07 Jan 2019

My 10 Days In Silence

I spent this Thanksgiving eating vegetarian food in silence with strangers. I went on a 10 day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.

Maybe this needs a little bit of context: I have been meditating very inconsistently for the past 3-4 years. Since moving to SF I could count the number of times I have meditated on one hand. However, my good friends Tai and Joy have both done silent retreats at Spirit Rock and spoke very highly of the experience. I did my 1 month Yoga Teacher Training Course at an ashram in Northern India so I am aware of what a regimented “spiritual” schedule is like. I decided to sign up for the 10 day retreat mostly because it seemed like the best use of some PTO and Thanksgiving seems like an appropriate occasion to look deeply and express gratitude. So I booked the retreat in early July and put it in the back of my mind until it was November and there I was anxiously preparing for 10 days of SILENCE. A lot had changed in the 5 months between booking the retreat and going on it so I was not sure if I would get through it. Silence now seemed scary and I hadn’t really thought about what it would actually mean to be in silence for so long.

Pleasantly enough it was exactly what I needed. I will do my best to give a run down of my experience, although to be completely honest I am still processing the experience.

Day 1: I leave SF around 3pm and car pool up to Marin. We arrive at Spirit Rock to tea, cookies, registration and chore assignments. I meet my roommate and have dinner. At 8pm, all 96 participants meet in the meditation hall to talk about logistics, instructions and initiate the silence.

Day 2: I look at the schedule which starts at 6am and ends 10pm, with multiple intervals of sitting meditation, walking meditation and eating. I go for a morning hike after breakfast, although the air quality is still pretty terrible since the NorCal wild fires are still recent. Annoying thoughts find their way into my brain. They range from “Did I forget to lock our door?” to “What should I dedicate my life to?” Delicious vegetarian food is serve three times a day and these times feel like the most natural breaks of the day. I can mentally break the silence and listen to the clinking of spoons, forks, knifes, bowls, mugs and plates. Nevertheless, my thoughts continue to bombard me and I look for any distraction to try to stop thinking. I try really hard to stop thinking about what it means to be me and what I’m doing here.

Day 3: I figure out that I should probably stop trying to avoid thinking as this is impossible and only causing me agony. I try to listen. I judge myself for the thoughts I have but I am getting better at just listening and paying attention to what is going on in my head. Most thoughts are starting to get accepted rather than rejected and I ease into what it means to listen. On this day, we have an hour long session where 8 of us talk to a teacher about how the retreat is going, it’s reassuring to hear that other people are having similar experiences.

Day 4: I begin to take full advantage of the walking meditation periods. Before this retreat my idea of meditation was very narrow and basically included sitting still; however, I start to appreciate all the listening I can do while walking in nature or while walking slowly in a room with no other distractions or destination in mind. I continue to listen and listening is no longer limited to sitting in the meditation hall. It’s now happening during every moment of the day. I listen to my mind talk about myself and I begin to just observe my emotions, reactions and thoughts.

My body begins to hurt pretty badly and I practice yoga whenever I get a chance in hope that it will counterbalance the hours of sitting and walking and the strain I’m putting on my hips.

Day 5: I confront a lot of the thoughts that are recurring such as my yearning for belonging, the ways in which I express gratitude, my (continued) identity crisis, anxieties about the future, etc. I watch myself feel through these thoughts and take note on where I think they are coming from and how I can better deal with them.

I begin to notice and become more aware of the nature around me by slowing down to appreciate the trees or looking at the moon and the stars. I feel more in tune with my surroundings and more at peace with the silence.

Day 6: It finally rains and I feel more at peace. My body continues to hurt and my thoughts continue to exhaust me, but I learn to accept that each moment is temporary.

Day 7: I begin to feel immense gratitude for how lucky I am to get to be myself. I feel grateful to live in such a complex and beautiful world and I feel awe at how incredible humans are, how incredible I am. It hits me that how I feel about life/the world/myself/others is entirely up to me. I realize that my attitude is the most important thing and that I can choose to everyday live with gratitude and share love.

Day 8: I feel more comfortable and at ease with silence (which feels like my new lifestyle) and I am consumed by love for myself and in turn for everything in this world. I realize though that this feeling too is temporary and that inevitable I will feel anxious again, I take note of this and enjoy the peace while it’s here. On this day, I talk to a teacher for about 10 minutes.

Day 9: My body knows change is coming and I feel the physical effects of my anxiety. I learn to sit with an increased heart rate and racing thoughts. I’ve never been this intentional about dealing with the anxiety that comes with change. I observe my body and my mind and take note of what they’re doing and saying.

Day 10: We begin to talk again, in between meditation and breakfast. At around 9am we break the silence and clean our rooms, pack and get ready to leave. We have one last session in which the staff talks about logistics, people ask questions, we clean the meditation hall and we close with a big circle bow. I chat with people I’ve been interacting with in silence for the past 9 days and it’s almost weird to hear so many voices at once. I car pool back to SF with the same people I went to Spirit Rock with and the rest of the day is a challenging reintegration to the non silent, busier, louder world.

So all in all, the silence was great and I learned a lot. It was shocking to come back into the non silent world and to speed things back up when I worked so hard to slow things down. I didn’t come away with some big revelation about what I want to do with my life or what I should be doing. I also did not become a monk nor do I plan to be in silence forever (although I am learning to savor it whenever I have it). However, I did plant the seeds for a change in attitude and a more confident approach to knowing that eventually I will figure things out.

Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Thinking is completely normal and it’s impossible to stop thinking, it’s just a bit dangerous when thoughts can control you.

  2. Thanksgiving is a beautiful time of year, but gratitude isn’t limited to this one day.

  3. Compassion is where it’s at.

  4. Humor is important and laughter makes everything better.

  5. Accepting and observing doesn’t imply non-action, it implies taking wise action given the circumstances.

  6. Express gratitude often and sincerely.

  7. Be honest with yourself and authentic to your search for truth.

  8. Living a worthwhile life takes courage to be with things that don’t always feel good.