Silence Had Never Been My Thing, But a 7-Day Retreat Changed My Mind. Literally.

This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal

Note: This article includes mention of sexual assault.

At the beginning of a recent seven-day silent Mindfulness Meditation retreat, it came as no surprise to me just what a noisy mind I have. I've never really been known as the quiet type. In grammar school, I received good grades, but I was always talking and passing notes to my friends. That's pretty much what my meditation practice looked like, too, except that the chatter was internal. I knew a silent retreat would require Herculean effort. I wasn’t wrong.

My journal entry from day one reads:

Morning meditation was challenging. The first 20 minutes were fine, but then restlessness, discomfort and fidgeting set in. I reminded myself to focus on the breath and just be with the discomfort. It would pass. In the meantime, how am I relating to the discomfort? Then, the chatter: "How long is this meditation? I thought it was only half an hour! Oh, God, don't tell me it's 45 minutes! I can't sit still that long! Oye! Why am I so cold? Yesterday, it was much warmer in this room. Is it time for breakfast? My feet are freezing! Wonder what will be served for breakfast? Ooops! I'm supposed to be meditating!" OK, awareness is back on the breath. Thankfully, every breath is an opportunity to start over!

That was what my first silent meditation retreat was shaping up to look like. I was there because I had registered for a two-year Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. One of the requirements was to attend a week-long silent retreat. For this intimidating requisite, I chose a women's retreat at Mt. Madonna, a retreat center in California founded by the silent monk Sri Baba Das. I had been there before for yoga therapy training with Gary Kraftsow, so I felt comfortable with the location. I figured that would help me overcome my reluctance to be silent for such a long period of time.

As a yoga and meditation teacher, I often hear the comment, "I can't meditate; my mind is too busy." Well, welcome to the club! After teaching for almost 20 years, I still need to practice calming and focusing my mind. My hope was that a silent retreat would help me cultivate a consistency that would break through the barriers I often constructed to getting on my cushion. With commitment, I hoped to ease my trepidations.

What I Learned During a Silent Meditation Retreat

Going Inward Takes Time

So what does seven days of silence feel like? The first couple of days on this retreat found me struggling with my default perfectionist/anxiety mode. Am I doing this right? Do I really need to give up my phone? How will I ever stay silent for the duration of this retreat? I found myself placing unrealistic expectations on my performance rather than embracing the experience.

Given how uptight I have a tendency to be, it took several more days for me to let go into the retreat. I soon found myself in rhythm with the schedule of the day: wake at sunrise; meditate; breakfast; meditate; break; meditate; lunch; meditate; break; meditate; dinner; free time.

In time, a sense of freedom emerged as the silence gave me permission to relax into the process and direct my energy inwards. I didn't feel obligated to make small talk. The silence paved the way for me to decompress. It helped cultivate a process for nourishing my spiritual growth.

You Have Permission to Change Patterns

About halfway through the retreat, I noticed that I became very compassionate and kind toward myself. I gave myself what I needed. The weather turned very warm and the facility in the mountains surrounding Monterey Bay had no air-conditioning, so I let myself nap when fatigued from the heat. I took hikes when I felt energized. I participated in the lovely ceremonies and rituals offered at Mt. Madonna. My dog back home was in her final weeks, so I hadn't surrendered my phone, as suggested. It was important to my peace of mind to check in for daily updates, so I gave myself permission to do that.

When I returned home, I was surprised to experience a reluctance to let go of the silence. I just didn't want to talk a lot. I found solace only in my journal. But it only took a few days back in my normal routine for my habitual patterns to return. That's when I came to understand the value of a daily practice to keep me on track and moving through life with purpose instead of being directed by habit.

As I reflected on my experience, I recognized other ways that the time in silent meditation had changed my outlook on the world and on myself.

Your Nervous System May Shift

During the first two days of the retreat, I experienced subtle leg twitches. It felt as if some sort of high-voltage energetic tension was randomly leaving my body through my legs. Over time, as tension gave way to relaxation, the twitches disappeared. Having been given permission to turn off my electronic devices and experience the quiet of a remote mountain-top location, I was able to embrace what it felt like to turn off the sympathetic nervous system's "fight or flight" switch. I could begin to find comfort in the embrace of parasympathetic "rest and repose."

Extraneous Thoughts Get Clearer

As my nervous system relaxed over the course of the next couple of days, I noticed a shift in my thinking. My mindfulness meditation training taught me the mind may purge extraneous thoughts. Through my personal practice, I learned not to attach to those thoughts or emotions that arise. Instead, when they percolate to the surface, they can be invited to move up and out of our awareness, like clouds passing through a beautiful blue sky. You may have heard the saying, "You don't have to believe everything your mind thinks!" Well, you don't even have to think about everything you think!

Most of the thoughts that arose for me weren't important and didn't require action; they were just remnants of my mind processing information from the input of my five senses. Gradually, these thoughts slowed and were more of a whisper than a loud voice trying to distract and capture my mind's attention.

Deep Memories May Resurface

After about four or five days into the retreat, some of the thoughts that rose into my awareness were memories of situations and experiences I haven't thought about in years. As I reflected on them, I realized these memories were a part of what has shaped me as a person.

At one point a Linda Ronstadt song stuck in my head, and that triggered the memory of being sexually accosted by an older man at my friend's high school graduation party. I remember feeling so guilty at the time. (This was before the #metoo movement). Now, in retrospect, I felt the rage that I had stuffed down 40 years ago. Here was another discomfort for me to sit with.

Sad thoughts of my aging dog turned into memories of my dad's passing, and I thought about the privilege it was to comfort him as he transitioned. Being able to sit and reflect on these memories gave me the opportunity to understand myself on a deeper level. As I sat with the sadness, loss and grief, I was able to cultivate a kind compassion for myself. I had been feeling guilty about the care I was able to provide in my Dad's final days. In meditation, guilt was replaced by acceptance that I did the best I could.

Intuition Becomes More Available

My experience at the silent retreat helped me to realize that when my mind becomes quiet and focused, I'm more open to the cultivation of intuition and spiritual guidance. Since I've learned to embrace the silence, I find myself more trusting of the wisdom of the universe and my own intuition. I embrace the words of St. Therese: I am "exactly where I am supposed to be." It is in the silence that the profound listening and deep understanding take place.

Practice is a Lifelong Endeavor

Of course, every day barriers appear that challenge the time I set aside for silence, but I come to my cushion to find quiet and calm. Each day is an opportunity to pause, to reflect, and to understand the workings of my mind. Meditation helps me cultivate a more intuitive, intentional way of responding to the circumstances of my life. I've learned that my quiet practice influences my life onto a more positive and joyful course.

About our contributor

Ellen Patrick. E-RYT 500, is a Certified Yoga Therapist and Certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher. She has been a student of yoga and meditation for over 40 years and has been teaching for more than 20. Her passion to share the gifts of meditation and yoga is born from her own transformational experience and desire to provide tools to ease the suffering of her students and readers. She believes mindfulness creates a friendlier and more peaceful existence with one's own self allowing for a blossoming in relationship to self, others, and the world.

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