Silent Retreat: The Journey In
In the last days of 2018 and the first few of 2019, I had the pleasure of attending the
5-day New Year’s Silent Retreat at Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia.
What I experienced was profound
The self study
The deep quiet
It changed me
And still continues to two months later.
If you are considering a silent retreat, or practicing mauna (silence) as part of your journey of healing and self-discovery,
this post is for you.
Ashram life is rigorous, it is a community and a network that gently holds each other accountable.
Our silent retreat schedule looked about like this:
6:30am Hatha yoga
9 - 11:30am Programming: lecture, karma yoga
1 - 4pm Programming / free time: lecture, writing, hiking
4pm Hatha Yoga and Meditation
8 - 9pm Kirtan / Music
My free time was generally spent writing or reading the yoga sutras.
I wrote an enormous amount on silent retreat. Thirty handwritten pages, most unsuitable to convey the experience as a whole.
We were encouraged to steer journal writing away from narrative and storytelling. Storytelling is my thing. I love a good narrative, but I saw the value in the exercise, and I kept the journal writing experienced based.
Extraordinary rabbit holes down nuances and aspects of the self that make me, me.
I had heard that, after several days of silence, the thoughts begin to slow down, or almost stop. That was not my experience.
Maybe it would have been on a longer retreat.
What I experienced was a clarity of the mind, and an ability to listen to each thought that passed. However quick, however layered.
It was as though the conscious mind stood still, and observed all subconscious thoughts.
I connected with the seer in me, the silent witness.
It was fascinating.
I gained so much insight into the way that I think,
what activates my mind
and the things that matter to me.
The nutrition was a much larger part of the experience than I would have thought, and it is certainly worth mentioning the food at Yogaville. Three warm meals a day, five days, all incredibly satisfying. All vegetarian, lots of vegan and gluten-free options. All meals made with love and care, deeply nourishing. To have nutritionally balanced, delicious, hot food prepared for you for every meal is such a gift, especially when you are in a new, challenging environment. When you are looking inward and asking yourself the hard questions, to be taken care of in that simple way was so comforting. I ate so well and enjoyed every bite.
I learned that I sing to myself in my head. A LOT. I can't believe I'd never noticed it before.
Old musical theatre tunes and Christmas songs would circle through my mind on loop all day.
The music mostly appeared at random: songs from my childhood, nostalgic songs, festive songs, choral music... Ed Sheeran, Randy Travis, Guys and Dolls, Handel’s Messiah, Jess Glynn, Jingle Bells. I don’t even like Jingle Bells as a piece of music.
Now I can't un-hear the mind singing to itself in daily life. Waiting for the train, on the elevator, standing in line at the grocery store. It was a piece of me that was always there, a pleasant, joyful piece buried in unconscious thoughts.
I also found a huge uptick in vivid dreaming. And because I began my day (at a much earlier hour than usual) with meditation, I had precious time to sit quietly with my dreams without fully transitioning into wakefulness. I would often use my dreams as my object of meditation in the mornings, and I found that I would remember more pieces or moments of the nights dream in those first 30 minutes of the day.
This dreaming felt more heightened, more conversational, perhaps because I removed the speech function from waking life. The dreams at the ashram were all positive.
They were exploratory, massive, colorful and detailed.
Much resurfaced in dreaming. Things, situations, people - I was asked to peer in and face them.
Old pain resurfaced with clarity and forgiveness.
Many old, gentle ghosts greeted me with kindness in slumber.
Of the daily retreat activities, I was most moved by meditation. We sat three times each day for at least 35 minutes. For those who already have a meditation practice, you know how personal this kind of exploration is. It takes effort to focus the mind on a single point, an object of meditation, and much of the self-discovery comes as you watch what bubbles up to the surface and challenges that focus.
And then, to move through the disturbances,
the ripples in the mind,
to mark what is worth revisiting
and sit with it,
and with yourself,
I walked away with a more wholistic understanding of the power and purpose in meditation.
It was the first time I felt that regularly placing myself into that energetic space could have a real impact on the people around me. Not just friends or family, but on every person that I interact with. To get in touch with your own peace will add value anywhere you go. We are all a fraction of the universe, we are a collective consciousness. During the retreat, I became suddenly aware of my responsibility to make my fragment of the universal heart a peaceful and joyous one. I learned that peace is possible, it is inside the heart of every individual being. It is always available to you.
My peace is all that I'm capable of controlling, and that is enough.
The more peace and joy I feel,
the more peace and joy I can humbly offer to all of the human experience.
At midnight on New Year's Eve, I joined over 100 people in a meditation in the LOTUS on the Ashram property. (LOTUS: Light of Truth Universal Shrine)
This was indescribable. An outpouring of vibrations in exquisite silence.
Peace and joy to the world.
There is no countdown, there is only the present.
And the singing bowl chimed to mark midnight.
The learnings continue to sink into me. I imagine they'll continue to unfold.
It has been a challenge to assess what was the most profound part of my experience, but so far, this is my personal thesis:
I went on silent retreat looking for healing, and learned that I could heal myself.
I felt it happen. I feel it happening still.