I recently returned from a long silent meditation retreat. It’s always amazing to me the profound shifts that occur from just sitting around for a couple of months. Whenever I go on a long retreat, people are curious. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a bizarre thing to do: to extract oneself from society, stop talking, and observe one’s mind, all day everyday, weeks on end.
Here are some frequently asked questions about silent meditation retreat:
Q. Why would anyone want to sit in silence for an extended period?
A. When you reduce the outer stimulus to focus more on the inner world, perception focuses more on the immediate. Mind gets more quiet and subtle. It’s like turning down the volume on the TV when you are trying to focus on your phone call. The chatter coming in from the outer world lessens, so you can focus more on the stillness, silence, and spaciousness that is the hallmark of our mind when it is not drowning in distraction. You learn to recognise – and rest in – the back ground from which all thoughts arise, so you can shift your focus from busy-ness to spaciousness. This in itself is a huge shift.
When you spend time at that level of awareness, you start to see what extraneous phenomena do to your experience. They cloud your vision so that you can’t see what is true. It’s so easy to believe our thoughts. But our thoughts are often misleading, and based on preconceptions that don’t accurately represent reality.
Sitting in meditation allows you to slow down your thoughts enough to see what you are telling yourself. Then you can decide whether or not you actually believe it. So you learn to make friends with your mind.
Q. How does it work?
You limit activities to a specific routine, and sit still for extended periods. You limit speech, so you lessen the amount of interaction you have with others. And you limit mental activity, by continually returning the focus of your awareness back to the present moment, and to an inquiry of who, exactly, is experiencing that present moment.
It is much easier to deepen the meditation practice when you are not starting anew each day with an agitated mind. The effects are cumulative, so over the course of the retreat, mind settles more and more deeply into a state of calm abiding.
By engaging in the daily routine, you set limits on your habitual experience, so you can have a new experience. You may start to question the habitual way you operate in the world. It’s like pressing pause so you have space to look the momentum that has brought you to this point of your life, so you can consciously choose if that momentum is taking you where you want to go.
Q. What do you do during a silent meditation retreat?
Twice a day we gathered as a community to receive teachings, and the rest of the day – apart from the 3 meals that were kindly prepared for us – we engaged in our own meditation practice in our rooms.
Q. What did your daily schedule look like?
Here’s what my daily schedule looked like:
1:00 Read and/or Write
Of course there were some variations. On Sundays I swam instead of practising yoga. Some days extenuating circumstances forced things to shift. Part of the practice is learning to hold not too tight and not too loose to the format. You treat the schedule as an of aspect of your practice. The way you hold your mind will reflect how you approach your world.
Q. Did you talk at all?
We did listen to teachings by Alan Wallace twice a day, and once a week we each had individual interviews with him to discuss our practice. I did have a very few short conversations with people when we thought it would be helpful to “process” certain things, like emotional disturbance, or for clarification on certain points. The point of Noble Silence is to reduce talking to what is necessary and meaningful; it’s not simply to “play the game” of not talking. It’s an aid to the practice of focusing the mind on the practice of observing awareness instead of reacting to every impulse to speak.
Q. Is it hard not keep silent?
No. But that’s just me. I have never been a big talker, and I love having permission to settle into spacious silence. It helps me access my creativity.
Q. Did you have access to internet?
It seems almost impossible to get offline for any extended period these days. We did not have internet in our rooms for most of the retreat, but it was available in the public areas. I have been on silent retreats where there is no access at all to internet, and I must admit, it does deepen the experience. Internet is a huge distraction when you are trying to reduce mental noise.
Q. Don’t you get bored?
No! In fact what often happens for me is that I recognise how bored I am when engaged in the mindless distractions of what we call normal daily life. I start to recognise the richness of resting in the present moment. A strange thing occurs then: the environment starts to rise up to meet my increased awareness, and starts offering gifts, like coincidences and synchronicity.
Q. Why does any of this matter?
There is a certain contentment that arises when you can learn to stop following thoughts that ultimately will lead you to suffering – because they all eventually will. Everything is impermanent, so taking any thought as the path to happiness will always lead to disappointment because it’s just an illusory display of the vaster truth. The practice is to learn to recognise the nature of the mind as pure awareness, and to settle the mind in that natural state. This experience may or may not reveal experiences of bliss, clarity and non-conceptuality, which can profoundly shift how you experience reality. After all, don’t we all just want to be happy?
Q. What is the benefit of a long-term silent meditation retreat?
I learned how to get out of my own way. It’s refreshing not to get caught up in the drama that can consume your daily waking life. You can choose instead to simply observe whatever arises with detachment and decide rationally whether or not a response is required, rather than reacting out of emotion.
This process has 2-parts:
- Don’t create froth
- Don’t contribute to the froth
I feel more balanced emotionally. I react less. I feel more detached from outcomes – that doesn’t mean dis-engaged, but rather unattached to how things unfold. This is a huge relief!
Q. Could you benefit from a silent meditation retreat?
This type of experience is available to anyone. You don’t have to be “spiritual” or “religious” to experience the deep state of calm that is our natural birthright. It’s simply a matter of practice, like any musician or artist would confirm. You show up and apply the technique, and eventually you achieve some results. In this case, the practice is sitting meditation, and a great way to develop proficiency is by doing a silent meditation retreat.
These results are powerful. You get empowered by connecting to the source by simply sitting down to observe the mind. You start to see that what you mistook to be your own individual midstream is rather universal compassion, wisdom and power manifesting through your midstream for you to observe. When you discover this, then all you need to do is connect at any time to be available to whatever wants to download – like connecting to the ICloud.