A couple of days ago I returned from a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I’m still processing the impact it’s had on me (and I’m sure it won’t become fully clear for some time), but I know many people were curious about what a retreat like this would be like, so I wanted to share some of the experience with you here in this blog.
The retreat I attended was a 10-day vipassana meditation course. It was held at a centre in Herefordshire in the UK and around 150 people were part of it (both men and women).
There was a real mixture of people attending – all ages, lots of different nationalities, some of whom had meditated before and some who had no previous experience of meditation (talk about in at the deep end!).
Once the course started, the first 9 days were spent in complete silence. Yes, that’s right – complete silence.
If you needed to, you could ask questions of the teachers or course managers, but there was no talking at all with your fellow meditators (not even at mealtimes). In fact, there was no contact whatsoever – no eye contact, no smiles, no physical contact.
The idea was to have no distractions to your meditation practice, so there was no reading or writing allowed either. And, of course, no phones or other devices.
The schedule ran from 4am in the morning until 9pm at night and included around 10 hours of meditation each day. (To tell you the truth, I never managed 10 hours per day – I usually did around 6.5 to 7 hours).
The only form of activity apart from meditation was eating, washing or going for a walk in the grounds (within limited boundaries).
The food was vegetarian, with porridge, cereal and fruit for breakfast at 6.30am, a vegetable-based lunch at 11am (yes, 11am!) and ‘dinner’ at 5pm consisted of two pieces of fruit (and no more than two).
In spite of this, I never felt hungry. The fact that there wasn’t any other food available meant that I didn’t really think of eating outside of mealtimes. I also think that my blood sugar levels must have been more stable because of the lack of processed, sweet foods.
On the 10th day the silence was broken and we had the opportunity to talk to each other and share our experiences, which was both wonderful and a little overwhelming at the same time.
How I found it
To be honest, this was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I’ve attended different retreats before – including silent retreats – but none of them were as strict or intense as this one. Ten days felt like a very long time – with no distractions, no real human interaction and no comfort from outside, apart from being able to walk in nature.
I didn’t mind the silence, but I struggled with the lack of eye contact and being able to share a smile with my fellow meditators. (Although occasionally one of us would slip and instinctively smile at someone else and that felt completely thrilling!)
I also found the sitting in meditation for such lengthy periods very challenging physically. Although you normally had a short break each hour, various parts of my body felt stiff and painful during the ten days. And I had to harness some strong determination to stay settled in one posture.
Before I started I imagined that it would get easier as I moved through the ten days. It didn’t. If anything the experience became harder as time went on.
Saying that, I found that my mind really slowed down over the course of the retreat. At times I found that I had no thoughts whatsoever in my head (which was a very unusual experience).
My body also felt surprisingly strong after ten days of sitting in meditation and I’m finding that I’m moving more slowly and mindfully as I’ve returned home. I feel more grounded and centred.
Having virtually no stimulation at all during this ten days made me realise just how much external stimulation we experience in the outside world. We are constantly bombarded with content, experiences, activity and our minds never really get a chance to settle.
I found that having very limited stimulation meant that I appreciated small things SO much more – a smile from another human being, seeing a rabbit as I was out walking, the sun breaking through the clouds after a rainy day. These things that I may not have even noticed in my day-to-day life, brought joy to my heart when I experienced them during the retreat.
I also noticed that although my mind continued to generate ideas – ideas about things I could do in my business and personally – because I didn’t have the opportunity to act on them (or even write then down), many of them fell away quickly. I know that if I’d been on the outside world, I would have acted on some of these ideas immediately, maybe jumping from one thing to another and feeling distracted. It felt releasing to just notice the ideas and know that I had to delay taking any action.
How powerful it is to sit with discomfort rather than instinctively running away or distracting myself. Being able to be with uncomfortable feelings – physical, mental and emotional – allowed old habits and patterns to rise to the surface to be released. This wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it was extremely beneficial.
How the thoughts we choose can create suffering. At times I found myself pining for the outside world and thinking about what Mr H, my sister or friends would be doing at that particular time. I would imagine where they were and how they were enjoying themselves and then think about how many days I had left to go.
I realised that this thinking simply made me feel miserable. Focusing on what I didn’t have at that moment, rather than the experience I was actually having.
And of course, we don’t have to be in a retreat to do this. How often do you find yourself focusing on the lack of something you don’t have, rather than appreciating what you do have?
Being completely out of touch with the world can be deeply refreshing and restorative. During the ten ways I was on retreat LOTS happened both in the UK and the rest of the world (Brexit, the resignation of the British prime minister, various political shenanigans!). And I was actually quite relieved to have missed it all.
As someone who likes to keep up with current affairs (I know I would have been glued to the news if I’d been outside), it was interesting to notice that I didn’t feel like I’d missed out in any way whatsoever by not being connected during all of this upheaval. In fact, I felt that I’d been very fortunate to have been sheltered from it all.
My business can survive (and thrive) when I take time out. Mr H was shocked that I was planning to take ten full days completely out of my business and was worried about the impact it would have. However, as I’d planned for the retreat and let people know that I’d be away, I actually had my best month ever in June 2016 (by 40%), despite only having 21 days available to me.
Because I knew that I was going to have ten days in retreat, I was much more focused for the first three weeks of June and that helped me to have my most successful month. I also know that feeling so refreshed and centred now that I’ve completed the retreat will stand me in good stead for the coming months.
Sometimes we’re reluctant to take time out, because we think that our businesses or personal responsibilities will suffer. I’ve always found the complete opposite to be true. By taking the space that you need, all areas of your life have the opportunity to thrive.
So, that’s some of my initial thoughts on leaving the retreat. I’m sure that more insights will follow. If you have any particular questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.