Five days of no talking, reading, writing, or making phone calls. No internet, social media, music, TV, computers or any other form of distraction. I have just been on one of these silence retreats. To my surprise so many asked about my experiences that I decided to write them down straight away (now I am allowed to communicate again. Yippee!).
This type of meditation is over 2600 years old and is offered around the world. I had wanted to do this sort of retreat for ages, but they normally last ten days, and trying to free up that much time is next to impossible. When my ‘neighbour’ on Mallorca told me that she was organizing a five-day retreat in her beautiful home (in other words, just round the corner) I knew straight away this was something I wanted to do. I wasn’t really bothered by the fact that my 44th birthday was in the middle of the retreat so that I would not be available. When I took part in Survivor nine years ago, I celebrated my 35th birthday in a cave in Malaysia, where I was likewise totally unreachable by anyone else. There is something special about it. I wasn’t afraid of the silence. In fact I was looking forward to it. I am often alone, which I enjoy, so I knew that would not be the challenge. Lots of the other participants were afraid of it, by the way, or so they told me. I was mostly intrigued what it would be like to not record immediately my experiences in photos, diaries, or share them on social media. And to be honest I considered dropping everything I was involved with at the time as a challenge: the deadline for my book, renovating our old farm, friends coming to visit, etc.
Why would you do a silence retreat? The Sri Lankan teacher explained it brilliantly. We all shower on average once a day, brush our teeth, use cosmetics and keep or bodies clean in all sorts of ways. But when do we clean our spirit? This is not common in our culture. Imagine the fact that we are all born with a clear spirit. A bottle of clear water. And then you start adding spoons of mud through parenting, school, relations, work and other problems/interactions/conditioning. Shake and your bottle of water/spirit is not as clear anymore. The hazy water stops you from seeing clearly. The longer you let the bottle stand, the more the mud sinks to the bottom. And so you can see clearly again. But when we ‘rest’ or go on holiday, we do not let our spirits rest. On the contrary – our brains are like a pack of wild elephants: they run in every direction. We make to-do lists, drag up all sorts of problems from the past and worry about the future. In short: we shake our bottle around vigorously again: troubled waters. During a silence meditation you let everything sink to the bottom. Because you learn/try not to think and attempt to live the moment, the mud has the chance to sink to the bottom. The result: peace and a wonderfully clear, sharp spirit and perspective.
Normally when I (very very rarely) meditate, I let the images and thoughts in my mind come at me without steering or following them. It gives me peace and occasionally some beautiful images and insights. Vipassana teaches you to think of nothing. You just have to follow your breathing and everything that could possibly distract you (thoughts, sounds, the pain in your knee – whatever –) and name it; ‘that is a thought’, ‘that is a sound’, etc. It was hard work. We had to do this about six times a day, divided into ‘sittings’ of 45 minutes. I was constantly distracted. Following your breath is boring. I didn’t enjoy it at all. After 2-and-a-half days I considered stopping this rather basic form of meditating, and let my brain out for a ‘test run’. Wow! What a wonderful peaceful and clear spirit I had all of a sudden! And so I continued, be it in a lower gear…
A few beautiful lessons from the ‘guru’. They sound tremendously cliché, but if you think about them for a few hours or days, they really make sense.
What everyone actually wants is to be happy. And so you can better focus on the harmony than on the differences when you meet others. Everyone has their own way, and their own struggle. Be friendly and try not to judge. (I was shocked by my own judgments. Although you are not allowed to look at one another during this sort of retreat – that’s also a form of communication – a number of the participants irritated me constantly. Your perception of someone is that they are annoying, that they are not sticking to the instructions, that they are bothering others, etc. If later you hear their story, it is amazing how off the track you are and you are deeply ashamed…)
There is only the NOW.
Things that happened in the past are gone. However unpleasant they may have been. You are the one holding the link to the past and you are the only one who can make the decision to let go. Why ruin your NOW with unpleasant feelings from the past? You cannot worry tremendously about the future and try to control it. What if that future never arrives? What if today is your last day, how would you want to experience it? You only have the NOW, so make the best of it and don’t lose the moment by spending your time in spirit in the past or the future (I noticed it leads to tremendous peace when you let everything go except the NOW).
Come home to the heart. Lots of people lead fake lives and are seeking something real. You’ll find it in your heart, not in material things. Don’t be afraid of others hurting you. Image that there are no ‘enemies’. Dare to open your heart. Practice ‘meta’: friendliness (When you manage, it feels like coming home; a warm blanket of happiness.)
By living from the heart you are more open for ‘signals’. Don’t try to plan too much but feel what you would like/need. If a friend or family member pops into your head, this is the time to contact them. Not when you have a gap in your timetable in three weeks.
Don’t get attached to the result. If you are helping others, don’t get overly attached to the result. You do what you can and then you have to let go. Everyone has his or her own process. Perhaps the time for the other to develop further has not yet arrived.
This was the main reason I went. I wanted to learn how I could live more in the moment. The answer was simple: by doing everything with true mindfulness. And one thing at a time. To start with, you practice by doing everything very slowly and with awareness. You take a sip of water in slow motion, for example. A practice we did for hours each day was meditative walking. First without instruction. I noticed that I used normal walking as a reference, and tried to walk more slowly. It was quite an effort and I soon noticed that I had started walking faster again, without being aware of it. And then the teacher made us stop. Literally. In our minds we covered our entire body, from crown to toe. By the time you reach your legs, your muscles are shaking from maintaining your balance. Then we had to shift our balance to one leg – very slowly. The other one would then lift slowly. You had to move it consciously and feel which muscles you use. When you slowly place your foot on the ground, you feel the wind blowing between your toes and you feel the earth and stones under your foot. Very slowly you shift your weight to that leg and the process repeats itself. In short: mindfulness is not doing what you always do at a slower pace. It is totally rebuilding the situation from nothing, with your full focus. Because of the car accident I had last November, I had already had my lesson in mindfulness. For a while I was unable to do pretty much anything and so had to make choices how I spent my energy. As I got better, it was very tempting to do everything I had been doing before. But then I would lose the peace I was trying to develop. This mindfulness training was a good metaphor for that situation and a good additional learning.
Mud on your clothes
And then, after five (or ten or more) days you feel a peace you have rarely felt before. Lots of participants say they really ‘found’ themselves and speak of ‘life changing experiences’. For me it was like a spring cleaning of my head; letting the mud in my water bottle sink to the bottom. And then you have to re-enter ‘normal life’. With your work, relations, family, etc. and the associated challenges and stress. It’s as if, during the retreat, you wash a piece of cloth so that it turns beautifully white, and then you drag it through the mud again. When you meditate, it turns white again. And afterwards it becomes muddy.
The story above may sound as if it is all pointless (your clothes turn muddy again anyway; you shake your bottle of water), but it is wonderful to be able to see clearly for a while. And to know that it is possible. You change your reference for a moment. And you shower every day don’t you, although you know you are going to get dirty again? What would happen if you were to give up showering, just because you can’t stay clean??? I was surprised and touched by the powerful experiences the others spoke of at the end. What wonderful people! Many of them were intensely grateful that they got their lives back on track. Don’t expect miracles from such a retreat. In fact: don’t expect anything. One of the (known) things you learn is that having expectations often leads to disappointment. If you ask me, a silence meditation is a gift for your head. And I could not imagine a better birthday present this year!
On the internet you will find various organizations that offer Vipassana retreats, such as www.dhamma.org If you would like a ‘low-threshold’ five-day retreat with the same teacher, and/or in the same place I spent my retreat on Mallorca check out: nirodharetreats