I’m going on a five-day silent retreat this July and everybody I have told thinks it’s the worst idea they have ever heard.
It’s like instead of telling them I am going on a a mindfulness retreat in the beautiful mountains of Virginia, away from society and technology, and reflecting on my mind and the state of the world, much like a Very Beautiful Lady Monk, that instead I have told them the following:
-I have decided to become Donald Trump’s mistress
-I have decided to become Paul Ryan’s mistress
-I have decided to go without ice cream, wine, sleep, coffee, and showers, simultaneously for the rest of my life
-I will be alone with my thoughts with zero distractions for 120 hours
Oh wait, the last thing. Yeah, I am doing that.
In short, abject horror and shock is the most common reaction.
This concerns me because I have actually really deeply been looking forward to this silent retreat and have wanted to do one for some time. But do my friends and colleagues know something that I don’t? LIke that the silent retreat I’m going to is actually full of raccoon-sized rats? (Raccoons are raccoon-sized rats, in my opinion, by the way.) That I’ll come back with a shaved head and a white robe? That I’ll have a nervous breakdown? (Apparently not unheard of!)
I guess I should explain why I’m going on a silent retreat in the first place. “It sounded cool!” is probably not enough of a valid reason, huh? Well, let’s try this: the act of being silent and sitting with my mind and emotions during regular meditation has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done over the years, for my brain, for my heart, for my body.
Sitting alone with your feelings is not easy — and at first, it does sort of feeling like you are being tied to a post while fire ants crawl over you. (I really have a trick for convincing people to meditate, huh?)
I only mean that in the sense that meditation is hard, and there’s a reason we don’t want to do it. It’s boring. We’re used to being constantly stimulated and distracted, and both physically and mentally not being able to reach for that next distraction can feel a bit like torture at first.
And it’s true that sitting alone with your thoughts for a long period of time is a little bit awful. It can actually be a lot bit awful. Oftentimes, we’re trying to distract ourselves with technology and movement and entertainment for a reason — there are feelings or fears that will come bubbling up if we sit with ourselves alone for any period of time.
In fact, that’s common, and quite normal. This is how the retreat I’m going on describes the process:
Meditating in silence for an extended period is often referred to as practicing “the art of no escape,” meaning that, during a retreat, you aren’t allowed to fall back on your habitual ways of turning away from troubling thoughts and emotions. Whenever you encounter something unpleasant, you can’t automatically pick up a magazine, call a friend, or indulge in chocolate. As you may have guessed, then, what we end up experiencing while on retreat isn’t necessarily a state of calm, peaceful bliss (although this can happen, too) but a whole range of sensations, thoughts, and emotions, some of which may have not been previously in consciousness. While there are numerous ways to work with this which are too lengthy to go into here, knowing this beforehand can help “normalize” the experience when and if it happens.
The art of no escape… awesome. I’m going to meditation prison.
So I get why people find the concept terrifying. There are times when I’ve meditated and come away feeling refreshed, relaxed, rejuvenated; there are times when I’ve meditated and it’s honestly like a mental horror show — some of my worst fears come up visually and I have to sit with them, watching them like I’m captive in somebody’s vacation slideshow from hell.
I’m really selling this, aren’t I? And I’m starting to understand some of my friends’ reactions.
But I’m still excited, nevertheless. I may be being naive. I’m no meditation expert, and I certainly haven’t ever done five continuous days of silent meditation, so I expect it to be very difficult. I’ve found the comparison of meditation to physical exertion pretty useful for understanding that it only gets easier the more you do it. Right now, I’m like, at the level of meditation that is equivalent to going for a quick jog every day. Which is pretty good! But a five-day meditation retreat may be sort of like jumping into doing a marathon with very minimal training. Well, let’s just hope I don’t end up breaking my leg. (Cue nervous laughter.)
And it’s been almost worth doing it just for the reactions alone. Seriously, the gasps of horrors that immediately land upon me are equivalent to what I imagine we’ll be hearing when we’ve learned Donald Trump has been elected for a second term.
But that’s precisely why I want to experience it. If we can’t imagine a world in which we have no distractions — if a world full of interference and interruption is what we now rely on — then yeah, I definitely want to become, well, not that way. I want my mind to be strong and capable of sitting with itself for hours or days at a time if it has to. I want to know what feelings will come up, and trust that I can handle them. I want to sit for an hour without feeling that familiar twitch in my hand reaching for a phone.
No doubt, it will be difficult. While I’m an introvert, I am a person who still thrives on social interaction and loves to chit chat. When I told one coworker that this silent retreat was happening, she gasped the gasp of horror I’ve been accustomed to, and then yelled, “But Catherine! You love to talk!”
I gave her a lot of sideeye, and then shrugged. She’s right. I do love to talk. But I’m curious to see what my mind will come up with when I’m not talking. And at the very least… it’s going to make for a good blog post.