What to Expect From a Silent Meditation Retreat

There is a light at the end of the tunnel

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The allure of a silent retreat often draws mindfulness students from all over the world. Meditation instructor Katherine McHugh is no exception. On this week’s podcast, I had the opportunity to chat with her about her first experience at a week-long silent retreat. What started as a struggle ended in a moment of universal connectedness, thanks to a little eight-legged friend. Here’s her story and some things you can expect if you’re considering attending one of these events.

The first three days are tough

Katherine McHugh: My first [weeklong silent retreat] was at the Spirit Rock Center. The first day, once you settle in, it’s kind of exciting, but by the end of the day it’s silent eating with each other. Every moment from 5:30am until about 10:00pm, you spend 45 minutes sitting and meditating, then 45 minutes walking, then 45 minutes sitting. It can be indoors or outdoors.

Well, after the first two days, “I started to say to myself, ‘What did I get myself into? I am going crazy. I’m going to have to get off the campus. I can’t handle this.’” Because there was no sense of communication, it was frustrating for me not to be able to speak. You don’t bring your phones, not even books because they want you to be with your experience, no distractions.

You’ll miss the little luxuries — but will learn a valuable lesson

KM: The third day in, they usually only have tea, but they had a special cook there taking over for the other cook. He likes coffee, so he would bring this big canteen of Peet’s Coffee, but once it was gone, that was it. You had to wait in line, and line up in a kind of prayerful way, if you will, to get your food. I’m four people behind and everyone is choosing the coffee and I’m thinking, “All I want is a cup of coffee. There’s nothing else I want. Please, oh Universe, send me this cup of coffee.” And the person in front — I could hear that sound when the coffee is almost out, that gurgling — no coffee for me.

In that moment of mindfulness, three days in, I thought, “The craving we all have. The cup of coffee that’s all I want, and then not getting it, and being so upset that the person in front of you who took too much coffee. You know, the stories. In the moment, because I was so present, I watched it all with kind of a sense of amusement. I said, “Woah, look at you, you’re so upset about the coffee and the person in front of you and this is ruining your day.” And I thought wow that’s amazing. I never would have noticed the kind of narrative we’re always running, the constant judgments. It makes us really conscious.

By the fourth day you’ll start to change

KM: The first three days [of a retreat] are always a little tricky. On the Fourth day you’re in that zone. So it was the fourth day about 6am — it might have been 40 degrees — and I decided to take my breakfast to a picnic bench. The sun was coming up and there was dew on everything. And I look up and in this tree there’s a spider’s web with the spider in it. I raised my hand to see the sunlight through my hand, and I can see [my hand] outlining against the cobweb, not touching it.

And the incredible sense — it was almost like I had a psychological drug. I felt this incredible connection with everything. It felt like such a truth, such a real truth. It was a moment of awakening to the way things really are. But I needed to almost clear away the constant chatter of the mind to arrive there.

This change will be different for everyone, but there does seem to be a pivotal moment for many who go on these retreats. In fact, Vogue’s Senior Beauty Editor Mackenzie Wagoner went to Spirit Rock Center as well. She didn’t have a desired outcome for how she’d feel at the end of the retreat. However, after struggling with the demands of a deadline-driven life and the deaths of both parents, she noted on the final day, “My head is clear. I feel safe, I feel protected, I am at ease.”

After his own struggles to quiet his mind for the first few days, Slate writer Tim Wu also changed. By the end, he reported, “It sounds simple, but one week of silence may give you a hint, maybe more reliably than almost anything else, of who you are.”

If you’ve been on a silent meditation retreat, what was your experience like?

To hear more of my interview with Katherine, head on over to the podcast episode. Get her tips on beginner’s mind, answers to her top meditation questions, and more on how to live life mindfully.

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