May 19, 2022

3 surprising things I learned from my first silent retreat

A few weeks ago I flew from my home outside Portland, Oregon to attend a 5-day Silent Meditation Retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Although I’ve had a personal meditation practice for many years, and have taken classes and daylong meditation retreats before, this was my first silent meditation retreat. I learned a lot about myself, and particularly my habits of mind, and I took away several helpful tools and discoveries along the way. Here are a few:

1) Silence wasn’t too hard but phone withdrawal was a different story.

It was relatively easy for me to stay silent for the duration of the retreat, and though we were welcome to use pen and paper if we needed to communicate or ask questions, I found I didn’t need to. I did let a few “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s” slip out, which brought my ‘good-girl’ conditioning right to the forefront of my awareness. Even though I’d been given full permission to do away with pleasantries, and everyone on campus knew it, it felt unbearable to not mumble an apology if I ever stepped in front of someone or did some other relatively benign act of taking up space in the world. But in general, I felt that being in silence did allow me both a sense of relaxation and the ability to better observe how my mind wants to fill every moment with activity. Like so many of us, I have a chatterbox brain that likes to narrate and evaluate my every experience, so with the exception of some deep meditative states, silence never felt very silent at all!

What was really hard, I found, was not using my cell phone every 10 minutes to research whatever my brain happened upon during the course of the day. “What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” Oh yeah, I can’t look. “I wonder how long this retreat center has been around?” Right, no Googling. “How many coaching sessions do I have scheduled when I get home?” Nope, no calendar. It turns out my phone dependence is only partly about checking email and texts obsessively. It’s mostly about my unquenchable thirst for knowledge, even the cheap, easily forgotten knowledge of a quick Google search.

Without the crutch of Google, I had to just sit with the questions in my mind, feeling the curiosity without a way to satisfy it. Sometimes I found that I had the answer within me if I got quiet (am I the only one who Googles personal things that absolutely no one could know but me?), and sometimes I found that the answer didn’t matter 20 seconds later because by staying present with what was actually happening in the world, instead of constantly interrupting it with technology, I was able to be in the flow of life a little more. (Note: not using your phone wasn’t a requirement, it was a challenge many of us took on voluntarily. Some people had to keep phones on for work or personal reasons and simply limited their use. I’ve struggled with trying to find a better relationship to my phone for a while, so I found this challenge to be particularly enlightening, if somewhat torturous. I’m undecided as to what I will do with my phone in future retreats- perhaps just limit it to 10 minute a day.)

2) It takes a lot of focus, but it is possible for me to stay mostly in the present moment

Besides the periods of yoga, meditation and breathwork, this retreat was all about helping us understand our minds, and how they take us away from the peace and contentment that we desperately want. As a coach, most of this wasn’t new to me, but in the space of the retreat I was able to hear things in new ways and put them into practice more seriously than I had before. One suggestion that really hit home was to notice any time your mind was thinking about the past or the future, and imagine putting the thought into an imaginary “past” or “future” bucket. I put this into practice right away, and since I had nothing else to distract me, I managed to keep it going through all of my spare time at the retreat (of which there was so much. An hour break between sessions felt like 3 hours because of the total lack of diversions).

Every time my mind began to wonder about the future – whether to consider what would be for dinner that evening, or where I want to move in the fall, I would gently say “future” and just refocus on what I was seeing, hearing or doing in the moment. And any time my mind wanted to rehash the past, I did the same thing, saying “past” and simply coming back. It was enormously freeing to give myself total permission to not have to “figure things out” or evaluate all of my past behavior. At the end of the retreat, some participants said they had decided on major life changes that had eluded them before. That was not my experience, but only because I didn’t allow myself to think about anything outside of the retreat. It was so refreshing.

I have to admit that when I got home, I immediately got sucked into my regular tendencies to dwell in the past and future (“there’s so much to plan and figure out!”, my brain protested.) But the fact that I was able to stay present for 4 full days is something I’m really proud of, and I now know that I can choose to set aside time for this in my regular life, for example by designating 1 Sunday a month a “present moment only” day.

3) Nature is healing

Finally, I learned how soothing and rejuvenating nature can be. At the end of every session, our teacher would remind us to go walk in nature. “If you start to feel upset, go hug a tree! They’re very comforting!” she would joyfully exclaim to a chorus of eye rolls and giggles. But since we really weren’t meant to do anything else – no reading books or long journaling sessions – nature was all the entertainment I had. So I walked all over the forested mountain top, and realized just how right she was. In silence, nature was mesmerizing. Every craggy stump, spiral tree hollow, or mossy stone a marvel. I was fascinated by everything I saw, even though the forest was still bare in mid-march. I saw deer nearly every day, and one particularly magical sighting of a deer bounding through the forest in the moonlight, from sheer joy so far as I could tell, will be sketched in my mind forever.

I also discovered how good it felt to move my body multiple times a day. I have found exercise to be the number one thing to support my mental health (along with healthy food, meditation, counseling, and community), but I generally get my 45 minutes in in the morning and call it good for the day. Walking up and down the incredibly steep mountain path between the residences and the meditation hall 2-3 times a day was surprisingly invigorating. Whatever sluggishness, heavy emotion, or resistance I was carrying from one activity would be immediately replaced by an alert calm after getting my heart rate up for 10 minutes.

This is another practice I intend to implement in my regular life, especially as I phaze out caffeine from my diet, and look for alternative ways to stay energized through a long work day. 10 minutes on the elliptical might not be the Blue Ridge Mountains, but in rainy Oregon, I’ll take what I can get until summer comes.

Overall, my experience at the retreat was truly a success. I learned a lot about myself, and I’m coming home with some new lifestyle tweaks that will support my continuous goal of putting my mental wellbeing front and center.

If you are inspired to look into a retreat after reading this article, please note: if you are brand new to meditation or to inner work, a silent meditation retreat is probably not the place to start. I’ve heard that its common for people to get fed up with their negative thinking, stress, or anxiety, and think that perhaps a silent retreat could be the solution. But if you are not used to noticing and working with your own thoughts, suddenly being isolated with only your own mind for company can be extremely challenging. I recommend starting with a meditation app or class, and working with a mindfulness-based coach or therapist to begin your journey. If you’d like to know more about what options Mindowrx can provide, please do get in touch!

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