In my last blog, I shared my struggle with getting back to my practice of meditation, and how much I hungered for the quiet place within that it connected me to. I’d made a bold decision to do a Noble Silence retreat – a weeklong silent adventure into the self, with no conversation, no internet, no books, no writing...intimidating. Me and my mind, my thoughts, for 168 hours.
The retreat was held an hour out of Baltimore, a remote, forested area completely away from any urban sights or sounds. It was a beautiful setting, very basic accommodations but peaceful and tranquil, and I felt very safe there. As promised, there was no TV, no phones, no wires, no music, no electronics; nothing, nothing, nothing that could possibly stimulate the mind. A few goats and chickens, some beautiful birds, lots of flowers and massive old trees - not that the beautiful setting mattered because it rained all week, nonstop, helpfully adding to my sense of being utterly cut off.
There was a fireplace in the central area outside the mediation hall where many gathered around to just sit, conversation being off the menu. I found a comfy chair on the second floor overlooking a bay window and made it my hideaway. I couldn’t bring myself to eat in the dining room with a hundred people all looking down in silence; it felt too much like being in some kind of institution, and I found that very unsettling. So I took my food and ate alone upstairs on my chair. We were fed every 5 hours, at 7:30, 12:30 and 5:30. The rest of the day was made up of sittings, walking mediations, a metta practice and a dharma talk every evening followed by a final sitting and a chant before bed; 16-hour days, up at 5:30 AM and finished at 9:30 PM every day for a week.
Being alone with my thoughts and working hard on my practice was one of the hardest things I have done. The range of emotions was incredible; sadness, joy, anger, excitement, laughter, irritation, love, grief, rage , despair, desire, stillness, tranquility, peace all washed over me in waves. Sometimes I would experience ten emotions in an hour.
Day 4 was the breaking point… well almost; I was furious with myself for doing this. I hated it. I wanted out. But I'm competitive and I knew I wouldn't bail, because I don't give up. Yet there I was out in the forest kicking a log, screaming at it how much I hated it and how insane this all was. The people looked so depressed and everyone seemed to be coping but me… little did I know.
An hour later I was sitting in silence calm and drawing on every possible resource I could, to survive. Only 2 more hours to dinner, and then I can walk for an hour and then I can sit and then I can brush my teeth for 20 minutes. These crazy people all walking so slow and looking so sad - I wanted to give them all a good hard shove, and and shout, “Wake up!” Meanwhile, there I was, shuffling around the woods all week in Birks and white socks.
I was planning and planning and planning (what we do all day, every minute of our life). It was strange how you can plan around nothing… nothing to do, but I was planning….and then I just stopped planning and I went with it. I am here to stop fighting, I told myself. Deal with the emotions. What was my intention in coming here? Work at fulfilling that. Learn to pause.
I won’t share the more intimate insights I gained on my life and my journey. But I can share some things I learned that I hope you can apply to your own journey.
Pause. Just pause. We are ‘way too reactionary in life. It’s incredible when you just pause, how the outcome changes. A great leadership quality.
2. If you feel anger towards someone, reverse the arrow toward yourself and figure out what's beneath the anger, where it’s coming from. Most of the time, it’s your pain.
3. Fear has a lot to do with disconnection; just connect with it or its cause, and it will disappear. Shift from being possessed by fear to being awakened by the energy.
4. Meditation helps us become familiar with our own nature, developing good qualities of the mind – and two minutes a day is better than nothing. If your negative mental states are decreasing, you’re on the right path
5. Compassion is motivation to reach out. Try it just once a day; be mindfully compassionate to someone, something, somewhere.
Do I feel transformed? Yes. I did have a few breakthroughs, and my practice is back on. When I got to the office on Monday morning, I seriously considered running back to the woods. I still have those thoughts, but responsibility kicks in and makes me sit down very quickly.
It was such an honour to be in the company of such fine teachers; Tara Brach, Jonathan Foust, Pat Coffey and Trudi Mitchell-Gilkey. I miss the retreat manager, La, so much; her beauty and kindness shone through in a magnificent aura that touched my heart.
Would I do it again? Probably not - well, maybe for a weekend. But for now, I can say “checked box” and move on to the next adventure.
Push your boundaries; it's the only way to grow in life.