I went on a four day silent retreat over new years. I made the decision to go after reading, “Awake in the World” by Michael Stone (my beach read this past summer!) Michael Stone is the Buddhist teacher who guided the retreat. The minute I applied to go, I felt absolutely certain it was going to be a life-altering experience (and I am pretty sure it has been…)
I don’t claim to be an expert in this, I am merely breaking down my experiences in this blog post. A few folks have been interested in learning more about it and so here goes….
The retreat was held by the Centre of Gravity of Toronto (founded by Michael Stone) in a cute and serene retreat center in Northern Ontario.
This particular retreat is known as a vipassana retreat and vipassana means to see things as they are. Vipassana meditation helps to cure the diseases of the mind from greed, hatred, and delusion. Basically, a way to eradicate any thoughts of seeing things as they appear, and instead, to see things as they really are. Pretty intense, huh?
With most or all vipassana retreats (again, I am no expert!) there is no communication with the outside world, or even, within the retreat community (so no talking and no eye contact with your fellow meditators.) No computer, no phone, no music, no reading, and no journalling. Just quiet times for the duration of the four day retreat (you do meet with the teacher guiding the mediation, in this case Michael Stone, to discuss your practice in a one-on-one interview.)
What could a silent retreat do for anyone? I couldn’t really tell you, as it depends on what you are working on/looking for. But if you are a human (and I would assume you are if you are reading this) that perhaps you are working on greedy thoughts, the hatred/judgment you place on yourself or others and the delusional way of thinking on just about everything. Again, what do I know? Those are things that I was working on in one way or another. One thing I could say with absolute certainty is you surely have time to wade through a lot of your repetitive thoughts. Your stories that play over and over and over and over again…
Stories that hold us back, that make us feel isolated from the world, that make us feel small, and that just don’t do us any good. We hold on so dear to these thoughts and don’t let go. We race into the past about how stories could have turned out or we try to unfold the story of our future. We are constantly NOT rooted in the here and now, but scattered everywhere else. And in the end, you come to the conclusion that your scattered and racing mind is telling you the truth. But those are simply thoughts and that’s it!
To some degree I don’t think there is any way to fully explain how a silent retreat will exactly help, yet, intuitively we know that being quiet serves a purpose. So that in itself is a huge and instant benefit for anyone wanting to find some peace.
Did I expect to see crazy intense colors or experience any heightened states of awareness in meditation? Hmmm…not really. I didn’t have any expectations. Well, that is a lie (because more honesty is something I want more of in my life so, no lies!) I did want to come out feeling more at ease with myself. I wanted to be more aware. More present. More rooted in the here and now. Which I feel like I am with my continuing daily sit, of course!
Did I feel good about going? Yup! Did I freak out beforehand? For sure! On my drive up, I had a bit of a panic attack. Fear had penetrated me. I wondered, “what the heck did I get my sorry ass into?” and “I am not ready for this! Maybe next year!!” But I called my homegirl Ellen and she told me that I could absolutely do it and that this was a part of me experiencing life. Such wise words! And thank you my dear Elena!
But I still had lingering thoughts as I entered the driveway to the center. “Would I be able to sustain such an extended meditation?” and “Would I be able to go so long without a peep?” As many of you know, I can be a bit of a chatty Cathy…So I really wondered if this was the right time to take on such an endeavor (or ever!) Deep down I imagined at the retreat I would start laughing hysterically and blurt random things out whilst convulsively shaking!
That was not the case. I actually had an amazing time. Everything felt so right. That was exactly where I needed to be. In that space, with those people, and this year. Every step of the way I felt so blissed out by everything. The food, the quiet, the peace, the food, the meditating, the dharma talks (Michael spoke to us every afternoon walking us through our current experiences), the snow (think Northern Ontario), the walking meditation, the fireplace, just everything. Being so quiet allowed for space in my head that I never had before in my life. Everyone at the retreat wanted to respect the quiet of the space so no one laughed hysterically (well, that I noticed!) It was truly the best experience of 2012 going into 2013. And, there were a lot of amazing things that happened this past year!
Don’t even get me started on the food and the way we ate at every meal. Ok, I’ll quickly go through it as it certainly was a highlight! We ate Oryoki style at every meal. In Japanese, Oryoki means “just enough” and that is exactly how you eat. Oryoki is a practice in mindfulness eating. You get a chance to really pay attention to how much you eat and how fast you eat. Right when you are being served, you bow with the person that just put the bowl of super, yummy vegan food in front of you. At the end of the meal, you clean your bowl right there by scraping it and then using hot water that is passed down the table to clean it (even drinking the water! OMG!) Learning to take only what you need is such a sweet lesson and also bowing to your food and thanking the earth, wind and fire and all of the elements of the world for creating this meal. Awesome! The process of opening and closing up the Oryoki set was another adventure…so cool! I would recommend integrating this into your lives…
For me it was such a unique way to eat. Can’t tell if it was interesting because it gave me something to do. But I really liked the process of it all.
All the sitting we did. All of the non-talking. It made me quite sensitive to the sights and sounds of people when I stopped in Toronto for the night after the retreat.
I felt really tired. Sleepy. My pace was slower. I wanted so desperately to hold on to the peaceful feeling I had in the days that followed. But there were more lessons learned from this trip that compounded many lessons learned this past year. That things are not permanent. Enjoy the moment and live with integrity to create those blissful moments. I felt so full of love for life a few nights after I returned. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs it was amazing. Those are moments that I want to live for. That was bliss.
I want to be silent more often now. I see the value in it. I respect the form. I respect all of the ways in which we respect each others space.
So yeah, I guess, Happy New Year…