My First Silent Retreat
Monday night was our last session of the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class and I was stunned by the changes I saw, in black and white, had occurred within me in only 8 weeks.
When we began, we each filled out an in-depth questionnaire that dove into our physical health (do we have headaches? High blood pressure? Chronic pain?) and our mental/emotional health (do we feel anxious? Stressed? Depressed? Isolated?). I had signed up for this class out of curiosity as I had started meditating somewhat regularly about a year ago, and I wanted a more structured foundation. I liked that MBSR takes a scientific approach and is supported by the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. I am more comfortable in arenas that feel straightforward, dogma-free, scientifically sound and devoid of incense, chanting, etc. Unlike some of my classmates, I wasn’t in some life crisis or suffering through unbearable chronic pain. I was simply driven by a desire to learn how I, and those I teach, may achieve greater self-awareness and a reprieve from life’s stresses. I also figured it would be a powerful tool for my friends and clients who struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD and other forms of brain imbalances.
On week 6, we had an all-day silent retreat. From about 9:00am-3:30pm we didn’t utter a word. We practiced seated meditations, walking meditations, body scans, yoga, and we ate. All in silence, with Lynn, our wonderful instructor, guiding us through it all. When I mentioned to friends that I was going to spend my whole Saturday in silence, without speaking, they all looked as if I had announced I was going to spend the day in a small cage with a live snake. (They are not snake-lovers). But I wasn’t apprehensive at all, in fact the prospect of spending a day in silence and without the pressure of having to pay attention to someone else, or come up with something engaging to say, or answer someone’s demands, was extremely appealing. The only part of it that caused me any anxiety was the Transition Back. Back to kids, husband, dog, house, work, social plans.
It turns out that my day of silence was actually really difficult for me. In some ways it sucked. It wasn’t the silence around me that challenged me, but the incessant thoughts bouncing round my brain. I had had a late meeting the night before with a committee that is working to help in the healing in aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and ideas were still bouncing round my head like pinballs. That morning I was missing the Sandy Hook 5k because the Silent Retreat had been pushed back from its original date due to all the snow we had this winter, and I had a hard time letting go of the fact I was missing my friends and family as they ran for a great cause. I tried as much as I could to notice when I was headed down the rabbit hole with my thoughts and feelings, and then reel myself back in by focusing on what Lynn was saying or on my breath. And then I would become aware of the fact that the mom next to me had her phone on her in case her kids needed her, and it would sometimes vibrate incessantly. And then someone in the group would perhaps start to snore. I became resentful – after all, if your kids need you that badly then don’t come, or leave the room periodically to check your phone which you have considerately placed on Do Not Disturb. And as for snoring, if you tend to fall asleep during meditation then meditate standing up!
I decided that these challenges I was facing that day were my curriculum for the day. I acknowledged that I am very protective of my space, whether it is physical or in terms of attention. The tethered mom and the snoring men were here to teach me how to grapple with my resentment and sense of entitlement. If we were to be graded on how we did with our individual curriculum that day, I would say I may have squeaked by with a D. When it was time to do walking meditation I was probably happier than anyone in the room, and when we were invited to take it outside, to walk in the falling snow, down the wooded path, I practically ran out. And that is when I hit the next hurdle – it’s so amazingly beautiful, I thought, I absolutely MUST break the rules and get my phone out and take pictures! So I did.
At this point, I saw that Bill had texted a couple of photos from the 5k and I couldn’t resist opening them. Now my brain went from neighbor’s buzzing phone & snoring, back to missing out on a fun run. And then on to anxiety about the evening, which unlike what Lynn had suggested (a quiet evening), was going to be a 3-family dinner affair. Fortunately, the nice thing about walking meditations especially in a beautiful place like where I was, is that I (and many others) find it easier to redirect my focus, bringing it back to my body sensations or to the sights and sounds around me. In other words, I get out of my head.
When our day ended, I realized that I had finally settled in and was focused and all the monkeys in my head were pretty much exhausted and dozing off. Unfortunately, the retreat was wrapping up now and I felt the way I do about 5k races versus half and full marathons. It takes me about 2-3 miles to warm up, and those are painful, forced miles. The longer races, however, give me more distance to warm up at a comfortable pace, and I relax into a stride well before it’s over. I realized that at least this time, my first ever silent retreat, felt like a 5k. I was left longing for more now that I had finally hit my stride.
Lynn instructed us to be kind to ourselves during our “re-entry” that evening. She pointed out that the “overhead luggage may have shifted in-flight” so we were discouraged from making any rash decisions or life changes, such as deciding to switch careers or spouses, or have another kid or sell a kid. I somewhat warily went to my rambunctious dinner outing and realized that night that all the anxiety I had carried about it during the day was unfounded. I never suffered from feeling over-stimulated and my dear friends were sweet and respectful (I had warned them I may be a little weird). The next morning I ran in a 5k and when I realized just before it began that my mp3 player wasn’t working, I casually shrugged it off and realized I actually didn’t want any external noise (I ALWAYS do these painful 5k’s with music so this was very different for me). As I ran, I paid attention to my legs, my lungs, my arms and shoulders, my fellow runners, the spectators – and was filled with joy and gratitude every step of the way. I realized as I drove home afterward that the 3.1 miles at just under 7:30 minute mile pace had been an extension of my day of meditation, as my body became part of the Taming of the Monkeys.
So that final evaluation that I filled out at the end of the 8 weeks shocked me, because it turns out that 8 weeks ago I was uncomfortably judgmental about myself. I thought I was much nicer to myself than that. But when I compared my previous answers to the answers I offered this week, I realized that in that short time I had actually started to let go of attaching myself and my self-worth to what I did and felt and thought and said. This was a huge revelation to me. That I was this way, that I was no longer so much this way, and that I could transform in this way in a fraction of my son’s hockey season. I’m hooked.
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Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.