Silent Retreat...Say what?
My second week at Dharma Gaia, I had the chance to participate in their silent retreat. I remember a few years ago looking up silent retreats and wanting to participate in one. I was in a period of crisis working as a mental health therapist and the thought of a week or more talking with no one sounded amazing. But I never made it happen (went to Iceland instead) so I was excited that I arrived in time to be part of this retreat.
Just the phrase “silent retreat” brings up a lot of questions so I’ll do a brief myth-buster before segueing into the meat of this post. The retreat was from a Thursday evening to Monday afternoon. It is a mindfulness meditation-based retreat. The silence was not rigid, meaning if I had an emergency or logistical question, there was someone I could ask. There were a total of 16 people here and I didn’t know any of their names or anything about them except what they shared during an hour of dharma sharing (kind of like a process group) halfway through the retreat. During the retreat our schedule included morning meditation, a working meditation (we all had a chore…delight… :D), yoga and/or deep relaxation session, daily dharma teaching from Sister (the resident nun), and either a dharma sharing or evening meditation. And meals of course. The rest of the time was ours to relax and rest. And really all of the activities were optional. The silence is to allow yourself to be fully present in your mind and free of distractions so that you can rest and find refuge.
I’m kind of obsessed with mindfulness, meditation, and the idea of radical acceptance as of late…like the past few years…but also I now reside at a mindfulness living center. So, if you continue reading this blog, be prepared for related content :) Given that, I want to give a little back ground on what mindfulness meditation is about. In my own words, mindfulness is being fully present in the moment with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions instead of being caught up in fantasy, avoidance, planning, blaming, rehearsing, story-telling, etc. I think Brene Brown would say mindfulness is the avenue to vulnerability. When we are not mindful, we are not really living because we are so caught up in a world in our mind and not experiencing what actually is going on. The more mindful I am, the more I feel connected with myself and others, the more I feel alive and general relief from anxiety.
One of my favorite definitions of mindfulness is from one of my now favorite books (thank you Sarah for this life-saving recommendation), Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Brach says mindfulness is “the quality of awareness that recognizes exactly what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience. When we are mindful of fear, for instance, we are aware that our thoughts are racing, that our body feels tight and shaky, that we feel compelled to flee—and we recognize all this without trying to manage our experience in any way, without pulling away. Our attentive presence is unconditional and open—we are willing to be with whatever arises, even if we wish the pain would end or that we could be doing something else…instead of resisting our feelings of fear or grief, we embrace our pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child. Rather than judging or indulging our desire for attention or chocolate or sex, we regard our grasping with gentleness and care... Compassion honors our experience; it allows us to be intimate with the life of this moment as it is” (Radical Acceptance, pg 27-28)
As we continue to practice mindfulness and radical acceptance, “we can bring the same clear and kind attention to the patterns of thoughts and feelings, behaviors and events that shape our life experience. We become more aware of the intentions that motivate our behaviors. We also become aware of the consequences of our actions, as they affect both ourselves and others” (Radical Acceptance, pg 29). We become more aware of ourselves and are better able to respond to life in the most effective way.
Thich Nat Hanh says that for beginners, he “recommends the method of pure recognition: recognition without judgement. Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves “ (The Miracle of Mindfulness, pt 61)
I’m retro blogging per usual so as I am writing this post I have had more time to mull over what I’ve learned at the retreat. This was one of the best experiences I have had. It moved me deeply. I am not sure how to organize all of the things I want to write about, so thoughts will likely spill over into several blog posts. You don’t think you could be silent or have silence around you for multiple days until you try it. It sounds hard but when everyone is supporting each other in creating this environment, it’s quite easy. The real difficulty is the full spectrum of emotions and thoughts that arise as the quiet continues. This was welcome but hard.
Sister’s admonition to us during one of the dharma teachings really hit home. She said “when you burn, stand in the fire and burn.” She means when we feel emotions well up inside us, we often turn to our go-to tactics of avoidance. Sister shared about how she used to blame others or move into “planning mode” when she would feel unwanted emotion, especially disappointment. She said that she would tell herself she didn’t care because she was going to do all of these other things instead. She said now when she notices herself doing that, she comes back to herself and acknowledges, “I am hurt. I am disappointed.” She cries when she needs to cry. She describes this as the practice of sitting in the fire until it no longer hurts. We won’t die from feeling and once we feel it, we are no longer held hostage by it. We learn that we are fireproof.
Um…I am getting better at letting myself feel the burn but I think I spend most of my life avoiding the fire, trying to douse the fire, or preparing for the next fire so as to hide from it. I hate the fire. I hate to burn. But I’m also a pretty emotional person so you can imagine the inner conflict this creates. During the retreat, I challenged myself to practice letting it burn. Things I have been avoiding and numbing came to the surface. I found myself floating between feeling and suppressing. I tried to notice and accept those emotions including my resistance to them. But I didn’t want to cry. One night I decided to write down my whirlwind of thoughts in an attempt to organize and calm my mind. As I wrote, I could feel the emotion surge up in me. Like emotional vomit. I wanted to push it down but I knew it needed to come up. I went out from the house under the stars and just sobbed. Things I’d been recently struggling with I realized touched on old wounds, deep wounds. Not feeling enough, not feeling worthy, a heart wrenching feeling of being unwanted, which was something that surprised me. Images and memories ran through my mind. I don’t know how long I sat there. I guess until fear of seeing a rat overpowered my need to cry. The fire had burned into quiet embers.
It is difficult for me to sit in the fire because I want to be superhuman. I am really good at not only feeling unpleasant things, but judging myself for feeling them in the first place. I put pressure on myself to be above my humanity because I have all of these ideas about how I wish I would respond to to situations or how I "should be” (more patient, humble, forgiving, kind, etc). I also judge myself for judging. It’s gets pretty meta. Sister discussed the importance of being human. Experiencing the full scope of emotion, including those I often feel ashamed of (impatience, self-recrimination, frustration, annoyance, longing, sadness, disappointment, anger, hurt, blame), is normal and the best thing I can do for myself and for others to give myself permission to be human, to accept this and not try to fix it, change it, avoid it, suppress it, numb it…resist it. The greatest gift—and all people really need from one another--is total acceptance of who we are as we are. And that’s really what I need from myself too.