A silent meditation retreat
At five to seven the gong sounded. We went into the meditation hall and found our places.
We sat down, and when everyone was seated Francesca, the course leader, came in. she sat down and said nothing. She rang a little bell and closed her eyes.
‘What is going on?’ I thought. ‘Isn’t she going to tell us what to do or lead us into a meditation?’
Nothing, just silence. Complete silence.
I looked around furtively at the other people in the room to see what they were doing. They all seemed to have their eyes closed too. Had I missed something I thought to myself. I sat there feeling rather foolish. It reminded me of maths lessons at school when everyone, except me, knew what to do and got on with the task in hand, while I sat there feeling really stupid and wondered yet again if I had missed the crucial lesson when the teacher had explained what we were doing.
Anyway I knew from the joining instructions that each meditation session lasted 45 minutes. I decided that the best thing to do was to close my eyes and meditate.
‘Why am I here? I don’t know if I can do this, I’m scared’
OK Mary, just breathe and recite your mantra’
‘I wonder if I’ll sleep tonight? It’s a strange place and a strange bed. I usually find it hard to sleep in a new place’
‘For heaven’s sake, stop it’ I told myself. ‘Stop thinking and just meditate’ I told myself sternly.
On and on it went, my mind constantly juggling thoughts, unable to stop myself. I felt a complete failure.
‘It’s hopeless, why did I think I could do this?’
A bell rang and brought me back into the meditation hall.
Francesca stood up and walked out. Everyone else began to get to their feet and follow her out. I struggled to my feet; I was finding the half lotus position difficult to sit in for three quarters of an hour.
I went out of the hall and up to my room. At least I have a room to myself I thought. When I had booked the retreat I had been told rooms would be allocated on arrival and that there were only 5 single rooms, all the rest were shared, and included several dormitories. I had been worried about sharing, especially as I had gone alone so I would be sharing with a stranger.
That first night I felt desolate. All my usual props had been removed. I was here in this country house for the next five days spending my time in silence. I couldn’t avoid myself. It was me, my thoughts, and silence. The silence was truly deafening. At that moment in that bare little room the thought uppermost in my mind was ‘Why on earth did I come here?’
Earlier in the year I had read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert. In the book Elizabeth write about how she decided to take a year out of her life to travel and to discover who she really was after the breakdown of her marriage. It had inspired me to go on a retreat myself. As my budget was somewhat more limited than this famous New York journalist’s my choice had been a five day, silent retreat in Devon. I had been meditating already for several years and had found it had helped me to become a much calmer person. I had been drinking far too much, to the point where I had become dependent on alcohol. I would come home from work and the first thing I did was pour a glass of wine. This would then turn into a second and third glass. I was drinking every day and didn’t seem to be able to stop. Nor did I want to. Every one I knew drank, and it did seem to help me cope with the stresses of my job. I was becoming aware however, that I was drinking more and that I had got to the stage when I preferred to stay in and drink than go out and socialise.
The turning point came when I met someone, in a pub, of course, who suggested there was another way to cope with the stresses of daily life. He had been meditating for many years and told me how it had recently helped him to cope with the death of his wife from cancer. He had found that meditation took him to a place where he was calm and much more in control.
I went home and thought about what he had said and got in touch with him. Through him I learnt to meditate and gradually with daily practice I had become a much calmer and nicer person. The dependence on alcohol had also greatly reduced. This was a good job I thought as I sat in my little room. All alcohol was prohibited on the retreat.
There I go again, I thought, I just don’t seem to be able to put a stop to my thoughts. I decided to try and sleep. It wasn’t easy. I was very restless and thoughts churned through my head for most of the night. I always find it hard to sleep in a strange bed any way and this funny little room reminded me of the nun’s cell’s back at school. It had a single bed, a chair and a small wardrobe and that was it. No luxurious ensuite accommodation. The bathroom was shared with all the people on my corridor, about 12 of us.
The next day I got up at 6.30 and went into the meditation hall for five to seven. Francesca came in and when she rang the bell we went into our first period of silent meditation for the day. Sitting there I tried hard and for a few minutes I did actually manage to still my thoughts. It didn’t last long. It was a humbling experience because I had thought it would be so easy. After all I’d been meditating for a long time now hadn’t I?
‘Thinking again, Mary, stop it’
Eventually, time was up and we went for breakfast. Like the evening meal the night before I found this difficult. We ate in silence. I found the best thing to do was to avoid eye contact. After breakfast we had chores to do. The costs of retreats at the centre were kept low by everyone volunteering to help with housework. I had chosen to be on washing up duty. We washed up in silence although it seemed to me quite a lot of communication could be achieved without words.
The day then continued with meditations in the hall and walking meditations. We spent the whole day in silent meditation either together in the hall or outside doing a walking meditation. This involved walking very slowly and mindfully up and down focussing on the steps and again trying not to think. We were very lucky; the weather was beautiful, warm and sunny. I was new to this sort of meditation and it took me a while to get into any sort of rhythm. I watched what the others were doing and copied them.
I was still struggling with my thoughts but was beginning to feel a bit easier. We had been told that while we were at the centre we couldn’t use the phone and that mobile phones were to be switched off for the duration of the retreat. We were cut off from the world and cut off from normal communication. It was so unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was me stripped bare. No one to call and discuss what was going on. It was me thrown back on my own resources and trying to discover if I had enough depth of character to survive being just with myself.
Included in our instructions had been advice to not do any reading or writing, because these are forms of speaking. I was finding this hard to do. I love to read and felt bereft without my books. I had brought books and writing materials with me. My idea had been to record the whole experience in my journal. To chart my progress I suppose. I realised this was just another way of talking to myself and therefore breaking the silence. Reading would take me into someone else’s world and the whole reason for being here was to be fully present in the moment. Reading had been my escape route for so long. I had learnt to read before I went to school and was a classic book worm. Reading took me out of my reality into a brighter, happier world.
On day two on one of my walking meditations I came across an old church and graveyard. This became ‘my’ place. I had it all to myself and often after walking for 15 minutes I would lie down and just look up at the sky. I tried not to think as I lay there in the warm sunshine and inevitably I fell asleep. I had been working very hard. I am self employed and find it difficult to switch off from work mode. Now I had five days when I didn’t need to think about work and I was able to relax for the first time in years.
As the days went on I did begin to get to a point when I began to feel more peaceful. We had no contact with the outside world so I didn’t know what was happening. There were no newspapers and no TV or even radio. We were cut off from the ceaseless activity of the media.
I was beginning to find it good not to be bombarded by news and the constant noise of the media. I realised that a lot of my anxiety was fuelled by reading newspapers and watching news bulletins on TV. At first I felt that the universe would stop revolving because I wasn’t on constant alert for the latest news, but gradually I began to calm down and realise that the world could keep on revolving without my help. This was a significant moment for me. I had spent most of my life as a news junkie. I had taught for many years in secondary schools and it had been vital then to be informed, to know what was going on. However, I had given up teaching and was now self employed. I worked as a counsellor and ran workshops to help people manage their stress. Coming away for these few days was helping me to begin to reach a different stage in my life. As the silence took over I did become much calmer. It was a revelation. My meditation teachers had talked about the still calm space inside us that is always there no matter what is going on in our outer world. I was slowly beginning to grasp the point of meditating.
By day 4 I had begun to let go of all sorts of useless baggage. I was still thinking but was now finding I could just observe whatever thoughts came up and instead of dwelling on them, letting them go. It was fantastic. I began to feel lighter in mind and body; although that could have been that I was eating less as well. Note to self: if you want to lose weight go away and try to be silent for 5 days! We can be weighed down by our thoughts and letting them go, in particular letting the past go was helping me feel free.
Day five, the last day of complete silence. I was now getting into a real routine. I got up at 6.30am and was down in the meditation hall for five to seven. I was able to sit and be still in my mind, body and spirit for most of the time.
The sense of peace in the meditation hall had been growing steadily over the days. It made me realise I probably wasn’t the only one struggling with the experience. The deep silence echoed through the hall and filled my mind. My thoughts actually stopped and I became still. It was truly blissful. In fact it is hard to describe in words because you have to think about it rather than just feel it.
Final day – we were in silence until lunch and then we were allowed to talk!
It was really strange at first. Some people in the group just couldn’t stop talking and I discovered that there were people there from all over the world. We hadn’t spoken to each other until this moment. And it was very interesting finding out about people you had been making assumptions about for the last few days.
There were Americans, French, Swedes, Italians and people from different parts of the UK one lady lived only a few miles away from me. As we all chatted away it was amazing to learn about different experiences. One boy of about 19 was meditating his way around the world and was heading off to France the next day.
I phoned for a taxi and got my bag. I was on my way home. As I sat on the train I reflected on the experience. I decided it had been worthwhile and that the feeling of calm and peace I had achieved was a huge benefit. When I was forced to be silent I had nothing but myself to be with it. I discovered that I was an OK person to be with.
That was several years ago. I now spend much of my time meditating, teaching meditation and running the British School of Meditation. It was a life changing experience. Mary