Silence can be very loud: lessons from a Mindfulness Meditation Retreat

I am not sure I can put into words the adventure I have had in the last 3 days. Not because the words do not exist, or because I am struggling to articulate my thoughts. But because they are just words, the same words I read before I went on this retreat and the key word here is “experience”. It sounds like a cliche, I went through a journey and have come out the other side with a different perspective. I am not sure that this is something which can be read in order to be understood. It has to be experienced, lived, FELT. There is no shortcut which can be virtual or imagined. I was certainly sceptical that I would feel some kind of mystical enlightenment, having read so much about mindfulness. I have been TRYING to practice it for the last year, so what could I learn in 3 days. In truth I was hoping for a 3 day holiday to chill out and read a couple of books in the countryside, with a bit of meditation chucked in the help me relax. So let me guide you through my adventure and summarise what I have learnt…and maybe you will be inspired to try it for yourself.

As I drove through the expansive grounds of The Sharpham Trust estate I was surrounded by stunning views: fields as far as the eye could see; a vineyard; trees; birds; colourful flora; sheep and cows. I arrived at Sharpham House excited, in awe of the scenery and setting, and looking forward to 3 days of deep relaxation, reading and being at peace. A feeling which quickly turned to fear and dread as the reality of the situation hit home. As I was dropped at my single bedroom the silence was deafening. The notes I scrawled in my journal in those first few moments read: “what have I signed up for? People I don’t know. Alone with no music, no iPhone, no podcasts, no distraction. OMG!” My mind was racing and searching for something to DO. I wanted to pick my bag up and walk straight back out the door. I was mildly relieved as I realised I had only minutes to kill before the group welcome meeting. And reality really sunk in: 14 retreatants, 2 guides, all strangers, 3 days together adhering to an intense schedule. Let me briefly outline how the next 72 hours of my life was set out.

Following dinner and a group mindfulness practice a period of silence was held from 9pm – 10.30am. Yoga at 7.30am, meditation at 8am, breakfast at 8.30am, free time until the group session to break the silence at 10.30am. The remainder of the day was filled with mindfulness teaching sessions, 30 minute mindfulness meditation practices before each meal, a 30 minute silent mindfulness walk with the group slowly walking in a circle, and a deep relaxation session leading up 9pm and the return to silence. Day 2 followed a similar structure but with the silence extended until 2.30pm and included a 90 minute silent group walk around the grounds of the estate. Day 3 the silence was held only until the final group session at 11am. This was NOT a holiday. This was NOT the “sit and read” and “escape from my life to relax” that I had been expecting. This was extremely challenging, but not at all in the ways I would have predicted.

I soon realised that wherever you go you still take yourself. I may have physically removed myself from my normal life, but I took myself with me. My mind. My monkey brain. But no distractions. During the 30 minute meditations we sat in a circle and were given occasional prompts to focus on our breathing and feelings in our body. My mind wondered. I felt tense. My mind would not settle. Thinking. Planning what I would do to fill the time before the next activity on the schedule. This was 30 minutes of torture.

Outside of the meditation sessions the periods of silence were unbearably loud. As we progressed through the 18 hour silence on day 2 my mind felt uncomfortable and uneasy. In silence I felt lonely. Isolated. Separate. It was overwhelmingly intense. And I was not able to cover up this discomfort with busyness and DOING. So I engaged my default coping mechanism and busied my mind and filled the space with thinking, analysing and trying to figure out WHY I felt so uncomfortable. This simply allowed my inner critic (who I would describe as somewhat HARSH) to run amok and have a field day. I felt like I was driving myself insane. I turned to my journal and tried to work through my angst, but this turned into a circular paranoid discussion with myself. All with no basis in reality. All dialogues I was creating in my head. All going round and round with no external distraction to make it stop.

The most distressing part was a feeling of not being able to communicate this internal pain to anyone else. Feeling weak and needy for wanting support. Pathetic that I was struggling, and a whole raft of chain reaction thoughts to this. It was painful. But as I will explain shortly, I am glad I stuck with it and did not break the silence to speak to anyone.

Being in silence around other people was unexpectedly awkward. I expected this to be easy. I tend to shy away from interacting with strangers. I find small-talk awkward. I avoid situations where I need to chat with people I do not know well. Yet I found the silence let me feeling very exposed. Typically we fill the silence because it feels uncomfortable. Why? Maybe we verbally communication as a mask to create an image of the way we want others to perceive us. Without being able to talk I felt so RAW and vulnerable to judgement, with no way of portraying a certain persona. No way of manipulating my impression upon others by creating a protective barrier around myself with words. And no frame of reference from other people about what they were thinking and feeling. Again the paranoid inner critic was free to go wild in the prison of my own head. Also, my compassionate side was allowed to worry. There is no way of determine how anyone else was feeling. If anyone else was struggling. I worried that someone else was feeling the pain I was and I was being heartless by not helping them and offering support. Bring on paranoia, worry and more self deprecation for being caught up in my own head not looking at the needs of others.

I approached the breaking of the silence on day 2 with a sense of relief but also dread. I felt exhausted, emotional and so churned up and distressed I was unsure how I would share my experience of the last 18 hours, with 16 strangers.

I was honest. I was choked. I was embarrassed. I was not alone in my feelings. Some of the group found the silence incredibly enjoyable, a relief from their typically hectic and frantic lives. Others felt like me and had struggled intensely with the silence. My aloneness was immediately replaced by an overwhelming feeling of support and a shared experience. Everyone found it very intense. Everyone had a brave and honest story to share. Everyone engaged with each other, and displayed true compassion for each other. We listened. We laughed. There was no mindless “filling the silence” chatter, we had meaningful and deep conversations. I recieved supportive comments such as “I had no idea you were struggling”, “I wish I had known you were finding it hard too”, “you are very brave to share so honestly how you felt during the silence”. I felt supported, understood, cared for and part of group sharing a unique experience. In stark contrast to how I had felt for the previous 18 hours, this was like being held in a warm blanket of kindness.

I was struck deeply that the perception others had of me was so very different to the one in my head. It turned out that during the silence I had supported some of the others in a compassionate way, without even realising it. As we went around the group to share our experience two comments profoundly touched me. One lady had been absent in one of the group meditation sessions. I found my mind wondering if she was OK and wanting to be able to support her. My inner critic told me to focus on me, stop being nosey, stop worrying about someone else’s business. The following morning, still in silence, I was unable to ask her how she was, I simply smiled at her and put a hand on her as a walked by as a sign of support. In the group sharing session as she broke her silence she publicly thanks me for that small gesture and said how it made such a massive difference because she was feeling so alone. Similarly, one of the other girls stated that when I had smiled and mouthed goodnight to her it had really made a difference and made her smile, at a time she was feeling sad and alone. I realised that what I had CREATED in my mind was not there. Analysing. Projecting. Guessing. It would have been OK to ask for help. I was supporting others in a way I had not realised.

What followed in the next 5 hours was so powerful I am struggling to put it into words. My entire perspective shifted and allowed the next period of silence to be so profoundly different it took my breath away. I learnt so much from those who had a positive response to the silence and I was able to see how the experience “could be”. Relaxed. Enjoyable. I felt that the others were supporting me just by being around me and that I had something to offer with MY presence as well. All the theoretical “words” about mindfulness we had been learning about started to make sense. I began to understand these statements:

  • Be aware of what is happening around you and in your body right now
  • Ruminating on the past or protecting the future are stories in your head; focus on what is happening right now
  • Do not get caught up in the thoughts in your mind. You are not your thoughts
  • Mindfulness is doing one thing at a time, with purpose, curiosity, without judgement, and with kindness to yourself
  • Find the place in your mind beyond thoughts and rest in the peace of that quiet confidence
  • See thoughts come into your mind. Watch thoughts come and go.
  • Everything you need to be happy is inside your head
  • You are in control of all the thoughts in your mind. You can chose to be happy or you can chose to be caught up in a dialogue which is created outside of reality
  • You can stop your mind from hurting you by having an awareness of the nature of your thoughts
  • Enjoy the silence. Enjoy the space to just BE. Notice what is there is that moment, with no distraction.

Until now these were JUST WORDS. Words I understood on an intellectual level, but have never FELT before. But as I went through the evening meditation I found that place beyond thought. It was peaceful. For the first time I truly FELT all of those bullet points above. I was smiling to myself as we went into the silence of day 3.

Day 3 was actually enjoyable! Would you believe it? Yes I was as surprised as you probably are. I understood the point of the silence. I sat with some of the others in the library and we just sat doing our own thing. There was no pressure to make small talk. No distractions. Just time to be ourselves, but in warm and supportive company, not shut away alone by ourselves. I enjoyed being in my body during yoga, not self conscious. I really enjoying my breakfast, taking the time to focus on what I was eating, the taste sensations, how it felt in my body and when I was full or if I wanted more. Typically I wolf down my food without thinking what I am eating. By not having the anxiety of small talk or interacting with others at meals I was able to focus on my plate and engage with the food. It was unexpectedly pleasurable.

Walking around the grounds I took enjoyment in being in silence. Having no headphones was not painful. I smiled as I took in the scenery, wandered through the vegetable garden (twice) and observed the amazing trees, flowers and plants in the gardens of the house. I realised that by multitasking ALL THE TIME my attention is divided and none of the tasks are getting my full attention. I am missing out on one of them, and I think my brain finds it stressful to switch from one to the other. I can honestly say that since I have left the retreat, even driving home, I have found multi tasking very difficult. I am aware of the distraction and AWARE that my attention is not being paid fully to one of that tasks. No wonder I can’t remember anything I read or listen to, I am always doing something else at the same time! I found the radio in the car distracting and my driving was not focused. I took my dogs for walk when I got home and habitually put on my headphone, but the voice on the podcast was annoying, distracting. I turned it off. I deleted the podcast without listening to it actually. I feel that I want to be able to feel the SPACE, it is peaceful and relaxing. I am used to everything feeling so crowded and rushed. I am enjoying the calm. I do not want to plan and feel the incessant rerunning of the plan in my head, I want to go with how my body feels in that moment.

In the last few hours at Sharpham I found each meditation session peaceful, not 30 minutes of painful silence with my out-of-control thoughts and racing brain. I smiled as I realised I could SEE thoughts as JUST THOUGHTS. I could control them and they didn’t have to take over. There IS a place beyond thought and it is peaceful, calm and enjoyable. I had a glimpse of being OK in my own head. My thoughts are just thoughts, I do not need to let them run amok, I can control them. I can see that now. I have felt that now.

I smiled all morning and was glowing as we met to break the silence for the final group meeting. I proudly shared my radical discoveries and was so grateful to the community I had shared this journey with, from whom I have learned so much in such a short time. Ahead of the meeting I had prepared a list of lessons I had learned, and shared with the group:

  1. Silence can be very loud in your head. But doesn’t have to be.
  2. Being mindful allows you to see the joy in small things
  3. Doing one thing at a time is very pleasurable, and probably far more productive!
  4. See what is really there and not what the mind is creating
  5. A community can be built in a very short time from an intense experience
  6. 30 minutes of “nothing” is not as bad as I thought! And now I understand how this is actually enjoyable and a meaningful practice
  7. A shared human experience is very rewarding
  8. Only in the aftermath of such intensity can true joy be found
  9. Sitting in silence with everyone doing their own thing as actually quite enjoyable
  10. You do not always want what you think you want – I thought I craved to be alone
  11. I am far more sociable than I thought I was, I crave human connection

I am so grateful that I initially found the experience so hard. Without the intensity and discomfort of the silence I would not have explored those painful feelings. I was outside my comfort zone and I stuck with it. I am glad I did not seek out the support I craved during the silence. I am glad I did not resort to the comfort of music, my iPhone, a podcast or some other external distraction.

So now I understand how to quiet my mind, I just need to sit back and listen…I wander what my soul is waiting to tell me?