs that I learned while studying abroad in Italy is chiacchierare (to chat). The thought of being silent for four days – not even four full days – really sent me into a spin of internal discomfort. And there is one thing I’ve learned about discomfort over the years: facing it head on has always brought me to amazing places I never knew existed.
When I arrived at Bergamo Center in Dayton, Ohio for the weekend, we signed in and got our room keys. Everyone around me either knew one another or was getting to know one another. They were all talking loudly in a little lounge area near the front door. As I signed in the woman behind the registration table got me my room key, my map of the building, a schedule, my name tag and noted that I had registered to be silent. She gave me a second tag that said, “In Loving Silence” and told me to wear it so everyone knew I was being silent for the weekend.
It was in that moment I realized that not everyone had chosen to do this weekend silent…in fact only two of us had registered to be silent. I felt a ball in my throat start to form. Being quiet when everyone else was also being quiet was bad enough but absolutely do-able. Being quiet when everyone else was talking incessantly?? Not possible.
I made my way to my room and unpacked. I had a bit of time before dinner and the opening session. I made an agreement with myself to stick with my intention of being quiet even if everyone else was talking. I made my way to the loud dining hall and got some food. I sat alone because it felt weird to sit with everyone else who was talking. I’m typically very social so it felt difficult to sit alone with my food. I raced through my meal to avoid the discomfort. It was evident before the retreat sessions even began that being silent set me apart, made other people uncomfortable and was not really understood.
When we settled in to the first evening session and Anne oriented us to the weekend, she talked about why silence is such a beautiful thing – it gives us a break, it brings us up against our internal dialogue, it is a sacred space we rarely get in our everyday life. I think she had noticed during dinner that the two of us with our “In Loving Silence” badges felt a bit out of it. As a result, she decided to make periods of the entire retreat silent. She chose different meal times, different session times and a couple of evenings when EVERYONE was supposed to be silent. This was to help everyone understand the gift of silence.
I found this shift in the retreat really supportive to my endeavor to be quiet. I found it deepened my meditation and made my silence easier. I also found that the rest of the group had a terrible time with being quiet. Every silent meal people would ask for things like, “Can you pass the salt?” Or comment on the food, “Doesn’t this taste amazing?” Invariably they would then say, “Oh shoot, sorry we aren’t supposed to be talking.” As soon as everyone was out of Anne’s watchful eye, they all started talking and complaining about being quiet.
Our daily schedule included pranayama, silent meditation, guided meditation, intuitive movement/body sensing yoga practices and iRest Yoga Nidra practices. There were breaks for meals and naps. It was a steady and nourishing schedule – one that felt so far from the fast paced hectic life I led back home. It was very interesting to be a silent observer of the dynamic of other participants’ responses to the schedule, silent periods, meals and meditations. And because I was quiet, I really got to take in what was going on around me in much deeper ways than when I was normally distracted by the social chitter chatter of daily life.
At one point another participant held the door as I walked into our meditation room with her and when I didn’t say anything she said, “Well you could at least say thank you!” With a huge harrumph she stormed off. At another point in the weekend I was sitting in my room journaling and a group of other students was outside my door lamenting how me and the other woman who was in silence were being so weird and strange. I felt really judged and really unwelcome, but I held my silence and I learned so much from all of the experiences that weekend. During the meditations I noticed how many of the other participants could not sit still in the quiet – they constantly had to be sighing, mumbling, moving props around, slurping water or tea, or apologizing out loud for making noise. My own silence made every other sound around me amplified. It was fascinating!
Here are the TOP 5 of many things I learned on this retreat while being silent.
I left my time with Anne feeling inspired and quite rested. I didn’t want to talk. On the plane ride home and for several days after the retreat, I really spoke very little. Silence left me feeling introspective, raw and vulnerable. I loved it and knew that it needed to be a bigger part of my life, but I wasn’t sure how it fit as a piece into my daily schedule and yearly calendar. I let everyone know when I got back just how refreshing silence was, and how much easier it was than I thought it would be. This first foray into silence began a journey that has continued and influenced so much of my life in wider rippling circles. I’m excited for this series of blogs to share that journey with you and hopefully to inspire you to get quiet and experience your Self and the world around you in a profoundly different way.
Start small: 10 minutes of silence (verbally and technologically) starting now. Report back on how it goes!