What I Learned On My First Silent Meditation Retreat
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a five-day silent meditation retreat at Bethel Farm in Hillsboro, NH with twenty other retreatants led by teachers Josh Summers and Linda Modaro. It was my first long retreat, and I was very much looking forward to it.
Here are the highlights:
Silence is golden…most of the time
It was nice looking inward and focusing on myself without the distractions of idle chit-chat or awkward conversation, but I must admit I missed building connections with the people I was spending all of this time with. What was their story? Why were they here?
Also, being someone who likes to “lighten the mood,” I missed cracking the one-liners when something made me chuckle. I ended up sharing those with my husband via text message, which on this retreat, we were allowed to do. Apparently, on some retreats, you need to check your cell phone at the door to further deepen your experience. Something to keep in mind if, after reading this, you decide to sign up for a silent meditation retreat.
However, we did have dharma talks and discussion groups between meditation sittings that we were able to “use our voice” so this was definitely appreciated. And, truth be told, I did crack the code of silence from time to time with a whisper here and a whisper there. I also found a retreatant who was equally conversation starved whom I shared walks and talks within this beautiful landscape.
I guess the thing to walk away with here is, if you sign up for a silent meditation retreat, see what the boundaries are for the silence and if you are up for the challenge. You’ll never really know until you participate in one, but it’s good to know what the expectation is before you arrive.
We are often the cause of our own suffering
In Buddhism, the first of the Four Noble Truths states that in life, we will experience suffering (dukkha). The second Noble Truth reveals that much of this suffering is due to attachments to things we desire (samudaya). Although this philosophy comes from Buddhism, I don’t think you have to be a Buddhist to see its merit and put it to the test in your own life.
Case in point. On this retreat, I had to sleep on a mattress on the floor next to eight other women I didn’t know. If I needed to go to the bathroom, I had to either go outside to a composting toilet or go downstairs to use a flushing toilet. Not really the most convenient scenario when you come from a house with two and a half private baths. The meals were vegetarian…which I am not…and even though I meditate regularly, the schedule was pretty intense. There were five meditation sittings scheduled per day, a few discussions, and one Yin Yoga class.
We can also be the cure for our suffering
Now, as you can imagine, coming from your comfy home and everything you’re used to and being dropped into this type of environment might cause a little jolt to the system. For those who fear or dread the unfamiliar, this can create some internal turmoil or “suffering.” But considering we all paid good money to be here, it was interesting to see the different reactions. Some people just went with the flow – others, not so much. I was somewhere in the middle. It took me about a day or so to get my bearings, but once I wrapped my head around the situation, I was able to adapt, accept, and maneuver through this new way of being so I could get the most out of the experience.
Others were not as fortunate. It was clear that they experienced “dukkha” up until the last day of the retreat. I felt compassion for them because you could tell their dukkha ran much deeper than just surviving the minor discomforts of their new surroundings. I hoped they would be able to resolve some of this through their meditation and journaling.
I chose to meditate about my own dukkha in one sitting and put a magnifying glass on it. What suffering was I experiencing in my daily life and was I, in fact, creating or contributing to it? The answer was “yes.” Then after the meditation, I reflected on how I could reduce or rid myself of this suffering by changing my response or perception to certain situations, desires, or attachments. Essentially, I was practicing the Third Noble Truth, to figure out how to stop the suffering (nirhodha).
This exercise was probably the most valuable thing I walked away with from the retreat. I would highly recommend trying it yourself to see what gets illuminated.
We must learn how to have compassion for ourselves first
Since I formally started my meditation practice, one concept has come up time and time again. As human beings, most people are much more compassionate to others than they are to themselves. Many of us have an internal dialogue that keeps playing the same tape that goes something like this. “You’re not smart enough or pretty enough or thin enough or athletic enough to be worthy.” This tape seems to play on a loop day in and day out and is accompanied by an additional dialogue of berating words toward everything we say and/or do. Some of the things we say to ourselves, we would NEVER say to someone else. So why do we do this? Good question.
What I learned was that through meditation, positive affirmations, and replacing this tape with one filled with kind words and gratitude, we are able to show loving-kindness to ourselves and spread that loving-kindness to others. In other words, we need to recognize that just by being born and present on this planet, “we are enough.” Once we understand that, we can help others reveal the same.
I love yin yoga
I have been practicing Yin Yoga for over a year now and received my 200-HR yoga training in both Vinyasa Flow and Yin Yoga. However, I realized that a lot of people are unfamiliar with Yin Yoga. Essentially, instead of working on the muscles like yang yoga, Yin Yoga works on the fascia, tendons, and joints that surround the muscles. In Yin Yoga, floor postures are held passively for several minutes in order to access a safe and positive ‘stress’ on the deep layers of connective tissue. By stressing and elongating these, our muscles can move more freely and as they were intended. It also helps prevent injury in other types of athletic adventures you might be involved with.
I can’t wait to teach my Yin Yoga classes and hope to see you there. I am also continuing with my training by getting my 300-HR Yin Yoga certification with Josh Summers at the Summers School of Yin Yoga.
In meditation…posture is everything
When I meditate at home, I alternate between sitting on the floor on a meditation cushion, sitting in a chair, or lying down. Since I switch up my position and generally only meditate once a day, my posture has never been a problem. However, on this silent retreat, since we were sitting several times a day, it was clear, my body was not happy. My hips got sore, my foot fell asleep, I got knots between my shoulder blades, etc. This has a great impact on the quality of your meditation. If you’re focused on how much pain you are in and spend your time fidgeting and readjusting to get comfortable, it’s hard to do the “real work.”
It took me several attempts before I found a position (or two) I could sustain for 30-40 minutes at a time without wreaking havoc on my body. Practicing Yin Yoga on a daily basis also helped minimize the discomfort I was feeling.
So, make sure you play around with your posture. I’ll be showing people different postures in my meditation classes so you can find the one that’s best for you that doesn’t cause too much “dukkha.”
Have you been on a silent meditation retreat? What did you learn? Tell us about it in the comments below.