A few weeks ago I attended my fourth completely silent meditation retreat. I wasn't nearly as anxious about going into 'noble silence' this time.
I remember my first retreat only too well.
I had announced to some of my work colleagues at the time, that I was heading to a monastery for 8 days of total silence with a bunch of monks. The look on their faces said it all. Heck..I had the same look on my face, which equated to: "Am I nuts? I'm a globe-trotting marketing executive, and I'm voluntarily going to go spend my vacation with some monks in complete silence, sitting and meditating all day." This can't be happening.
It's a far cry from a luxurious, beach vacation I can tell you. It's hard work, certainly not some peaceful zen escape. But it's also life changing. A very rare opportunity to spend time with yourself. To lean in and discover much more about who you really are.
So here I was again, about to head out for another week of silence.
I hugged my small boys and husband, who are by now, more than accustomed to mummy going into silence... and jumped in my car to head to the monastery. I had one thing on my mind and one thing only: I was going to turn on that radio and crank the music right up. Heard Tim McGraw's 'Live Like You Were Dying' and sang as loud as I could the entire car journey.
I arrived unusually early (for those that know me that's kind of a miracle) parked my car, collected my small suitcase, together with a week's worth of bottled water, my meditation cushions and started to walk towards the front entrance. About half way there, I managed to drop everything I was carrying: my water, my bags and cushion, all in the pouring rain.
One of the first things to know about spending time in silence, is it's very important to eliminate any expectations of what it might be like. To go into it with an expectation that you're going to get relaxed, or even the complete opposite, that it's going to be some hellish experience - is not the place to start.
Far better, to stay open to whatever your experience is, to work hard at staying present moment to moment and (BIG TIP) tap into your inner child-like curiosity.
Silent retreats have a pretty slick process.
There are bell ringers to indicate the start of a meditation sitting. There are sit leaders who ring another bell at the start and end of each sitting practice. And there's a green and red light system. If you're the sit leader, it's your job to turn the green light to red, when the meditation is in session. As you approach the meditation hall (also called the Zendo) if you see a red light, it means you're late and you're not allowed to come in - until the next session starts.
We were getting ready for our next meditation session and I was the sit leader. The Zendo was full of meditators who were silently seating themselves for the next sitting and I was getting ready to ring the bell to announce the beginning of our meditation practice.
I calmly looked out at a sea of meditators, breathing in, breathing out, finding my centre, feeling the full presence of the room and the remarkable energy around me. We were ready to begin. I silently, slowly, turned towards the switch on my right and clicked it.
The green light changed to red.
I went through the motions of getting ready for our practice, with my spine straight and relaxed, my shoulders level, my breathing generous but natural. I released any tensions in my arms, shoulders and face. I gingerly grasped the mallet (the stick you use to softly tap against the side of the bowl) holding it as if I were about to sign my name with the wooden end. And gently but firmly, tapped the bowl three times.
And then it happened.
I noticed out of the corner of my eye a small group of meditators had arrived late. They were standing at the back of the meditation hall. Looking right at me. Totally unsure what to do. Looking completely devastated.
My mind started racing.
Couldn't they just make up their own minds, abide by the rules and leave? Why were they just standing there, looking at me? What the heck do I do? Do I exercise some kind of unauthorized power and tell them to go? Do I allow them to come in and disturb a room full of meditators? Maybe I can just close my eyes and pretend I didn't see them. I swear the senior meditators at the front of the room could hear me swallowing in my constricted throat, or worse, that they could tell I was moving or making some other noise.
And then I realized...these unexpected events are the lessons.
They teach us who we are. They teach us to listen in. To search inside ourselves for our inner wisdom and make skillful decisions. They teach us how to respond and not react to the outside world.
After observing my stream of thoughts, I dropped into my body and paid attention to how I felt in my heart.
And I knew what I had to do.
I signalled for them to come in. And observed as they took several minutes to get settled. I knew it was the right thing to do. In meditation, we don't just practice in perfect conditions. We practice in the full chaos and busyness of our lives too.
Both are equally important in cultivating concentration, clarity and equanimity.
By now you may be wondering, so what's the point in silence?
Let me answer that for you.
Silence may just be the most valuable resource in our hyper-connected world. It is the gateway to reclaiming our dramatically shrinking attention spans, reduce our suffering and rediscover our inner wisdom.
It allows the deep mind to do the work it needs to do. It gives our soul the ability to untie its knots. To deeply listen in. To cultivate happiness independent of conditions. To make friends with the voices in our head. To welcome adversity. To be with what is. To accept all experiences both pleasant and unpleasant.
To keep looking at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.
And to discover who we really are.