What I Learned From 6 Days in Silence
Life lessons from a 6-day meditation retreat.
I’ve been meditating for about one and a half years. Practicing TM (Transcendental Meditation) means I sit for 20 minutes twice a day — once when I wake up and again around 3pm. The idea is that the morning session sets you up for the first part of your day and the afternoon gives you the extra boost to power through the rest of the evening. To be clear, and in case you decide not to read any further, meditation has changed my life — stress, work performance, personal relationships, sleep (!), and much more.
Since I began meditating, my life runs more smoothly. There seems to be a positive ripple effect that has spread across all aspects of my life.
So I decided to explore mindfulness meditation and do an extended retreat at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. Before doing the 6-day retreat, I had only attended a 1-day retreat about 8 months ago. (If you’re curious about my full schedule, check it out here.)
Here are my takeaways from the experience:
You can actually get to know people pretty well without ever uttering a word
Meditating alongside my fellow retreatants for up to 6 hours per day created an unspoken bond between us. It’s remarkable that with just a certain look, nod, or wave of your hand, you can communicate silently. When we were allowed to break silence on our last day, I had some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations about spirituality I’ve ever had. Having shared this silent experience we skipped the usual introduction niceties and jumped right into what mattered in our lives.
Your mind is like an annoying roommate who never shuts up
Literally, at all times there was a running commentary happening in my head. Filling my head were thoughts of the reasons I should leave the retreat early because I’m just too busy for this; how I could go about getting recipes for this delicious vegetarian food; feeling averse to the Buddhist focus on suffering; how I should be spending this time with my kids; and so on. Only on the last 2 days did I feel that I had bound and gagged that voice so I could rest at last. Aaaaah. Those were my best meditation sittings ever. Peace and QUIET.
Transitioning back into the real (and noisy) world was more difficult than I expected
Our meditation teachers warned us to take it slow and if possible, take Monday off from work to ensure a smooth transition back into the fray. I didn’t buy it. I mean, hello, I’m running a startup…that is NEVER gonna happen. Well, they were right. Ignoring their advice, I immediately dove fully back into the digital frenzy of work and by Monday night I felt super nauseous and light-headed as if I might pass out. By Wednesday, I was more frazzled and stressed than I’ve been in years — not sleeping, eating poorly and just sliding backwards at warp speed. So, that basically sucked. I’ve now taken a couple days to collect myself, put things back into perspective, and remind myself that everything is not a fire drill.
My spiritual path is more of an ‘a la carte’ approach
Growing up Catholic, practicing TM, and now dabbling in Buddhism, I realize that there is not a “one size fits all” when it comes to spirituality. While I like some of what my Buddhist teachers shared, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was generally distraught by about seventy-five percent of it. Most of our Dharma talks focused on suffering and the cause of suffering. I know it’s inevitable that we will all experience trauma or suffering in our lives, but I don’t necessarily want to dwell on that thought. The other thing that troubled me was that each time a student had a question, it was answered with a question. I just wanted the teachers to give us something to grab onto. When I was learning TM, my teacher told me a great analogy of how meditation impacts our lives which really resonated.
When it comes to meditation techniques, TM is my thing. My teachers were somewhat dismissive of TM because it’s mantra-based, of the hindu faith and “there are too many deities and gurus to keep track of.” I felt this was pretty hypocritical considering that one of the Buddha’s teachings was to never accept what your teacher tells you unless you can confirm it within yourself. For me, when I attend group meditation sessions in TM, I can literally feel the energy in the room. This did not happen with the mindfulness technique of focusing on your breath. But that’s just me. I believe we all need to find our “fit” when it comes to the technique that works best for us.
I have spent years of my life being distracted and wow, have I missed out on some important moments
On my last day I was thinking a lot about how I need to be more “present” with my kids (ten and twelve years old) It hit me that I am literally on the verge of having a teenager who will pretty much tune out everything I say. I felt panicked about all the time I have wasted on digital devices (and work!), when I should have been focused on imparting all the important life lessons to help my kids navigate the big, bad world. I immediately understood what those older mothers meant when they told me: “treasure this time, it goes by way too fast.” At the time, I was thinking, “good, I hope you’re right because I have a toddler and I’m EXHAUSTED.” But now I get it.
However, it occurred to me that maybe the startup I’m working on could somehow create a “back door” of communication to my kids. It’s a private social network where you can swipe between groups in your life to stay connected without the worry of sharing TMI publicly. I have a family group where I can passively insert some wisdom and advice without speaking to them directly. I can also record stories from my parents and maybe share some from my childhood so they have a reference for later (when they hopefully show some interest). We shall see. I’ll have to report back once I discover if it works. ;)
The world is really LOUD
As I drove out of Spirit Rock, I put on some mellow tunes, rolled down the windows and drove a lot slower than I usually do (our teachers warned us of driving too slow). I felt so alive and “present” in the world. During that drive, I was the world’s friendliest driver, letting people merge into my lane, go first at stop signs and smiling at each driver I made eye contact with. Then my Pandora station played an ad and I saw some guy freaking out at another driver because he was clearly in a rush. These two things were like someone dumping a bucket of ice on me — pretty jarring. I turned off the music, kept my distance from ‘road rage guy’ and tried to get back to my zen state. When I got home, I drove one of my kids to their sport practice and listened intently to them the whole way. It was one of the best conversations we’ve had and I honestly believe it was because I was totally present, giving her my full attention which rarely happened in the past.
The next few days, as mentioned above, I “lost my zen” a bit but thankfully I’ve found my grounding again. We’re human and therefore eternally flawed but as long as I make an effort to course correct when I veer off my path, I think it will be ok. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. :)
To sum up my retreat experience, I will say this:
Even though it was a difficult process, I will forever be grateful for the experience and feel that it has initiated a bigger shift in me that I will come to understand as time goes by.
Thanks for reading (if you made it this far) and I hope you’ve gained some insight into your own path, whether it’s one faith or ‘a la carte’ like mine.