Forty Journeys in a Silent Room
At the very end of December 2015, I had a whole month off between graduate school semesters. I had been practicing mediation for a year and a few months at this point. I couldn't afford to travel anywhere on my break, but I didn't want to waste the time. So, I decided to go on a longer meditation retreat.
This was a non-residential, six day long retreat with about 40 participants. We would start meditating as a group at 8AM and leave at 9:15PM, go home, sleep, shower and then return for the next morning. There would be a break for an independent bag lunch and chores from 12:15 to 1:45, and a longer break from 4:15 to 6:30.
In the evening, we'd listen to the leader give an hour-long teaching about the theme of the retreat: patience.
The rest of the time, we were meditating. We'd alternate between a 45-minute sitting meditation and a 20-minute walking meditation. A sitting meditation is probably what pops into your head when you think of meditation: sitting on a cushion, cross-legged, still and silent, breathing in and out. A walking meditation is done while walking at a very slow pace, with the mind focused on how each step feels.
As is normal in meditation retreats, this was all done in silence.
When on retreat, you avoid speaking as much as possible, and also avoid looking at the other people in the room. While this sounds strange, it provides a unique form of connection and a level of privacy.
During the evening break, we'd eat a group meal together in silence. Usually if you're having a silent meal with someone, there is a tension in the air. Someone should be talking; this is awkward.
This silence was different.
This silence knew it was OK to just eat. This silence knew it was OK to just be with others. This silence didn't need to be filled.
That silence is rare and beautiful.
Within the silence, connections with the other people still form.
During one of the sitting meditations, I heard the woman sitting next to me start sobbing. Occasionally, I'd glance around, and catch someone wiping tears off their cheeks. Sometimes, I was doing the same.
And there was no way to ask if others were OK, or offer then a knowing smile, and it wouldn't have been appropriate to.
Everyone is going through something that brought them to this retreat, and exploring themselves. When you're left alone with yourself for several days, you learn a lot, and those things are sometimes painful.
Thoughts, regrets, feelings and memories pop into your head when you're taken away from all of your daily distractions and forced to listen to your own mind. It can be the only opportunity for the thoughts to get heard; the only time for them to be processed and acknowledged.
In the afternoon, we'd meet in a small group for 45 minutes and discuss what we were struggling with, or what we were finding worked well. People would often bring up that they were having strong feelings, or that they kept having thoughts about certain events in their lives. And while we didn't know each other's full situations, a knowing empathy develops: I keep thinking about similar things too; I've been feeling that way too.
The specific issues in your life may be unique to you, but we've all felt sad, angry, restless, and impatient. You learn that your suffering is not unique.
For six days, all 40 of us came together to simply sit next to one another. And it was probably one of the most raw, human experiences I've ever had.
If you have a formal meditation practice, and the time, I do recommend going on a longer retreat at least once. It's a far difference experience than even a full-day retreat. It's probably too much if you don't have a formal practice, but it can be something you work up towards. It's not easy, even with meditation experience, but I have no regrets about going.