I just finished my first seven-day silent retreat. That means I didn't speak for seven days. Can you imagine? Not a word. It was difficult, for sure, but I was not alone. There were over 40 other people there, too, spending the week in complete silence.
The retreat was at the pristinely beautiful Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. The seven days consisted mostly of mindfulness meditation practice sitting for periods of time on cushions on the floor (or in a chair), interspersed with mindful walking inside the meditation hall or outside with clear views of the Rocky Mountains, relaxing and stress-reducing body scans, and gentle yoga. The retreat was led by Jim Colosi and Janet Solyntjes, both Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teachers, and mindfulness practitioners for decades, exemplars of a certain calm radiance that only longtime meditators have, and were able to relay through descriptive and illustrative teaching styles how to cut ourselves a break: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Over the week, we learned to become more gentle with ourselves, and far less harsh in our inner monologues. When you are on a long retreat, you have plenty of time to see just how self-flagellating and confused that inner voice can be.
It takes courage (or intelligence) to have the willingness to directly face the stuff of our lives in an unbiased, non-discriminatory way, dealing with things as they are, rather than how we want them to be, and thus discover, in the wake of this allowing or acceptance, that we are less stressed, more physically resilient, healthier, somehow happier, and all around more appreciative of the chance to be alive in the fist place. We forget that part, the preciousness of life. And a silent mindfulness retreat can remind us of that.
The week consisted of: sitting practice, mindful walking, yoga, body scans, contemplation, teacher led talks, healthy and delicious meals, hours of restful sleep, and a big, open Colorado sky. The seven days of silence were marked by: no TV or radio, no music, no social media, no phones, no computers, no reading, no writing; eating in the dining room together in respectful silence.
Walking in nature, practicing meditation, learning how to gently touch on thoughts and let them go -- noticing that there are certain thoughts that grab you, thoughts that overwhelm, thoughts that leave you feeling loving and joyous, thoughts of anger, and even rage, and thoughts that move you to cry; during mindfulness exercises we get to observe all of the thoughts and feelings that we quite regularly experience, but with a more circumspect view.
In this environment, I learned some new ways of looking at old ideas. One is that, for our own good, it might be more productive to stop desperately wanting, or striving after some thoughts and feelings and vehemently not wanting, or rejecting others. In order to lessen our own suffering, unhappiness, angst, stress and paralyzing confusion it seems to be more effective to look at reality as it actually is. We keep tricking ourselves into believing that we can control what life throws our way, or for that matter, what thought is going to come up in our mind. Most of the time, however, in either case we don't have much choice. Realizing the truth of this ultimate lack of control is hard to accept, but important.
In a way, perhaps we need to mature into adulthood, learning how to play the hand we are dealt in each moment, with gentleness and large doses of self-compassion. Once this kind of personal bravery is chosen -- the courage to face things directly (with choiceless awareness) rather than how we wished it were -- we have a fresh opportunity to experience life more fully, more meaningfully, and with more confidence. While sitting on my meditation cushion, I realized that it made more sense to stop resisting things as they are and create, instead, a bigger space on the "acceptable" side of my ledger, yielding to the truth of what is right before my eyes rather than fighting the losing battle of forcing and manipulating things to be different. The "I, me, mine" emphasis does us no good, I saw so clearly in the content of my thoughts, and holds me back from becoming my most mindful and caring self.
The retreat has ended, and I am speaking again now, and writing, and typing, and checking my phone, and the Internet, back in the everyday world. And, just like those sand mandalas, the magnificent works of art that Buddhist monks painstakingly construct and then destroy, made more precious by their inherent fleetingness, our retreat group has spread now, dispersed like that sand, with new experiences in front of each of us. Yet, I think that I will never forget the past seven days, and, if my hunch is right, I am changed in some pretty fundamental and lasting ways.
Sitting with oneself in such a caring "container" allows people to get in deeper touch with themselves, cultivating a warm friendship (self-affiliation rather than self-aggression), becoming kinder, gentler, and wiser. Physiologically speaking, wisdom is rooted in prefrontal cortex activation of the brain. And mindful meditation and other stress reduction practices have been shown to enhance this response, while reducing the fight-or-flight stimulation of the cortisol pumping amygdala, with its potential to make us sick, reduce vitality and longevity, and leave us emotionally shaken.
We've got to confront our stress or, in the end, it will win out.
There is so much discursiveness kicked up in our minds, like the dust around Charlie Brown's friend, Pig-Pen. If we want to be happy, we've got to settle that dust down. Interestingly, when we are able to sit with our minds in a more spacious way, the mind tends to settle quite well on its own. Last week's retreat provided the time and space to calm down and gain insight. It was like an experience of gentle "mind exfoliation," sloughing off old, unneeded cells in much the same way our skin naturally does. Wouldn't it be beneficial, now and then, to exfoliate our minds, too? Exfoliate and then moisturize. That is the inner beauty regime a multi-day silent retreat can offer. I recommend it to anyone wanting a reboot, in need of renewal, and open to relaxing into an exploration of the only life we've got.
Along with Jon Kabat-Zinn's classics -- Full Catastrophe Living, and Wherever You Go, There You Are -- the other book on the reading list was Natural Wakefulness, Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With, by Gaylon Ferguson. I pulled these phrases from his book as my personal Cliff Notes for the retreat, to act as a reminder of what I learned there. May they help maintain clarity and take the place of future confusion.
First there is inborn, natural alertness.
Panicky, racy thoughts set in.
Willingness to experience this.
Bravery is found in the mindfulness practice,
Strengthening courage: our ability to stay with ourselves, and our experience, even when it is uncomfortable.
Welcomes whatever arises.
Allowing whatever comes to mind to come, and whatever goes to go.
It includes everything.
It is surprisingly rejuvenating to cultivate periods of silence in our lives. It is a gift we can give ourselves. Whether on longer retreats or in short daily practices, sitting in silence is nurturing for the body and mind, and the whole of our being. "The answers you seek never come when the mind is busy, they come when the mind is still..." Our innate intelligence and skillful means are found in this quiet stillness.
From The Huffington Post, November 20, 2015