This is the second blog in a series called Lessons from Silence on what I learned from my week-long silent retreat this summer.
Give Yourself Permission to Just Be
My first year attending a silent retreat, I came armed with books, my laptop, and an empty journal. I couldn’t wait for the long hours I would spend reading, working on my computer and journaling about my experience. I was quite surprised on the first day of the retreat when we were told not to read, write or even communicate with others (eye contact and even polite gesturing was discouraged). The point is to simply be with your own experience and let others be with theirs, and not do what we so often do, analyze that experience by writing about it or escaping from it in a book. The exercise is to try to turn off the critical thinking mind, to get out of your own head, and turn on your ability to truly experience the world through your senses. Instead of constantly multi-tasking, we were to experience single-tasking. When I was walking, I was just walking. When I was eating, I was just eating. When I was lying in bed at night - you got it – I was just lying in bed at night, alone with my thoughts, the sound of the small, black fan buzzing in my window and the feeling of the firm mattress beneath me.
I found that putting away my books, magazines and computer was relatively easy. Giving away my phone was a bit more of an effort. And, the request not to make eye contact or communicate in any way with others seemed so strange. But I soon understood the point of these instructions and what it meant to have total permission to simply be. I didn’t have to be polite. I didn’t have to be witty. I didn’t have to be smart. I didn’t have to make conversation. I didn’t think twice about who to sit with at meals or what we would talk about. There were no goals and no agendas. There was also no need for judgment, of myself or anyone else. We were all in this experiment together, all making our own way, separately and yet very much together.
There seemed to be a sort of silent rhythm in each day. Bodies moving through time, each deeply immersed in our own experience and yet intimately connected in our journey, silently supporting each other along the way. We would make way for one another, stand in line together, sit next to each other, and although we did not speak, there was a mutual respect, an outpouring of unspoken support and a feeling of togetherness in everything that we did. I couldn't possibly know what the others were thinking or experiencing, yet I could support them in their journey as they supported me in mine. When thoughts and judgments arose, which they inevitably did, I would simply be aware of them. How interesting, I would note and then I could simply let them go. I felt a tremendous sense of relief to have permission to just be and to experience each moment as it came, accepting the fullness of it all by simply noticing it. Imagine if we could all walk through our days with such openness, giving ourselves and each other permission to just be, to experience the world in our own way and to move in the silent rhythm of time, supporting and respecting each other and feeling the deep bond of our human experience.
Listen to Your Body
After my first morning of silence, I noticed that I was feeling totally and completely exhausted. I stopped drinking coffee just prior to attending this year’s retreat and after the first few hours of silent meditation, and with no caffeine to keep me awake, I could hardly sit up straight, feeling as if my bones could barely support the weight of my body as it melted onto my meditation cushion.
After a morning of meditation and silent lunch, I walked slowly back to my room to lie down for what I thought would be a quick, and much-needed ten minute rest before the afternoon meditation sessions began. I tucked myself in to my tiny twin bed, under my crisp white sheets and delighted in simply closing my eyes in the stillness of the afternoon, a treat I had not enjoyed in years. I could not believe my eyes when I opened them and looked at my watch to find that I had been asleep for nearly two hours. I could not remember the last time I was able to fall asleep so easily, sleep so soundly and feel so rested.
In the silence, I became acutely aware of how I was really feeling and how exhausted I was. With no cell phone to keep my mind occupied, no television news to fixate on, no adrenaline pumping through my body, and no caffeine to create an artificial sense of wakefulness, I had no distractions from truly connecting inward. I realized then how much I needed rest, and without all the excessive stimulation of a busy life keeping me awake, I gave myself total permission to fall deeply, quietly and peacefully into a much-needed sleep.
We need to slow down, quiet down and listen to our bodies. We just need to be still enough and quiet enough to listen. We often keep ourselves moving when what we really need to do is rest. We think that if we push through our fatigue and do more, be more and keep going, we will be happier, more successful and more fulfilled. But at what cost is all this frantic, non-stop mental and physical activity to our health? We need to notice how busy and constantly in need of stimulation our minds are, addicted to adrenaline and information. We bombard ourselves with so much stimulation that we often find we cannot quiet our minds when we need to. Instead, when faced with a moment to simply be with ourselves, we reach for our phones once again to distract us and keep us away from the quiet and from what we may discover there.
We should all find ways to immerse ourselves in quiet more often, get comfortable with it, get use to it and truly listen to what is there - how are you feeling and what do you really want or need? Notice and resist the urge to pick up that cell phone and scroll aimlessly on it. Instead, make time to sit, stand or walk quietly and notice the scenery all around you. Pay attention to how your body feels right now. The information and connection you will find in theses moments is powerful and offers important insights & wisdom. Then, you can actually connect inward, get to know yourself better, and attune to your body and mind so that you can keep yourself healthy, balanced and strong.