The prospect of going on a silent mindfulness retreat was quite exciting to me, especially when I booked it. The allure of a sense of peace and stillness appealed. Over the past few months I came to notice the desire within me to be quiet. I had found talking, socially, to be so energetic, draining and it took up so much time and didn’t always convey what I was trying to impart. Not to mention the noise of everyday life, it was deafening at times. So for me, some time to be in silence felt like a luxury and a very rare opportunity.
However, after a while I began to question it, the experience in itself, especially when I was telling people my plans. I started to wonder what would it be like? How would I interact? What would the other participants be like? And what was their motivation for wanting silence? And why when I talked to others about it did they seem to think it was likely to be difficult or unnatural? So many questions, and my ‘monkey mind’ was having a field day!
It’s quite natural for me to question, I am used to it and I understand it and can observe it for what it is – thank you Mindfulness! I recognise it now as my thirst for knowledge, impatience and excitement mainly. I have a keen neural pathway that kicks in regularly, which is wanting to know the outcome before experiencing it. But through self awareness and acknowledging myself and my mind, it’s come to be an enjoyable part of the process. Especially when I step outside the norm, adventure past the boundary of my comfort zone into unknown territory.
The venue was lovely and commanded silence in it’s very stature. The surrounding bush was still and inviting and the birds’ song created most of the sound waves. A sense of peace seemed to be a fabric of the buildings foundation. And aptly so, the centre was called Aio Wira, Peace Wheel.
The silence wasn’t immediate although each of us as we arrived were probably more reserved than we would have been, knowing what was to come. So we got to know about one another in the very usual ways, learning about our careers, families, experiences and sharing our anticipations over what this retreat would come to offer us.
The silence began on the Friday night, after group introductions, a mindfulness practise and a greater understanding of the weekends agenda. And at this point I was ready, although I later came to realise all the questions I should have asked that I didn’t think of at the time. For instance, would it be frowned upon to use my laptop to journal? Could I use my phone to write messages if I couldn’t speak? What was the protocol for apologising or saying thank you or excuse me, where did our manners come into play? And my resistance around forgoing my politeness, in the most conventional of ways, was startling.
My experience of being silent with a group of people came easily, or so I thought. I didn’t find that I blurted words out at all unexpectedly like some, nor did I find it hard to make eye contact if I didn’t feel the need. After the settling in period I actually felt free. For me, the settling in period lasted a few hours and I actually noticed that I started to experience worry. Not at all what I was expecting. Worry about what other people were thinking – which was a shock to me as I’m acutely aware of how I cannot control that, nor should I want to. However, I digress. I was worried about not being able to explain my behaviours to those around me, apologise if I was in their way and hadn’t realised or what they might be thinking about me or judging me on given the fact we were all mostly strangers. It was a shocking revelation and not one I much liked in all honesty. Immediately I felt disappointed that I hadn’t already worked through this, as I assumed I had, I doubted my previous work and the release of the worry surrounding others opinions long ago. However, I realised what I was doing and through the discomfort I practised what I teach – and I’m not an ideal student, but I went with it anyway.
To move past the settling in period and become at ease, with my underlying worries I made the conscious decision to adapt wherever I could. I started to actively listen more, notice body language and make more eye contact to connect. I tried to pick up on subtle cues to answer my worries and adapt to enable more ease for others. That’s when it came to me. This was my weekend, my time to connect with myself not navigate others ease. I needed to find my own.
With that I relaxed, I accepted me in that moment by moment situation, knowing that everyone there was focused on themselves too and the silence was an aid. I did what I wanted, within reason, so as to be considerate of others, but to look after myself. I found myself hugging these strangers, my companions in the silence, to say thank you for their kind gestures, smiling a lot to connect, I noticed that I wanted to compliment people on their beautiful habits, of movements or features. Yet I didn’t need words, we could laugh at silly things that happened, organise walks together without words, share with each other the sights around us if one of us might have missed seeing a rare bird.
For me the things that I learnt most in the silence were, that:
- There is actually never pure silence, in the extreme. There is always a sound of something no matter how faint if you are still to listening.
- I was totally right, talking does take up a lot of energy!
- You don’t need words to console or comfort someone, your presence is support enough.
- There is so much noise, even the small noises become deafening when you’re still.
- That it is necessary to gather thoughts, be still and disconnect from technology driven sounds to appreciate the beauty in nature, the sounds from within.
- That connection isn’t always through verbal communication, closeness comes from a shared understanding and appreciation of a person’s journey and respecting it.
- Compassion for oneself is a generous gift, and easier to receive without outside influences.
- You never know what someone else is thinking whether you’re speaking to them or not.
- There is no magic answer awaiting you in the silence, but it is pleasant and something quite extraordinary to do.
So where to now, for me and silence?
Well I have a greater appreciation for it and I will respect and enjoy it when I find the rare times when it happens. And I will also aim to notice it when it happens (hopefully a couple of times a week).
The experience was eye opening in what it brought up for me in regards my concerns over judgements from others and how I dealt with that. I have a greater capacity for acceptance of myself and my concerns when they may be brought up, and I know that I have the ultimate ability to control them, if I choose to.
But one thing is for sure, as I write this, I have missed hearing my kids say ‘Mumma’, my husband and the dog snoring in unison and the laughter that we have at our home. So after three days away, I truly cannot wait to see and hear my tribe again!
Alison Callan is a Mindfulness Consultant, Life, Career and Business Coach. Committed to creating positive and lasting change for individuals, teams and organisations through Mindfulness.