Before you ask–I’m not someone who you would have expected to have enjoyed a silent retreat 🙂
As a child and in my twenties, I would fill silences at every opportunity. I talk about this and many other hurdles in my first blog about a silent retreat and silence, The Power of Silence. It charts my initial journey from discomfort to growth through silence. The benefits of working with silence are also well charted including retreats, restaurants and even films about the practice.
Since then, I’ve been on a week-long silent retreat the past two years. It’s firmly an important part of my year now. Now, I am not one to gush but…I have to confess, I have truly fallen in love with silence.
There are two themes that stick out for me that help explain this. I’ll go into these and release a two-part blog – feel free to read one that speaks to you or both – ‘Connection in Silence’ and ‘Embracing the full me’.
Connection in silence (part 1)
I’ll set the scene. There was a moment at Gaia House, a secular Buddhist retreat centre in Devon, on my silent retreat with well-known teachers Stephen and Martine Batchelor, which comes to mind.
I was among a group of about 60 people, all meditating in the beautiful yet humble meditation hall, taking periods to do mindful walking and time to eat together. A place deep in the Devonshire countryside.
It was particularly during the communal eating together where I was feeling disconnected. Other times while doing chores, listening to a talk or meditating, it didn’t feel like we ‘should’ be connecting, but somehow, sat around a table was harder.
I was sat outside eating my soup in the sun when a man came and sat on the opposite side of the bench to me; he put his soup down, opened his arms and sighed with embrace at the sensory experience before him. He seemed gentle, kind and somewhat experienced at this. We smiled at each other and before I knew it, I was overcome with emotion. I turned around so he didn’t see me weep. I was sad because I wanted to connect with him, I wanted to hear his story and share mine and gain some solace in that connection…but I couldn’t.
I allowed myself to cry and gradually took myself off on a walk…I think I went to speak to the cows (I do confess to speaking to animals on silent retreats!)
Over the next few days, I was exploring this disconnection I felt in group silence. It occurred to me that it was (like all things) ‘in the mind’. At certain points, I felt a little ‘cold shouldered’ when someone’s eyes dropped even though I know this is what people do (including me) to allow themselves more introspection.
Yet, I felt somewhat alone.
I noticed that I spent a lot of time imagining what people were thinking or guessing the scenario of their whole life. ‘I wonder what their challenges are right now? Looks like they’re having a good/ emotional/ difficult/ blissful experience. They certainly look like they know what they’re doing…blah blah blah’.
Ok mind, stop right there.
What would it be like to simply be with people? To allow the mind chatter to fall away and be in their compassionate presence.
These thoughts were aided by Martine Batchelor’s skilful teaching on the matter. I was obviously not the first to struggle with silence. It helped me realise, I could truly be connected in silence. I could still fulfil this role I set for myself and watch the chatter. I could be with people in a silent and warm way, I could enjoy their company, I could sometimes connect with a smile or just be with them. The simple act of breathing next to them.
This was key for me.
I have honestly never looked back after that retreat. I feel the warmth of connection with people, it doesn’t mean I never feel lonely but in general, I feel people’s company, their presence and their good intention.
And I always watch the chatter if it falls away.