The rules for the weekend were as follows:
- Refrain from talking.
- Respect the other particpants’ desire to refrain from talking
- Every movement must be done slowly and mindfully. (Walking, eating, opening doors, turning pages in a book, etc.)
- Refrain from using cell phones, iPods, and other electronic equipment.
Oh boy. What the heck had I gotten myself into?
Or at least that’s what the left hemisphere of my brain was thinking as I sat through the orientation of a 3-day silent retreat. The event was held at a huge estate and was facilitated by a bunch of smiley and warm Catholic nuns who, if forced to undergo carbon dating, would probably be identified as part of Earth’s first group of upright hominids.
However, the right hemisphere of my the brain (the hemisphere linked to spirituality, creativity, and holistic thinking), was excited about the silent adventure I had signed up for. This was to be a voyage into the unknown, an experiment with discomfort, an immersion into a unique subculture, a moment of grace, and an honest look at the true state of my mind, body, and spirit (which were in pretty crappy condition at the time).
3 Whole Days of Awesome
The nun who was doing most of the facilitation that weekend had hair with a blue tint to it. It was the kind of white hair that is in its final stage of whiteness: it can’t get any whiter so it has nowhere left to go but blue.
Every few hours throughout the retreat, the 30 or so participants gathered into a circle while the blue-haired nun spoke a few powerful and profound spiritual thoughts. We sat on the edge of our seats as we listened, hanging on her every word, pretending like we didn’t just have the wind knocked out of us by her insight.
In between these short sessions, we were free to silently roam the estate. I meditated by the lake, strolled through the surrounding woods, browsed the library, wandered through the mansion, and laid out with a blanket in a field surrounded by butterflies and the Spring sunshine.
The retreat was designed to help quiet my mind of its usual anxiety, self-doubt, depression and confusion. It removed the mental noise. It provided space for me to commune with something greater than myself.
Silence: The Superpower of the Average Joe
The 3 days of silence, meditation and rest rocked my world. But what surprised me was how long it took to quiet my mind. In fact, it wasn’t until the third and final day of the retreat that my head was clear, present, calm, strong and ready to receive.
Our thoughts dictate how we feel during any given day, and those feelings dictate our actions. Our lives are ruled by the words we don’t say. We are slaves to our worries and fears, and to the sad stories that play on repeat in our minds. We tell ourselves tales of how terrible we are and how terrible others are for causing our pain.
But if when we are freed from these chains we can accomplish difficult tasks and live out impossible dreams. We can have all the things we need in life while helping others have their needs met, too.
I will never have cool superpowers. But having a quiet mind, a humble heart, and open arms is just as good.
Silence Works Better Than Weight Watchers
The most immediate impact that silence had on me was the way I ate throughout the retreat.
I have always struggled with overeating. I eat when I’m angry, sad, bored and restless; food helps to block out those unwanted feelings. I eat when I’m tired so that I can stay awake. I eat while I watch TV because it makes it more fun. I eat when other people eat, even when I’m not hungry, just because it feels good to bond over pizza, wash it down with some ice cream, and slip into a carb coma. I eat unconsciously.
But as I ate silently and mindfully at the retreat, my head was free of the thoughts that usually control my eating habits. Instead, I was focused on my body and the rumbling of my stomach. I ate when was hungry and I stopped when I wasn’t. (What a novel idea!)
No counting calories. No thoughts about weight loss goals. No worries about whether I was eating a balanced meal. I simply listened to my body. And when you listen to your body’s natural cravings (as opposed to you emotions’ irrational demands), you gravitate toward healthy, balanced eating.
That weekend I also ate with gratitude and focus. I enjoyed the flavors and colors of my food. I was grateful for the hands that grew the vegetables and grains, and for the people who packaged and transported them. I was grateful for the retreat house chefs who so kindly prepared special meals for me as the only vegetarian in the group.
Suddenly food brought me joy. But this time, it wasn’t because it could take painful feelings away or enhance the good ones. It was because the food gave my body the nourishment it needed to handle all of my feelings. I had never eaten so little in a single weekend, yet I had never felt so full.
During one meal I looked to my left and saw the blue-haired nun walking slowly, prayerfully and mindfully to her cafeteria table…holding a big-ass ice cream sundae with sprinkles on top.
That made me happy too.
The Definition of Adventure
In the title of this post I referred to the silent religious retreat as an adventure. And while it wasn’t skydiving, camping in Africa, or some other adventurous thing I’ve done in the past, it was an experience that belongs in the same category. That’s because adventure is anything that begins with openness and courage, and ends with personal growth.
So if you’re ever feeling brave enough to get an honest look at who you are and who you could be, try a silent retreat. It could be a wild ride.
Your Turn: What would happen if you turned off the noise in your head? What would happen if you listened instead of talked?