For many years, retreats have been an integral component of my wellness strategy. I’ve found that I benefit greatly from time spent away from the day-to-day rigors of life, focused on my health and well-being. The holy grail of retreats for me has always been a silent retreat. Friends who have participated in silent retreats described the experience and its effects in ways that both terrified and intrigued me. I longed for the clear mind they described, but did I have what it took to sit still for hours on end? And would I be able to face what my mind and spirit revealed? But my curiosity was piqued, and I knew that it was only a matter of time until I took the leap to try a silent retreat myself.
My moment arrived in 2018, when I was overworking myself and approaching serious burnout. When I saw that Rolf Gates was co-facilitating a five-day silent meditation and yoga retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, I signed up immediately. And then I panicked. There was so much that was unknown about the experience ahead — and the only way to learn more was to show up and see for myself. Nevertheless, I packed my bags and resolved to show up as a full participant with an open heart.
What I found is that the benefits of spending a week in quiet solitude are immense. Even with a few bumps along the way, the sense of transformation and re-centering was profound. Here is what I experienced, day by day.
Day 1 - Unexpected News
Upon arrival, I was given a room assignment and a schedule, shown around the property and assigned a daily chore. The retreat managers invited me to power down my phone and hand it over for safekeeping, which I did without a moment’s hesitation. Then, I headed to the dining hall and found my teacher, Rolf. I told him I was both nervous and excited about the week to come. “Give it 10 years,” he said. “Commit to coming back every year for 10 years and see what happens.” His response lessened some of the pressure I’d been feeling about perfecting the week or the experience, and allowed me to focus on showing up, being present and seeing what happened next.
And what happened next was intense. As I was heading into the first meditation session, one of the retreat managers delivered a message from home informing me that my dearest friend’s ovarian cancer was terminal. It was the worst way I could imagine to head into five days of silence. But I walked into the meditation hall and took my seat, doing my best to remember that there was nothing to rush, nothing to get right, and that all I had to do was keep showing up.
Day 2 - Getting Used to a New Normal
By day two, I began to wonder if I would ever be ready to return to my real life. Meditating for most of the day meant that even though my day was structured, the pace felt easeful. I was offered three warm and delicious meals each day. The simple yet comfortable accommodations gave me a glimpse of a different existence, away from the pressures and demands of modern life. It was intoxicating. I found the absence of excessive choices to be generative, and reveled in not wearing makeup or styling my hair.
At first, it surprised me that we were instructed not to read or write during the retreat. As someone who reads and writes every day, this felt shocking. If I was unable to read or write, how would I spend my downtime? As my initial shocked response subsided, I came to appreciate that not reading or writing meant that I had to sit with my thoughts. And wasn’t that exactly what I came for?
Day 3 - Am I OK?
I woke up feeling as if my body weight had doubled. My exhaustion had come crashing in on me, and I felt deep grief at the unknown prospect of what awaited my friend. Reckoning with my burnout was overwhelming.
Rolf offers meditation instruction by sharing his personal experiences and peppering in his signature dad jokes. It helps me stay present and reminds me not to take myself too seriously. My body is tired and achy and I feel grateful for the simple yoga practice offered. I let myself feel it all today and I take a nap.
Late at night on my way into the dorm, I spilled near-boiling hot water on my wrist. My hands were full and while trying to turn the door handle to enter the building, I tipped a mug of freshly brewed tea onto my arm. The pain was searing and my skin blistered almost immediately. Luckily, the retreat manager’s office was open late and I was able to help myself to basic first aid. The bandage on my left wrist was my new constant reminder to carry less and slow down.
Despite the grief, exhaustion and injury that arose, I also experienced clarity. I realized I was working too much, and that continuing to push myself to exhaustion would no longer be an option. I knew I would need to make changes once I returned home, and I also knew that it was okay that I did not yet have the answers. I started to understand how important self-kindness would be in this process.
Day 4 - The Tide Turns
The morning of day four, I was a wreck. I felt frustrated and antsy. I no longer even knew why I was here. Did I come here for something? But I reminded myself to show up and participate fully, and trust that something will happen. And with great mercy, it did. That afternoon’s meditation session was like a quickening. Suddenly, I felt clear. Light. Energized. Grateful for the experience and excited to return to my home, my dog, my work, and ready to face the challenges that waited for me. The feeling was bittersweet. On one hand, I could have stayed for two more weeks; on the other, I couldn’t wait to leave.
Day 5 - Tranquility at Last
I woke up feeling peaceful and, dare I say — in bliss. Morning meditation flew by. My body responded joyfully during the movement session. I almost couldn’t believe how good I felt. Things went awry for a moment during morning chores, and I was not only 15 minutes late to our final session, I was sweaty and disheveled to boot. But I still felt okay, and realized that all I needed to do was show up exactly as I was. Our teachers talked about returning to our lives, offering resources and advice.
And then they gave us a chance to gather into small groups to practice speaking with others intentionally after days of silence. I felt honored hearing what others shared. All week we sat within inches of one another without knowing anything about each other. And now we got to share our reasons for attending, and appreciate the sparkle in each other’s eyes. We closed our circle, tidied the meditation hall and congratulated each other for sitting together in a community centering the values of kindness, generosity, compassion and care. We agreed that this was the way forward.
Reentry was slightly jarring. My retreat ended in mid-December, and I found myself in the middle of San Francisco’s airport during the pre-holiday frenzy. To say it was overwhelming is an understatement. But I got through it, like everyone does.
I began thinking of going on another silent retreat in March of 2020. After several months of providing support and care to my friend, she lost her battle with ovarian cancer, and we headed into the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to caring for my friend, I had also been working full time to build my business. So, following my friend’s transition, my main priority was to attend to my grief and care for my body. I dove into grieving wholeheartedly. I cried, I walked, I wrote, I read, I baked and ate and slept. But I was having trouble sitting still.
So, when I had the chance to return to Spirit Rock for another five-day retreat in October of 2021, I took it. Despite having attended to my grief and feeling strong, I knew there would be surprises. What would the silence illuminate? How would my anxiety present? What was waiting for me in the corners of my mind and body to demand attention? I reminded myself that if I showed up and participated fully, then what was meant to happen would be just right.
I headed into the dining hall, greeted my teacher with tears in my eyes, and the program began. And as it did, I was flooded with gratitude for all those who had made it possible for me to retreat. As if by some invisible script, the days passed, one by one, much as they had on my first retreat: offering a range of emotions from deep gratitude to grief and sadness, and finally clarity and transformation. The opportunity to sit in contemplation, meeting myself in the present moment over and over, offered me a deeper level of healing than I could have achieved on my own. I showed up, participated fully, and allowed it all to happen.
Silent retreat offers us the chance to go deeper, to see things as they truly are. No matter the circumstances of life, pressing pause to explore mindfulness and meditation provides profound benefits that ripple out to all aspects of life.
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