What is a Silent Retreat?
5 Ways to Implement Silent Retreat Mindfulness
into your Everyday Life
Are you interested in recharging? Would you like to focus on yourself? A Silent Retreat could be your answer. Silent retreats provide the space to focus inward and release the distractions of the outside world.
As part of my mindfulness studies, I took a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class in the style of Jon Kabat-Zinn. (Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn started MBSR as a way to treat chronic pain in the late 1970s.) He crafted the widely-used definition of Mindfulness: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
I knew when beginning the MBSR class that a Saturday retreat was part of the course. What I didn’t know–until a few days before the retreat– was that it was a silent retreat. When my instructor announced that it was a silent retreat a few days prior, I instinctively exclaimed “Oh!” out of surprise. Then I shared that I was glad I would be teaching online early in the morning before the retreat, as I’d be getting some speaking “out of my system” before the vow of silence.
What is a Silent Retreat?
Silent retreats provide the committed opportunity to practice mindfulness through many practices. You can read more about the benefits of mindfulness in my blog post: How Mindfulness Benefits Both Teachers and Students. Silent Retreats come in all different lengths and styles. My silent retreat (part of an eight-week course) entailed: silence (obviously) while partaking in a variety of mindfulness practices, a break from technology, and no eye contact with other participants. Others shared with me that it’s a big deal to take a break from phone usage. I absolutely didn’t mind the absence of technology. In fact, limiting my technology is one of the first things I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
Attitudes of Mindfulness
On the wall of our MBSR classroom is a poster with the “Attitudes of Mindfulness”, which we continually reference each week. We were invited to choose one as an intention for the day. Like most of the classes, I chose two: “Non-Judgment” and “Compassion” because I think they go hand in hand. I view compassion as a method for healing judgment. Self-compassion has been especially supportive in my journey of releasing perfectionism and adopting positive self-talk.
Trying New Things
On the Enneagram system of personality, I’m a Type 7: the Adventurer/Generalist/Enthusiast. I’m a true Type 7 who LOVES trying new things. My Bucket List is extensive. It’s thrilling to cross off items, and learn about new opportunities that I add to the list. There’s a sense of accomplishment about having done something new.
Although I was excited for a new experience, there was a bit of apprehension about the idea of keeping quiet. Of course, I’ve gone six hours–awake–without speaking before. These times were by choice, at home or out in nature, by myself. So I’m wondering if perhaps the apprehension about the silent retreat was due to a perceived lack of freedom, while around others and tempted to speak. Alas, another characteristic of Enneagram 7 is that freedom is imperative; they don’t like to be confined by rules. I decided to take a mindful approach and notice my reactions about rules– without judging myself.
Mindfulness Silent Retreat Components
The silent retreat consisted of mindfulness practices we’d done throughout our regular weekly two-hour MBSR classes. The difference was that ALL of the mindfulness practices I’d ever done in mindfulness classes took place during the silent retreat. Some were even repeated. For example, our schedule included: mindful yoga, sitting meditation, a body scan, walking meditation, mindful eating, more yoga, and more sitting meditation. After all these silent components, we ended the silent retreat with group sharing and reflection.
Silent Retreat Readings
Our instructor shared different poems and thoughtful readings during sitting meditation. I’ve always enjoyed a good metaphor. The readings reminded me of why I practice mindfulness, and seemed to unify the “Attitudes of Mindfulness” for me. One of the poems she read was “The Guest House” by Rumi, which seems to be a staple of Mindfulness content.
The Guest House by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and
invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
I’d heard this poem several times before and appreciated the metaphors and reminder to “feel your feelings”. This time, it resonated with me to a greater extent. During my ambiguous time of life, I’ve been my own appropriately-timed mindfulness case study. I’m reminded in my mindfulness studies to acknowledge what emotion I’m feeling, notice the physical sensations in the body, and practice self-compassion.
Yoga, sitting meditation, and body scans are already practices I’m used to doing in group settings, silently. I enjoy the practice of mindful walking, during which I’m usually alone. However, during the silent retreat’s mindful walking, a classmate walked into the lobby where I was practicing, ever so slowly lifting my feet and appreciating the softness of the rug. I instinctively looked at him, smiled, and caught myself when I opened my mouth to greet him. It felt restrictive to not be able to say hello. Such tendencies are to be noticed in mindfulness, not judged (and probably not overanalyzed either, but that’s a habit I’m still working on ;)). After that interaction with my classmate, I contemplated the social “norms” I’ve been programmed to participate in. For example, when acquaintances come near, I make eye contact, smile, and greet them, even if it’s in passing.
Lunch: Mindful Eating
Lunch was the part of the day that was most noteworthy for me. It seemed unnatural to be eating lunch in a room with others, all facing each other, all whom enjoy each others’ company (I assume), without speaking. It was valuable for me to think about why it seemed unnatural. Again I considered how we’re programmed to participate in social norms.
I had brought a giant lunch bag with a big salad, lots of toppings to add, and other snack options. (I was anticipating having time to fill.) With nothing to do but eat, I spent my time being a mindful eater (which was much different than how I normally eat): I paid attention to the variety of vegetables I was putting on each forkful. Then I smelled my food. I put the fork down in between bites, in true mindful eating fashion. I chewed thoroughly. The silence of the room made me extra aware of how crunchy my vegetables were. Then I insured each bite was completely swallowed before picking up my fork for the next. I analyzed the different ratios of vegetables. (Though part of Mindfulness is just “being” with what is, I wished I’d had more Kalamata olives. ;))
Patience: An Attitude of Mindfulness
I had a new lunch snack: Bada Bean Bada Boom, very flavorful crunchy long beans. I wanted to express my delight and share with people. However, I made a mental list of things to share during our group reflection instead.
I learned that I can take an infinite amount of time to eat a salad. 😉 Really, that was the most attention I’ve paid to eating my food since the mindful eating assignments of my mindfulness courses. In actuality, I took forty minutes to eat my salad (though I could’ve spent longer if I hadn’t been mindful of the fact that lunch was forty five minutes).
Silent Retreat Reflection
I found it thought-provoking to hear how classmates had completely different experiences than me. For example, one classmate shared how she appreciated the peace and quiet because she normally doesn’t get it at work or home. Ahh… this made me think of how my current lunch routine is SO different compared to when I was an elementary school classroom teacher. During those years of my life, my thirty-minute lunch “break” was a rushed, multi-tasking whirlwind. For example, into those thirty minutes I would cram: fighting fires for students, a bathroom break, making copies, touching base with other teachers or staff about an issue, responding to email, and any other teacher task that crept up. Many times the thirty minutes ended and I’d barely eaten a few bites of lunch. I absolutely craved just a few minutes of uninterrupted, silent me-time. After the students left at the end of the school day, I’d collapse behind my desk, famished and dehydrated.
I shared with my mindfulness classmates that fixing each forkful with a variety of vegetables kept me entertained. My instructor basically asked me to think about if I have a need to be entertained… hmm…
Transitioning into Post-Silent Retreat Life
At the end of our group reflection we were told to be gentle with ourselves and remember that not everyone else had experienced what we had. We were told, if at all possible, to avoid crowded, busy places such as shopping malls. Theresa used the word “assaulting” to describe shopping malls. Interesting how she pin-pointed that for me. I have avoided big stores and malls, especially since returning to the U.S. where such places are so much bigger and sometimes overwhelming.
Since my instructor posed the question, I have thought to myself: “Do I have a need to be entertained?”
I have noticed that since I’ve started mindfulness studies, especially the last few months in which I was taking three mindfulness classes at once, I have chosen to have the radio off in the car, which was something I hardly ever used to do. I realize that I’ve had a tendency to fill all alone time of simple tasks with podcasts, eCourse videos, TED Talks, etc– which is awesome– but I also get to practice the mindfulness attitude of “Non-Striving” sometimes too. Some of those times of simple tasks, such as cooking, have turned into mindfulness opportunities for me.
Anyone Can Implement Components of Silent Retreats
Above all, silent retreats (and mindfulness practices in general) provide the space for us to focus inward and release the distractions of the outside world. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, during any activity. Just pay attention, non-judgmentally, to any one or more of the senses during a daily activity. Choose an Attitude of Mindfulness as an intention for your practice.
5 Ways to Implement Silent Retreat Mindfulness
into your Everyday Life:
1) Mindfulness of Breath
Sit for even just a few minutes, simply noticing the sensation of breathing. Breathe solely through the nostrils, with the mouth closed. Can you feel a cooling sensation when you inhale, and a warming sensation when you exhale? It may help to put a hand on the belly and/or the heart to feel how the body moves when breathing.
2) Mindfulness of the Body
Sit for even just a few minutes simply noticing the feel of: your feet on the floor, your body against the chair or ground, or your hands on your knees. It may help to put a hand on the belly and/or the heart to feel how the body moves when breathing. You may feel grateful for little things, such as the softness of the fabric you’re touching. I find this is a very grounding practice. For even more grounding, try mindfully walking, especially if you can practice it barefoot in the grass.
3) Mindful Listening
It’s often easier to pay attention to the sense of sound when the “distractions” of other senses are limited. Close your eyes and just listen to sounds around you, noting what you hear. There is a free app called Insight Timer that you can set for any given amount of time. A soft, quick sound will play every minute, reminding you be present. Often sounds such as vehicles or construction work jolt me into being present. I sometimes used to think of these as nuisances, but now I can more often notice these sounds and “just be” with them, as reminders to be present.
4) Mindful Eating
Pay attention to the textures and smells of you food before placing the food in your mouth. Then, let a small piece of food touch your lips before tasting. Notice how you feel. Is the experience pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Chew each bite slowly and thoroughly. Put the food or utensil down in between bites.
5) Take a Break from the Distractions of the Outside World
Honor your focus with a digital detox for any length of time that’s longer than normal for you.
Radiating Benefits of Mindfulness
When we take the time to honor ourselves with presence, we’re able to radiate those benefits to others. Start small and consistently, like adopting any new habit. Mel Robbins, one of my favorite personal development speakers said, ”It’s not the big moves that define our lives; it’s the smallest ones.”
Do you have a favorite mindfulness practice? What have you learned from a silent retreat (or any mindfulness practice in general)?