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February 24, 2020

My First Week-Long Silent Meditation Retreat

Just back from my first weeklong silent meditation retreat, something I’ve been heading towards after five years of engaging in a variety of mindfulness practices. It was good timing given I’m not working right now and had just spent two weeks at the beach in Florida. So I was sort of unplugged already.

The retreat was part of Jonathan Foust’s fabulous “Year of Living Mindfully” (you must check out Jonathan’s dharma talks available in podcast form). The retreat’s schedule was more structured than you might imagine. After the 5:30 am wakeup bell, we participated in ten different “sits” before we went to bed at 9:30 pm. Between the sits, we had ample time to mindfully walk or eat a meal. Being silent meant no reading or writing – and of course, no electronics – and we even had to avert the eyes of our fellow yogis as we moved about. We were focusing inwards.

Here’s a few items that might help give you the feel of the retreat – I went in fairly blind and had no idea this is how the experience would be:

1. Escape Fantasies – I understand how most would roll their eyes at the notion of a weeklong silent retreat. I was one of those for years. But it was a condition to being accepted to the “Year of Living Mindfully” program that I’m enrolled in. And I was totally game anyway because I’m in a state of ‘Just Say Yes’ to most things these days.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t apprehensive. I felt scared the entire drive down. What if I had a transformative experience and wasn’t the same? How could I bear being silent? What excuse could I find to leave early? Little did I know that those escape fantasies would never really dissipate. In my mind, I was looking for ways to leave during most of the week.

2. Sleeping with Others in Silence – As almost always happens in life, the things you spend time worrying about never come to fruition. Going in, I was worried about the sleeping arrangements. One of my biggest challenges these days is sleeping soundly. I’m often up before 5 am. And can’t get back.

I arrived to find that I would be sleeping in close quarters with three other guys, with six more upstairs in two small bedrooms. But I slept like a baby. Never even knew the name of a few of my roommates. And of course, I didn’t speak to any of them. The house only had two bathrooms – but getting into a bathroom was never an issue. Once we were awake, we were rarely there and folks took showers throughout the day.

3. Feeling the Power of Nature – In silence, your senses are heightened. They’re magnified even more if you’re meditating much of the day. Really hearing the sounds of nature. The hum of a bee swarm. The calls from a flock of geese. The breeze rustling on your cheeks. The crunch of your feet on the path.

Ah, the sights. The bright stars hanging in the nighttime sky. The sun pouring in at the break of dawn. The small ripples of waves folding over in the river. And then there’s the bodily feeling of it all. The trees calling to you, feeling their vitality as they become one with you.

4. The First Sit of the Day – Each sit felt different than any other. We are in a constant state of change. And on this retreat, I was definitely unsure what each day would bring. You were intensely aware of that. But having said that, the first sit of the day always felt a little special. Your legs feeling fresh (I would often sit in lotus position – many sat in chairs). Feeling your present. A little excited about what that day might bring.

5. The “Unplugged” Maelstrom – The first few days of a retreat can be particularly challenging. Your mind – and body – becoming accustomed to being unplugged. Letting all that stimulation – all that stress – go. I experienced a loud hum by the afternoon of the second day, followed by a migraine, some paranoia, as my reality emerged. By the third day, that type of tumult had faded away.

6. The Pleasures of Mindful Eating – Our diet consisted of simple plant-based meals. Luckily, my diet going in was fairly healthy – so my body didn’t experience much of an adjustment on that front. The huge adjustment for me was the pace of eating.

We weren’t instructed to do so – but the group quickly fell lockstep into a habit of eating quite deliberately. Placing a small forkful of food in your mouth. Perhaps just a solitary bean. Setting the fork down to slowly chew. Taking a few long breaths before feeling the urge to do it again. Eating a salad could easily take over 20 minutes. Nowhere to be. Nothing to do. Just enjoy.

7. The Intensity of (Not) Eating Alone – I’d say the biggest surprise was the power of sitting with 60 people for a meal. All of us not looking at each other. Not talking. Each of us being so intentional in our actions. It would get emotional at times. It was wonderful.

8. Oh Yeah, The Silence – Noble silence. Another surprise was how easy it was not to talk. Not talking is much easier than giving up the cell phone. The newspaper. The TV. And we did talk some. We met in small groups with a teacher every other day to discuss our experiences so far. We chanted at the end of the last sit of the day. And we were offered the opportunity to ask questions after the nightly dharma talk.

9. The Sangha – A big part of the experience is that you’re not doing it alone. You’re part of a like-minded community, the sangha. So even though you’re not communicating, you really feel connected. More & more as the week progresses. Interconnected energy. I’m lucky because this group will see each other again since we’re all in the same year-long program – it will be interesting to finally meet the people that I silently observed for a week.

10. The Profound Shift Towards The Real You – I’m purposefully not writing too much about the details of my actual experience because each person will have their own. And if I attend another retreat, I’m sure it will be far different than what transpired this time.

I can tell you that after the narrator – the stories – in my head became fainter, I could more clearly see my reality. I felt lucid in a way that I don’t remember feeling before. I not only could access long-forgotten memories, I could access the feelings associated with them with a rich texture. Almost see the colors of them. The ‘feel’ of them.

It was a beautiful experience. A brutal experience. I cried more in a week than I have in decades. Given that this retreat’s type of meditation practice was body-focused (ie. vipassana), I was acutely aware of how my feelings would manifest themselves in my body. Facing my reality, I was able to uncover answers to questions that I didn’t realize that I should have been asking. More importantly, I became aware of a host of inquiries that I will be unpacking for the foreseeable future.

So to sum it up, I felt like I lived more in a week than I might in a year. I felt ‘woke.’ Which truly wasn’t easy. For me, things got harder as the week wore on. Not easier. But that was this particular retreat for me. It easily could be different next time. Knowing that you’re going to die, how do you want to live?

Broc Romanek