There were several variations of one basic refrain my friends and family continued to repeat before I went on a week-long silent retreat last summer—why would you want to do that? I tried to explain how I was curious about meditation and wanted to get a good look at the true benefits of mindfulness (a topic I read about numerous times, but something that still eluded me). They weren’t really buying it, but that did not deter me.
I have attended a few weekend yoga retreats that offered doses of meditation, but I was looking for a more immersive experience. As I researched options, I came across Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center. Jack Kornfield, one of the most prominent teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West, co-founded Spirit Rock in 1987 with the idea of creating a place that would be accessible to all types of people. The center is set among the foothills of Marin County and offers an array of programs, from two-hour classes for beginners to 3-month retreats for advanced practitioners.
After a 15-minute phone call with a Spirit Rock representative, I selected a retreat that combined seated and walking meditation sessions with daily yoga classes and evening dharma talks by instructors. The representative said it would be a perfect retreat for somebody like me. Upon arrival, Spirit Rock delivered on its promise of an idyllic setting—411 acres of quiet, wooded land to buffer the outside world, an extensive network of hiking paths for solitary walks, and a simple yet beautifully crafted meditation hall.
Upon arrival, Spirit Rock delivered on its promise of an idyllic setting—411 acres of quiet, wooded land to buffer the outside world, an extensive network of hiking paths for solitary walks, and a simple yet beautifully crafted meditation hall. The first morning started with a bell ringing at 5:45 a.m., and I sprung out of bed with surprising ease. There was a fixed rhythm to the daily schedule: a morning mediation sitting, breakfast, and alternating sessions of seated and walking meditation, followed by a yoga class. We would then break for lunch, and we repeated the same routine in the afternoon. In the evening, there was dinner, an hour of free time, and a dharma talk by one of the instructors before a final sitting.
At first, I struggled with the physical discomfort of sitting for extended periods and the mental frustration of trying to contain my wandering thoughts. However, I quickly got past those issues and settled into my routine. While others seemed to fight against the silence, I selfishly devoured it, pleased that there were no conversations to navigate and no expectations to manage.
In the seated meditation sessions, I tried to focus on my breath (as instructed) and tried to look at my thoughts as if I was an outside observer (as recommended). I would get to a calm energetic state at times, and other times I would drift with no control. In the walking meditation sessions, I wanted to sense the world around me instead of going inward. I looked at trees and grasshoppers with the awe of a two-year-old. And the yoga was much-needed movement to balance out the constant stillness.
After a couple of days, I was in a steady practice and didn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m not sure how I landed there and I didn’t really care. I no longer needed coffee in the morning to function, I enjoyed my work duty of washing dishes, and every night I would use my 60 minutes of free time to see how far I could go on the hiking trails.
So what did I learn during my week of silence?
Disconnect from the clutter. It was amazing how much more relaxed and clear my mind was in a setting without my cell phone, email, cable TV, work meetings, etc. Being able to sit in quiet stillness is a powerful thing.
Maintain curiosity about every-day life. Each day, there is so much newness happening around me, I just need to open my eyes to it; a phrase I love that an instructor said was I have never been here before now. It’s easy to become numb to our own lives, to take it for granted. But my life has become so much richer since I’ve learned to look harder at what’s happening in my life and revel in it.
Find my own truth. A lot of what the instructors talked about were ideas I heard before, but I started to question whether I was taking time to understand them from my perceptive (without judging my thoughts as good or bad), and exploring why certain things resonate with me. It’s a shift that cultivates an internal honesty, and it took my thoughts into unforeseen areas the made me smile.
Don’t compare myself to anyone else. This is very challenging when success is often defined as getting married, having a great job, owning a beautiful home, having kids, etc. (and since I don’t have some of these, I can feel behind in life). I need to be grateful for the life I have instead of drifting into negative thoughts and wanting to be another Ryan.
Ever since I left the retreat, it has been a challenge to get back to that place. Sometimes, I can find it by meditating, hiking in the mountains, or just taking a quiet moment to myself. Other times, I forget what I learned and get sucked into the whirlwind of life. However, no matter what happens, there is comfort in knowing that I got there once, and I know my internal compass can take me back when I need it most.
Interested in a silent meditation retreat? Here are some top options nationwide to consider:
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health (Stockbridge, Mass.)
Omega Institute for Holistic Studies (Rhinebeck, NY)
Shambhala Mountain Center (Red Feather Lakes, Colo.)
Rolling Meadows (Brooks, Maine)
Esalen Institute (Big Sur, Calif.)
Photo courtesy of Spirit Rock and Allen Kennedy Photography.