Writer: Erin Lee
Each time I come back home from a silent meditation retreat, family and friends would get quite intrigued about what my experience was like. They often say they can't imagine themselves retreating for ten days, even if life allows them to take the time off.
A common question I get is:
"You go for these retreats every year. What do you do there?"
Well, I would reply, there's not so much doing as there is... being.
Indeed, life at a retreat centre is vastly different from that in a city.
We wake up at four in the morning and turn in by nine in the evening. We spend 6-10 hours each day in formal mindfulness meditation, and the rest of the waking hours bringing awareness to everything we do - as we are eating, walking, showering, and even resting.
We eat only breakfast and lunch every day, and we fast from 12 noon till the next morning. We consume only simple, healthy food. We dwell in nature and solitude. We also observe silence, which means putting away devices, music, books, and other forms of entertainment, and not speaking with one another.
I take time off to go for a silent retreat every year, not as a ritual to follow or a need to fulfil some professional development criteria in my work as a mindfulness teacher. I go for these retreats year after year because they not only allow me to deepen my practice, they also encourage me to return to some of the most important insights I have gained from retreating like this.
The following five lessons, which arrived for me at my first ever silent retreat, have continued to serve me in sustaining my mindfulness practice and integrating the wisdom I have gained with my day-to-day life.
1. The unexamined life is all about escaping.
It takes shedding the busyness of modern life and deliberately slowing down for me to clearly see how restless I am. When nothing much is happening, the mind constantly searches for stimulation - something to look at, something to do or interfere with, something to think about or obsess over.
And this need for stimulation and to be occupied with something all the time, I have discovered, stems from an underlying uneasiness towards how life is presenting itself, and an aversion towards what is happening within myself.
When I felt uncomfortable with the atmosphere at home, I would allow my phone to hijack my attention. When I feared not being able to keep up with a conversation, I would work myself through another glass of wine. When I disliked being alone and feeling lonely, I would bury myself in work. When I didn't like those self-deprecating thoughts in my head, I would go shopping, get myself a massage, or binge-watch the latest drama series.
Even what I deemed to be productive, such as filling every available slot in my calendar with some appointment or errand, was an attempt to avoid having to be with things the way they are.
I figured that as long as I was distracting myself, I didn't have to face what I was uncomfortable with.
As long as I was constantly on the move and doing things, my mind would become numb and I wouldn't be feeling as much pain.
My way of life was a continuous effort of running away.
At the silent retreat, there were no means for escape (unless, of course, I chose to quit and leave the retreat). It was an environment relatively free of distractions, that encouraged the attention to settle, and taught both my mind and body to just be, rather than having to be occupied with something all the time.
It was difficult at first to just sit and not do much, but overtime I learned to be at ease with nothing going on and facing my discomfort without having to run away.
2. The kindest thing we can do for ourselves is to pay attention.
It was only when I started to really pay attention that I began to realise just how harsh I have been with myself.
The moment I sat down for meditation at the retreat, thoughts of negativity would come up, fuelling even more negative energy within the mind as I tried to fight them off. I realised how this was a norm for me - to constantly battle with the inner critic that wouldn't shut up, and mistaking the absence of thoughts for the final destination of inner peace.
As I kept on sitting, I would experience all kinds of pain - aches everywhere in the body and tension in the mind I never bargained for. There came a point where my body was still, but my mind felt like it was out of control and drowning in chaos and turmoil.
And then I learned this remarkable art of stepping back within my own mental space, and simply paying attention to what was going on inside. I realised that I needed to be more skilful with the way I employed my attention.
Instead of ignoring the body when it was screaming for help, or over-engaging with thoughts by amplifying them or pushing them away, I practiced creating space to simply observe the reality of my mind and body from moment to moment. No judgement, no reaction, and only bare attention.
Amazingly, everything then began to soften. I found the capacity to invite more gentleness to myself, in the way I took care of my body, and the way I related with my own thoughts and emotions. This is one of the reasons why many people often feel lighter when they emerge from a retreat. It's not really about relaxation, but learning to be kinder to ourselves by letting go of unnecessary tension.
This was when my whole perspective towards self-care shifted, and I began to acknowledge that the kindest thing I could ever do for myself is to pay more attention to my own mind and body.
Of course, the retreat offered the conditions I needed to pay skilful attention and practice more kindness to myself, and the challenge was always to extend this practice to my daily life even after the retreat had ended.
3. I can be alone.
Even though there would be almost 100 of us at the retreat, we were advised to keep to ourselves all the time. This was to help minimise distractions as much as possible, so that we could meditate properly.
And although I considered myself to be an introvert and didn't have a problem with observing silence, it felt really strange at first to have 100 of us eat in the same dining hall quietly and without conversation. Eating is commonly a communal activity, and to maintain complete silence at a dining table felt unpleasant. Walking past one another without so much as a nod or hello felt almost rude. The experience at the retreat negated what modern life had taught me about establishing social connections and active networking as essential survival skills, and for a while it felt confusing to me.
Keeping to myself also had me realise how chatty and meddlesome my own mind was. To kill boredom, I would people-watch and lose myself in an endless commentary about the person I was watching - guessing their age and profession, imagining what their lives were like, wondering why they chose to sit in certain ways in the meditation hall, and making judgements about the way they ate their meals.
A few days passed, and this uneasiness gave way to a sense of relief and delight. I realised there was more than one way to "socialise", and the way of just being together with strangers and sharing quiet moments felt surprisingly liberating.
I didn't feel the need to make small talk or know more details about the life of others, and yet I experienced a deep sense of connection with everyone at the retreat, just from knowing that we were all there for the same reason - we were struggling and we recognised the need to address that; we also had a shared purpose - to understand ourselves better and to figure life out. There was no need for anything more than that.
I was alone, but not really alone. And I was definitely not lonely.
4. But I don't exist on my own.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to support a practitioner.
The retreat was organised to run as seamlessly as possible for all of us to be able to practice well, and this was attributed to the team of volunteers who were there supporting us throughout the ten days.
From preparing and cooking healthy food, to keeping the entire centre clean, safe, and functional, the volunteers worked hard and round the clock to provide us with the ideal conditions for proper practice.
As I marvelled at the volunteers' dedication and efforts, I began to wonder how they were able to frequently commit to this selfless endeavour, when I could barely find ten days for attending a retreat. Didn't they have to work? Don't they have other commitments? Wouldn't they rather be on vacation somewhere else?
I thought about the conditions that have led to these volunteers being able to support us at the retreat - an empathetic boss who granted them leave; an understanding family member who agreed to take over responsibilities while they were away.
This then invited me to further contemplate all the people who came together to make this retreat experience possible for me: my own family who supported my going away, the donors who gave money to keep the centre running, the workers who constructed the buildings, the gardeners who maintained the beauty of the outdoor environment, the teachers who put aside their life and travelled long distances to guide us in practice, the teachers of these teachers who had done the same and taught them meditation... the list goes on.
I saw that the solitude and peace I experienced was not just because I had worked hard at the retreat. It was also because I had the support of others, many of whom I did not actually know. Even though I kept to myself at the retreat, it was clear to me that I could not have done this on my own. Whatever results I had gained from my practice was not solely mine, but the fruits of a collective effort.
This brought up a lot of gratitude within, and motivated me to take my practice even more seriously. Furthermore, I was able to bring this insight home with me. What I have been able to accomplish in life was not only attributed to my own efforts - I have had countless other people making these accomplishments possible for me, knowingly or unknowingly.
Today, as fiercely independent as I feel about myself, and as much attachment as I feel towards having individual freedom, I recognise that ultimately, I do not exist on my own.
5. The real practice is in the city.
At the retreat centre, I led a very different way of life. The environment was mostly quiet and serene, which offered me ample space for slowing down and dwelling in stillness. I had a lot of time to meditate and contemplate. I ate healthily and slept well. It was an atmosphere free of distraction and stress. Naturally, such conditions promoted better wellbeing.
A question that came up upon "emerging from the cave" when my first retreat ended was: Where do I go from here? I obviously could not stay at the retreat centre indefinitely. I understood that I had to eventually go back home to the reality of life.
At first I felt confident that attending the retreat itself had healed me and cured me of all the self-destructive patterns that were eating away at my health. I could not have been more wrong. When I left the retreat centre and returned home, those patterns promptly returned, as if those ten days of diligent practice never happened.
But this does not mean the ten days were futile. I realised that while the retreat gave me the conditions to learn and cultivate the life skills that I needed, the city - with its relentless chaos and conflict - offered me opportunities to put those skills to good use.
The real practice is when we are in the city. The retreat had equipped me with what I needed to begin navigating the vicissitudes of life, and these inevitable ups and downs I encounter and choose to work with (instead of running away) help me sharpen my skills.
And so the answer to my own question - where do I go from here - after completing every retreat is obvious:
Just keep practicing.