10 Lessons From My First Silent Retreat

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first silent retreatI spent a week at Spirit Rock Meditation Center with James Baraz (one of the founding teachers), Debra Chamberlin-Taylor, Howie Cohn, and Jane Baraz (all incredible teachers) – and about 100 other participants. Admittedly, I was quite nervous heading into the retreat. I’ve done yoga and meditation retreats before, but the only silent retreat I had ever done was one day. I stepped in equal parts curious and nervous, and ended up walking away pleasantly surprised by the lessons I learned from my first silent retreat.

The week of silence opened up some real magic for me. As I reflect on my first silent retreat, I’m finding it difficult to put my experience into words. Along with not speaking for a week, we were also discouraged from journaling and writing, and of course no cell phones or cameras were around, so I’m left to write this article with just the feelings and mental images as my aid.

Normally after retreats I don’t feel called to write about them. The experiences are often personal, and sharing the details can sometimes feel like over-sharing. However, I left my first silent retreat feeling a kind of rejuvenation I haven’t experienced before, and I made some really simple but profound commitments to myself as a result of the shift. Since I’m having trouble describing my experience, I figured I would do my best to offer some of the insights I am taking home that can be easily integrated into the everyday grind. If you’re thinking about doing a silent retreat and not sure what to expect (and are as nervous as I was!), I’m hoping this will give you a sense of what can arise on your first silent retreat.

Without further adieu, here are the top 10 lessons from my first silent retreat…

1. Expectations Are Truly Pointless

I expected a grueling week and was pleasantly surprised by how delightful the silent retreat was.

There are many overused clichés about expectations. I feel like I’ve had to learn the lesson so many times in life – to stop forming high expectations. My mind often sets the bar high, and is disappointed in the end.

But this time the experience was the exact opposite. I learned that you can expect the worst and be so delightfully, wonderfully surprised. I’ve heard some negative accounts of silent retreats – particular the first silent retreat. However for me, this first week was NOT the grueling, difficult “put it behind me” week I thought it would be.

It was actually incredible. Sure, there were challenging moments, particularly the first two days. But overall, it was such a beautiful week, filled with positive surprises and moments of gratitude. So, I’m vowing to quit expectations (again) and just roll with what comes.

2. Mindfulness Does Not Have to Be Slow

I was afraid of being bored on the retreat. I’m a fast-mover by nature and slow movers can sometimes drive me bananas.

Being interested is the opposite of being bored – and being interested in what you’re doing is the key to a mindfulness practice. For some people, it’s easier to tune into your interest when you’re moving slow. (And slowing down is good for me to practice, too.)

What I learned is that you can move swiftly, even for walking meditation, as long as you’re interested in what you’re doing. This was exciting for me because moving swiftly and mindfully feels like a nice combination for my body and mind. I took my meditation to the hiking trails many times during the retreat, and it was magical.

Jane, one of our teachers, suggested I try to focus on this during my brisk walks:

Moving.

Placing.

Hearing.

Seeing.

I took this to mean that for a few paces or a few breaths, you focus on a different element of your walk:

  • Moving: Your body movements, the air on your face as you briskly move, the pace of your movement
  • Placing: How your feet grace the earth, noticing the heel, the arch, and the ball of your foot meet the ground as you move
  • Hearing: Notice the sounds around you, such as wind, birds, trees rustling, your feet being placed, your breath
  • Seeing: Tune into the colors, the path, the animals, the flowers, the landscape, what’s right in front of you and what’s far way – and anything else your eyes may pick up from nature along the way

3. You Can Get to Know Someone Without Words

My work meditation for the week was to chop vegetables every morning from 7:45-8:35 a.m with four other veggie-chopping teammates. I chose the chore because I thought it may be interesting to learn different styles of food prep and fun to eat lunch recognizing that you had a role in the preparation. Both of these things were an appreciated part of my week.

But much more than that – our team! We began the first work period getting instructions in silence. We all held different responsibilities and navigated through the tasks all week, silently and without eye contact, but with some sort of intuitive workflow. I felt like I got to know the work style and personality of everyone on the team – and I didn’t even know anyone’s names until the retreat was over! A whole week working alongside people, without explaining yourself, justifying your actions, giving instructions, or saying a word. You simply listen for and follow instructions, and move through your tasks as a team. It was really beautiful to be a part of, and to learn that you can really get to know others, and cultivate care for them, without a peep.

4. You Can Train Your Brain to Feel Happier

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” I learned about this concept of the negativity bias from psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Rick Hanson in one of his books years ago. It means that in our culture, we are conditioned to focus on suffering, and it takes practice to rewire the brain to focus on positive things. At the retreat, James said that negative thoughts are so much more powerful than positive thoughts, that for every negative experience, it takes seven positive experiences to reach homeostasis.

Another popular phrase that explains this is “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that when you practice focusing on positive, happy, joyful things – more positive, happy, joyful things will surely unfold.

James kept reminding us through the week, “Don’t miss it.” Meaning, don’t miss the positive or wholesome states throughout the day. The more you can notice and open up to the beautiful experiences in life, the more they shine, and the more you are inclining your mind toward positivity and beauty.

He offered an exercise originally from Rick Hanson. I’m not sure if it has a name, but I’m currently calling it “15 Seconds to Hardwiring Happiness.” He suggested to us, for 15 seconds, six times a day, notice when you feel like you’re in a state of well-being or joy and stay with it. Feel it in your body and stay noticing for at least 15 seconds. When you practice in this way, your mind will begin to notice unconsciously and be more inclined toward positive states.

About this concept, Rick Hanson wrote, “You can hardwire more happiness, love and wisdom into your brain, and thus your life.” He continues, “We must consciously experience what we want to learn – this may simply be the feeling of being loved or enjoying a walk. Now, turn that passing experience into a lasting change of neural structure or function, by ‘staying with’ the experience for up to 20 seconds at a time. Feel it. Allow it to sink into you like a sponge.”

My commitment is just what my teacher recommended – 15 seconds, six times a day I want to notice and stay with positive states, like grateful, happy, energized, mindful, compassionate, connected, and anything else that gives me goose bumps in a good way.

 5. Your Hang-ups and Quirks Follow You Wherever You Go

I thought my over-planning tendencies would be the last thing I’d bring along for my week of silence. I understand the tendency to plan when you’re trying to squeeze in many high-priority tasks into little time. However, there wasn’t anything pressing to do during the retreat. After all, the week was structured with a daily schedule of seated meditations, walking meditations, meals, and talks. And still, my quirky mind – that has tendencies toward restlessness and over-planning – ensued.

A silly example of my inner voice during 6 a.m. meditation: “On my way to breakfast, I’ll stop in my room to grab a hat. I’ll try to wrap up breakfast early so I have time to go for a walk before my work meditation. And I’ll already have my hat as long as I remember to grab it on my way to the dining hall…” HA. Who cares? Why did I think through possible insignificant variations of my play-by-play? I don’t have a rational answer, other than your mind follows your wherever you go.

“Wherever you go, there you are,” Jon Kabat-Zinn said. I learned this yet again on my first silent retreat.

6. Connection to Others Is SO Important

The hardest part of the retreat for me was being surrounded by so many like-minded people and not being able to get to know them, hear their stories, or connect with them (even eye contact is discouraged at Vipassana retreats.) Intuitively, most of us know it feels good to feel connected to others and care for others. Likewise, it doesn’t feel so good when we aren’t connecting.

My teacher talked about connection as one of the 10 wholesome states that can awaken joy, and many scientific studies have backed this up. Christine Carter and her research at Berkeley talks about how our happiness depends on our connections. You can read more about her perspective and research in her article Happiness Is Being Socially Connected. A 75-year-long study done at Harvard also found that strong relationships were the number one factor in happiness. You can read more about the study and watch the TED Talk here.

7. Time Solo Is Precious

You may be thinking, “This sounds like the opposite of #6…” However, it is not. Time solo and time connecting with others are both so important.

The importance of spending time alone wasn’t a new lesson for me. I love spending time alone. What I didn’t realize was that my years of solo traveling are what prepared me best for my silent retreat.

I assumed I would step into the retreat with a relatively solid foundation since I have been meditating for a long time. However, throughout the week, my mind kept getting drawn back into flashbacks of my time traveling alone. I’ve been to more than 20 countries by myself, and lived alone for nearly 10 years. I believe the solo adventures and time prepared me much more than the meditation practice for my time at Spirit Rock.

8. I Really Enjoy Silence

I’ve always known that I enjoy being alone and crave moments of silence, especially when life is especially full. However, I’m also social by nature and was surprised to learn that I really enjoy abundant amounts of silence. I expected to find it grueling and challenging, not delightful.

And so, I learned that I enjoyed the silent retreat so much, I’ll do more of them in the future.

9. “No Pain, No Gain” Doesn’t Always Work

I’ve always lived for a good challenge – in fact, I seek them out. When I complete a difficult task or challenging workout, I feel accomplished and sign up for the next one.

However, it came to my awareness on the retreat, that challenge isn’t necessary to get a lot out of something. I had this preconceived notion that if the experience wasn’t challenging for me – even grueling – then I wasn’t getting enough out of it. I mentioned this to my teacher in my 1:1 interview, asking him if I was maybe doing something wrong. “I thought it was going to be really challenging. If it’s not, will I still get the most out of this experience?”

He laughed and responded, “Ohhh, I see… no pain, no gain, eh?” It clicked for me at that moment how ridiculous it sounded.

This reminds me of a greeting card that hangs on my wall that says, “Sometimes the HARDEST thing is to simply let life be good.” I think I’ll try to stop searching for everything to be a challenge and try to enjoy when something is actually easy.

10. If You Try to Settle Your Mind, You Won’t Succeed

If you try to settle your mind in meditation, it means you are resisting what is showing up in that moment, or you are trying to be in a different place.

Whenever you resist something, it makes it so much worse. It’s like when someone says to you “No matter what, do NOT think of a blue elephant right now.” To which you respond by thinking of a blue elephant.

When you are present with whatever is there and able to acknowledge it, one of the byproducts of that presence will be feeling settled. It’s such an easier route than trying to force something that you’re not.

Hope you enjoy my lessons learned! Post any questions in the comments below!

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler is an ICF certified leadership and career coach, certified meditation and yoga instructor, and author. She created Mindful Minutes to offer practical, relatable anecdotes and tips on how to bring mindfulness into the busyness of the digital age. Her intention is to share what she learns about overcoming her own challenges with meditation, mindfulness, and life balance while maintaining a challenging schedule and career. Learn more about Melissa here.

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