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Ever Wanted To Go On A Silent Retreat?

Added on October 23, 2012

When I told my family and friends that I was going on a 9-day silent meditation retreat they had one of two reactions: either they thought I was crazy – “how can you not talk for 9 days?!” Or they wished me well to enjoy this wonderful “holiday” they thought I was going on.

Both perceptions were flawed.

To tackle the second one first, holiday? Don’t think so! Every day a bell wakes us at 5am, we get dressed and start our first of many walking meditations for the day.  A walking meditation is one of many possible moving meditations where you focus your attention on an aspect of your movement, commonly on the sensations in your feet, instead of just on your breath as in sitting meditation. As with the breath, focusing on the sensations in your feet helps to centre a wandering mind. So we start our first of numerous focusing activities for the day.

At 5:30am I join the other meditators in the Meditation Hall for an hour of sitting meditation. Sitting is usually either cross-legged or kneeling on mats or on a low meditation stool, but can also be on a chair (this was certainly my preference – floor sitting is no longer comfortable due to my ongoing recovery of a broken leg, after being hit by an “un-mindful” driver on a pedestrian crossing in Double Bay).

After an hour of silent sitting meditation we make our way up to the dining room for breakfast, a selection of porridge, cereals, fruit and toast.  For the rest of the day, we alternate between hour long walking and sitting meditations, interrupted only by lunch at 12 (the main meal of the day – vegetarian, gluten free and always delicious) and supper at 5 (soup, toast and fruit), all of which are eaten silently and mindfully.  We continue with our meditations till 9:30pm when we retire to our single rooms.

We also each have chores to do every day to help with the running of the meditation centre. Mine was helping to clean up after breakfast each day, but others emptied bins, swept floors, did laundry, cleaned the communal bathrooms, etc.  Even without the speech, it’s clear this is a community and everyone pulls their weight.

As you can see, this is no vacation. But now we get to the not-talking.  As I just said, this is a community. There is a tangible connection between the residents even without the speech. In fact, meditating together, eating and working together without the limitations created by words seems to somehow create a deeper bond. How often do you spend an hour talking to a person and still feel disconnected from them? On the other hand, spend half an hour a day for a week cleaning with them, and even without having shared a word between you, you will feel the human connection.

The silence also allows you to focus entirely on yourself, your inner growth. And when was the last time you had 9 days to do that? With the silence you begin to notice how most of your thoughts are nothing more than unimportant chatter, fragments of ideas, memories, perceptions, even other people’s beliefs, all strung together and screaming for your attention. It becomes more than apparent that it’s OK to let them go, not to take your mind-chatter too seriously. And once you’re prepared to let go of all that noise, you begin to hear what’s really important, the wisdom, the life-values, the priorities.

Going on retreat is like learning to do nothing with full commitment! It allows you to really understand what Mindfulness is about: awareness. Awareness of what is present and real. “Awareness” notices the impermanent nature of all there is, all that we foolishly cling to. It allows us to return to a level of our being that is pre-cognitive, attuned to all our senses and accepting of both good and bad sensations without judgement.

And then there’s the Dharma, the teachings. Such retreats are led by experienced Buddhist teachers, and we benefit from their knowledge and wisdom both through their daily Dharma talks and also by accessing personal interviews, available every day or as required.

My experience with Buddhist psychology is that it is wise and sensitive. Intensive meditation as is experienced on retreat can wake up all sorts of sleeping dogs and the teachers at these retreats are well equipped to deal with them and guide the practitioner safely and comfortably through any turmoil they may be unexpectedly feeling. On the other hand, a retreat may also awaken great inner joy and peace as meditators are released from the burdens of the every day rat-race and have the time (and inclination) to listen to their own inner wisdom.

So no, this was not a holiday, but something far more valuable. After all, how often do you come back from vacation crying, “Now what I really need is a holiday!”  Of course, for the uninitiated I would recommend starting with something shorter, like a weekend retreat. Go to dharma.org.au for a list of residential programs.

For information on the next course in Mindfulness Meditation, click here

About Judith Lissing

Judith Lissing is a Clinical Hypnotherapist and Wellness Coach, with 15 years experience in teaching stress management and meditation. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree with Honours in Immunology and a Masters degree in Public Health, both from the University of NSW. She is also an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of NSW since 1999. Judith is trained in Wellness Coaching with Wellcoaches U.S. and holds a Diploma in Hypnotherapy. Prior to coaching professionally, Judith held a statewide management role with NSW Health working with all levels of staff across the health sector.

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