This past week I was in a silent retreat. I spent 7 days moving between my bedroom, my kitchen, my living room and some hiking trails. It wasn't actually completely silent, I did a lot of talking to my dog. He was the only family member allowed to stay in the house. I had about four or five sessions with my teacher on zoom and the support of other sangha members who were also on retreat. It took a lot of maneuvering to be able to carve out the time, but it was well worth it. I am sending huge waves of gratitude to my family and the people who held down the fort at The yoga studio and the store. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
There were a number of takeaways from this experience. The simplest ones I can explain in a few words are as follows:
Things are not always as they seem,
Our internal satisfaction will not be gained by anything external,
These are all things that we might have said before to ourselves because we know they seem right. However to experience them is quite another thing. Just like looking at pictures of a beautiful meal in a cookbook is not the same as actually eating it.
Preparing for the retreat involved arranging schedules for the family, making sure I have the right food and practice documents at hand and tying up a ton of loose ends. For me, those kinds of technical things are easy to attend to because I'm always doing that type of stuff anyway. The more difficult part for me was staying off of devices, maintaining radio silence, not eating what I wanted (no coffee!!), abstaining from productivity, and resisting the urge to engage in casual conversations with friends...that is where the harder work was.
Even with those difficulties it was quite wonderful. In fact those things only were disturbing for the first few days. The initial restlessness soon faded away. Eating simple meals repetitively, wearing simple clothing, and engaging in repetitive practices and mantras created a calming rhythm that allowed me to detach from my usual mental clutter. Of course, some mental noise persisted, including stubborn earworms and bouts of dread when I contemplated my overflowing email inbox.
Nevertheless, the moments of deep internal connection and satisfaction made the challenges worthwhile. A week free from a schedule, unplugged from electronic devices, and no food planning or preparing was amazing. I can't think when else I might have encountered this freedom other than when I might have been sick in bed.
If you think this is something you want to experience, you are correct! But don't rush into it. It takes a bit of training and planning. I've done full and half days of silence every now and then for a few years and I've been in or led a number of retreats with a group, so I have had a little practice. I also had the support of my teacher and my community, which is really quite important. If you plan to do a home retreat see if you can get a friend who will do it with you. They don't have to be physically in the same space as you are. Have a clear intention for your retreat but maintain no expectations, and make sure you have a good plan for sustenance. You won't want to have to run to the store or order takeout during your retreat. Keep your food choices simple, both in taste and preparation.
Start slow and cut yourself a lot of slack! The first time I did 4 hours on my own at home was really difficult and uncomfortable, and it kind of made me feel like I failed at something big. This isn't the mindset that inspires another attempt. Having previously established some fundamentals of a meditation practice is also a good idea.
If you decide to try this, let me know how it goes! I'm planning a retreat for anyone interested in the new year, and the support of a group can make the experience more accessible, especially for first-timers. Stay tuned for details.