Why I Spent My 2-Week Vacation In Silence
This past April I had a 2-week break from work for the Thai National holiday called Songkran. Living in Southeast Asia, my first thought was to go to one of the beautiful beaches right in my backyard. Soak up some sun, eat delicious street food, and swim in the glistening blue-green waters…
I could get to a beach for less than $50, or just as easily hop over to Vietnam, Cambodia, or Bali. So… what did I decide to do with my 2 weeks of vacation?
I spent the majority of my 2-weeks alone in this cell:
No… I wasn’t arrested and thrown in jail.
I went on a silent meditation retreat.
If you’ve never heard of a silent meditation retreat, or just not quite sure what it entails, let me explain:
For 10 days I was not allowed to talk, read, or write. No phones, no electronics, no journaling, no snacks, and no dinner. Even eye contact with other retreatants was not allowed. Everyday from 4 am until 9 pm I was only to practice mindfulness meditation in my cell or in the group meditation hall. Simply watching the sensations in my body without judgment.
And if you’re thinking I’m a little crazy for choosing to do this with my vacation time, you’ll think I’m even crazier when you hear that this wasn’t my first time. In fact, this was my tenth.
In this post, I’m going to tell you what I learned from my experience, and give you 6 reasons why you should go on a retreat like this at least once in your life.
1. It gives you the chance to understand the inner-workings of your mind.
Anagarika Munindra, a famous meditation teacher from India, once said, “If you want to understand your mind, simply sit down and observe it.” A meditation retreat is the perfect opportunity to understand your mind on a level that you’ve never been able to before. Why is this important? Because most of our lives we are looking outside of ourselves for answers, and we rarely stop and look at what’s going on inside our own minds.
On retreat retreat, you get the opportunity to explore your own internal mental landscape and you see how unpredictable your mind is. One moment you are drowning in misery over something that happened in the past, the next moment you’re feeling love for all humanity, and the next moment you’re filled with murderous rage at the person sitting next to you who won’t stop coughing.
Many people have this assumption that not talking is the hardest part of a retreat, but in all honesty, the hardest part of a retreat is usually just in being with yourself, without anything to distract you! It may be scary at first to see how wild and incoherent your mind is, but seeing is very important — it is the first step to understanding.
2. You see that most of your day-to-day suffering is actually self-created.
The author Byron Katie once wrote, “If you’re alone in a room and you’re suffering, eventually it will dawn on you that you’re the one who’s causing it.” There’s no easier way to see the truth of this than to sit alone in a meditation cell for hours on end. Suffering is a lot like a fire, and unfortunately, we have the tendency to keep throwing fuel on the fire, moment by moment, never letting it die out.
For example, in my own retreat experience, I often bring to life old problems at work, past arguments with friends, or times when I feel I was insulted in some way. I would relive the experience in my head, and then try to figure out the solution. Usually it ended with me having heated arguments with people in my mind! I would get all flustered, arguing with characters in my own mind!
Do a quick mental check: how often do you bring to life painful and frustrating events from the past? How often do you often think of how things might go wrong in the future? When you start to observe the mind, you see how often it leans toward negativity, throwing more fuel on the fire.
Marathoners often like to say, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Of course, painful things have happened to you in the past, and will continue to happen to you in the future (practicing mindfulness does not mean you try to deny the bad things that have happened in your life), but on retreat you begin to realize how often you create additional suffering for yourself by bringing to life your old pains and sorrows. Soon it becomes clear that this type of suffering is optional.
3. You realize that craving is a form of suffering too.
It is easy to think that all your suffering comes from the “negative” mental states — stress, anger, frustration, sadness, despair, etc. It wouldn’t be hard to convince you that these are all forms of mental suffering. But what if I told you that daydreaming about pleasant experiences could be suffering too? Like daydreaming about getting a massage on the beach, or thinking about eating a decadent chocolate cake, or maybe just thinking about lounging on your couch watching Netflix. What’s wrong with those? At first glance these all might seem innocuous. But when you’re on retreat, you are fully in tune with your body and mind, and can see the effect that various thoughts have on your emotional state. In these moments of daydreaming, you start to see that the act of wanting something that you do not have is a painful experience. You can actually feel the suffering in your body when your attention is with that object of desire, rather than on the present moment.
For example, I can’t even tell you how many times I thought of brownies while I was on retreat. Whenever I imagined a brownie, I simultaneously noticed this empty-pit feeling in my stomach. Like fingers grasping at something they can’t quite reach. While the words might not have fully formed in my mind, this subtle feeling was there, “If only I had a brownie right now… then I would be happy.” Just like the “negative” experiences, in the moment you are craving something, you cannot simultaneously be feeling joy, or be in appreciation of what is going on in your life. In your own life, how often does your attention goes to things you wish you had? How often are you suffering from craving-mind-itis?
4. It helps you cultivate an appreciation for the little things in life.
Brother David Steindl-Rast once said, “Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy — because we will always want to have something else or something more.” How often are we truly grateful for all the little things in life? Like the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the sight of a beautiful flower, or even just the act of taking a deep breath. We are usually on the lookout for something that’s new. Craving the newest phone, a bigger car, a better job, more delicious food. We are always looking for something else. And yet, we’ve all experienced the let-down of obtaining the object of our desires. As soon as we experience what we’ve been craving, it no longer satisfies us, and we look for something else to fill the hole.
Practicing mindfulness in a retreat center helps you cultivate an appreciation for all the small things. When you give up your phone, computer, books, and sources of distraction, and you simply bring your attention to your direct experiences in the body, you realize how much joy there is to be found everywhere. For instance, how many of us truly appreciate our breath? In practicing mindfulness, you are instructed to bring your attention to the breath over and over again, each time seeing if you can notice something new about it. This cultivates a mind of gratitude.
When we cultivate gratefulness in one area, it helps you be more grateful in all aspects of your life. After a few days on retreat, I could not help but be grateful for the view of leaves dancing in the wind, the feeling of the sun shining on my face, and the sound of birds chirping in the distance. Sitting on a 10-day course helps you regain that sense of gratitude in life.
5. It gives you a technique for changing the habit patterns of your mind.
One thing becomes very clear when you go on retreat: that your mind is running on autopilot most of the time, guided by old habit patterns and mental tendencies. It is not like any of us wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Let me see how much suffering I can cause for myself today!” And yet the suffering comes, because it is a habit that has become deeply rooted in the mind. Once you understand this, you see also that you can change the habit patterns of your mind through training. This is the purpose of mindfulness meditation. To train the mind, so that it becomes an abode of patience, compassion, love and wisdom, rather than an autopilot machine that churns out negativity and suffering. Mindfulness is the tool that can take you there.
6. You realize the importance of kindness and compassion
When the retreat begins, you are given simple instructions: sit down, close your eyes, watch the sensations in your body, and bring your attention back to the sensations whenever you get lost in thought. Here is what actually happens: you fidget, you daydream about cookies, you have arguments in your mind, you look around the cell, you do almost everything but meditate. When this happens, it’s easy to start getting lost in self-judgement. Thinking about how everyone else is probably doing it perfectly fine, meanwhile you’re just a complete mess-up. In these moments of self-judgement, the retreat feels like pure hell. “Why did I even come here? I could have stayed home and binged on Netflix.”
However, if you are lucky (or smart), you have chosen a retreat center where they also teach the practice of metta, or loving-kindness. Through these practices, you begin to send yourself kindness and self-love. You begin to notice just a few moments where, instead of being harsh and overly critical, you actually treat yourself with some kindness. You start to develop moments of patience and tenderness. Just allowing what is going on without fighting or judging the experience. In contrast to the moments of pure hell, these moments of self-care and patience are pure heaven. Through these moments, you realize how important it is to invite these qualities into your daily life. Some people think of meditation as training the mind to be focused. I see it much more as training the mind to be kind.
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So there you have it! 6 reasons why you should consider going on retreat. There are many other reasons to go on retreat, and this list has only scratched the surface. If you have gone on retreat and found it useful for another reason, leave a note in the comments and share your experience!
One last thing to remember, and this is very important: Simply reading this post is not the same as actually going on a mindfulness retreat! It is like the difference between reading a travel guide, and actually traveling to the destination. In order to gain any benefit from mindfulness, you must begin walking along the path yourself. Don’t let this be merely an intellectual exercise. Go out there and do one!
Similarly, if you go on retreat, make sure that you keep asking yourself, how can I bring this understanding into my life? Going on a meditation retreat is not about becoming “good” at meditation, it is about learning a technique that can make your day-to-day life better. Can you be a kinder and more patient person? Can you treat your neighbors and your enemies with respect and care? Can you be present for all of your experiences? This is the true meaning of mindfulness.
If you’re just getting started with a mindfulness practice, and are looking for a guide to help you learn the ropes, download my FREE 6-step guide to mindful breathing.