When I told my friends I was going on a silent retreat for 7 days they said things like ‘wow, how great, you’ll love it, wish I could do that!’ While most looked at me admiringly, some (like my family) looked puzzled. Perhaps they worried they’d lose me to a cult, or ashram?
Truth is, a large part of me was dreading it, even though I’d be in the beautiful Coromandel.
The ‘no talking’ part didn’t bother me. I’ve had a few experiences of ‘noble silence’ which I surprisingly enjoyed. But being severed from my iPhone and laptop would be a challenge (understatement). Bunking in and dealing with snorers (probably), away from my beloved Nespresso machine and creature comforts, felt less exciting. Plus, I’d be meditating for much longer periods than usual each day. I wondered how I’d cope?
Plenty of my friends had done silent retreats before me and every one of them told me ‘it’s life changing’. I decided to keep a running account of my experience on Facebook to let people know how I was going. Here’s my running blog if you’re interested?
Day 1 Silent Retreat
Initially I felt too guilty to use my cell phone to post! Obviously, that didn’t last. So just to fill you in…
Long trip from Wellington to the Coromandel (my first time here). Weather bomb hit as I arrived Auckland! Picked up at the airport by a fellow retreat goer – so kind. He decided to take me on the scenic route which took forever, and we couldn’t see anything due to wind and rain! Thank heavens for Google maps or I’d never have found it. Arrived safely and realise I know 3 people here. That’s seriously weird, but also kind of nice.
It’s not the Ritz (understatement). My room resembles a cell block. The first thing I look for is a power point. None anywhere! Not even a light. Where will I plug my cell phone (that I’m not supposed to have with me)? And when will I ever learn to read the small print? Off grid obviously means something!
Anyway – lovely bunch of people. First night and I wrestled with my borrowed sleeping bag and hardly got a wink due to the ferocious weather. I know rain on the roof is supposed to be relaxing, but living in an apartment means I’m not used to it.
Been a long day and its way from over. Silence, I’m cool with that, but the weather is miserable and guess who didn’t bring suitable clothes? Of course, if someone asked me out to dinner, or if the sun was shining I’d be set! Suitcase full of summer apparel, when winter has returned to the North. Arghhhh! Anyway, I’m not here to complain about the weather, I’m here to meditate – and I have done a lot of that (understatement). I rarely fall asleep when I sit, but after no sleep last night, I keep nodding off. Hope I’m not snoring?
Wish I could tell you about the interesting people here, but that feels like I’m speaking out of school, so I won’t. I hope I sleep better tonight, or tomorrow is going to be a challenge.
PS I feel I should be telling you about my epiphanies from meditating all – day- long…but that’ll need to wait until I’m less brain dead. Watch this space.
Somebody took my towel. I kid you not, and I only had one. It’s not like you can ask around at a silent retreat. Towel gone. Tough! What to do? Decided to loan one that looked unloved and available.
Interesting day. Up early ready for first meditation. Piece of cake. Feeling all smug and Buddha like. But wait, you know how the universe lies in wait whenever you start getting too smug about anything (because you obviously need to be taken down a peg or two?), yep, second meditation and my monkey mind ramps up to full throttle. Painful low experience…
By the third meditation I’m feeling less proud, and despite knowing the mind will do what the mind will do (and letting myself of the hook) I feel a tad frustrated. Next meditation and I’m falling asleep (again), not to the point of snoring, but close. And I don’t mean once or twice. I reckon I nodded of 10 times!
The walking meditations are growing on me though. This is where you get to concentrate on putting one foot after the other for 45 mins s-l-o-w-l-y. Not once, but 3 times during the day. Yes, that’s on top of all the sitting meditation.
So, what am I learning? After all, that’s why I’m here – and to be stretched out of my comfort zone. I’m learning to relax into it. Not to strain and to just be. I imagine some people wondering why I’m struggling so much, especially since I’m an experienced meditator? The difference is, I’ve never meditated for hours and hours on end. This is a challenge. But I figure I’ve made it to day 3 and despite the setbacks I’m doing ok.
Nothing to achieve and nowhere to go. Plus, it’s stopped raining and I’ve been able to walk in the bush. Bonus.
I always knew I’d find a place to unashamedly wear these stiped hippy pants!
Another interesting day. Here I was, all geared up for non-stop meditation and there’s been a surprise change of plan. After our early morning sit (followed by the ‘teacher talk’) we’re off the hook and given the day to ourselves. What’s a girl to do? Some exploring and meditating I suppose?
I decide to go bushwalking, but I don’t get far. Given my non-existent sense of direction, I go back to the safely of the retreat and decide to just sit! Extended periods of meditation is feeling increasingly familiar and comfortable. I’m beginning to wind down and relax into it. Whew…
Each day from now on we’re given the opportunity to sit with the teacher (who is brilliant by the way) and ask him questions. These are private one on one chats and I grab the opportunity. I find exposing my dark inners to large groups of people difficult. I’m grateful to those who do, as their experiences are almost identical to mine, but I prefer to keep my personal ‘yucky bits’ closer to my chest.
That’s the great thing about this big messy thing called life – we’re all in a similar boat, dealing with the same shite – despite our tendency to wonder ‘is it just me!?’ And none of us are getting out alive, so it pays to have a ponder about things doesn’t it?
Day 5 (a)
It’s not all water lilies and lotus flowers here. It’s anything but…
As we go through the days in silence, and meditate for extended periods, all kinds of mind farts (please excuse my language if you’re easily offended) appear. And I suspect, from the brave few courageous enough to ask questions that expose them as human, imperfect and SFU (that’s a coaching abbreviation for seriously f-ed up) that we’re all going to the highs of feeling peaceful and one with the universe, to feeling tormented and back again…
I have a sneaky plan. I’ve put a notice on the board asking for people to join me on a bush walk and 2-3 have signed up. So, if I get lost – it’s not entirely my fault. Watch this space.
Day 5 (b)
A small group of fellow retreaters accompanied me on my bush walk. We dutifully signed the book (letting people know where we were off to and when we expected to be back) and took a map and set of whistles. All good. I had water, hat, sunblock, and camera (yes that’s code for cell phone).
After a short gentle decline into the bush I immediately fell on my ass and hurt my wrist. Ouch! I’m sure it’s not broken, but it hurt. Anyway, we ventured on and eventually reached our destination (I have no idea where that was?) but what a view!
It’s been a stunning day and I know I should probably have more than the weather to report, but I don’t. Only 3 days to go. Not that I’m counting…
Silent retreat. Well, perhaps not so silent. I’ve been dealing with the consequences of too many beans (vegetarian diet) – and unfortunately for my cell mates, so have they. I’m sure when I leave here, people will refer to me as the ‘farting woman’. And it would serve me right, as I’ve been giving everyone else nick-names (and some of them not so nice!).
But it’s hard not to. It’s not like you can strike up a conversation and get to know someone. So, my mind makes up stories about who they are. This has bitten me in the bum.
Remember my desire for a bush walk (but my fear of going out alone) and my cunning plan to put up a notice asking for fellow bush walkers, so as not to break silence? What I didn’t tell you, was the only person to initially sign up was my least favourite person here!
Now how did he come to be my least fav? Well, he’s a tall man with an accent who looks a bit like a hush puppy, and while I only heard him say his name and why he was here, I took an immediate dislike to him. I’d go even further and say he gave me the creeps. This goes against the kind, generous, open, compassionate qualities associated with a mindful human being – qualities I like to think I usually own.
So, I was worried about venturing off into the scrub alone with the ‘axe murderer’ (I have a vivid imagination) and was relieved (understatement) when two other women decided to come along. This is quite possibly why the universe let me to slip on my ‘A’ soon after starting off.
Anyway, what’s the point of this story? Turns out, said axe murderer is a kind, funny, gentle human being – and all my imaginings were completely off target. How do I know? We broke silence (falling on your ass will do that) and all had a lovely time chatting, before being asked by someone (who obviously took their vow of silence more seriously) to kindly shut up.
What’s this got to do with retreats and mindfulness and all that jazz? Our minds make stuff up. Sometimes it’s true, most often it’s not. Practising mindfulness grows your ability to see when you’re fabricating rubbish (and the harm it does to you and the other person) and allows you to step back and have a laugh at yourself. There’s a lot of freedom in that.
There’s a lost and found notice board here and some clever clogs left this message ‘lost my mind – found my heart’ which captures the essence of what these silent retreats are all about. Now before you go jumping to conclusions and think I’ve gone all crocs and essential oils on you, let me explain.
Life’s busy. And in the rush to do it all (while looking radiant, calm, and in control) somethings got to give. That something can be your sanity? It might be your sense of humour, your zest for life, the urge to murder your family, whatever…
Perhaps you have no idea what it is? But even if you can’t put your finger on it, you know you must take yourself out and make some space for whatever it is, to show itself to you, and you to it.
Everyone goes to a retreat wanting something for themselves. Which can feel kind of selfish. But really, if you give yourself permission to take a break, everyone benefits.
I originally came here to deepen my meditation practice and be stretched out of my comfort zone. Can tick those off. However, what you think you need and what you find for yourself, are often two completely different things.
A few people here have admitted losing touch with their emotions (and with themselves). I’m sure they have emotions, but they can’t seem to tune in and really feel them. If you’re anything like me, you might be aware of not wanting to let all those uncomfortable emotions out (because all hell might break loose) but you know you must if you want to remain sane and really feel alive.
So, hats off to the brave person who left this note. I bet he or she went to a difficult place while they’ve been here – and that takes courage.
Only 1 more day to go. I’m getting into the swing of it now, but I’m done. Time to return home. Tomorrow’s dilemma is how I can possibly wear an extremely creased dress on the flight back? See – not entirely enlightened quite yet!
Seems flying home with a creased dress was the least of my problems. When I looked down at my legs this morning I noticed a 7-day growth, and seriously considered unpacking my suitcase to search for the razor, but wait for it (you’ll be so proud of me) I decided ‘what the hell – who bleeding cares?’
And it didn’t stop there. The wonderful Gary who gave me a lift here and kindly offered to drop me back at Auckland airport, suggested we stop for a swim in the ocean on the way. A moment’s hesitation – but the new found freer and more daring me said – ‘yep, that’d be great!’ I mean, I can have a wee dip without getting my hair wet. But wham, big waves, under I go – completely dunked.
Then (because I am now such a free -spirit-earth-mother) I found myself rinsing my hair off in a freshwater stream, and a few hours later dropped off and ready to fly home.
So here I sit at Auckland airport, all hairy legs, no makeup, creased outer wear and hair best suited to Phyllis Diller! Shocking.
And since the food here is limited but definitely ‘bean-free’ I decide I’ll have fries with that!
Post Script (5 lessons I learnt)
I’ve been feeling the itch to write about how things are, and what’s changed since ending the retreat and going from silence to shouting aloud “home honey, I’m high!”as I entered my apartment late Thursday evening (even though I live alone…)
It felt wonderful to be in my own bed and to sleep all night without interruption. Wonderful is an understatement – it was sheer bliss! Heaven. The following day I had drinks with a friend. Of course, I’m currently alcohol free, but it was the catch-up I was really looking forward to, and hearing about all her experiences overseas. However, the noise in the bar felt like an assault on my senses. Funny that. I realise I really do like quiet (just not all the time).
So, what were my big take-aways from the retreat and would I recommend it to others? Let’s start with what I learnt.
Silence is easy until you fall on your ass and need help. Small talk has always made me uncomfortable – so I quite liked the silence. Reminds me of something I learnt from the school of practical philosophy – when you go to say something, ask yourself, does it pass the 3 gates? Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary? If not, consider buttoning it.
I can be sooooooo self-obsessed! Knowing I was on a retreat with a recent widow and someone who’d just been given a terminal diagnosis was humbling. Everyone shares what it is to be human. None of us (and I mean none-of-us) have it all together – and getting it all together (or wanting and wishing to) is just another way we fool ourselves into thinking it’s even possible.
Then, we live half-lives waiting for that magical moment when everything is ok, when everything works out. But it doesn’t, it won’t, and it can’t. And that’s a good thing. Accepting that, is like taking a big long exhalation and relaxing into what is – into the now if you like. And understanding that ‘now’ may not be sublime, but it’s pretty good, or good enough (just like we are) is underrated.
Meditation is difficult. While I always knew this, I found a whole new level of freedom with my practice, by accepting the roller coaster of relaxing practices, followed by those that felt more like themb-screws. There’s an acceptance theme coming through here in case you haven’t noticed it.
Numbing is endemic. We all numb. It’s like we’ve been given this genius mind with a major design fault. We don’t know how to use it properly. And when we can’t cope with the bloody thing (with the assault of thinking and flux of emotions, with the incessant repetitive tape playing copious ‘I’m not good enoughs’) we try to numb it, or out think it. Neither works.
Numbing usually takes the form of alcohol, drugs, overwork, or being crazy busy all the time, or Netflix, or over-thinking (like our head isn’t attached to our body). It won’t work. You must make friends with yourself, be kinder to yourself – for heaven’s sake even learn to love yourself.
Meditation is a way to get intimately familiar with all your rubbish, so you can look at your mind’s diatribe with new eyes. If you persist you might even get to giggle at how weird and ridiculous you’ve been being. But don’t trust me – try it out for yourself.
I’m an expert at numbing. I’m learning how to feel my emotions, allow them to be there, and explore them without distracting myself with a variety of the above. Work in progress…looking to feel more, numb less.
So, would I recommend a silent retreat? Yes – wholeheartedly, but not to an inexperienced meditator. If you don’t have a practice, you might feel like you’ve turned up to the Olympic trials, when all you really wanted was a gentle stroll.
Do your research. While off-grid may sound appealing, is it really you?
Me, I’m happy to have done it. Not sure about a next time.
However, there’s a lot to be said for stretching yourself out of your comfort zone. You simply feel more alive. Right now, it’s a stunning day outside and I’m going for a swim at Oriental Parade. I may even get my hair wet!
Kerene Strochnetter is the Managing Director at Mindful at Work. Mindful at Work delivers programmes across New Zealand and Australia to produce unprecedented levels of engagement, performance and well-being.
Workplace mindfulness is not just learning how to meditate. It is a robust set of practices (generated from comprehensive research) used to align values with behaviours and transform workplace culture. You can find out more about Kerene and Mindful at Work here.