Lessons from Silence

I recently returned from my second retreat at the beautiful Garrison Institute where I spent a week with nearly 100 educators from around the world, all completing a year-long teacher training program with Mindful Schools. Like our first retreat last August, the first three days of this retreat were spent in silence to give us an opportunity to dive deeply into our personal meditation practice.

  The Meditation Hall at the Garrison Institute.

The Meditation Hall at the Garrison Institute.

Our instructions during the silence were as follows: no talking, no electronics, no reading, no writing, and no communicating with others (verbally or nonverbally). Our schedule each day started with an optional morning meditation at 7:30 am. Each morning, I found myself drawn to the large meditation hall, sprinkled with people, eyes closed, sitting so still.  There was something very special and rare to have the opportunity to sit with other people every morning and soak in the powerful energy of our silent community.  Our silent breakfast followed in Garrison’s beautiful stone dining hall. We ate listening only to the gentle hum of forks and knives clanking across plates, chairs sliding in and out of tables and the ever so quiet footsteps of people slowly filing in and out of the room.  After breakfast, we alternated between seated and walking meditation, before returning to the dining hall for a silent lunch.

The afternoon was again a combination of seated and walking meditation practice. I often enjoyed my walking meditation outside, choosing to walk slowly among the flowers, barefoot on the grass or down a winding trail.  Since we had nowhere to go, no destination to reach (think about how rare that is), we walked simply for the experience of walking, one step at a time, fully immersing ourselves in the sites, sounds and sensations of each step.  

In the evenings, we listened to talks given by our talented teachers in which they spoke so beautifully about their personal experience with life and with meditation. After a silent dinner, we returned again to the meditation hall for another period of seated meditation, then headed outside to walk silently under the stars before heading off to sleep. The next day, we would wake up and do it all again.

  The Gardens at the Garrison Institute.

The Gardens at the Garrison Institute.

Like last summer, I found those three days of silence both delightful and challenging, and, in the end, transformative. It is hard to describe the experience in words, but what comes to mind is feeling like a car, tired from the wear and tear of daily use, badly in need of a tune-up, a rest and a thorough cleaning. After getting some much needed time and attention, the car not only looks clean, but it also feels refreshed and new again. It even seems to drive more smoothly and with greater ease. After the retreat, just like that newly washed car, I felt more myself, more balanced, refreshed and alive. I also felt refueled by the abundance of love and support that this amazing group of people shared with me. Their kindness and openness was inspiring.  As I drove away from Garrison after the retreat, the grass seemed greener, the sky a crisper shade of blue, the trees stood so tall and the world looked beautiful again.  

It’s hard to keep the magic of a retreat alive upon returning to daily life. But, I will try to remember and integrate so much of what I learned into my days. This is the first blog in a series that I will share over the next few weeks about what I learned and experienced while sitting in silence. I hope to keep these lessons in mind as I re-enter my noisy, busy, complicated and beautiful life. 

(1) Unplug Completely and More Often

Immersing yourself in silence includes turning off all electronic devices, phones and computers. It is interesting how scary it can be to disconnect completely from the outside world and untether yourself from those you love. Last summer, I was not sure I could actually live without my cell phone for three days. For the past seventeen years, I have been caring for other people, and in that time I rarely, if ever, focused solely on caring for myself.  Even if I enjoyed a short vacation with my husband, there were always daily phone calls with my children or with grandparents who were caring for them. I imagined that I might want to secretly stash my phone in my closet and covertly check it each day just to allay my fears of some crisis I needed to know about or to feed my misguided belief that I was indispensable.  How could my family possibly survive without me? I thought.  

But when the retreat organizer offered to hold our cell phones for us, much to my surprise, I willingly, although reluctantly, agreed to give her my phone to eliminate all temptation. I knew that if I didn’t hand it over, I would surely encounter a moment of weakness alone in my room, staring at my electronic portal to the outside world, and be lured by my device to check in with my family or check out what was happening in the world. I was well aware of the power that phone had over me and truly interested in sitting with that awareness and the discomfort (and joy) of disconnecting over the next few days.   

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For those of you thinking what an irresponsible mother I am, I made sure that my family had the contact number of the retreat center in case of an emergency. That helped me quiet the stream of “what ifs” that we are all so good at creating in our minds.

As I pressed a small strip of tan masking tape across the back of my phone and wrote, “Cheryl B” on the back with a black Sharpie marker, I felt as though a small piece of me was being left on the table. The abandoned cell phones were all labeled and lined up like a row of tired sunbathers on a beach, each a different shape and color, all in need of a long rest. I put down my phone, turned and walked away, now completely disconnected from the outside world. As I walked away, a great feeling of relief came over me, a sense of letting go, and a temporary respite from responsibility.

It was humbling to know that the world would still spin without me, and liberating to know that my children would be just fine without me too. This year, I noticed a sense of pride and accomplishment that my children were independent and thriving in my absence. I was filled with a feeling that I had done something right and had a glimpse of a newfound freedom as my children are becoming independent adults. They were all happy and taken care of (big sigh of relief) and I could enjoy some much-needed time to reconnect with me, guilt and worry-free.

Over the next few days, I felt a sense of spaciousness and freedom from my compulsion to check emails, read the news or be a voyeur on social media. Instead, I enjoyed long, slow walks among the trees and flowers, uninterrupted by technology. The flowers were so bright and beautiful and I could spend time looking at them, smelling them and walking among them, instead of taking pictures of them.

With no phone to check at night and no emails to reply to each morning, the days and nights were a little longer, time moved a bit slower and I felt less fragmented and more attentive to what was right in front of me. The world seemed more magical, more vibrant and more alive because I was truly paying attention to it. I was reminded that we often complain that we simply don't have the time for walks like this among the flowers because we're too busy with other things. But can we really afford not to?  All we really have is time. It is just a matter of how we choose to spend it.

At the end of our silence period, one of the teachers approached me and asked if I was ever going to take my phone back, as she pointed to it sitting all alone on the table, with “Cheryl B” in big black letters staring at me, like the last, lonely child to be picked up at daycare. I felt conflicted, reluctant take it back and even more hesitant to turn it back on, knowing that once I did, the slow noise and busyness of life would penetrate the sacred walls of Garrison.

After powering back on, I admit that it was wonderful to speak to my family again. As I checked back in, their voices were a welcome sound penetrating deeply in my heart. Not so welcome was my news feed, and the hundreds of unread emails and social media updates waiting for me. So, I turned it back off and tucked it away in my closet for the rest of the week. I checked it on occasion but I felt much less compelled to have it by my side, and less drawn to the vast and mostly unnecessary information I found on that tiny screen, as compared to the beautiful and interesting world right in front of me. I want to have that feeling more often. The feeling of time, of long, slow days, of sharply focused attention, and of being truly present where I am. The real world, the one much larger, more vivid and more beautiful than the world contained beneath a tiny glass screen, is where I want to place my attention more often.

So, Lesson #1 from Silence is to totally and completely unplug, power off and disconnect from the noisy buzz of technology for at least a little while each day so that I can reconnect to the world around me and find more moments of peace and quiet in my days. Although it’s hard to believe, the world will keep on turning without me being electronically connected to it, and I plan to be more present in it.

 

(2) Take More Time to Connect Inward

I entered this year’s retreat not feeling well. I had been experiencing an upset stomach for months and felt what I would describe as a general numbness in my gut. I had seen several doctors to figure out what was wrong, but still had no answers. As I sat quietly in meditation, I gained insight into my own experience and began to better understand what was really going on. I learned more about myself and what I was experiencing in those three days than I had in the past six months by simply allowing myself the time and the space to fully process and experience it.

This is what I discovered. Like so many others, I was deeply shaken by our last election, by the deep divisions in our country and by the violence and pain in the world. I was mostly experiencing deep sadness by what I saw as our inability to come together as human beings and at least agree upon basic notions of truth and compassion. This in many ways disconnected me from my “gut” instinct that people are essentially kind, honest and caring. 

But our political situation, and its deep impact on me, was only one of the many insights I had over these three days. As my meditation teacher encouraged me to dig deeper, I slowly realized there was so much more that needed to be felt. Since my last retreat, I had also been watching my mother courageously fight a recurrence of cancer. Although my mindfulness practice has been a tremendous comfort for me during this difficult time, mindfulness does not prevent you from feeling the pain of watching someone you love suffer. My own pain and sadness needed time, and needed some kind and loving attention.

Another insight, my oldest child will head off to college next fall, and I am beginning to feel that loss and change of life. And, as my children grow older and prepare to leave the nest, I can't help but notice that I am growing older too.  Although I still feel like a child on the inside, my body is showing those inevitable signs of time and aging, as I now reach for reading glasses to read that ridiculously fine print on bottles and menus, and I often have to ask my children to repeat what they say (although I would argue that they mumble). I see and feel the inevitable passage of time, which is scary and real, and I understand my true powerlessness to stop it.

My mindfulness practice has helped me navigate all of these challenges and accept them. I know that these are all part of life. But mindfulness practice does not stop you from feeling the pain and hurt of life, and, in fact, I feel things much more deeply now. Although these intense feelings can be painful, they are also part of life.  If we resist or deny them, they don't go away, they just persist or manifest in some other way, either physically or emotionally. They need to be felt, to move through us. Just like a mother cradles a crying child with all of her love and attention, we also need to  lovingly and attentively sit with our own feelings and say to ourselves, "It's Ok." Sitting silently at Garrison, I had time to do just that.  I had time to sit and truly connect inward, I could watch my emotions surface, allow them time and attention, acknowledge them, process them and watch them move through me, with love and acceptance (and a few tears). I could say to myself, "It's Ok."

The amazing thing about mindfulness is giving yourself permission to experience life in its fullest, both the joy and the pain. It’s not about cultivating happiness or getting rid of thoughts or even reducing stress. It is about being awake and present for this incredible journey through life and finding your inner strength to move through it all with resilience and love. I can feel both the profound joy of seeing my strong, loving, beautiful children grow up and become independent, and at the same time feel the deep pain of letting them go off into the world without me. I can allow it all to just be, to move through me, to understand myself more intimately, no longer numb or resistant to those feelings. I can recognize the pain of impermanence, as well as feel deep gratitude for the profound joys of my life. That’s the gift of this practice, of slowing down and giving yourself the time to connect inward, to gain insight and to be present for your experience and for your life.

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I was able to experience all of this in large part due to the guidance of our gifted teachers, but also in large part due to the incredible love, compassion and openness of this amazing community of people. It literally felt as if we were each being held in this space by one another, free from judgment, where we could all simply be. 

As our poet and guiding teacher, Vinny, explained that after he had suffered so greatly as a child with abuse, addiction, and incarceration, he realized through his mindfulness practice that he had a choice: he could resist all that was and be angry, resentful and closed; or he could open up to all that life had to offer, be present for it and make something beautiful out of it. 

Lesson #2 from Silence is to allow myself the time and the space to just be, to connect inward and to allow feelings, all of them, to be felt deeply and acknowledged. Giving myself this time has left me feeling renewed and profoundly grateful. Like Vinny, I too feel inspired to take this life that I have been given and make something beautiful of it.  

 

More Lessons from Silence in the weeks to come . . .